For about fifteen years, from the late 1990s through the early 2010s, my partner and I lived off the electrical grid in rural Colorado. Our two-room house, which he had built, was insulated with straw bales; it had a woodstove for heat, an on-demand propane-powered water heater, and a composting toilet. The plumbing—enough for a pair of sinks, a shower, and eventually a washing machine—was fed by an outdoor cistern, which was refilled every few months by a neighbor who owned a pump truck. A two-panel solar array powered our laptops and all the other gadgets we wanted, save for a toaster and a hair dryer, and an extra panel could have easily accommodated both. My partner made a hobby of finding what we needed at thrift shops and yard sales, and our entertainment tended toward potlucks and neighborhood bonfires.
I loved living this way, and I am not someone who takes perverse pleasure in deprivation. We had plenty of creature comforts, as well as views of the mountains and the desert that we never could have afforded had our land been served by conventional utilities. Our minuscule expenses allowed us to choose our work—we didn’t have to take jobs we didn’t want, and we didn’t accumulate debt.
But over time, we became aware of two uncomfortable truths. One was that any reductions in fossil fuel use we achieved at home were far outweighed by a single flight or road trip—we could shrink our domestic carbon footprint by retreating from the electrical and transportation grids, but we couldn’t escape them entirely if we wanted to see distant loved ones. The other was more theoretical: if practices similar to our household’s were ever widely adopted in industrialized societies, they would likely cause a great deal of suffering, at least in the short term. Multiplied by millions, even a partial withdrawal from the global economy would devastate the incomes of those with little choice but to stay in. There were many benefits to living as we did, but I feared they were largely selfish.
Still, moral authorities from Confucius to Chuck D have extolled the virtues of consuming less, and in recent decades these arguments have gained existential urgency. As the Canadian journalist J.B. MacKinnon points out in The Day the World Stops Shopping, the greatest threat to the living planet is our unsustainable use of goods and resources—a collective habit facilitated and encouraged by corporate interests. The average American consumes five times his or her share of forests, fishing grounds, and other biologically productive lands and waters. The garbage produced each year in the US and Canada could fill a caravan of trucks long enough to circle the equator twelve times. Increases in greenhouse-gas emissions continue to outpace reductions enabled by low-carbon technologies.
Generations of economists, meanwhile, have insisted on the goodness of economic growth and warned that any significant drop in consumption would vaporize jobs, leaving millions if not billions of people without a means of supporting themselves or their families. (Margaret Thatcher’s well-known phrase “There is no alternative,” sometimes shortened to TINA, refers to the assumed necessity of perpetual growth.) The resulting dilemma, as MacKinnon puts it, is that “we must stop shopping, and yet we can’t stop shopping.”
Rather than dismiss this conundrum, MacKinnon seeks to complicate it. Whose jobs would be lost, and for how long? How could societies and their economies adapt, and what could they gain in the process? How would other species react to quieter, less polluted habitats? To begin to answer these questions, he proposes a thought experiment to economists, entrepreneurs, and others: Say that on a single day not long from now, consumer spending falls 25 percent. What next? Predictions in hand, MacKinnon seeks real-world equivalents, finding disparate places and times where conditions similar to those of his thought experiment have already come to pass.
This approach, which might be called speculative journalism, was memorably employed by Alan Weisman in his 2008 book The World Without Us, which MacKinnon credits in his acknowledgments. To conjure a planet precipitously vacated by humans, Weisman interviewed architects, engineers, ecologists, and others qualified to forecast the fates of abandoned cities, farms, and forests. He then visited deliberately unpeopled places, such as the Korean Demilitarized Zone and the United Nations–controlled buffer zone between the Turkish and Greek sides of the island of Cyprus. In a kind of reverse archaeology, both Weisman and MacKinnon assemble shards of past and present into plausible futures. The most obvious difference between their thought experiments is that MacKinnon’s became all too concrete: when he was midway through his research, pandemic shutdowns upended the world economy, and the effects of his imagined fall in spending were inflicted on real people in real time.
The Day the World Stops Shopping is neither an economic treatise nor a detailed policy proposal, though it draws on both as sources. It is an enjoyably idiosyncratic tour led by a perceptive, empathetic guide. It assumes that any significant, lasting reduction in consumption will result from accidents and innovations, brought about not by individual households but by loosely coordinated communities, nations, and regions. In this sense, it is both more realistic and more persuasive than any technical argument, for it makes it possible to imagine not only one alternative to endless growth but many.
