Judith Levine in her book Not Buying It takes on this task: to go one year without shopping. She recruits her partner Paul on the endeavor, and they vow to only spend money on the necessities (no processed food or sweets count). So no eating out, no picking up a little something, no shopping for new clothes, no shopping for gifts. The experiment spans 2004--the last presidential election--and she structures the book in a diary format with each month forming a theme about consumerism and buying.
Levine explores the nature of consumerism and American culture's shopping habits. She also takes a look at what it is to need and to want, to shop consciously, and to understand the implications of spending on the global community. She learns that the public systems (libraries, art, etc) are in serious disrepair from a citizenship that is reluctant to pay taxes. Levine also reads a lot of anthropologists, philosophers, talks to individuals who take part of movements like Voluntary Simplicity and Buy Nothing Day. Levine participates in 2004 Buy Nothing Day (here's a photo from the event she describes):
(Reverend Billy nails the Nine Theses Against Corporate Rule on a New York McDonald's)
Not only an exploration of her own habits and impulses as a consumer, Not Buying It is a book about seeking alternatives. She talks to anyone from an average consumer to a man who lives off of less than $5,000 a year. She talks to individuals who want to simplify their life in a Thoreauvian gesture, but can't quite do it.
The book's strength is in the way it looks out. Levine uses her experiment as a personal starting point or as a place to ground these larger questions. Capitalism within the United States is spinning out of control and we're buying it. We're buying the idea that it's normal and natural to want things, to want to make money. We're also buying Bush's declaration that the best way to recover from September 11th is to buy more stuff. (We have to show the terrorists what they're missing in typical imperialist style). Levine doesn't want to buy it anymore. Her experiment helps her grow in many personal ways, but she points out that when she wasn't spending on herself, she was donating more to helping others. She was involved more in the public (free) sphere of her community. Perhaps we all could do so much.
I picked up this book because even though I readily contribute to the consumerist lifestyle (and love to shop), it bothers me. I may have more disposable income now than ever before, and while I am donating to good causes and using my spending to speak (by buying organic, shopping locally, etc), I'm still participating more than I would like. I went to Wal-Mart to shop yesterday for the first time in a long time and realized that I lost the ability to shop there. The choices overwhelmed me, and I would pick items up and put them down again. The book interested me because I wanted to read books that would enrich my life in some way and perhaps steer me toward a simpler--and better--way of living.