He starts with a series of famous quotations, and I like this one by Ivan Illich: "In a consumer society there are inevitably two kinds of slaves: the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy" (from Tools for Conviviality, p. 57). Of course I got stuck there a while and had to read some Illich, so here's the context:
"The parallel increase in the cost of the defense of new levels of privilege through military, police, and insurance measures reflects the fact that in a consumer society there are inevitably two kinds of slaves: the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy. Political debate must now be focused on the various ways in which unlimited production threatens human life. This political debate will be misled by those who insist on prescribing palliatives which only disguise the deep reasons why the systems of health, transport, education, housing, and even politics and law are not working. The environmental crisis, for example, is rendered superficial if it is not pointed out that antipollution devices can only be effective if the total output of production decreases. Otherwise they tend to shift garbage out of sight, push it into the future, or dump it onto the poor. The total removal of the pollution created locally by a large-scale industry requires equipment, material, and energy that can create several times the damage elsewhere. Making antipollution devices compulsory only increases the unit cost of the product. This may conserve some fresh air for all, because fewer people can afford to drive cars or sleep in air-conditioned homes or fly to a fishing ground on the weekend, but it replaces damage to the physical environment with further social disintegration. To shift from coal to atomic power replaces smog now with higher radiation levels tomorrow. To relocate refineries overseas, where pollution controls are less stringent, preserves Americans-not Venezuelans-from unpleasant odors at the cost of higher levels of world-wide poisoning."
Illich describes six ways people are threatened by industrial development: overgrowth threatening the environment; industrialization threatening enjoyable work; over-programming of people deadening creative imagination; obsession with productivity threatening participation in society; enforced obsolescence of products to increase productivity threatening tradition; and, most prescient for 1973, "pervasive frustration by means of compulsory though engineered satisfaction." I wonder how well we can escape that duality to neither be drawn to a repetitive tasks or consumables nor to be covetous, a form of addiction in itself. And where, precisely, is that line between making it difficult to afford the things that use energy as they increase waste and enabling everyone to live comfortable enough to avoid social disintegration. How do we fix one thing without breaking another. It's the crux of the book, but Illich might be a more poignant read on this.
We need to reduce our desire for things, but how do we convince people to do that? I start my philosophy classes with a run down of all the different philosophers who insist the very secret of happiness is to reduce desires. There are a lot of them, from Stoics, Epicureans, and Cynics to the messages of the Bhagavad Gita and the Gospels, so you might think they could be on to something there, and it's really a shame we didn't listen better a couple thousand years ago. Or even twenty years ago. But we didn't because self-restraint is too hard for most people. The way I understand it is that we have a strong immediate survival mode that makes short term success (3 for 1 sale!) override long term consequences (air pollution and landfill crisis!). Plato called it an inability to measure and said it's the thing that everyone should be learning in school. But how do we teach it? Right now, there is no non-radical future for us anymore. Climate change is here and will have more impacts even as we reduce GHGs, which we'll have to do pretty dramatically to make a survivable future for our children. We're long past the territory of saving the world for our grandchildren, yet we still can't stop buying crap we don't need or making unnecessary trips by car. Seize the day and screw tomorrow.
Back to MacKinnon. He starts with numbers to clarify the problem and how much worse we've gotten: We're buying 60% more clothes now than in 2000; we're throwing away four times as much as we did in the 1970s, and 20% of our edible food ends up in the landfill. Later he adds that, 100 years ago, the extremely wealthy might buy 12 dresses in a year. But today, middle class Generation Z are "buying 80 to 200 fashion items a year" (210). The markets have capitalized on how much we want to dress up our pets like children and create even more living space with fully furnished living and dining rooms in our backyards. I'm recently guilty of this last one, a means to enlarge the house that's been crammed tight with five people for the winter. Can I return it all if the pandemic ever ends (or if the 'kids' ever move out)?? The obvious reality: "Nothing we've done to green over consumer appetite has been able to keep pace with how quickly that appetite is growing" (8).
Typical arguments we use to restrain ourselves are that the love of money and consumerism breeds bad traits (greed, selfishness, envy), and distracts us from helping others, and that consuming more impoverishes others as well as causing direct harm to the world. But knowing it's wrong doesn't stop us from free-riding on others. MacKinnon suggests that, with Covid dampening consumerism, we're learning that spending doesn't necessarily add joy to our lives. Maybe. I'm not convinced on that last bit. Package delivery truck are a near-constant feature of my street now. People are still deriving joy from the excitement of opening boxes on their porch. It's flippin' Christmas every day!!
