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Bagging bears or bargains - the clash of the hunters

By Richard Stanton - posted Monday, 23 November 2009

A couple of weeks ago a band of 20 men armed with high powered rifles, accompanied by a team of dogs, drove into the Smokey Mountains in North Carolina in the United States of America to spend a week hunting bears. In five days they killed three black bears with an average size of one hundred and twenty pounds. To catch and kill the bears, the hunters set the dogs loose in the forest to track down the bears. The hunters for the most part waited by streams or creeks at the lower ground for the dogs to drive the bears down from the peaks. On a number of occasions the hunters were forced to climb miles into the mountains without bagging a bear, returning empty-handed to their campsite to have a few quiet beers and to contemplate their tactics for the next day’s hunt.

This is an unusual and shocking image in our sanitised 21st century world where governments strive to build great nanny states in which individuals are proscribed in their activities far beyond what should be expected of common sense. But it is not an unusual activity in the sense that proscription by governments and markets has driven humans to hunt. The hunting today, however, is most often reserved for the relatively innocuous past-time of bargains in shopping malls. But how innocuous is bargain hunting?

Consider for a moment the comparison between the shopping mall and the forest. Both have things in them that require hunting: bargains and bears. For both the bargain hunter and the bear hunter, the result is the same; satisfaction in the hunt, the conquest and the brave return of the hunter to show off the trophy.


For the bear hunter, there is the satisfaction of pitting his (or her) guile and cunning against a great adversary, on nature’s terms. For the bargain hunter, there is the satisfaction of pitting guile and cunning against a greater adversary, on fabricated terms - the global corporation intent upon extracting maximum return from their products.

While our natural reaction is to be appalled and outraged by the bear hunters, their use of technology and their dogs to hunt down an innocent creature living life undisturbed in the forest (a lovely 19th century image that we have trouble losing, despite our general lack of engagement with nature in the 21st century), a new book by Ellen Ruppel Shell should make us more outraged at our own stupidity than our outrage at the simple instincts of the bear hunters.

In Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, Shell provides an image of the contemporary shopper as one who is happy to part with money for goods they don’t necessarily want or need if they can be convinced they are getting a “bargain”; in other words getting something for a better deal than they anticipate the price should be.

Most of the western world has embraced the shopping mall, invented by Victor Gruen in the 1950s, and the culture of shopping is also high on the list of enjoyable activities across Asia. Bargain hunting has indeed become a well-used phrase and “shopping therapy” for all types of maladies has entered the general lexicon. But is it good? Does it provide the same level of satisfaction as killing a black bear? Clearly not, if the numbers of hunters across America, Europe and Asia are anything to go by.

Shell adds a disturbing element to her attack on cheap. Not only does she whack into the Walmarts, Ikeas and others intent upon downgrading human ideas of value in manufactured goods, additionally she presents a strong argument for why we should look more closely at the type of food we are eating and the low quality that has been foisted on us throughout the long period of evolutionary downgrading that we have come to accept in our hunt for bargains.

Factory farming of meat and livestock, fish and other seafood in poor conditions requires the injection of vast quantities of drugs and chemicals to maintain palatability - one has only to take a tour of the Mekong River in Viet Nam to observe the fish farms - a situation that we have taken for granted in our quest for “bargain” priced seafood and red meat.


And the nanny state underpins this idea through widespread advertising that we need to eat both these foods in large quantities if we are to maintain our healthy bodies and joints. Which is a long way from Adam Smith’s remarks in 1776 that the labouring poor in Scotland “seldom eat butcher’s meat, except upon holidays and other extraordinary occasions”. Butcher’s meat? Was Smith advocating hunting, or going to McDonalds?

Towns across America were once named after heroic hunters - Boone, Austin, Houston. Today, towns are constructed around heroic retailers - Walton, Wanamaker, Woolworths.

The bargain hunter is a human construct. The bear hunter is a force of nature. We need look no further to understand why the bear hunter exists.

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About the Author

Richard Stanton is a political communication writer and media critic. His most recent book is Do What They Like: The Media In The Australian Election Campaign 2010.

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All articles by Richard Stanton

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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