Ardent Eden

Ardent Eden is a place to explore my thoughts about the interdependence of life - humanity and nature - and to engage with others for collective problem-solving.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Low, Low Spirits, High Expectations

I joined in the Wal-Mart Week of Action by attending a screening of Wal-Mart: The Movie. I’m not surprised that I left the film feeling angry and distraught over the pervasiveness of the social and environmental problems that Wal-Mart not only exacerbates, but also creates and sustains so powerfully all over the world. What did surprise me was that I saw the faintest glimmer of hope in the darkness. More on the hope later. First a word about the anger.

The rise of Wal-Mart is a good case study for the power of interconnectedness. Of course, in Wal-Mart’s case, that power is being used to the detriment of people, communities, and the earth. It’s not an overstatement to say that entire ways of life are being destroyed by the power of this behemoth. Wal-Mart’s policies affect all of us, whether we choose to shop there or not. In other words, we are all paying for the “low, low prices.” When Wal-Mart comes to town, there is little room for small businesses that have been built by families over generations. Yet, the local government often paves the way for Wal-Mart to destroy its own community by handing them large subsidies to help build mega-stores and create the necessary infrastructure (roads, sewage, etc.). In many cases local officials, knowingly or not, actually choose to pay for the demise of their own towns.

If you ask the local business owners, as the creators of this movie have, they know plenty about what happens when Wal-Mart comes in. Because the arrival of Wal-Mart has become inevitable in most small towns, many local businesses try to prepare for it the best they can, but the typical result is that the family business is liquidated, debts are barely covered with the proceeds, and the community loses a piece of its heritage. While townspeople may have liked their local grocer, hardware store, or bookstore, some may still be giddy with the prospect of a new Wal-Mart. After all, the low prices on t-shirts and microwaveable dinners are good for hardworking people, right? Plus there’s always the promise of jobs for those areas of the nation left behind by the information economy or stranded by the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs. They shop in the store or even apply for a job at Wal-Mart, loading up on cheap goods or working as a full-time “associate.” Trouble is, that full-time position doesn’t always result in enough hours per week or enough salary to pay the bills. Or, if they do end up working more than forty hours a week they are systematically denied overtime by management strategies such as shifting overtime hours to the next pay period, a period conveniently lacking the hours to qualify for overtime. The gleaming promise of health insurance and benefits for their families quickly evaporates as employees realize that they cannot afford to contribute to Wal-Mart’s health coverage on the low wages paid by the store (and forget about organizing because of the honed union-busting tactics employed by the kind folks at corporate headquarters in Arkansas). Not to worry, though, the store managers are prepared with literature on how employees can collect public assistance. The taxpayers can help pay for the Wal-Mart employees to put food on their table with food stamps, buy formula for their babies through the WIC program, and take their kids to the doctor through Medicaid. Everyone in America pays for Wal-Mart whether or not we shop there. Those low, low prices are not so low after all. But the Wal-Mart ethic of burdening local and national taxpayers and their own employees with the cost of operation is low, low indeed.

And whether or not we shop there, we also pay with our conscience. We pay if we know that the cheap goods sold at Wal-Mart are made by poor desperate people who want the same things for their families as Wal-Mart employees and shoppers want for theirs. But they must work in Wal-Mart certified sweatshops in China and Bangladesh, straining inhumanely to meet Wal-Mart’s demands for the cheapest goods from its suppliers. We pay when we know that Wal-Mart will often abandon one store and move to another location after the community has subsidized its growth but before real revenue reaches the local government. We pay when this wasteful sprawl eats up our green space at an alarming rate, chomping it up and spitting out another ten acre box store and parking lot. We pay dearly each and every time this store comes to another new town.

I’ve known some of these things about Wal-Mart. Yet the film was still worth seeing to connect the dots through the stories of individuals directly affected by Wal-Mart’s reign. So what is the take away message for someone like me who already refuses to shop there? Wal-Mart is among the worst of the corporations pilfering our society and earth with its artificially inflated size and breadth and the sheer greed and determination of those who run it. But it’s nevertheless a model taught to future executives in business school and one that is employed by businesses around the globe. Worse, it’s a business model that even progressive consumers often support directly or indirectly. Does it ease our collective conscience to have a new Target open rather than a Wal-Mart? Do we know what kind of campaign contributions they make? Where their goods come from? How much their workers earn? Is our earth any less stricken by a new Bed, Bath & Beyond, Home Depot or fill-in-the-blank box store being built? To vote with our dollars, we need to move beyond Wal-Mart. The holiday season is the perfect time to recommit to buying local, to discovering where your money goes after the cash register (check out www.buyblue.org) and to contributing to a sustainable economy. Shopping for a better world has its limits, of course. But in lieu of responsible government and sustainable business development, it’s a potent start.

What’s the next step? And where’s that sweet dose of hope? For me, the hope comes from the words of the people in the film who would not consider themselves progressive in the typical sense of the word. They may be life-long Republicans and true believers in the marketplace. But the words they spoke of how Wal-Mart afflicted their community can give hope to all of us. They declared that the owners of Wal-Mart should “spread out the wealth.” They said that we need regulations to “stop this rampage.” These self-proclaimed “conservatives” and “staunch Americans” said that this kind of business is not good for the people of our country. Here’s that glimmer of hope! If we can start talking to each other about the common values and concerns that we all share as American citizens, we might find that we’re not as far apart as the red state/blue state rhetoric the media would have us swallow. If we raise our expectations for what those “different” than us think and feel and find a way to connect with each other on our deeply human, common interests we will all win. In Frances Moore Lappe’s new book, Democracy’s Edge, she says “Wal-Mart’s approach stems not from an iron law of international economics but in large measure from what our expectations ‘normalize’.” It’s time to get together and talk about our dreams for our country and our democracy. We can far exceed our low, low expectations and in the process spread hope for an invigorated democracy.

7 Comments:

  • At 8:49 AM, Anonymous mango said…

    I for one can't wait for Walmart to have more of an impact in the UK...

    I particularly like their "women tapping their bottoms" and thus 'pocketing the difference' adverts in the UK.

    However Tesco may have assumed most of the "behemoth" proportions in the UK; where they are said to enforce very tough contracts on their farm suppliers...

     
  • At 10:15 AM, Blogger Andrea Rusin said…

    Excellent blog! Thanks for raising these issues. I see the movie tomorrow night, and I'll post my thoughts. In the meantime, I'll add you to my blogroll, if that's okay with you.

     
  • At 10:27 AM, Blogger lauren said…

    Hi Andrea. Thanks for stopping by! It would be great to be added to your blogroll. Looking forward to your thoughts about the movie.

     
  • At 10:27 AM, Blogger Laurie said…

    Wow. Your new blog is terrific. You are a very welcome addition to the blogosphere. You're going on my roll, and I don't do that much any more.

    Thanks for the buyblue.org link in particular. I've already emailed it to my non-blogging friends.

     
  • At 2:03 PM, Blogger lauren said…

    Thanks Laurie! I've added you to my blogroll as well.

     
  • At 8:22 PM, Blogger madgeneral said…

    the grain fields, wetlands, and meadows of our youth are fast becoming paved graveyards for the best american dreams.

    on a brighter note, dick cheney is quickly running out of places to shoot fowl!

    but really, thanks for the great post and may you and kindred spirits help to prevent our precious american small towns from giving up the ghost.

     
  • At 1:29 PM, Anonymous Blue Cross of California said…

    I hope walmart will work to provide health insurance for employees as they deserve coverage.

     

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