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(This article originally appeared in The Coast.)
Friday November 26th was Buy Nothing Day. For Matt Watkins it was a day like any other. On July 6 (his birthday), Matt Watkins closed his bank accounts, gave away his small savings and stopped buying-anything. Nearly five months into his Buy Nothing Year, Watkins has spent nothing and thought a lot about the costs of living in a consumer society. "I stopped using money in order to express my discontent towards a capitalist system of exchange that I believe to be exploitative, oppressive and destructive," Watkins explains. "Buy Nothing Year is a rejection of an economic system which values profit over people and which uses economic advantage to maintain an unjust power structure. ...It is also an effort to contribute as little as possible to the waste stream, by living as much as possible on the excesses of society." Living without money in a culture that treats poverty like a crime and values most things and people by their monetary worth has been a huge learning experience for Watkins. An experience that he readily recognizes he has had the privilege to choose. As a young, white, healthy, educated male, Watkins says his Buy Nothing Year is partly "...an attempt to gain a deeper understanding of the realities of daily life for the economically underprivileged." He admits, however, that even without money, his privileged background continues to offer him advantages that many people are denied.
"Obviously, Buy Nothing Year takes a lot of energy, and presents many challenges. There is a constant danger of developing exploitative or dependent relationships, and [there is] the necessity of constant resistance to an ideology that teaches that the only meaningful contribution [to society] is financial. Overcoming these expectations has been a far greater challenge than going without a few luxuries."
Watkins is currently housesitting a home with a wood stove. He has an agreement with a neighbour to chop his wood and in return will receive as much wood as he needs to heat his home for the winter. Since Watkins no longer works eight hours a day, he has ample time to spend with people he cares about, and to volunteer for organizations he believes in. Whether it's taking an autistic child swimming every morning or cooking for Food Not Bombs in Halifax, Watkins has spent his time doing things he enjoys and believes in--with no expectation of receiving anything in return. Buy Nothing Year, according to Watkins is partly an "actualization of a personal philosophy which proposes that generosity is infectious." He has been pleasantly surprised by the response.
"People have alternately responded to Buy Nothing Year with interest, disbelief, gratitude, generosity and often overwhelming support," he says. It has been the support of friends and the wider community that has made Buy Nothing Year possible for Watkins. He has spent a lot of time in public spaces such as parks and libraries and has also spent a lot of time in the houses of friends. During the summer and early fall Watkins often pitched his tent in a friend's backyard and also cooked communally in friends' kitchens. Watkins is uninterested in debating with those who see this kind of community support as 'cheating.' "I'm tired of trying to convince people on whether Buy Nothing Year is a sham or not. If they're really looking, they're bound to find something wrong, and if they're doing that, they're missing the point....It is only the co-operation and generosity of a supportive community that permit Buy Nothing Year to happen. It is this spirit and energy that I want to encourage and generate."
Buy Nothing Year has not only made Watkins more conscious of his relationships with people and his community, but also of his relationship with the environment. No longer able to buy food from the local grocery store, much of what Watkins ate in the summer and fall was grown in his garden in a friend's backyard. More recently, Watkins has been volunteering on a local organic farm in exchange for meals. Growing his own food organically is a stark contrast to Watkins other food source: the dumpsters of big box stores.
Although there are plenty of altruistic reasons to live more simply, according to Watkins, buying nothing (or buying less) has unexpected benefits. "Participating in genuine exchanges and relationships that are not mediated by money has caused me to rethink my system of assigning value to the things I use, and the people I meet. It has also shown me how dependent we are on each other, and the earth. Money causes us to take these things for granted; buying nothing has taught me to be thankful for them. I believe that this sort of exchange brings out the best in people." Matt Watkins plans to continue to live without money until July 6th 2005.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.