Buying nothing helps no one

Published May 1, 2001

While most Americans celebrated their blessings, both material and spiritual, on Thanksgiving last year, the anti-consumer movement united to celebrate Buy Nothing Day. They called for a boycott of shopping, buying . . . indeed, consumption itself. Adbusters, an anti-consumption group famous for its “culture jammer” network, focused 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. One Web site even claimed that Buy Nothing Day is “the one day a year we turn off the economy.” Their campaign might well have been endorsed by economist Thorstein Veblen, who at the turn of the nineteenth century coined the derogatory term, “conspicuous consumption.”

Some activists proclaimed the day, “Steal Something Day.” By taking action against capitalist exploitation, “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,” one wrote.

Their rationale? According to these groups, the consumption patterns of the developed world are simply unsustainable. They raise fears of suburban development and climate change: In their view, economic development creates problems, rather than human opportunities.

The anti-consumption group refuses to consider the offsetting benefits of economic growth and technology, and of consumption. Through material wealth, we lead healthier, happier, and more fruitful lives. We have been freed from the toilsome, hand-to-mouth lifestyle that most of the world still leads–a life of subsistence farming, exposure to the elements, disease, and early death. Unfortunately, such “nasty, brutish, and short” lifestyles have been romanticized by these wealthy elites.

It is somewhat ironic that Adbusters rails against technology . . . but uses computers 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 their food, both of which help to eliminate wasted food. And should one of them fall seriously ill, it is a near-certainty they will call an ambulance to take them to a hospital, where modern medical technologies would be used to save their lives.

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

Our lifestyle promotes both environmental and human well being. Resources are used not to willfully “destroy” the Earth, but to help us 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 technologies, allowing for better resource conservation.

In reality, the anti-consumption movement is a cloak donned by groups who seek to impose their vision of society upon us. For instance, they warn we are “running out” of resources . . . but at the same time, they reject technologies that would save resources.

They claim biotechnology is “too risky” for people and for the environment. People might suffer allergic reactions to foods created using biotechnology, they claim (citing no scientific evidence to support this assertion), and biotechnology might 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–but at the same time, the group claims a small number 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–all of which people in the anti-consumerist movement take for granted.

Mere resource redistribution will not solve these problems or provide for sustainable development. Only a system that encourages and empowers these people to become more productive to provide 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.

Despite being consumers, people are also creators of resources. We replace scarce whales with more abundant oil and gas fields 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 we 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. The poor of the world must speak out against such elitist paternalism–they have nothing to lose but their poverty.

Kendra Okonski is a research assistant at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and manager of the Web site, a site that facilitates free-market activism.