Even without engaging in philosophical hand-wringing (read on, folks!), dialling down your habit of buying stuff makes sense in an economy where purchasing has resulted in record personal debt.
Before accounting for mortgages, the average UK household debt is £13,000 (~€14,500). Meanwhile in the USA, the average household owes $15,654 (~€13000) in credit card debt alone - and that’s before you consider mortgages, car loans and student debt.
As a society, we’re dumbly hooked on buying stuff, and those debt levels show that what we’re buying, we don’t really need. And as we stumble blindly into the next great, automation-driven societal shift, carrying large levels of personal debt might prove to be incredibly self-destructive.
So what if everyone really did… stop buying stuff? Well, it turns out that, if you could convince people to do it, we’d have a narrow shot at a wholly new world of purchase, spending and consumption. There’s also a good chance things would go very wrong. Here’s how.
“Disaster scenario” one: everyone stops buying stuff
What would happen if people completely stopped buying things? Surely our world’s economy would explode, and we’d be buried under a mountain of unwanted fidget spinners, courgetti spiralisers and novelty vape pens. Meanwhile, pestilence, chaos and cannibalism would rage on the streets.
Actually, probably not.
The likelihood of us suddenly shifting to a world where we decide, en masse, to weave our own clothes from flax is unlikely: we’re pretty much always going to buy things produced by others.
Simply buying less would initiate some basic but meaningful changes. If people bought less, they’d need less money; so then they could work less, which means as a consequence they’d produce less stuff... which would be fine, because people would now be buying less stuff, and so on.
There are already some people, who have possibly over-invested in the past, that believe their lives are now rich enough, and have created a lifestyle that embraces a low-purchase future.
Geoffrey Szuszkiewicz figured out that he already had it all: security, family, friends and happiness - and that ownership of physical things had become a “burden.” He stopped buying things except necessities like food, saved a ton of money, and went travelling with it instead.
He told his family he’d be making them preserves as Christmas presents and found that he, “experienced this huge release and liberation from cultural norms when you stop spending.”
The truth is that, as a society, we don’t need to take such a drastic step to make a large change. At the very least, you could buy fewer Christmas presents - assuming you can convince your family that you're doing it for the sake of humanity.
“Disaster scenario” two: everyone keeps on buying stuff
We are drowning in debt. If the above debt statistics give you pangs of anxiety, then please feel raw, twitchy empathy for everyone’s favourite generational punchbag, the Millennials, who, according to one survey, are more scared of their credit card debt than they are of the biggest payback of all: death.
There is a disconnect between buying stuff and then needing to pay for it. But the likelihood is that people are just going to keep on buying. So what can we do to stop us from being buried under “Urgent” credit card bills?
We’ve entered a time where if-you-want-it-you-have-to-buy-it is old hat - so we have a chance to do things differently. It doesn’t need to be extreme either - there are a few options, and not all of them are of the bartering-goat-milk-with-your-neighbour variety.
Today, you can borrow things instead of buying them. Or create your own localised “gifting economy” where you exchange things that have, essentially, "zero value," yet enrich your life. Or, for those that like lingering at the edges, you can opt out of buying completely.
(It’s worth pointing out at this point that MONTAG’s friendly benefactor, Grover, is addressing this issue in a very modern way: just rent the Nintendo Switch, or iPhone, or whatever, for as long as you want/need it, then send it back. Easy.)
All of these approaches are not merely de-cluttering - they’re conceptual shifts away from ownership. This movement of “de-ownership”, where people consciously switch from a pattern of making money to buy things to making money to create the feeling of living, is perhaps seen in our friends the digital nomads.
We’ve delved before into the lives of Taylor and Kaitlyn, two successful digital nomads who exploring the world, running businesses, and living out of a carry-on bag. Their discovery - that you could opt out of a system of buying stuff, and buy life instead - is perhaps the most persuasive argument of all.
Sure, keep buying the stuff you really need, but what if you used the money you would have frittered away on memories instead?
”Disaster” scenario three: we opt out of the idea of “buying”
Practitioners of the anti-consumerist movement, also known as “minimalism” or “mindful consumerism”, says that - broadly - they value time and experience over money. Their approach is the extreme version of nomadism, and some anti-consumerists take their beliefs to impressive extremes.
Noting that the strength of fiat currency is based solely on the faith of the users, some brave outliers are looking to jag away from this “money delusion.” They want a wholly different type of economy: one that exists without cash, and returns to one of favours and gifts, trades and barters.
Mark Boyle is aiming to realise his dream of a “fully localised, land-based gift economy” in the remote nook of Éire where he lives.
There’s a sweetness and believability to Mark’s lifestyle that negates any reflexive cynicism. Ever happy to spread the word, he will come and speak at your venue or event - with these cute provisos:
“Accommodation: A couch will suffice, or even a semi-comfortable floor. A bed would be wonderful.”
“Traveling expenses: Mark makes every effort to walk, cycle or hitch-hike to talks.”
Like any lifestyle guru, helping other people understand your life is good business. Mark lived off the proceeds of his first book, The Moneyless Man, for three years, and has released more books since.
His writings are a mixture of fascinating facts (“birch polypore (a bracket fungus that you’ll find on birch trees) is a perfect moneyless alternative to plastic plasters”) and ambitious legal philosophy (instead of paying Council Tax, “offer some of your time and knowledge to the local community in any way that is helpful to them.)
Still not convinced by Mark’s moneyless ethos? You can read his book, moneyless-ly, online. Besides Mark’s manifesto, it has some - erm - colourful stories, such as the one from which the following sentence is culled: “I got some fresh comfrey, ground it up, made a poultice out of it and sat with it on my testicles for hours on end.”
Mark - and the many people like him who live in a sort of legal and monetary hinterland - are enjoying a life without buying anything at all, and surviving. While their approach is in extremis, there is certainly a lot to learn from their approach.
For the people like him, ploughing this harder furrow, the future is perhaps not bright, but is at the very least a glimmering shade of grey.
One Very Important Thought: we might actually need to stop buying things to be able to live
Considering humanity’s propensity to do things that are in turns maddening, infuriating, self-destructive and hilariously counter to common sense, any major change would most likely take place when it becomes unavoidable.
We might actually have to stop buying so much stuff. Baumol’s Cost Disease postulates that as the price of the manufacture of goods goes down due to the increased productivity of automation, the price of non-automatable services will go up.
And these difficult-to-automate services are important things like, oh, you know, education, healthcare and housing.
Counter-intuitively, the faster we innovate and cycle through new technology, the more quickly the price for everything else goes up. And here’s the hook: the humans can only do the jobs for services that aren’t automated, and the cost of buying those same services go up faster than their wage increase.
A graceful adjustment within society would be more fun than a difficult, abrupt one (although it doesn’t take a cynic to guess that we may well take the latter route), but a new balance is possible: renting what we don’t need to own, and switching our attention to developing new technologies where we really need them.
And if people really did decide to suddenly no longer buy things? Well, capitalism - built on a continual, short-term need for people to buy more, newer stuff - is then rocked to its foundations.
And dealing with that kind of problem tends to be even less fun than scavenging for bark fungus to cover an open wound.