Is Christmas Killing the Planet?
Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen
Academics at the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research, University of Wollongong, have recently published an investigation into how Christmas uniquely threatens the environment.
They cite a study which contends that giving presents at Christmas is the world’s greatest annual environmental disaster.
Carol Farbotko and Lesley Head quote data that Christmas accounts for 5.5% of annual household carbon dioxide emissions, over what amounts to less than 1% of the year. Even in a time of global recession, Christmas spending accounts for about one third of annual retail turnover in Western economies. The authors cite environmentalist concerns that, in an inherently unstable economic system, capitalism is increasingly dependent on the boom of Christmas season consumption.
The study entitled, ‘Gifts, sustainable consumption and giving up green anxieties at Christmas’, investigated how environmentally aware households cope with the conundrum that a more ‘green’ Christmas still largely founders in the face of the imperative to ‘give good gifts’.
This is despite the quoted figure that if unwanted presents were not bought in the ﬁrst place, the carbon footprint of Christmas shopping would be reduced by 80 kg CO2 emissions per person.
The investigation involved in-depth interviews with members of more environmentally aware families, finding out why, despite their green concerns, second hand purchases or home-made gifts are still frequently viewed as unsuitable and offensive. Even in these green households, newly purchased commercial goods still seem the most suitable gifts.
For example, while families made earnest attempts to use non-commercial gifts, some encouraging their children to donate to charity at Christmas, or sing Christmas Carols in a nursing home, many remained adamant that they ‘didn’t want a goat for Christmas’. This was a reference to charity gifting programmes in which the giver makes a donation to a developing community, and the gift-recipient receives notiﬁcation that a donation has been made on their behalf, valued at, for example, the price of a goat.
These ‘green gifts’ were satisfactory to some, but for many they remained disappointing. The study, published in the academic journal ‘Geoforum’, contends that attempts to encourage a more environmentally aware Christmas, with less consumerism of material goods, founders in the face of the powerful psychology at the heart of gift-giving.
Until environmentalists grasp the true emotional meaning of presents, and the fundamental role they play in maintaining and deepening relationships, they are always going to struggle to reduce the carbon footprint of Christmas.
But as the goal of sustainability becomes increasingly vital, environmental concerns have to impact on giving presents, if we are to save the planet.
This is the nagging fundamental concern that lurks beneath the Christmas tree, yet no one wants to unwrap it, because it challenges such a fundamental part of our social life.
Maybe one solution, the authors discuss, is that we return to celebrating Christmas as it was before the industrial revolution. Then, providing objects that were purchased was frowned upon. Instead, people gave things they had made themselves.
That personal connection with what we offered became threatened by the advent of mass production, so the creators of these new markets had to break down consumer resistance towards buying to give, instead of presenting what we had fashioned ourselves.
Now the time and skill spent making personalised, unique gifts is replaced by shopping for mass-produced items, because capitalists devised various clever psychological tricks to remove the perceived original market ‘taint’ attached to these impersonal goods.
Enter Santa Claus and gift wrapping paper as psychological marketing tricks which help us delude ourselves that buying stuff cements close personal ties.
According to sources cited by Carol Farbotko and Lesley Head, Santa Claus as a myth developed as a method for removing perceived commercial taint during the festive season. Santa did not use money and was not engaged in proﬁt. In his North pole workshop, he and his elves handmade all of the items that he distributed around the world. He made no trip to the stores to buy the toys.
Santa’s motivation for his monumental undertaking was free of commercial considerations. His gargantuan giveaway’s only reward was the satisfaction of making recipients happy. No wonder Santa was a valuable decontaminator of manufactured items.
Christmas shopping is therefore an annual ritual through which we psychologically convert commodities into gifts. This ritual ensures we celebrate and recreate personal relations with anonymous objects.
Christmas deceives us that we can create a sphere of familial love in the face of a world of impersonal money.
The authors of this study cite other sources that contend gift wrapping transforms the meaning of a material purchase, turning it from an anonymous impersonal object from a store shelf, into a personal intimate bond between the giver and receiver.
Gift wrapping transforms commodities into gifts.
The industrial revolution required populations moved from the countryside into towns. New urban populations lost the skills and time their rural counterparts possessed in early winter to make things for gifting, particularly Christmas presents. In the case of handmade gifts, time spent in crafting was indicative of the value of the giver’s bond with the receiver.
Maybe we can only become truly green by returning to a pre-industrial view; that if we hand make our presents, we are more properly valuing the relationship between giver and receiver.
After all, there is a supreme irony in all that time we have to spend away from our families to earn the money to buy them impersonal items.
In order to save the planet we may need to move away from the marketing delusion that to show your love of family then you have to buy them stuff.
If we don’t fundamentally transform Christmas, its spiralling consumerism could end up melting the polar ice caps. A festival said to celebrate the birth of the planet’s saviour, could sink it.
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Raj Persaud is joint podcast editor for the Royal College of Psychiatrists and also now has a free app on iTunes and google play store entitled ‘Raj Persaud in conversation’, which includes a lot of free information on the latest research findings in mental health, plus interviews with top experts from around the world.