I continue my recent practice of reposting old articles from my CP blog that are no longer available. In this post (originally titled “The Tragedy of Capitalism”) I offer a meditation on the absurdity of contemporary consumer capitalism.
One hour into my flight home yesterday from Denver, panic set in. I had completed my book (Sam Storms, Chosen for Life) and with some reluctance had even resorted to reading the in-flight magazine. Now with more than an hour still to go and the magazine done, my eyes darted around for more food for the eyes. Perhaps read the safety card? Or the vomit bag? (Wait a minute. I don’t even have a vomit bag.) Then my eyes settled on it: the Skymall shopping catalogue.
This should be good for a laugh, I thought to myself. After all, it is hard to find a more impressive collection of ridicuous, pointless products assembled in one place.
I was not disappointed. First up was “The Million Germ Eliminating Travel Toothbrush Sanitizer” for 30 bucks. Said the advert copy: “This compact device from VIOlight uses proven germodical UV technology … to eliminate up to 99% of the millions of germs that can accumulate on your toothbrush.” On the other hand, you could avoid the need for the Sanitizer altogether by not dropping your toothbrush on the hotel carpet to begin with.
Next up was the 25 dollar “Marshmallow Shooter”. “This clever pump-action device shoots sweet, edible miniature marshmellows over 30′, and — unlike other marshmallow blasters — it comes with an LED light….” Other marshmallow blasters? You mean this is a competitive market segment? (Of course it could be more fun if I were to use the stale marshmallows in our cupboard.)
But the winner of the “Inane Product of the Year Award” goes to “The ‘Keep Your Distance’ Bug Vacuum.'” For fifty dollars you can buy a vacuum with a 2′ extension whose sole purpose is to send bugs to the next life via a 22,400 rpm suction motor. Gosh, wouldn’t it make more sense (and be more fun) just to fire at them with your marshmallow shooter? Inane indeed (or should I say vacuous?).
We have come a long way since Adam Smith laid the theoretical foundations for capitalist theory more than two centuries ago in “The Wealth of Nations”. Smith had high hopes for capitalism and its providential ability to better society through the unseen hand that could rein in even selfish personal interests for the common good.
There can be no doubt that in many ways capitalism has succeeded beyond Smith’s wildest dreams. (Just compare a 1989 East German Trabant to a 1989 West German BMW M6. Okay all you communists out there: which one would you rather drive?)
But the success of capitalism should not blind us to its excesses and manifold shortcomings.
And so we come back to the Skymall catalogue. In another time and place the ridiculous list of products available at thirty thousand feet might merely serve as intercontinental amusement.
But what about in a world where thirty thousand children die every day of preventable illness and starvation, where millions have no access to clean drinking water, and where there is so much pollution and waste from the rest of us, that even astronauts have to pilot the shuttle to avoid space junk?
You know, the more I think about it, the more it seems the Skymall catalogue is an exercise not in the ridiculous, but in the tragic.
For some food for thought please check out Annie Leonard’s brief film, “The Story of Stuff”: