The holidays are upon us. Americans are predicted to spend more money than we have, create 25 percent more waste equalling 1 million extra tons of trash, and throw away 33 percent more food during this season.
Our consumption model is based on an economic model of endless growth. We have been taught that in order to be prosperous, we must have economic growth. But can this continue to be true on a finite planet? We are running out of resources to sustain this growth. At our present rate of consumption we will need at least 3 planets in order for everyone to consume at the same rate as developed countries like the United States.
It is often thought that more consumption leads to more satisfaction, but usually the opposite is true.
What’s the true cost?
Many of us love the nostalgic feelings and memories of holidays past. However, numerous polls show that the majority of Americans dread the holidays due to shopping and the stress it produces. Add to that the 15 million Americans who are addicted to shopping and the subsequent credit card debt, the holidays can be a recipe for anything but ‘comfort and joy.’ Manufacturers, wholesalers and retail businesses around the globe, however, are hoping for business as usual.
Despite the fact that half of American families have less then 3 months worth of savings and have an average household credit card debt of over $7000, the National Retail Federation (NRF) predicts that Americans will spend over $630 billion in the next two months. Divide that by the number of US households and that adds an additional $5000 in debt.
The BBC ran an incredible article last holiday season, The Hidden Home of Christmas, about a city in China called Yiwu, where 60 percent of Christmas decorations are made for foreign markets. The labor costs are so low in Yiwu that it is cheaper to make things by hand then to use machinery. Unofficial sources say that the average worker makes $200 to $300 a month, working 6 twelve-hour days a week. According to my rough calculations, that is barely a dollar an hour.
According to Regina Lark, the CEO of A Clear Path-Professional Organizing, the average American household has 300,000 things, from paper clips to ironing boards. According to research in the UK the average 10-year-old owns 238 toys but typically only plays with about 12 of these toys.
We will soon be bombarded by commercial marketing. Why do we believe the commercials? Some say tradition. Some think it leads to happiness. Others do it for spiritual reasons. In the bold documentary, “What would Jesus buy?” many of these reasons came into question. Do gifts and spending beyond our means really buy love and happiness?
It is true that it feels good to give to another. Apparently, serotonin, the natural feel-good chemical is released in our brains when we do something kind and possibly altruistic, but only when there are no strings attached. How many of us are guilty of giving with the expectation that it will be loved, appreciated, and most importantly reciprocated.
Let’s face it. Holidays equal overconsumption. Consumption equals extraction from our planet’s resources with vast amounts of energy and water usage. Massive consumption contributes to increased greenhouse gas emissions, which leads to warmer temperatures. These, in turn, lead to droughts, stronger storms and floods, increased forest fires, rising sea levels, food insecurity and species extinction.
Now is a perfect time to re-evaluate our holiday choices and not go on auto-pilot.
How about asking some questions before purchasing? Why am I buying this gift? Do they really need it? How will I pay for it?
Is there a sufficient alternative?
Sure there is.
My favorite holiday memory was my father reading ’T’was the Night Before Christmas’ to me and all my siblings every year, and then to my children. Time stood still while my Dad recited the same story year after year. We all paid attention and laughed when he added funny sounds and gestures.
Try the gift of not giving. Stuff that is. Time and rapt attention can be by far the most precious gift we can give family and friends. And it is priceless.
I come from a large family. For many years now we have drawn names so that we all just buy for one person. This helped us cut down on shopping tremendously. This year, my brave sister suggested we go one step further and not exchange gifts at all and just treasure our time together. It was suddenly unanimous and we all look forward to low-stress, low-debt holidays.
My friend’s family have a great tradition. Every year each member of the family teaches everyone else something they are good at, for example, cooking, playing an instrument or learning some phrases from a foreign language.
Other friends use the holidays as a time to volunteer with their favorite organization.
If you still find yourself needing to give gifts, there are other creative alternatives to shopping. Repurposing a gift or making something useful from recycled materials is one option. Homemade gift certificates for a service you can do at a later time, like cook a healthy meal or help with a garage sale, is another idea.
Pope Francis reminds us, “We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes.”
Will this be the year we change? How we will choose to experience the holidays this year is up to each and every one of us.