Mike emailed me the other day and asked a reasonable question, “What happens if everyone stops buying things, and tries to live with fewer things? Doesn't that destroy the economy even further?”
It’s a valid concern. In my forthcoming book, The 100 Thing Challenge, there’s a chapter that offers a high-level answer to this question. But since my book doesn’t hit store shelves and Kindles until December 28th (which doesn’t stop anyone from pre-ordering it, hint hint), I’d like to try to offer up a short answer to Mike’s question. Here are a few principles on how you can buy less and save the economy.
When we use our skills and resources well, it is always good for an economy. Buying stuff we cannot afford, manufactured out of materials that ruin the earth and made by people who are exploited, using credit backed by money we don’t really have isn’t good for the economy. The statistic we all know is that 70% of the U.S. economy is fueled by consumption. Unfortunately, too much of that consumption is unsustainable. It’s financially unsustainable. It’s environmentally unsustainable. It’s socially and morally unsustainable. Furthermore, it’s emotionally unsustainable - we who have bought all this consumer junk aren’t any happier. It’s not that buying stuff is wrong, it’s that American-style consumerism has created an unsustainable economy propped up by the guilt of average people who feel pressured, either by duty or by jealously, to consume unnecessarily using credit. The reaction isn’t to stop all commerce, rather it is to change the way commerce happens.
- The first principle is to spend our money well, which from here on out means to buy less stuff.
Money unspent can be money used well. If you’ve noticed, big business and banks have been stingy on lending their capital. That’s because for decades our economy has been fueled by you and me seeking unwise loans to buy overpriced and unnecessary things from unethical lenders who, if they did the math, should have known we could never pay them back. There is now a theme among some preachers of economic recovery that average people like you and me should start buying again in order to give confidence back to big business and banks. So that, you guessed it, we can start the whole ridiculous cycle again. Don’t participate! Even us lowly “consumers” can save money and invest. We have more to contribute to the economy with our money than our next purchase.
- The second principle is that it is good to save money and invest.
We are humans, not consumers. Now, let’s act like it! I must confess that sometimes I’m surprised by humans. There is simply nothing else on earth remotely like us. But we’re too content to act beneath ourselves. Dogs act like dogs. Birds act like birds. Snakes act like snakes. Bugs act like bugs. Even dolphins act like dolphins. Dolphins are scary smart. Even so, they still swim around and act like dolphins. But humans? We often act like jackasses. We’ll divorce the woman we once loved in order to pursue wealth. We’ll charge up a credit card in order to buy cute clothes to try to be more attractive for some guy who treats us like nothing. We’ll stop being friends with someone who’s no longer in our socio-economic strata. We sometimes act inhuman. We sometimes act as if things are more important than people. Just flip that around. Act like people are most important. You’ll find yourself buying less things and you’ll start making the world a more valuable place. And you’ll be a blessing to many people along the way, including yourself.
- The third principle is to love people, not things. You’ll buy less stuff and make the world around you more joyful.
I’m not an economic guru. I’m not a policy maker. I’m pretty much an average person like most of you reading this blog, which means I’ve got the same common sense that you do. If we people were to spend the next decade or two acting on these three principles, we’d save the economy and make the world a better place.
There would still be unethical big businesses. There would still be greedy bankers. There would still be foolish consumers. But if we didn’t play along with American-style consumerism, if we decided that life -- that every human life -- is worth more than material possessions, well, it would really be an amazing world for our grandchildren to live in. As it is, if you’re privileged enough to be reading this blog post on a computer, you’re likely living in a pretty good world yourself. But you know that it’s going in some wrong directions. The economic, ecological, social, and spiritual foundations of debt-fueled American-style consumerism are unsustainable. It’s not likely that we’ll be able to recover and reorder the economy on a global scale in the next decade or two. We can, however, recover and reorder our own economic priorities. And, at the end of our lives, we can leave the world a little bit better if we’ve focused on loving people more than anything else.
That’s why I truly believe that a 100 Thing Challenge is a great idea for people like you and me. It will change our behavior and help us form new habits. It will open up the possibilities of a whole new world: the possibility of spending less and avoiding economic disaster!