Feb 07

If We All Stop Buying Stuff Will We Destroy the World?

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.”

Or

“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!)”

Reflection

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.

 

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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…
  4. 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!?!).
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

 

Junk food

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.

 

No Apologies

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.

31 comments

Skip to comment form

    • DadsDollarsDebts on February 7, 2018 at 7:41 pm
    • Reply

    Man these are some deep thoughts. I do not worry the world will end, we will just adapt. If we stop buying stuff then people will have to find other ways to make money. Maybe we will become more creative or reflective. Wouldn’t that be interesting, instead of just doing drab jobs to earn a pay check so we can go home and watch shows with laugh tracks (or our modern version which is reality tv)….there is hope, it is just slow.

    1. We constantly underestimate our ability to adapt to change.

    • SAHM on February 7, 2018 at 8:34 pm
    • Reply

    I’ve always thought that the people who were happiest with what they were doing with their time didn’t need to ‘buy’ their happiness. The marketing machines will always find their vulnerable consumers.

    Being frugal as a stay at home mom made me feel productive and better about myself. Ironically this can also be taken to an extreme and again you lose sight of the value of your time versus saving more money. Yet I wouldn’t have this realization without having achieved FI. In some sense, being able to practice minimalism is a first world luxury.

    1. Minimalism may be a first world luxury, but no less worthy to strive for. At the end of the day it is about efficiency and not wasting resources (time and material).

  1. The risk of everyone going minimalist in America is minus zero to the infinitesimal power. Times six. And then double that number. Then add four more zeros.

    We hang out in this personal finance blogosphere, which is kinda closely tied to the minimalism trend, and we read these things all day because it’s kind of our tribe. But we have to realize how out of the mainstream we are as compared to the average American. Even if minimalism is a “growing” trend, when something very very small grows, and becomes something only slightly less small, it’s still very very small.

    Additionally, China and India have over 2.4 billion people still trying to catch the consumerism train that we started 70 years ago, so they have a LONG way to go on the life-cycle to get to where our cute little minority trend is. The future of stuff is still HUGE

    1. Yep, there are plenty of eager consumers just waiting to take your place. It only takes a tiny percentage change when 2 or 3 billion people are involved.

  2. Nothing will change overnight anyway, so those arguments are quite naive.

    But slow change happens all the time, and we adjust to that. Traditional fast food joints gets competition from more health conscious alternatives, the cartwright turned into a car mechanic. The “static” people are comfortable in is usually less than a few decades old.

    I believe in change. I hope it will be for the better, but only time will tell. In my ideal world, a reduction in consumerism would lead to more expensive, but higher quality items that you buy much rarer. I doubt that will come true, but one can dream.

    1. People don’t want expensive. They want cheap. My guess is material things we want will continue to get cheaper (computers, clothes, coffee makers), whereas immaterial things we need (health care, formal education, a place to sleep at night) will get more expensive. Someone will eventually figure out how to disrupt the latter industries – already happening with transportation and temporary lodging (uber, airbnb, etc.)

    • hatton1 on February 8, 2018 at 5:20 am
    • Reply

    Interesting post. Expense tracking made me quit buying consumer crap. Well not completely. At least it is more mindful now. I bought a mask and some beads to go to a Mardi Gras party this weekend. $18 and more crap for my closet. At least I did not buy any new clothes.

    1. Lol, one must look the part for Mardi Gras!

  3. Yes, change is very scary for us. And in my experience, it doesn’t matter if you are talking about consuming less, adding a new bike lane, or allowing people to rent out their homes on Airbnb. We like to freak out about something new and unknown. When it comes to (over) consumption, consumers in wealthy developed countries only see the shiny fun side, we never see the social, political, and environmental costs that come from our shopping habits. For example, we don’t see the mining impacts, the heaps of trash, the extra truck or ship traffic, the long hours workers face in unsafe work environments, etc. that are part of the global economy that has been created to bring us all this stuff that we often don’t need.

