Our lives are defined by a story of endless growth and consumption. Now a climate crisis demands that we change. Can we write new stories?
In All We Want, award-winning author Michael Harris dismantles our untenable consumer culture and delivers surprising, heartwarming alternatives. Drawing on the wisdom of philosophers, scientists, and artists, Harris uncovers three realms where humans have always found deeper meaning: the worlds of Craft, the Sublime, and Care.
Past attempts to blunt our impact on the environment have simply redirected our consumption—we bought fuel-efficient cars and canvas tote bags. We cannot, however, buy our way out of this crisis. We need, instead, compelling new stories about life's purpose.
Part meditation and part manifesto, All We Want is a blazing inquest into the destructive and unfulfilling promise of our consumer society, and a roadmap toward a more humane future.
About the author
MICHAEL HARRIS is the bestselling author of The End of Absence, Solitude, and All We Want. A recipient of the Governor General's Literary Award, he is also a faculty member in the Literary Journalism program at the Banff Centre and the writer of the award-winning podcast "Command Line Heroes." He lives with his husband in Vancouver. www.MichaelJohnHarris.com
Excerpt: All We Want: Building the Life We Cannot Buy (by (author) Michael Harris)
1. A PRETTY HILL
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.
I’d never been before, never had a reason. Landfills hold what we want to forget. But maybe there was another explanation for my avoidance: landfills hold what we want forgiven. Things used, things broken, things lost both with regret and without. To pause a moment and tally all we toss is to register the expenses that undergird our precious consumer culture—it is to look at what we have and all we enjoy as an unsustainable spree, an untenable little tale.
On arrival at Vancouver’s landfill, I met a woman called Lynn, my City-appointed guide. She was friendly and no-nonsense in steel-toed boots and a reflective safety vest. I liked her, liked how proud she was of the landfill’s work.
We climbed a hill of garbage. I could see bits of metal, cables, chairs, bottles, bags of whatever should or shouldn’t be there. All the things my city had wanted once but wanted no more. A monster truck cruised over it all—each steel-studded tire weighing more than seven thousand pounds—stamping and squashing the garbage into the shape of a gentle hill. Once the driver was satisfied with his mound, the garbage would be given a plastic cap and topped with soil and grass seed. It would be turned into an idea of nature, a sweet hill with asbestos running through it in a vein of fibrous silver.
At the hill’s crest I met a dun-coloured eagle. A juvenile, I supposed. It was busy sorting through scraps of rotten food and tangles of plastic. Eventually the bird tired, or else had its fill of apple cores and shopping bags. With a great heave it went skyward and then down again, perching on a fencepost ten feet from my face. The creature ignored me and stared back at the expanse of junk. To its left, on the next post, another eagle stood; and there was another on the post after that. Soon I realized there were hundreds of eagles standing sentry on that fence, circling a portion of the landfill, their scavenger stares meeting at the heap where my city’s freshest trash had been piled. I studied them a while but at last followed their collective gaze back toward the promising field of garbage. We were like stone gargoyles then, the eagles and I, staring inward at the place where a cathedral ought to be.
Turning, I saw how the whole landfill was made of more rolling hills—225 hectares of them in all. You could fit the country of Monaco inside. Strangely, there were flowers on the pretend hills, too. Happy little dots of orange and blue. At the lush perimeter, a deer was grazing. The clouds of seagulls you’d expect at a dump had been erased: a falconer came each day with his raptors to scare them off. (Only the eagles were undeterred.) I had to admit it was all very pretty, would even be peaceful were it not for the procession of burping trucks. Pretty as a movie set.
Lynn blushed, though, when I asked about a recent fire that raged for nineteen days inside one of those hills. When smoke had slithered out, workers excavated to inspect—flooding the anaerobic environment below with oxygen and turning what had only been a smoulder into a full, raging flame. Every landfill is, by its nature, a kind of suppressed threat.
Lynn and I came down the hill and passed a lot crowded with car-sized metal boxes—clothing-donation bins that used to be stationed all over the city. “That’s weird,” I offered, pointing.
“Yes,” she said, “we have a lot of those, because of the issues.” Later, I remembered the bins were banned after five people died inside of them. (I’d thought the victims were trapped while digging for old shirts and pants, but a cop informed me they’d climbed in looking for a soft place to rest while injecting drugs.)
Landfills are acquainted with our deepest shame. A few years ago, thirty police in hazard suits dug through those pretty hills for days before they found the remains of a new-born baby boy. His mother, having given birth in her boyfriend’s bathroom, had wrapped the child in a towel and placed him in a garbage bin at a nearby school. It is unknown whether the child was stillborn or not.
