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The movement for involuntary complexity

Year after year, the Adbusters Magazine propagandizes “Buy Nothing Day”:

On Nov 25/26th we escape the mayhem and unease of the biggest shopping day in North America and put the breaks on rabid consumerism for 24 hours. Flash mobs, consumer fasts, mall sit-ins, community events, credit card-ups, whirly-marts and jams, jams, jams!

The idea, I suppose, is the usual sort of thing: make a stand, send a message, have something to talk and write about... and then go right back to consuming. On the day after “Buy Nothing Day,” for instance, you could buy a glossy copy of Adbusters Magazine at the check-out counter at Whole Foods. Last I checked, you could do so in the more liberal Cambridge, Massachusetts, but not in the more conservative Brookline, Massachusetts right across the river. The cultural battle lines are clearly drawn.

You'd certainly want to prepare for “Buy Nothing Day” to survive it intact, by buying everything you need to make it through the day ahead of time. And then, of course, nobody could possibly expect you to actually buy nothing if that weren't convenient. Say you came down with diarrhea, and your medicine cabinet just happened to be flat out of Loperamide or Bismuth Subsalicylate. How inconvenient! Does Addbusters expect you to stay on the potty for 24 hours? Of course not! They are not monsters, they sell magazines with all sorts of cute stuff in them!

And I write books and publish a blog. And I find it helpful that so many people are aware that there is such a thing as Consumerism, with a big ‘C’, like the old Communism of yesteryear, because there is a sort of Politburo of the Consumerist Party, if you will, made of product developers and brand managers and advertisers and marketers. Instead of putting on red arm-bands, marching in lock-step, and saluting, you are branded with a logo, and exhibit your brand loyalty in a more subtle, understated way: in the way you spend your money. The reason I find it helpful that you are aware of this is that, in writing for this blog, I find it much easier, psychologically, to point out what's wrong rather than pretend that everything is all right, which is what I would have had to do if you had no clue.

The point is, we are running out of planet. We've changed the chemistry of the atmosphere to a point where the oceans are turning too acidic for coral and shellfish to grow. There are giant patches of floating plastic in mid-ocean which, as it degrades, is poisoning the entire oceanic food chain. We've already consumed all the high-grade, concentrated mineral ores and fossil fuel reserves, are now reduced to crushing tonnes of rock to get at the little bit that's left and exploiting marginal energy resources like tar sands, shale oil and gas and dirty brown coal. And if we keep going this way, then we will all surely die a horrible, suffocating, hot, toxic death.

If you are still with me, let's take a running jump at this Consumerist conspiracy, impale ourselves on the pikes of its protectors, slather them in our blood and gore, and hope that so doing demoralizes them to a point where they can no longer get up in the morning, look at themselves in the mirror, and go do their stupid planet-destroying job. Or, better yet, let's just chat amicably.

To start with, let's draw a line between Consumerism and just plain old consumption. Every living thing consumes something and then, after some series of biochemical processing steps, sheds it or excretes it. Sulfur-reducing bacteria consume sulfur, and produce foul-smelling hydrogen sulfide. But what sets these bacteria apart is that they do not depend on Chinese migrant workers to hand-roll little balls of sulfur for them to consume, packaged on polystyrene trays and shrink-wrapped in polyethylene film, and these bacteria do not have to drive to a large store to get their sulfur for a good price. They just grow where there happens to be some sulfur for them to reduce: in your own gut, for instance.

This pattern holds true for all life forms with the exception of us shoppers and, of course, our pets. Everything else eats what they kill, gather, or grow directly in or on top of, and they never pay for any of it. There is only one thing that we don't pay for, and that is oxygen, although there are now oxygen bars, where you can pay for that too, and I see a lot of people walking around with oxygen tanks. Your ability to stay alive depends on your ability to spend money (or for somebody else to spend money on your behalf). It doesn't have to be this way: people have lived, and some still live, getting what they need directly from nature, without paying for any of it, but they've become a rarity.

