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What's the environmental impact each time we hit 'buy now,' and can we change course?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We're spending some time this week thinking about how much Americans buy. All year round, the American economy is driven by consumption. Buying things is 70% of the gross domestic product. Now that we're in the middle of the holiday season, we are buying even more. But what do we do with all that stuff? And what does all that stuff do to a rapidly warming planet? Those are things we're going to talk about with journalist J.B. MacKinnon. He is author of "The Day The World Stops Shopping: How Ending Consumerism Saves The Environment And Ourselves."

J.B. MacKinnon, welcome.

J B MACKINNON: Thanks so much. Glad to be here.

KELLY: Glad to have you with us. It occurs to me, as I say it out loud, that the subtitle of your book is probably a pretty good place to start. Give us a few examples of how what we buy affects the environment.

MACKINNON: Well, it affects every environmental crisis that we face. In fact, at this point, according to the U.N. panel that studies global natural resources, consumption is the leading driver of our environmental problems around the world today, surpassing even the growth of the human population on the planet. So you name it, it drives it - deforestation, toxic pollution, climate change, mining, even fisheries, even the extinction of species is tied in tightly to our consumption.

KELLY: Can you give, like, one concrete example that would drive one of those home?

MACKINNON: Sure. Well, one of the issues that I looked at that I thought was most surprising was the way that consumer culture is now affecting whales. We thought that we had saved the whales by ceasing to hunt them. But now things like the search for minerals and fossil fuels on the sea floor is creating noise pollution that's having a profound effect on whales' ability to communicate with each other. And one of the most common ways that North Atlantic right whales, an endangered species in the United States, actually end up dying is being struck by the cargo ships that bring us our things. One whale conservationist said to me, you know, every time you hit that buy now button on Amazon, you're helping power up the ships that are running down endangered whales off the East Coast of the United States.

KELLY: You're talking about the environmental impact of all of the buying that we do. Did we have something of a trial for how we might do better, how we might do this differently towards the beginning of the pandemic?

MACKINNON: Yeah. In the early weeks and months of the pandemic, when much of the world was really, you know, quite literally, locked out of consumer culture, we saw a really dramatic effect on the environment. We really saw how just lifting that hand of human pressure off can have immediate impacts in terms of environmental problems of a variety of kinds. So we - many people will remember how there were these bluer-than-blue skies in cities around the world. And some of the most dramatic changes in the skies occurred in those Asian cities that produce a lot of the world's consumer goods and which were some of the most air-polluted cities on the planet.

KELLY: It was just factory smokestacks not operating for a few weeks. yeah.

MACKINNON: That's absolutely right. And we saw the biggest and deepest drop in carbon emissions ever recorded through that global slowdown in that production and consumption system. We saw the resurgence of the natural world, especially in those places where mass tourism had retreated. And again, you know, mass tourism is very much a part of the consumer lifestyle today.

KELLY: I suppose the challenge is nobody wants to stay in the moment that was the early days of the pandemic. So what is sustainable if we were to try to wean ourselves off some of the just - more, more, more, more, more buying?

MACKINNON: One of the things that was really driven home to me while working on this book was the fact that if we want to reduce consumption, we really have to do so in a managed way by making changes in the system itself. We live in a consumer society, and we have built an economy that depends on more and more consumption by all of us every year. So if we simply slow down, then we know what the effects of that are. It drives an economic crisis. It's a different kind of system that we need.

KELLY: You reminded me of something that our guests on this subject said yesterday. I'm going to let you listen and then respond.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LIZABETH COHEN: Seventy percent of GDP is dependent on consumption, which really does lead to a great dilemma around our growing awareness of environmental degradation that comes with this high level of private consumption. And, you know, on the one hand, we can say that we're living in a world with too much waste, of overconsumption. On the other hand, what is the solution going to be to keeping the economy going?

KELLY: That is Harvard professor Lizabeth Cohen speaking. And to her point, she's getting right at this push-pull that what's good for the environment can be not so good for the economy and vice versa. How do you struggle to reconcile that? What is the answer?

MACKINNON: I think what I look to is companies that are making this shift themselves - so companies like Patagonia, and I think maybe more importantly, just because of its global recognizability, the Levi's brand. And both of those companies are moving towards models where they will be making the sale of new products a smaller part of their model and the sale of recouping and reselling second hand their own products a larger part of their model, as well as the repair and maintenance and alteration of their products as part of their income stream as well. So when we see companies like that moving in that direction, and when you see a company like Levi's - which earlier this year acknowledged that the apparel industry is built on overconsumption - I think we see that business seems to be prepared to move in this direction.

KELLY: So you're saying that the strategy boils down to don't buy so many pairs of jeans with the expectation that you'll get tired of them or they'll wear out; spend more, but less frequently, and get a really good pair that you're going to keep repairing and keep wearing for year after year after year?

MACKINNON: That's right. It's been referred to by some people as the model of fewer better things or buy less, buy better. And it extends not only to goods, but also to things like services and even consumer experiences. So, for example, we can travel less but travel in a more engaged way and might potentially even find that considerably more satisfying.

KELLY: Fewer but better has not been the American shopping mantra in recent decades. Do you really think it can be done?

MACKINNON: Sure. I mean, I don't think that we have very much choice. I mean, when people say that we are caught in this dilemma, we're not really caught in a dilemma. It is true that the planet needs us to stop shopping. The economy needs us to keep shopping. But ultimately, it's the planet that has the priority here. We cannot continue to expand the amount of consumption that each individual person on the planet does in perpetuity. So the answers have to be found, I think, in what kind of changes can we make to the economic system?

KELLY: That is journalist J.B. MacKinnon. He's author of "The Day The World Stops Shopping: How Ending Consumerism Saves The Environment And Ourselves."

Thank you.

MACKINNON: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.