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Pepper-Spraying The Holidays: Time And The Ethic Of Consumption

Buy more, or buy less, this holiday season; the choice is yours.
Matt Cardy
Getty Images
Buy more, or buy less, this holiday season; the choice is yours.

It has become a new and depressing holiday tradition. Every year on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, thousands of human beings stampede into big-box stores searching for "deals." And, every year, by days-end the horror stories emerge on the newsfeed: fights break out among frenzied shoppers or worse, someone gets trampled to death. This year's award goes to the woman who pepper sprayed a crowd of fellow shoppers who were scrambling to get cheap Xbox consoles. It's not yet clear if her personal attempt at chemical warfare was first-strike or self-defense. But it doesn't really matter. These events mark the extreme of a pathology we are all part of. As we head into the holiday season, this might be a good moment to reflect on the roots of our collective consumer delusion.

Earlier this year I wrote a series of posts on the tyranny of modern time. The posts were the fruit of the research I did for a book on the history of time in culture and cosmology. In tracking the way human beings have organized their societies around collective conceptions of time, I was struck by how our "modern" time-logic originated with conceptions of efficiency in production.

You can make more stuff if you are careful about how much time each step in the "stuff-making" process takes. Reducing the time needed for each step in the process became the holy grail of industry. Then the idea spread to every aspect of modern culture from the shop floor to the front office and then, remarkably, to the storefront.

Somehow the ethic of efficiency in industry morphed into an imperative of convenience consumerism in daily life. "Growth" became an economic holy grail that even families were expected to worship.

There's no need to review the long-term problems with this scenario. One only needs to point out the insanity of thinking you can have infinite growth on a finite planet. More to the point today is to recognize what it does to us as human communities.

The pepper-spraying madness is a symptom of a collective wackiness we all play a part in. The worst part about the holidays is that what should be an opportunity to partake in an ancient call to "sacred time" becomes battered into a desperate demand to fuel the consumer monster.

Now don't get me wrong. I like my stuff as much as the next guy. I embrace the technologies I use and the capacities for their production. From a solidly made rake to a brilliantly designed app, making things is what we do. That being said, we desperately need to figure out if a balance can exist between how much we take (from the planet) and what we make.

In the last of my four tyranny of time posts I talked about "opting out" of modern culture's dysfunctional time-logic as a means to building our next version of time. Since so much of our behavior surrounding the holidays is voluntary, they present a wonderful opportunity for building these new time behaviors and, in the process, experimenting with new ideas about culture. So here are a few ideas for all of us that touch on time and consumption.

What if you simply bought 1/2 as many gifts this year? Buy half as many gifts and see if you can find things that will last, things that are made really well. And for each gift you don't buy, write a card to that person and tell them how important they were to you this year. If you have kids (and it's hardest to cut down when it comes to your kids) try and get them one cool thing that relates to nature and the environment (books about tigers? Everyone loves books about tigers). If they are old enough, use that present to explain the links between our "stuff" and the natural world. If you are up for it, replace some presents for adults with gifts in their name to something like Heifer International. Rather than yet another Christmas sweater, they get to see that money go to buying chickens for a family that will then raise more chickens and, maybe, become self-sustaining.

These are just possibilities off the top of my head which I will try and put into place this year with my newfound time consciousness. I would love to hear other folks' ideas.

The question, simply put, is how do we opt-out of the crazy pepper-spraying holiday time and opt-in to something new, something possible and something truly sustaining.

"Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends. ... Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts." ~Henry David Thoreau

You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and Twitter. His new book is About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang .

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Adam Frank was a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. A professor at the University of Rochester, Frank is a theoretical/computational astrophysicist and currently heads a research group developing supercomputer code to study the formation and death of stars. Frank's research has also explored the evolution of newly born planets and the structure of clouds in the interstellar medium. Recently, he has begun work in the fields of astrobiology and network theory/data science. Frank also holds a joint appointment at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, a Department of Energy fusion lab.