    And like you, I’m not saying that consumption is bad. But mindless consumption is bad. As someone who has embraced part-time work, I see voluntary downshifting as a way to make this a reality for more people. And yes, it would require some uncomfortable change from our current status quo (including for companies), but it is unrealistic to think we can have infinite growth on a planet that has finite resources. Sure we can find substitutes and create different products to deal with shortages, but we also have to remember that we aren’t the only generation that needs these resources. So the reality is that our current over-consumption is already on path to “destroy” the world… it’s just that many of us are fortunate to live in the wealthiest countries where we don’t directly see or experience those impacts.

    Thanks for continuing to highlight your efforts to live simpler and less-resource intensive lifestyle!

    1. Yes, I believe the economic term is externality. These are hidden costs or delayed consequences we do not see. I’m not smart enough to calculate the net sum of all cause and effect, so instead I focus on personal happiness, time, money and freedom. Consuming less makes me happier (that is my hypothesis I am testing with this experiment) and also gives me more money/time/freedom at the end of the day.

  4. You make an excellent comparison to the health/junk food conundrum. Even though most know it’s better for them one way or another, they don’t usually take the harder path. I have seen this argument go on for years about the concern if everyone became frugal, which we can see in the recent economic downturn people only tightened up for a short time. Once they felt a little more confident they whipped out their cards and debts rose yet again. Keep up the inspirational work!

    1. Yep, I’m not worried. For every dollar I don’t spend someone will spend one for me. Spending is the buzz, debt in the hangover.

  5. There are some deep thoughts here that are important to explore.

    That said, this has been explored somewhat by people like Mr. Money Mustache and others. (https://www.mrmoneymustache.com/2012/04/09/what-if-everyone-became-frugal)

    Sure, our economy is based on consumption. That is obvious. WE ARE ALL CONSUMERS. Not all of us can produce our own food and build our own houses and live simply. This is not practical. Thus we are all consumers.

    What we CHOOSE to consume is the driving force behind the supply and demand for products that the companies of the world produce for us. It is paramount to be conscious of our decisions and choose what we consume wisely. This will increase the demand for better products that are less destructive to our environment. If it forces companies with bad track records to adapt, so be it. Money is the bottom line and makes the world go round. They will be forced to adapt. We as consumers have the power to vote with our dollar and increase the demand of whatever products or experiences make us happy. We need to exercise this power more consciously.

    I like your junk food analogy, but I do think the perspective comes from a place of privilege. Unfortunately, junk food is the cheapest and most available option for people who are underprivileged. This is sad. Not everybody has the privilege like you and I to eat organic, fresh, real food. It’s either prohibitively expensive, or just not available (due to food deserts).

    The government needs to stop subsidizing the big food industrial complex which includes the sugar industry, gmo soy and corn subsidies, and subsidies that go to meat/dairy/egg factory farming. These government subsidies are coming out of our hard-earned tax dollars to make bad, unhealthy food cheaper so that the general public can get fatter and unhealthy. This in turn feeds the big pharma industry.

    The food industry is making our people sick and contributing to the accelerated destruction of our planet. This needs to stop and we must adapt.

    1. Forgot to mention that if the government stopped subsidizing bad food (junk food, processed food, processed meat/dairy/eggs), then healthier real food would not be as expensive in comparison.

    2. Yeah, this topic has been covered by many people in many different ways, and that MMM article is a good one. I totally agree that how we spend out money is one of the greatest voices we have to shape society.

      I’m not sure I agree with the “junk food is cheapest” option. In other less developed countries poor people eat rice, beans, lentils, bread, potatoes, yams, oils and a small amounts of animal protein as a luxury, etc. These things are cheaper and healthier than a bag of whatever empty carbohydrates and unhealthy fats is in the middle isles of the grocery store, or most fast food options. They don’t taste as good as the product that has been engineered to get your brain to release dopamine and activate the parts of your addiction centers though (until you learn how to prepare them).

      Organic is largely a fad for rich people. I’ve never seen any real great evidence that it is actually healthier for you (real science, not conjecture on some random paleo blog). I eat it because I can, but conventional broccoli is much better for you than organic soda (and maybe even cheaper).

      Almost anything can be ordered on line these days, including food. Maybe it is tough in some places to get fresh produce, but this will eventually change as well. Urban gardens is a fascinating topic to dive into – turning unusable land into food production.

      I agree that the less we subsidize things the better, although agriculture policy is not a simple topic, and removing all subsidies may have unintended negative consequences.

  6. Money will just flow to different things. If you don’t need the $, then you will be one less person that wants and needs UBI. :O) I mean how in the world did the world survive before? They traded goods for services. I need a faucet fixed, you want a painting, we make an exchange.

    If the world doesn’t want a particular good or service, than it needs to pivot. It shouldn’t be propped up for the heck of it?!?

    Great post.
    cd :O)

    1. Thank you. I would hate to go back to barter for goods and services though. I love the convenience of money 😉

  7. Great post. I think our problem is overconsumption. The world will not collapse if our buying habits shift. We adapt to whatever changes come. If not we would have become extinct a long time ago. Agree with everything you said here.

    1. Thanks 🙂

    • madmulcher on February 8, 2018 at 12:44 pm
    • Reply

    I’ve continued to think about this over the past several years on my journey to and through FI. If someone who is capable of pursuing FI attempts to use this logic as a legitimate reason from pursuing FI and moving from unconscious consumer to prudent saver/investor, it’s really a straw man and a cop out. I think it’s really an indicator of a more insidious reason lurking below the surface, one they are afraid to admit openly..

    But first, my answer to the question is, ‘well, not much!’. No, if we all lived more reasonably/minimally, the world wouldn’t fall apart and be sucked into a hellish vortex. Because, while much of the economy is considered service/consumption-based, most of that is essential consumption. I buy clothes because i couldn’t go to work without them and also need to protect myself from the elements. If I don’t buy more clothes and shoes until some I already have wear out, I think that describes most shoppers. I don’t continue to buy cars because I like them and commercials trick me into it. I need one car, so I buy one. Then when that one clunks out in a decade or more, or whatever, I buy another one. I buy food because, well duh. I don’t continue buying food and store food and horde it along with my extra cars and clothes. Now, I’m not talking about eating fast food every meal but just going to the grocery once a week and buying for the next week. And not Whole Foods. People buying homes are not those buying progressively larger and larger and larger homes and 2nd and 3rd and 4th homes. A lot of people will continue to have kids, they will move from their 1bd/2bd apt into a home. These homes are needed. I’m not living going to live in a 1/1 with my family of 4. When I’m sick, I’m going to the doctor and shelling out money or buying cold medicine, not just for the hell of it. We’re just talking about scaling back to the basics here, minimizing the big three and cutting out everything else.

    But wealthy, fully-employed, college educated people want to have it both ways. They want say, ‘not everyone could be frugal,’ as an excuse for their ridiculous debt and poor savings rates and also be able to complain that ‘nothing is affordable.’ The old ‘oh, no one goes there anymore, it’s too crowded’ logic. Wrong, most people are just getting by, and not by choice. You don’t get it both ways. THAT’S MOST OF PEOPLE’S CONSUMPTION– just surviving. Shitty car, shitty food, shitty house. The big 3, as mentioned. If you have disposable income that is a multiple of your true base needs (not what you’ve elected to blindly spend but base needs), then you are a TINY minority and should be ASHAMED if you don’t quickly build considerable wealth. Most all of this tiny minority with large disposable incomes could move our consumption back closer to where MOST people are living, essentially hand to mouth, just the basics. It would not collapse the economy because that’s actually what most of the economy is. They are just fooling themselves. But instead, that cash vanishes in ‘wanderlust’, eating out and amazon-ing, ‘interior design’ and waste. Too expensive a car bought with a loan instead of cash. Buying ‘all the house you can afford’ filled with furnishings on credit. Throw in alcohol, frequently eating restaurant food instead of simpler grocery store and cook at home option. This is a STATUS problem for most people, whether they say it or not. They’re terrified of people thinking less of them for a humble car, home and social schedule. And ironically, THIS will probably ENSURE that we destroy the parts of the world that we inhabit, let alone the fucking economy. I think this reason, STATUS, hides behind of lot of what people try to explain as practical reasons why more people (including them) can’t pursue early FI.

