Reading J.B. MacKinnon’s latest book, The Day the World Stops Shopping, sharpened my vague disquiet about each online purchase into a burning shame over their accumulated harmfulness, as if I were focusing a microscope. It took me about a week — or four packages — to read it.
Before the final chapter, I had deleted my Amazon account.
MacKinnon didn’t set out to make his readers feel guilty, but he admits that his book makes it hard to avoid the impacts of their personal habits.
“I’ve had people say it’s not a preachy book, and I take that as a high compliment,” he said. “But I guess a confrontation with our habits is pretty much inevitable.”
That said, The Day the World Stops Shopping decries easy answers about the massive, global problem of overconsumption. Instead, in 352 pages, it envisions what would really happen — economically, environmentally, psychologically — if we stopped buying so much stuff all the time.
“For a long time, the message has been ‘buy less stuff.’ That’s very attractive, but it ignores the other aspect, which is that if we all actually did that tomorrow, the economy would collapse and society as we know it would end,” he explained. “So we’ve been talking about simplicity too simply. We need to take it seriously, and understand that it involves big changes and that there are people who are vulnerable to terrible consequences.”
MacKinnon’s thought experiment takes him around the world, from Namibia to Ecuador to Japan, using real-world examples of individuals, communities and entire countries that experienced profound shifts in their consumer habits to illuminate the possibilities. But he also invites the reader to look inward and ask themselves: is all this shopping buying anything of true value?
It’s a book of straightforward questions with complicated answers.
The author of five books of non-fiction, MacKinnon is also an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of British Columbia, where he teaches feature writing. His best-known previous work is another experiment followed all the way to its logical conclusion: The 100-Mile Diet, a year-long immersive experiment in hyper-local eating co-authored with his partner, Alisa Smith. Similar to that book, The Day the World Stops Shopping uses personal narratives to unearth unexpected and insightful truths about the hidden impacts of our daily habits.
Before retreating to northern B.C. for two weeks of offline bliss, MacKinnon gamely answered questions from The Tyee about his reading habits and the perils of over-consumption. I told him this interview — which has been edited for length — would be published by the time he returned to online life, so here it is.
Michelle Cyca: Do you remember what book or author made you want to be a writer?
J.B. Mackinnon: John Steinbeck. I went through a little binge of reading Steinbeck when I was pretty young, young enough that I don’t know exactly how old I was. Certainly a kid.
What I saw in his writing was that you could describe the real world, but in literary terms. I think that represented how I experienced the world in a way that I hadn’t encountered before, which was that we’re grounded in this concrete reality plot and characters are playing out all around us, and yet there’s some kind of internal interpretive machine that’s turning it all into poetics and myth and storytelling.
Ever since then, I’ve been able to see it. Every writer seems to walk that line between those two things in their own particular way. And I think Steinbeck was the first I read who walked in a way that was pretty similar to the way I experienced the world.
In the acknowledgements, you write that The Day the World Stops Shopping was “written in the tradition of non-fiction thought experiments and fictional reimagining of reality.” You cite two influences — The World Without Us and News from Nowhere. Can you tell me about those?
I think there’s kind of a long history — not always of non-fiction thought experiments — but those in which a writer sets up a new condition and plays out how things might go from there.
News from Nowhere is a fictional portrayal of England operating on socialist principles effectively — like socialist-agrarian-localist principles. I liked the style and the way it reinvents the world, but I also found that one a little bit cautionary because it’s very utopian, and I just find maybe there was a point in which utopian writing would be attractive to a lot of readers, but I don’t think that’s the case right now. Most of us are skeptical and cynical and pessimistic right now, certainly any of us who are paying attention. So I knew I didn’t want to do that — I didn’t want to just portray that if we stop consuming so much then suddenly the world is perfect.
The other one was The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, which imagines what would happen if all humans just disappeared overnight. That’s a simpler, cleaner kind of thought experiment than trying to make a bunch of consumption disappear, but it was a really interesting book, full of surprises. And it helped me see how a thought experiment can take you to unexpected places, which is really what I wanted to do.
What was the most unexpected place your thought experiment took you?
