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The Climate Emergency Needs No Holidays

The voice of corporate capitalism seems to predominate this season, while the wails of our planetary ecosystem are muffled under a pile of packages. 

Consuming ourselves to death.

Consuming ourselves to death. (Photo: Takver/flickr/cc)

For the past twenty five years or more, I generally have not celebrated holidays, at least not in any traditional sense. There are a variety of reasons that I opted out of these festivities, some deeply personal. Mostly, I could not abide the existential emptiness of trying to connect with others or achieve happiness through consumerism. 

But more, in committing my life to the causes of ecological sustainability, environmental health, and justice, the maintenance of any modicum of integrity precluded my participation in the conspicuous consumption of resources and energy as well as the needless generation of excessive waste that all holidays entail. I found solidarity with those who had withdrawn before me, who promoted Buy Nothing Day in response to the massive consumerist orgy known as Black Friday, and who sought to bring meaning back to December 25th with Buy Nothing Christmas.

As a teen and young adult, I was probably as much of a consumer as any average American. Shopping, no doubt, functioned as an attempt to fill some emotional or psychological void in my life. Of course, it never succeeded. I look back and cringe at my younger self (for this and so many other reasons), but try to chalk it up to human imperfection and youthful ignorance. Thankfully, I grew up. 

While more and more people seem to be aware of our myriad ecological emergencies and while polls show that a majority of Americans are worried about our planetary climate crises, you'd be hard pressed to truly notice that concern. Everywhere you look, consumer capitalistic life appears to be chugging mightily along, business as usual.

Particularly at this time of year, voracious shoppers crowd parking lots with their gas guzzling SUVs and salivate at the latest gadgets, toys, and countless consumer "goods." In trance-like states they obey the dictates of mass media and marketing to purchase presents, cards, gift wrap, and an endless array of ornaments and trinkets. For the financially fortunate who have the ability to participate, most of the gifts they receive are wholly unnecessary accessories in their lives; they need nothing more. Holiday adornments and acts of (consumer) gift-giving may produce momentary, fleeting gratification, but the fact is the Earth cannot withstand our superfluous, manufactured over-consumptive whims any longer. 

Christmas serves as a one of the most glaring examples of the excessive wastefulness of holidays because it incorporates just about every overindulgent, ecologically unsound practice common to all types of consumer capitalist celebrations. It begins with trips to stores, usually in carbon spewing automobiles. It continues with the purchase of many gifts that are often useless and almost always unnecessary – so much stuff, which, like 99% of consumer products, ends up in a landfill within six months. Then, remember that the packaging that surrounds a good percentage of products is often plastic and trashed immediately after opening, partially accounting for the nearly 25 million tons of excess garbage produced in the Thanksgiving through Christmas season. Additionally, there are the single-use bags in which our purchases are carried. For some reason, most people do not think of utilizing cloth/reusable bags at any place but a grocery store. Thus, untold hoards of sacks are discarded as neglected byproducts. If you don't go to a store yourself but instead order products online, yours will be one of an estimated 800 million packages delivered by mail within the U.S. in the 2019 holiday season, all requiring boxing and wrapping and immeasurable use of fossil fuel energy. And that's only the beginning of the inventory of unsustainable consumption and waste.

Christmas lights in the U.S. alone consume more energy during the holidays than some poorer nations consume in total energy all year. All of this energy consumption is merely for ornamental purposes. Further, there seems to be no quantitative accounting for all of the resources squandered to create the innumerable other flashy decorative items hung around homes and on trees. 

Speaking of trees, upwards of 30 million trees are felled for Christmas in the U.S. each year, while an estimated 75 million trees are cut down in Europe. Not even accounting for all other celebrating nations or continents, at least 100 million trees are lost every year to Christmas, at a time when planting new trees is considered one of the most viable means (with virtually zero negative consequences) of combating climate change. Obviously though, even better than planting new seedlings—which Christmas Tree farmers do every year, but in ecologically unsound monocultures -  is leaving trees in the ground, as older trees sequester far more carbon dioxide than saplings.

Mass media, being indebted to corporate capitalism, love to promote all of the rituals of our societal celebrations, especially shopping. We are made to believe that purchasing products is our duty and obligation as human beings, when in reality, consumerism is one of the primary drivers of climate catastrophe, and it imperils us as a species. As a nod to our ecological emergency, articles and television broadcasts encourage a "green" holiday. They tell us that we can be better, "greener" consumers by choosing one type of tree over another, by choosing some types of products over others, by choosing certain modes of consuming over others. They offer appeasing yet altogether hollow tweaks to consumerism. What they will not tell us is what we really need in order to be ecologically sound human beings. We don't need so-called "green" consumer substitutions which only exacerbate our climatic condition. We need elimination. We need NO flashy adornments, NO extraneous junk, NO Christmas trees, NO shopping, NO undue consuming.

Anyone who is serious about subverting climate chaos and ecological devastation should realize that we no longer have the luxury to partake in frivolous or trivial resource- and energy-intensive endeavors. There is no more time for highly consumptive and polluting practices. In fact, there never was such a time. Certainly it is a joy to see children delight in holiday traditions, but they relish these rites because they have been trained to. Children are adaptive and resilient, and they find pleasure in the simplest of things. Most children feel happiness from the love and comfort of the people around them. Holidays need not be dour or dull. Life will not end if we forgo consumer capitalist customs. (Though, ironically, biological life is increasingly poised to end sooner rather than later if we continue our wanton consumption.) There are plenty of engaging, enriching, enjoyable, ecological activities from which we can create traditions anew. (See examples in the links in the second paragraph above.) We need to lead our children to them.

Our climate and ecological emergencies require adult responsibility, not childish, fleeting, candy-coated corporate consumerism. We delude ourselves in thinking we may continue these wasteful, polluting practices in a sustainable world. As adults we pretend that we know what is important in life, but our actions belie our words. We preach matters of substance but constantly succumb to shallow pursuits. It's time to adopt a realistic adult perspective. It's time to grow up.

In the past, I've been disparaged as a radical and neo-Luddite. I am under no misapprehension that my individual "rebellion" has accomplished anything at all to alter the trajectory of our ever-increasing greenhouse gas emissions and toxic contamination. But several billion human beings who are willing to relinquish gratuitous holiday habits might just produce a positive ecological effect. And once we abandon our unsustainable celebratory traditions, we might start to reject more dispensable consumerism in our daily routines, too.  If we were all to become radical, rebel neo-Luddites, then none of us would be radicals nor rebels nor Luddites at all. We would be normal, average, human adults facing the climate emergency head-on. 

Granted, radical systemic social and economic alterations are imperative to even attempt to carry us through our climate calamity and ecological emergency. But the plutocrats at the reigns of our political and economic systems have proven time and time again that they refuse to even conceive of the radical changes required to drastically reduce our exploitation of natural resources. Indeed, their lives are sustained by precisely the opposite. Our solutions will not come from the top, so we must start from the bottom. Paradigm shifts – such as wholly new archetypes for holiday festivities – could be the seeds planted, the radicles (roots) that lay the foundation for upward growth toward more sustainable systemic change. 

The climate emergency needs many new paradigmatic seeds, but it needs no more (traditional) holidays.

Kristine Mattis

Kristine Mattis

Kristine Mattis holds a Ph.D. in Environment and Resources. She is no relation to the mad-dog general. Email: k_mattis@outlook.com

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