Dec. 2000 UpDate Cover Story: Buying Nothing Helps No One

While most Americans celebrated blessings material and spiritual on Thanksgiving, the anti-consumer movement united to celebra

While most Americans celebrated blessings material and spiritual on Thanksgiving, the anti-consumer movement united to celebrate “Buy Nothing Day,” held the day after the national holiday (the traditional kick-off to the Christmas buying season). Its adherents called for a boycott of shopping, buying, and indeed, of consumption itself. Adbusters, an anti-consumption group which has earned notoriety for its “culture jammer” network and a popular quarterly magazine, declared a focus on “expos[ing] the environmental consequences of consumerism.”


Consumers of the developed world, they claim, cause “a disproportionate level of environmental damage” to Planet Earth. Buy Nothing Day, boasted one Web site dedicated to the cause, is “the one day a year we turn off the economy.” In this group the spirit of Thorstein Veblen lives on. Veblen coined the derogatory term “conspicuous consumption,” which opponents have brandished like a cudgel against capitalism for decades. According to Adbusters, our consumer culture is out of control: “Once, we shopped to buy what we needed, period. Now that we don’t need much, we shop for other reasons: to impress each other, to fill a void, to kill time. A mere 20 percent of the earth’s population uses 80 percent of its natural resources. Our overconsumption is killing the planet.”


An offshoot of these Adbusters activists took things a bit further, proclaiming November 24th “Steal Something Day,” which needs little explanation. By taking action against capitalist exploitation, according to proponents, “Steal Something Day promotes empowerment by urging us to collectively identify the greedy bastards who are actually responsible for promoting misery and boredom in this world.”


The rationale for both Buy Nothing Day and Steal Something Day is that the consumption patterns of the developed world are simply unsustainable. They raise fears of suburban development and climate change. In other words, economic development creates problems rather than opportunity for humanity.


Hardly considered, not surprisingly, are the offsetting benefits of economic growth and technology, and of consumption. Through material wealth, we lead healthier, happier, and more fruitful lives. In the developed world, at least, people have been freed from the toilsome, hand-to-mouth lifestyle that marked centuries of life on Earth (one of subsistence farming, exposure to the elements, disease and early death). But it is precisely these “nasty, brutish and short” lifestyles that are constantly romanticized by capitalist critics who, it should be noted, don’t live them.


So it is somewhat ironic that Adbusters rails against technology, but uses computers and a sophisticated web site to coordinate its anti-consumer campaigns. The leaders of this movement live in modern insulated houses or apartment buildings (not in mud huts), which save energy and still protect them from the elements. They own refrigerators and use plastic containers to store food–both of which help to eliminate wasted food. And should one of them fall seriously ill, it is nearly certain that an ambulance will be called to take him to a hospital, where modern medical technologies would be used to save his life.


Which of these options would they reject as “unsustainable” or not “green”? What are “green” substitutes for technologies that use resources to save resources?


The simple fact that cannot be ignored, despite the attempts by Adbusters and others to do so, is that our lifestyle promotes both environmental and human well-being. Resources are used not to willfully “destroy” the earth, but to help people live healthier, cleaner, and more environmentally benign lives. We use resources to control our environment (rather than being controlled by it). Consumption actually helps us to lighten our footprint on the earth–new technologies replace older ones, allowing for better resource conservation.


The anti-consumption movement is actually a mask for groups who seek to impose a warped vision of society upon the rest of us. For instance, they suggest we are running out of resources, but at the same time, they consistently reject technologies that would save resources.


Environmental groups charge that biotechnology is “too risky” for people and for the environment: People might suffer allergic reactions to foods created using biotechnology (though no scientific evidence is ever cited to support this assertion), and biotechnology will produce “superweeds.” Yet the far greater risk is that malnourished people in technologically lagging regions of our planet will erode their soil, harm biodiversity, and leave less land for simple environmental amenities. These risks are never weighed.


Adbusters correctly recognizes that poverty is unsustainable. At the same time, though, its partisans claim that a small amount of the world’s people live at the expense of many. They call for redistributing the current resources of the world via sustainable development, rather than expanding these resources to alleviate global poverty. The world’s poor lack basic necessities such as mobility, clean water, literacy, medicine, and energy (which people in the anti-consumerist movement take for granted).


Mere resource redistribution will not solve the world’s problems nor provide for sustainable development. Only a system that encourages and empowers people to become more productive and to provide for their own needs offers any hope of sustainable development. With technological progress, affluence, and economic development, people in developing countries will be able to appreciate the environment just as Adbusters’ members do.


A handy thing to keep in mind is that, despite being consumers, people are also creators of resources. We use abundant oil and gas fields–rather than a scarcity such as whales–to light and heat our homes. We use sand to create silicon optic fibers to communicate with each other. Humans address scarcity by finding substitutes that are cheaper, better, and more abundant.


A static analysis always focuses on scarcity. A dynamic analysis, on the other hand, realizes that humans possess, in Julian Simon’s terminology, the infinite resource–knowledge and ingenuity. When people are free to be productive, the people of the earth can all be as rich as Americans are now, and far richer in time. Our intellect allows us to put things to work, to improve both our lives and our environment.


Buy Nothing Day celebrates the decision not to consume. But most of the world lacks the ability to make such a choice. Rather than promoting guilt for being wealthy and healthy, we ought to empower the less fortunate members of our world to become as wealthy as we are. We must speak out against such elitist paternalism, mainly on behalf of the world’s poor. They have nothing to lose but their poverty.