I went to Kmart this evening and spent some time wandering through the aisles.
My current manager gave me a Coles-Myer group gift voucher as a Christmas-come-thank-you-for-the-past-few-month's work type of thing. It was a thoughtful gesture and I assumed his intention was that I would choose a gift that I might enjoy.
In the end Kmart seemed like the only store to seek out a suitable choice. The voucher was good in Myers, a Melbourne department store with bewildering range of stock, but a scary place to be this time of year, particularly on a Friday before Christmas. Then there is Coles, a supermarket where I would only buy groceries I would have bought anyway, and some liquor stores stocked with a drug I felt no need for. All that remained from the stores in the Coles-Myer empire was Target or Kmart and there is no Target near where I live, while there is a Kmart.
You probably know what to expect in the average suburban Kmart if you know the name: Toys, clothes, household items, airport books and top 100 dvds. Apart from the books, some metal and ceramic homewear items and components of some of the goods, pretty much everything in the store is made out of cheap plastic. Aisle after aisle after aisle of cheap soon to be broken plastic; an Aladdin's cave of transient treasures with a rapidly approaching used by date.
And that means that pretty much everything in the store is made from polymers synthesised from cheap oil.
It's a strange experience wandering around a place like that when you look at it that way. All those shapes and colours giving the illusion of variety and choice, but most made from the same black, viscous liquid extracted from deep below the earth. The same black liquid whose abundance has been the driving force of consumer culture and economic prosperity in alluent nations these past few decades. The same liquid and the same economic system creating the pollution that is warming the planet and some say ultimately threatening the life of the species.
I realised as I wandered past all those artificial things I did not need or want (well, I already had pretty much everything in the store I might need) that I was a kind of present day time traveller. I was looking at a living museum of a way of life that will eventually, when the oil reserves are drained, become a strange and questionable wonder in memory or recorded history. Something grandparents might speak of to their grandchildren, living in more frugal or hopefully more sensible times. Or, if the darkest woes of global warming are true, I was witnessing an emporium of human stupidity at its height.
And I realised something else. I was free to choose anything I wanted from those shelves – even if my voucher did not cover it, there was nothing in the store I could not afford to buy if I really wanted to – but there was something I was not free to choose – a world with a more sensible attitude to its resources.
That is the the thing about our consumer culture and our economic system – you can buy anything you want except the thing we all need most. Not my words, by the way, but it doesn't have to be 100% original to be 100% pertinent.
It was close to an hour before I found something I might enjoy. Ironically enough it was a TV series on DVD called Life After People. It is a History Channel production; 10 or so episodes explore what might happen to the material remains of our civlisation were we to vanish and leave only animals and plants to inherit the Earth.