Robert Wringham goes shopping with Judith Levine, author of Not Buying It.
The polar ice caps are melting, war is rife, natural resources are running out by the clappers and poverty is most definitely not history. Humanity’s ecological footprint is 23% larger than the planet can handle in terms of regeneration: as a species, we’re consuming far too much. While New Escapologist wouldn’t want to point its beautifully manicured but nonetheless accusatory finger in any particular direction, your personal shopping habits probably aren’t helping things.
In 2005, journalist and author, Judith Levine decided to stop shopping. After a particularly stressful period of Christmas shopping and coming to the realization that over-consumption is precisely the thing that is destroying the planet and making everyone hate America, she decided that enough was enough.
New Escapologist: Most people know the answer to this these days, but in a nutshell, what is wrong with our current consumptive habits?
Judith Levine: We consume too much. Our consumer products use too many resources to produce, ship, and run. They obsolesce quickly, so we’re forced to throw them away — or we tire of them quickly and throw them away before they’re used up. And they aren’t biodegradable or we cannot or do not recycle them.
NE: I can’t stand shopping. I find it a real stress: the hard lighting, the crowds, the fact that the items you lusted after in the store seem cheap and pointless when you get them home. Yet other people seem to love it. There’s that term, “retail therapy”, which to me seems really odd. “Depressed? Buy a CD!” I don’t understand that relationship. What do you think the attraction to leisure shopping is?
JL: You’re shopping in the wrong places. There are many lovely things to have, which look and feel just as lovely, or even lovelier when you get them home. Plus, shopping distracts us from other troubles — and who doesn’t want to be distracted from time to time? This week, I’m in the midst of a terribly anxiety-producing medical test. I keep saying to myself, thank god for shopping.
JL: It’s been a few years now since your ‘Not Buying It’ experiment. Do you think you’ve escaped (or minimised) your desire for ‘stuff’?
I never have had a big desire for ‘stuff’ — and since ‘Not Buying It’, even that desire has diminished. I just know I’m as happy without it. My weakness, however, is experiences: movies, theatre, food. While I’ve learned what I can live without, I also learned what I can’t live without. Ice cream is one of them. And each time I go to a movie or the theatre, I realize how much I enjoy it. Cutting down on consumption has all the obvious environmental advantages. But a less-remarked result is that buying less intensifies the pleasure you have in the things/experiences you do buy.
NE: ‘Not Buying It’ had something of an anthropological flavour to it, which I feel adds to the book’s integrity. Was it strange to examine your own culture in such a way? Did you feel at all ‘divorced’ from your culture when examining it so closely?
JL: Yes, and this was both an interesting and at times a troubling experience. I am often writing from the position of critic — always, in fact — so I am always, in that sense, an outsider. But the consumer culture is so pervasive. Once you’re outside it, you feel you are outside everything! Advertising becomes a kind of heiroglypic you find yourself decoding. You (or I) feel judgmental of others (and, in my case, fight against that personal judging). You feel superior, but also lonely. Not seeing the latest movies or reading the latest books puts you on the margin of conversations with friends and neighbors, indeed, outside of virtually the only shared social experience we Americans have.
NE: There have been a number of other ‘challenge-orientated’ studies since the turn of the millennium. Morgan Spurlock’s ‘Supersize Me’ and Dan Kiernan’s ‘I faught the law’ spring to mind. What do you think has been the effect of these?
JL: There are a number of copycats of my book too, including “No Impact Man” (see the website). I think there’s a way that people misinterpret them. To me, these are a kind of ordeal art, an experiment in extremism in order to understand the ordinary. People often think you’re advising them to do the same: go cold turkey. That would be like telling someone who wants to lose weight that she should stop eating altogether. There can be another paradoxical effect of this ordeal art. No Impact Man, who doesn’t take the elevator and is foregoing toilet paper for the year, gives people the impression that you have to be crazy to try to do anything about global warming. If you focus only on personal behavior, and the personal behavior is bizarre and masochistic, most people will throw up their hands in despair. Without talking about politics, you leave out the most important “something” that people can do: behave as activist citizens — agitate to change policy.
NE: Some readers may be familiar with your earlier works. I personally found ‘Harmful to Minors’ to be real tour-de-force stuff but there is also ‘My Enemy, My Love’, a book about contemporary masculinities. So you’ve covered the big two: sex and shopping. What do you think you’ll turn your journalistic interests to next?
JL: I have a fourth book too: Do You Remember Me? A Father, a Daughter, and a Search for the Self, which is a memoir of my father’s dementia and our family’s dealing with it, as well as a critique of the medicalization of aging — that is, the idea that aging is not a stage of life, but a disease. To me, all these things are connected: I’m interested in the ways that the big forces of culture, history, and politics are expressed in intimate life. Consumer culture has an increasing effect on how we feel about ourselves and how we relate to each other, socially, politically, sexually, familially. Now I’m casting around for ways to talk about the intersections between consumption, sexuality, and aging.
NE: What’s the future of the human race? An optimistic world of green energy and intellectual freedom or the total rape of Earth’s resources followed by a Starbucks-funded escape to Mars?
JL: As the daughter of communist (idealist) Jews (pessimists), the message I got was, “We’re going to make a perfect world, Gott villing, vee should live so long.” My motto is Gramsci’s: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” I’m skeptical, critical, dissatisfied, and sometimes so depressed and terrified I have a hard time getting out of bed. But my way of dealing with it is to be an activist. More and more people are figuring out that we have no choice but to take drastic action to save our poor Earth. Like every other environmentalist, I just hope enough people wake up fast enough. But the policymakers won’t wake up without our shouting fulltime in their ears.
Judith’s book Not Buying It is available from bookshops and public libraries. Her website with blog can be found at www.judithlevine.com