Walmart’s Yeast-Overgrowth Death Spiral

According to James Howard Kunstler, “the era of giant chain stores is over – and they’ve ruined America.” That’s the title of an article he wrote for the Huffington Post, and I confess I felt a smug sense of relief sweep over me when I saw those words. I do hope that the era of giant chain stores truly is over, because the glamorous allure of bargain shopping has methodically destroyed the chances of small businesses and the diversity of main streets, not to mention the hideous concrete sprawl and environmental damage caused by it. Kunstler is known for being uncomfortably radical in his opinions. He is a writer, public speaker, and blogger whose main argument is that there is no alternative energy source on the horizon that can replace cheap oil; when that runs out, we’ll be forced to return to a “low energy” world. Kunstler’s premises are scary because we’ve gotten so used to getting everything we want, whenever we want it.


Big chain stores epitomize that greed. I need only hop in my car, drive to the far side of town, and I can buy almost anything my heart desires or my household needs at the Walmart Superstore that moved into town a few years ago. Actually, I could do my grocery shopping, furnish my house, visit the optometrist, print photos, take my kids to McDonald’s for lunch, grab a coffee at Tim Hortons, buy plants for my vegetable garden, and get an oil change all at a single location. But, seriously, why would I want to go to? It’s far more fun to  engage with my colourful community.

Kunstler believes that “Walmart and its kindred malignant organisms have entered their own yeast-overgrowth death spiral” for a number of reasons: rising fuel prices make it harder to truck goods long distances; global currency wars are destroying trade relations; and the shoppers themselves are “getting squashed in the contraction of this phony-baloney corporate buccaneer parasite revolving credit crony capital economy.” (!!) The solution, he says, is just to buy less stuff, especially the leisurely, comfortable, and convenient stuff. To that, I’d add an emphasis on buying higher quality goods that might be more expensive but will last longer. Cheap Chinese-made plastic toys don’t last a week in our household! I once read about one woman’s vow not to buy any article of clothing that she didn’t expect to wear for at least five years. That impressed me because it’s so different than the usual mentality to buy cheap H&M-style shirts for $15, only to have them stretch out and look awful by the end of the season. It’s definitely time for a shopping readjustment.

In Lloyd Alter’s article for TreeHugger called “How To You Build A Sustainable Business in a Suburban Sea of Parking? Sorry, Walmart, You Can’t,” he points out how it’s a joke that Walmart talks of embracing sustainability when their business “pretty much defines the unsustainable.”

Despite its public embrace of sustainability, Walmart continues to maximize its land consumption by building vast, low-rise supercenters. Since 2005, Walmart has added more than 1,100 supercenters in the U.S., expanding its store footprint by one-third. Most of these stores were built on land that hadn’t been developed before, including, in some cases, critical habitat for threatened and endangered species.

In many communities, Walmart has chosen to build on virgin land rather than redevelop vacant “greyfield” retail properties. Walmart itself routinely abandons
its stores. The U.S. is currently home to about 150 empty Walmart stores, many vacated when the chain opened a newer supercenter nearby.

Walmart’s development practices have a major impact on the environment, causing problems such as habitat loss, water pollution from parking lot runoff, sprawl, increased driving, and air pollution. Between 1990 and 2009 – a period when Walmart grew from a regional chain to a national juggernaut — the number of miles the average U.S. household logged each year for shopping increased by nearly 1,000 miles. For the country as a whole, that’s an extra 149 billion miles on the road each year and about 50 million metric tons of added CO2 emissions.

Yet Walmart’s sustainability program does not address land use at all. Its 2012 Global Responsibility Report doesn’t even mention these very significant environmental issues.

Photo: robertstinnett/CC
Photo: robertstinnett/CC

What I liked best about Kunstler’s article is his hopeful conclusion. He considers this an excellent time for young entrepreneurs to start filling the vacant storefronts along their desolate main streets because now they’ll have a chance at successful competition as box stores rot on the outskirts of town. It’s exciting enough to make me want to start a business of my own. I’ll have to start brainstorming!


7 thoughts on “Walmart’s Yeast-Overgrowth Death Spiral

  1. Go for it, Baby! Why not join the family of business owners? You’ve always wanted to have your own bookstore, cafe. You’d make one formidable businesswoman: energetic, shrewd, strong, extraverted, smart. What business would you like to start if you were handed a wad of cash?

  2. In defense of Walmart, Canadian Tire, Sears, etc.:
    1. These stores employ a LOT of people who would not necessarily be suited to run or work in a small business. In a big store people can be taught one or two tasks, and many hands keep things in order – not unlike a production line at a factory. In a small store employees have more responsibilities, and therefore people with disabilities are less likely to be considered employable.
    2. Big chain stores offer rural residents a large selection of products, that one or two local small stores simply couldnt afford to stock. This is less of an issue in the city, but we don’t live there. There are situations where having a selection is important. Having these stores in rural communities decreases the number of trips to the city.
    3. Smaller stores tend to not cater to people who work 9-5 jobs. I don’t have time to visit 3 different stores, none of which have convenient, nearby places to park. Even if my evenings were wide open, none of the small stores would be open anyway, because the store owners would want to work the same hours as me.
    I could go on and on. My point is that there is still a place for large chain stores, even with a vibrant community of smaller local businesses. I agree that we should make more of an effort to support local business-which I do make an effort to do. But local stores need to play too. They simply dont cater to the needs of the local people, with respect to both their stock and hours of operation.

  3. Really interesting post, Katherine. Check out the New York Times Article about how WalMart operates in other countries such as Mexico, where it aggressively and illegally pushed through a store in a culturally significant area near the Pyramid of the Teotihuacan. Does WalMart provide a few jobs and tons of cheap merchandise? Sure, by ruining the environment, cultural heritage, local economies, or anything else that stands in its way.

  4. I was in full agreement with this post in general but this line in particular struck me as it’s an idea I’ve held for a long time:
    “I’d add an emphasis on buying higher quality goods that might be more expensive but will last longer.”
    Mass production at slightly lower quality and this fixation with easily disposable items becoming a norm and the death of repair shops or specialised artisans for clothes, shoes and other everday items is something everyone should be thinking of more… it’s like this thing on TV recently about the US tanks, the defense guys say they don’t need them but it’s being pushed through to buy loads more while a great many are just sitting there in a desert storage facility, unused and in excess. The same applies to so much that is just being produced at volume because of a redundant idea of “economies of scale” and a profit-obsessed system that is perpetuating itself into collapse.
    At the very least for things like phones and such that have components that are considered rare metals and rare earth elements and the like should be pushed into a recovery program by governments – give folks jobs at such a place and allows for all that material to not end up in a garbage pile.
    Great post, I’m going to stop ranting now…

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