MacKinnon harkens back to earlier times, as if we used to have a different philosophy of consumption rather than merely different access to consumables. We were still being cautioned back when Jimmy Carter said, in 1977: "Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns." That's something that's definitely changed in my lifetime: the association with brands and people as billboards with ads on their chest as Naomi Klein clarified in No Logo in 1999. And compare that to George W. Bush's call to consume after 9/11: "I ask your continue participation and confidence in the American economy," and specifically telling Americans to "go shopping" in 2006. We're at a point of accepting things in place of identity. (For a Canadian, MacKinnon quotes a curious number of American presidents.)
I'd argue that it's NOT that we used to understand this and lost the knowledge, but, based on the insistence of philosophers for thousands of year, that most people have never really been able to restrain ourselves from covetousness. The only difference now is that enough of us have enough disposable money and time to make many more trifling purchases. With machinery and open exploitation of outsourced labourers (so we can believe we no longer have slavery here), we can buy 50 shirts that fall apart instead of having to take care of 5 shirts well enough for them to last us decades. BUT there has been a change in messaging from the elites and media that we should no longer feel guilty for our never-ending desire for things.
MacKinnon points out that once we don't have as much money for luxury items, we stop buying them, starting with RVs and other pleasure vehicles, then more aesthetic items. Personal entertainment items increase, though, and laptops and phones have become necessities (24). In the recession of the 2007-8, household spending in the US dropped by just 3.5% (25). A 25% reduction is closer to what happened near the start of the pandemic, after toilet paper hoarding, when people's employment became precarious. There was an increase in bikes and bread-makers, but a decrease in nearly everything else. We don't need any more clothes to be produced, pretty much ever. Through trading and exchange, we can live without the entire industry. 60% of clothes end up in a garbage dump within a year of being made, anyway. The question is, since we do decrease luxury spending when we have less money, is it possible to create that change? Or will we always try to impress each other with the newest thing?
Furthermore, should we persuade people to buy less, or will reducing consumption destroy the economy? He touches on this question here and there but never really answers it satisfactorily. The worst effect of a drop in consumption would fall on poorer nations who now make most of the world's products, like Bangladesh: "The workers wanted better labour laws, but their greatest fear was the collapse of the industry" (27). The lack of work would also fuel political stability and increase terrorism. "The consumer dilemma in a nutshell: Buy half as many clothes and it's an asteroid strike on the world economy. Your wardrobe, on the other hand, hasn't even begun to shrink" (29). So.... Is it worth helping the planet by eliminating clothes shopping knowing it will harm the economy of other countries, and how much will shopping do compared to everything else, and is there any other way to reduce consumption AND avoid impoverishing workers???
MacKinnon uses the Global Footprint Network as a marker of appropriate limits to our behaviour, which, as Michael Mann reports, was promoted by the oil company, BP, to get people to focus more on personal GHGs and ignore the industry and political promotion of global destruction. MacKinnon says, "Suppose we all lived like the average citizen of Afghanistan, one of the world's poorest countries; we could shrink Earth by half and still have enough resources to maintain everyone at that standard of living" (32), but we need more than four worlds if we live like the typical Canadian. He uses Ecuador as an example: we can live a similar life but "shrunk in the wash" with no dryer or dishwasher and only one computer. It's a nation with "high human development" according to the UN, living a one-planet lifestyle, but they rarely go to restaurants, instead eating simple meals with little meat, and playing soccer together for fun. 53 countries, making up nearly half the population of the world, live a one-planet lifestyle. It's not far from life a few decades ago when restaurant meals were a rare treat, kids wore hand-me-downs, families might have one car, and very few had air conditioning. Consumer spending is up 400% in the US since the 1970s, and we're not any happier for it (37). Once we have enough money for basic needs, happiness is not correlated to wealth. Now, how to get people to live that?
He praises the Sunday-shopping laws that used to be. If re-implemented now, they'd decrease consumption by 15%, and one non-consuming day/week can be enough to break the habit of expecting to get what you want the second you want it. A study conducted just before the law changed showed that people used to spend Sundays cycling and reading at depth and visiting with people. I remember those days, and advocate for them. It's the day my friends and I typically got into mischief with nothing else to do. There is a change in the quality of the day when everyone has it off at once, but how does this work in the era of online shopping??
