We can’t stop shopping. And yet we must. This is the consumer dilemma.
The Day the World Stopped Shopping is a “thought experiment” taken on by the author. MacKinnon was curious to know what would happen if the world just stopped shopping one day. Would chaos ensue? Would the economy collapse, and along with it, civilization? Or would we adapt out of necessity? Would the world be a better place?
Through a series of essays and a lot of research, MacKinnon searches for an answer to his question: “Can we reduce our consumption to planet-saving levels without triggering the collapse of civilization?” Some of you may be thinking, what does it matter if civilization collapses? Does civilization even deserve to carry on? But that is not the question being posed in this book. MacKinnon takes a more optimistic approach to saving the world by looking to save humankind along with it.
To accomplish his goal, MacKinnon explores “a scenario that isn’t real by looking to people, places and times that certainly are.” Conveniently, as he was researching this book, a global pandemic struck rendering some of the conditions and scenarios in which he was curious. In addition, throughout history there have been other conditions that have drastically slowed down consumption in a country or a group of people that the author has thoroughly examined. He travels the world asking his questions.
Here is just a small sample of things I learned:
1. Debunking the overpopulation myth, MacKinnon states that “how much each of us consumes now matters more than how many of us there are.” And that “raising two kids in a rich country is like having twenty-six kids in a poor one” because “the average person in a rich country consumes thirteen times as much as the average person in a poor one.”
2. “Spread evenly across the surface of the planet, our possessions would amount to a fifty-kilogram heap on every square metre” and “The annual output of garbage in the United States and Canada, loaded into trucks, could circle the equator twelve times.”
3. “In New York, where home delivery quadrupled in the 2010s, a 25 percent drop in online orders would mean 375,000 fewer packages a day.” Just in New York. Every single day. (!!!)
4. “In 2016, the global consulting firm McKinsey & Company reported that six out of ten articles of clothing end up in a garbage dump or trash incinerator within a year of being made.” How many of us buy something and hardly ever wear it?
5. Shopping and consumption has become such an ingrained part of our life that when the pandemic hit and we were “faced with yawning expanses of time no longer filled with commuting, work, shopping, travel, restaurant meals and countless other distractions [that involve consumption of resources], many of us felt something approaching fear.”
6. Speaking of Covid… “In a typical April, fifty-five of the one hundred most polluted cities have air quality ranging from ‘very unhealthy‘ to ‘hazardous’ due to particle pollution; near the end of April 2020, only three did.”
7. “Shutting down worldwide clothing production for a year would be equal to grounding all international flights and stopping all maritime shipping for the same time period.“
8. There are many forms of consumption that we don’t think about in terms of “shopping”, but consume at terrifying rates nonetheless, often in the name of comfort. “Air conditioning, as we know it now, involves a lot of consumption–it uses more electricity than any other activity in US households, followed closely by heating…” And it is “another bitter irony of our times: air conditioning warms the climate, and a warmer climate makes us use more air conditioning.” And if you are considering gifting services rather than things to cut down on consumption, think again: “The services we use, the experiences we have, contribute to the dollar-by-dollar impact of our consumption.”
9. “The whales have been waiting a long time to be saved.” Just when we thought whales were safe from humans, we discovered “noise pollution”. There is so much ocean traffic from goods being shipped and oil being searched for that “the chance of two whales hearing each other–to find a mate, to keep track of a calf, to announce the discovery of food, or for the simple pleasure of another’s company–is about one-tenth of what it was a century ago.”
10. Researchers estimate that “fifty million mammals, birds and reptiles ultimately die each year due to land-clearing in two Australian states alone.”
The problem with stopping shopping, of course, is that slowing our consumption can cause “terrible hardship for millions.” And it’s not going to have a huge impact if only one or two of us switch exclusively to thrift stores or throw out our air conditioners; we need a collective change in global consumerism. “A world that stops shopping is not something we will do, but something we have to make.“
MacKinnon doesn’t want to leave us feeling helpless and depressed; he writes with hope, giving us examples of what can be done and what’s already being done.
Fortunately, ideas already exist for how to achieve every aspect of deconsumer society that appears in this book. Lifespan labelling can encourage product durability; new tax regimes and regulations can favour repair over disposability; job-sharing programs and shorter work days or work weeks can keep people employed in a slower, smaller economy. Redistribution of wealth can reverse inequality, or prevent it from worsening in a lower-consuming world. A guaranteed basic income makes it possible for people who are willing to live simply to spend less time on the job or withdraw from the workforce entirely. In a culture of consumer capitalism, such a choice is often condemned as laziness or lack of ambition; in a deconsumer society, it might be admired for its sufficiency–success in achieving enoughness.