The founder of Adbusters, Kalle Lasn, believes that over consumption is the root cause of our ecological problems and many of the social problems in the world. One billion people consume 80% of the world’s resources leaving the remaining five billion with 20%. One billion people now live in slums. Buy Nothing Day is a time to reflect on the values of consumerism and our own participation in consumerist culture.
What makes this year’s Buy Nothing Day so interesting and different from previous years is that it is happening as the world economies are either in or going into recession. The consumer confidence index has dropped to the lowest levels on record. GM, Ford and Chrysler will either have to be bailed out by taxpayers’ dollars or join the ranks of such insolvent institutions as Lehman brothers and the country, Iceland. The Eurozone is officially in recession. Unemployment in the United States is at a 14 year high. According to the Confederation of British Industry, Britain will suffer its sharpest economic contraction in almost two decades next year with the number of people out of work rising to nearly three million by the middle of 2010.
So why celebrate Buy Nothing Day at a time when so many politicians, business leaders and economists are literally pleading for consumers to return to their dutiful spending sprees?
Is it wrong for us to be talking about an idea that will cost so many people their livelihoods? The more we buy, the more we need to manufacture, and the more we create jobs. What exasperates this situation is our own efficiency. Since the 1950s we have had a 400% increase in productivity as a result of manufacturing technologies. In just 11 hours of labour today we can produce the same amount of goods as somebody working for 40 hours in the 1950s. Today, for the economy to function we must consume 400% more than we did in the 1950s. And when we don’t, it costs us jobs.
What this year’s Buy Nothing Day represents is a clash between two divergent ideologies. The idea that Buy Nothing Day is putting forward is that maybe the planet’s ecology and our own health are not as dependent on exponentially increased consumption as we think they are.
Even though we have been exponentially consuming more and more stuff there is ample research that suggests that our happiness and our own personal subjective wellbeing has not increased. According to the World Health Organization we are caught up in a depression epidemic. Antidepressants were first introduced in the 1960s. They were a failed drug - no amount of advertising could get sufficient number of people to take them. Today they are a 24 billion dollar growth industry. It is not only our mental health that has been shocked by over consumption. Deaths from cancer and neurological diseases as a result of toxic chemicals have also taken a toll on communities.
From an ecological standpoint, there is already evidence that this recession is giving parts of the environment a bit of a breather. The decrease in housing construction in the USA has resulted in a decrease of logging of the Ancient Bear Rain Forest in Canada. Populations of species such as grizzly, elk and wolf are on the rise. Car co-ops, car pooling, public transit passengers and cycling are all up in North American cities. Each car that does not get produced by the slowing automobile sector is a small victory for the environment. Strip mining operations in Argentina are being closed; oil companies in the tar sands in northern Alberta are shelving their plans for new oil developments.
From a decline in resource extraction to a recession in goods manufacturing, all of these things benefit the environment.
So how do we merge these two ideologies? Both are true: the economy and our jobs are dependent on increased consumption. Our health and the environment are suffering from the same increased consumption.
One potential solution is work sharing. To help the USA recover from the Great Depression, President Roosevelt reduced the work week in 1933, from fifty to forty hours. Instead of large segments of the population being unemployed, his strategy was to share the work.
Our economy and employment can be safeguarded without exponential consumerism. In 1933 we changed from a ten hour day to an eight hour day; maybe it is time to change to a six hour day. This financial crisis is presenting us with an opportunity to become more than cogs of industrial production and consumption.
Research has shown that the single most important thing that makes us happy and improves our standard of living is not new cars and consumer junk - it’s family and friends. The stock market crash might be a blessing, a reminder that what really matters has very little to do with the Dow Jones, but rather with our connection with a community. Instead of investing in gadgets and gizmos and polluting oil wells, we should have been investing in the things that make a stronger, healthier and wiser community; in other words ourselves, our families and our friends.
Buy Nothing Day is the symbol that changing our consumer habits can be a powerful force of social change. We know that buying does not make us happy. It’s time we invest in something that does.
Conrad Schmidt is an activist, writer and filmmaker and author of Workers of the World Relax
Buy Nothing Day (UK): http://www.buynothingday.co.uk/
This article first appeared in the Ecologist November 2008