1247 The less the merrier
The Day the World Stops Shopping: How ending consumerism saves the environment and ourselves
by J.B. MacKinnon
Toronto: Penguin Random House Canada (Vintage Canada), 2021
$32.95 / 9780735275539
Reviewed by Brian Harvey
On October 14, 2021, The Day the World Stops Shopping: How ending consumerism saves the environment and ourselves, by J.B. MacKinnon, reviewed here by Brian Harvey, was announced as one of five books shortlisted in the Non-fiction category of the Governor General’s Literary Awards. Winners will be announced on Nov. 17, 2021. See here for details — Ed.
The summer we’ve just had in British Columbia — and in the rest of North America and pretty much the rest of the world — provided all the evidence any sentient human could need that Something Is Wrong. More than ever, people are casting around for something they can do to reduce their impact on the earth’s climate. But the idea that an individual can affect a global phenomenon is absurd. Climate change is the sum of billions of individual impacts over a very long time. A single person’s change in behaviour is meaningless.
In the first chapter of his new book The Day the World Stops Shopping, J.B. MacKinnon makes two unsettling points: first, that going green will have little effect on the runaway train of climate change, and second, that measurable improvement requires governments, who will have to be leaders in reducing our impact on the earth, to think beyond the relentless increase in gross domestic product (GDP). Both realizations are discouraging. But then MacKinnon reminds us of the fortuitous experiment on human behaviour that was run simultaneously in every inhabited corner of the earth: the global lockdown of 2019. For several months the streets and airports emptied and economies began the long decline that is still with us; people cut back on buying things, businesses began to fail, factories ran at half speed — but the sky over Los Angeles turned blue again. The GDP plunged and the air became breathable. The rest of MacKinnon’s book, which I believe should be read by every person with a social insurance number and a vote, is a deeply researched and passionate examination of a “thought experiment” of his own: what would happen if masses of people, not just a few committed greenies, decided to make do with less?
The Day the World Stops Shopping is an indictment of consumerism, a behaviour the Norwegian economist Thorstein Veblen memorably christened “conspicuous consumption” in 1899. If you’re interested in the effects of consumerism on climate change, you need to untangle the effects of what you buy from how much you buy, a struggle that permeates this book. Take electric cars. The jury is out on the question of their long-term ecological footprint; maybe smaller than a gas-powered car’s, maybe not. But it’s still a drain on the earth’s resources to build one of these amazing vehicles, so buying just one car of any kind, instead of two or three, or even going carless, will make more of a difference than just switching to electric. In this case, “how much” is more important than “what,” but there are cases where the opposite is true. For example, a recent report in the Globe and Mail links the boom in online shopping for used clothing to a spike in donations to thrift stores during the lockdown period of the pandemic. More clothes on the virtual shelves have meant more buying. “We got more donations than we’ve ever received in our history,” a Vancouver thrift store owner is quoted as saying. “And what we found is, it didn’t stop any of our customers. As long as people are living and breathing, I’ve learned they’re going to keep shopping.” That sounds discouraging, but consider what people are buying here: if you’re shopping for a vintage coat because it’s better made from better fabric than the throw-away clothes most of us settle for today, you’re buying something that required no new use of resources. You get a nice coat, the economy benefits, the net ecological footprint is zero.
Will readers buy into an argument with these kinds of subtleties? That’s for them to decide, but I will say that one of the many pleasures in reading MacKinnon’s book is the uncanny feeling that he’s anticipated all my questions. By the time I was halfway through I trusted that, whatever objection I might come up with, he’d get around to addressing it sooner or later. The book is so thoroughly researched, so clearly organized that the job of reviewing it, for me at least, became less about the book itself and more about MacKinnon’s arguments.
And there’s a big bonus: this book is beautifully written. It would be nice to think that any book whose subject is the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced would be cogent and disciplined, but this is often not the case, especially when the authors are technical authorities whose undoubted expertise outclasses their ability to write. The Day the World Stops Shopping is powerful proof that, sometimes, a really good generalist will do a better job. Two books I mention later in this review, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and John Englander’s Moving to Higher Ground are indispensable resources but they’re bloated, repetitive and self-regarding. Neither author is capable of MacKinnon’s description of the city of Quito, Ecuador as “tossed like a salad in a bowl of Andean mountains.” Or his image of carbon dioxide suddenly made visible, its colour the “rich indigo of a good fountain pen ink . . . a car would drive by, its exhaust pipe training faint blue vapours of humankind’s main contribution to global warming.” Try forgetting that one.
How urgent is the climate crisis? British Columbians might want to reflect on Englander’s insistent claim, in Moving to Higher Ground, that the commonly cited predictions of less than a metre of sea level rise by the end of the century do not account for the overwhelming contribution expected from the loss of the Greenland and Antarctica ice caps. In Englander’s view, sea level rise between one and two metres is already a given. Oceans have warmed enough to guarantee that these alterations to our coastline cannot be avoided, and that we must start building and rebuilding accordingly.
