Monday, December 5, 2011

The Mall Is Our Temple -- Writer's Poke #345



This weekend as I was loading up on $3.99 DVDs at Best Buy, I was thinking about the hundreds of statues the Polynesians created on Easter Island. They didn’t recognize it at the time, but their dedication to building these statues ultimately lead to their demise. 

While they had plenty of stones to make their statues, they ended up cutting down all of the trees to help move these statues to their final locations, and the natural resources they consumed could never be replaced. Why? Because Easter Island is a very small speck of land, which is literally out as far in the middle of nowhere as a human being can get.

How the Polynesians originally managed to navigate to and settle what we now call Easter Island is one of the greatest travel stories never written. Somehow, a few brave and hardy souls hopped into their canoes and risked sailing thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific Ocean’s name is a bit of a misnomer, of course, as it’s a very rough and unforgiving body of water.

Reaching Easter Island was an ultimate act of luck. The nearest inhabitable speck of land is over a thousand miles away to its west, and today only 100 people live on that nearest speak. In the past decade, Easter Island has itself experienced a population boom, growing from 3900 to 5000. Today, most of the near immigrants moving to Easter Island come from Chile, 250 miles to the east. Why they come is something of a mystery, as the Island’s natural resources never really recovered from building all of those statues. Easter Island itself is not a tourist destination, by any means, so what new settlers expect to do earn a living once they arrive is unclear.

I was thinking about Easter Island as I read Anna Quindlen’s “Stuff Is Not Salvation.” Obviously the inhabitants of Easter Island had a purpose for making all of those statues, but I’m not sure that the outcome they suffered as a result will be any different from the one we may suffer in the future. By comparison, the Earth is much bigger than Easter Island (duh), but the Earth’s resources, like Easter Island’s are limited, and right now 7 billion people are competing for those limited resources.

“If,” as Quindlen ponders, “the mall is our temple,” then consumption to us is every bit as religiously significant as the reason the Polynesians built statues – which, by the way, was to honor their ancestors. Quindlen doesn’t directly connect consumption with religion, but I do think it’s significant that she uses the word “salvation” in her title, as well as makes reference to the possibility that the mall is our temple.

When we buy, buy, buy, then, who are we honoring? It’s too easy to say that we worship stuff, but what is the difference between religion and addiction? What is the ultimate purpose of buying all of the toys that we can? I know from personal experience that it’s difficult to say no to a sale when non-essential items are marked down 80%, but how can we best protect ourselves against consuming ourselves into extinction?

“My first rule of consumerism is never to buy anything you can’t make your children carry.” – Bill Bryson

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