Cheers and jeers together

"Cheers to the hardy, brave souls headed to the region's shopping centers on this crazy day. Commercialism is over the top this time of year — and yet if holiday shoppers can stimulate the economy, that's a gift for retailers just trying to hold on."

— Mail Tribune editorial on Black Friday, Nov. 27

That's our bind exactly, isn't it? The Mail Tribune's weekly "Cheers and Jeers" column tries to keep it light, but this entry goes to the heart of the jam we've created for ourselves. Read it a second time. The frenzy of consumption that we honor — I think that's a fair word — with the major, if unofficial, holiday of Black Friday is "crazy." The season is "over the top," and so is an economy that can prosper only if we reliably get bored with the things we own, replacing them continuously with what's newer, shinier, bigger/smaller, laden with more features, cooler.

The more you let yourself think about all this, the crazier it gets, whether it's the wreckage of families driven to unpayable debt by the digital cameras and Wii consoles and iPhones that must be purchased, or the estimate that we'd need five Earths' worth of resources if everyone consumed like Americans, or the three life stages our stuff passes through: millions of years in the planet as oil or some mineral, followed by a few dozen months in our homes and garages, followed by millions more years in the landfill. And, of course, the capper: No matter how much we hope otherwise, the preponderance of this new-and-improved stuff is not making us happier or more content.

This is, truly, crazy. And, thank God, thank God there are all those "hearty, brave souls headed to the region's shopping centers," bleary-eyed in the frigid darkness, to keep it all going! Let's give them some cheers!

I'm not making fun of this. The money we hand to merchants this month (and particularly local merchants) can ease the pain of a brutal business year for them, for the people they're trying to keep employed and for all their families. That's worth cheering. But for those of us who believe we can't keep doing this (and a year ago, when the recession that's now "over" was building steam, that seemed to include almost everyone), it has the feel of a hostage situation. We're cheering Uncle Harry, whose liver is completely shot by now, for drinking the last dregs of liquor in the cabinet, because it's the only thing that keeps him mellow. He's such a sonofabitch when he's sober.

The reason that we cheer on what's obviously not working is that we don't yet know what will. We could decide to stay out of most stores this season and make do with what we have. We could even dig out some of our nicer unused possessions, bring them together and swap them around in a new holiday gifting tradition (not just "could;" we will be doing exactly that tomorrow afternoon at the eighth annual Abundance Swap at the Old Armory. See www.abundanceswap.org). But then what happens to the people who depend on retail sales to feed their families? What happens in turn to businesses where they spend money? How about the good causes they want to support, and the public services funded by their taxes?

We all crave clear answers, answers so good that reasonable people would say "Okay, sure, let's just do that instead of the crazy stuff." What we have instead is beginnings, innovations by people who aren't satisfied to slip Uncle Harry another shot and hope for the best. You know about some already: the movements towards growers markets, food security, reduced product packaging, transportation alternatives, barter networks, co-housing, trade apprenticeships, workers cooperatives and reclaiming and reuse of almost anything. And then there are moments of transforming fun, like the Abundance Swap.

Some of the political and social changes will be less fun. The creed that brought us to the brink, amplified every minute of every day by media marketing is He who dies with the most toys wins. Some see that as a celebration of personal freedom and initiative. Maybe so. But we're discovering that it lacks a certain something as an organizing principle for a small finite planet that you'd like your grandkids to enjoy. We can ignore that fact and applaud the Black Friday shoppers for pouring us another shot. Or, building on the creative beginnings all around us, we can focus more seriously on the hard, uncertain task of getting get sober.

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Correction: Last week I wrote that the Oregon Legislature authorized funding for a Citizen Initiative Review of 2010 ballot measures. That's wrong. A bill was passed approving the CIR, but the nonprofit champions of the experiment still have to raise money to pay for it. Which means that if you like the idea, there's even more reason to visit www.healthydemocracyoregon.org.

Jeff Golden is the author of "Forest Blood," "As If We Were Grownups" and the novel "Unafraid," with excerpts available at www.unafraidthebook.com.

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