In a brilliant work of imaginative non-fiction, prize-winning author J.B. MacKinnon asks what would happen--to our economy, our ecology, our products, our selves--if we stopped consuming so much? Is that alternative world one we might actually want to live in?
"We can't stop shopping. And yet we must. This is the consumer dilemma."
The planet says we consume too much: in North America, we burn the earth's resources at a rate five times faster than they can regenerate. And despite our efforts to "green" our consumption--by recycling, increasing energy efficiency, or using solar power--we have yet to see a decline in global carbon emissions.
The economy says we must always consume more, because, as we've seen in the pandemic, even the slightest drop in spending leads to widespread unemployment, bankruptcy and home foreclosures.
Addressing this paradox head-on, J.B. MacKinnon asks, What would really happen if we simply stop shopping? Is there a way to reduce our consumption to earth-saving levels without triggering an economic collapse?
At first, this question took him around the world, seeking answers: from America's big-box stores, to the hunter-gatherer cultures of Namibia, to communities in Ecuador that consume at an exactly sustainable rate. Then his thought experiment came shockingly true, as the coronavirus brought shopping to a halt and MacKinnon's ideas were tested in real time.
Drawing on experts ranging from economists to climate scientists to corporate CEOs, MacKinnon investigates how living with less would change our planet, our society and ourselves. Along the way, he reveals just how much we stand to gain.
Imaginative and inspiring, The Day the World Stops Shopping will empower you to imagine another way.
About the author
J.B. MacKinnon is a celebrated independent journalist and a contributing editor to the magazines Adbusters, Explore and Vancouver. A two-time winner of the National Magazine Foundation Gold Award for travel writing, he splits his time between Vancouver and a cabin in northern British Columbia. MacKinnon's latest book is The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating.
Excerpt: The Day the World Stops Shopping (by (author) J.B. MacKinnon)
Suppose that we suddenly listened to all of those voices through history that have asked us to live with less. One day the world stops shopping.
That is the thought experiment I’ve undertaken in this book. It began when I confronted the consumer dilemma for myself. Like many people today, I’d taken to contemplating how my own consumption contributes to climate change, the destruction of forests, plastic pollution in the oceans, and the many other ecological crises that are making our world uninhabitable. I knew I could choose to reduce my consumption. (When I was younger, I once gave spare change to a panhandler, who took one look at my shoes—duck-billed open at the toes to reveal my stockinged feet—and handed the money back. “You look like you need it,” he said.) But how could I stop shopping, when I also believed that if everyone else did the same, it really would lay waste to the global economy? To see if there was a way out of this quandary, I thought, I would need to play out the scenario to its end.
I start at the beginning: What happens in the first hours and days of a world that stops shopping? How do we parse our wants and needs? Whose life changes the most and whose the least? Does the earth begin to heal, and if so, how quickly? From there, I explore the economic collapse that seems inevitable—and also discover how, even in catastrophe, we begin to adapt. Unlike every other such crash in memory, this experiment of mine doesn’t end with the world marching dutifully back to the malls. Instead, as the first day without shopping stretches into weeks and months, we change the way we make things, organize our lives around new priorities, find different business models for a global culture that has lost its desire to consume. Finally, I look at where this evolution could lead us over decades or even millennia, from a deeper drift into virtual reality to a planet resurgent with nature to a life more simple, perhaps, than we ever thought to seek.
What does it actually mean to “stop shopping”? Sometimes we say we’re “doing the shopping,” which usually means we’re heading out to buy basic necessities, such as food, detergent, school supplies and—of course—toilet paper. At other times we say, “Let’s go shopping,” which often means we are on the hunt for goods that we don’t really need at all. Most of us today live in societies in which social and economic life is organized mainly around consumption: we are consumers. In everyday conversation, however, a “consumer” is often only that person whose favourite pastime is blowing money on clothes, toys, baubles, holidays, fancy food or all of the above. And “consumer culture” is the daily barrage of ads, sales, trends, fast food, fast fashion, distraction and gadgets-of-the-moment that rains down on us, and our preoccupation with all of it.
For the sake of this thought experiment, I wanted to keep it simple: on the day the world stops shopping, global consumer spending drops by 25 percent. To some, that number will seem conservative, given the enormity of the consumer appetite, from Black Friday shopping riots to mighty rivers that endlessly float plastic water bottles to the sea. Indeed, at a global scale, reducing consumption by one-quarter would only turn back the clock to the spending levels of about a decade ago. On the other hand, when I started writing this book, the idea that global consumption could drop by 25 percent sounded like the wildest of speculations—a fantasy so outlandish that many people I hoped to speak to refused even to entertain it.
