RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Thinking Like a Corporation

Way back in 1944, the environmentalist Aldo Leopold wrote about thinking like a mountain. "Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf" wrote Leopold.

I've tried thinking like a mountain, but, frankly, I can't do it. Mountains live forever, after all, and that's Leopold's point. The wolves come and go, the rivers flood and dry up, the oceans flood, the continents form, it's all very longterm. Compared to a mountain, our human lives are a snort in time's long howl.

Much easier to think in the short term, so I've taken up thinking like a corporation.

The only thing you need to think about if you're a corporation is the numbers. Those numbers -- the bottom line -- come out every three months. The point is to get the numbers as big as humanly -- or as corporately -- possible. If your bottom line is big, you can get money from investors, and your Lear jet gets the best parking place in the C.E.O. lot. It's an ego thing, and we all understand.

A corporation looks at money differently than a person does, and much differently than a mountain does. A person sees rent, food, a ride to work, a kid's education, and credit card payments. A corporation sees your money flowing into their bottom line.

Everything but the numbers is a non-issue, and that includes the health of the mountain. And other things don't count: product safety, employee well-being, community indebtedness, or even whether buyers benefit from the stuff you make.

Some of our corporations get away with manufacturing truly stupid stuff that's not at all beneficial. If you're a corporation, you think things like, "Consumers decide whether or not they need the stuff. All we do is sell it." And you work like hell to sell it.

For a corporation, there are two ways to success: Increasing sales, or decreasing costs. Costs are inputs -- transportation, labor, resources from farmers, miners, or lumberjacks, and such -- and you pay as little as you can for them.

Your outputs are sales, and you want the sales number enormous. You pay other corporations to persuade people to buy. You build on brand loyalty, and you piggyback on the old reliable consumer motivations: guilt, boredom, depression, habit, hope for a better future, the desire to keep up with the Joneses. Holidays are great for turning people into buyers.

The winter holidays are custom-made for selling. The dark days are depressing and even scary. Humans need a festival of lights. People, especially kids, watch more TV or cruise the 'net more than in the summer months. They see more advertising, so these are the months when corporations unveil their gleaming new products.

The day after Thanksgiving is the biggest shopping day of the year, as people prepare for Christmas, Hanakuh, etc. The malls are packed, you can count on it, and there will be lines of traffic crawling into the parking lot. For many people, this shopping day is a wretched holiday in its own right.

But people can invent holidays just as well as the corporations can, and the day after Thanksgiving has been reinvented. For increasing numbers of citizens disgusted with the twisted celebrations we once called Holy Days, the day after Thanksgiving is Buy-Nothing Day.

November 26, 1999, is the fifth annual Buy-Nothing Day, a free day to use carefully, exploring and celebrating our ability to think in ways that don't fatten corporations. A day to think in the long-term. Like a mountain ... or a neighbor.

This gift of a day is a good time to invite your neighbors over to play, and maybe to talk about neighborhood sustainability. What will you do if something -- like the Y2K bug or a clever computer hacker -- knocks out electricity, transportation, phones? Are there elderly or poor people in your neighborhood who will need help? Are there people with skills that can give help? Where will you go? How will you communicate?

If that's too scary to discuss, use the day to get together and do something you've been putting off -- painting a community center or cleaning up a vacant lot. Help somebody winterize, or rake someone's leaves. Go through old clothes and blankets to find things to give away. Have a bunch of kids over and bake cookies.

Last year, I suggested that you use the day to read up on voluntary simplicity, to make a budget, and to tell your family members how you're going to get out of debt. Since you've already done that and you've had a year to pay things off, use this year to do something with the money that once went to interest.

If you've wanted all year to be more politically active, use Buy-Nothing Day to act on your good intentions. There are letters to write, phone calls to make, donations to consider. With an election year imminent, we need hundreds of good candidates for local and national slots. Who? You?

Buy-Nothing founder Kalle Lasn reminds us that North Americans consume "five times more than a Mexican, 10 times more than a Chinese person, and 30 times more than a person from India ... Give it a rest." Americans produce an extra million tons of waste each week in the five-week holiday season; one day's junk mail could produce enough energy to heat a quarter million homes.

If nothing else, use Buy-Nothing Day to make a list of holiday gifts to pass on the message of thrift and sustainability. Get something fixed, or make something for your friends. One of the best gifts I got last year was a bag of worm casings from my best friend's worm bin. It was completely unexpected, believe me, and my plants loved it.

Give your political friends subscriptions to this journal and give foodies a ham from a small farm you know -- not the farms in the catalogs that raise animals in huge metal buildings. Stay away from the mall, and give art from a living artist, or donate to a favorite charity in your friend's name.

So, exempt yourself from the biggest shopping day of the year, the worst day to find a salesperson, or a parking place. Break the shopping addiction and find another way to use your free time.

Celebrate Buy-Nothing Day.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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