Credit: Flickr/Adam Wells. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
At this time of year, the over-consuming lifestyles of the affluent world are impossible to ignore. Brightly-lit shops are bursting with festive foods and expensive indulgences, while seasonal songs play in the background of shopping malls to keep us spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need, in order to make impressions that don’t matter.
The frenetic commercialism of Christmas continues to escalate despite all the warnings from climate scientists that Western lifestyles are destroying the planet. We still buy enough Christmas trees in the UK alone to reach from London to New York and back, and the card packaging that’s thrown away could cover Big Ben almost 260,000 times—not to mention the 4,500 tonnes of tin foil, two million turkeys, 74 million mince pies and five million mounds of charred raisins from rejected Christmas puddings that are discarded in the UK come January. The mountain of e-waste from discarded electronic items—many of them bought as unwanted gifts—is projected to reach ten million tonnes by 2020.
Just pause for a moment and picture the scale of that waste, along with the ecological destruction it represents. Christmas is merely an exaggerated illustration of the gross materialism that defines our lives in a consumerist society.
What is more difficult to recognise is that our profligate consumption habits also exacerbate levels of inequality worldwide. The so-called ‘developed world’—roughly 20 per cent of the global population—consumes a hugely disproportionate share of the earth’s resources, and is responsible for at least half of all greenhouse gas emissions. Behind such statistics lies a depressing reality: the artificial standards of living of the global North are dependent on the dire working conditions and impoverishment of millions of people throughout the global South.
In spite of the spurious claims of trickledown economics, the number of people living on less than $5-a-day has increased by more than 1.1 billion since the 1980s. The vast majority of people who live in ‘developing’ countries survive on less than $10-a-day; none of them can afford the wasteful, conspicuous consumption that we consider ‘normal.’
Our personal complicity in this unsustainable global order is complex, because we are all caught up in a socioeconomic and cultural system that depends on ever-expanding consumerism for its survival. Everywhere, we are besieged by messages that encourage us to ‘buy more stuff,’ as profit-driven businesses increasingly seek to meet our needs (real or constructed) through the marketplace. Our consumption patterns are often tied to our sense of identity, our desire for belonging, and our need for comfort and self-esteem.
We are all victims of an excessively commercialised culture, not just via environmental harm and global warming but also through the psychological and emotional damage that afflicts everyone in one form or another. We experience that harm through the time-poverty of affluence; through the pressures of living in an individualistic and market-dominated society; and through everything we’ve lost on the competitive work/consume treadmill – our freedom for leisure, our mental space and our community cohesion.
There is also an inarticulable form of spiritual harm that arises from being part of an exploitative world order, in which our over-consuming lifestyles in the West are connected to the immiseration of people in poorer countries who we do not know, or care to know. Simply put, it is impossible to reconcile the twin challenges of ending poverty and achieving environmental sustainability unless we also confront the huge imbalances in consumption patterns across the world, and fundamentally re-imagine the economy in ways that escape from the growth compulsion.
Hence the resurgent focus on post-growth economics in a world of limits which recognises the importance of reducing the use of natural resources in high-income countries, so that poorer nations can grow their economies sustainably and meet the basic needs of their populations. Nowhere is the case for sharing the world’s resources more obvious or urgent than in the need to achieve equity-based sustainable development or ‘one planet lifestyles’ for all. Yet our societies remain far distant from embarking on this great transition.
What better example than the spectacle of French President Emmanuel Macron convening the ‘One Planet Summit’ at the end of 2017 to demonstrate international solidarity in addressing climate change, while at the same time governments were attending the resurrected World Trade Organisation talks in their continued attempts to turn the world into a corporate playground with minimal protections for the poor.
Questions of global injustice and ecological imbalance may seem far removed from our daily lives, but everyone who participates in modern consumerist society is conjointly responsible for perpetuating destruction on an international scale. Our frenzied spending around Thanksgiving and Christmas is a case in point, further preventing us from embracing the radical transformations required in the transition to a post-growth world. What, then, should we do?
In fact there are already lots of ways to de-commercialise Christmas, like the ‘buy nothing’ movement that advocates we ignore the conditioned compulsion to purchase luxury goods. We can all practise ethical giving and support the work of related activist groups and charitable organisations. For example, Christian Aid have released a witty video that entreats UK citizens to be aware of festive food waste in the context of global hunger, and donate £10 from Christmas food shopping—enough for a family in South Sudan to eat for a week.
Actions like these constitute small steps towards celebrating Christmas with more awareness of the critical world situation, and the need for Western populations to live more lightly on the earth. When extended beyond the holiday season, that awareness could be translated into a mass movement that rejects the consumerist ethos and voluntarily downshifts to lifestyles that meet our needs in ways that bypass the mainstream economy.
As proponents of the gift economy, the commons and collaborative consumption all attest, this is the long-term antidote to mass consumption. We must become co-creators of alternative economic systems in which we reinvest in our communities, shift our values towards quality of life and wellbeing, and embrace a new ethic of sufficiency. We must resist the competitive economic pressures towards materialism and privatised modes of living, thereby releasing time and energy for cooperative activities that promote communal production, co-owning and civic engagement. In short, we need an expanded understanding of what it means to be human in a world of shared resources.
Christmas provides us with a unique opportunity to do this. In his essay on “Christmas, the System and I,” Mohammed Mesbahi exhorts us to imagine what could be done if all the money we needlessly spend on festivities and unwanted gifts was pooled together and redistributed to those who urgently need it. If Jesus were walking among us today, writes Mesbahi, surely that is what he would call us to do. Perhaps that would be an expression of the true meaning of Christmas in the twenty first century.