My forays into Toronto the past couple of weeks have landed me in mall hell, waiting for rush-hour traffic to clear before heading back to the country. Weaving through Chapters, the Gap and Restoration Hardware in a smog of treacly Christmas music – don’t get me wrong, I sing in a choir, but enough already – I’ve been overwhelmed by the stuff and covetousness of urban life: the Gramophone speaker with the tablet dock, the deftly designed retro stocking stuffers at 50 bucks a pop, the plastic and paper and incalculable ephemera of holiday gifts, all fuelling desire. “That’s cool, that’s beautiful, I’d like that.” When I passed a magazine called iPad for Seniors, I burst out laughing, and it occurred to me we’ve entered the age of peak crap, stuffing our lives with objects in the hope they will sate a deeper hunger for meaning.
The contrast between urban and rural is stark: there’s no escaping the decibel level of commerce in the city, where every conceivable space (auditory, visual, three-dimensional) is sold and, in turn, sells. Yet where I live, there’s not a single sign for kilometres, and for days at a time the only advertising I see comes through the screen of this laptop. Even in Cobourg, population 18,000, buying opportunities are limited and pragmatic; you can get what you need without the paralysis of too many choices and too much temptation.
Yes, I’m a minimalist by nature, and am at a time of life when divesting makes more sense than acquiring. But I also believe that scarcity begets conservation, and abundance encourages profligacy, and there is no debate about which of these will lead to a fairer, healthier world. As we witness the arrival of Syrian refugees right now, landing with the clothes on their backs and a couple of bags, we have to wonder what they will make of our consumer culture – in blinding overdrive at this time of year – where social currency equates with the quality, quantity and fashion-forwardness of your stuff. Is shopping really what we’re all about?
Scarcity versus abundance, we need to find a better balance.