In the early days of Covid-19, we stopped consuming and rather loved it. But it didn’t stick | Sarah Wilson
This week I found myself thinking back to early Covid. The globe had been suspended in an eerie pause and many of us were given the most unique of opportunities: time and space to have a good, hard look at ourselves and what mattered.
Do you remember what we did? We stopped consuming. And we really rather loved it.
In April discretionary spending dropped by 30% in Australia. In early May 52% of us told the researchers behind the BCG’s Global Consumer Sentiment survey that we planned to “reduce spending on luxury products even after the crisis is over”. We told others that, post-pandemic, we’d focus spending on meaningful, simple experiences with each other and buy less stuff.
On late-night Zoom rants we lamented our crassly rampant consumerism. The glossy black 4WD sitting idle in the driveway suddenly seemed so cringingly redundant. Ditto the idea of buying fancy shoes. Or that terrazzo flooring.
I’m a seasoned minimalist; I’ve lived out of one carry-on backpack for years at a time and previously sceptical neighbours and friends reached out to tell me they got it now, this simpler life business. They felt liberated and hopeful. Coronavirus was a gift, went the memes.
The planet rewarded our efforts, too. Carbon emissions dropped at a rate not seen since 1945 and – oh, glory be! – dolphins returned to the canals of Venice. There’s hope, cried my new frugally-enthused friends, tagging me on their “The Planet Heals Itself” tiles.
Madonna told us from her bath, with Steven Pinker-like zeal, that this pandemic business was going to be the “Great Equaliser“. It would unify us; viruses don’t distinguish colour or creed. It was a beautiful thing and I think we almost felt proud of ourselves. We were finally doing right by each other and the planet.
But it didn’t stick. And this truth has been hammered home as we start the new year.
By early June we were spending like mad people, back to pre-pandemic levels. Consumer confidence reports released on 12 January showed spending on goods went up 13.3% year on year, and consumer confidence was at a 13-month high. The ground we made paying off debt in that utopian blip at the beginning of the pandemic was undone as we stuffed ourselves in an orgy of click frenzies and Black Fridays.
There was no “meaningful experiences” shift; the bulk of spending went on clothing, electronics and out-and-out stuff (in November, Commonwealth Bank research showed department store spending went up 21.1%).
There were also no dolphins. They were just another 2020 hoax.
The trend has played out globally. As lockdown eased in China, stuff-spending went through the roof of the mall. The government ordained a “double five” shopping festival, with nationwide extended store opening hours. By the end of the year, luxury spending had soared 48%, reversing a small drop in 2019.
And all that dreamy equalising? Late last year, the World Bank released figures showing extreme poverty was on the rise (so are starving children and famines), for the first time in more than 20 years. Days later a UBS report showed worldwide billionaire wealth had hit a record high … due to Covid. By December the world’s billionaires saw their wealth go up 27%. In Australia it went up 52%.
The planet, ever consistent, responded in kind. Carbon dioxide emissions spiked, and there we were again bludgeoned with an ugly reflection: a report last week awarded 2020 the title of hottest year on record, in spite of the cooling La Nina influence. By December we learned man made materials now outweigh all life on Earth.
Bluntly: we went horribly backwards.
But let’s return to that wistful, hopeful time in April. Of dolphins and bike lanes and sourdough. From the discussions I was having as I finished the final pages of a book that targeted the issue, the bulk of us truly hoped Covid was a deus ex machina moment that would free us from “it all”.
It’s 2021; can we call it as it is? Drop the C-bomb? We were hoping to be freed from capitalism. To be airlifted from the more-more-more cycle we know doesn’t stack up and makes us miserable. We know how to add and subtract. We know that if you consume, consume, consume, stuff runs out … and Australians now consume the resources of 4.56 planet Earths.
So why do we feel we can’t free ourselves? Why do we want to be blissfully rescued by a virus-slash-gift from above? It’s because we feel trapped in it. Like a cult.
By all official definitions, capitalism is a cult.
We genuinely believe ads (propaganda) that tell us we need six pairs of Boohoo track pants or an oversized black SUV (to be saved from irrelevance, emptiness). We unquestioningly accept messages (brainwashing) that success is about “getting ahead on the property ladder”, which then further props up the system. Covid recovery is repeatedly referenced in terms of prodding “consumer confidence” so that we may stimulate this almighty God/Guru/One we call the economy (tellingly, such language suggests an inherent frailty). Then we make payments (sacrifices), trading our future to do it, even if we go into debt in the process. Soon enough we’re thoroughly beholden (to credit card repayments and Afterpay).
To my mind, we become so trapped in the cult that we struggle to imagine how to release ourselves, or a better world beyond it.
But we are going to have to.
With full awareness of the glorious irony, I quote Milton Friedman: “Only a crisis produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” He adds: “That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”
Me, I reckon the ongoing, mutating nature of this pandemic provides us with the best opportunity to develop these better ideas and policies and scatter them about the place.
When I drop the C-bomb, I’m often told I must be a communist, like it’s 1963 and there’s only one alternative available. I agree with the many economists opining on this now, that there’s not enough time to overhaul the system entirely. But there’s oodles of scope to work wisely and compassionately from within, to pull back and get objective, creative and kinder.
As it turns out socialist ideas have a lot to offer. We saw many serve us wonderfully during the pandemic. We can choose to stick to those ideas we came to like, such as free childcare and fairer jobseeker payments, as well as the greenish stuff like not travelling to interstate trade shows, and riding bikes.
Within the current model, we can buy food that is farmed regeneratively and halve food wastage, which Project Drawdown lists as #3 in the top 100 Co2-reducing shifts we can make. Reversing food waste habits would also provide enough food to feed the world.
We could embrace doughnut or degrowth economics, forms of modelling that meet everyone’s need within Earth’s biophysical limit. It sees us work fewer hours in exchange for more home production and leisure – we grow veggie gardens, and attend to our health, thus reducing all kinds of social costs. It’s not about sustainable fashion, but a new aesthetic of “sufficiency”. Less would see us have to recycle, repair, reuse and join the sharing economy, which builds community.
Governments would ban “planned obsolescence” practices, corporations would have to produce repairable phones, and fashion stores would sell upcycled versions of their ranges, which incentivises making quality garments that last.
Covid has been no Great Equaliser. But is has been a Great Revealer, that will keep on exposing what’s entrapping and sad and destructive in our lives.
It’s worth casting our mind back to early Covid and the hope, lightness and connection we felt as we go forward into the abject uncertainty of 2021. Because, and here’s the Great Revelation in it all, that was us. That was who we are.