J.B. MacKinnon’s new book is The Day the World Stops Shopping.
It never seems to be the right time to talk about our problem with consumption. When the economy is strong, we’re told that slowing our ever-expanding appetite for goods, services and experiences could turn the boom into a bust. When the bust comes, we hear that the solution is to get back to the malls and shop.
Already, the clamour is loud for a “consumer-driven recovery” from the pandemic downturn, including predictions of “revenge consumption,” not to mention a new Roaring Twenties, complete in detail down to the glaring income inequalities. Powerful forces are lining up to make sure those predictions come true, including a surge in advertising spending, government stimulus and lifestyle media celebrating a return to hedonism.
I, too, long for a little more consumer culture in my life. I look forward to sharing French fries with friends, travelling outside my own city, maybe buying a cheerful new shirt to wear to the beach. I know, though, that I will also feel something between discomfort and despair as the engine of global consumption gears up yet again to a high-pitched whine.
I suspect that many – probably most – Canadians will feel the same. It isn’t only that we know that our consumption comes at a tremendous cost to the environment. The pandemic also gave us pause to reflect on what we want from consumer culture, and what we can happily live without.
The issue could not be more urgent. Many people think that the taproot of the planet’s environmental problems is the endless rise of the human population. That’s no longer the case. According to the United Nations’ panel of experts on global resources, overconsumption surpassed overpopulation as the greatest driver of our eco-crises some time around the turn of the millennium. When it comes to climate change, species extinction, water depletion, toxic pollution, deforestation and many other challenges, how much each one of us consumes now matters more than how many of us there are.
To picture how this works, start with the fact that the average person in a rich country now consumes 13 times as much as the average person in a poor one. In other words, raising two children in a country such as Canada will consume as many resources as having 26 kids in a country such as Bangladesh, Haiti or Zambia. I’ve travelled widely (I’m an overconsumer), but I have yet to encounter a 26-child family anywhere on Earth.
Let’s look at where things stood, consumption-wise, on the day the pandemic began. At that point, we had witnessed a nearly continuous increase across decades in the consumption of every major resource from gravel to gold. We were using up the planet’s resources 1.7 times faster than they could regenerate. Average Americans were consuming so much that, if every world citizen lived as they do, we would need five Earths worth of resources to sustain the global population. We would need more than four Earths if everyone lived like the average Canadian.
There were few, if any, bright spots on the horizon. Here and there we were banning plastic bags or plastic straws; meanwhile, plastic production overall will expand by 40 per cent in the next decade. “Sustainable fashion” was trending, but in the previous two decades, the number of garments purchased per person had increased by about 60 per cent, while the lifespan of those clothes had been cut nearly in half. The fraction of goods in circular systems – in which discarded products are cycled into new ones – was actually shrinking. The amount of raw materials pouring into the world economy was higher than ever.
In other words, consumption in the beforetime had become what the World Resources Institute describes as the new elephant in the room: dangerous, unmistakable and largely unmentioned. The reason we have looked the other way was made plain as the pandemic took hold. Locked out of consumer culture, we spent less money – and the global economy went into a tailspin. It was the perfect illustration of our consumer dilemma: We must stop shopping, and yet we can’t stop shopping. The planet needs us to slow our consumption, but the economy demands we consume more and more.
Another reason that we’ve failed to confront our dilemma head-on is that we think we’ve found an easy way around it: green consumption. I first encountered the idea that we could “decouple” consumerism from its harms at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2002. The summit took place adjacent to an upscale mall. After hearing the argument for decoupling, I walked through that mall, admiring its enormity of goods, few of them “needs” by any meaningful definition of the word. I remember thinking, “We’re going to decouple all of this?”
Clearly, we have not. Two decades of remarkable progress in efficiency, renewable energy and organic agriculture later, we have yet to see an absolute decrease in material consumption in any region of the world. Nothing we have done to green our consumer appetite has been able to keep pace with how quickly that appetite is growing.
The standout example is the fight against climate change. Over the past 20 years, no environmental issue has benefitted from more public attention, high-level action or technological progress. Yet the best we have achieved through these efforts was to level off global emissions – at what was then a record high – for a few years in the mid-2010s.
So far in recorded history, the only times that global greenhouse gas emissions have actually declined have come amid major economic downturns – in other words, when the world stops shopping. At what point does our blinkered focus on greening become absurd? If we wish to lessen the harms caused by consumption, why not consider ... consuming less?
We saw the sheer power of doing so at the outset of the pandemic. In a matter of days, skies turned blue as the particle pollution produced by buzzing consumer societies declined; carbon emissions decreased sharply. As the global economy shrank, it passed closer to being able to run on existing renewable energy supplies than at any other time in modern history.
It isn’t only the environment that changed amid COVID-19; so did we. Underlying the isolation and confinement of lockdown life have been valuable reckonings: people rediscovering family life and simple pleasures, revisiting their values, pursuing creative expression or just escaping from what historian David Shi once called “the prison of activities.” Many people have enjoyed freedom from social expectations around how they present themselves, while the drop in pressure to keep up with the Joneses has been a relief to nearly everyone who’s not a member of the Luxury Marketing Council.
Most importantly, many of us have developed a greater appreciation for our own and society’s adaptability. This is exactly the right time to talk about how we consume, and whether there might be a better way. That conversation, however, needs to go beyond the usual calls to live simply or declutter your home. The images of the joblessness and business closings that can result are too fresh in our minds for that.
Instead, we need to talk about what a “deconsumer” society might look like and how it might function. What, for example, would it take to reverse our course toward more and more disposable products? One answer is a buy-less-buy-better economy in which we buy fewer but higher-quality things. The pandemic helped inspire some companies to start moving in this direction. “The apparel industry is facing an over-consumption crisis,” Levi’s posted on its website recently – a momentous public acknowledgment by a major global brand. The company was launching a new slogan: “Buy better. Wear longer.”
We understand that it takes innovation and ingenuity to green our consumption; the same is true of reducing it. A world that begins to leave consumerism behind will need to make systemwide changes, including creating incentives for products that last, creating more to do in our neighbourhoods than shop or dine out, and lowering inequality in order to reduce consumption driven by status competition.
There’s a reason that we never hang on to the personal, social and environmental upsides that we glimpse when economies slow down: We don’t try. Instead, we limp through the hard times until the next binge of consumer spending. It’s a pattern we can no longer afford.