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Bottlenecks ‘R’ Us

We’re in the midst of a supply chain crisis and some of us are freaking out. We want our stuff and we want it now!

Shipping containers sat on truck transport chassis in a rail yard Friday in Los Angeles. Strong consumer demand and an altered workforce caused by the global pandemic have contributed to supply chain issues and random shortages of items around the country.Mario Tama/Getty Images

Remember last year, when all we wanted for Christmas was to hug our loved ones?

Yeah, that was then. Now Americans are panicking because the exact piles of Chinese plastic our kids want might not arrive in time for Santa’s sleigh — the one with that familiar smiley arrow on the side — to deliver them.

We’re in the midst of a supply chain crisis, and some of us are freaking out. A global pandemic has disrupted manufacturing. Cargo is stranded overseas, or stuck in ports, or on trucks with nobody to drive them. Merchants and shoppers have rushed to place orders to keep shelves and children from becoming bereft. Bottlenecks beget bottlenecks.


Family time and home-cooked meals and nature walks and handmade signs for heroic strangers? That’s all so 2020. Now we want our stuff, dammit, and lots of it.

When they’re not dissuading millions from taking life-saving vaccines, Fox News pundits and other murderous profiteers are whipping millions of Americans into a frenzy over the supply chain crisis: A dearth of Tonka trucks and Togetherness Care Bears is proof that President Biden and his crew are trying to kill Christmas. Again.

Back at the start of the pandemic, it seemed we’d be impervious to such cynical ploys. Life slowed down. Our values shifted. What we wanted couldn’t be bought in a mall, or anywhere. Reducing our mad consumption yielded gifts unfamiliar for too many: The luckiest saw their savings grow; all of us saw a dramatic drop in the greenhouse emissions that threaten the planet. It was one of the few comforting developments amid the heartbreaking mass casualties.

It didn’t last long. After a few months, nudged by good marketing (patio heaters!) and fiscal policy, we threw ourselves back into the marketplace, buying more than ever before. In fact, our demand spiked so high that it helped spark this supply crisis, the pandemic-hobbled global network buckling as it tried to meet our infinite wishes. Along with the fripperies, necessities like food and diapers were also affected. Back up went those global emissions, too.


None of this surprised J.B. MacKinnon, author of “The Day the World Stops Shopping.” MacKinnon was at work on the book — which argues that consuming less is the best strategy for saving the planet — when the pandemic hit, offering a real-time test of his hypothesis. He knew people lucky enough to have pent-up spending power would eventually get over their fear of buying things, because they always have. Over the last 70 years, consumption has become central to our economy, of which it comprises almost 70 percent. Growing that economy requires us to buy ever more stuff we don’t need. But it’s even bigger than that: Buying things is the way we amuse and console ourselves, how we signal love and identity.

“We are born into it. It’s the water we swim in, it’s what we’re good at,” said MacKinnon, who teaches journalism at the University of British Columbia.

And in times of crisis — terrorist attacks, recessions, a pandemic — we are told it’s our duty to keep the country afloat by buying what we can. Not that we need much encouragement, ever. Imagine: If we reduced our purchases by a whopping 25 percent, MacKinnon says, it would take us back only to how much we were buying at the turn of the century — this century.


Still, 25 percent would put a massive dent in our climate problem. It would also tank the economy.

“We’re in a dilemma, where the planet clearly needs us to reduce consumption, and the economy needs us to consume more and more,” he said.

How do we get out of this death spiral? MacKinnon’s answers might have found a more sympathetic audience last year, but these days they sound downright unAmerican. Buying less means producing less, which in turn means less work to go around, probably. It means making higher quality goods, maintaining them, and recycling them, a la Patagonia. It means Jeff Bezos isn’t quite so obscenely rich.

It means valuing again the things so many of us valued 18 months ago, when the virus briefly forced us to reassess, and some of us hoped the change would last.

Ridiculous, right?

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at Follow her @GlobeAbraham.