The normal pattern now is for all of our needs to be commercially mediated by a global, monolithic, totalitarian Consumerist state. Since this way of doing things is tremendously wasteful and inefficient, we are forced to spend all of our time slaving away to support the Consumerist state, leaving precious little time for consuming. And as resources run short, more and more of us are simply left out: our labor is not needed, and, with our spending ability evaporating, our options dwindle to a very few generally unpleasant ones.

There are far more efficient ways to live. By far the most efficient method is simply taking what you need in the most direct way possible: pluck something, and pop it in your mouth. There is no harvesting, shipping, storage, sorting, processing, packaging, marketing, licensing, distribution, point of sale, transportation or recycling of shipping materials involved. You chew it, and then you swallow it. Everything else happens automatically, while you are doing something else.

This hand-to-mouth technique is good, but it doesn't fulfill all of our complex physical and cultural needs: we need cooked food that includes some animal protein, clothing and shelter. These can also be obtained directly from nature, but that is where life gets complicated. It is one thing to buy a product; it is quite another to create one from scratch. It certainly isn't impossible—uneducated, illiterate tribes have provided for all of their own needs for thousands of years—but we have lost this ability.

Now, after many years of education and training, we feel lucky if we can just do our jobs, which involve providing for some else's needs, not our own or those of our families. And when we are not working, the best we can do is decide what we want to buy, or, the most difficult thing of all, decide what we want to buy and then refuse to buy it because we realize that we don't need it. But we do have needs, and these can only be met by picking a product, and paying for it.

There are a few alternatives, such as trash-picking and dumpster-diving, and these are viable for some people, but not everywhere and not all the time. Trash-picking and other forms of reuse have become increasingly difficult, because the manufacturers are onto us: now products are made to have a very finite useful life and to be unmaintainable. Even cars have become disposable: now they have bodies that are welded around the engine, and the engines themselves can no longer be overhauled.

Some people are looking beyond such humble adaptations. For example, there is the movement for Voluntary Simplicity, which now has an institute that has produced a number of research papers on the subject, has conducted public surveys, and counts among its members a number of luminaries from the Permaculture movement. Their web site does contain some practical documents that sketch out ways of reducing one's burn rate to around $30 a week. (I think that's called Voluntary Poverty.) They have asked me to write something for them; I suppose that this is it. The picture on the main page of their web site shows an idyllic, rural landscape with a smoothly paved road and mechanically mowed grass. There seem to be some bungalows beneath a stand of majestic trees. Golf, anyone?

To me, this picture expresses the essence of alternative consumer choice. You too can escape to a rural paradise where you can learn to grow all of your own food, and perhaps go on to teach classes on how to do it. All you need is half a million dollars to get started. The beauty of this plan is that you can do this and still remain middle-class, maintaining all of your cultural standards and predilections, such as mechanically mowed grass lawns and roads paved with tarmac, and do it all away from all the poor dark-skinned people.

Or, if you don't have half a million dollars, you can go native/feral, and avail yourself of consumer offerings catering to the native/feral movement, complete with Chinese-made loincloths and spear points and seasonal campgrounds where you can hone your wilderness survival skills.

My own favorite movement is called The Movement for Involuntary Complexity. The way it works is, nobody wants to join it, because it just doesn't sound at all pleasant. But then people find out that they are part of it anyway. Their resources are limited, they face a huge number of complicated problems, and they try to solve them the best they can. It is complicated to sort out your needs from your wants given all the commercial signals bombarding our senses. It is even more complicated to find a way to provide for these needs without becoming a slave to wage labor. Yet more complicated is convincing your family that this is all necessary, and appearing “normal” to the abnormal Consumerists all around you.

It will only get more complicated. As the economy continues to dwindle and more and more Consumerist fledgelings find themselves tossed out of the Consumerist nest, they will need convincing and coaching as well. Their transition to complexity will be about as involuntary as it gets. I think it's better to embrace Involuntary Complexity early on; after all, what choice do you have? You might as well just get on with it.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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