The economic disruption of the pandemic does have historical analogues. When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, one in every five people in Hungary lost his or her job, and the country’s consumption dropped by at least 25 percent. In Finland, the loss of the Soviet Union as a major trading partner contributed to the collapse of previously soaring stock and housing markets, leading to a depression that lasted four years, among the worst economic disasters to hit a wealthy, democratic nation since World War II. As MacKinnon relates, some Finns who had embraced the yuppie (juppi, in Finnish) ethos of the 1980s found themselves standing in breadlines. Families that had once taken vacations to Disney World started growing vegetables and butchering game to fill their pantries. Some were forced to sell nearly everything they owned, or to put off having children because they didn’t think they could afford to raise them.
While the country’s strong social-welfare programs protected most Finns from homelessness and starvation, the suffering was substantial and lasting. Despair, however, was relatively rare: the country’s notoriously high suicide rate fell when the depression hit and has continued to decline since. In fact, the suicide rate reached its all-time peak during the boom years of the 1980s, when luxuries were abundant but competition for status was unusually ferocious. MacKinnon finds that many Finns who grew up during the depression remember it with something like fondness, partly because outward signs of success became all but meaningless. Varpu Pöyry, an engineer, remembers taking great pride in the clothes that she, her mother, and grandmother made together at home—until the depression lifted and the family took a vacation to Greece, where the latest fashions made her DIY creations look frumpy.
MacKinnon is skeptical of such nostalgia, and as his reporting progresses, he and his sources warn against utopian notions of the simple life. Aswath Damodaran, a professor of finance at the Stern School of Business at New York University, grew up in Chennai, India, in the 1960s and predicts that in the wake of a drastic contraction in consumption, cities would most likely resemble the Chennai of his childhood: “There were no toy stores. Three restaurants for a city of millions. One bookstore, because who needs books?”
Yet as MacKinnon examines the effects of various economic slowdowns—imposed and chosen, temporary and long-term—he finds that the apparent lifelessness of places like mid-twentieth-century Chennai belied a surplus of what he calls “noncommercial time.” In the 1940s a British social research network called Mass Observation studied the public’s behavior on Sundays, when by tradition and local law everyone took a holiday: shops, restaurants, museums, cinemas, and public transportation were closed, and most organized sports were forbidden. The network found that only three in twenty Britons attended church on Sundays; most spent the day simply puttering around, perhaps reading the newspaper or visiting friends and family. “Nothing particular ever happens,” one fifteen-year-old told researchers, “and yet I would not call it dull.” Few seem to have complained that the closures were inconvenient, or a threat to the economy, and few felt obligated to fill the hours with personal accomplishments.
Now, of course, Sunday in Britain and elsewhere is a day much like any other: some people don’t work but many do, and commerce online and off continues almost unabated. Recreation, though still common, is usually purchased, not improvised each week by individuals and families. (In the US, the once-common “blue laws” that required stores to close on Sundays have long since disappeared—except, MacKinnon finds, in Bergen County, New Jersey, where they are widely if not universally appreciated as a counterweight to the hypercommercialization of Paramus.) In wealthy societies, noncommercial time is now so scarce that its value has been all but forgotten.
Less consumption, MacKinnon writes, would also mean more climate stability, and more visible stars in the night sky. More whales, too: while large-scale industrial whaling is no longer the threat it once was, the animals are struggling to survive in a noisy, polluted, commercialized ocean. The North Atlantic right whale, nicknamed “the urban whale” by scientists because its habitat hugs the busy eastern coastline of North America, must navigate an especially dense web of shipping traffic, fishing traffic, whale-watching boats, and underwater infrastructure such as pipelines and cables. “We’re not actually going out and sticking them with a piece of steel anymore,” one whale researcher tells MacKinnon. “We’re just ruining their lives.”
In the quiet days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a group of New England Aquarium researchers assessed the impact of the almost complete suspension of air and marine traffic on North American right whales, collecting their feces in the Bay of Fundy and testing them for stress hormones. What they found was that the whales’ anxiety levels had diminished significantly. In a chapter called “We Finally, Actually, Save the Whales,” MacKinnon writes that while a decrease in human consumption would not eliminate all threats to the North American right whale, it would deliver almost immediate relief—and most likely save the species, which is currently expected to go extinct within thirty years.
When MacKinnon visits Sado Island, an isolated community off the west coast of Japan where most younger residents have left to pursue education and employment in urban areas, leaving many houses and apartment blocks standing empty, he observes that “only the strongest misanthrope could arrive…without feeling pangs of despair, if not outright panic.” His first impressions are tempered by the island’s recovering population of crested ibis, or toki, a crane-like bird that has found refuge on Sado after being driven nearly to extinction throughout Japan by heavy pesticide and chemical fertilizer use. The island’s calm beauty and surplus of noncommercial time are also drawing a few younger islanders back from the cities. One of them, the fifth-generation owner of a local sake brewery, tells MacKinnon that while people may say that the island is depopulating, its toki numbers are growing.
During the first round of pandemic lockdowns, MacKinnon speaks with Abdullah al Maher, the CEO of Fakir Fashion in Bangladesh. Fakir, which produces knitwear for brands such as H&M and Zara, was founded in 2009 by three brothers from a family of textile manufacturers. Aware of the human and environmental abuses within the industry, the brothers envisioned a company that would also serve as a model of corporate citizenship. Fakir has since implemented internationally certified projects that, among other things, treat their factories’ wastewater, provide meals and childcare for employees, and build local schools.
For years, Maher has tried to pass on even part of the cost of these measures to the corporations he produces clothes for. “Nobody pays for that,” he tells MacKinnon. “Nobody gives a shit about it.” Though he’s spent his career in an industry bent on expanding consumer appetites, he’s also watched his fellow Bangladeshis contend with the ghastly air and water pollution the industry creates, and he’s come to think that the price of continued economic growth is too high. “Bringing in fast fashion to your country, you are also harming your country,” he says. When MacKinnon asks Maher to imagine the society-wide consequences of a global drop in consumption, Maher pauses. “You know,” he confides, “it wouldn’t be so bad.”
MacKinnon’s case studies make clear that life in a slower economy isn’t necessarily painful, and is likely to be healthier and more secure in many ways. What hurts is the transition. When MacKinnon asks the Canadian economist Peter Victor, a specialist in the dynamics of economic systems, to model the effects of a sudden 25 percent reduction in Canadian consumption, the results are bleak: unemployment and debt balloon, and without investments in renewable-energy technologies, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise (albeit at a slower rate than they would have otherwise).
With a more gradual decline in growth, however, the model predicts far less suffering. When policies designed to cushion the fall are factored in—progressive tax rates, green investment, shorter working hours so that available work is shared more equitably—the model predicts that even as the economy shrinks, most people maintain an adequate standard of living, and society benefits from a more stable climate and cleaner water and air. As Victor points out, these policies have already been used in some developed countries, most recently to ease the effects of the pandemic’s economic downturn.
The trouble, of course, is that countries like Bangladesh have far fewer resources than Canada, and are consequently less able to protect their citizens from the impacts of change. In modern politics, moreover, the reflexive solution to less growth is more growth. In the early days of the pandemic, it was impractical for political leaders to ask, as President George W. Bush did nine days after September 11, for our “continued participation and confidence in the American economy.” But if they could have, they surely would have.
The political loyalty to economic growth is maintained, at least in part, by the demands of corporate donors and the allure of short-term rewards. In Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less, Leidy Klotz argues that biological and cultural forces have also created an overwhelming human tendency to add more—more stuff, more options, more rules, more growth. As a result, he says, subtraction as a solution is habitually overlooked.
Klotz, a professor of engineering systems and environment at the University of Virginia, has a background in civil engineering, and in recent years he has collaborated with behavioral scientists to examine if, and why, humans avoid subtraction—a strategy he defines as not simply “doing less” but an intentional act of removal. One early study was inspired by Klotz’s young son: participants were presented with a partially built Lego structure and a pile of additional blocks, and told to alter it as they wished. Only 12 percent of the participants chose to remove blocks from the existing structure rather than add more to it.
When later studies asked participants to alter a series of musical notes, transform a recipe for a five-ingredient soup, or improve a proposed itinerary for a day of sightseeing in Washington, D.C., adders outnumbered subtractors by at least three to one. And in a result unsurprising to editors everywhere, participants who were instructed to improve a piece of writing almost always made it longer, not shorter. Even when the researchers stripped the task of all context, showing participants randomized grids of black and white squares on a computer screen and asking them to equalize the number of black squares on each half of the grid, participants chose to add black squares to one side rather than remove them from the other. Further experiments indicated that participants weren’t consciously rejecting subtraction as an option; they simply weren’t considering it.
