When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the global economy plummeted. But the world also noticed something else: cleaner air, the re-emergence of wildlife and a large drop in carbon emissions. Despite the short pause in retail activity over the past year, global consumption of natural resources has been increasing for decades. In his new book, The Day the World Stops Shopping, Vancouver author J.M. MacKinnon explores how sustainable consumption could benefit the environment and add to the quality of life without causing mass unemployment or economic hardship. He writes about people who buy and earn less, so they have more time for learning, building relationships and being close to nature. He also profiles some business owners in Japan whose companies span generations, and where continuity, as well as worker and customer satisfaction, are valued over market growth.
Alice Hopton spoke to MacKinnon, a longtime environmental writer, who said he wrote the book after realizing “that all of the things I was writing about had their roots in consumption.”
What was your aim with this book?
The main question I wanted to answer was, how do we move past this dilemma we’re in as consumers, whereby it really seems like the planet needs us to consume less, but any time we do that, we see it play out disastrously in the economy.
Did you feel like the pandemic was your imagination coming to life?
It was so extraordinary. I was nearly done a book about the world stopping shopping and all of a sudden the world stopped shopping. And it reinforced everything I had found up to that point — from the very clear fact that, yes, if we stop shopping, there are dire economic consequences that have to be taken very seriously, through to changes in the way we behave, changes in the way corporations sell products to us, changes in the environment. All of those things that I’d been looking at played out in front of my eyes.
Now that COVID-19 case counts are coming down, there is talk of “revenge shopping.”
History tells us that’s probably where things are going. But I do think a lot of people are going to feel uneasy about it. Some of us feel completely despairing about it.
It’s important to understand where [the idea of revenge shopping] comes from because it’s very strongly encouraged — political leaders and business leaders call for a consumer-driven recovery from these downturns. We are much more deeply immersed in values of materialism and consumerism than I think most of us realize.
We really have to start talking about how we structure our lives and society so we can start to develop the skills of living in a different way.