By BTG Staff, John Fish
With the bizarrely warm Autumn we’ve had, it seems unreal that Thanksgiving will soon be upon us, and with it the official start of what has come to be called “the holiday shopping season”. But how did the Christmas season become so centered on shopping, and what has that done to us and the rest of the world?
The transformation of Christmas from a mostly-quiet and joyous celebration of the birth of Jesus – which included gift-giving but wasn’t centered on it – into a gift-giving frenzy that turns holiday shopping into a temporary part-time job is a consequence of a larger transformation of American society from a (mostly) conserver culture to a (mostly) consumer culture.
And that transformation was not “natural” or inevitable, it was planned and orchestrated by the manufacturers of America because the Industrial Revolution, powered by coal and oil, made it possible for them to manufacture much more stuff than Americans were buying in the 1920s. Simply put, they set out, through advertising, to convince Americans that we would find happiness in buying things, though the Great Depression and WWII prevented the effort from really taking off until the post-war period.
Retail analyst Victor Lebow spelled all this out in an article titled “Price Competition in 1955” that appeared in the Spring 1955 issue of Journal of Retailing:
“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms. The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to safe and accepted social standards, the more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats – his home, his car, his pattern of food serving, his hobbies. These commodities and services must be offered to the consumer with a special urgency. We require not only “forced draft” consumption, but “expensive” consumption as well. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace. We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption.”
The case for consumerism actually making us happier is questionable, at the least, but what it has done to the planet is staggeringly clear. The 2016 edition of the Living Planet Report (published every other year by the Ecological Footprint Network, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Zoological Society of London) concluded:
“Humanity currently needs the regenerative capacity of 1.6 Earths to provide the goods and services we use each year.”
Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “How’s that possible? We only have one Earth.”
Think of it like this: Say you and your family started out with a massive pantry full of food, and you knew every year that you would get a delivery of a large amount of fresh food. You’d have nothing to worry about as long as you made sure you didn’t eat more than would be delivered each year, but, if you started consuming more and more every year, eventually exceeding the annual delivery, and then continuing to grow, you’d begin eating your way through the stockpile, and it would eventually run out.
But that only begins to hint at the consequences of US consumerism, because those 1.6 Earths are being consumed at the average global ecological footprint, but people around the world don’t all have the same ecological footprint because we don’t all use the same amounts of energy and materials and we don’t produce the same amounts of all the different kinds of pollution. In order to sustain the entire world’s population of 7.3 billion (and growing) at the average US ecological footprint, we’d need 5 Earths.
Given no more Earths are out there, we obviously can’t expand American consumerism to the entire world’s population, and our present ecological deficit means we can’t even sustain our global consumption at current levels.
So back to the holidays: If we’re going to take on consumerism, the holidays seem like the perfect time, because that’s both when it peaks and, consequently, when the effects are seen and felt the most.
And wouldn’t a lot of people feel relief if they realized they could scale back their holiday shopping, with all the time and money it takes, even if they haven’t thought much about the ecological impacts?
And then there’s the fact that the overriding emphasis on gift-giving and getting has overshadowed the original reason for celebrating Christmas.
So, if you’re ready to make a change, just how do you go about it? Here’s one set of suggestions, though we recognize that everyone faces their own particular set of challenges. Keep in mind you don’t have to do everything on the list all at once to do anything.
The Center for a New American Dream offers a variety of resources to help through their Simplify the Holidays campaign, part of their Beyond Consumerism program.
There’s also an excellent video about the consequences of consumerism called “The Story of Stuff.”
There is, of course, a possibility that, no matter how sensitively you make these changes, some of the people in your life will react negatively, even defensively. You might even find yourself labeled a Scrooge, or a Grinch, but of course the point of both “A Christmas Story” and “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” is that it’s not about the stuff.
Happy Holidays to all!
And Happy Holidays to all!