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Christmas, consumerism, and climate change

Satish Kumar
20 December 2006

Christmas fuels consumerism. Production lines and shopping centres are waiting for Christmas to arrive. They are seeking greater sales and greater profits this Christmas than the last. And in turn, consumerism fuels global warming.

Whatever we consume - food, clothes, housing, agriculture, transportation, technology, holidays - almost all of our consumption is dependent on the continuous use of fossil fuels. Higher living standards, higher economic growth and higher consumption have been and still continue to be the unchallenged aspiration of all nations, all governments and all industrial societies.

But the challenge of global warming is slowly bringing about a certain shift in the consciousness of politicians, policymakers and captains of industry. More and more people are realising that we cannot go on as before, business as usual is no longer an option, dismantling the ice-caps of Antarctica and other intricate patterns of nature is not sustainable. Even the establishment media and conservative think-tanks are beginning to talk about economy as a subsidiary of ecology.

Satish Kumar is the founder and editor of Resurgence. He also founded The Small School and Schumacher College. Among his books are You Are, Therefore I Am: A Declaration of Dependence (Green Books, 2002) and Spiritual Imperative: Transforming our everyday lives (Green Books, May 2007)

Also by Satish Kumar in openDemocracy:

"The Resurgence vision" (3 November 2006)

This article is published as an introduction to Resurgence, issue 239

However this shift in consciousness is only skin-deep. It is limited to finding alternatives to carbon emissions, which are merely the symptom of the problem rather than the root cause. To treat the symptom, policymakers are looking at bio-fuels instead of fossil fuels. They are looking at technological solutions to find new sources of energy such as solar power, wind power or nuclear power. Their deep desire is to go on consuming as much as we have been, perhaps even more at Christmas time than at other times, but only through so-called sustainable sources.

The climate crisis is actually the crisis of consumerism. Whether we need more clothes, more computers or more cosmetics is an irrelevant question. We have to have them. We have to keep consuming in order to keep the wheels of the economy turning. We have to keep buying to keep people in employment, no matter what the consequences.

More than three-quarters of the world's forests have already been cleared to feed our consumerism, and still there is no halt. Every year a further area, the size of Austria, is cleared of virgin forests from the Amazon to Indonesia, so that we can keep consuming. We go to war to secure oil supplies, so that we can keep consuming. And now we merely wish to find some new miracle technology to avoid the consequence of our consumerism. But there is no such thing as consequence-free consumerism. Whether we cut down forests with the use of fossil fuel or bio-fuel is neither here nor there. We cannot escape from the effects of our consumerist culture.

So the solution is not just to replace fossil fuels with bio-fuel, but replace our quantitative consumerism with a qualitative lifestyle change. We need to move away from more and global to less and local, from accumulation to enjoyment, from employment to livelihood, and from desire to delight. Rather than consumption of natural resources, we need a culture of appreciation of the natural world.

If we create that, then Christmas will again be an occasion of great celebration rather than an excuse for more consumption. When it is, the secular and the sacred, the material and the spiritual will be recognised as being two sides of the same coin.

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