Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Flying high

Anyone who has flown a commercial airplane in the United States is familiar with the SkyMall catalogue found in every seat-back pocket. In his Small Change column in the March/April issue of Orion magazine, Bill McKibben writes: "To browse its pages is to understand the essential secret of American consumer life: we've officially run out not only of things that we need, but even of things that we might plausibly desire." And he goes on to make wonderful fun of such infinitely desirable devices as a digital barbecue fork or the Vintage Express Aging Accelerator that ages your bottle of wine ten years in ten seconds by surrounding it with "extremely powerful Neodymium magnets to replicate the Earth's magnetic field." And don't forget the "exclusive heavy duty vinyl snow castle." A real snow castle would, SkyMall notes, "take hours to build and requires lots of snow," but this inflatable version "encourages children to use their imaginations while having fun."

McKibben is our prophet of excess; you will know his work from such provocative books as The End of Nature and Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age. I'm not as pessimistic as Bill about the state and fate of the world, but there is no doubt that he is one of our most valuable writers. Any civilization that can produce a SkyMall catalogue absolutely requires a McKibben to remind us just how far we have strayed from sense and sensibility.