Christmas presents

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 wall map. 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 thirty 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 affect future generations.

Apparently, 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 onto are soon condemned to destruction through either planned obsolescence (breaking quickly) or perceived obsolesence (becoming unfashionable).

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 looting the planet to make solar-powered bath thermometers and desktop crazy golfers.

People in eastern Congo are massacred to facilitate :: ::: :: : :: : : : : : :: : :: ::: : : smart phone upgrades of ever diminishing marginal utility. Forests are felled to make “personalised 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 the media that we scarcely notice what has happened to us.

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 ornaments. 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.

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(7). 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.

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. Serious people now 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. (George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 11th December 2012. Edited for length)

No comment needed from me. Monbiot is a great journalist!

2 Comments

  1. I have very mixed feelings about Monbiot’s article. I don’t at all agree with the first paragraph. There’s plenty of things I wanted as a child, some of which I still use. I was also very happy with my Christmas presents this year. Amongst other things, I got a toolbox, which will be very useful for making and fixing things for years to come. Of course, there are some presents who give in to the more arbitrary whims of their children and get them useless plastic rubbish. But my family have always bought me useful and intelligent presents. So I think its wrong to cast all present-giving as excessive consumerism.

    More importantly, what actions does he want the government to take? Does he want to shut down shopping malls and markets? Does he want to increase VAT to reduce consumer spending? It’s all very well complaining about the environmental impact of consumerism, but what does he want to do about it? As far as policy prescriptions go, I’m very happy for the government to do more to tackle climate change and environmental degradation. Whether it’s higher standards for cars, more renewable energy or even a carbon tax- I’m all in favour of it. But the problem with Monbiot and the Green movement in general is that they are far too utopian. They are excellent polemicists, writing scathing critiques of the status quo. How Monbiot’s vision would work in practice remains to be seen.

    Not that it’s relevant to the main point of the article, but I think using inequality statistics from the US to critique capitalism generally is very misleading. Amongst developed countries, the US is unusually unequal, partly because of its sheer size. In most of the developed world, inequality is much lower. Also, many countries have not embarked on a mission to cut taxes the way the US has. In many European countries, the effective top rate of tax is well in excess of 50%, particularly when payroll taxes are considered.

    • I don’t argue with you, Owen, but what he is getting at is the useless junk given at Christmas time, not tool boxes, an excellent idea ( I have just been setting up a workshop in the old coal hole, all cleaned out and now a great ). Last night we joined another family, 18 people in all, all bringing little , mostly token, presents. Finding something appropriate is a challenge, and I fear what Monbiot says probably applied to last night – rather a lot of gifts, mostly of marginal utility, but a thought, a gesture at least, and socially necessary, even if they are soon junked.

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