Probably the world of the Indigenous peoples in Namibia and their idea of sharing and gift giving. That really blew my mind, and it took me a long time to wrap my head around why it functioned the way it did. And just my whole encounter with the folks in the Kalahari who have gone millennia with such minimal possessions — bending my head around the complexity of that and how absolutely fundamentally different their approach to the world is than mine, as an archetypal westerner.
That part of the book was really interesting to me and made me think of the tradition of potlatching on the West Coast, because it’s another cultural practice that reaffirms social status through giving possessions away, as opposed to the dominant cultural value of accumulation.
Right. And you’ve seen that reflected occasionally, even in this predominant western system where there are periods in history where the Carnegies, for instance, would go out and build libraries rather than buy 50 sports cars. There have been times where people demonstrated different values through their wealth. But it’s certainly had more historical consistency in lots of Indigenous cultures around the world.
When did you start writing the book? The pandemic provides such an apt case study for your thought experiment, but the enormous amount of research in the book means you must have started working on it long before that.
I’ve been thinking about consumerism for a long time. Really, from the moment that I started doing environmental writing at all, when I was around 19. Maybe even before then, I could see the connections between environmental issues and the drivers of those. Growing up in a wealthy country, the driver is clearly consumption and not population.
I worked at Adbusters magazine for a period of time, because of my interest in consumerism and consumption. But my understanding of why we consume has evolved a lot over time. It really wasn’t until recently that I thought there might be new things to say about it. The message has always been, “We should consume less.” But that message isn’t working.
And that’s when I decided a thought experiment might allow me to push past this consumer dilemma, where our consumption is unsustainable but it is also the thing that keeps the economy running.
I was struck by the statistic in the book that if we cut our consumption by 25 per cent, we’d only be back to where we were just 10 years ago.
Yeah, globally. For the U.S. and Canada, that would take us back maybe 20 years. To me what the numbers represent, the global numbers, is much more complicated. Because the increase in global consumption really represents a lot of people meeting their basic needs in ways they couldn’t before. That’s a complex number.
But in wealthy nations? We’ve added 25 per cent to our consumer spending, inflation adjusted, and what did it get us? Are we getting more quality of life, and well-being, and satisfaction, and happiness? I can’t imagine most people would argue that we are. That is where I think the real focus should lie. What are we translating all this consumption into, other than planetary destruction?
So much of our current consumption is frictionless: we can buy everything online and have it delivered overnight. I don’t even have to enter my PIN now when I buy something in a store, and whenever I do have to, I now experience it as annoying. You acclimate to that degree of ease and then going back feels intolerable.
I think those things relate to time closely. Every bit of friction that we can remove from the things we do day-to-day gives us a tiny bit more time to pack in something else. And so we end up with this sense of time famine. And yet we relate to time differently when things have some friction in them. Like, if I have to make time to walk to the bookstore and buy a book and maybe talk to someone there and make my way back — that kind of thing changes the way we schedule our lives.
When I talked to people who have shifted to practising voluntary simplicity, they would often say that they find value in those things, like walking to buy things at local shops. The walking, the social interaction, the sense that they’re directly supporting someone’s livelihood.... These things represent a different kind of engagement in values.
That’s such a massive internal reorientation, which makes it so challenging. Even when people are dissatisfied with their life or their time famine, the solution is just presented to them as a quick fix, just another thing to buy or a service to sign up for. It’s the same consumer habit, just reoriented toward a slightly different target.
We have all these habits and they constantly feed us the hope that something different will happen this time. And it never does! Adding another time-saving technology almost always will cause us to intensify our schedules and our activity levels, rather than release them. It’s the same way that we can get a dopamine hit off buying something new, but we know it’s not going to last.
I say in the book, we’ve gotten so good at that, that we’ve actually come up with a reasonable facsimile of happiness. If you can keep the hits coming, it resembles happiness without actually being happiness.
I do want to ask you about books. I promised book questions. I want to ask you about something you tweeted a while ago, which is that you heard from library folks that people were reading fewer books from “self-absorbed genres” during the pandemic. First of all, I’m curious what a self-absorbed genre is.
I didn’t get a definition, but my understanding is that they were referring to what would probably be considered self-improvement. And I think the model for self-improvement that they’d be talking about is, “How do I make myself better in accordance with the values and standards of consumer culture?”
Ah, the grim science of continual self-optimization.