The chapter title "We're wining the fight against climate change" hasn't aged well since the book's release date in May! The heatwaves, floods, lightening storms, and very early fire season in Canada alone all tell a different tale. although Covid shutdowns cleared the haze of air pollution. According to one study in Nature, the pandemic reduced emissions by about 6% overall, not just from people staying home, but because more factories were closed. He compares this to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 when "a large part of the global economy shrank . . . It tends to suggest that it's hard, at the very least, to get major reductions in emissions without some change in the scale of the economy"(63). 20% of people lost their jobs, and nobody would want to do this intentionally, and then he moves on, leaving that idea hanging for a while.
MacKinnon's environmental takes are really questionable: To control emissions, he suggests we need to adopt natural gas, wind energy and solar power (64). Natural gas?!? I mean, it's better than coal, but we shouldn't be increasing our use of it. We need wind, solar, and tidal power, but as Michael Mann explains, for some reason natural gas got a pass over the years, but it really has to go the way of coal and oil; i.e. we need to reduce consumption to as close to zero as soon as possible.
MacKinnon also calls for recycling more plastic instead of reducing production dramatically to allow only medical and technological uses, as many environmentalists suggest. We don't even need to convince individuals to stop buying plastic; we just need to legislate it out of use, as Trudeau is beginning to do this year. We didn't have everything wrapped in blister packs or in plastic containers thirty years ago, and it wouldn't be that hard to go back to glass and tin containers, which are actually recyclable rather than the downcycling of plastic. He's also strangely hopeful about electric vehicles helping emissions, when we really need to stop driving as much as possible. Here's a great dialogue between a physicist and economics about the need to decrease net energy in the world by ending growth. It's a bit terrifying as they calculate how soon we'll be giving off as much heat as the sun if we continue on this trajectory, but it makes it very clear that, one way or another, we're going to stop using as much energy by choice, by force, or by necessity.
But I agree with him that we need a "staggering, globally coordinated effort" (65). We can't stop the rise in GHGs that's already ready to cause havoc because there's a lag between emissions and the effect they have on us, so we can only slow the effects. And I agree we need to ground many flights and that reducing consumption of unnecessary items by 25% will definitely help. There are many things we can use less of without much effect at all, like streetlights that are half as bright (70), so that's a start.
COLLAPSE: "It's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism."
He used modelling to see if a crash could be softened if we stop economic growth since "low or no economic growth was the norm through nearly all of human history" (83). Back in 1968, Robert Kennedy said,
"We seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. . . . It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our pubic debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile."
If we all reduce shopping by 25% today, there will be a steep decline in GDP, skyrocketing unemployment, serious government debt, and surging poverty: "Everyone's income derives from someone else's expenditure. If we all cut expenditures, then incomes go down" (89), but it's possible to manage without growth. Other writers on the topic suggest that to avoid mass unemployment, we need to share work among as many people as possible, shorten working hours, increase green jobs (solar, wind), adjust tax rates using many tools already used by nations to prevent social discontent during the pandemic, including different versions of Universal Basic Income. MacKinnon looks at Finland during the1990-1994 depression when there was a drop in consumption by 14% over four years. The housing crisis hit there first and hardest because of loss of trade with Soviet Union: "The same bank lobbyists and politicians who had enabled the bubble economy accused ordinary citizens of having caused the crash through greed and excess. Swept by a wave of shame, many in the historically thrifty nation cut their spending even more than they needed to" (96). People sold belongings and stopped having kids. By comparison, in the Great Depression of the 1930s, there was a 21% decline: "When a quarter of the average person's household budget was spent on food, people who lost their jobs faced actual starvation" (97). In a few places throughout the book, MacKinnon relates the benefits of cheerful poverty:
"Other than in cases of absolute scarcity, people facing disaster have consistently and rapidly adapted to living with less, often while becoming friendlier, more tolerant, more unified, more generous. . . . Unfortunately, economic disasters seem to be different. As happened in Finland, victims of market crashes or recessions are often blamed for their own fates, while big-picture causes--typically the actions of powerful players in business, society and politics--are overlooked. Instead of filling our lives with meaning, economic crises often deepen isolation, strip life of purpose, and bring everyday anxieties like job security and paying the bills even more forcefully to bear. There is a notable exception to this doom and gloom: economic disasters often relieve the status pressures associated with consumption" (98-9).
He says people found it liberating not to worry about what to wear or people seeing how old your car is. However, it's possible that many of the cases he discusses might just be remembering things in a more positive light. Our memories are notorious dubious. Rather than soften the near starvation caused by an economic slowdown with some pleasant memories, I'd focus more on how to reduce the suffering a GDP drop can create. We have to stop using the growth model, but we don't have to starve in the process.