If reducing consumption is one of the changes that need to be made, how hard will it be to convince people to do it? MacKinnon confronts this question squarely and offers a thoughtful chapter on personal change — including his own. But it will not be easy to reverse such a long-standing trend. A new report from the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority on the goings and comings of container ships is discouraging. The upswing in consumer spending that followed the lifting of pandemic restrictions has created so much more demand for Asian goods that in many cases it’s cheaper for shipping companies to bring their container ships back from Vancouver empty rather than filled with Canadian exports. Right now, half of the huge vessels steaming over the Pacific Ocean are full of air. This is climate madness, and it recalled for me MacKinnon’s relating what happened to whale vocalizations when container ships vacated the Bay of Fundy in the early days of the pandemic. For the researchers recording the whales, “It was as though they’d been standing beside a freeway that had fallen silent and could suddenly hear the birds singing. It was the sound of whales in a world of less.”
Convincing people to change relies heavily on how their options are framed. Between 2015 and 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office received 240,376 messages from Canadians on climate change. In that same period, the number of communications about seal hunting was over two million. Whatever one thinks of the ability of government to act decisively on climate change, it’s clearly easier to stay in office by banning seal hunting than by reducing carbon dioxide emissions. One issue is incalculably more important the other but for ordinary people as well as policy makers, it’s disastrously framed.
MacKinnon makes a convincing argument for reducing consumption, but this problem of buy-in is less fully explored. Better framing will help. Framing is all about presentation. The vigorous and relatively new academic discipline of behavioural economics looks at the way the human brain makes choices. When a desired outcome is economic, it’s achieved by putting these findings into practice. Daniel Kahneman’s recent Thinking, Fast and Slow is a fascinating if repetitive look at the way the brain processes options, and how these insights have found widespread application in most fields of human endeavour. If a choice is framed well (Would you rather see an adorable baby seal clubbed to death or left alone?), the analytic part the brain will reliably defer to the snap emotional judgment. In the recent campaigns in several Canadian provinces to get more people vaccinated, framing dictated by behavioural economics produced the vaccine “passports” that are not mandatory but allow you into places like restaurants and gyms. It worked: more people got vaccinated because they were given a choice that didn’t require much thought. The same thinking goes into “opt out” choices that make the desired result the easy choice (Kahneman provides the famous example of organ donation after death, where you have to tick a box to not donate).
The Day the World Stops Shopping begins with a startling premise, then takes the reader to many places — physical, cultural, conceptual — as the author builds his argument. It’s a subversive book, not a manual on how to stop shopping, and I suspect it will change the thinking of a lot of people. The book contains powerful images of the consequences of consumerism, including the horrifying effects of land clearing on the animals living there. There is a chapter on the philosophy of living simply and thereby finding one’s authentic self. When MacKinnon assembles a dossier of the effects of great economic upheavals (the Great Depression of the 1930s, the 1990 crash in Finland, the collapse of the USSR, the recession of 2008, Covid 19), it’s in the service of anticipating what would happen to economies if people reduced their shopping.
His conclusion will surprise many. I had never heard of the Jevons Paradox, but it’s the explanation for why buying green can backfire, and an introduction to the fascinating field of behaviours that cause rebound effects. An example: if a new TV is more energy efficient (it’s greener), people may simply buy more TVs. They’ll shop more, not less. This perverse rebound effect is already being seen with electric cars. MacKinnon agrees that “the list of ways to spend money without rebounding is short” but he presents fascinating quantitative evidence that “the people who live with less, rather than those who live green, should be our role models for living more lightly on the earth.”
Sometimes I’m not entirely with him, for example when he visits Sado Island in Japan and finds a way of simpler living that could be one way of making do with less. I’m not convinced: Japanese society is fanatically materialistic and famously conformist (“Don’t change the plan” could be the unofficial motto). The outliers and free thinkers in Japan go to places like Sado or leave the country completely. I find it hard to imagine the Japanese backing off on shopping without the kind of leadership that’s been lacking for decades. I was also on the fence for MacKinnon’s account of his visit to a hunter-gatherer community in the Kalahari desert: surely those people have always lived simply because there was no other way? It’s not as though they have dropped out of consumer society in search of an alternative. But I suspect the Kalahari episode has value, it’s just not straightforward. MacKinnon’s choosing to end his penultimate chapter with it may be better summed up in his musing that a simpler life might just be intrinsically better for humans. He imagines looking back from a time thousands of years in the future and asking, “What will our current age of consumption look like then? A misstep.”
He saves the best for last, in an epilogue titled “There’s a Better Way to Stop Shopping.” Any reader who has followed him through almost three hundred pages will want to read it carefully because it contains MacKinnon’s belief that, if we manage to achieve anything, it should be to somehow slow an economy that’s dedicated to endless expansion. Reducing our hunger for buying things is one way. His ending is eloquent and moving. Slow the economy enough, he writes, and we may finally begin to feel our “exhausted planet” coming back to life.
Brian Harvey grew up on the West Coast of Canada and trained as a marine biologist. He began writing newspaper columns and science-travel articles for magazines in 1997. His first book for a general audience, The End of the River, was a Globe and Mail “Best 100” book for 2008 and was followed by two works of fiction, Beethoven’s Tenth and Tokyo Girl. His latest book, Sea Trial: Sailing After My Father, reviewed here by Theo Dombrowski, was a 2019 Governor General’s Award finalist for nonfiction and an Independent Publishers Book Awards medalist in the memoir category. Editor’s note: Brian Harvey has also reviewed books by Craig Taylor, Trevor Carolan, Robert Amos, Sam McKinney, and Alex Zimmerman for The Ormsby Review. He lives in Nanaimo.
The Ormsby Review. More Books. More Reviews. More Often.
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of BC books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster