The power of progressive purchase
Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping
by Judith Levine
Free Press, 2006
274 pages, $39.95 (hb)
After a credit-card-busting Christmas shopping binge in December 2003, Judith Levine and her partner, Paul — two New Yorkers — resolve that they will, for a year, purchase only necessities. With no love for the "consumer-in-chief", President George Bush, who had urged people of the US to keep shopping (to "show the terrorists they had not won", as he put it) after the September 11 Twin Towers attack, Levine resolves to buck her "patriotic duty" to the free market.
The free market may need shopping to survive (consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of GDP in the US) but whether the planet can survive US material consumption is much more in doubt, thinks Levine. The US economy uses 24% of the Earth's resources, poisons its life-support systems and overheats the climate whilst "worldwide, workers, some of them children, pay for our cheap consumer items with miserable wages and working conditions".
The environmentally sensitive, left-wing Levine is well-placed for a non-shopping year. The lures of consumption seem weak to a "desultory and uncommitted consumer at best", owning only one (25-year-old) television and possessing no electric hedge trimmer, no ride-on mower, no dishwasher, no cappuccino-maker and no microwave oven. Levine is optimistic, albeit with some last-minute panic, as "D" (for Deprivation) Day approaches.
Her friends are either intrigued or aghast. Some wish her luck "with an attitude there's probably a German word for, meaning 'admiration for an enterprise you are glad someone else is doing, so you don't have to'". Others test the boundaries of what is and is not a "necessity". Are haircuts allowed? What about hair gel, olives, $28-a-kilo organic French-roast coffee beans? Paper towels? Her proscription on movies causes mourning in one friend who then brightens at the thought of a possible loophole: "But you can see documentaries, can't you?"
Levine is under no illusion that her personal boycott of the retail season will bring down consumer culture nor be a shortcut to political change to halt the destruction of the Earth. Her experiment will, rather, be used to reflect on the social dynamics of consumption, to withdraw to the margins of the market system to observe its workings, to see what an alternative "sustainable living" might look like.
The Levines discover more recycling and repairing. They re-discover "non-mechanised, non-electronic and non-mass" amusements, "enlivened not by speed or special effects but by direct human contact". Their Scrabble game improves, they visit friends, they read, they walk looking at snowdrifts and stars. They discover the secret joys of the Brooklyn Public Library. They discover the new experience of leaving the house without money. They slowly replace the habit of buying with the habit of not buying. They discover that consumption is often a substitute for other, non-material, pleasures you are not having.
Judith explores the world of the "Voluntary Simplicity" movement — self-help for recovering compulsive shoppers, back-to-the-landers, New Agers and the chronically overworked — but finds them too inward-looking, unmindful of how capitalism promotes a consumption "fuelled by desire, ignited and fanned by advertising and easy credit". One of the Keynesian recipes for unleashing consumer demand to ward off economic depression, she writes, is the wide availability of consumer credit, which "resolves a fundamental dilemma of capitalism: how to pay workers as little as possible while making sure they can buy as much as possible".
Levine's solution — the need for "well-made, durable, energy-efficient goods rather than the breathless production of low-quality, fast-obsolescing and energy-hungry ones" — is central to her proposal for an alternative "economics of development" rather than an "economics of growth", an economics that also addresses the class and global inequalities in consumption. If the cause of over-consumption is simply sheeted home to personal weakness and failure, she argues, there can be no remedy but self-discipline, and anti-consumerism becomes the "new Puritanism of the left". "Noble asceticism", she concludes, ain't gonna cut it as a mass transformative strategy.
So, should we all give up and "retreat to the malls, shops and eateries", she ponders at the conclusion of her witty and engaging diary of a year without shopping. Only, she answers, if we "accept the exclusive role assigned to us by corporations and government" as consumer, at best a more "green" consumer. Rather, we should campaign for a society that rejects "environmental destruction, exploitation of working people, privatisation of the commons and the commodification of every desire". A world where consumption meets basic needs and occasional pleasures, where value and meaning is conferred beyond the cash-register and where shopping doesn't rack up an unpayable ecological debt against the Earth.