Even if we could, it wouldn’t be in our best interest to consume our way out of recession.
Today is the biggest shopping day of the year, known as Black Friday. Is that something to celebrate? Or is it something we should try to change? In the U.S., the National Retail Federation is expecting a record number of people to shop today – nearly half the entire population. Shopping will be the number one news story today and throughout the weekend. That will be followed by a flurry of news reports about Cyber Monday.
Yet my advice is, “Please don’t shop.” Resist the urge to do your patriotic duty and buy things you and your loved ones don’t really need. Why? It’s rather simple, even though it’s something we rarely think or talk about: The scale of the human enterprise has outgrown the planet. The ecosystems that support our civilization are buckling under the pressure. We are in a global emergency. We need to, as quickly as possible, leave behind us the era of consumption and economic growth. Repeat after me, “I am not a consumer, I am a human being.”
So how do you celebrate a holiday with a great gift-giving tradition, without going out and purchasing gifts? Last year my family agreed we would exchange Christmas gifts, but we would not purchase new items to give. For some family members I gave the gift of time. I gave my mother a certificate good for several hours of my time fixing things around her house. My sister gave me a certificate good for a couple of nice dinners she would cater.
We expected to feel pretty good about celebrating a non-consumptive Christmas, but it surprised us how good it did feel. Anyone can hop on the Internet, order a few things from a list, and hardly give it a second thought. Searching for something in your closet that your daughter would love takes more time and thought. It turned out to be a lot of fun and more meaningful. We felt good we weren’t contributing to the liquidation of the Earth’s natural capital, and no greenhouse gases were emitted from production and transportation of new products.
This morning on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program, Joe Scarborough and co-hosts and guests sat around the table discussing the need to ramp up economic growth in order to reduce unemployment. These are very smart people, yet none of them raised the possibility that perhaps the planet is now pushing back enough that we can’t continue economic growth. No one expressed any concern about the impacts of economic growth on our climate or natural resources. It is assumed, taken for granted, we have the endless supply of energy and resources the consumptive North American lifestyle requires. There was no exploration of ways to employ more people without increasing levels of production and consumption.
The idea we’d best not shop is not new. In 2007 the delightful film, What Would Jesus Buy, introduced us to Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir. If you haven’t already, see this delightful film!
Today is Buy Nothing Day in the U.S. Tomorrow is international Buy Nothing Day. Buy Nothing Day was first celebrated in Mexico in 1992. The Canadian magazine Adbusters took up the cause a year later. In 1999 all the major U.S. broadcast networks except CNN refused to run an ad encouraging citizens to observe Buy Nothing Day. Adbusters importantly reminds us it “isn’t just about changing your habits for one day” but “about starting a lasting lifestyle commitment to consuming less and producing less waste.” This year the Occupy movement is backing the idea.
Let me be clear that I feel great concern for unemployed people today who are struggling to provide for their families. I’m not suggesting we turn our backs on them. But ramping up consumption to “jump-start economic growth” is a shortsighted, if not impossible, solution. It is tantamount to burning down the house to keep warm. We absolutely must find another way for everyone’s basic needs to be met.
In my film, GrowthBusters, Canadian economist Peter Victor suggests reduced work hours as a way to stabilize economies at sustainable rates of consumption. His book, Managing Without Growth, is recommended reading. I believe that is the only way we can sustainably provide employment for everyone who needs a job in a world packed with 7 billion people. The planet cannot support 7 billion working, earning and consuming at the rate North Americans have become accustomed to.
Think about the energy and resource extraction that goes into that new gadget you’ve just got to have, to replace the one you bought last year. Multiply by 7 billion. Do you honestly think we can keep that up? We cannot shop our way out of this economic crisis. It’s time to realize we’ve outgrown the planet. The Earth is saying, ‘enough.’ We’ve got to convert our culture from 50-hour workweeks, six-digit incomes, trophy homes, and a new iPhone every year, to a culture of sustainability, a culture of sufficiency, a culture that seeks and celebrates what really counts in life. This is the biggest challenge we’ve ever faced, but if we can’t get unhooked from growth addiction we face likely collapse of our civilization.
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