Giving the Gift of Love

[The following commentary is featured in the December issue of the Silver Spring/Takoma Park Voice.]

The day after Thanksgiving saw a repetition of the strange ritual with which Americans celebrate the beginning of the holiday season: millions of us rush out to start buying things. Many even stand in line for stores opening as early as 3am, crashing through the entrance the second the doors are unlocked. At least no one was trampled to death this year.

As a youngster I had a much more benign view of the holiday season.  Of course I loved the presents, I even loved purchasing them for others with my limited allowance. I loved the twinkle of the lights, the smell of the trees, the wrapping paper, and the music.

But as a child, even a more-or-less secular one, what really moved me was the feeling of universal good will – the idea that during this one time of year, at least, we were actively encouraged to set aside our grievances and demonstrate our love for the people around us. The gifts represented that love.

Those gifts have taken on a different cast over the years. In addition to the increasing importance of their monetary value, they’ve also moved from being purely personal gestures to becoming an economic necessity. Last year and this one, especially, we are bombarded with messages that our national economy hinges to a large degree on how much we Americans spend between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. (“Black Friday” is so named because it’s the time many retailers start making their profit for the year, or go into the black.)

And for the second Christmas in a row, that outlook is not very good.

It wasn’t always like this. While it’s estimated that consumer spending currently accounts for about  70% of the U.S. economy, it wasn’t until shortly after World War II that consumerism became our national ritual and identity, and the engine of our economy.

This development was not an accident. Our government pushed increased consumption as the way to keep the economy perpetually growing and corporations happy. (And it still does – witness former President Bush’s advice after 9/11 that we all go shopping.) Industrial designers created the concepts of planned and perceived obsolescence, whereby we are convinced or compelled to regularly replace perfectly good stuff because it’s not as fast or big or cool-looking as the newer version, or because they’ve stopped making replacement parts for the older models. Advertising did their part by constantly telling us that we couldn’t be happy, or properly show our love for others, without buying more of everything.

So it has gone for the past half century. But there are some big, big problems with this economic model, and we are now bumping up against them. The ever accelerating rate of global resource depletion is one of them, and Americans are especially to blame: we comprise 5% of the world’s population, yet consume 30% of the world’s resources. (And it’s not just oil, but also forests, metals, clean water… you name it.)

Products that are cheap enough for us to buy but still make a healthy profit for the corporations can also take a terrible toll of social injustice, whether it’s prison labor making our Christmas ornaments in China, sweat shops producing our apparel in Mexico (and so many other countries), or the thousands of Congolese children who drop out of school to mine coltan, a mineral used in the production of cell phones, DVDs, video games and computers – and one which has helped finance ongoing war in Africa.

And where does all this stuff go when we throw it away, which we must do in order to keep buying new stuff?  Where is “away,” exactly? Plastic, which comprises so much of what we buy (as well as the bags we put it in), is a perfect case in point. Originally designed to last forever, which it pretty much does, plastic has nonetheless become the quintessential “disposable” material, and much of what we discard ends up in the oceans. Researchers estimate that the “Great Garbage Patch,” collected by currents in the northern Pacific Ocean, is twice the size of Texas and growing – and it’s only one of five on the planet.  Worse still, our personal trash and pollution pales in comparison to the amount put out by industries producing our consumer goods.

(For an excellent synopsis of these issues, watch “The Story of Stuff” by local activist Annie Leonard.)

The point of all this is not to feel bad about the holidays, but to think about the consequences of what we buy – to buy from local stores, not chains, to buy items produced with clean energy, and without unjust or downright criminal labor practices.

And ultimately, to buy less. We need to realize that our spending during the holidays will not jump start the economy out of recession because the problem runs much deeper than that.  The economic model of consumerism – of making more so we can consume more so we can make more so we can consume more – is not sustainable, not for human beings and not for the planet we live on. In fact, it’s largely responsible for our current economic situation, and asking an increasingly jobless, debt-ridden population to supercharge their consumerism for the holidays will only drive us further into debt while creating few if any lasting jobs.

Of course reversing our economic paradigm of the past 60 years will not be easy.  Americans still love to shop, and public policies still favor building new homes over refurbishing existing ones, and building new roads for more cars over mass transit. But the tide is slowly turning toward sustainability and clean energy, toward stewardship and thrift.

We can give these positive trends a boost during the holidays by buying consciously, buying less, and remembering that the gifts we buy are only representations of the love, which is what we all really want for the holidays. And you don’t need to buy something in a mall to give someone your love.

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