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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

More and More Consuming

Air Date: Week of

Buy something, you'll feel better. Commentator Sy Montgomery has a few words about purchase power.


CURWOOD: A comedian once said that dogs must think humans are fantastic hunters. We disappear from our homes for hours at a time and return laden with shopping bags full of stuff, which of course our dogs assume we've brought home from a hard day's hunt. Dogs are fine observers of humankind. We are, like them, hunters. Humans after all evolved as hunter-gatherers. But today we are thwarted by the consumer age. We are now shopper-gatherers. For commentator Sy Montgomery, the numbers add up.

MONTGOMERY: Americans shop on average for 6 hours a week. Six hours a week! As compared to an average of 40 minutes a week playing with children or animals. What could account for such an obsession? Do we really need so much stuff it should take us 6 hours a week to buy it all? No. We don't need the stuff we buy. We need to buy the stuff. Shopping, albeit temporarily, makes us feel good. When we feel low, the self-help columns tell us to go out and buy something: a new car, a new dress, a lush dessert. A piece of jewelry. But why should this help? Because we are shopper-gatherers.

For many Americans today, shopping offers the closest approximation we can think of to doing something fully human. For almost 2 million years we and our pre-hominid ancestors spent most of our days essentially shopping. Except everything was free. The land itself held everything we needed; our job was to pay attention to the land.

You needed to remember where the good berries grew. You needed to read the tracks of the prey animals. You had to know the changes in the land that might tell you just where to dig for a succulent root. It was challenging, sometimes dangerous, but always fulfilling. This was work. You felt good at the end of the day if you came home with food. Success meant you ate.

Perhaps if our jobs don't always seem so fulfilling, it's because they have so little to do with the work the human race concerned itself with for 99% of our existence on Earth. And perhaps that's why, even if shopping does make us feel good sometimes, the feeling doesn't last. Two million years of evolution tells us: go outside, look around. But a consumer society tells us: go to the mall. There, frantic and sad, we go through the motions like a zoo animal pacing its cage. We hunt sales and bargains. We gather no nourishment. We just pile up stuff.

CURWOOD: Commentator Sy Montgomery lives and writes in Hancock, New Hampshire. She comes to us from member station WEVO in Concord.



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