IN 2018, inspired by Ann Patchett’s essay ‘My year of no shopping’ in the New York Times, I chose to abstain from shopping for a year. I too made a list of what I would allow myself to spend on: toiletries, dining out, travel, pet and exercise paraphernalia. Patchett learned how she got by without the things she had restricted herself from buying and the year helped her understand what constituted necessity. Also, it wasn’t hard.

I already knew the lessons I would learn — or rather relearn — having subscribed to a monastic living as a revolving expat between Karachi, Vietnam and UAE between 1998 and 2014. However, that all changed when I moved to Chicago in 2016 and began to worship at the temple of consumption that is America. After my return to Karachi, I practised a more mindful form of shopping until the pandemic hit. In virtual isolation, I found online shopping helped me deal with a lot of the anxiety. Unfortunately, I have been unable to come out of a state of reckless consumption where I can justify needing this thing.

It’s called the Diderot Effect, named after a French philosopher who first wrote about a motivation for overconsumption in the 18th century. It states that getting a new thing creates a spiral of consumption wherein people end up with things they previously didn’t need.

I was reminded of all this while reading The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki, which received the Man Booker prize this year. It is a searing indictment of how people’s overconsumption and focus on self vs community is destroying the environment.

If we viewed objects as living things, would we value them differently?

Ozeki is a Zen priest and her writing is influenced by Buddhist principles; the theme of impermanence, for example, forms a central tenet in the novel. It is a story about the teenager Benny and his mother, Annabelle, who are grieving the death of their father/ husband. Benny begins to hear voices from objects — tables, windows, scissors — and is hospitalised following an incident. He begins a dialogue of sorts with one of those voices: The Book. And at some point, the Book becomes a narrator as well, sometimes in response to Benny, sometimes about Benny.

The novel is a brutal telling of how the modern medical system treats Benny as he tries to deal with the voices he’s hearing. If these items are living and communicating their stories, then is it crazy that Benny can hear them? And if he’s able to make peace with his “condition”, why is it so problematic for everyone else? Is Benny mad for hearing voices, or is the system broken for diagnosing him as mad? We meet a host of characters in the novel who will rekindle your faith in compassion and shared humanity as they form a community to help Benny and Annabelle deal with their lives.

I was also moved by the non-preachiness with which Ozeki tackles people’s attachment to things and the comparison and despair that comes when looking at yourself through other people’s acquisitions. Benny’s mother Annabelle’s hoarding is one such example. One can sympathise with her desire to have things around her to help her feel secure, given her circumstances, but as you watch her story unfold, you’re understanding how the hoarding is impacting the environment.

This is also a story about inanimate objects. If we viewed these objects as living things, would we value them differently — ie, not as easily disposable? Could it help us change our pattern of constant consumption? Retail therapy gives us instant gratification but has long-term impact on one’s financial health; forget what fast fashion is doing to the environment.

I can’t help but think of a respect for things at this particular time, when climate change ravages Pakistan. Plenty has been written about how Pakistan is paying a price for the West’s overconsumption and how that is leading to the planet’s decay. It is grossly unfair and justifies all calls for debt cancellation and reparations. Overconsumption the world over contributes to the widening gap between the poor and the rich. “The equivalent of almost three planets could be required to provide the natural resources needed to sustain current lifestyles,” warned a UN report.

I see current lifestyles here as living in large houses where everyone has their own car, wasting food (at home and in businesses), buying things because they are on sale rather than because we need them, and still using plastic.

The answers are not easy but scientists agree a shift in consciousness is urgently needed so the planet can heal. There is an innumerable number of people who need to heal too, from loss of health, livelihood and home. Ozeki reminds us that consumption doesn’t fill voids, but fulfillment can come from connecting to community, nature, land — all of which give back a sense of purpose, happiness.

The writer teaches journalism.

Published in Dawn, September 18th, 2022

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