Buy Nothing Day

An opportunity for reflection and redirection

On November 1, not more than 12 hours after the Halloween festivities wrapped up, with bags of sugary treats in the closet and never-to-be-worn-again costumes shoved into the garbage bin, shopping malls across the city rolled out Christmas music, displays and discounts. In the past, we marked the passage of time by natural phenomena — the seasons, phases of the moon and bird migrations. Now we can set our calendars by the orgies of consumerism.

It’s not my point to deprive our kids of the joys of trick or treating or the magic of Christmas morning, but I want to take issue with the diminished and destructive vision of a hyper-consumerist culture we adults offer them.

August 22 of this year marked what has come to be known as Earth Overshoot Day — in eight months humanity exhausted the Earth’s resource budget for the year. Back in 1992 we made it all the way to October 22nd before overshoot. We are now well into overdraft, maintaining our collective lifestyles by harvesting more fish than the sea can replenish, cutting trees faster than the forests grow them, and pumping more carbon into the skies than the Earth can assimilate back into the biosphere.

While this is starting to cause noticeable discomfort in our country, it is unconscionable what it is doing to our neighbours in the global village. In September, the 20 countries most vulnerable to climate change released the Climate Vulnerability Monitor: A Guide to the Cold Calculus of a Hot Planet. In a plea to the most affluent countries, the report decries what it calls “fundamental injustices that simply cannot go unaddressed.”

Despite having contributed negligibly to climate change, the least developed countries — places like Gabon, the Central Africa Republic, Mozambique, Somalia, Afghanistan and Vanuatu — will suffer the most. Over 90 per cent of the mortality forecast to result from climate change and fossil fuel combustion will occur in developing countries. Already, the global toll is almost five million deaths annually via hunger, malaria, meningitis, air pollution and cancer, along with $1.2 trillion in economic losses.

And “while some countries are committed to change and making progress, there is still a lack of conviction among the governments of too many industrialized and developing nations,” reads the report. Sadly, our country is the poster child for the lack-of-conviction club.

Earlier this year, the 500-page Global Environment Outlook stated that growing population, glaring inequality and a precarious environmental base were cause for profound concern.

The frank assessment of the report was that “Globalization allows goods to be produced under circumstances that consumers would refuse to tolerate in their own community, and permits waste to be exported out of sight, enabling people to ignore both its magnitude and its impacts.”

The collective tragedy is that the evidence suggests that hyper-consumption, fuelled by fossil fuel combustion and unsustainable resource extraction, is not even improving our own well-being. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

While GDP in the U.S. and U.K. has tripled and doubled respectively since 1960, measures of happiness have remained essentially unchanged. In global surveys, Tanzanians and Vietnamese report higher levels of happiness than Canadians. Colombians and Guatemalans appear to be more satisfied with their lives than we are. The bottom line is that once the basics of life are taken care of, it is the quality of human relationships that determines happiness and life satisfaction, not material affluence. Upon reflection, most people would acknowledge this to be true, which is why advertisers spend around $500 billion per year to convince us otherwise.

So the lifestyle we sell to our kids and ourselves is making the Earth uninhabitable, shortchanging the majority of people on the planet and all future generations, without any appreciable improvement in well-being, contentment or happiness.

This realization is rather overwhelming, but there is something small, yet meaningful, that you can do to focus attention on hyper-consumption — Buy Nothing Day. As its promoters suggest, “relax and do nothing for the economy and for yourself — at least for a single day.”

So on November 23 and 24, take time out to think about how much is enough. Buying absolutely nothing for 24 hours would be a heroic act, but you can experiment. Refuse to even stroll in a shopping mall. Buy only locally grown food (say within 500 kilometres) from locally owned businesses (see the REAP website for inspiration). Sell your car and join the Calgary Carshare Co-op or car2go. Talk to friends and neighbours about how to redirect your passion and energy toward life-affirming non-material pursuits.

And take consolation in the words of Kenyan Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai: “There is a huge amount to be done if we are to reach a state of sustainability. Do not despair, do not be weighed down by it. All I ask of you is that you go home and do what you can.”



Comments: 2

AP wrote:

Instead of having a hollow and simply symbolic "Buy Nothing Day", we should all be promoting a "Buy Only What You Need" life.

When people talk about locally grown food, I know that several of them are also coffee drinkers. Needless to say, coffee doesn't grow very well in our climate, so it has to be imported. And it is also a cash crop, which is replacing large swaths of land that would normally have been forests or used for edible produce. This hypocrisy of this simply boggles me.

All of us have the responsibility as individuals and a whole to minimize our footprint, with the understanding that we need to take the resources the earth has to offer in order to survive, but we can't take all of it at once and for ourselves only.

Also, the statement that a lot of the deaths in the Third World are a result of climate change and emissions is finding a very simple solution to a myriad of complex reasons.

I was born in the Third World, and raised in it for a period of time. Some the blame for the deaths really needs to go to a non-existent health care system which along with a combination of poor water treatment facilities, lack of sanitation, rampant corruption, societal callousness, lack of funding and local superstitions causes a lot of deaths that would be otherwise preventable. These are things that the First World cannot go in and fix. The residents of these regions have to take the initiative in their own hands, and the rest of will provide them with the assistance they feel is required.

And happiness does come from within, and finding contentment in what we have. I for one, am quite happy living in a country where I will not be lined up against a wall for voicing my opinions on a public forum. This country, along with UK and to a lesser degree, USA offers that to its citizens and residents.

on Nov 15th, 2012 at 5:21pm Report Abuse

Clairvoyant wrote:

The conserver society is a great concept, but a hard sell. The proponents of the simple life have been around for a long time, Sparta and Walden predating us by a bit. In "How to Survive Without a Salary", Charlie Long was clear that relatively few people would take the conserver route. Buy Nothing Day with various labels has been around for decades. Nothing changes. What was that definition of insanity?

Earth Overshoot Day is an interesting concept. Forgetting the devils in the details, it is also interesting to note that Tax Freedom Day comes not that much sooner. If you accept the concept and numbers,in effect, we essentially expend "Earth's resource budget for the year" just to pay our taxes ... any chance that this is a big part of the problem? I work very hard to control my spending ... but have failed completely to get government to limit spending my money ... and civil servants are certainly in no hurry to reduce the government's spending.

A Guide to the Cold Calculus of a Hot Planet sounds a lot like another version of the White Man's Burden. The guilt trip is wearing thin. To add to AP's list of real causes, add tribalism as likely the top of the list. Global warming mea culpa may transfer megabucks, but will not fix the fundamental problems: those fixes must come from within those "states". Or do you prefer R2P, and an invasion a month ... Afganistan, Iraq, Libya, ... Zimbabwe, Syria, Iran, North Korea, ... Tibet, ...

on Nov 18th, 2012 at 9:21pm Report Abuse

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