- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Judith Levine had an idea for an experiment aimed at highlighting the effects of consumerism. For a full year, she and her boyfriend, Paul, did not buy anything except absolute necessities, such as groceries. The result is a new book, “Not Buying It.”

The following are excerpts from a telephone interview with Ms. Levine:

Question: What exactly was your experiment?

Answer: My partner, Paul, and I decided that we would try as much as possible to withdraw from the world of purchases. We didn’t intend really to save money; we just wanted to see what it would be like if you didn’t buy it.

Q: How did that go? How did it make you feel?

A: What we decided to do is to only buy what we considered necessities.

First, you have an infinite number of disputes about what were a necessity. And the feelings that I had were not what I expected.

I expected to long [to shop] a lot. I had to ask people for help. I couldn’t buy myself out of predicaments; I couldn’t just pull out my credit card. I felt out of it because I wasn’t participating in the day-to-day culture. For a person whose identity is much attached to what’s going on, it just sounded stupid. I felt lonely because, again, I couldn’t go out and meet someone in a cafe. And I couldn’t do that very pleasurable thing of going to a cafe by myself. Sometimes I was bored, which was surprising to me. I saw how much I depend on the nexus of the market.

Q: Was it difficult?

A: It was hard in a way I didn’t expect it to be. It was also rewarding and fun.

It’s amazing how many hours can get sucked up sitting at your computer on EBay. We had a lot more time. We had the kind of fluid time that you really don’t have, even when you are pursuing leisure in New York City, which I consider to be a form of work. We lived a looser kind of life. At the end of the day, we’d get up from our desks and say, “Let’s go take a walk.” So it was fun and it was pleasurable and then there were those moments that I was sitting alone on a Wednesday.

Q: Were you able to save a lot of money?

A: Yes. I paid off a credit-card bill that was almost $8,000 and … I haven’t run it up again. My spending habits had changed a lot.

Q: What did your friends say?

A: Some of them admired us. They reacted with a feeling that there’s probably a German word for, which means admiration for an enterprise that you’re glad someone else is doing so you don’t have to. There was anxiety that came out of them imaging that they would do it. The thing they were most incredulous about is that we were not going to go to the movies for a whole year.

Q: Did you find any loopholes?

A: Our consumer desires and fetishes kind of channeled their way into grocery shopping. We would make these very strategized, careful trips. We had these places and things that we would get because we had decided we would buy ingredients for food, nothing prepared. But that didn’t eliminate, say, lemon grass or other exotic ingredients. That was a loophole because it absorbed our desires.

Q: What did you do with all your time?

A: We went out and did the obvious things right at the beginning. In Vermont, it’s easy — you go out for a hike. In New York, we did the free things there are to do, but when it came to dilemmas as far as how do we give a present for the graduation of my niece, then we really had to think about it.

Q: Before the experiment began, did you go on a buying binge?

A: We definitely had the panic. In the last few days, I went out and bought a pair of city snow boots, but, I tell you, I have never worn those, not once. We ran out of movies at this furious pace; we went out almost every night. But those things slip through your fingertips. We also realized that we could just buy without stopping and stay up 24 hours a day and would never reach satisfaction. That itself is the nature of desire.

Q: What gave the you the idea for the experiment?

A: There was the personal side of it, which was my credit card was maxed out. I tend to think of myself as not a big consumer because I’m a writer, but there were ways I felt personally out of control.

Also, I think that overconsumption is a problem for the Earth. Where do all those old cell phones go? They go to a landfill. Our high standard of living in this country compared to the low standard for others. I think we need to be conscientious of the things we buy. Overconsumption is something that needs to be solved.

Q: What did you learn from your experience?

A: I learned that really you cannot withdraw from the marketplace. All cultures are tied to the marketplace. …

A big change was that when we went out and started to depend on public amenities, those things are not in very good shape. We make decisions as a nation on how much we are going to keep for private and how much we are going to put into public. My own feeling was I began to vote for those collective investments. There’s a connection between the private consumer and public investment.

Q: What did you learn about U.S. culture?

A: I learned that this thing, consumption, that we are both encouraged to do and discouraged to do is virtually the only game in town. We are encouraged to think of ourselves as consumers and not citizens, even by our government. If people are obsessed with consuming, or the only thing they do for fun is go to the mall, it is because really there is less and less of a sense of the public good and a community we all share. I think we’re really out of balance here.

And not that we should try to wipe out all the quite wonderful and delicious things there are to buy, but I think we … could benefit from spending money on the things we do value that are not going to have a profitable return.

Q: Would you recommend that other people conduct this experiment?

A: No. This book is not about how you should live, and, in fact, I think a lot of the voluntary simplicity movement has a lot of effect on people, but I think it mainly runs on guilt. I do think that we have a responsibility to think about the consequences of our culture. It’s helpful for individuals to be conscious about what they use and throw away.

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