This story was written by a client to warn her grandchildren against falling prey to consumerism and wasting their money.
I just read that each year in the United States, four million tons go from logs to landfills just to make wrapping paper and holiday shopping bags. Here I am trying to have a paperless office and feeling guilty about not using the back sides of all my already-used paper for notes when I read about an amount of paper that, if I stacked it four feet wide by four feet high, would stretch 100 miles. All for the bags we use to carry gifts home from the malls and the pretty paper we surround each gift with. Mostly at Christmas. Yikes!
Celebrating Christmas as we Americans do it must be the most wasteful activity we engage in, and maybe the most expensive. It’s not only the accoutrements; the gifts themselves can be really crazy. Would you believe that Americans went holiday shopping 2015 and actually bought stuff like:
Bacon-scented lip balm, wallets printed with bacon images, the “must-have” book 99 Ways to Open a Beer Bottle without a Bottle Opener, Hello Kitty green nail polish, “emergency makeup,” candles that smell like very old books, “A Christmas Story” written on fudge, mid-century style pet beds, hand-crafted beer totes, cardboard cutouts of your sister, pinhole cameras, molds in the shape of a gun for cooking eggs, 3D welcome mats in the shape of a dog, underwear for your head, underwear for your hands, Sudoku gift wrap, Sudoku toilet paper, toilet coffee mugs, combination toilet paper holders / phone chargers, plastic roaches, plastic cucumber wine corks, pencil holders in the teeth of small blue plastic men sitting on small white plastic toilets, egg cartons that tell you how many eggs there are in the carton, giant stuffed pigs, unreal scorpions in ice cubes, stainless steel holders for teeth no longer in your mouth, shower gel dispensers in the shape of your nose, chia-seed busts of President Obama, frankincense & myrrh shaving creme, dolls advertised as shavable (with your frankincense & myrrh shaving crème, no doubt), and nothing-at-all in a see-thru cube for the person who has everything
Cute, but such a waste of hard-earned money.
You know how much money it would take to end world hunger for a year? I looked it up: $30 billion. We spent $200 billion on 2015 Christmas gifts, five times the cost of feeding the world. Plus we killed a lot of trees.
Now it must be said that solving world hunger and saving the world’s forests are not accomplished by figuring out finances. It must be obvious to you who are reading this that there would be political and other problems to resolve before we could get 30 billion dollars out of 300-plus million American pockets into the hands of people who could, and would, end hunger. Insurmountable problems, many would say. So why not just spend my money the way I want to? I mean, I’m just one person. What effect can one person have by not buying gifts, not carrying them home in pretty bags and not wrapping them up in even more paper? I mean, Christmas is fun.
Sorry, but I just can’t do it. I would say it’s because I have some morals, but I have to recognize it may be more than that, or possibly even different than that. I was raised by a mother who was a child during the “Great Depression.” If any of my grandchildren think the recession they have been living through for the last decade is bad, they should do some research into the decade that began in 1929 that is now used as an example in poly sci classes of how far a world economy can decline. I grew up in the shadow of that depression and was even more directly affected by the rationing required of all American citizens during and after World War II. “Don’t waste your money,” was the No. 1 rule. The saying was so pervasive that you might hear a boy asking his father, “How much money did you waste?” (as though they were talking about stuff nobody needs, like vacations, when what was meant was “How much money did you spend?” (on something needed).
One of my mother’s standard lectures was about the difference between need and want. If you didn’t need it, it was want, and want without need was waste. I also read up on the difference. There were “basic needs” for food (and water); shelter—what a quaint word for a house, I thought; and clothing. Just three other things were added by some people who were supposed to know. They were sanitation (I imagined men in white jumpsuits with hoses), education (I need to go to school?) and healthcare (that means the doctor). I liked it when a psychologist (a pee-si-ko-lo-gist, wonder what that is) joined in and said there was one more basic need: to be loved. All else—all else, including Christmas—might be wanted but wasn’t necessary. So those gifts under the tree could be dispensed with without my suffering the loss of anything I really needed. In case we ever had another great depression like the one I knew was always in the back of my mother’s mind, I would be just fine.
By the late ’60s, some of my revolutionary friends began to recognize that celebrating Christmas, by then Xmas, was just one more way to get people to buy-buy-buy. Buy what you don’t need so some other people can get rich. My kids didn’t understand that I couldn’t afford bicycles and basketballs—which I thought they might actually need, even if they couldn’t be classified into one of those basic needs. That hurt, but knowing that the whole Christmas thing had become little more than a marketing scheme helped me to deal with the situation.
Of late, I give money in place of gifts at Christmas. This is not necessarily appreciated. There’s a person I know—I won’t mention who—who is offended when I don’t wrap up some doodad in part of a dead tree and give it instead of cash. “It’s a gift. Just a gift,” is the complaint. I try to say I don’t like rampant consumerism. And besides, I don’t know what is needed. And that by sending cash I can know that whatever is needed will be gotten, even if it’s just the rent. Especially if it’s the rent. The reply is righteous, “It’s not about needing. It’s about giving a gift, showing you care.” As though the only way I can show I care is to waste my money joining in with most of the rest of the country in trashing the environment and contributing to a child going hungry.
I also don’t want to receive some thingamajig wrapped in another part of that dead tree. Even though I try to say this politely, what I hear back is a derisive snort.
I want to tell this person that I do have morals, however they were acquired. I want to tell this person that another and even greater depression might kill the world economy instead of just bringing it to its knees, and what good will a picture frame, a candle and a scarf with pink posies on it be then? (Maybe the candle will be useful if electricity gets too expensive after we’ve used up all the fossil fuels.) I want to tell this person that I like trees more than I like shopping bags. That I don’t want to be contributing, even in such a small way, to the wealth of the already wealthy and the poverty of the already poor. That I’m trying to be a good person and set a good example.
I haven’t published anything—except this one chapter in this one book—about falling prey to consumerism. I haven’t joined any movements dedicated to eradicating world hunger or even living off the land. I haven’t even been able to get my grandchildren to understand the difference between wanting and needing. The least I can do to show I care is something else instead of buying.