A guilt-infused holiday trip to Stuff-Mart

Eco-guilt spoils holiday shopping

Gigantic flat screens tuned to a nature channel line the entrance of the warehouse store.

We joke about buying a new TV whenever we shop at Costco.

“We need a 60-incher. No that’s not big enough.”

Just kidding.

Since my family moved to Reno in 1993, we’ve purchased two TVs that we still use. One’s a 19-inch Sanyo. We used bunny ears to pick up local stations before the digital revolution. In 2003, we upgraded to an enormous 32-inch box, which is now attached to a nearly defunct five-disc DVD player.

The huge toy felt profligate, shameful. Before we’d even plugged it in, I pictured it decaying on foreign soil, another hunk of exported e-waste. Environmentalists feel guilty about everything—shopping, driving, flying, flushing. Because I grew up in a religious household, I’m accustomed to existential self-loathing.

Both of our TVs are low-to-no def. Not a problem. Our movie collection consists mostly of films on VHS tape bought for $1 at yard sales.

I developed inexplicable big-screen lust on a recent Costco trek, while I snacked on samples of jalapeño-artichoke dip on bagel chip and marinated tri-tip, pre-cooked, ready to serve.

Another couple gleefully pushed a 60-inch TV through the store on a flat cart. In line, they asked for a gift receipt.

“In case they want to return it for a bigger one,” said the woman.

“This is for the out-laws, I mean, the in-laws,” the man explained playfully.

His wife grinned. “I’m telling my mom you said that.”

They seemed giddy. Pleasurable activities produce beta-endorphins, which make a person feel good, good, good. Shopping for stuff can be as physically addicting as eating chocolate or taking drugs. It combats angst. A friend described her purchase of overpriced shoes, “I was having a bad month.”

Maybe my antique electronics embarrass me. I recently watched The Joneses on our crappy TV. David Duchovny and Demi Moore star as the couple with whom all the neighbors want to “keep up.” Turns out Mr. and Mrs. Jones are stealth marketers hired by the makers of perfume, sports cars, golf equipment, video games, frozen food and big-screen TVs. Along with two for-hire attractive teens, the fake family makes expensive stuff look cool. Wealthy neighbors buy the stuff. Everyone’s happy ’til they’re not.

The concept intrigues.

We’re programmed to buy. Media technology keeps us busy cheering, laughing and crying over its content so that we’re distracted from its agenda—selling stuff. We buy stuff because we’re greedy consumers unconcerned about the havoc we’re wreaking on Mommy Earth. That’s the eco-guilt narrative. (Think Avatar, An Inconvenient Truth and Captain Planet.)

Yet, making me feel ashamed about my consumption may be counter-productive.

“Environmentalist cautionary tales have had the opposite of their intended effect, provoking fatalism, conservatism and survivalism,” write Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus in Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. People may respond to the “earth warming/sky falling” threat by buying guns and beefed-up SUVs. Environmental writers see this, the authors write, and complain, “the public is irrational, in denial, or just plain foolish.” Environmentalism loses its audience.

In another store, I overheard a woman with two young people, probably her children. They were hiking through housewares, between stacks of fluffy towels, futons and bar stools.

“If we lose the house,” mom began, “I’m getting rid of everything. We’re going to start over with all new stuff.”

One girl was concerned.

“Don’t get rid of the horse painting, though,” she said. “Because I really love it.”