Then, of course, it happened. A novel coronavirus appeared in China, and in a matter of weeks our collective patterns of earning and spending, of shopping, travelling and dining out at an epic scale, abruptly faltered. In the United States, household spending dropped almost 20 percent across two months; the hardest-hit industries, such as tourism, sank four times as far. In China, retail sales fell by at least one-fifth. In Europe—where personal consumption in many countries tumbled by nearly a third—$450 billion, usually spent on shopping, instead piled up in banks. Suddenly, the idea that consumption might drop by 25 percent on the day the world stops shopping seemed like a reasonable premise: modest enough to be possible, dramatic enough to be earth-shattering.
To call this book a thought experiment is not to say it is science fiction. Maybe you could think of it as a bit of imaginative reporting: it explores a scenario that isn’t real by looking to people, places and times that most certainly are. Throughout history up to the present day, multitudes, sometimes including whole nations, have drastically slowed their consumption. Often the cause was a terrible shock: war, recession, disaster. But there have also been popular movements against materialism, moments of widespread doubt about consumer culture, whole epochs in which weekly sabbaths from commerce were strictly observed. Scholars have pondered the phenomenon of not-shopping, plugged it into computer models, examined it from outer space. They have observed its effects on whales, our moods, the planetary atmosphere. There are entrepreneurs and activists, too, who are designing products, businesses and new ways of life for a world that might one day buy less. From the Kalahari Desert to Finland, from Ecuador to Japan to the United States, I found countercurrents to consumer culture flowing, whispering of other ways we could live. They also flow, I would wager, through most of us.
When I set out to write this book, I had no notion of what I might find. Nothing more, perhaps, than a scattershot of competing visions for how to move past the consumer dilemma, or no way out at all. But as I delved into examples across space and time, I could see that, wherever and whenever humanity has stopped shopping, recurring themes emerge, a pattern that hints at what a world that stops shopping might look like and how it could function. From these shadows past and present, I could sketch a future.
It just might be possible to stop shopping. If so, what remains are more personal questions. Do we want to? Would life really be worse—or better?
“A well-researched and provocative analysis offering hope and optimism for our future.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“[F]ascinating.” —NOW Magazine
“The Day the World Stops Shopping is a sweeping masterclass in global economics and the anthropology of consumer behaviour. The book is stunning for both its complexity and its clarity. MacKinnon is a deep thinker and a deft prose stylist . . . [and this book is] a deep, disturbing and thoroughly convincing investigation into the systems that support our addiction to consumption, and what we can do to arrest what is fundamentally an all-out attack on nature.” —The Tyee
“If the purpose of a thought experiment is to cast new light on familiar phenomena, the better to inspire a cascade of new thoughts on scarcely registered realities, J.B. MacKinnon certainly delivers in The Day the World Stops Shopping." —Maclean’s
“MacKinnon has a bricklayer’s talent for achieving beauty out of stacks of facts and statistics. . . . In wrestling with the realities of incremental change, examining our collective consumption and his own, MacKinnon says a great deal about what it is to be human during this moment on Earth, and how to live a meaningful life as one consumer among many. Surely part of the trick is to dare to imagine, as MacKinnon does, a scenario in which our prognosis improves, even a little.” —Sierra Magazine
“Well-researched and stimulating. Readers will be galvanized to make changes in their own buying habits.” —Publishers Weekly
“Witty and erudite…. Expertly showing the complex relationship between consumer culture and nature, this insightful account offers a starting point for change (and optimism).” —Library Journal
“In a large pool of often simplistic manuals for simple living, this book stands out for its curiosity, humanity and genuinely global appreciation of why we consume too much and what to do about it.” —Frank Trentmann, author of Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First
“A provocative thought experiment that asks us to imagine what currently seems unthinkable, this is a beautifully written and rigorously researched revelation, an extraordinary creative journey to a place we urgently need to go. Full of hope and deep thought, unassuming and devoid of preaching, it is an exciting and truly inspiring read. I couldn’t put it down.” —Joel Bakan, author of The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power and The New Corporation: How “Good” Corporations Are Bad for Democracy
“J.B. MacKinnon’s The Day the World Stops Shopping is a welcome and rare mix: a strong environmental argument and a jaunty picaresque. For the former, MacKinnon makes a convincing case that we need to shop less now. Green consumerism, in MacKinnon’s telling, isn’t just about buying ecologically sound stuff or recycling our rubbish. It’s about buying many fewer things, leaving us so much less to recycle in the first place. You will want to buy this book and after you read it, little else.” —Alissa Quart, author of Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America and Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers
“Dissecting the dilemma at civilization’s heart—the burden that reckless growth heaps upon the faltering Earth—J.B. MacKinnon lays out a wealth of knowledge and wisdom in a gripping, page-turning read. With wit, precision, and startling insights from around the world, he looks deeply into what we have done, and might do so much better. A model of clarity and grace, The Day the World Stops Shopping is one of the most important and well-written books I have read.” —Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress
“The Day the World Stops Shopping is a delight. MacKinnon has given us a powerful exploration of a riddle central to our days and lives: how we are what we buy, and how buying less might make us so much more.” —Andrew Blum, author of Tubes and The Weather Machine