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The Chat with Michael Harris

We start 2022 in conversation with Michael Harris. His new book, All We Want: Building the Life We Cannot Buy (Doubleday), explores the connection between our deepest longings, consumer culture, and the destruction of the planet.


Writer Susan Orlean praises the book. "No writer is as humane, insightful, and clear-eyed as Michael Harris. His journey into the rabbit hole of consumer desire is one we all need to follow, and he makes it a joy along the way."

Michael Harris's previous booksSolitude and The End of Absence—were both national bestsellers and are published in a dozen languages. He has won the Governor General’s Literary Award and his books have been nominated for the RBC Taylor Prize, the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, the Chautauqua Prize, and the CBC Bookie Award. Michael also writes the tech podcast Command Line Heroes, which has been downloaded millions of times and was honoured at both the Webby Awards and the Shorty Awards. Michael’s essays on media, the arts, and civil liberties, appear in Esquire, The Washington Post, Wired, Salon, The Globe and Mail, and dozens of other publications. He is currently a faculty member in the Literary Journalism program at the Banff Centre. Michael Harris lives with his husband, Kenny Park, in Vancouver, BC.


Congrats on your third book, Michael! All We Want is such a timely read, focusing on how we might imagine alternatives to consumer culture, at a point in history when the planet is threatened by our rapacious desires. What lead you to this book?

It began quite selfishly. At first I was stuck on this idea that my generation (I’m 41) is the first in modern history to have less than our parents. It was sort of petty. I was going to write about our collective disappointment. And then, after a few months of research, the book began to expand. I realized it wasn’t about me, or what I wanted, but about human want itself, and how our consumption has gotten so terribly out of control. In the end, it became a book was about the story we’ve all been told—the old story of consumer culture—and the necessary discovery of new stories.


In the first section of the book, you make a compelling case for the trouble we’re in, zeroing in on how our current way of life is destroying the planet. Of everything you learned in your research, what scares you the most?

The wicked effectiveness of that consumer story. The overwhelming way it envelops each aspect of our lives so that we end of thinking it’s natural, and not a narrative at all. Even that word—“narrative”—is too generous. It’s a fairy tale.

One of the three correctives you advocate in turning our attention away from consumerism is the notion of care—our ability to be there for one another. Can you share a few things you learned about how care might shift our compass away from material accumulation?

Consumer culture tries to convince us that the whole point of life is “to be happy.” Gaining happiness, or satisfaction, or some form of pleasure, is the promise made in every advertisement. But happiness is only one portion of life. If all we pursue is happiness, we aren’t developing very rich selves, we aren’t exploring the entirety of what it means to be human.

As I was working on the book, my mother-in-law was suffering from dementia and my husband was forced to take care of her. That certainly wasn’t something that made him happy, or satisfied, and yet it expanded his experience of the human condition. It tied him—and myself, by extension—into a larger network of human concern.

Caring for another person also puts our petty greed into focus. Kenny’s mother, who now lives in a long-term care facility, needs someone to rub her hands, someone to smile at her, and someone to be patient. In caring for her, we’re reminded of a humble set of needs that we too often ignore while pursuing extravagances.

Another of the alternatives you mention is the sublime—turning our attention to the sense of awe and wonder we feel in the natural world, as one example. Why have we lost our connection, in your opinion, to the sublime in Western cultures?

I think it’s very telling that our backs are growing hunched and our eyes are growing strained from all the time we spend curled over laptops and phones. The scope of our experience is literally shrinking so that we become solely focused on a glowing rectangle two feet in front of our faces. We feel we’re reaching out into the world but our reach is, in fact, diminished. So, to answer your question, I think our digital lives do a very good job of removing us from nature. As a result, we’re cut off from the sublimity that nature offers.

Here’s another way to look at it: consumer culture promises that we can be always in control, that we can have total agency. That’s the promise—the world is yours to consume, to own, to master. And that’s in direct opposition to what the sublime tells us. The sublime insists that we are only partial, and that we’re bound to a vast and miraculous universe we barely understand.

