Book Review-The Day the World Stops Shopping

By Jennifer Knoch

A planet with finite resources, an economic system that is based on the assumption of infinite growth–that, we know, is the central tension of our time, the essential equation that needs solving. In the imaginative and compelling The Day the World Stops Shopping, J.B. MacKinnon tries a thought experiment. What would happen to the world if people in rich countries bought 25% less? He starts by laying out the consequences of our addiction to stuff, how we’re routinely overshooting planetary capacity, “like we’re spending all of our salary each year, then taking more than half again as much money out of the savings we’d planned to pass down to our children, and spending that too.” 

The Day the World Stops Shopping
Photo sourced from: https://tinyurl.com/b2hpj8xu

But MacKinnon goes beyond the material consequences to the culture itself, exploring our overworked, time-starved lives, how people are working harder than ever, but still feel behind. How we’re focused on extrinsic goals (ones that confer status or external reward) rather than intrinsic ones (ones that feel innately good). If we lived with less, what kind of people could we be? Would we actually be better off? 

His sweeping tour through the alternate future makes many stops, some surprising. What would happen to factory workers in Bangladesh? What about the whales? What happens to light pollution? Is technology an answer? Would we love stuff more, or less? What will people wear? What happens to the advertising industry? Would we just shop for virtual objects? Would it be just like COVID shutdowns? Would we finally be happy?

MacKinnon’s speculation is based on talking to experts, from economists to sociologist to CEOs. It’s also based on excellent reporting amongst people living differently now, including a hunter-gatherer community in the Kalahari Desert, who are guided by sufficiency, not chasing more, and people on the island of Sado in Japan, which lives in the aftermath of a tourist boom. Its population has dropped by more than half from its peak. Many of its houses and businesses are in ruins. But the remaining people have pursued a different kind of life, one not defined by growth, where people have breathing room and money still flows. People there are often makers, and companies don’t just measure their profits, but the number of toki, a crane-like bird, that can be found. 

On the personal side, MacKinnon finds his journey through shopping leads him to buying “fewer, better everything”, from goods to travel to media consumption. He understands what he finally wants his shopping to be like. But he knows too that degrowth isn’t something that can be accomplished by individuals. After all, groups from the Puritans to the hippies have tried. What’s needed in rich countries is coordinated and widespread action. This includes things like lifespan labelling, product regulations, job-sharing programs, effective taxation, and universal basic income might make for a slower, smaller, more just economy that’s less damaging to people and the planet. 

Does this halt climate change? No, not when many countries still need growth to improve basic living standards, and when poorer countries now release more carbon than rich ones. But it doesn’t mean that a little less growth wouldn’t be a good thing in countries where excess is a way of life. 

In the end, MacKinnon suggests that we can slow growth. Humans will adapt. The economy will survive. Even a 5% reduction in consumption in wealthy countries would only turn the clock back by a few years. But there’s a bigger, scarier question. Will we want to?