Thursday, May 21, 2009

Bill McKibben on Deep Economy, and our Year of Buying Less

I’m currently about half way through Bill McKibben’s new book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. I initially started reading this because the non-profit organization where my partner works is running a book club for staff members with this book as the first pick. I thought the book sounded exactly along the lines of other articles I had been reading lately (more posts on this to come), and I could read along at home and foster discussion with my partner on how to build a stronger local economy.

Books on economics are not usually my first choice (often seeming dry or overly academic for my liking), but although this book assumes a general working knowledge of basic economics, it is highly readable, packed with useful statistics, and looks deeply into economic philosophy. McKibben’s style of writing is incredibly engaging, thoughtful and powerful. His basic premise is this: that the long-held economic ideal of constant “growth” is not viable; for one we are running out of resources to make the products to sustain our rate of growth (especially if developing countries, like China and India would want to consume at the rate of North Americans); secondly we are running out of oil, there will simply not be a way to create, trade and transport the products in mass quantities around the globe as we know it; thirdly we are running out of earth (long discussion on the impacts of climate change); fourthly this kind of growth economy does not trickle down to everyone – it only makes a slim margin wealthy at the top, and continues to increases global inequality; and fifthly even if we did have enough of all the above to go around, it has been proven that consumption does not make us happier. In fact, countries with higher rates of consumption and wealth tend to rate higher levels of depression, anxiety, stress, fear, health issues, etc. Consumption breeds dissatisfaction.

After outlining his thesis clearly, McKibben’s book continues with chapters on topics like food, energy, and transportation, showing how ordinary people are doing incredibly creative things to improve their local economies and quality of local life.

And McKibben is right. Haven’t we all thought “if I would only get this or that, life will be so much better”, and then found that after a short while that item (book, clothing, houseware, toy) is left gathering dust on the shelf while a new interest has filled its place. In a world where we are constantly bombarded with mass media telling us we need things to be more beautiful, gain status, increase our intelligence, find romance, etc. It’s estimated the average TV watching Canadian sees between 300-800 media ads per day. How can we not feel constantly tempted to buy more! The Age of Persuasion on CBC Radio shows us just how much the advertising world insinuates itself into every aspect of our lives. Even environmentalists who “buy green” easily fall into this trap. The book The Rebel Sell shows how strongly marketed eco-purchasing has become, where we can believe we are buying all the "right" things but we are still consuming vast quantities of commodities needlessly. Eco-conscious and organic purchasing is a whole new niche that corporations have happily tapped into, including Nike, Nestle, Monsanto, Cargill and all the rest!

So how much do we really need? I remember being on a short weekend hiking trip a few years ago, thinking I had packed relatively lightly (a tent, minimal cooking gear, a few clothes) and feeling incredibly freed by carrying all the necessities on my back. My friend and I met an older fellow hiking along, and struck up a conversation with him. Turns out he had already been hiking for a month, and all he had with him was a tarp, some raingear, a little food, a knife and matches. He wild-harvested his meals, wore the same clothes, and slept under the stars (with the tarp as back up in case of rain). He didn’t even carry a backpack. He was certainly living freely. When we consider the majority of the world’s population lives – simple homes, simple food, simple clothing – and not to mention the sweatshop or slave-like conditions many workers face to make the cheap products we demand, we have no right to the dissatisfaction we sometimes feel about not having quite enough!

In any case, I proposed a Year of Buying Less to my partner. What I hope with this experiment is to reduce: our spending, our clutter, our plastic & garbage waste; and to increase: our free time, our family time, our creativity, our connection to the local community/economy, and our happiness. What will the Year of Buying Less look like? I proposed we try to live one year without buying a single NEW item of clothing, housewares, or toys. Instead, our options would be:

a) consider doing without

b) borrow or barter for this item

c) buy it used or made of recycled materials

d) make it ourselves

e) buy handmade

f) buy locally made

g) buy fair trade

There would be exceptions of course – toilet paper, groceries which we couldn’t buy locally or grow ourselves, essential building materials needed to complete our strawbale house addition (lumber, straw, plaster), one trip to Winnipeg to visit my family in the fall, and essential items for our Little City Farm business (B&B items, workshop materials, and soap making ingredients). Books and magazine subscriptions (my weakness) were still in question – but we could probably get most of the reading we needed from the local library. Any gifts for family or friends (birthday or other holidays) would also be handmade, recycled, or locally made. Since we don’t own a car, our transportation costs would be for using the local bus or our local car co-op vehicles. Entertainment costs – we could support our local independent movie theatre, get DVDs from the library, support local music shows, and allow ourselves the occasional meal in a locally-owned restaurant.

It would have been fitting to launch our Year of Buying Less on "Buy Nothing Day" in November. (Buy Nothing Day is the first Friday after American Thanksgiving, which generally has been the largest shopping day in the US. Buy Nothing Day is an annual attempt to draw attention to consumer frenzy and reduce needless shopping.) However, since this would mean waiting another 6 months, we decided it would be good to start immediately. There will surely be bumps along the way, things we have forgotten that we can’t get around not buying, and exceptions we realize we really believe we can’t go without. But hopefully this exercise will allow us to re-evaluate the constant pressures to consume more and live more freely because of it.

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