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Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Less is More Project: Week 37 - Is it your duty to shop? And a new goal!

J0sh, Flickr

After the 9-11 events, in a "business as usual" kind of approach, George W. Bush enjoined the U.S. nation to "go shopping". Life had to get back to normal, and for a large number of Americans, "normal" could be equated with shopping: 

"Most people in developed societies spend large percentages of their waking hours shopping, preparing to shop, or being urged to do so." (Thomas Hine, I Want That! How we all Became Shoppers)

Shopping is indeed at the core of the North American culture and economy. In fact, when it comes to minimalism, a common worry is that if everyone stopped shopping, the economy would collapse:

"If everyone became a minimalist, then we’d all be doomed: the financial system as it stands today would collapse, and no longer would we have the wealth necessary to purchase cheap plastic shit from Walmart." (Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus on The Minimalists website)

The theory goes along those lines: shopping stimulates economic growth, and economic growth is good, so make sure you shop.

Today's question is: 

Do you owe it to your country's economy to go shopping? 

That shopping stimulates the economy is not up for debate. That economic growth is desirable, however, is questionable. The proponents of economic growth usually base their enthusiasm on the premise that economic growth is both beneficial and harmless. But is that really the case?

Focusing on growth at all costs obscures its limitations and, more importantly, the precise costs that inevitably come with it:

"Our measures of growth are deeply flawed in that they are purely measures of activity in the monetized economy. Expanded use of cigarettes and alcohol increases economic output both as a direct consequence of their consumption and because of the related increase in health care needs. The need to clean up oil spills generates economic activity. Gun sales to minors generate economic activity. A divorce generates both lawyers fees and the need to buy or rent and outfit a new home-increasing real estate brokerage fees and retail sales. It is now well documented that in the United States and a number of other countries the quality of living of ordinary people has been declining as aggregate economic output increases [...] All too often what growth in GNP really measures is the rate at which the economically powerful are expropriating the resources of the economically weak in order to convert them into products that all too quickly become the garbage of the rich." (Based on When Corporations Rule the World by David C. Korten)

We have seen, in the past decade, what happens when people respond enthusiastically to the invitation to consume goods, big and small (think houses, among other things): a recession in due form, with all the problems that come with it: 

""We have more will than wallet," the president's father said in 1989 during his own inaugural address. That is again painfully true today. The 2008 election finds the Pentagon cupboard bare, the U.S. Treasury depleted, the economy in disarray and the average American household feeling acute distress. Profligacy at home and profligacy abroad have combined to produce a grave crisis. This time around, telling Americans to head for Disney World won't work. The credit card's already maxed out, and the banks are refusing to pony up for new loans." (The Washington Post

As of August 2015, the average consumer debt was still $15,000 in the U.S. More precisely: 

"U.S. household consumer debt profile:
  • Average credit card debt: $15,706
  • Average mortgage debt: $156,333
  • Average student loan debt: $32,953"
(Nerd Wallet)

It is obvious that shopping is not the solution to anything, and we haven't even talked about the environmental impact yet.

For an increasing number of researchers, whether or not our economy thrives is losing relevance as the environment shows more and more signs of an upcoming disaster (which, needless to say, will affect the economy as well):

"The perpetual growth myth [...] promotes the impossible idea that indiscriminate economic growth is the cure for all the world's problems, while it is actually the disease that is at the root cause of our unsustainable global practices."

(collective of Blue Planet environmental prize winners

Perhaps, then, the main problem isn't what decreasing consumption will do to the economy as we know it, but what not decreasing consumption has already been shown to do to our own well-being and that of the planet:

"We should be more than skeptical of an economic model that calls on us to give up all loyalty to place and community, says we must give free reign to securities fraud and corporate monopolies and deny workers the right to organize, and tells the poor to run faster and faster after a train they have no chance of catching—so that a few hundred thousand people can become multi-millionaires by destroying nature and depriving others of a decent means of livelihood." (Based on When Corporations Rule the World by David C. Korten)

Think you are not to blame, and that big corporations are the culprit? Of course they are. But each and every time we open our wallet or type in our credit card number, we "vote" for this consumerist system that is so detrimental to all living things, humans included. Without us supporting them, the unethical corporations would not survive very long. This is yet another reason why I have become so circumspect in the way I spend my money.


