Buy Nothing This Holiday Season

Super News! In 2010, more Americans went shopping the weekend after Thanksgiving than ever before, spending $365 per person on average. That’s about how much about 1 billion people worldwide live on in an entire year.

And better news: In the Black Friday ritual shopping madness, only one person was trampled—and unlike Wal-Mart’s unfortunate employee last year, this one was only hurt, not killed. That’s progress, isn’t it?

Ok, I tried, albeit half-heartedly, to write like a consumer culture journalist about Black Friday, celebrating the news that “Shoppers Flock Back to Malls to Hunt Deals” and that there were “Robust Sales For Holiday Weekend.” But in reality, these sales are indicators of consumerism gone completely out of control. Even as 212 million Americans spent $45 billion over Thanksgiving weekend, Earth’s climate is heading out of control—our current path will bring us to 4 degrees Celsius by 2060 (translation: the end of a stable global society)—and other countries, such as China, are working hard to become consumer cultures.

Perhaps even worse, it appears that resistance to Black Friday—exemplified by the competing anti-consumerist ritual “Buy Nothing Day”—seems to be getting weaker rather than stronger, as more people head to the malls. There were a few small events here and there, but they totaled only some 992 people spread through 53 countries.

Thus, I have to propose that we change “Ecocollapse Imminence” to DEFCON 2 (from DEFCON 3). The climate shift looks like it is firmly in place, political opponents continue to weaken the last bits of resolve to act, U.S. state governments are shifting proceeds from carbon taxes to budgetary shortfalls rather than climate mitigation, and consumerism is spreading itself more deeply around the world.

But it’s Christmastime, Erik, don’t spread doom and gloom,
Tell good boys and girls to hit the malls and consume.
“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” says grumpy old ‘Rik.
(Even if that makes me sound like a bit of a, err, jerk.)
“Instead what I’ll suggest is that we all have enough,
“So we should make this holiday simply free of all stuff.”

But of course, there’s so much societal pressure to buy stuff for people that it’ll be hard to do this. So here are a few suggestions for making this a more sustainable, more rewarding holiday season:

1) Get back to the root of the holiday you celebrate. Christmas, for example, is supposed to be about celebrating the birth of Jesus, not Santa Claus, although today it’s increasingly about one thing: “presents.” (The very first South Park video points this out very well, with Jesus battling Santa for who controls Christmas: viewer discretion advised.)

2) Give to those in need: support charities, environmental organizations, local arts programs, libraries, and other important programs.

3) Give family and friends the gift of service, or an actual gift that you don’t “buy.” For example, if a friend wants to read a new book, borrow it from the library and promise to return it when he or she is finished. (I meant to encourage you to buy half-priced copies of State of the World 2010, but I’d rather you check the book out from your local library and share it that way; or, if you want to support Worldwatch (see #2), buy a copy to give to your local and/or school libraries.)

4) Dejunkify the holidays. A reporter asked me a few months back about whether fake or real Christmas trees were better. Not surprisingly, I suggested neither. Skip the tree or, if you need to follow this tradition, find a woods near you and cut a small branch from an evergreen tree and make it into a Charlie Brown-style Christmas tree.

5) If you feel compelled by cultural convention to buy something, then buy something sustainable that’ll displace an unsustainable product. Often, our friends and family members buy unsustainable products out of habit or for cost-saving reasons. But, for example, if your friends are coffee drinkers who drink low-quality, unsustainable coffee, buy them some organic, fair-trade coffee. They’ll like it because it tastes better, and hopefully it’ll get them into the habit of buying more sustainable products. Or—if they bake a lot, put together an organic ingredient bundle to give to them. This is what we refer to as “choice editing” in State of the World 2010, and it can be used not just by governments but by individuals too.

So, these are a few ideas to help reclaim this holiday season from consumerism. Of course, we’ll need to go far beyond this—every one of you reading this will need to act as cultural pioneers and work proactively to shift our cultures away from consumerism if we are to prevent DEFCON 1—but as you’re working on your Christmas lists over these next few weeks, you’ll at least have a couple of ways to start.

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