Experiential Degrowth: Doing less and being more in 2019

The commodification of experience is destroying cultures & the environment

It feels like people are finally coming around to the notion of overwork. For a while there, it seemed like the 100-hour work week was something to aspire to, a moral imperative with social, financial and even spiritual rewards. Burnout has become the norm. But lately, more and more articles are popping up about the perils of immersing yourself in work to the detriment life’s myriad opportunities for enjoyment, enrichment and meaning.

I never truly bought into the cult of work, and have actively tried to journey away from it. I’ve managed to get to a point where work, while fulfilling, takes up about a quarter of my time — down from around two-thirds a couple of years ago. My income has shrunk, too — though, thankfully, not proportionally — and in many ways that’s been a blessing: I’m more thoughtful about my spending and consume much less stuff, and I feel a whole lot better for it.

There are, of course, many people who would stop working so hard in a heartbeat if they could afford to. Our capitalist system is founded on the maintenance of inequality. People get rich at the expense of others. At the same time, value is unfairly attributed, so work such as care, which is essentially the work of reducing human suffering, is one of the worst paid professions (if it’s paid at all), with women, particularly women of colour, burdened with the bulk of the labour. Many multinationals, meanwhile, continue to extract disproportionate value from people and the environment, while avoiding huge tax contributions that could benefit wider society.

Experience has become commodified, and as an object of trade it is as socially and environmentally destructive as as any other type of product.

Layers of privilege make it possible for me to even think about working and consuming less, and I won’t deny there are real benefits on a personal level. But it’s also a form of activism. According to the Post Growth Institute:

Every human on Earth must consume natural resources to live. If we are to survive and thrive into the future, we must together consume within natural boundaries and produce less waste than nature can absorb. Some of us are consuming far more than our fair share of resources and producing excessive waste, while the total population is growing. We need to address inequalities and find ways to maintain a better balance.

There’s a definite buzz to buying something beautiful. Wandering past shops, especially at this festive time of year, fills me with anticipation of that satisfying feeling. It’s possible to notice the urge, however, and wait for it to pass — in a similar way you might a cigarette craving. In any case, I have a small apartment and way too much stuff: It’s not that hard to not buy things.

Experiences, on the other hand, I consume greedily. Experiences, we are told, are more valuable than things: They help us grow, connect, create memories. I’ve followed this new narrative unquestioningly, enchanted by endless opportunities to go to new places and do unique things. Keen to fill my newfound non-work time with meaning, I use my credit card to give money to the fossil fuel men, purchasing flights to far flung destinations for my next experiential fix.

Social media makes it possible to turn fleeting experiences into tangible products. So not only do I go to the place and do the thing, I share photos of it on Instagram in exchange for virtual validation and the accompanying dopamine hit. Sometimes, I like to tell myself that being there is what’s important, but the thought of not sharing evidence of it with the Internet somehow devalues it in my mind. And I realise I’ve fallen into the trap.

Yes, travel broadens our horizons — but let’s not pretend it’s an equal exchange.

Experience itself has become commodified, and as an object of trade it is as socially and environmentally destructive as as any other type of product. Overtourism is eroding cultures and landscapes alike, posing huge problems for destinations keen to reap the financial rewards of the age of experience without a thought for the long-term costs.

Yes, travel broadens our horizons and can help foster deeper understandings about other cultures, but let’s not pretend it’s an equal exchange. Most travel experiences are about the traveller taking from a destination, consuming a culture and leaving little in return. At worst, travel to the global south is a postcolonial endeavour that perpetuates power imbalances and negative stereotypes of a destination’s inhabitants.

If I win, who loses?

So in 2019 I’ll be focusing on this simple fact: Experiences are free. I don’t need to jump on a plane halfway across the world to enrich my soul. There’s an unexplored universe on my doorstep that I’ve rarely paid attention to, distracted instead by processed images of white sand beaches and Airbnbified interiors. Ironically, the experiences I’ll likely encounter will be exactly like the descriptions of those I’m being sold: Authentic, local, immersive, transformative — things you never actually get from a commodified experience. Perhaps, too, the exchanges will be more equal, and result in more meaningful relationships that can evolve and develop over time.

This coming year I’m going to look closer — literally; to engage with the places, people and things that are near me, or accessible in a more sustainable way. But mostly, I’m going to consider the hidden costs of my experiences: If I win, who loses? And if I have to ‘lose’ by paring down my consumption, surely, conceived differently, that’s actually a win-win.