It was a really eerie moment. I was shopping in a nearly empty Wal-Mart store a couple of days ago, and I got the strange feeling I was walking around inside a church. I was overcome by a sense of complete peace, surrounded by every consumer good one could ever need sprawling out in front of me.
But all I needed was a few rolls of paper towels, and as I checked out I noticed that most of the employees were people I’d never hire. Many were older, a few had big tattoos, some of the men had long hair tied back in ponytails. A few of them seemed to have handicaps. All of them were just plain folks.
So, I wondered, what could possibly be wrong with any of this picture? There I was, surrounded by super-affordable, reasonably high quality stuff served by people who otherwise couldn’t find jobs. It seemed like the most democratic setup going. Needless to say, the epiphany was quite different from my usual reflex, which is to dislike everything about Wal-Mart. So why was this trip so different?
Well, I somehow managed to change my point of view from being some kind of social critic to simply being a person who was grateful for everything available to me. And with so much of it around I felt no desire whatsoever to purchase anything at all.
In fact, the effortless abundance helped me appreciate the stuff I already owned, some of which I’ve kept for decades. Occasionally I remember that there’s a sanctity to objects that transcends the physical, like the spirit of a carpenter’s favourite hammer or a beautifully functioning chrome toaster that might work flawlessly for a quarter of a century or more with minimal care.
That evening we were sitting around after dinner and the phone rang. It was a “customer service” call from one of our banking companies. The service rep, a rather bright and assertive woman, was, from her accent, actually a telemarketer based in India, who was trying to sell me our bank’s new life insurance product. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, except we’re on the Canadian no-call list—our bank gets around this as we’re customers—and it was supper time.
What did bother me was the outsourcing of Canadian jobs by my Canadian bank. Couldn’t we Canadians do the same (annoying) work and keep the wages here? I asked myself. And of course we all know the answer: it’s cheaper to hire these workers overseas. And in a global economy, it’s all fair game, at least according to the big companies.
But what would we think if our Crown corporations such as NB Power started doing the same thing? What if they began hiring Chinese contract engineers to redesign Point Lepreau? Or contracted out to an Indian firm to operate the plant? Sure, we New Brunswickers would probably pay less for their services and be able to buy power more cheaply. But we’d all know that we’d be building a false economy.
So why is it OK for our Canadian banks and other commercial entities to do the same thing?
It was then I reconnected to my earlier Wal-Mart experience. It’s not the Wal-Mart commercial outlets or its marketing model that bothers me; it’s the offshoring of all the production that bothers me. And that’s not all Wal-Mart’s doing, it’s the producers: the television and electronics manufacturers, all the clothing and toy companies, all the makers of trinkets and housewares and tools and just about everything we buy except maybe food. And even a lot of that is imported.
Meanwhile, Peter Kent, our Canadian Minister of the Environment, just informed the media that Canada would not be renewing its commitment to the Kyoto Protocol to minimalize climate change because, and here’s the sticky detail, the developing countries such as China would get a temporary free ride while we’d have to clean up our emissions first. So, I guess he’d rather have no agreement at all, at least for the time being. Meanwhile Canada will provide $300 million in aid to help nations develop cleaner and more efficient energy technologies with a matching amount in loans to trigger private sector development. Well, it’s better than 30 pieces of silver, I suppose. But not much.
On the other hand, I doubt it’s escaped anyone that we are the ones consuming all those products produced in the “developing” countries. So, if China is completing a new coal-fired generating station every four days as is popularly noted, who’s funding them? We are, directly, every time we purchase a Made In China product. And China now uses, according to the New York Times, more coal than the United States, Europe and Japan combined, making it the world’s largest emitter of gases that are warming the planet.
So all of us, and Peter Kent too, have offloaded our climate-saving responsibilities on that nasty China, while we continue to gobble up everything the Chinese can mass-produce for us. How nice. And just in time for another Christmas.
And if you’re reading this, you’re welcome, Wal-Mart managers. But you might try buying a hell of a lot more at home.