The holidays are fast approaching; the time of getting together with family and giving each other stuff we don’t need. The media has been shouting worry for weeks as supply chains continue to be disrupted and the line of container ships waiting to dock in Los Angeles gets longer. President Biden has even ordered the port to run 24/7 to cope with the backlog. Buy your Christmas presents now or there won’t be any left come December, I’ve heard journalists say. Right, make everything worse by going out and buying all you can. It’s pandemic toilet paper hoarding all over again.
So maybe it’s time we all take a breath and, as many of us did during COVID lockdowns, realize that there is more to life than what we have been led to believe. Do you really need to spend lots of money to buy stuff that gets unwrapped and forgotten in no time at all? Is buying piles of stuff for Christmas really evidence of how much you love someone? Do you feel loved when someone buys you a sweater you will never wear? Or cheap crap that gets lost or broken within days? If stuff means love, we are in really sad shape.
Jeremy Lent in The Patterning Instinct traces “consumptionism” all the way back to Plato and the mind-body split that brought the Western dualistic tradition into the world. The dualistic tradition separated humanity from our connection to the rest of the world and left us with a meaninglessness that we have been trying to fill in one way or another ever since. Currently we try to fill it with stuff. But no amount of wealth, power, fame, or stuff will ever bring genuine satisfaction. We know this.
And yet we continue to paper over the meaninglessness with our pursuit of material possessions that has taken over our individual lives and our political and economic systems, and is leading us merrily down the road to global ecological collapse.
In her book Fixation: how to have stuff without breaking the planet, Sandra Goldmark says that household consumption (houses, cars, food, and our stuff) represents 60 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and accounts for between 50 and 80 percent of total land, material, and water use. Of the household total, stuff represents 17 percent of emissions and is the second largest contributor to resource and raw materials extraction. For every pound of stuff we throw away, there has already been 70 pounds of waste made upstream in its manufacture.
A lot of people think that if we were only more energy efficient and used renewable energy for everything, we’ll be alright. That is not the case. Electric cars might not run on gasoline, but the plastics and metals to build them had to come from somewhere. Goldmark cites a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that reveals transitioning to renewable energy and energy efficiency is not enough, “these measures can only address 55% of emissions. The remaining 45% comes from producing cars, clothes, food, and other products we use every day.”
Our stuff does not magically assemble itself from thin air. The resources we use come from someplace, usually someplace we don’t see or know about. I recently read a novel that makes this quite clear. How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue takes place in a fictional African village that is being poisoned by a giant American oil drilling company. The people of Kosawa, quite rightly, want back their clean water, clean air, and clean farmland. The government is being paid off by the oil company and will not help Kosawa. The oil company says they are not breaking the law. With the help of an NGO, the villagers sue the oil company in American court. The case drags on for years while the village slowly dies. It will not be a spoiler to say there is no happy ending. But throughout the story, the villagers are told the oil is needed to send to America, they can’t get along without it. And for a long time this was baffling but acceptable to them. But is it acceptable to ruin other people’s lives for oil?
But it isn’t just oil. It’s the lithium mines for all of our batteries. It’s the sweatshops making our clothes. It’s the palm oil plantations, and the cotton, and the cattle. It’s all our stuff.
Jeremy Lent cites a 2017 Oxfam study that reports the 8 richest men in the world own as much as the entire bottom half of the world’s population—3.7 billion people! And 86 percent of the world’s goods and services are consumed by less than 20 percent of the world’s population. Granted, if you look closely at the 20 percent, it is the wealthiest of the wealthy who consume the most. However, if you live in the developed west, you are part of the 20 percent.
So what are we to do? For a start, buy less stuff. You can still give gifts, just not as many. Make the ones you do give meaningful. Give the gift of time. Make a gift from things you find or already own. Cook a meal or plant a garden for someone. Spend a day doing someone else’s household chores for them. As a family, go volunteer at the food shelf or other agreed upon place. Be creative and have fun!
In her book Goldmark says that it’s true individual, disconnected choices will not, on their own, solve anything. And she is right. But she is also right when she says that
negating the small actions we all take every day is dangerous because it implies that we can continue to live the way many of us currently do, or that we can make large systemic changes but somehow not have to change our own lives.
The daily choices we make as individuals might be small, but they do matter. Because our daily individual choices influence the choices we make as families, as communities, and ultimately, the choices we make at the ballot box.
Don’t fret about all those container ships and the empty spots on the department store shelves. Let’s use the supply chain problems as the impetus to finally change the way we approach the holidays (and life in general). Instead of getting up at 4 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning to stand in line to get a deal on a flat screen TV bigger than the one you already have, be content. Sleep in. Rest. Relax. We have enough stuff.
Our work is not to save our way of life, but to save the world from this way of life’s destructive powerKathleen Dean Moore, Earth’s Wild Music