In 1972, when I was an undergraduate at Yale and a bit of an activist, I somehow became convinced that George McGovern was going to become the next president of the United States. After all, everyone I knew was going to vote for McGovern. On election night, reality intervened, as is its habit, and Richard Nixon won 49 of 50 states. It struck me that maybe everyone I didnâ€™t know had voted for Nixon.
I feel something similar about Buy Nothing Day. Iâ€™d seen lots of publicity on green websites about Buy Nothing Day and thousands of people on Facebook had signed up to avoid the malls and department stores on â€œBlack Friday,â€ the day after Thanksgiving, which is one of the busiest shopping day of the year. No one I know planned to get up before dawn to hunt for bargains at J.C. Penney or Kohlâ€™s, both of which opened at 4 a.m. Maybe, just maybe, peopleâ€™s consumption would be restrained this fallâ€”when global warming and a looming recession are in the news nearly every day.
Apparently not. Early reports indicated that sales rose by about 8 percent on Friday, compared with a year ago, the biggest increase in three years. Shoppers were more frugalâ€”spending about $348 each over the holiday weekend, down from $360 last yearâ€”but more of them apparently came out in search of lower cost items. Retailers were expected to rack up about $40 billion over the four-day weekend. So much for Buy Nothing Day.
This, to me, is a reminder that of all the kinds of changes that we are going to have to make to tackle our environmental problems, and in particular global warming, the cultural changes are going to be the hardest.
Iâ€™m confident that corporate America will change. Big business is already becoming more sustainable, in part because of pressures from activists and from its own employees, but mostly because reducing energy consumption and waste makes business sense. When influential companies like General Electric, Wal-Mart and IBM take environmental issues seriously, as they do, others are bound to follow.
Iâ€™m also increasingly hopeful that political change is coming soon. This year has brought dramatic progress towards federal legislation that will put a price on carbonâ€”the single most important policy change needed to curb global warming. Big forces are driving the Congress to act, among them the growing scientific consensus around climate change, the alliance of businesses that support carbon caps, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that all but orders EPA to regulate carbon, action in the states and more.
But cultural change? Thatâ€™s going to be hard. Really hard. Virtually every American holidayâ€”from presidentâ€™s weekend to Thanksgivingâ€”has become a shopping opportunity. Malls near where I live seem to be mobbed all the time. Shopping has become a means of self-expression, a way to kill time, cheap (or not so cheap) therapy, a sportâ€”a whole lot more, obviously, than a way to satisfy our needs. To pick just one example, Americans spend about $15 billion a year on perfume. Thatâ€™s considerably more than it would take, by most estimates, to provide clean drinking water to the roughly 1.2 billion people in the world who go without it.
Who among us doesnâ€™t have more than we need? I watched a football game on a 50-inch HD TV earlier today, after going out for a run, with my 16 gigabit video iPod. I didnâ€™t even keep my pledge to buy nothing on Black Friday. I heard a fascinating interview on NPRâ€™s Science Friday with Alan Weisman, author of a book called The World Without Us, and when I passed by a Borderâ€™s bookstore soon after, I bought a copy (at a discount) for about $20. That was all the shopping I did during the four-day weekend but still…
What’s more, while there is plenty of activism and organizing around business and politics, I see very few groups or institutions that are addressing consumption. (The Center for A New American Dream is a prominent and most welcome exception.) My hope is that religious institutions will take on this job. Historically, Christians and Jews set aside one day each week for worship and rest, for a break from producing and consuming. Many still do, and the great thing about observing the sabbath is the insights you can glean about how to approach the other six days of the week. In a book called Sabbath Sense, my friend Donna Schaper, the senior minister at Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan, wrote about how we can “take back our time and take care of our souls–one moment at a time.” Maybe there’s still hope for Buy Nothing Day.