The hardest sell: persuading Americans to give up shopping

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The Independent Online
A few days ago, standing in mid-town New York outside FAO Schwartz, the dream toy shop, with Bergdorf Goodman just across the road, Bloomingdales and Macy's not far away, I stopped to breathe in the heady oxygen of pure unadulterated Christmas consumption. It's what New York's for. It's a dry martini, a high octane, mainline jolt of retail nirvana, shopping heaven.

Most Greens have never felt a twinge of any of that. In fact they have no idea at all what you mean, and they shudder in genuine revulsion at this avid consumption. They simply cannot understand why people who have so much stuff already can possibly want anything more. That is why the Greens are not much good at getting across their message that the party is over and some of this has to change before we really do shop till we drop.

A story on the front page of the Wall Street Journal caught my eye on the newsstand that morning. Adbusters, a well-financed green media campaign, were protesting that all the US television networks had refused to carry their expensively produced commercial for No Buying Day (which is tomorrow, the day after Thanksgiving). Adbusters plans to take the TV networks to court, for breaching the First Amendment (free speech).

Their ad showed a cartoon pig licking its lips and snorting over a map of the US with a voice-over in tones of green disgust telling Americans that in their guzzling greed they each consume "five times more than a Mexican, 10 times more than a Chinese and 30 times more than an Indian ..." Americans do not like to be called pigs, guzzlers, fat or ugly so the networks banned the commercial. When the ad did appear on the cable CNN channel, the campaign was inundated with abusive calls from people insisting on their right to consume whatever they like.

What of tomorrow's No Buying Day? It has about as much chance of success in Manhattan as an Anti-Allah rally in Tehran. Nonetheless, all over the Western world, following America's lead, tomorrow is anti-shopping day. In London, Friends of the Earth is opening a No Shop art installation in Waterloo for No Shop Day. A No Sales Assistant (a familiar sort) will sell people nothing and give them receipts thanking them for not shopping here. There will be No Shop zones in many British cities, with people selling "real" values - Romance Wine, Best Pal Lager and limited edition jars of Happiness. Some people will be making their own Christmas presents in the streets (beware the macrame pot-plant holder and the rafia lampshade).

While it's witty, there is also a puritanical moral agenda here that makes their message pretty unpalatable. Sometimes the green movement sounds as if it started out with a revulsion for the modern world, and then looked around for good scientific reasons to back up their gut disgust. They simply lack that sense of pleasure and good fortune others of us feel when contemplating the wonder of a television set, a computer, a central heating thermostat, a microwave, a car, a washing machine or a mobile phone. Back to nature is all very well, but a washing machine is a whole lot better. In a recent hand-out, Friends of the Earth quotes a (male) guru describing the clothes' line as one of Seven Sustainable Wonders of the World. Really.

Kalle Lasn, the American former advertising executive who founded Adbusters, which devotes itself to debunking consumerism, says No Buying Day is a chance to make people break their "Buyalogical Urge". He told me he thinks shopping is a sign of depression, a disease. "For the disempowered, it's therapy because in a shop they're the boss, in control, with all these nice polite sales assistants. Of course when they come out they feel even worse. The whole American dream is built on consuming more and more."

Friends of the Earth in London are equally inclined to moralise. Said their press officer yesterday, "Most of what people consume doesn't buy them pleasure. They can have more cars and mobile phones, but they really need more time for family, friends and communicating with people." ( It's good to talk, but not by phone). "Buying things doesn't buy people happiness in any meaningful sense." This kind of talk makes me uneasy. How do you judge whose happiness is "meaningful"?

All this anti-consumerism in the Green movement is a serious mistake. It alienates normal people, who, since the dawn of time, have always liked to acquire more things, given half a chance. Shopping is now the top leisure activity, hence the burgeoning malls. Telling people they mustn't - or worse, that they're pigs, is a recipe to guarantee the Green movement a permanent place on the margins of political life.

Next week the Kyoto climate summit opens, trying, yet again, to commit the world's big consumers to burn less fossil fuel. The more economic growth, the more fuel we burn: emitting less CO2 usually means consuming less. At last the world's leaders are signed up to the idea that something must be done, because climate change is here and is a peril. The Americans are again cast as the villains, with their Congress refusing to cut back, despite Clinton's efforts. Europe will look smug: while American CO2 emissions have soared, the EU will hit its target of stabilising CO2 at 1990 levels by the year 2000. However, Europe has only done it by accident not by green self-sacrifice - with recessions in some countries, Britain's shift from coal to gas power stations, Germany's cleaning up/closing down of the East's inefficient dirty factories. In other words, no one has yet taken any pain on purpose in order to slow global warming.

If the West's leaders fail to reach a significant legally binding agreement it will be out of fear of the voters in rich countries who have not yet seriously confronted the issue. Why not? Because the West's leaders have not dared confront their voters with the hard truth. Only this week our own Chancellor was trumpeting both economic growth and lower energy prices, while giving a tiddly bit for more home insulation, as if greenness was just a little add-on. If our politicians don't dare hint at even a little belt-tightening, then who is going to change popular attitudes, creating a political climate where politicians can be elected who will tackle the global climate?

If all we've got is the green movement, then the message is unlikely to get far. Apocalypse Now is not the right message, nor is hair-shirt shopping-hate. Change is needed, but it doesn't mean closing down Oxford Street and the end of capitalism. Fuel prices need to rise, energy conserved, patterns of consuming and public spending need to change. Doing that equitably will be difficult but not impossible, nor the end of shopping as we know it. But, yes, it does mean some pain.

I like the radical plan devised by Dr Mayer Hillman, of the Policy Studies Institute, where every country, then every individual within it, is given an energy ration. The rich could buy rations from the poor, to their mutual advantage, distributing both energy and money more fairly. But as Kyoto will probably prove, the world is still as unlikely to adopt that kind of thinking as Manhattan is to shut down on No Buying Day tomorrow.