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Wallace J Nichols

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Neoconsumerism: Blue Is the New Black

Posted: 11/29/11 12:25 PM ET

A couple of days ago my daughter asked her grandmother, "What's Black Friday?"

When her grandmother told her, my daughter followed with: "Have you ever done it?"

When I pulled on that thread it led to a conversation that is still unraveling. At the same time, news of camp-outs, body slams, pepper spray, brawls and assorted assaults on our better angels scroll by in my newsfeed.

Is Black Friday our worst example of unchecked consumerism, a modern American tradition gone wrong or just one more bizarre piece in the backbone of our wobbly economy?

Who knows?

I do know that consumerism is here to stay, at least for a while. Some researchers say it's baked into our DNA, nestled in our neurons. They say our consumptive tendencies will forever evolve in response to marketing, culture, policy and changing needs on our one and only, tiny blue planet.

Along the way, consume has become a negative word, but there are other meanings. The verb to consume can also mean to enjoy avidly and to engage fully. Trust me. You can look it up.

A trending post-Boomer ideology values emotional fulfillment above all else. People are realizing they much prefer to consume experiences than stuff -- they prefer doing over owning.

What's more, people are willing to save their hard-earned income to pay for rich experiences -- the authentic, the personal, the unusual, the surprising and the beautiful.

Don't worry if you feel that emotions are somehow soft. Neuroscientists tell us they are involved in everything we do, from our morning cereal choice to who we sit next to at a dinner party to how each and every sound affects our mood.

The pulse of live music or ocean waves, the tastes of local food, the craftsmanship of hand-made wares, the thrill of a great conversation, a well-told story or a good book, the healing power of a long hug or a stroll next to water or through the woods, the chill of a song sung from the heart -- these are rich experiences worthy of consumption.

Think of the parts of your life that give you immeasurable joy, yet cost nothing. The more you get of that kind of elixir the better you are. After all, it's elementary math that when you divide by a number approaching zero, the quotient becomes infinite, immeasurable. That's how I like to think of consuming nature: big payoff divided by near-zero cost equals infinite value. That's math anyone can love.

The lesson here is: if you're going to consume stuff, get good stuff, but consume it in a new way.

At a recent fundraising auction for our kids' school, for instance, parent-donor bidders went all-in for the experiences, not the stuff. A pair of in-home dinners prepared by two local celebrity chefs were the have-to-have items of the night. One chef commands a hot-spot eatery, the other is a leading advocate for school lunch reform, both are magnificently talented in the kitchen.

Nature is the same. In California people have worked hard to protect our coast and make it accessible to everyone. This 1,200-mile stretch and the adjacent ocean belong to everyone to enjoy, to care for and, yes, to consume. The coast and ocean is core to our economy and to our health in many more ways than we can possibly measure. There are good reasons why an "ocean view" imparts a 40% premium on everything from a cup of coffee to real estate.

When surveyed, Americans claim to be satisfied with their career performances, but not their social performances. We feel like we could be better brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, partners and lovers.

The most memorable and forever-appreciated thing you could give someone is your time, your thoughts and creativity, a bit of your talent or a warm heartfelt sentiment.

Grab a partner and consume some wild and free beautiful ocean as often as possible.

The point of these examples is that taking time to eat good local food and to consume nature, together, is perceived as valuable, because it is valuable. Nature has massive value that we may never be able to put a dollar value on. This is truth, not a fad or a trend.

If you love the ocean, share it, and don't be afraid to consume it in the very best sense of the word. But also, fight for it. Protect it.

In the wake of giving thanks and Black Friday, and heading into the holiday season, let's rediscover the full meaning of the word consume. Let's call it neoconsumerism. We'll let Friday remain black, and Monday can keep cyber, but the other five days let's live like we love the ocean. Let's live blue.

 
 
 

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