Bono’s Project (Red) campaign is turning the background of Twitter and Facebook red today. For AIDs.  For those that don’t know, Project (Red) is a brand licensed to partner companies such as American Express, Apple Inc., Starbucks, Converse (recently bought out by Nike), Motorola, Gap, Emporio Armani, Hallmark, Microsoft, and Dell.”  (Links will take you to company profiles on Knowmore.org). These companies aren’t exactly temples of ethical business practices. What possible interest do they have in aid to Africa? The answer is consumerism.

We can’t just oppose the act of consuming. We have to oppose the culture of consuming as well. We have to stand against what it does to our relationships with one another, how it monetizes and zombifies our lives and turns us away from being active citizens. You just can’t run a culture based on consumption — not only for the ostensible political and environmental reasons, but also because of the social consequences of consumerism.

Please keep in mind that no matter how charitable their PR firms make them seem, corporations (by definition) function for one purpose only: to turn profit. This Product (Red) project is just another disingenuous marketing ploy to get us to keep spending. Our economy — call it capitalism or corporatism or whathaveyou — depends on us spending. It’s a linear system that starts with resource extraction and thrives solely on products flying off the shelves only to be replaced with more, more, more. And so it is constantly looking for ways to get us to keep going to the shelves. It adapts – changing  it’s logos, brand names, color schemes, discounts, sales approaches, etc, etc. This we’re all familiar with. But now it seems they have found a new marketing scheme, a new reason for us to get in our cars and head to the store: that very human urge we all have to reach out and help one another. Think of the power of being able to satisfy these two powerful urges at once: our urge to consume and our urge to be charitable. But are we really being genuinely charitable? Achieving some kind of social justice? No. Our desire to be charitable is merely being exploited. Plain and simple. It’s akin to Bush attaching feelings of patriotic duty to shopping when he encouraged us after 9/11 not to hope or pray or mourn — but to shop.

Have we really sunk to the level of even reaching out a helping hand to our fellow man (pardon the gendered term) via products?

We have to be voices against this kind of thinking. We have to work — ALWAYS — toward the alternative, not in tiny steps but in leaps and bounds. Consumerism is not a way to run an economy, a planet, or a society…but it’s also NOT a way to achieve social justice. Just because some  corporation is willing to part with .10 cents of every dollar is takes in doesn’t mean it deserves our unquestioning support. If they really gave a shit, they’d stop making their products in sweat shops. Hell, if they REALLY cared about fighting AIDS they’d invest DIRECTLY, not hold the aid ransom until we purchase their products. We can’t shop enough for Africa because, well, we’re still shopping! Still contributing to the system that keeps people in Africa and around the world oppressed.

BUY LESS CRAP.

This Friday, stomachs still full from Thanksgiving festivities, Dawn and I woke up at 4:30am and donned our green robes. We rushed over, fighting the cold and dark, to the Macy’s on 34th Street. It was Black Friday, and doors were set to open at 5am. As usual, a visceral crowd of people stood at the entrance waiting for the countdown and the doors to open. They’d probably been there for hours — eager to be the first ones to the shelves and discounts.

When the doors did open, the shoppers rushed in. Along with them was Rev. Billy and a small contingent of his choir, urging shoppers to turn around and go home. It was a short run, we entered briefly with the shoppers and shouted as loud as we could. Then we went back outside and greeted the stragglers, handing out flyers on Buy Nothing Day and consumerism. Very few heads turned. Most just went right on inside and did their holiday shopping. It’s tradition, after all.

At 10am we were at Penn Station waiting for the train to Valley Stream — the site of the Wal-Mart where store employee Jdimytai Damour was trampled to death when shoppers stormed the store last year. We arrived in Valley Stream and I looked out from the station at the vast array of car-centered amenities. We were now clearly in a place that was built for the automobile. To get to the Wal-Mart, we walked along the narrow edges of highways and crossed the vast black emptiness of big-box parking lots for 20 minutes. The store was surrounded by a fortress of Big-Boxes: Best Buy, Target, Home Depot, Petsmart, and more. When we finally arrived, we noticed that the store had taken extra security precautions this year. There was a long line of people in barricades waiting to be let in. Two mounted policemen patrolled back and forth.

We had flyers with Jdimytai’s face on them explaining his story and a bag full of flower petals we planned to scatter on the site of his death in memoriam. The plan was to start at the end of the line of would-be shoppers, singing “Back away from the Wal-Mart/back away from the sweat shops” and handing them flyers. Before we started, Rev. Billy reminded us that in many ways Jdimytai had become the center of the anti-consumerist struggle in New York.  He was a victim of the social consequences of consumerism.

As we went down the line, many remembered hearing of the tragedy last year, but few seemed to make the connection between the line they were currently standing in and Jdimytai’s death. Consumerism – that plastic-wrapped jewel in the crown of the American Dream – is best at separating the act of buying from it’s consequences.  As we stand in line on Black Friday or any other day, we clutch neatly packaged products that in our minds have no place, no history, no politics. Somehow they arrived on these shelves, but we rarely consider the long process that brought them there. Many are made by people that are perpetually poor, working an inhumane amount of hours daily just make a few cents. They are shipped via air and ocean, plastic wrapped in plastic wrapped in plastic, burning thousands of tons of fossil fuel a year.  By the time they get within reach of our hands they are perfectly packaged and advertised products ready for consumption, the story that spawned them purposely buried behind company logos. Consider Annie Leonard‘s The Story of Stuff for a better explanation:

When we reached the front of the line, the barricades and cops kept us from going any further. We laid our petals down in a semi-circle and scattered pictures of Jdimytai throughout. Rev. Billy offered a prayer:

“The indigenous holy days that rise from the solstice – Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hannakah and all the rest – offer us an unseen opportunity. This is the day that there is seconds more light and heat, as the earth and sun roll back toward what will become the unleashing of life called Spring. So the holidays in late December are the seed of change. Christmas is radical, and life is out of our control. All we can do is pray for the best, honor it, because it is the beginning of a miracle. It’s not a Consumer event.

Now, Christmas is the annual environmental disaster. Last year Americans generated 25 million tons of trash from Thanksgiving to Christmas. But then, these holy days are the beginning of Spring, the possibility of change. We always had that life inside us, but we suppress it with Consumerism. Are we afraid of what more heat and light might mean? Will next Spring be too wild – too loving – too out of our control? What if the heat and light grows to become Peace on Earth?”

Shortly thereafter we left the cops and security guards alone and made the trek back to the station. Dawn and I decided to take a cab there along with several other choir members, weary of the 20 minute empty journey back.