Vancouver writer Michael Harris’s new book about consumerism begins with a whole bunch of garbage. Literally. By page six of All We Want: Building the Life We Cannot Buy, readers are taken on a tour of the Vancouver landfill. It’s visceral, evocative, disturbing, and enlightening.
In a phone interview with the Straight, Harris explains that he wanted to leave a “slightly apocalyptic taste in the mouth of the reader” at the outset of his book.
“It was almost a poetic decision more than a logical decision,” he says. “It’s nothing more complicated than that. And I wanted the reader to look at it before we moved on to more, you know, historical or abstract things. I wanted to make something very concrete at the very beginning.”
All We Want is so much more than a glimpse into a pile of discarded consumer goods. Harris takes readers through a speedy history of public relations, a digestible synopsis of Greek philosophy, and neuroscientists’ discoveries about dopamine. In synthesizing these disparate areas of research, he demonstrates how we’ve gotten into such a mess where humans’ consumption of goods is exceeding the planet’s carrying capacity.
Then he supplements this with stories from his own life to drive home an alternative approach. He makes a plausible case that if people embrace craftwork, the sublime delights of nature, and caring for others, they can get off the consumerist hamster wheel.
“I think my ideal tone that I’m aiming for is a really great dinner-table conversation,” Harris says. “I don’t want [my] books to be work. I certainly want them to be pleasurable. I certainly want a mix of narrative and philosophy or narrative and cultural study.”
All We Want is a fascinating intellectual journey, driven home by Harris reporting that the brain chemistry linked to wanting things is far more robust than actually enjoying them. In fact, functional magnetic resonance imaging has revealed that these two activities—wanting and enjoying—operate independently of one another. You can want something but not enjoy it. Another revelation in the book deals with how a person’s self-awareness can be deactivated in the presence of the sublime.
Then there’s an enlightening chapter on Edward Bernays, the father of modern public relations. Over time, the PR industry managed to blend the concept of self into the consumer goods that people own—to the point where citizens now identify themselves by the products in their homes and on their bodies.
Harris insists that even though human beings may have evolved in ways that drive runaway consumerism, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we can’t break free of its shackles.
“We’re hardwired to do a lot of things, right?” he says. “We’re hardwired to have babies and to have as much sex as possible.”
Yet despite this urge to procreate, he points out that many experts estimate that within 20 years, the global population will still fall in the face of this. “So I don’t see chemistry as fate,” Harris declares. “I think it’s a major element of our lives and we have to be aware of it.”
To further this argument, he cites the examples of sugar, fat, and salt. Humans have evolved to consume these substances, but many people counter those urges every day of their lives.
“The book begins by arguing that we need new ways of measuring our lives,” Harris says. “And my hope is that by the end of the book, the writing has almost modelled the kind of change that the argument is pushing for—if that makes sense.”
One of the more compelling sections centres around how his husband, Kenny, cares for his aging mother as she is increasingly gripped by dementia. This is how Harris chose to explore the concept of care, which is another means of escaping the grip of consumer culture.
“I think I’m sort of coming out of a tradition of feminist writing and queer writing that takes it for granted that the personal is the political, and vice versa,” Harris says. “And so with my writing, it’s almost second nature for me to talk about something at the macro level and then suddenly zoom into my private life and zoom back out.”
Harris is under no illusions about the climate crisis. And he’s skeptical that the idea of “green growth” and a strong focus on renewable energy will be sufficient to stave off various calamities induced by rising greenhouse-gas emissions.
“While all those things are well and good, we have to pair that with actual behaviour change,” Harris says. “Whether that is in reaction to disasters we’re about to create or changes that take place before disasters as preventive measures, that’s what remains to be seen.
“I’m not arguing the way to stop climate change is to start whittling wood and enjoying sunsets,” he continues. “I guess I’m a little bit bleaker in my outlook than that. I don’t think we’re going to make these changes to save the world.”
But embracing crafts, appreciating the sublime, and caring for others might be sufficient to enhance the joy of living, especially in a world with fewer resources. And All We Want serves as a compelling reminder that just because you want something, you might not end up liking it.