Today I am going to buck the trend of Canadian involvement in America’s “Black Friday” by buying nothing. Now it might seem strange for a foodie to be beating the anti-consumerist drum, and anyone who has seen my kitchen knows I don’t exactly lead a Spartan life, but I think that it is long past time we seriously question whether we are happy living in a society based on the mindless accumulation of things. Evidence suggests our that stuff causes us stress.
Consumerism is still a relatively new phenomenon. Before the 20th century people in the Western world owned very little, and tended to pass down what they did own from generation to generation. This was called the “patina” system, as items were valued based on their age. (Patina is the corrosion that accumulates on old silver). The first burst of interest in consumerism occurred with early shifts from the farm to the city, but by the 1930′s business leaders warned of a “buyer’s strike” in which a satiated populace would work less rather than buy more stuff. However we never saw the thirty hour week and did see levels of consumption that would make the business leaders of 1930s shake their head in awe. What is particularly impressive is that we continue to consume more in an age of stagnant salaries through the clever use of moving production offshore and easy credit.
The bill is likely about to come due. The planet has suffered greatly from our consumer bacchanal, interest rates are near zero, and we are rapidly running out of cheaper places to move production. The earth doesn’t have the capacity to allow everyone to consume at our levels. And beyond a certain level working all of the time to acquire more things doesn’t really make us happy anyway. People have been shown to be happiest in countries where basic needs are met and people have networks of friends and family, and the free time to spend with them. The more stuff we have the harder we have to work to house that stuff, service that stuff, and protect that stuff. Accumulation is an expensive game.
Now I am the first to admit that buy nothing day is a bit of a gimmick, as it only works as long as one remembers to buy a few essentials beforehand such as coffee and toilet paper, but it is a great chance to think about what really matters in life, and to take the time to use up some of the staples cluttering up the kitchen by cooking at home. In the longer term, we can gain a lot of happiness by questioning our relationship with our stuff. We can rent seldom-used objects instead of buying them. We can downsize and save fortunes on rent and mortgage payments. We can channel our finances into travel, education, or charity rather than filling our closets.
And so I am sitting this Black Friday out. In the future I doubt we will put so much of our self worth into consumer goods that we would line up in the rain all night and risk being trampled simply to grab some discounted electronics. And the nice thing about this particular future is it doesn’t require government intervention, fancy technology or a Greenpeace campaign. We can just decide to stop buying.