I just read Judith Levine’s Not Buying It, an interesting chronicle of one New Yorker’s attempt to live without shopping for a full year. She adapts the principle behind Buy Nothing Day (as Adbusters has decreed the day after Thanksgiving) and applied it to a whole year. For calendar year 2004, she and her partner, Paul, don’t go out to eat, don’t see new movies, and try not to buy anything apart from food and basic supplies. The experiment raises difficult questions of what is essential and what is unnecessary. Are Kleenex a luxury when you can use toilet paper or handkerchiefs? Is toilet paper a luxury when millions of people around the world do without it? Levine decides that Q-Tips don’t make the cut.
Levine is a skier, and she has some interesting episodes where her consumer identity clashes with her skier identity. For example, she got used to skiing with specialized $15 SmartWool socks, and she was impressed enough with their performance that she buys a whole line of related clothing. One day she can’t find her SmartWool socks and decides that she’d rather stay home and sulk than ski with ordinary socks. Later on she realizes the inanity of that action, since she had skied for years perfectly well without specialized socks. Somehow her loyalty to a particular brand name consumer product trumped her desire to enjoy a day of skiing.
She also includes an amusing episode where she is skiing with two friends, and despite the friendly community, she begins to covet her friends’ skis, boots, bindings and the like. She immediately feels like she needs to buy newer stuff to keep up with them. After all, their legs and buns seem more toned than her own, and maybe if she bought the latest equipment (next year), her own buns would be in better shape. Levine later realizes that maybe this is why the Ten Commandments say that you should not covet your neighbor’s house, servant, ox—or ass.
While not written from a particularly religious perspective, Levine’s book is insightful, with good examples and applications for suburban Christians. She makes more use of the public library and reads books that she already owns but has never gotten around to. She makes healthier meals since she is not buying preprocessed stuff or eating out. Instead of buying a graduation gift for her niece, she gives her a family necklace that had been passed on to her from her mother. Time not spent going to movies means more time free for museums, poetry readings, community events and civic involvement. Levine paid off her $7956.21 credit card bill by June, and at the end of the year calculated that she spent about $8000 less in 2004 than she had in 2003.
Particularly convicting, to me, at least, are the episodes where she realizes that she wants to read the newest books and see the latest movies not necessarily for their content, but simply because they are new. After all, keeping current with the latest media give her social cachet among her friends. This makes me wonder if my own preoccupation with new books (including this one!) is unhealthy. Even if I get them from the library rather than buy them, isn’t that still an act of consumption?
It occurs to me that for Christians, this giving up of consumption is a practice of the spiritual discipline of simplicity. It would be entirely appropriate for Christians to adopt a similar pattern for Lent, or at least ask the tough questions about how much of our consumption is necessary. If a secular Jewish atheist like Levine can give up shopping for a year, then shouldn’t Christians be able to give it up for seven weeks? Hmmm. Maybe next year.