    So, for my money, the answer is a hard NO when capable people might wonder if dialing back consumption would destroy the economy. No need to deflect to what the odds are of it actually happening. If it did happen, it would be fine. Maybe some of that bullshit you’re buying would get cheaper, so everyone else would be able to afford some!

    Disposable income and the potential FI it holds is a huge blessing for a tiny slice of the population of the civilized world. Be glad you’re in it. Don’t try to wiggle out of it by saying life is too expensive and you have to spend all of your money or else you just couldn’t get by. Realize that you can live like everyone else and life will still be pretty great. You’ll be buying a gift for yourself that’s unobtainable and unthinkable for most.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Status is certainly something that drives us all to some extent, the trick is how to achieve it without wastefully using our money to achieve it.

    • The Rhino on February 9, 2018 at 2:41 am
    • Reply

    This is a classic FIRE type post, the question has cropped up a lot across the relevant blogs and has been discussed extensively.

    I still quite like EREs take on it (which probably informed the MMM article)

    http://earlyretirementextreme.com/what-if-everybody-decided-to-work-much-less.html

    http://earlyretirementextreme.com/the-paradox-of-thrift.html

    On a tangent, if you haven’t got his book, I would highly recommend it..

    1. Oh yeah, Jacobs book was consumed by my brain very early on in the FIRE process 😉

  8. Yeah, the doomsday arguments are usually done to scare people more than anything. It’s largely based on conjecture. If everyone did stop buying useless crap, there actually could be an economic correlation between less purchasing power and the economy; we did see that happen during the recession. But so few people follow frugal living that it shouldn’t have an effect on the overall economy.

      • The Rhino on February 9, 2018 at 8:30 am
      • Reply

      @MPP – yes – its theoretical naval-gazing because it will never happen for the reasons you point out, frugality is a rare backwater in the sea of human-nature. The only value in having thought about it is if someone challenges you with that particular argument and you can give them the argument back, but even in that case you’d be better off just ignoring them?

  9. Hello

    Thank you for this interesting post. I must say that your idea stuck a chord within me and I am trying my best to follow you into not buying stuff this year. In fact i am trying to sell and donate as much as I can to get into what can be considered reasonable. Your post is an useful reminder of why this is a whorthy experiment.

    1. Awesome!

  10. I love the people who say that if everyone changed to be more minimalist, our investments would tank and the world wouldn’t work. As you stated above, when has the world (or lets even think about something smaller like our families) all agreed on some big lifestyle change? It is hard to change group think. While I believe the decision to consume less is a better life, there is no way this thinking will take hold in a large fashion during our lifetime.

    • Eric on February 18, 2018 at 10:04 am
    • Reply

    I have an offshoot opinion. For instance, in the stone age, only basic necessities were needed for survival. As humans progressed through time, new and better methods were discovered through collaboration of human sharing of knowlege. Fast forward to today and the one variable that does not change is time. It took something like 50,000 years to get to now and more than 10 times the current population of people have already lived and died before us (100 billion people). The industrial age was less than 200 years ago but humans have discovered more in this time period that all of human history before that. I agree it takes time for change. My ultimate belief, which follows the theme of your blog is that owning a bunch of shit does, at a root level, does not make anyone happier, but does the complete opposite. People need other people, not things. I also believe people ignore the reality of their monotonous and perceived meaningless lives as a way to cope as our social/economic way of thinking is headed for a collision course with the true nature of reality.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: