The idea occurs to me, as so many desperate resolutions do, during the holiday season. I have maxed out the Visa, moved on to the Citibank debit card, and am tapping the ATM like an Iraqi guerrilla pulling crude from the pipeline. Convinced I am picking up no more than the occasional trinket — a tree ornament for Howard and Nanette, a bar of French soap for Norma — in just two weeks this atheist Grinch has managed to scatter $1,001 across New York City and the World Wide Web. I am not in the spirit, but somehow I have gotten with the program.
And what a program it is. Through three years of lusterless economic reports and rising unemployment, consumer confidence has barely flagged. The coffins are returning from Iraq: by Christmas, the U.S. body count is near 500. Still, this month America's good guys caught Iraq's bad guy, several employee-starved companies hired several workers, and a "hoo-wah!" rose from the malls of America. Interviewed on the Saturday before Christmas, Everyshopper Barbara D'Addario chuckled as she told CBS what she had spent: "Today, about $75, and I've been here twenty minutes." What is the source of her generosity and glee? "[I have] great hopes that the economy is improving, and we caught Saddam Hussein," said D'Addario. "We're very happy."
We are very happy, and when we are happy, as when we are sad or angry or bored or confused or feeling nothing in particular, we shop. Those receiving the richest rewards from the president's tax policies are responding most enthusiastically. Luxury watches priced from $1,000 to $200,000 are flying from the shops as fast as time. In the more earthbound districts, although sales are less brisk, the hoi polloi are enlisting in their own campaigns of retail shock and awe. At a Wal-Mart in Orange City, Florida, a woman is trampled by a crowd surging toward a pile of $29 DVD players.
Since September 11, the consumer in chief has been exhorting us to keep our chins up by keeping our wallets open. In his second post-attack address to the nation, he rooted for "your continued participation and confidence in the American economy." Executive Vice President Dick Cheney was more direct, expressing to NBC's Tim Russert his hope that the American people would "stick their thumb in the eye of the terrorists" and "not let what's happened here in any way throw off their normal level of economic activity." In New York only a day after the towers fell, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani counseled his trembling constituents to "show you're not afraid. Go to restaurants. Go shopping." When the world's people asked how they could help, he responded, "Come here and spend money."
The flaming buildings and falling bodies had momentarily turned the meaning of fortunes, even lost fortunes, to dross. After the attacks, people were talking about community and charity. Buying stuff lost its appeal. But rather than congratulate America on her newfound thrift and selflessness, the president and his minions were not so subtly making us feel irresponsible for staying out of the stores.
It was impossible to remember a time when shopping was so explicitly linked to our fate as a nation. Consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of the U.S. gross domestic product, and if the gross domestic product is what makes America strong, we were told, the marketplace is what makes us free. Consumer choice is democracy. A dollar spent is a vote for the American way of life. Long a perk and a pleasure of life in the U.S. of A., after September 11 shopping became a patriotic duty. Buy that flat-screen TV, our leaders commanded, or the terrorists will have won.
All this floats to mind in mid-December as I stoop to fish a glove from one of the little arctic seas that form on New York street corners after a snowfall. In the act I dip my paper shopping bag into the slush, allowing its contents to slump toward the sodden corner and begin to drop through. Frigid liquid seeps into the seam of my left boot.
"Merry fucking Christmas," I spit at a foot pressing one of my purchases to the bottom of the filthy soup. The foot is attached to a leg bulwarked by its own supersized shopping bag. A mass of bags buffets me about the head and shoulders as I struggle to stand. I flash on the Wal-Mart victim. This is freedom? I asked myself. This is democracy? As I heave my remaining shopping bag to dry land and scramble after it, I silently announce my conscientious objection: I'm not buying it.
I know I'm not alone in my ambivalence about consuming. Environmentalists have been warning for decades that unchecked consumption — from mining to manufacturing, shipping to retailing, overusing to disposing — is laying waste our planet. Globally, we gobble twenty times the resources we did in 1900. Since 1950, paper use has risen sixfold, mostly for packaging. Groundwater use is up threefold, mostly for industry, and fresh water is being poisoned worldwide by pesticide and fertilizer runoff, a product of high-intensity industrial farming, as well as golf courses and perfect suburban lawns. Our vehicles are thirstier for fuel than ever, and as development spreads over the earth there are ever more gas tanks to slake, more factories to stoke. The world's scientists (with the exception of those advising George W. Bush) are unanimous about the result of all this fossil-fuel burning: the atmosphere is becoming a hothouse, heating higher, faster, in the past twenty-five years than during the entire time records have been kept. Global warming, along with its co-conspirator acid rain, is devastating habitats and species, drowning the land under the melting polar ice caps.
Human profligacy with nature's bounty is not a new phenomenon. For centuries, hunters and fishers massacred herds of whales, bagged whole flocks of birds. Nor is inequality of consumption new. "One has to be a great lord in Sumatra to have a boiled or roast chicken, which moreover has to last for the whole day," wrote a seventeenth-century French traveler. "Therefore, they say that 2,000 [Westerners] on their island would soon exhaust the supply of cattle and poultry."
But the scale and the relative imbalance of our overconsumption are unprecedented. According to the World Resources Institute, "On average, someone living in a developed nation consumes twice as much grain, twice as much fish, three times as much meat, nine times as much paper, and eleven times as much gasoline as someone living in a developing nation." Among the high-income countries, Americans consume the most. Just 4.5 percent of the world's population, we use 24 percent of its resources and emit 23 percent of the greenhouse gases that are dissolving the ozone layer. The environmentalist organization Redefining Progress measures this inequality with a tool called "ecological footprinting," which quantifies how much of the earth's resources any entity, from an individual to a nation, uses. From the planet's current population and total resources (measured in acres), sustainable and just consumption allots each earthling an ecological footprint of 4.7 acres of nature. The average American devours 24. Translate that to more familiar measures of consumption, and in 1998 an American used 1,023 kilograms of oil or its equivalent and ate 122 kilos of meat. In the same year, his Bangladeshi cousin burned a thimbleful of fuel — 7.3 kilos — and ate a mouthful, 3.4 kilos, of meat. A kilo of meat takes seven times the resources needed to produce a kilo of grain.
Our consumer goods grow ever cheaper; each gizmo performs more functions for fewer dollars than the one before it. Optimism is written in the fresh and crispy product names — BlackBerry, Apple, iPod. Our good life, however, requires that elsewhere — generally east and south of here, but also just down the street — life not be so diverting or convenient. Worldwide, workers, some of them children, pay for our cheap consumer items with miserable wages and working conditions, their air and rivers choked with chemicals.
But even as the gadgets shrink and our houses and cities sprawl, we don't have enough room for our possessions. The average North American household tosses four pounds, a national total of almost a billion pounds, of stuff daily. "You can't have everything," the comedian Steven Wright mused. "Where would you put it?" One answer: in a landfill. Another: in someone else's backyard. On a beach north of Salvador, Brazil, the man who runs an organization called Global Garbage has identified rubbish from sixty-nine countries.
Children interviewed at the Smithsonian Institution about Bush's short-lived proposal to explore Mars had other ideas for solid-waste disposal. One boy thought the colonization of the rest of the solar system would come in handy "after we trash the earth." He may be prescient. If everybody in the world consumed and discarded at the rate Americans do, says the Earth Council, three planets would be required to sustain us.
I wedge my way through the subway turnstile and onto the Brooklyn-bound train, mashing aside several clumps of wet, overstuffed packages to make room for my own wet, overstuffed packages. Although it feels as if the entire U.S. population is inside this car, I know there are a few who have opted not to join us. Some have started their resistance on the Friday after Thanksgiving (America's biggest shopping day), joining almost a million worldwide in celebrating Buy Nothing Day, a twenty-four-hour period of abstention from and meditation on the true meaning of the Retail Season. This twelve-year-old "national holiday" from consuming is the mischief of Kalle Lasn and the Adbusters Media Foundation in Vancouver. Along with sponsoring Buy Nothing Day and national respites from driving and TV-watching, this band of self-styled "media jammers" produces a stream of "uncommercials," the best known of which are Joe Chemo, the skinny, sickly twin of the Camel cigarettes mascot, and the limp vodka bottle captioned "Absolut Impotence."
So as I squeeze into a seat between two members of a wet, overstuffed, and ketchup-smelling family of Christmas shoppers, a vision appears before me. I see a puffy cartoon heaven suffused with warm pink light; Brian Eno's "Music for Airports" plays in the background. I conjure emptiness — no slush, no family, no ketchup. No credit cards, no shopping bags. No shopping.
And then it comes to me: what if I were to meditate on the true meaning — and economic, environmental, social, and personal consequences — of the Retail Season not just for a day, but for a month? Too easy. I've got enough stuff to last me for three. Okay, three months. Nah, gratification of desire can be forestalled that long without much trouble — at six months, I might start feeling the pinch. What if I resisted for the actual length of the retail season: the whole year? What if I (along with my live-in partner, Paul) undertook an X-treme trial of nonconsumption, a Buy Nothing Year?
We take the vow. Starting January 1, 2004, Paul and I will purchase only necessities for sustenance, health, and business — groceries, insulin for our diabetic cat, toilet paper, Internet access. I am not primarily out to save money, though I'll be delighted if that happens. I won't preach the gospel of the Simple Life or dispense advice on how to live it. I have no illusion that forgoing this CD or that skirt is going to bring down consumer culture — and I don't even know if I want to bring it down. And while Paul and I will do our best to conserve fuel, we live half the year, summer and winter, in Vermont, where driving is unavoidable; so I won't personally be rescuing the ozone layer. Big problems need big, collective policy solutions. Halting the destruction of the earth has to be on the tables of legislators, economists, and agronomists, with the rest of us yelling to get it done.
Still, I am moved by a sense of personal responsibility, not to say personal panic, about this big, bad problem and the rapidity with which it is getting worse. Consumption is social — that is, it happens inside a structure larger than a single person or family. But it is also personal. And once we've satisfied our hunger and sheltered ourselves from the cold, shopping is emotional. There is no way to approach the problem of overconsumption without investigating the feelings that surround fantasizing, getting, and owning our stuff. My stuff.
On the principle that you don't give a second thought to your water until your well runs dry, Paul and I will drain the well and see how thirsty we get. Will we want more than the clear liquid that comes from the tap, or will we want Evian? And why?
Materially, we will survive. That's the least of my worries. But, I ask myself, can a person have a social, community, or family life, a business, a connection to the culture, an identity, even a self outside the realm of purchased things and experiences? Is it even possible to withdraw from the marketplace?
These questions are almost entirely unstudied. In spite of mountains of theory and data on what we buy and why we buy it, "little if any research has been done on people's choices not to purchase or to seek less consumptive, less material-intensive means of satisfying a need," writes Thomas Princen, co-director of the Workshop on Consumption and Environment at the University of Michigan. "The reason may be obvious. It is very hard to get an analytic or empirical handle on an act that entails not doing something." Economists do not walk around the corner from McDonald's at lunch hour to the park bench where a guy is eating a peanut butter sandwich out of a brown paper bag. Until now, says Princen, "market transactions" have been the alpha and omega of models of the economy and people's places in it. But the peanut butter sandwich eater — or Paul and me figuring out what to do for fun, away from the cineplex — may hold answers to some of the big and little problems of consumption that have so far escaped us, including why it's so hard to resist. That possibility, writes Princen, "makes the nonpurchase decision a critical focus of inquiry."
I read these words and feel buoyed by the italics. Our project falls under the rubric of "sustainable living," which generalized as social policy holds the key to the earth's survival. That makes me feel noble. Still, I'm already wondering whether the idea of sustainability, even dignified by italics and the salvation of the planet, will sustain me for a year.
The symptoms of my materialism start to show two weeks before D (for Deprivation) Day: panic attacks, anxiety, depression. That DVD player we've been thinking about? We decide to buy it quick. What about the magazine subscriptions? Better renew in advance so we don't run out. My niece is graduating college in May. Would it be cheating to look for a gift now?
I worry, I grieve. My appetite for things gnaws relentlessly. I pass a Korean grocer with a bank of cut flowers outside. My heart is pulled toward the mini-sunflowers. They're so brilliant, so perfectly formed, so convenient for apartment use! I want them! Upstairs at Zabar's, buying Paul a new coffee grinder for Christmas (the one he's got chews the beans only slightly more efficiently than I would), I am distracted — no, deranged — by the hundred-thousand housewares on display. My own kitchen and everything in it suddenly appear hopelessly shabby. Our cloth napkins are soiled. Shouldn't I pick up a half dozen? Or that nasty old teakettle with rust spots inside. Here's a Calphalon on sale for only $49.99! And isn't this a cunning and useful gadget? It's a...a...gilhooly!
During the week of December 22, Paul and I go to four "must-see" movies.
On December 29, I shell out $175 (after two entire afternoons of shopping) for a pair of "city" snow boots to wear when I'm not wearing the other ("country") snow boots.
On December 30, when I need a tablespoon of Grand Marnier for a recipe, Paul comes home with the largest bottle of liqueur I've ever seen.
On December 31, we drive to Vermont. At 9 P.M. we light candles on the kitchen table and send off the old year with our traditional dinner of spaghetti and caviar. We toast the Year Without Shopping with our second-to-last bottle of Veuve Clicquot.
At 10 p.m. I unearth a Red Envelope catalogue with a turned-down page featuring a small concrete baby elephant. When I found it more than a year ago, we'd been looking for an ornament to place on a jutting rock in our perennial garden. The elephant was just right, and Paul volunteered to make the purchase but never got around to it. "Oh well," I sigh. "I guess we can say good-bye to our elephant."
"There are still two hours left!" declares Paul, surprising me with his enthusiasm. He leaps online and punches his way to the Red Envelope Web site. "They still have it!" he shouts, reaching for his credit card. A familiar frisson courses through me — the thrill of the perfect gift, the unbelievable bargain, the hat or shirt that is absolutely me.
Paul hits the Send button and a confirmation of our order appears on the screen. The elephant will arrive the day after tomorrow. And after that...363 days will pass without the UPS man brightening our door. Even if we shopped without surcease for the next hour and thirty-seven minutes, there is only so much buying we could accomplish.
The frisson turns to a chill.
Copyright © 2006 by Judith Levine