On the day after Thanksgiving, Marin Goldstein and Han Shan climbed to the top of the Mall of America outside Minneapolis and unfurled a 600-square-foot cartoon that depicted the earth falling through a broken shopping bag. They wanted the mall visitors to ditch their purchases, go home, and observe Thanksgiving Friday as Buy Nothing Day. “Our consumption,” said Shan, “is the mother of all environmental problems.”

The Vancouver-based Media Foundation has sponsored Buy Nothing Day every year since 1992. (It also publishes Adbusters magazine and produces a series of wickedly funny and politically pointed “uncommercials.”) Buying environmentally friendly products isn’t enough, the foundation insists on its Web page. Buying itself is the problem: “Our business culture constantly urges us to consume more and more, yet we know that our planet cannot survive this onslaught, with regards to pollution, biodiversity, resource depletion, and climate change. This consumption machine…we want to bring to a grinding halt.”

In 1992 the Worldwatch Institute issued Alan Durning’s jeremiad How Much Is Enough?: The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth, which makes the same statement at greater length. “The furnishings of our consumer lifestyle–things like automobiles, throwaway goods and packaging, a high-fat diet, and air conditioning–can only be provided at great environmental cost….Sustaining the environment that sustains humanity will require that we change our values.”

It seems so obvious. A small car pollutes less and uses fewer materials than a big one. Wrapping gifts in old Sunday comics rather than commercial gift wrap is cheaper and less demanding of paper. What’s true in particular cases surely must be true overall: if each of us comfortable Americans would just spend less money and live more simply, then other people and other species could simply live.

If you take the manifesto for Buy Nothing Day literally, it’s just plain false. Buying decisions made by individual households create only a small fraction of the world’s environmental problems. That’s one of the key points made in a slim book from the National Research Council entitled Environmentally Significant Consumption: Research Directions. Sociologist Paul Stern of George Mason University writes, “The vast majority of energy use, releases of water and air pollutants, and many other environmentally destructive activities in the United States results directly from organizational behavior rather than individual behavior–specifically, from the acts of corporations and governments.”

Take garbage, for instance. U.S. households throw away around 200 million tons of garbage a year. That seems like a lot until you learn that industrial wastes regulated under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act amount to more than 12 billion tons annually–60 times as much. If you want to cut down on waste (and the resulting environmental stress) generated by the economy, focusing on household consumption is like trying to clean a building by repeatedly scrubbing the back corner of the smallest closet.

Wasn’t a lot of that industrial waste created in order to provide us with our purchases? Yes, but most of the environmentally significant decisions about it have already been made by the time you buy. Consider water: in 1995 more than 80 percent of U.S. water use went to irrigate crops and cool electric power plants, according to a recent U.S. Geological Survey report. But buying less electricity will not make Com Ed’s cooling towers more efficient. Consider fish: in 1994 the world fish harvest cost $124 billion, but was sold for only $70 billion–according to Norman Myers in Science, government subsidies to the industry made up the difference. The resultant overfishing has dangerously depleted many fish populations, but the cause is corporate welfare, not consumer gluttony. It’s a political problem that requires a political solution.

“The most environmentally significant choices are not those that householders make,” writes Stern; rather they are “organizational choices about how technologies that affect the environment are designed, produced, distributed, and marketed. To presume that consumers are entirely responsible for the environmental impacts of consumption is to overlook most of the phenomenon.” Besides, “most people normally have weak preferences with regard to the technology used to produce what they purchase. Also, the environmental impact of production processes is typically hidden from consumers when they make choices.” If you do have knowledge and preferences, the obvious course is not to buy nothing but to buy the better product.

Sometimes the Buy Nothing people mean something broader and less absurd–that whoever may be at fault, the consumer-based economy is getting too big for the earth to support. In some specific cases this claim is false as well, but the long-term verdict is not in yet. In How Much Is Enough? Durning writes that cars “can only be provided at great environmental cost.” This is the sort of environmental defeatism that the Worldwatch Institute has made famous, and it’s ludicrously false: there are lots of ways to make and fuel cars. As Stern points out, “improving emissions control technology in automobiles, a policy directed mainly at manufacturers, did more to reduce urban air pollution than any politically practicable policy directed at households could have done.” Our number of vehicle miles traveled is up, but air pollution from cars is down. If the only road to salvation were to change “our” values, as Durning claims, then cars would still pollute as much as they did in 1970.

