Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A non-consuming passion

After a moment of clarity in one of the world's largest shopping malls, actor and author Robert Llewellyn decided to get off the consumer treadmill by not buying anything for a year. He is going to 'make do' - could you?

by Robert Llewellyn

The Ecologist (June 2007)

As with so many suddenly-arrived at decisions in my life, I think it's all to do with my mother. She passed away six years ago, leaving barely a trace in the world. Without any effort, thought or public commitment, her carbon footprint can only be described as petite.

My carbon footprint is a monstrous clubfoot with double elephantitis. It s a big ugly shadow over my life, and everyone else's, come to think of it.

So, yes, I decided to take a year off from consuming and 'make do'. To simply not buy anything new for a whole twelve months, I wish I could claim that the reasons behind my decision were from my powerful political commitments and a firm grasp of the global implications of rampant consumerism. In fact they were much simpler, revolving around a somewhat immature emotional reaction to the experience of Christmas shopping. I don't particularly like shopping, or shops, or buying new things anyway, so to start with it wasn't a hard decision.

I took my stand while in Australia with my family over the Christmas period. A proud moment of self-sacrifice, to be walking along a beautiful beach in Queensland and decide that consumerism depressed me. I had just climbed from my enormous bed in our spacious rented apartment, had a shower, dried myself with a towel from the stack of freshly laundered ones that were delivered every day, dressed myself in clothing that costs such a tiny proportion of my income I cannot work it out and gone for a gentle stroll along the beach.

We'd flown out there (my wife is Australian), driven around in big cars and then flown back via Dubai, where we spent even more money in the Emirates Mall, one of the largest emporia to consumerism ever constructed.

Although I criticise myself for my lack of awareness of the implications of my existence, I do know I'm a middle-aged Caucasian male living in a wealthy developed nation. I have enough socks, pants, T-shirts, trousers, shirts, shoes and coats to last five years, let alone one. I have three cars, so that's too many already, and I can repair them and keep them on the road. We have six working computers in our house, none more than three years old, so I don't need a new one of those. There are things I would love to buy new, like a bike. Mine is 25 years old; it still works but the brakes are rubbish and it squeaks no matter how much WD401 spray on it. But the truth is, the more I list our stuff, the more embarrassed I feel.

I am of the generation who rejected consumerism as a political stance in the early 1970s, I lived in a squat in Oxford where we recycled everything before there was a term for it. Some of the things we recycled didn't, strictly speaking, belong to us. Slightly embarrassing, I know, but I was attempting to follow the 'all property is theft' dictat of the Oxford Anarchist Alliance, so certain morals and ownership rights were blurred concepts.

I later lived in a commune in Wales where our desired aim was to be a 'low impact' community. We had wind generators, an earth closet (a toilet made out of a bucket and you put earth over your poo, then buried it in the garden) and a massive compost heap. We only ate organic whole food, which meant I was an emaciated runt in skin-tight patched jeans and red clogs. Yes, I was that hip.

It's important to remember, though, that during this period of oil shortages, the miners strike (the one they won), the three-day week, Vietnam and a few major Middle East wars, the concept of living a low-impact life was exclusively the domain of the radical.

This is no longer the case: in fact it's becoming a national obsession. I now live in an area where merchant bankers rest at weekends, and even they are buying hybrid cars. OK, so they are parked alongside the monster four-wheel-drive and the tinted-glass people carrier, but they recycle everything and are clearly anxious about the impact of the five or six long-haul holidays they take each year.

Another thing has changed since I last pooed in an earth closet on a Welsh hillside. I think its called instant global connectivity. As soon as I posted a video blog on YouTube about giving up consuming for a year, I was flooded with advice and contacts from around the globe from literally thousands of people who are doing exactly the same thing. Making do, or 'compacting' as its known in the States, is a big movement I had no idea about it when I started and I felt rather deflated when I was told how many people had already done it. There is even a book about it. A New Yorker called Judith Levine wrote Not Buying It (Free Press) in 2003 (I got it from the library, obviously, I couldn't buy it), where she kept a rigorous account of her year without consuming.

It was such a familiar story: the difficulties you immediately encounter and how every day there is a little challenge. Levine didn't do this because of poverty. She realised, as I did, that a huge amount of our consuming is for reasons other than direct, practical need.

It was also chilling to discover how much further other people had gone. For example, I made this commitment purely to myself, I didn't try to impose it on my family. When I did ask them how they'd react if I suggested we all did the same thing, they didn't stop laughing for a good ten minutes. Other people have gone the whole hog; not buying friends or family birthday or Christmas presents, but making something instead. They won't go to restaurants or order take-outs and are fiercely reducing their carbon footprint by not going in any cars, only using public transport or bicycles.

There is even a man in New York who has decided to do without anything other than basic food and medicine for a year. He has a small child still in nappies, and he's worked out that he can use old wool or something instead of disposable 'diapers'. He won't even buy toilet roll, and he's using an earth closet, in the middle of Manhattan! How does that work? It was pretty challenging on a Welsh hillside, let me tell you! While I got slightly confused support from my wife, my children started out utterly disinterested in my quest. Now they are my fiercest observers, able to catch any discrepancy. And there have been a few. I've been out to dinner with friends and paid for the meal, I've bought people presents, and cannot face my children's birthdays with the offer of a hand-knitted shawl or a really cool drawing of a boy on a skateboard, even though my knitting and drawing skills are first class, I am just hoping that my ongoing and now very public struggle is the best example I can give my kids about the hollow experience of endlessly desiring and buying new stuff.

Four months in, it is becoming much harder. I am constantly stopping myself from auto-buying the little luxuries most of us don't even think about. A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine was featured in a Sunday tabloid. I saw the paper in the local garage and bought one without thinking. When I got home, a neighbour had bought one for me, knowing I would probably be interested in the story but wouldn't be able to buy it. I felt such an idiot.

Today I have just drooled over some new software: an amazing update on a package I regularly use. It looks brilliant and is the sort of thing I would normally have jumped at without hesitation. Not this year, I'm afraid, I'll make do with what I've got.

Instead, like my mum always used to, I am repairing things. My watch broke in mid January and in the past I would have bought a new one. This one has been in the repair shop for eight weeks now and it's probably going to cost me more than buying a new one, so that exercise proved a bit counter-productive - and I've got used to not wearing a watch.

More constructively, I've sewn patches on two pairs of old trousers I use at home and in the garden and they feel really good. They were in a bag, about to be sent to the recycling bin, but now I wear them with pride. I have glued together the broken lens on an old video camera and it works better than expected, I have had two punctures repaired on the car and had an old pair of boots re-heeled.

This is also the first thing I have done in ages where the mere description of my odyssey has made everyone I've met pause and reflect. Not always positively, I've had plenty of teasing and critical questioning, my motives are doubted, my actions analysed. 'Do you buy newspapers?' No. 'What about new video tapes for your camera?' Not yet: been recording over the old ones containing experimental rubbish. Many of the questions have been difficult but they say as much about the questioner as they do about me. The fact that we all over-consume is so obvious it's not worth mentioning in polite society. It would be a dull topic at a sparkly dinner party, but if it comes up that you have stopped buying anything new not forever, just for a year - believe me, interesting things begin to happen.


Robert Llewellyn is a 51-year-old sold-out ex-anarcho-syndicalist who has spent his life struggling to challenge sex role stereo types, the class system, rampant consumerism and racism. He has constantly failed and now lives in the heart of the Cotswold banker belt, surrounded by horses with better healthcare than anyone outside Denmark can imagine. Next month he begins a regular column charting his progress.

Bill Totten


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