I wondered what, if anything, the landfill had not taken into itself. Watching the every-colour pile of goods being shaped into that smooth and blameless hill, watching workers prepare to cover it all with an obliterating skin of soil, I marvelled at the sheer multitudes such places must contain.
Vancouver’s landfill is not so significant a lump—it’s only a microcosm, a sampling of the world’s wastage. Round up all we toss and the mind reels: we produce more than two billion tonnes of garbage every year (our children’s generation is expected to produce 3.4 billion tonnes). About fifty million tonnes of that is “e-waste”—all the TVs and phones, the printers and tablets, the useless fax machine from your grandfather’s basement, the ransomware-addled iMac from your mother’s den. And no longer is our trash limited to the Earth; while our ancestors could only bury their leftovers in three feet of dirt, we rocket ours to the stars, filling the heavens with refuse. The moon hosts 400,000 pounds of garbage already, including ninety- six bags of astronaut urine, feces, and vomit. Half a million pieces of “space junk” are whipping around the planet, too, travelling at seventeen thousand miles per hour to nowhere at all.
Even my hometown landfill is so swollen it will take no more after 2036. When I asked Lynn where the new site would be she blinked and said, “No—no plans yet.”
“But it’s going to be full soon. Where will all our stuff go?” That year alone, 721,000 tonnes of waste were brought there and many tonnes more were shipped south to America.
A shrug. “They haven’t figured that out.”
A little while later, when my visit was winding down, Lynn said, “I try to keep all this as unnoticed and pleasant as possible.” She gestured at the pretty hill past the line of trucks. “I’m the one who planted those flowers.”
"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." —Susan Orlean, author of The Library Book and The Orchid Thief
"Delineate[s] ways to fashion a more honest relationship to both the material and immaterial world, whether that means building a birchbark canoe by hand or surrendering one's ego to the glory of the natural world." —The Tyee
"All We Want follows Harris's two popular and award-winning titles, The End of Absence and Solitude. Read together, they're an impressive portrait of intellectual effort; they showcase a person seeking respite from troubling global trends. An enticing synthesis of personal anecdotes and wide-ranging research." —Vancouver Sun
"It's visceral, evocative, disturbing, and enlightening. . . . All We Want is a fascinating intellectual journey." —The Georgia Straight
"We all know we need to trade our troubled relationship with consumerism for something more deeply satisfying and environmentally sane. Michael Harris does the hard work of understanding what that 'something' is, and shares the secret in flat-out dazzling writing full of wisdom and surprises." —J.B. MacKinnon, author of The Day the World Stops Shopping
"A feast of ideas, encounters, and brave exploration lovingly rendered." —John Vaillant, author of The Golden Spruce and The Jaguar's Children
"After first chronicling many of the often-overlooked environmental and personal consequences of our grasping culture, All We Want goes on to propose a solution so humane and original, so possible, that it stands a chance of rescuing both our planet and our small, struggling selves. This is a marvelous, uplifting book, unique among others of its kind." —Barbara Gowdy, author of The White Bone
"All We Want is a thoughtful examination of consumer desire, but it's much more than that. Harris's storytelling is entertaining, poignant, and totally eye-opening—a search for antidotes in our times of planetary emergency." —Charlotte Gill, author of Eating Dirt
"A gorgeous bit of magic is woven before our eyes. The prison humanity has built for itself—this sparkling maze of more—is transformed into an escape hatch. A damning study of humanity's insatiable appetites becomes a love song for our higher purpose." —Arno Kopecky, author of The Environmentalist's Dilemma
"A potent antidote to the culture of consumption destroying our planet from a philosopher-poet for our times. Harris offers inspiration and alternatives that could change the world." —Carol Shaben, author of Into the Abyss
"Desire, need, and what makes a good life. This eloquent treatise encourages us to rethink these timeless subjects, and to make our aperture of understanding both bigger and smaller—to appreciate both the sublime wonder of the world and the intimate acts of craft and care that contemporary capitalism obscures and devalues. This lyrical meditation is for everyone who feels trapped in the knowledge that our culture of consumer abundance depletes and destroys the environment without truly nourishing or satisfying our souls." —Astra Taylor, author of Remake the World
"Michael Harris teaches us an essential lesson in a moving, beautifully written book. We pursue material things that wreck the planet and make us miserable while neglecting things that will make us happier and the world better. Worse yet, the more materialist we are, the more the things that matter recede from view. Time is running out. Reading this book may inspire you to blaze a more enlightened trail—to save yourself, those you love, and the earth." —Barry Schwartz, author of Why We Work and co-author of Practical Wisdom