A warning for those of you who love cats, or shopping — and especially for those who love both: You might want to brace yourself before reading this.
We have arrived at the two days of the year that show us how we might save this planet, and how we might continue to wreck it.
On Thanksgiving, filled with gratitude, we celebrate all we have: Food, family, friends, and all that money cannot buy.
On Black Friday, suddenly, too much is never enough. We race to jammed stores, or to our keyboards, to buy up stuff we don’t need and often can’t afford.
Many of us who join in this annual bout of collective hysteria do it even though our closets are groaning, our landfills are at capacity, and the self-storage industry is booming as it tries to contain our overflow. The dirt cheap prices we revel in are subsidized by lousy working conditions, poor quality, and global emissions.
Can anything stop us?
That question animates the work of Ann-Christine Duhaime, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Mass. General who has been studying the link between our brains’ wiring and overconsumption. Her new book is called “Minding the Climate: How Neuroscience Can Help Solve Our Environmental Crisis.”
In the distant past, she says, the brain’s reward system taught humans what we needed to do to survive and reproduce, releasing the pleasant chemical dopamine when we found, ate, and consumed food. Now we’ve more or less gotten the hang of all that, but our brains’ reward systems are still living in the past. The dopamine that flowed when we consumed food now surges when we stock up on air fryers and scented candles.
“Evolution has not caught up with the issue of climate change,” says Duhaime. If consumption is wired in, are we destined to keep Black Friday-ing until we Black Friday ourselves into oblivion?
Duhaime says no, that we are not doomed, and we need not give into these ancient impulses. Though the compulsion to acquire may be a predisposition in our lagging brains, we also have immense capacity for flexibility. In addition to dopamine rewards from shopping, we can also get bumps from the approval of others. If we’re surrounded by enough people who reject overconsumption, our choice to consume less can feel good, too. With support from others, we can replace the reward that kicks in when we bag a mass-produced, brand new bargain at say, Target, with the rush that comes from landing a one-of-a-kind thrift store find. Instead of buying mountains of gifts for each member of our circle, we can choose a Yankee swap instead, where each person buys a gift for one other person.
But it takes more time and effort to buy second-hand (though rarely do we hear of door-buster stampedes and fist-fights at Goodwill). And a Yankee swap, though rewarding for some of us, is not everybody’s cup of tea. So, Duhaime says, losing enough bad habits to make real change will be hard. Our brains must simply use other strategies to change what we prioritize and value.
Which seems impossible, until you think about how much our idea of what is acceptable, and enjoyable, has shifted throughout history.
And this, with apologies, is where the cats come in.
In Medieval Europe, Duhaime points out, many people believed cats were possessed by the devil, and so they took great joy in townwide festivals of cat torture and killing.
You don’t have to be a cat lover, with two adorables named Gracie and Leo, whom you love almost as much as your own kid, and whose grudging approval you never tire of seeking, to be repulsed by common medieval notions of rewarding behavior. If we can get turned off by ritualistic cat torture, we can get turned off by habits that hasten the end of the world as we know it, Duhaime says.
“The rewards of ‘stuff’ are short-lived, by definition and design,” she says. “What we celebrate on Thanksgiving is the long-term — relationships, purpose — the big picture.”
Happiness lies in that big picture — in meaningfulness. If you find yourself losing sight of that fact as Thursday becomes Friday, just think of the cats.