catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 21 :: 2012.11.23 — 2012.12.06


A model of inefficiency

We bump up against some of the same issues every year in the 1865 building where World Fare, the fair trade store I help run, is located, especially when we re-decorate for the holidays.  Where do we hang things when we don’t want to damage the elaborate tin ceiling or the 150-year-old brick walls?  How can we make the best use of our sparse outlets to light up our Christmas trees?

But I wouldn’t trade for a newer space in a strip mall out on the highway — no way — even if it did come with more outlets, a bigger parking lot, more insulated windows, an anchor store.  We might get more traffic and sell more stuff, but I don’t think it’s too dramatic to say we’d be selling our soul in the process.

In fact, a few years ago, World Fare became a de facto headquarters for a campaign to stop Wal-Mart from building a new store in town, which happened to be right across the road from city limits so they wouldn’t have to pay city sales tax.  The people in the group had many reasons for wanting to resist this development, including the labor practice concerns that tied in with World Fare’s fair trade mission.  For me, there was also something less logical, more intuitive — maybe call it a sense that Wal-Mart’s vision for the good life was so small, like an annoying parasite that’s easy to contract, and nearly impossible to get rid of.  The slogan, “Save money.  Live better,” is perhaps a more recent symptom, but there was also something one of their representatives said to another small town that was trying to keep them out (documented in the film Store Wars): that Wal-Mart is just like an old downtown, except that there are no walls between the stores.

I suppose in some ways, this statement is true.  You can get everything (and more) that you used to be able to get in thousands of small downtowns throughout the country with one parking space, one shopping cart, one swipe at the register.  For consumers, as well as all of those along the supply chain, it’s a model of efficiency.  However, we get what we pay for, and we pay for what we get.  No walls between stores means a concentration of power, a concentration of profits in one family’s pockets, a concentration of creativity and decision-making in the corner offices of a few.  What we gain in the speed of construction, we lose in the spontaneity of beauty that evolves over time.  What we gain in our capacity to buy more cheap stuff, we lose in the quality of life for our brothers and sisters around the world who have no choice but to make and sell crap to those who can afford it.

What Wal-Mart (not to mention the many other businesses and institutions that have co-opted their model) doesn’t want us to think too hard about is this: efficiency is always interpreted through the lens of our priorities.  If I look at Main Street in Three Rivers, Michigan, through shalom-shaped glasses, I see several things that our downtown actually does more efficiently, many of them simply by virtue of the way the built environment is constructed.  Because there are sidewalks running right next to the windows of small shops, I can easily wave to my neighbor Peggy as I walk by on my way to the bank or stop in to see if she needs any change for her till as long as I’m headed down the block anyway.  Because there are walls and streets between the buildings and other businesses I don’t own, I can close up our store and head on over to the theatre to relax and be free of responsibilities for a while.  Because there are a number of buildings and businesses throughout the district, a variety of people are able to build unique visions of the good life for themselves and their families, serving the community’s needs in the area of their passion.  Because there’s a mash-up of architectural styles, from the mid-1800’s to the 1960’s, I am frequently reminded that what we have now is built on the work of those who went before, and that the way things are now are not the way things always were, or the way things will always be — readily available lessons in humility.

Now, that’s not to say that ye olde Main Street is perfect; ask anyone who’s tried to get around in a wheelchair or written out a multi-hundred dollar check for the winter gas bill or tried to take out a small business loan at a bank that doesn’t like the color of their skin.  The struggle for justice continues on all fronts.  But there are certain values and ways of being here that a model of efficiency can only imitate as a response to focus groups on the way to a fat bottom line.

If Wal-Mart represents efficiency, then I’ll take inefficiency, please, with a side of patience and simplicity and hospitality.  But I’m not quite ready to concede efficiency to such a one-sided definition.  As opposed to the mythical, singular model of efficiency, I believe there are many ways of doing business and building institutions within our current systems that can be life-giving for all people, plants, animals, land, waterways and social systems concerned.  Whether or not we can see the way forward clearly depends on whether the lenses we’re wearing are tinted with greed and short-sightedness, or with imagination and generosity.  For me, the capacity to visualize the possibilities seems far more clear when I’m looking across the street at my favorite bookstore than it does overlooking a disposable shopping warehouse from the far end of a frenetic sea of cars.  Perhaps it’s because I lack imagination.  But perhaps it’s because the built environment matters, not only as a manifestation of who we are today, but as a shaping force for who we are becoming.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus