I recently started a buy nothing experiment. Minimalism is one of the unintentional themes of this blog, and as I move through life I find myself drifting towards it more and more. I’m an advocate of cutting out unnecessary things from our lives. After all, most of the stuff around us doesn’t really make us all that happy.
We are enticed to consume things by someone else (who wants our time/attention/money) through a combination of advertising, coercion, guilt and shame. But even if we accept this premise of happiness not being correlated with many of the things in our lives, some people wonder if lowering consumption, or minimalism, or whatever you want to call it is actually a terrible thing and will eventually lead to chaos and the destruction of our economy if everyone embraces it. If this is true, should we sacrifice some of our happiness for the greater good?
This is a valid question; after all, we should continuously evaluate our actions and determine if they align with our values. I do not value the wholesale destruction of civilization so I take these questions seriously. Freedom is useless if commerce grinds to a halt and there are no goods and services to purchase for any price.
The logic of the argument goes something like this.
“Our economy is based on consumption. We need people to buy stuff because so many people have jobs that depend on us buying stuff. If everyone stopped we would have massive unemployment because businesses would fail and have to start firing the employees. There would then be shortages of everything, massive inflation/deflation/stagflation and collapse of society, so we must keep working and consuming for the good of the state/country/world/universe. Oh, and the millennials are to blame for it all”.
This is the ever so common “If everyone does ‘X’ then ‘Y’ will happen and it will be catastrophic” argument. For the most part I think these kinds of arguments are a little silly but they are everywhere. I hope to convince you of their silliness and relieve you of any guilt you have about living your life the way you see fit to bring you happiness.
The more things change…
I’ve noticed that people are uncomfortable with change. They see the world as fine just the way it is and don’t want some uppity blogger like me ruining it for everyone. They like their life. Things work, and radical ideas (like not buying crap you don’t need) threatens to bring everything crashing down.
The world seems static. Most of us wake up and pretty much do the same thing every day. We get out of bed, eat, brush our teeth, check our email, go to work, do a mind-numbing repetitive job for 8-10 hours, come home and do a bunch of other tedious and essentially meaningless things that provide us no happiness, etc. But it is comfortable and predictable so we keep doing it. We don’t question it because everyone else is doing it and they seem to be getting by, more or less.
In actuality though, the world is constantly and radically changing all the time. Businesses are savagely ripped apart by consumer whims and only the strongest and most efficient are left to grow into behemoths that annihilate all competition in their path. Things that are popular one day (parachute pants, fidget spinners and Gangnam style), become a sad footnote of history the next.
Change is slow
We don’t see this though because it happens slower than our brains notice. We adapt, and replace the past with the future. Our brain convinces us that the world was always this way. We only notice the change when we think back and get all nostalgic about horse driven carriages, VCR tapes, actually using a phone to call someone instead of checking Twitter and becoming outraged.
We are really good at adapting to change. We could not function in the world without this skill. But we are equally bad at predicting change, and what the effects of our actions will be on the future. There are too many variables in the world and too many things changing for us to make sense of cause and effect many times.
I digress though. Let’s get back to addressing the original argument:
“If everyone does X then Y will happen…and it will be terrible”
I’ve seen forms of this argument, for example, in the early retirement blog-o-sphere:
“If everyone retires early there will be no one left to do any work and the economy will collapse. You darn millennials!”
I’ve seen this in the doomer blog-o-sphere:
“We have hit peak oil production. Unless we stop using cars right now we will run out in a few years and be living in a dystopian Mad Max style world.”
“If we all eat avocados we will have to cut down all the other non-avocado trees and the environment will be destroyed while we trip over billions of avocado pits (gee, thanks millennials!)”
And I’ve seen it in the minimalism blog-o-sphere:
“If you stop buying useless crap, the people who make their living selling, producing, marketing and transporting useless crap will lose their jobs and the economy will collapse you selfish bastards (gee, thanks millennials and The Happy Philosopher!)”
Maybe they have a point. After all if everyone in the world reads my blog and 100% of the readers simultaneously decide to stop buying things they don’t need, the economy would experience a massive disruption. But there are a few reasons why this will never happen and you should mostly ignore these kings of arguments in the first place.
- Everything on this blog (and many others) is hard to implement. Although many things I write about are simple, nothing is all that easy. This ensures less than 1% of the people will actually do anything at all, and most of them will only change their behavior a little. There are probably 10,000 times as many diet and nutrition blogs as minimalism blogs, but we probably eat unhealthier than ever based on the incidence of chronic disease and obesity in this country.
- The economy is antifragile. There is nothing more robustly defiant to disruptions than simple supply and demand. If we all stopped buying X then Y would take its place. Nature abhors a vacuum.
