The other night I went down the YouTube rabbit hole of outdoor pizza oven projects. YouTube associated my search of “rain barrel stands” with other doityourselfer guy videos and, just like that, I’m sucked into the weird but very cool amateur world of people who use exercise balls and placemats to create wood-fired Pompeii ovens.
I’m not really into wood-fired pizza. But, I mean, I could develop the hobby (never mind the fact I’d have to use gluten-free crust).
Renee, sensing that her husband had started to sprout ideas, looked over my shoulder to see what I kept watching on YouTube. Shaking her head, she gently pointed to a suggested video in my stream.
How to build your own swimming pool.
For many of us, this pandemic has been a reset on many different levels. How do I use my time? How do I structure my day? What does virtual work look like with kids hollering in the background? What projects to I embrace? How do I learn and what do I learn? How do I spend money?
That last question, I think, is particularly relevant in an economy of uncertainty and an economy where we, well, don’t spend as much. Which is why I found Anne Helen Petersen’s article “I Don’t Feel Like Buying Stuff Anymore” so fascinating. I encourage everyone to read the article, but here are some thoughts.
First, Recognize Your Blessings
This is not a gripe post. And I want to keep things real. My household is blessed and lucky to (still) have jobs, a home to live, and a profession that doesn’t put me in harm’s way (nor requires me to be deemed “essential”). Many Americans cannot say the same. For them, the future is a scary specter of uncertainty and challenges.
We all need to keep empathy front and center (versus me and my own). I genuinely believe it’s the only way to create a better world for my kids and your grandkids.
All of this is to say I recognize that some of these thoughts come from a place a privilege. I don’t like that, and I think we should work to create a more equal society.
Our Economy Relies On All of Us Buying Stuff
Quite literally. Consumer spending compromises 70% of our GDP (well, at least it did pre-Covid). When we stop buying goods and services, we have recessions. Dominos fall. And troubles are far more likely to settle into our daily existence.
I am simplifying things a good bit (and for that reason, please read the article). But I think it’s interesting how, particularly in the past 100 years, Americans have been told to do their patriotic duty and spend, spend, spend.
In A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America , historian Lizabeth Cohen traces the origins of this ideology to the 1930s, as the needs, protection, and veneration of the consumer began to supersede those of the worker. The consumer could do their American duty (and preserve the food chain) by not buying during World War II — and funneling any excess money into war bonds. But once the war was over, Americanism was expressed by engagement in mass consumption. The more Americans bought, the more American factories produced — and the more America could assert its status as a new global superpower.
This idea was ingrained in the American psyche, sometimes quite explicitly. Cohen points to a Life magazine photo spread from 1947, published under the headline “Family Status Must Improve: It Should Buy More for Itself to Better the Living of Others.” The piece argued that “a health and decency standard for everyone” meant every American family buying, well, a whole lot of stuff: a washing machine, a suit for Dad, a high chair, new cabinets, a new telephone.(The COVID-19 Recession May Change The Way Americans Spend Forever)
There are lots of long and thoughtful conversations we can have about materialism, capitalism, happiness, and prosperity. I believe there is also a critical distinction between buying goods versus buying services. I think GDP is a moderately crappy metric for measuring the health of a society and the health of the planet (we need something better). But I want to focus on the questions Petersen raises. Namely:
- What if we (America / The World) stopped buying so much stuff?
- What would we do instead?
Getting Lost in Projects
Which brings me back to those pizza ovens. Projects do require spending and assume costs. But I’d argue the expense is different. Instead of “normalizing” the conspicuous consumption of “American Prosperity”, you’re shifting the norm to being a producer and creator yourself. Inherently you begin to appreciate not only what you can do but also the impact of consuming resources (be they time or material) has on you and society.
I could spend my time looking for recycled bricks (or learning how to make them). Form connections with other hobbyists. Invite friends over to help build (or, at the very least, enjoy pizza). My orientation becomes centered around the experience and outcome rather than the click and expectation of an Amazon delivery truck.
Far more satisfying.
Of course, this would have profound and lasting impacts on the economy. To get through to the other side of the alignment, where we as people and society are doing better than now, would require massive (and rapid) social change. That terrifies me (I am a historian).
Pandemics are terrifying. And they’re also consequential (the Black Death effectively ended feudalism, kicking off the rise of nation-states and modern economies). What will this world look like post Coronavirus? What do we want it to be?
I’m hoping for a world where we can create, learn, and grow without having to worry about the basics.
Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but me my daily bread.Proverbs 30: 8
Two science fiction books come to mind on this topic of consumption.
Walkaway by Cory Doctorow
A wonderful and great read that explores a world where, due to advances in technology, anyone can produce anything with printers. This, of course, leads to all kinds of destruction of current political and economic institutions. Lots of fun concepts here.
Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
It also features printers that produce most basic needs. But instead of a more egalitarian world, you get a world with incredibly high levels of inequality. The poor survive, but the really rich live spectacular lives.
Related (but non-fiction)
Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman
Quite a few good points in this handbook. One key one that I like to remember: From a historical perspective, humans today live in a Utopia.