The Day the World Stops Shopping by J.B. MacKinnon

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 unhealthytohazardous’ 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.

32 thoughts on “The Day the World Stops Shopping by J.B. MacKinnon

  1. Georgiana says:

    This book sounds so so interesting! The 10 examples of learnings you mentioned are mind-blowing … I am now reading the story of Patagonia, the clothing & gear company, and there it also covers the dilemma of protecting the Earth vs. making business and providing quality products. It’s an interesting read so far! The book is called Let My People Go Surfing, if you’re interested to check it out.

    • Naomi says:

      MacKinnon talks about Patagonia in his book – they have the “less is more” marketing campaign going on. So interesting. I didn’t know there was a whole book about it – thanks for letting me know!

  2. A Life in Books says:

    This sounds excellent, not least for that constructive and optimistic final paragraph. I’m fairly abstemious in my ‘stuff’ consumption but wary of falling into the trap of feeling complacent about that. My current bugbear is fast fashion. I’d love to think the pandemic had put the kibosh on that.

    • Naomi says:

      I worry that the expanding online shopping will make the fast fashion problem even worse. People can’t try the clothes on first, and then don’t bother sending them back if they don’t fit right. The number of packages going to NY every day boggles my mind!!

      • A Life in Books says:

        It’s so depressing. I love clothes but the idea of buying something to wear once then tossing it away is anathema to me. I think the UN Climate Report identified the fashion industry as the second most polluting in the world after oil.

      • Naomi says:

        I’m not surprised. Whenever I take my kids to the mall to get something, I look around me and wonder – Who buys all this stuff?!

        One of the “games” I play with myself when I go to the beach is to try and find two people with the same bathing suit, and after all these years I never have. It blows my mind.

      • Lisa Hill says:

        I agree. Fast fashion is immoral and from what I see in the shopping malls, it seems to be young people with multiple bags of Label stuff who have succumbed to this. Which surprises me considering how vocal they are about climate change.
        Shopping malls, BTW make a huge contribution to consumerism. They are designed to welcome the shopper and make her spend whether she needs anything or not. The only time I ever visit our nearest is when I need something absolutely not available anywhere else (which works out at once or twice a year), and I always catch myself window-shopping and *nearly* succumbing to buying something I didn’t know I wanted until I got there. Fortunately, I always walk because the parking is so horrible, and it’s the thought of carrying home the thing I suddenly can’t do without, that stops me buying it.

      • Naomi says:

        Yes! The stores are so bad for that. And it’s something I have really tried hard to teach the kids – is that any time they enter a store they are going to be tempted to spend money they were not expecting to spend.
        Walking to the mall is a great idea! When the kids were little I used to walk to the grocery store with the stroller, so was limited by the amount of space I had in the stroller. It worked well.

    • Naomi says:

      It really is. And it wasn’t until recently that I realized that all the noise pollution from the ocean traffic is wreaking so much havoc on the whales. Heartbreaking.

  3. Laila@BigReadingLife says:

    All of these facts are so interesting (and sad!) #5 resonated with me – I was lucky enough to be at home during the early months of the pandemic (partially paid) and it amazed me how slow time felt. I actually loved it, aside from all the fear about the unknowns of Covid. I wish we could have days where we just stop all activity and stay home, both to clear the air and to clear our minds. I know I’ve certainly stayed home a lot more after the resumption of activity in the US, but I am in the minority I think.

    • Naomi says:

      I’m with you. I loved the opportunity to do nothing and not feel guilty about it. I joked with my family that I was made for this pandemic. (Besides, of course, all the awful stuff about the pandemic.) I still have hope that some good things will come of it all in the end – hopefully one will be to value a slower life. But we’ll see…

  4. Liz Dexter says:

    It sounds like this offers solutions as well as problems, which is excellent, as that’s so often the part that is missing. I do try to wear clothes into the ground or donate them, although I probably haven’t worn anything apart from fleecy separates and running kit for the last 18 months!

    • Naomi says:

      The pandemic has really shown me that I really only need one or two comfy outfits for any time I’m not working. I couldn’t even tell you the number of days in a row I wore the same pants during lockdown!

  5. buriedinprint says:

    This one is on my TBR already, thanks to you. And I always enjoy reading your lists of facts, but I am having trouble understanding the first. Doesn’t it still matter how many children one has in an over-consuming country? Because if it is the equivalent of having thirteen children in another less abusive country, the math just increases exponentially from there? Or is he just trying to remind readers that everything is more complicated than it seems and we all need to straighten up and fly right (with our wings not airplanes)? And keep wearing the same bathing suit to help with your beach game!

    • Naomi says:

      I think he’s just trying to say that if we could all just control ourselves (and all wear the same bathing suit to the beach each year) we could support the population we have. That it’s not the earth that can’t support our population, it’s what we’re doing on/with the earth that can’t support it. Clear as mud?

  6. wadholloway says:

    The fact I would have started with is how many multiples extra it takes to feed pigs and cattle instead of just eating vegetables.
    The shocking fact, of course, is that land clearing in Australia made it on to the list. I can’t guess what the second state is but the clearing of scrub back to bare earth, and the damming of flood plains to prevent water reaching the rivers, is rampant in Queensland.
    Whales tend to stay in the news in Aust. Partly because of the Japanese killing them just to prove they can; and partly because of oil exploration companies using enormous bursts of sound to map subsea geology.

    • Naomi says:

      I think because he was focused on consumerism, the animal/vegetable issue didn’t come up – a topic for his next book maybe? I can’t remember why the land clearing in Australia came up – I don’t have the book anymore or I’d look it up. I just listed the facts in the order of when I noted them as I read, and there is so much more I didn’t include. It’s a good book!

  7. Karissa says:

    This sounds so interesting and I really like what I’ve previously read from McKinnon but… I’m almost scared to read it! It feels so overwhelming to read about stuff like this, knowing that whatever I do is so minuscule. But I also want to do more, especially when I think about what kind of world my kids will have one day.

    • Naomi says:

      I know exactly what you mean – I often feel that way as well. Overwhelmed by it all, but guilty if I don’t do my part even though I question how impactful it can possibly be. I imagine, too, that most of the book’s readers are already on board with his way of thinking. I wish the people in power were all required to read a quota of books every year and attend a book club with each other to discuss them after. Part of the job description.

      • Karissa says:

        How amazing would that be? Reading books like this has made me more mindful of where the things I buy are coming from and trying to buy more things locally as opposed to ordering online and having them shipped to me.

      • Naomi says:

        It’s good to have reminders like this – it’s so easy to fall out of the habit – it’s often a little more work to find things locally or second hand, etc.

  8. annelogan17 says:

    I’m like Karissa in that I really want to read this book but I’m almost too scared to. I am getting more and more sensitive to the fact that we all buy too much, yet I feel like I can’t stop being a parent – my kids are always growing out of things, needing new sports equipment, etc. I try to buy used stuff when I can, but sometimes I simply don’t have the time? I also avoid buying anything off Amazon because I just want to support local as much possible, but it all feels so miniscule in the big picture too…sigh.

    • Naomi says:

      I know exactly what you mean. I also find it much harder when the kids want/need stuff than myself. If it were just me, it would be much easier.
      I was just saying in my comment to Karissa that I wish there was a required quota of books to read for people in power, and then a book club discussion with each other after reading each book. It should be in the job description and strongly enforced.

  9. Rebecca Foster says:

    There’s SO MUCH here that I think about a lot and want to comment on, but just for one thing I noted the overlap with John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed. He has a whole (short) essay on air conditioning and the irony that it has made vast swathes of North America habitable … but in the long term is contributing to making the world uninhabitable.

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