Release the hounds

Note: this essay first appeared in Paleo Magazine  

“So your desire is to do nothing? Well, you shall not have a week, a day, an hour, free from oppression. You shall not be able to lift anything without agony. Every passing minute will make your muscles crack. What is feather to others will be a rock to you. The simplest things will become difficult. Life will become monstrous about you. To come, to go, to breathe, will be so many terrible tasks for you. Your lungs will feel like a hundred-pound weight.”

― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables


“Would you like some help out to your car with that?”

I did a double take. “Excuse me?”

“Would you like some help out with that?”

I had just purchased a few supermarket items with a combined weight of perhaps 2 pounds; a can of shaving cream, some dental floss, a head of broccoli and a jar of salsa. The whole thing fit comfortably into my day pack.

What could possibly have suggested that I needed assistance? No one would mistake me for a bodybuilder, but I am an able-bodied American male with no obvious physical deformities and I’m fully capable of making it to my car with a bag of common retail products. But this fact was lost on my clerk and I was offered help transporting my purchase to my vehicle. And this was no isolated incident; retail clerks across the country make this same offer to customers millions of times every day.

At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss this practice as a simple gesture of courtesy designed to build customer loyalty and make the shopping experience as pleasant as possible. And yes, of course, there are in fact some people who really do need help getting their retail purchases out to their cars.

But there’s also something creepy going on here, something that signals disaster for the human life experience. It's one more sign of the apocalypse of the body, one more disempowerment that is robbing us of our health and our dignity as good human animals.

Of course, no one intentionally sets out to rob Americans of their health and dignity by offering to carry their stuff to their cars. Corporate planners may well be ruthless, earth-hostile criminals, but its unlikely that they’re that twisted. Rather, this customer service gesture is simply the natural consequence of consumer capitalism run amok, a free market economy that’s hell-bent on satisfying every human need, no matter how trivial. If my supermarket can gain a few more customers by helping people make it out to the parking lot, they may well gain an edge over their competition.

But this is precisely the problem. As competition for customers grows ever more fierce, marketers search high and low for every possible “pain point” in the human experience. Their method is simple: identify the things that challenge people and make those things go away. And at the top of the list is physical exertion.

In fact, labor-saving has been a sure bet in the marketplace for several hundred years. Agriculture and industry is hard, boring, repetitive work; as people sweated, grunted and ground themselves down, any advantage was welcome. Any lever, tool, machine, or process that took the load off the body was bound to sell. Consequently, our marketplace has become saturated with an astonishing array of labor-saving devices, even when our labor does not really need to be saved.

In the early years, this explosion of labor-saving was all well and good. But while something was gained, something vital was also lost. By depriving us of physical challenge, this tidal wave of innovation has robbed us of our health, our fitness and a substantial measure of our psycho-spiritual power. And today, we see the result in an epidemic of physical weakness, disease and depression–human bodies in desperate need of physical challenge and adversity.

Obviously, we need to turn this trend around. Instead of saving labor, we actually need to add labor to the daily human experience. Instead of labor-saving devices, we need labor amplifiers, innovations that actually make our physical experience more arduous, challenging and sustained.

Naturally, this is bound to be a hard sell. Would you buy a heavier backpack? A heavier suitcase? Would you pay extra to avoid the elevator and lug your belongings up 10 flights of stairs? It may seem perverse, but given what we know about health and the body, it has now become obvious that we need to reverse the popular incentives that are built into modern commercial culture.

In this new world of labor and adversity promotion, things would sound a whole lot different at the check-out stand:

“Are you really sure you need that labor-saving device? I’ll have to add the tax you know.”

“If you’d like a bag for those items, you’ll have to walk 10 blocks to our bag supply warehouse.”

“We’re offering a bonus credit for customers who park more than a mile away from the store. Do you qualify?”

“If you sign up for our Preferred Customer Plan, you’ll be eligible to do 10 squats and 10 deadlifts each time you check out.”

“And, if you upgrade to our Pro Customer Bonus Plan, we’ll arrange for our specially-trained Doberman attack dogs to chase you out to your car after every purchase. Would you like to sign up? It’s totally Paleo.”