We are on the edge of a major shift in social attitudes that has the potential to radically reshape society and the global economy and despite the clear warning signals most people don’t see it coming. If we’re smart, we can all give this one a hand and in doing so make our personal lives happier and more interesting.
After active involvement in social change for 35 years, I think I’ve learnt a few things about how and when major shifts occur in social attitudes and values. Some sit under the surface for long periods before suddenly emerging. Predicting their timing requires us to observe the weak signals – the under the surface disturbances that are sending out vibrations but have not yet risen to the top of our busy information and ideas rich lives. When they do break the surface they can then sweep the world with extraordinary speed, now accelerated by technology and social networking.
One such weak signal I think is in on the verge of rising to the surface is the movement to rethink consumerism and consumption. While the issue has been around for decades, it’s no longer being discussed just as a philosophical or political ideal, but as a personal and everyday behaviour – as we shop. The level of debate and the number of groups, ideas and campaigns is now verging on critical mass and the so-called financial crisis may just tip it over the edge. Just to make sure, I think we should give it a leg up – so it shoots to the surface with greater impact.
So let’s talk about not-shopping. After all, it may be coming soon to a mall near you and the social and economic consequences can barely be overstated.
Really? I mean it’s just shopping isn’t it? Well no, it’s not just shopping, which is why not-shopping is perhaps the greatest threat to capitalism since communism, except it’s likely to be far more effective because it has one of the key ingredients that communism lacked; the ability for people to take personal action and initiative that directly delivered greater happiness and more fulfilled lives.
Now you’re getting really carried away I hear you say. No, I’ve thought about this for a long time, waiting for this moment, and I really think it’s that significant. Here’s why.
You see shopping boils the whole global sustainability challenge down to its most basic and personal level. The two billion people or so of us in the world, who can afford to, simply buy too much stuff.
We do so in the delusion that it will make our lives better. This delusion is key to the effective functioning of global markets and indeed modern consumer capitalism. We think we’ll be happier if we have more stuff, so we work harder to get more money or to be able to borrow more money. We then buy stuff that we think will make our lives better.
If you think it is not that significant, just think about this. What if we stopped doing it so much? What if we all said, actually I won’t give it up, because I do like stuff, but how about I buy 10% less stuff this year. That couldn’t be so hard, delay a few purchases, live with that thing that works but is a bit boring or the wrong colour, buy a smaller thing, waste a bit less food and so on. If I did that right, my reward could be an extra 5 weeks holiday every year! Five extra weeks having fun, getting to know my community, playing with the kids, listening to music, going hiking, hanging out with friends. Sound good? You bet. And the price we would pay for this considerable benefit is marginal and easy to achieve.
But why would people do this en masse, which is what would be required for real impact? Don’t we love shopping? Isn’t that what defines our success and progress through life – our ability to go shopping? Well yes, but no. Yes we think we like it because of the buzz it gives us when we have that new thing, but then it fades and we need another new thing, so we borrow or we work some more, and we try it again. The trouble is it doesn’t work. We keep doing it because we’re told every day on bill boards, TV and websites that oh yes, that didn’t work, but if you had this one or that one, then you’d be happier. But it really doesn’t work and unlike before, this is now well established with solid global data.
What this data shows, in comprehensive global studies, is that happiness and life satisfaction go up sharply when you go from poverty to an income of between $10K and $20K per person per year. Then it stops. It levels out and stays there no matter how much more income you get. (Though some studies suggest if you get really, really stinking rich, it then goes down again!) If you want to understand the numbers check out the excellent report “Prosperity Without Growth” which can find here.
It’s not only that shopping doesn’t work though. We are now on the verge of tipping the global climate into meltdown if we keep buying more stuff, particularly if we’re successful in getting the rest of the world to follow us over the giant cliff of delusion. Then our quality of life will seriously be degraded with a collapsing global economy and society.
So it’s time we faced up to the reality that every day our personal credit cards are collectively building up the debt on the planetary credit card. That planetary debt will be due for payment very soon – not by our children, but by us.
Of course most sustainability advocates understand this problem and we all agree that people who shop more than we do are shopping too much. (It’s a bit like driving, where many surveys have shown the clear majority of us think we’re “better than average” drivers. Work out that maths of that!)
The reality is we pretty much all do it more than we need to, whenever we can afford to. We all have our weak spot, it might be eating out, clothes, MP3 players, CD’s, cars, tech gadgets or shoes. Mine is hardware and my particular delusion is that if I have better tools and gear I’ll be a better handyman. Fortunately my wife Michelle regularly points to reality and gets me back on track!
The problem is that we’re all stuck in this cycle of more is better. If only I had this or that, I’d be more comfortable, look better, work more efficiently and besides, I deserve it – I’ve worked hard, I deserve a little treat.
So what do we do about it? I think we need to build a global, open source campaign of not-shopping. It needs to be open source because there’s a lot of powerful people and companies who are going to really hate this, so it’s better if no one is in charge, then there’s no-one to get at! Open source, distributed and viral = unstoppable, global and fast.
We need to grab all the great ideas that have been bubbling away under the surface and drag them into the bright light and fresh air of the mainstream debate. In doing so however, we should resist the temptation to treat this as a moral crusade against an enemy. We should see it more like an addiction – which means we need recovery programs, support groups and a new culture of sufficiency. None of these ideas are new of course; people have been making these arguments for decades. What is new however is the times we are in, which means the time has come. So let’s all rise up and go not-shopping !
Because it is an addiction, we’re going to need help. We’re going to need to support each other with ideas and creativity. Fortunately there is a movement out there with really smart people who’ve thought hard about this and they’re just waiting to all be connected and amplified. For example there’s already a viral campaign around the world broadly going under the name of “The Compact” where support groups counsel each other through a year of buying nothing new except basic needs like food and medicine. Yes, a year! That’s cold turkey addiction therapy, but the stories of their experiences are quite extraordinary.
For those like me not quite ready for the whole program, there’s lots of other ways to start, like an organised not-shopping day you can find here. There’s a book – by Judith Devine “Not Buying It – My Year without Shopping” that you can read about here , countless blogs like this one here by fashion writer Susan Wagner, and even a gospel choir and stage show – Reverend Billy and the Church of Life After Shopping which you can find here. Rev Billy and his flock regular drop by to local shopping centres seeking new converts. The heathen priests of consumer land aren’t very fond of their visits!
If you want to understand the concept of why buying more stuff is big problem in terms of impact, or teach your kids about it, then check out the great website the Story of Stuff which you can find here.
So let’s all inform ourselves on the issue and give this movement a boost. Write about it, tweet about it, talk about it. Connect all these groups and ideas into your network and onto all your favourite blogs. Talk to your friends, send them this column and most importantly of all, buy less stuff.
Let’s help not-shopping to sweep the world.