MacKinnon recounts that, in 1899's The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen coined the term "conspicuous consumption." He asked, why have a silver spoon, when regular spoon works as well. For some products, their only value is that you have to be wealthy to own one. The desire for these luxuries is worse today because we know so much about what people buy in real time. Poorer people envy the rich, so strive more to become rich OR to mimic the rich. It's a means towards status through things. Alain de Botton wrote a great little book all about this Status Anxiety explaining that all luxury rests on the back of human trauma since we are made to feel that we're not enough in order to provoke us to buy decoration. De Botton's solution is individual: to follow better role models who focus on character over consumption for the sake of our pocketbook and mental health. MacKinnon explains that the spread of TVs in the 50s lead to an increase in crime from a spike in exposure to conspicuous consumption: "Inequality helps drive consumerism, mainly by intensifying status competition so that obvious markers of wealth and success . . . become more important" (103). Wide gaps between rich and poor create more obvious opportunities to compare with others. There's less "success signaling" in Finland; they're not embarrassed to wear hand-made clothes the way we might be. Absolutely, we need to curb inequality.
Something that MacKinnon doesn't mention is the notion of shopping as therapy and the effect of shopping on our mental health. I deal with this every year as some students insist they have to shop for their mental health. I explain that it's a form of escapism, not a way to actually heal problems. That flippant term has been taken as a verified theory! Like any addiction and many forms of escapism, it makes us feel better in the short term but provides only long-term harm, compared to actual therapy which can be unpleasant or uncomfortable in the short term but provide huge payoffs later. Here's a great video on dopamine detox, which can help override the circuits that keep us clicking online, whether it's Animal Crossing or Amazon. The reality is that shopping's not just bad for the environment, but thousands of ads each day are affecting our mental health. Johann Hari's book, Lost Connections, explains:
Hari shows that junk values for materialism and popularity poison relationships and connections, which are vital for our mental health. "You can have everything a person could possibly need by the standards of our culture--but those standards can badly misjudge what a human actually needs in order to have a good or even a tolerable life." He advocates fixing this two ways. The first solution is defensive: he sees advertising as the enemy, filling our lives with "mental pollution." We are more affected by ads than we care to admit, and we need to "Restrict or ban mental pollution, just like we restrict or ban physical pollution." This actually happened in Sao Paulo, Brazil with their Clean City Law, so it's possible. The second solution is proactive, to try to draw out positive values in people. Nathan Dungan asked people two questions: "What do you spend your money on?" and "What do you really value?" He found that we've all experienced "finally getting the thing we want... and feeling oddly deflated, only to find that before long, the craving cycle starts again." Then he asked them to list their intrinsic values and how they would live differently if they acted on these other values (like helping their neighbours and working together to fix up the local park), and he found, "It was possible to intervene in people's lives in a way that would significantly reduce their levels of materialism." A problem with materialism is that it sets us up against each other, always comparing and competing. I couldn't help hearing my mum's mantra to me: never compare and never compete if you ever want to be happy. It's easier said than done, but it does have an effect to have it chanted at you during your formative years! "We are trained to think that life is a fight for scarce resources--'even if it's for something like intelligence, when there's no limit to how much human intelligence can grow across the world' Of you become smarter, it doesn't make me less smart--but we are primed to feel that it does."
MacKinnon gets at this a bit: "The more materialistic you are, the worse its effects: the drawbacks are strongest among those who place the most value on money and possessions as signs of success, who think that a lot of money and possessions are necessary for happiness, and who put money and possessions ahead of human relationships. The degree to which you are materialist also predicts how self-serving, narcissistic, ungenerous and manipulative you are likely to be" (119-20). Then he reiterates the split between wealth and happiness again,
"Once essential needs are met, the amount of well-being contributed by additional income tends to decline toward the vanishing point. The economist John Maynard Keynes argued that this marks the moment when a society solves its 'economic problem': it has provided for those needs 'which are absolute in the sense that we feel them whatever the situation of our fellow human being may be' and beings to indulge those needs 'which are relative in the sense that we feel them only if their satisfaction lifts us above, makes us feel superior to, our fellows'. . . . Humankind could then set aside the 'money-motive,' which he condemned as 'a somewhat disgusting morbidity'" (122).