- We always project trends indefinitely into the future and underestimate our ability to adapt. Since the beginning of my ability to read and comprehend issues like this, there have been scores of people who have predicted the collapse of just about everything; the economy, our infrastructure, our resources, our ability to feed the world, etc. Just about every negative prediction has failed to manifest mainly because…
- Technology is relentless. Who knows, all jobs may be rendered obsolete in a few years, but it won’t be because we decided to stop buying shirts when we already had 47 hanging in our closet, or I decided to borrow an edger instead of running out to Home Depot to buy a one new. It will be because a shirt making robot can replace 1000 workers for a few pennies, and all the drivers are unnecessary because self-driving vehicles will replace them, or we genetically engineer a perfect grass that never needs edging (How cool would that be!?!).
- Markets adapt. If we stop buying something the price will fall until someone buys it. If no one wants it, this is a strong signal to the world that it is unneeded. It is pointless and wasteful to consume things that the world doesn’t want or need.
- Stuff wears out. We still need to manufacture things to replace stuff that wears out. I just replaced a leaky faucet (well, a plumber did). I will eventually need a new car, computer, DVD player, refrigerator, shoes, etc. I just don’t need the newest one every 1-2 years…well maybe shoes.
- Superfluous stuff doesn’t really account for much of my spending. My guess is that at the end of this year long experiment there won’t be a huge decrease in total consumption or all that much money saved. Most of my money goes towards my house, food, basic staples, vacations, replacing things that break, experiences and services.
- Everything has opportunity cost. Whenever I spend my money on something, there is something else I am unable to spend on. If I buy a buy iPad and mountain bike, maybe I’m not spending the money on a couch and guitar. For everything we buy, there is something else we are not doing with that money. This is a critical concept to understand.
- We anchor to what is happening now. What if we all halved our consumption? We would adapt. What if we all doubled our consumption? We would adapt. How do we know what the right level of consumption is? We don’t. There is no right level, we are just anchored to what we are used to.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. It is pretty well established that highly processed foods made with simple sugars are not healthy for you to consume in large quantities. There are whole shelves of books and a million times as many blogs and articles about this, and yet a casual stroll through any shopping mall will show you that few people are actually following this advice. But let’s imagine they did.
If we all stopped buying junk food tomorrow there would be massive disruption of the junk food-industrial-complex. There would be congressional hearings and thousands of people would lose their jobs. This would be bad for them.
So should we keep eating unhealthy food so they can keep their jobs and save them from the unpleasantness of transitioning into something else?
Should we encourage people to eat unhealthy so the people that sell diabetes medications and vascular stents can keep their jobs?
Should I insist people get unnecessary or marginally beneficial radiology tests because if they stop I will have nothing to do at work and may lose my job?
Should we not embrace AI and self-driving vehicles because it will create job loss?
Maybe I should start smoking cigarettes to keep the unemployment rate down.
This line of reasoning can get ridiculous. I think there is probably a better way.
We Will Adapt
Anything that makes our lives better, more efficient and happier should be embraced, even if it creates some short term disruption. Buying crap we don’t need and throwing it in a landfill a few years later when we clean out our garage is not desirable, no matter how many jobs it saves. This ‘buy nothing’ experiment will result in less crap in the world, less plastic floating in the middle of the ocean and if it causes some businesses that make this crap to go out of business or their stock price to fall a bit I will gleefully and enthusiastically contribute. I fully embrace the creative destruction inherent in capitalism. If people are disrupted, we should figure out how to fix that problem separately.
There is too much stuff in this world. We don’t need more. It doesn’t make us happy.
Deciding what we spend our money on is powerful. It is a vote on what we want society to give us. We shape our world by what we buy. If we buy iPhones and shoes, this is what the world will give us. If we buy experiences and wonderful healthy food, this is what the world will give us. It’s like magic.
Stop buying the crap you don’t want to see in the world!
We have to buy something
I need to spend my money on something. Even if I stop buying ‘stuff’ and just invest the money in the stock market, something is happening. Someone else gets the money when I buy the stock shares and then they have to do something with it. Money flows and is eventually used for something.
We all want the world to be a better place, although what is the point of making something “better” if it simultaneously makes us unhappy? We keep consuming more stuff. Technology gives us things that were unimaginable a few years ago. We are getting richer on a global level in every way imaginable, yet we are no happier. All this consumption and hedonism has not translated into a noticeable change in psychological well-being. By leaning into decreasing consumption and minimalism with experiments like this one we learn more about ourselves. We get closer to the things that make us truly happy. There is more signal, less noise.
The world will be just fine with you consuming or doing less. Only buy something if it will make you happy and make no apologies for the things you don’t buy. Work only if it makes you happy or if you need the money, and make no apologies for the hours you don’t work. Live your life according to your values and ignore the chatter. The world will be just fine and the economy will not miss you. Now if you will excuse me, I have some avocado toast to make.