Monday, 21 April 2014

Need or Want?

I have been reading Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping by  Judith Levine, which was a recommendation from Jo at All the Blue Day. I will confess that I am not really enjoying it, but I am putting that down to a lack of personal connection with the author. There are areas I find fascinating, where Judith makes some astute observations, but then other discussions that are not relevant to me, living such a different lifestyle.

Judith had a bad Christmas shopping experience and decided to give up buying anything but essentials for a whole year. It is an anti-consumerist statement rather than a green statement, so Judith and her partner are pretty strict about not buying charity theatre tickets (which don't involve accumulating 'stuff') or second hand goods (which involves re-using existing 'stuff'). The book tracks her progress and thoughts throughout the year.

It is interesting reading about all the 'stuff' they have to start with, for instance 3 motor vehicles for a household with only 2 people. There are also magazine subscriptions, eating out, new books, wine, fashionable clothes, gifts and many other things that are non-essential, but painful to give up at first. I can definitely think of some luxuries that I wouldn't want to lose.

I did like how Judith looks at our 'needs' and our 'wants', and how we make the things that we want out to be a 'need' that we can't live without. One example was extending their home. They convinced themselves that they needed more space, how she couldn't get her work done without a separate room and how he needed more storage space for all his 'stuff'. Whilst the disruptive building work for the large and expensive extension was underway, they had to move their bedroom and workspace into the living room and Judith observed how cosy it was and how well everything fitted in. Did they really 'need' the extra space?

This is a valuable but difficult distinction to recognise. We are surrounded by advertisements telling us that we 'need' their product to make us slim, or look cool, or be popular, or be better at cooking, or run faster.....but we are also good at convincing ourselves that we need them. For instance some of my seedlings are dying on my living room windowsill. The ones in the kitchen are fine, but there is just not enough space for them all before it is warm enough to put them outside. I really need a greenhouse, so that I have plenty of warm sunny space for raising my plants. Plus it is more work trying to keep them watered and turned so they grow evenly, and the radiators below the windows provide too much warmth so they become leggy. I really need a greenhouse to do this properly otherwise I'm making more work for myself. Right?

But do I really 'need' one or just 'want' one? My thoughts regarding a greenhouse are really biased and selective. I mean there are plenty of places where I can buy seedlings cheaply, that are ready to be planted out. I don't have to grow them from seed myself. Or I could concentrate on plants more suited to our climate, or plant the seeds outside under cloches or just later in the year and get a later crop. Plus a greenhouse would entail more work, cleaning the glass, opening windows when it gets too hot, closing them at night and watering the plants regularly, not to mention the time and cost of buying and installing one. But all this can be overlooked, ignored or played down, in my mind which has decided that I do really 'need' a greenhouse ;-)

The same can happen when clothes shopping, and you really 'need' to find some shoes to match that outfit, or 'need' that new dress because people have seen you in all the other ones, or a new coat because last year's one looks dated. These are wants not really needs. I mean you do need to be clothed to keep you warm, but you can achieve that with very few outfits. Is this something you can relate to? It is much easier to spot in others than when you are doing it yourself!

It is easy for my brain to tell me that I 'need' something, but it takes a conscious effort to stop myself and ask do I really 'need' it. I have made a conscious decision not to buy any more electrical appliances, but it is hard. Every recipe that says ' ...and blitz it in your food processor.' makes me feel that I can't live without a food processor, but I can. It just involves a bit more chopping, grating, mixing, beating, whisking or sieving by hand.

Reducing the amount of 'stuff' manufactured, bought and then dumped is a true need. Vast amounts of energy and resources go into all the tantalising products lining shop windows and featured in glossy mags. We need to reduce carbon emissions if we want earth to remain habitable, and we need to stop squandering resources that will be needed by future generations. Every product we buy has a hidden environmental cost, so now's a good time to stop buying it, if it is not essential to your survival. Are you with me?


  1. I go along with much of your review. I picked up my copy in a 2nd hand shop, and wondered if 'buying it' went against the spirit of the thing- but have lent it out a few times too, so it is getting well read. I try and re-read it every so often. Like you, I was amazed at the 14 different varieties of oils in her larder, and the need for the right ski wax! But is easy to spot the splinter in another's eye, and ignore the plank in your own - I am sure there are things here that others consider 'extravagant'
    Like you, working hard to think about environmental impact as well as the bank account.
    Thanks for reminding me about this interesting little book - I will dig out my copy again soon for a proper re-read/reminder!! blessings xx

    1. Thanks Angela. I bought my copy secondhand and it was stamped St Louis Library in USA, so it is clearly well read and well travelled. But buying new supports the author, and I think she even mentions in the book how strange it is to not be buying books and supporting the industry she is in :-)

  2. I think what I really took away from this book was the conclusion the author came to when she had finished her year of not-buying - if you stop being a consumer, then you become a citizen. And a person who thinks really hard about your relationship with 'things'.

    1. Thanks Jo. That is exactly what I am feeling. Can't wait to finish the book now!

  3. I read the Not Buying It (also acquired secondhand!) book and enjoyed it, despite her very different lifestyle to mine. I liked her punchy writing style, and some of the issues raised. I got out of it that as we all have to 'consume' stuff - material things and less tangible things, then, as Jo says, we need to consider the implications of all our 'consumption'.

  4. And we've had just that same conversation about 'wanting' a greenhouse here this weekend! We seem to scrape by with windowsills, surplus from people who DO have greenhouses, plant sales, but all the same it would be nice....