Yes. But that was an interesting question. In Maslow’s pyramid, self-actualization is supposedly the peak of [our hierarchy of needs]. But what is the definition of self-actualization? You see people articulating that as “I maximized my productivity,” or “I accumulated the markers of financial success.” Lots of people would consider that self-actualization, but that’s not a form of self-actualization that is inherently satisfying, according to research by psychologists.
Have you ever read something that’s shifted your values on a topic? I feel like you’ve written a book that has the potential to profoundly change the way people think about their consumption habits. Has anything ever done that for you?
I wouldn’t say there’s a particular book, but I’m proud of the fact — particularly in this era — that there’s almost nothing I hold the same opinion about that I held 20 years ago. Most of the ways I see the world are consistent, but my specific beliefs around specific issues have changed on almost everything.
I liked it when writing complexifies my world. That’s the main pattern — throughout my life, my values have become more complex. They’re consistent, but they get more complicated. My perspectives on just about everything become more nuanced and shaded.
It does seem like a perpetual and unfortunate trend in books and media that everything is designed to simplify people’s thinking about things — like, here’s one magical insight to change your life.
I get it all the time: “What’s the takeaway from this book?” The takeaway is in like 300-something pages. If it was a tweet it would be a tweet.
It’s not a welcoming world right now for complex approaches — I think that’s true on the right and the left. But consumption in particular is an area where people would love there to be simple solutions, and that’s why the consistent message has been: live more simply, less is more.
But that message never includes not shopping. It’s just shopping differently, like telling people to buy “green” products or those that are made by businesses that align with your values.
That’s the main response we have to consumerism. That’s just inertia and fear of change. Can we keep all the stuff we have and make it have no impact on the environment? I think that’s magical thinking.
I do feel like you’ve written a hopeful book — without oversimplifying it too much — that’s both optimistic and yet concrete about solutions. Have you read anything lately that’s made you feel hopeful?
This is making me think about how depressing all my reading is.... Probably I should mention that my reading is really random. It’s pretty all over the map.
What are some recent random things you’ve read?
Well, lately I’ve been reading collage books. One that I really enjoyed recently was A History of Bombing by Sven Lindqvist. That’s a good example of a collage book: it’s organized chronologically, covering chunks of history that relate to how we got from not having any bombs, to inventing them, to eventually setting off nuclear weapons. There are chapters, but you can jump from point to point across the timeline, based on the theme of the chapter. A portion of chapter one could appear in any place in the rest of the book, so you can jump through the book to journey through themes. So while it’s not quite a choose-your-own-adventure, it has that feel.
I actually find books that are complex investigations into subject matter hopeful and optimistic. They’re not always hopeful or optimistic in tone, or in any obvious way, but the fact that someone is making a humane and serious investigation into an issue and providing that information to other people is a profoundly hopeful act. I find that writing very attractive.
That’s a lovely way to answer that question, and a surprising way to arrive after using a book called A History of Bombing as your example.
True, but if we all read A History of Bombing, then the next time we were asked to support the Canadian military overseas in something that would lead to the bombing of civilians, we would respond differently. And that’s hopeful.
That’s true. Do you ever read fiction?
I read lots of fiction. I’ve been reading W.G. Sebald: The Rings of Saturn and The Emigrants. He’s a German writer, his work investigates memory in one way or another. They are fictionalized autobiographies. I went through several of his books recently and was very excited to come across his work.
Are you working on any new projects?
I’m working on some magazine, essay-length things. I’m taking a different approach, just getting into them without pursuing an assignment, just doing them at my own speed and length. We’ll see what happens from there. But it’s kind of a way to recover from [The Day the World Stops Shopping], which was very challenging.
So now I just want to drift for a bit and go where I want to go at my own pace. I’m writing a story about cows. I can’t tell you more about it, but it’s been so fun. We’ll see if anyone wants to publish this giant story about cows.
One last question: you’re heading into the woods, so are you taking anything with you to read?
But I probably won’t read much out there — I’m taking a break from words. I do so much reading as research and obviously I do a lot of writing. So in the woods, I just get away from the printed word entirely.
J.B. MacKinnon’s 'The Day the World Stops Shopping' was released May 18 and is published by Random House Canada.
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