Improved efficiency in other areas has begun to disconnect “consumption” as measured in dollars and cents from “consumption” as measured by pollution and resource usage. If you’re above a certain age you might remember when crushing a beer can with one hand was a minor feat. Not anymore. Aluminum beverage cans weigh about two-thirds as much today as they did in 1973. (This is sometimes called “dematerialization,” and it’s most dramatic when you read the New York Times on-line rather than buying a paper edition.) Similarly, U.S. population has grown 16 percent since 1980, but our water usage has dropped by 10 percent. Most importantly, since the energy crisis of the early 70s, total energy use per constant dollar of gross national product has declined by more than one-quarter. Environmental journalist Gregg Easterbrook makes this point more vividly in A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism. “In 1974,” he writes, “the typical [North Carolina] residential customer had a 1,000-square-foot dwelling with no air conditioner, no color television, and no frost-free refrigerator. By 1992 the typical Duke Power customer had 1,250 square feet of air-conditioned space, two color televisions, and a frost-free fridge–yet was using slightly less electricity than in 1974.”

Why is this happening? Political pressure generated by the environmental movement and the energy crisis have pushed in the same direction as competitive capitalism, generating greater efficiency and enlarging the gap between dollars and environmental impact. The more middle-of-the-road environmental groups retain this as their core strategy. Thus Chicago Wilderness, the biggest environmental coalition in the Chicago area, promotes “carefully planned development,” not “no development.” And Howard Learner of the Environmental Law and Policy Center is lobbying for Illinois to follow other states’ example and pass energy-efficiency incentives that will nudge the newly competitive electricity market in the right direction. These groups might agree with Durning that American consumers’ values should change (or change faster), but they’re not about to bet a restored prairie–or their organizations’ future–on such a utopian project.

So the consumer machine can grow and decrease its impact on the environment. As the United Nations’ Human Development Report 1998: Consumption for Human Development puts it, “The real issue is not growth of consumption but its impacts on people, the environment and society. If societies adopt technologies that diminish the environmental impact of consumption, if patterns shift from consuming material goods to consuming services, growth can help, not hinder, moves to sustainability.”

Will this actually happen? That’s not so clear. In Environmentally Significant Consumption Rockefeller University physicist Iddo Wernick notes that per capita U.S. lumber consumption has declined markedly in this century. Overall per capita consumption of construction minerals, industrial minerals, and forestry products rose steadily from the early 1930s to the early 1970s, and since then it’s been fluctuating around the early 60s level. Usage of lumber, steel, lead, and copper (measured per dollar of gross national product) has declined since 1900, while usage of plastic, aluminum, phosphates, and potash has risen. (Interestingly, paper has held its own as we’ve shifted from a manufacturing to a service economy.) This is good news as far as it goes, because it means that each dollar spent consumes less materials or energy than it did a generation ago. Another bit of good news, according to the 1998 Annual Review of Energy and the Environment, is that many resources are coming from arguably more benign sources: the usage of recycled metals has risen substantially since 1970, while usage of primary metals (mined from the earth) has dropped; recycled metals now make up almost half the total U.S. consumption of metals.

Economic growth is gradually decoupling from environmental impact, but obviously we have a long way to go, since total material consumption continues to rise (ours much more slowly than the world’s). Wernick says it’s not clear “whether increases in materials efficiency can keep pace with, or even triumph over, the forces driving increased consumption.” Not only is the U.S. population increasing, but (probably more significant for consumption) the number of households is increasing even faster.

The same hopeful but inconclusive trend appears when you look at national economies from the outside. Researchers who compare rich, poor, and middling countries have consistently found that pollution increases as consumption rises–but only up to about $10,000 gross domestic product per capita; then it starts going down. (The U.S. is close to $30,000.) According to Jeffrey Vincent and Theodore Panayotou of the Harvard Institute for International Development, writing in Science, this is true of well-known emissions like sulfur dioxide and particulates in the air, as well as suspended solids, nitrate, nitrite in the water, and the more insidious carbon dioxide, which contributes to the dreaded greenhouse effect.

Evidently consumers in rich countries buy more services and “dematerialized” products; they can insist on and shell out for policies that protect the environment. Buy Nothing Day contributes little to this process. It doesn’t help us to figure out how poorer countries can leapfrog to less polluting technologies without passing through an era of coal smog, or to target particular products and practices that hurt the environment.

You don’t need to read a lot of arcane stuff or know many statistics to realize there’s something wrong with the Buy Nothing idea. If the “consumption machine” really were the main cause of our environmental problems, then the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe would be natural paradises. They tried “Buy Nothing” for three generations, outlawing private enterprise and restraining consumption, all in the name of the greater good. Now they’re the most grossly polluted places on earth. There has to be a better way.

How Much Is Enough? The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth by Alan Durning, Norton, $19.95.

“Consumption: Challenge to Sustainable Development…or Distraction?” by Norman Myers, Theodore Panayotou, and Jeffrey Vincent, Science, April 4, 1997.

Environmentally Significant Consumption: Research Directions, edited by Paul Stern, Thomas Dietz, Vernon Ruttan, Robert Socolow, and James Sweeney, National Academy Press, $34.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Slug Signorino.