If economic growth, stimulated by shopping, is neither beneficial nor harmless, then what are the alternatives?

In the event that everybody decides to ditch shopping, the economy as we know it will certainly collapse, but it will give rise to another type of economy that we have yet to discover. An already existing parallel economy might grow : 

"Parallel economy [...] encompasses areas such as household food cultivation, home construction and renovation, and community initiatives such as barter and bulk buying." (Juliet B. Schor, True Wealth)

As they embrace minimalism, people will spend money they do have on things they can afford, focusing on experiences more than objects, and investing in local economies:

"Minimalists invest in experiences over possessions. Travel, indie concerts, vacations, community theater, etc.: we can all spend money without acquiring new material things [...] Minimalists support local businesses. Local, indie shops tend to be less motivated by profit." (The Minimalists

In any case, we will all benefit from such a shift:

"We're at a crucial point in history. We cannot have fast cars, computers the size of credit cards, and modern conveniences, while simultaneously having clean air, abundant rainforests, fresh drinking water, and a stable climate [...] Gadgetry or nature? Pick the wrong one and the next generation may have neither. (Mark Boyle, The Moneyless Man - A Year of Freeconomic Living)

Additional readingThe Growth Illusion: how economic growth has enriched the few, impoverished the many and endangered the planet, by Richard Douthwaite.


One of the last things that needed to be decluttered in my house was the bar and cellar. Your belongings should mirror your lifestyle; it turns out that hard liquors are not something we consume, and neither do our friends and family members, with some rare exceptions. Once the bottles are finished (who knows when that will happen), I have decided I will not replace them. As for wine, it seems like our tastes don't match that of the people we hang out with either, and that the custom here is for everyone to BYOB (as opposed to me ceremoniously uncorking a meticulously picked bottle and serving everyone). So. I will still pair my nicest meals with my favourite wines, but I will not maintain a collection.

Drum roll... new goal!!!

I have been thinking hard about what should be ditched from my life. What is superfluous, and causes me more grief than good? The answer was not what I expected:


Sugar hurts me.

Sugar has to go.

In coming up with that I did not have to read any articles or rely on any theory about the "evils of sugar". Here I am relying solely on my own gut feeling (literally): when I eat sugar, I feel crappy. And for that valid reason, I will say "goodbye, sugar!" Here is the rule of thumb: any food (except for fruit) that contains more than 5 grams of sugar per portion will be off-limits. Based on my observations, that should get rid of most desserts, plus unhealthy breakfasts, sweet snacks and drinks. I will refrain from drinking fruit juice as well (even the "no sugar added type"), simply because it also makes me feel crappy.

I will let you know how that goes! I'm expecting it will be as follows:
1) Cranky
2) Very cranky
3) Extremely cranky
4) Less cranky
5) Barely cranky
6) Feeling awesome

Your turn to share about your struggles and victories of the week! What did you resist? Did you donate or get rid of anything? Did you face any challenge? Please comment below! And...

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  1. I wish i could teach the whole western world about the principles you are talking about. Instead I might have had some small successes teaching my children.

    When i temporarily gave up sugar I didnt get cranky at all but I did spend a lot of time in the first few days feeling very hungry.

  2. This was pretty interesting, thanks! I'm not much of a shopper,although I have heard the term "shopping therapy." I suppose versus drugs, it's preferable :-)

    1. Even better is running therapy, but I don't need to tell you that. :-)

  3. Society is malleable, and creates its own borders. If we "ditch" shopping the effect would be large in one sense, and equally negligible in another. The sky is falling. The sky is falling. Funny though, it never hits the ground...

  4. I'm afraid we've been letting the economy down over here.......seems to be managing just fine without us.

  5. Definitely good to cut down on sugars ...

    All the best Jan

  6. Im a rebel :-) I dont think we OWE anything and if we all shifted en masse eventually all would right itself again.