Let’s take a curious dive into J.B. MacKinnon’s thought-provoking thought experiment to find out! 

Before we start, you might have some questions…

  1. Firstly, what is a thought experiment?

A thought experiment is an exploration of a hypothetical situation, in this case: a world without shopping.

  1. What do we mean by shopping in this context?

MacKinnon clarifies that by ‘shopping’ he is referring to the whole consumer lifestyle, not just consuming ‘stuff’ but also consuming experiences, like travel.   

Ok, that all makes sense, but what actually is MacKinnon’s thought experiment?

Through his book, The Day the World Stops Shopping, author and journalist J.B. Mackinnon asks; what would happen to both the environment and global economy if we simply ‘stopped shopping’?

A life of sufficiency is not necessarily an original idea so to gain a better understanding of the consequences of ‘stopping shopping’ MacKinnon explores places where shopping is less important, where consumption has slowed down, or where it has never really started. He also speaks to researchers and industry experts who have investigated the effects of stopping shopping.

The thought experiment was brought starkly to life when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. For a time, shopping stopped in countries across the globe. This enabled MacKinnon to dig more deeply into the impact on the planet and human behaviour in a world without shopping.

In terms of how consumerism is currently affecting the planet, MacKinnon finds that:

  • Consumerism contributes to deforestation, water consumption and scarcity, climate change, and pollution.
  • “We are using up the planet at a rate 1.7 times faster than it can regenerate. If everyone consumed like the average American, it would be five times faster”. The problem with this? We only have 1 planet, not 1.7, and certainly not 5.
  • “The clothes we buy today add up to an annual mass of apparel totalling fifty million tonnes – a falling asteroid that size would reduce any major city to rubble”.  
  • Shopping is directly linked to species decline; one of the main ways North Atlantic Right Whales are killed is by cargo ships.
  • We consume unequally. Ecuador, considered by MacKinnon as a model for consumption, is consuming 1 x planet worth of resources. The lifestyle of an average Ecuadorian would look familiar to an average American in the 60s.

MacKinnon meets Fernanda Paez, a taxi driver living in Ecuador. She says, “yes I have a television, what I don’t have is a television in every room”.

What does MacKinnon discover in applying his thought experiment?

The positive consequences of a world without shopping

  • A higher worth is placed on intrinsic values like developing strong relationships, spending time in the natural world, mastering skills, and taking care of our physical and mental health.
  • Materialist values like possession, income, and status decrease.
  • Societies become more equitable when there is less competition to ‘keep up’.
  • Scaling back consumption allows the planet to regenerate. This was evidenced when the COVID-19 pandemic pushed a portion of the globe into lockdown and shopping ceased; emissions were reduced, and wildlife returned. In fact, during the pandemic, as production slowed the skies cleared, particularly in parts of the world where our products are made. And, for example, American crocodiles were seen basking on beaches in Mexico in the absence of mass tourism.

The economic consequences of a world without shopping

“I encourage you all to go shopping more”, George W Bush

MacKinnon engages the help of economist Peter Victor, to simulate the economic consequences of a world that immediately stops shopping.  Victor simulates a “sudden freeze to economic and population growth in Canada. The result: a steep decline in GDP, skyrocketing unemployment, serious government debt and surging poverty”.

MacKinnon frames it as the ‘consumer dilemma’ – we must stop consuming at a rate that is harmful to our planet but if we do this the economy appears to crash.

He says, “The World Resources Institute has labelled consumption as ‘the new elephant in the boardroom’ – a problem too large to be mentioned by the corporations that sell us the stuff we buy”.

That doesn’t sound great… What’s the solution??

Is green growth the answer?

Unfortunately, MacKinnon finds that despite advances in green technology we have not seen a global drop in emissions since its introduction.

What about slowing shopping?

Victor and MacKinnon try another simulation to see if ‘slowing shopping’ works. In his model, Victor slows the rate of consumption to 4%, emphasising that it is not a ‘trivial’ percentage. ‘With further adjustments’ such as changes to tax and sharing more work, he creates a simulation that “provide(s) an adequate standard of living for most people, and reduce(s) pressure on climate and environment”. MacKinnon takes care to explain that the simulation created by Victor remains a capitalist system.

What are MacKinnons conclusions?

In his closing chapters MacKinnon draws attention to the need to slow consumption in combination with green innovation. He observes that we may better realise the potential of “renewable energy […], recycling, water conservation, organic farming”, if we were to balance these things with reduced consumption. He also notes, “technology can reduce the degree to which we need to cut back consumption; reducing consumption narrows the gap technology needs to span”.

MacKinnon describes the market share that companies like Patagonia and Levis have picked up from marketing the concept of slower consumption – making more durable products, maintaining and repairing. Fairphone is also challenging the concept of planned obsolescence with its phones that can be upgraded by the customer without the need to be fully replaced. 

Mackinnon believes that fundamentally, through innovation and slowing down to ‘gradual growth’, we can solve the consumer dilemma.

The question is whether we want to……

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not every man’s greed”, Mahatma Gandhi

‘If consumer spending increased by 25% in the last 15 years in the US – did we also see a 25% increase in life satisfaction’? J.B MacKinnon in an interview with Kansas City Library.

MacKinnon proposes a new possibility in his closing statements:

“Suppose we start with a more humble goal: to reduce consumption by 5 percent across the rich world. That would take us back to the lifestyle of a couple of years ago, a shift we might hardly feel. Yet everything would begin to change, from our desires to the role of economics to the future of planetary climate. It might be the end of the world as we know it. It will not be the end of the world”.

To note: Through his research, MacKinnon engages a diverse range of perspectives, for example, from different geographies. He covers a range of consequences of stopping shopping however he does not consider in comprehensive detail the impact on livelihoods of those unable to afford these goods who are likely to be very gravely affected by an unplanned drop in consumption, such as those experienced in Bangladesh during the COVID-19 pandemic

Direct quotes taken from, The Day the World Stops Shopping, J.B. MacKinnon, 2021

Be Curious!

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