BUT it's hard to determine the line between improving and destroying well-being (e.g. through too much of a good thing). The pleasure of buying new thing rarely lasts, and just keeps us coming back for more, which is the opposite of happiness. However, "feelings of insecurity and threat are among the most powerful incitements to shopping and consumerism." MacKinnon cites a study that followed Icelanders for six months during the economic crash in 2009: some turned to intrinsic values, but most became more materialistic. It raised alert levels that help us survive when resources are depleting (like toilet paper). But, wait: Did coronavirus increase or decrease shopping?? The most current stats I could find suggest that shopping declined for 6 months, but then rebounded during the following 6 months.
MacKinnon notes that many people become more community-minded during the pandemic. When BLM happened after the murder of George Floyd, "Support for the movement climbed more in a two-week period than it had in the preceding two years. . . . Something made people more amenable to those ideas. . . . A world that stops shopping could move from personal transformation to social upheaval--and the change could begin in a matter of minutes" (129-30). He concludes that dropping consumerism by25% with a discussion of a survivor of the depression in India: it "would not be a nostalgic retreat from the age of Walmart and Amazon to the days of mom-and-pop shops. . . . it would set us on a course for the kind of lifestyle he witnessed growing up in Chennai, a city in southeastern India. . . . There'd be a depression and it wouldn't go away" (135). But he remembers the time fondly. People stole your last cabbage, but "people would enjoy the fruits of their labour, playing cards, debating and drinking" (135). Like in the Russian collapse, people were starving but had great memories of the time: "I look back on those years with great fondness. We had very few resource, but we had a good time" (136). Wha...?? Again, I question the cheerful poverty line of persuasion here. Is he trying to get us to give up so much that people are desperate for food in hope to elicit community engagement? Being told that, if we all stop buying clothes, that jobs will be lost and people will hungry enough to steal food from one another but make some great memories, doesn't provoke me towards change. I think we need to look at the policies required to transition the global workforce to legally become more sustainable in manufacturing and resource extraction, with shorter hours to spread the work further and higher pay to ensure no social unrest. Yup, it means higher costs to the consumer, but that will also help to decrease consumption.
We can make things that last. Many things fall apart because they're designed to increase purchases (planned obsolescence was a business plan in the 1920s, but not a common term used in media until the 1960s, and was made illegal in France in 2015). He explains the cycle of it all, but he says, "Unfortunately, we aren't sure how an economy founded on those kinds of products actually works" (145). If we start buying long-lasting products, "we would come face to face with the question, unanswered since the early twentieth century, of how to manage a society founded on good, long-lasting stuff" (149). He seems unaware that Tim Jackson did a great job of answering this in Prosperity Without Growth about a decade ago, including developing shorter working hours with higher hourly wages, made more accessible to everyone. We're just currently addicted to quarterly growth, supply provoking demand, and keeping profits in the hands of the "deserving" few. There's also a group, GrowthBusters, that has clarified the necessity for the end to growth and sussed out the best ways to get there.Story of Stuff video explains all that. Something that inspired me to keep going despite the haters was a celebrity role model: in 2006 Jane Siberry got rid of everything except a few really quality outfits, no more than could fit in one suitcase. It gave her the freedom to do anything as she recognized the burden of over-owning. We can possibly sell freedom from the burden of stuff; people love freedom. Remind them that they're being controlled by corporations, and the rebellion starts with wearing pre-owned clothes and mending your own stuff. It worked during the hippie era.
The OECD tried to promote longer product lifespans to curb landfills in 1982. And little sharing centres have popped up that share tools of all kinds, cars, etc. Things might change under Biden, who recently said,
“I’m a proud capitalist. . . . I know America can’t succeed unless American business succeeds…. But let me be very clear: Capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism; it’s exploitation. Without healthy competition, big players can change and charge whatever they want and treat you however they want….We know we’ve got a problem—a major problem. But we also have an incredible opportunity. We can bring back more competition to more of the country, helping entrepreneurs and small businesses get in the game, helping workers get a better deal, helping families save money every month. The good news is: We’ve done it before.”
He's openly challenging some neo-liberal policies. But this consumerist problem pre-dates that type of uber-exploitation. We have to go way back, to a time when, as MacKinnon says, "it was ordinary for men to be 'married and buried' in the same suit, or for women to wear hand-me-downs form their mothers and grandmothers." I still wear the army jacket I bought in high school as a non-conformist, briefly made acceptable by Freaks and Geeks (I even did math contests), and then afterwards seen as sign of an utter lack of style. I've been urged by many a middle-class mom in my hood that it's about time I bought another coat, but it still works! It's a bit thread-bare in places, but it still keeps me warm and dry, and I can fit a six pack of beer in the pockets. But, while I've never been convinced by others to toss something that's still useful, I've also never been able to convince anyone to follow my lead. They roll their eyes and shake their heads. This will be a big shift.