Now put those two forces together: digital culture (which divorces us from the great outdoors) and consumer culture (which realigns our values around things we can control and own). The result: an online consumer experience that is sanitized, safe, limited, and never really pushes you beyond your comfort zone.

Finally, I hate to ask, but do you consider yourself an optimist? Are you hopeful, deep down, that we can change our polluting, earth-trashing ways?

It’s funny, my friend J.B. MacKinnon (author of The Day The World Stops Shopping) recently asked me whether I was optimistic or hopeful. Optimism being a sense that things are going to get better and Hope being something more like a wish for the future. And I regret to say I’m more hopeful than optimistic.

Here’s what I know: the choice before us is not between changing our value system or doing nothing. The choice is between changing our value system now or changing it in reaction to a larger climate crisis. One way or another, you cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet. And that means we will soon be radically rewriting the story we tell ourselves about what makes life worth living. The only question is: will those new stories emerge before or after it’s too late?

Excerpt from All We Want


We’d been driving for several hours when we decided to pull off the highway and watch the world burn. Having passed the town of Hope, and climbed the Coquihalla Summit, my husband and I were now well into the wooded mountains of central British Columbia, and so had a view of the disaster. Above, the sun glowed scarlet through a perpetual haze of smoke. The sky was a wash of copper and bourbon, as it had been for most of that summer. Through miles of obscuring soot we could see thick columns of fresh grey where today’s fires were burning. We had heard on the radio that more than a million hectares of forest would be lost.At the rest stop there was a Dairy Queen, sitting alone on a cement promontory, contained and proud as a temple. The air in its parking lot was not breathable and so we went inside, where we met a uniformed young man who seemed surprised to have any company.

We bought two ice creams and stood at the window, observing the apocalypse as we ate. It had been many years since I’d eaten Dairy Queen ice cream and I revelled in its sickly sweetness.

Minutes later we threw out our plastic spoons and cups and spoiled napkins. Sated, we walked back to the car and, between the Dairy Queen’s entrance and the door of our Honda Civic, I noticed dark dots of something flying into my glasses, onto my T-shirt. I looked up, into the bruised sky, and saw billions of black flecks swarming toward us. Ash was raining down.

This was a couple seasons ago. We have since learned to pack masks and also to check the fire report before travelling in summer.

Looking back at that moment, it does seem like an omen. The world scorched while we blithely ate our ice cream. And if we could ignore that omen, it was only because omens had grown so commonplace. Glaciers melted and calved; the planet’s biodiversity collapsed. Epic variations on a single theme: the material world was trembling with coming change. The status quo was cracking against the limits of real life.

I didn’t know it yet, but there were other omens coming. A pandemic was coming for everyone. A separate catastrophe was coming for my family. And everywhere there hovered a premonition that life, as it had been laid out for us, was insupportable.

Meanwhile, we ate our ice cream. Ordinary days proceeded, requiring a cognitive dissonance, a willful blindness to the emergency at hand. Slowly, though, an awareness of this hypocrisy built up in my mind. I would debate with my husband the uselessness of trying to change (and then its necessity); I’d read an article and look up to find every item in our home radiating with its own toxic cost; and all these moments slipped over my vision like successive lenses, slowly bringing things into focus. Finally it couldn’t be denied: the consumer culture surrounding me was a feeble kind of artifice, a simplistic story—and that story was ending.

Still, like most, I held on to the dream I’d been given, the dream of consumer happiness. It was shining still on television, in magazines, and in every luxurious household I entered. I held on to this dream even as it grew preposterous and obscene.

The consumer story hung around me, as it hung around everyone I knew. It coloured what we saw, infected every breath, and usually felt like a natural, everlasting part of the world. Some stories are like that— they draw us in to a fabricated forever-moment, suspend us outside the torrent of real history.

Abandoning the consumer story, finding some new mode of being, seemed as crucial as it was unlikely. But I decided to make a beginning, at least. And I decided that beginning would be where consumption ends: the landfill.

Excerpted from All We Want by Michael Harris. Copyright © 2021 Michael Harris. Published byDoubleday Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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