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A statistic that often circles J.B. MacKinnon’s mind is a shocking one: If everyone consumed at the same rate as the average American, we’d need more than five planets to sustain us.
The Vancouver-based author, known for his book The 100-Mile Diet, said it’s a piece of research that is often parroted. However, he says the flip side needs more attention. It’s why he applied that thinking while writing his new release, The Day the World Stops Shopping, which explores what would happen if we dramatically altered our consumption habits.
MacKinnon says there are real world examples of countries, such as Ecuador, that are the opposite of America: If everyone consumed like the average citizen, we’d only need one planet.
“I thought I'd go to Ecuador and see what one-planet living looks like on planet Earth right now ... in some ways, it was like being beamed back to the early '70s or the '60s,” he said.
“It wasn't by any means an unlivable set of circumstances. But it was a considerably simpler consumer lifestyle than we know today.”
MacKinnon spoke with Tzeporah Berman, adjunct professor of environmental studies at York University, at a Tuesday event hosted by the Vancouver Public Library about why we shop so much and what could be done to change our habits.
Berman pointed out that it’s a privileged position to be in — coming from Canada and simply saying, ‘People are happier with less stuff,’ but that the crux of the book isn’t so simple. It digs into the psychology of materialism and the way our government and corporations back us into a corner of overconsumption.
MacKinnon said parts of the book explore the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic values. Meaning, things that make us happy from approval outside ourselves (such as a new outfit), and others that rely on approval from within ourselves.
“It's not that we're not interested in having close relationships with people we care about, or spending time in nature or some of these other intrinsic values,” he said.
“We simply cannot continue to consume more and more and more, every single citizen on the planet,” says author J.B. MacKinnon. “It just makes the challenges in terms of dealing with ecological crises just far too high.”
“We just happen to live in cultures that don't make a lot of time, don't allow us a lot of time, for those sorts of values to be expressed. That's not how our culture is structured.”
This emphasis on extrinsic values and the earn-and-spend cycle that our society gets wrapped up in are partly to blame for overconsumption. As MacKinnon reached the end of writing the book, the pandemic hit, which put questions about intrinsic and extrinsic values to the test. Mainly, if we shut off access to consumption, will people shift gears and start embracing their intrinsic values more?
This happened at first, he said, when people flocked towards shelves of yeast to start making bread and invested ample time in connecting with their friends and family over Zoom. But eventually, after a sharp dip in consumption, things quickly climbed back up.
“During the pandemic, across the whole arc of the pandemic — services went down, product went up. We as a consumer society, that's what we're used to doing,” he said.
“We found new ways to do it — a lot of consumption went online. Rather than consuming some of the products and services we normally would, we consumed enormous amounts of viewable material online, we streamed like crazy.”
MacKinnon says it’s hard for us to turn our backs on materialism. It’s why baking bread, at first an intrinsic activity, turned into an extrinsic expression. Social media became covered in pictures of perfectly risen loafs; it was a competition.
He says a shift needs to occur: from us being consumers, to us being participants. An organization called Participatory City, which has projects in Toronto, Halifax and Montreal, has a pilot project outside of London that MacKinnon said was one of the most moving things he saw while researching his book.
In Barking and Dagenham, the group set up what MacKinnon called the "largest experiment in the world right now." People are provided with activities and workshops that give them something to do other than consume.
“So any day that you wake up in Barking and Dagenham, right now you can go down to what they call the shops. And there will be things going on that you can do for free with your neighbours,” he said.
“And it builds the possibility of a completely different social role ... it offers this role of 'I'm going to get up, and I'm going to do things with my neighbours and in my neighbourhood. There's so many options for me, and that's how I'm going to use my time.'”
Of course, individual and community-driven solutions need to be coupled with changes from governing bodies, said MacKinnon. Planned obsolescence, which is where a product is designed to eventually break, has started to be addressed by some governments — France has said that a company can no longer design a product to fail.
He went on to talk about the role of corporations, how we think about economic growth — both of which he explores in his book.
Ultimately, MacKinnon says, all these parts could make a shift towards a more just and desirable society and planet.
“We simply cannot continue to consume more and more and more, every single citizen on the planet,” he said.
“It just makes the challenges in terms of dealing with ecological crises just far too high.”