In one of my classes, I do an identity-formation exercise, asking kids about their values, self-perception and other-perception of themselves with questions about ascribing to groups, to things, and to ideas. Many have their identity wrapped up in brands and the newest thing. Some own dozens of shoes and proudly provide pictures of them all. Over the course of the term, I gently try to get them to, at least, question forming identity around things, and, possibly, shift, just a little, towards forming an identity around character: values, attitudes, and actions. But that's a really hard sell for teenagers until everyone else does it! Their status with others is far too important to risk losing by no longer having whatever's trending, whatever influencers are doing. And no advertiser wants to be on a YouTuber's channel if they're convincing kids to wear hand-me-downs. It doesn't pay. MacKinnon finds,
"Generation Z and millennials are really demanding ethical products. But when you buy a fast-fashion T-shirt for four dollars, or two dollars, you never ask, 'How could this shirt have landed in Berlin or London or Montreal for this price? How does the cotton get grown, ginned, spun, woven, dyed, printed, sewn, packed, shipped, all for four dollars?' You've never realized how many lives you are touching, all because your payment doesn't pay for their wages" (160).
And it would only take a few cents/product to make a difference in lives. However, I think many kids do ask those questions, but buy it anyway. They know the problems. We all do. We need a bigger push to change involving celebs without any product endorsements to sell and cool enough to inspire us on a better path, or we need legislature to change the system so we don't have to think so much. Back to Bangladesh:
"Bringing in fast fashion to your country you are also harming your country. . . . The greatest danger for the garment trade is not a slowdown in shopping, but a failure to find a way to slow down shipping . . . . The only way to make clothes that cheap is to cut corners on quality, working conditions, wages or environmental standards--the disaster of everyday life that Bangladesh has been living for years. . . . [Picture half as many factories, but] "they would provide living wages, pollute and waste less, and compete on quality and efficiency, rather than greed and speed" (162-3).
Now we're talking. But he loses me again at recycling clothes, not by trading, but by dissolving them and remaking in an obviously downcycling effort. The technology could convince people it's fine to continue to buy as much as they can, like businesses did by convincing recycling plants to take plastics. We can't keep buying as much as we do with the hope that recycling will save the day. We have to reduce and reuse. Recycling is fine only if it doesn't increase consumption habits, and we've seen that it does. Businesses bank on it.
Then MacKinnon takes us to Japan, where profit isn't highest priority. They have a long vision of bringing products to people with maximum customer satisfaction as the goal, with companies run through intergenerational relationships. Their "deep-time" thinking is better than our short-term focus, but we're stuck in the "if you're not growing, you're dying" mentality. "We think we live in an age of unprecedented innovation, but it's more accurate to say that it's an age of easy innovation. . . . From the moment you are within a limitation, you need to innovate to improve your life. And then it gets really interesting" (177). Innovation isn't driven by profits but by a drive to overcome limitations in our lives. "Ivan Illich said that a person on a bicycle is always saving more time than one driving a car, because the cyclist spends so much less time earning the money needed to own and operate their mode of transportation" (180). One owner of a business that had been passed down through generation, was once convinced to change in the 80s for greater profits, and he regrets it every day. He said the type of lesson on integrity that I try to impart to my children and students: "We should not change according to the changes in society but based on our own set of values" (183). Don't let yourself be guided by trends, but make choices about how to be in life.
MacKinnon acknowledges that it may be dangerous to assume that post-consumerism "we'll be more neighbourly, more responsible, more philosophical, more spiritual" (186). His concern is that we've shifted from consuming to being consumers, but I think it's deeper than that. There's a whole history of shopping as a means for powers that be to keep the masses content. De Tocqueville noticed it in his trip to America almost 200 years ago that there was no desire for rebellion from a citizenry so pacified with consumption. We need to somehow erradicate the corporate hold over politics.
