For those of us in the US who are fortunate enough, the day after Thanksgiving usually means three things:  turkey sandwiches, football on TV, and shopping.  As many of us kick off the winter holiday season this “Black Friday” by heading to the malls and discount outlets, a creative campaign by Adbusters is selling us on doing just the opposite.  “Buy Nothing Day” is being celebrated in North American towns and cities today, and tomorrow (Saturday Nov. 29) internationally.  What does this have to do with climate change?  We’re glad you asked. 

Post by Anne Polansky

When we are being honest with ourselves, we concede that over-consumption (especially that involves the burning of fossil fuels) is high on the list of things we can blame for climate disruption.  Now, a global movement has organized around the idea that individuals can and should exercise their power to make our economies more ecologically sensitive and environmentally sustainable by changing their buying habits.

Anyone not convinced of the link between consumption and sustainability can bone up in a way that is fun and entertaining by listening to Annie Leonard guide us through a 20-minute tutorial in “The Story of Stuff.”

The official BND press release begins:  “Now in its 17th year, Buy Nothing Day is celebrated every November by environmentalists, social activists and concerned citizens in over 65 countries around the world…” 

BND advocates think of themselves as “inspiring the world’s citizens to live more simply and buy a whole lot less” by – for example – socializing with family, friends, and neighbors; having street parties; or holding peaceful political protests; anything but spending. 

This year the event is being tied to the current economic crisis; BND co-founder of Adbusters Media Foundation, Kalle Lasn, comments:

“If you dig a little past the surface you’ll see that this financial meltdown is not about liquidity, toxic derivatives or unregulated markets, it’s really about culture…’s our culture of excess and meaningless consumption — the glorified spending and borrowing of the past decade that’s at the root of the crisis we now find ourselves in.”

One of the more lively BND celebrations is being organized by social activist and performance artist Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping, in Union Square, New York City.  Bill Talen created the Revered Billy character and built his gig to a 35-person choir with its own band to pursue a social cause:  to educate the public about the consequences of unsustainable consumption.  By urging “shopaholics” to say no to the devil of ultra-commercialism and holiday shopping frenzies, with a hearty “Change-a-lujah, Amen, brothers and sisters!” thrown in every now and then for good measure, Rev. Billy believes his message is one answer to global warming. 

The website claims that consuming less “is the single most effective and immediate response an individual can take…. to halt the climate crisis.”  The message has reached millions of people (he also has a major motion picture out), which has “contributed to the public’s increasing awareness of the relationship between shopping and climate change.”

We wonder, having no real reason to doubt him, is that really true?  Is cutting down on personal consumption the single most effective and immediate response an individual can have?  Do we fully understand how consuming less and more sustainably can help solve the climate change problem?  While it is inherently obvious that buying food that was grown or produced close to home cuts down on transportation miles to market and thus emissions from trucking, do we know just how much we could both mitigate and adapt to climate change by relying more on local family farms, urban gardens, and farmer’s markets?  If we all biked, walked, and used public transit more, what kinds of emissions reductions could we achieve?  If everyone decided to own fewer things by shopping less and giving away more, how would GHG emissions be affected?  Are people motivated to make these changes?  Do most Americans even make links between a society fixated on material possessions and melting arctic ice threatening polar bear extinction and the total inundation of the Maldives?  Do we care?  If so, how much?  Enough to change our buying habits?  While just about everyone now knows what a “carbon footprint” is and can punch a few buttons on any one of dozens of websites with carbon footprint calculators, we would venture to say that most of us have no clear sense of what sort of consumption habit changes would help the climate system, by how much, and when?  Taking it even further, why can’t individuals be producers too:  growing food in urban gardens to share or sell, installing photovoltaic systems that feed the grid with badly needed electricity, or forming biodiesel fuel co-ops that uses local sources?  How much would it help, and how many of us are willing and able to do these things?  What sorts of incentives would we need to stimulate more of the kind?  Some of us are already doing these things, but not on a scale that makes a large enough difference, we suspect, but, who is measuring, monitoring, and assessing the possibilities these cultural changes hold for all of human society? 

While we have done a fair job of investing in the physical climate sciences (though much more needs to be done there, and shrinking budgets need restoring), our use of the social sciences to get a handle on the “human dimensions” of climate change has been weak, to the point of being nonexistent.  How, as a society, will we respond to the urgent need to both cut GHG emissions and adapt to the many climate changes already happening now and promising to get worse?  What sort of guidance and resources can we expect to see from our new administration?  These are questions still being answered…  but from what we see so far, movements like Buy Nothing Day and “buying green” are taking hold and could be the next wave of the future.