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A typical American consumer tries to avoid that which comes most naturally — consuming.

To Buy or Not to Buy


There are subversives among us who operate under different banners — the Adbusters, the culture jammers, the PlanetKeepers — one European group tersely calls itself "Enough." For various environmental, humanitarian and spiritual reasons, they want us to reduce our consumption, to submit to voluntary simplicity. One reason is the Fishkill Landfill, a mountain of garbage in Staten Island, N.Y., that is taller than the Great Pyramids of Egypt. Another reason is that by some estimates, we will have run out of petroleum in 70 years. To provoke discussion and debate, Adbusters has instituted a newfangled holiday, "Buy Nothing Day," to be un-celebrated on the first day after Thanksgiving, the most important shopping day of the year.

Buying nothing for a day describes any given Wednesday for me — what startling revelations could I arrive at by simply anointing a typical day "Buy Nothing Day?" In the spirit of overdoing everything, I embarked on Buy Nothing Week. I didn't plan for the week at all. I didn't stock up on asparagus spears and Ben & Jerry's and conditioner and shower mist. I didn't even gas my car. These were mistakes.

Almost immediately after instituting my spending freeze, I ran out of my preferred foods. Scrounging through the freezer, I was amazed at the things lurking way in the back. I excavated pierogi, frozen vegetables, frozen strawberries and a rock-hard divot of some sort of fish.

I realized very soon that there was plenty of food already in the house. There's actually plenty of food in most American houses — not all, but most. For much of the world, food is not plentiful. When I pouted over not having any feta cheese, I flashed on scenes from "Angela's Ashes" depicting Frank McCourt and his little brothers gobbling up bread and butter. While holding a can of mediocre lentil soup, I decided that if the people of St. Petersburg could face down Hitler's siege by eating wallpaper glue, I could endure this can of soup. There was no real reason not to eat it, except (cue the thunderclap) — I was not really hungry.

"To want something" used to mean to require something, to be in need of something, to lack something vital and life enhancing. The truth is that most of us want for nothing — we would like McDonald's French fries, we desire a new pair of marcasite earrings. I was forced to confront the difference between wanting and needing when my 11-year-old car enacted its weekly civil disobedience. In the Land of No Mass Transit otherwise known as Chesterfield County, I would be hard-pressed to function without a car. I had already arranged to barter piano lessons for the ongoing repairs, so I can't claim that Buy Nothing Week stimulated this cash-free solution.

While awaiting the noncash repair, I was forced to hitch rides with my sister-in-law, carpooling for the simplest errands. I'm sure this decreased my lamentably huge impact on the environment. According to the PlanetKeepers, I, typical American, use as much energy as three Japanese people, 14 Chinese, 168 Bengalis, or 531 Ethiopians. (I know I eat as much as three Japanese people, 14 Chinese, 168 Bengalis, or 531 Ethiopians.).

I can't pretend that I reduced my consumption of electricity one whit during this week. I fried my hair with a curling iron, cooked on an electric range, microwaved cups of tea, and engaged in that most decadent activity, reading at night. I purchased lots of electricity — but no cash exchanged hands. Perhaps if I had to plug quarters into a generator to get electricity on a daily basis, I would remember to unplug my computer and hang the clothes out to dry.

Socializing has become so completely integrated with spending that I experienced no small amount of loneliness. I couldn't go to book stores even after my car repair because I didn't have enough gas; moreover, the magazines, cherry-infused green tea and croissants are too tempting. Bars were out of the question — if you don't have to pay to get in, you look like a fool sitting there drinking nothing. Movies — out. Ice-skating — out. One is forced to enjoy the simple pleasures — walking, writing poetry on previously purchased paper.

Despite moments that verged on shopping-free enlightenment, I met my downfall in a Goodwill store. Up until that fateful outing, my only lapse involved partially hydrogenated crispy things, to which I am addicted, and I admit that. But I had heroically managed to pass over new khakis and movie tickets, and the November issues of both "Harper's" and "Smithsonian." Yes, I should have avoided going to any sort of clothing store. I told myself this was an anthropological investigation. I was examining a culture in which people will throw away perfectly good clothing. Picking among other people's garbage seemed strangely emblematic of Buy Nothing Week, but soon I was caught in the tractor beam of a J. Crew sweater speckled in warm autumnal colors selling for only $7. Surely the voluntarily simple would find this praiseworthy! I would be preventing this sweater from ending up in a landfill. And thanks to the wickedly cold winter we can expect as a result of the chaotic climatic changes brought on by greenhouse gases we American seem to excrete, I will need something nubby and woolly around me.

Other than the egregious purchase of the sweater, I did well. It was nice to take a break from engineered desire, in which everything becomes fascinating enough to own. I was even able to resist the siren songs of the catalogs in my mailbox, which offered luminously gray pashmina shawls, unnecessarily long crinkly skirts, picture frames covered in seed pearls, glassware hand-painted so that it serves very narrow purposes, like toasting an eighth wedding anniversary. You can buy everything these days — a Japanese tea ceremony starter kit, T-shirts that declare your every wisecracking thought and salty opinion.

Wherever we go, wherever we turn, we are immersed in a blur of purchasing choices that is always buzzing in the background, like the chronic white noise tinnitus sufferers are forced to endure. As Judith Williamson, author of "Decoding Advertisements," reminds us, "Shopping gives you a sense of choice and power which is often absent from the rest of your life." Under the illusion that having choices among millions of consumer goods is the same thing as having real power, we are more content with the status quo. Notice that we Americans have about 525 choices of salad dressing and only two political

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