MacKinnon's solution is that we should become participants instead of consumers: "people getting together, usually without much money or bureaucracy involved, to earn, share or make something. Filing a vacant plot of and with allotment gardens, for example, or setting up a free space for bike repairs" (187). I love this ideal, but how do we get there from here. Once during work-to-rule in schools, I suggested to students complaining that they can't do anything without supervisors, that they just put out a message to have a huge game of Manhunt in the park. Just post a day and time see who shows up! But they were dumbfounded by the suggestion. We have sapped them of the initiative to do anything without permission. But those participatory things do happen when people turn away from their screens, but so do riots from disgruntled youth underemployed with too much free time on their hand. He praises the efforts of Every One Every Day, an awesome participatory center in the U.K. In my city we have a Working Centre, and meet-ups, and we used to have The Causerie, a great place that offered meetings and music and crafts, but it closed due to lack of funding. If corporations and city councils won't fund these initiatives, it's sometimes hard to afford the space to run them.
Back to climate change. Shopping is huge:
"Buying less stuff almost never turns up on lists of the best ways to green your lifestyle . . . This is partly a problem with how things are counted. The impacts of shopping are often underestimated, because they're distributed across categories . . . these categories, taken together, rival food and private transport. . . . At the same time, to focus only o the consumption that we think of as consumerism misses a lot of consuming" (197-8).
Air conditioning is also huge. It was first used to cool the stock exchange in 1902. It started as a luxury, but now "it uses more electricity than any other activity in US households, followed closely by heating. . . . We cannot achieve a lower-consuming society without confronting it" (201). Then with coronavirus, people started heating and cooling the outdoors as well as they furnished it. In the UK, average room temperatures of 13-15 degrees were normal in the winter, now, in the US it's 24.6 degrees. At my house, we aim for 19 during the day and 17 at night, although my oldest sometimes sneaks it up to 20, which, I realized at one point, was the 68 I grew up with in a home with a waste-not-want-not parenting. Somehow I had become more conserving that my dad! As a kid I had begged for A/C, but he taught me the importance of adapting to the climate. People with A/C, I grew to believe, couldn't manage the heat as well as we could. We were survivors. That's what I needed to believe to be able to accept not having the fancy thing that some of my friends had. Back in the 70s, Nixon called for a reduction in flights by 10%, lower speed limits, more mass transit, and lowered thermostats in the winter, arguing that a temperature of 66-68 is healthier. We need some kind of propaganda to enable us to willingly submit to discomfort or inconvenience. One study found that being mildly uncomfortable (a little cold or hot) is beneficial to our metabolism. "The day the world stops air conditioning will lead to fewer cases of type 2 diabetes, fewer people catching colds and flus, and probably less obesity, too" (207). But will we sacrifice comfortable indoor temperatures because it's good for us?? I still don't have A/C, but that's because I'm a survivor!
Japan got higher efficiency appliances that saved 70% of their energy, but energy went up because people bought more and bigger appliances to compensate. It's like Rick Mercer's 1 tonne challenge: everyone promised to lower energy use by 20% but it rose by 26% because we were all free riding on the reducers to save the day. We all thought, since everyone else is lowering the heat, then I can raise mine a little without any problem! It's the same reason we can't offer recycling of clothes as an option as it will just increase shopping; instead, we have to focus on reducing the number and size of things we have.
"Buying less stuff, period, has rebound effects of it own. . . . If you have some economic savings, then you're going to spend them . . . then the environmental impact of your lifestyle can easily stay the same or even worsen. Here is a rule of thumb: if you are spending more money, then you are probably increasing the environmental impact of your lifestyle. . . . every dollar spent translates, on average, into about 0.25 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions" (215).
When we cut back in one way, we feel justified in getting more in another way: "as electric car ownership has increased, so have reports of a wide range of wasteful uses" (217). Only a few really reap the full benefits of switching to green lifestyles by "arrival at a sense of enoughness. . . . What's more, they generally do not feel that these actions sacrifice their quality of life. . . . No one yet knows what makes some people embrace sufficiency when so many others do not" (217). I was lucky enough, perhaps, to have been raised this way, and I admired my parents for their other-centred wastelessness, even when I complained about not having A/C or about walking around wrapped in a blanket all winter. However, two-thirds of my kids have since expressed a sense of dire misfortune from growing up walking and biking everywhere and buying clothes from Value Village long before it was the cool thing to do. Having the integrity to get your kids to follow frugal values even if it makes you stand out a bit is now practically child abuse. I won't even consider going vegetarian again until they move out. It's too hard a battle.
