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On the 12th Day of Christmas ... Your Gift Will Just be Junk

Every year we splurge on pointless, planet-trashing products, most of which are not wanted. Why not just bake them a cake?

By George Monbiot

There's nothing they need, nothing they don't own already, nothing they even want. So you buy them a solar-powered waving queen; a belly-button brush; a silver-plated ice cream tub-holder; a "hilarious" inflatable Zimmer frame; a confection of plastic and electronics called Terry the Swearing Turtle; or – and somehow I find this significant – a Scratch Off World Map.

photoname Photo by Rachel KnickermeyerOf the materials flowing through the consumer economy, only 1 percent remain in use six months
after sale.

They seem amusing on the first day of Christmas, daft on the second, embarrassing on the third. By the twelfth they're in landfill. For 30 seconds of dubious entertainment, or a hedonic stimulus that lasts no longer than a nicotine hit, we commission the use of materials whose impacts will ramify for generations.

Researching her film The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard discovered that, of the materials flowing through the consumer economy, only 1% remain in use six months after sale. Even the goods we might have expected to hold on to are soon condemned to destruction through either planned obsolescence (wearing out or breaking quickly) or perceived obsolescence (becoming unfashionable).

But many of the products we buy, especially for Christmas, cannot become obsolescent. The term implies a loss of utility, but they had no utility in the first place. An electronic drum-machine T-shirt; a Darth Vader talking piggy bank; an ear-shaped iPhone case; an individual beer can chiller; an electronic wine breather; a sonic screwdriver remote control; bacon toothpaste; a dancing dog. No one is expected to use them, or even look at them, after Christmas day. They are designed to elicit thanks, perhaps a snigger or two, and then be thrown away.

The fatuity of the products is matched by the profundity of the impacts. Rare materials, complex electronics, the energy needed for manufacture and transport are extracted and refined and combined into compounds of utter pointlessness. When you take account of the fossil fuels whose use we commission in other countries, manufacturing and consumption are responsible for more than half of our carbon dioxide production. We are screwing the planet to make solar-powered bath thermometers and desktop crazy golfers.

People in eastern Congo are massacred to facilitate smartphone upgrades of ever diminishing marginal utility. Forests are felled to make "personalized heart-shaped wooden cheese board sets". Rivers are poisoned to manufacture talking fish. This is pathological consumption: a world-consuming epidemic of collective madness, rendered so normal by advertising and by the media that we scarcely notice what has happened to us.

In 2007, the journalist Adam Welz records, 13 rhinos were killed by poachers in South Africa. This year, so far, 585 have been shot. No one is entirely sure why. But one answer is that very rich people in Vietnam are now sprinkling ground rhino horn on their food, or snorting it like cocaine to display their wealth. It's grotesque, but it scarcely differs from what almost everyone in industrialized nations is doing: trashing the living world through pointless consumption.

This boom has not happened by accident. Our lives have been corralled and shaped in order to encourage it. World trade rules force countries to participate in the festival of junk. Governments cut taxes, deregulate business, manipulate interest rates to stimulate spending. But seldom do the engineers of these policies stop and ask, "spending on what?" When every conceivable want and need has been met (among those who have disposable money), growth depends on selling the utterly useless. The solemnity of the state, its might and majesty, are harnessed to the task of delivering Terry the Swearing Turtle to our doors.

Grown men and women devote their lives to manufacturing and marketing this rubbish, and dissing the idea of living without it. "I always knit my gifts," says a woman in a TV ad for an electronics outlet. "Well you shouldn't," replies the narrator. An ad for a Google tablet shows a father and son camping in the woods. Their enjoyment depends on the Nexus 7's special features. The best things in life are free, but we've found a way of selling them to you.

The growth of inequality that has accompanied the consumer boom ensures that the rising economic tide no longer lifts all boats. In the US in 2010, a remarkable 93% of the growth in incomes accrued to the top 1% of the population. The old excuse, that we must trash the planet to help the poor, simply does not wash. For a few decades of extra enrichment for those who already possess more money than they know how to spend, the prospects of everyone else who will live on this Earth are diminished.

So effectively have governments, the media and advertisers associated consumption with prosperity and happiness that to say these things is to expose yourself to opprobrium and ridicule. Witness last week's edition of Radio 4's The Moral Maze, in which most of the panel lined up to decry the idea of consuming less, and to associate it somehow with authoritarianism. When the world goes mad, those who resist are denounced as lunatics.

Bake them a cake, write them a poem, give them a kiss, tell them a joke, but for God's sake stop trashing the planet to tell someone you care. All it shows is that you don't.

The Guardian
The Guardian UK, one of Britain's top daily newspapers, provides coverage of international environmental issues. Earth Island Journal is a member of the Guardian's Environment News Network.

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I can understand not wanting to be bothered with holiday stress. I’ve been through it myself. But I disagree with you on certain points.

First of all, birthdays and holidays are often the only time that people take to express their appreciation for their loved ones, whether it is with something material or not. As for giving gifts in and of itself, many people would prefer to have something tangible to enjoy. You can’t insist that kids shouldn’t be allowed to have toys, for example, but you can make sure that the toys you buy them are things that are affordable and that they will actually play with. Also, there’s no reason why you can’t give gifts to your loved ones and teach them about responsibility to the less fortunate. Many churches, for example, have “giving trees”. A special Christmas tree is set up somewhere in the church with tags hanging from it indicating a gift to be bought for a less fortunate individual. Often the gifts are practical, such as winter clothes. Churchgoers return the gifts with the tags on them to the church and the gifts are distributed to needy families. Often, bringing gifts to the giving tree becomes a tradition in some families.

Second, Christmas does not have to be a purely wasteful occasion. Electronics are not the only things that can be given, and nobody is putting a gun to anyone’s head to force them into debt. What people consider societal pressure is largely in their heads. You, and only you, choose how much you will spend on a gift. Everyone has the right to say no. Peer pressure is just an illusion.

Christmas doesn’t have to be a stressful, wasteful burden. It doesn’t have to be done away with or turned into an austere occasion either. It’s certainly not an all or nothing situation. I think this should be kept in mind.

I hope you have a happy, safe, and sane New Year.

By GDiFonzo on Sat, December 22, 2012 at 7:34 pm

First, sorry About the misspelled name; DGiFonzo,
And thanks for the response. Books and unique gifts are wonderful, but who decided that we must give gifts on holidays? I find it ludicrous, perhaps even pathetic to see hard working people, at times, people who are not working, exhaust all of their resources on this moment of fantasy under the tree.
What ever happened to common sense? All that’s left after Christmas is more waste to clean up, more electronics to become obsolete soon, and more debt.
If we gave a donation in a name of a loved one, volunteered instead of shop, we would have taught our children a new way of living, and giving. Unfortunately, we are only perpetuating a tradition that has no legitimacy today.
And if we choose to buy gifts made in foreign countries, the choices are endless. We can buy handcrafted gifts made by wonderful women around the world.

By Nitsa on Sat, December 22, 2012 at 1:05 am

You brought up kind of an interesting point, Nitsa. Instead of joining the stampede at the megastore, people who are still going to shop for the holidays can do so at a local boutique, mom-and-pop store, or independent booksore or art gallery. You’re much more likely to find unique, handcrafted items at stores like that anyway, that is, gifts that might have been produced by someone who truly cares about their handiwork instead of an 8-year-old who’s just waiting to finish the end of her 14-hour factory shift so she can finally use the bathroom.

By GDiFonzo on Fri, December 21, 2012 at 4:44 pm

In response to DiDifonzo above;
Like you and many others, I hold great respect and cherish gifts given to me over the years. Books and other meaningful givings are invaluable, however, my first thought when I think of Christmas is a mob of people who leave their humanity at home, waiting anxiously at the pre dawn hours for Walmart or other mega stores to open…..and the stampede begins. It doesn’t matter whether a child or an old woman are the sacrifice needed to be made. It’s Christmas! And nothing says Christmas more than stomping over human beings in order to reach that useless violent electronic game or the latest toy on the market, possibly assembles by exploited children in under developed countries.
I am Jewish, and i have christian friends. ....And for years I have been guilty of participating in this utterly sad practice of wasteful giving. 2 years ago I stopped this practice. I paused to think. Not only about purpose and end result, but the pain and struggle of others who make our gifts.
Now, I DO write a card, a poem, or buy ( for I cannot bake) a cake.

By Nitsa on Fri, December 21, 2012 at 5:39 am

I’d like to expound a little further on my earlier comment. I think there’s a middle ground between living an ascetic life and bingeing on a rubbish extravaganza. The reason people buy all this garbage is because it’s easier to buy a nifty novelty gift than to take the time to figure out what your loved ones really want, need, and enjoy. Choosing heartfelt gifts takes a certain amount of effort and requires you to (horror of horrors!) actually get to know the people you care about. If you take the time, though, you can ensure that your gifts will be forever cherished and never thrown away.

I still wear the earrings that my father bought for me when I was fourteen. I still have the Inuit sculptures that I received when I was sixteen, and I appreciate them more than ever. I could never throw out my books, especially not the ones that I’ve read and re-read over and over again. These gifts are very personal to me, and that’s what makes them so special and ensures that they will never end up in a landfill. Whatever resources go into your gift, make sure they’re worthwhile. (Of course, handmade gifts are always welcome too, but not everyone has the skill or the time to paint, draw, sew, sculpt, bake or cook.)

By GDiFonzo on Mon, December 17, 2012 at 5:57 pm

Or give them something secondhand that they’ll really cherish. Add to a loved one’s prized record collection or buy them a first edition of a favorite out-of-print book.

By GDiFonzo on Mon, December 17, 2012 at 5:06 pm

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