To explain this bias against subtraction, Klotz turns to researchers such as the University of Michigan’s Stephanie Preston, whose laboratory studies of acquisitiveness show that both kangaroo rats and humans respond to stress by hoarding. (At the beginning of the pandemic, Preston published a column pointing out that the widespread hoarding of toilet paper and other goods, while exasperating and potentially disruptive, was a perfectly reasonable response from an evolutionary perspective.) Klotz draws on archaeology and history to argue that cultures from antiquity to the present have found a common purpose in the construction of monumental public buildings—structures that are larger or more elaborate than their practical function demands—and have categorized people according to their clothing and other material possessions. He also contends, like MacKinnon, that the continued use of economic growth as a measure of societal well-being is both symptom and cause of widespread resistance to less.
Where MacKinnon creates impressionistic but vivid portraits of low-consumption futures, Klotz uses both research and anecdotes to argue for the importance of subtraction in building those futures. His illustrative examples include Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which she described “not as an object placed into the earth but as a cut in the earth”; the architect Anna Keichline’s 1927 invention of the K-brick, a hollow building block that used half the material of a conventional block but was equally stable and more insulating; Edward Tufte’s approach to data visualization, which radically simplifies charts and graphs to maximize their effect; and San Francisco planning commissioner Sue Bierman’s fight to remove the Embarcadero Freeway and create the popular public waterfront that succeeded it.
Subtract falters, however, when Klotz applies his quantitative tool to qualitative problems. Two of the exemplary “subtractors” Klotz returns to repeatedly are the political scientist Elinor Ostrom and the anti-apartheid activist Leo Robinson. Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009, challenged the inevitability of the proverbial “tragedy of the commons” by documenting and analyzing systems of community governance worldwide; Robinson, a San Francisco dockworker, sparked the international divestment movement when he refused to unload South African cargo. Klotz calls these efforts “systemic subtractions,” proposing that Ostrom “subtracted wrong ideas to give humanity a better approach to our common future,” while Robinson “sparked the financial subtraction that brought down apartheid.”
Neither of these characterizations does justice to the work it describes, which was highly multidimensional and had complex, often intangible causes and effects. Ostrom, after all, also expanded the scientific understanding of common-pool resource management in human communities, while Robinson’s canny organization of his fellow dockworkers helped build worldwide opposition to apartheid. (Robinson’s strategy also sits awkwardly alongside Klotz’s definition of subtraction, as boycotts remove profits by “doing less.”)
Subtract is most convincing, and most useful, when it follows its own advice and sticks to the essence of its argument, which is that subtraction can increase the efficiency and effectiveness of individuals and groups of all kinds, from political activists and homeowners to universities and governments. Klotz offers a “lesslist” of steps used to counter the bias against subtraction, including “pre-action subtraction” (identify and deprioritize less-important tasks and distracting details) and “consider subtracting first” (e.g., remove subsidies for fossil-fuel companies before attempting to geoengineer the atmosphere).
To satisfy demands for visible effort and tangible output, he advises would-be subtractors to “persist to noticeable less.” Bruce Springsteen’s 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town stripped down its sound to the point that its minimalism became an attention-getting feature; award-winning landscape architect Kate Orff’s revitalization of downtown Lexington, Kentucky, did much the same by revealing a river long hidden beneath the city’s streets. The pithiest example is provided by one of Klotz’s students, who was asked on a graduate-school application to write three hundred words about the aphorism “less is more.” She responded instead with a haiku:
A wall torn down or
a single door that opens
can mean so much more.
When my family and I reconnected with the electrical grid in 2013, after moving from rural Colorado to a small town in Washington State, we hung on to the subtractive strategies we’d learned. We still live in a small house, which keeps our overhead low and our stuff to a minimum; we still enjoy the free entertainment afforded by a bonfire or a hike. Meanwhile, more utilities are making it possible for homeowners with solar panels or wind turbines to effectively use the electrical grid as a battery, selling excess energy to the utility on sunny or windy days and buying grid power when conditions demand. Such arrangements can not only shrink individual household emissions but also help communities endure the power outages and communication failures that accompany climate-driven disasters.
Though they are far from universally available, and arguments over the policies supporting them continue, these household-scale “distributed energy resources” are cheaper than they were even a few years ago, and recent research shows that they are essential to an affordable, carbon-free electrical grid. The alternatives to growth are many, and multiplying.