MacKinnon says studies pared people who resist consumerism down to four types: people who try to live green; people who like to save money; people who hate spending money; and people who just choose to consume less. The last group have the best success. As my dad would say, just buy what you really need and ignore the rest! MacKinnon raises a concern that the money we spend on quality items (or on anything for that matter) also is spent by everyone down the line, but I don't think our responsibility goes that far. Certainly our control doesn't. If we spend more on items with better labour rights, so workers have more to spend, it will bring them up to basic living standards. Spending less on cheap crap just keeps people trapped in poverty. I can control whether I spend on exploitative companies or not, but I can't control what each worker does with the tiny percentage of their salary that came from my purchase. At one point MacKinnon suggests we just burn our money. Nope.
We're destroying the habitat of many species in our quest for stuff. Whales go silent in the noise of the ocean. They give up being heard communicating about mating, childrearing or dinner. There was a huge difference just after 9/10 and in the early Covid times. "We may not think of ourselves as being at war with nature, but one sign that we are is that when the human world retreats, the natural world advances" (229). When land is cleared, most of the creatures in the area don't relocate, but die immediately or within months: "you don't really want to hear this, but tree-dwelling species may cower in their holes up to the moment they pass through the sawmill or the wood-chipping machine" (230). "Economic development, the idea went, would save the world's wildlife. Instead, a growing body of research show that, as the need to eat wild creatures as food abates, those animals are transformed into consumer commodities" (232).
He acknowledges that, "I don't think most people live deliberately" (241). Yup. Simplicity is a choice. If we look at many of the wisest writing, the books that have been passed down for thousands of years, they all suggest we live simply, focusing more on ideas and relationships than on stuff, but it appears that we have to have more and more books telling it to us over and over before we can hear it.
"Adam Smith wrote that the purpose of economic advancement was to be liberated enough from everyday worries to pursue 'perfect tranquility,' which he did not define as peace and quiet, but as a life free from the agitation to mind and spirit caused by avarice, ambition or vainglory--again, and inner congruence" (245-6). "Electrical demand from digital infrastructure and our devices has been growing at about 7% a year globally, more than twice as fast as the rate of economic growth" (256).
He points out, "There are two kinds of growth: one is expansion and the other is maturity" (263). But I think it's not so much that we suck, but that's we're wired to seek out immediate rewards on top of being provoked by media and some political elites to keep shopping. It's a huge ask to get people to override these systems themselves, knowing it won't make them popular. It might even make them laughed at. I think what helped me wade through the haters is that autism provides an immunity to social conventions. Most people care about connections to the point of ignoring any voice from their conscience they may have about how many shoes they own. They want to be liked and to be normal.
MacKinnon found the answer to it all on Sado Island, in Japan:
"At the core of the system is an economy that is smaller and slower-churning than the one we know from consumer capitalism. There is less paid work available, which has three main results. The first and most obvious is that most people earn less and buy less. The second, closely related to the first, is that there is an unusual surplus of noncommercial time, reminiscent of sabbaths and the lives of people who practise voluntary simplicity. The third is that people spend more of that time providing, in some way, for themselves" (267). "People in the West have long imagined that they, too, would someday satisfy their material desires and embrace a life of leisure. The problem has not been a failure to reach that satisfaction, but to grasp it" (278). "Now, having done a lot of research on the subject, I knew what I wanted my consumption to look like. I wanted the things I owned to serve their purpose well, to last for as long as I wanted them to, to be made in ways that were in keeping with my values, and to provide an enduring sense of satisfaction" (285-6).I (Heart) Huckabees epiphany:
"When it comes to reducing consumption, you can be the change you want to see in the world, but it will not change the world. This is a problem, of course, because shopping is destroying the planet we live on" (287-8).
He recognizes that prices should tell the whole truth - who's getting ripped off and where this product will likely be in a year's time. Lifespan labelling has been proposed in France, but, again, it might just increase consumption the way plastic recycling did if people feel great about shopping guilt-free again. Instead of telling people what to buy, we need to convince people to only buy what they actually need, to save money to spend on a few really quality items instead of frittering it away on lots of crap that will end up in a dumpster the next time they de-clutter the house. Just Marie Kondo stuff before buying it.
At the very end he raises the issue that, "When I reduce my personal consumption, it does not pressure government to require that products be made repairable, address the income inequality an insecurity that fuels overconsumption, or think beyond GDP growth" (290). Yup. Chomsky once said that individually boycotting a product is about as useful as killing yourself. We will only have an effect if we push legislation to change through massive protests. We need the exploitation of labour and land to be made illegal. It won't be easy, but it's possible, but only if we make enough noise about it. By choice, force, or necessity, we will stop shopping so much!
MacKinnon's final conclusion is "a more humble goal: to reduce consumption by 5% across the rich world" (292).
So that was disappointing.