Around this time last year, I read an enlightening article by George Monbiot, an esteemed journalist at The Guardian, in which he discusses the vast waste and environmental toll generated by the hyper-consumerism of the holidays. Even Pope Francis decried wastefulness in a Christmas message this season.
Monbiot notes that people routinely give each other gifts at Christmastime that provide little more than a moment’s amusement and quickly become useless (if they ever were useful). All too many of them will seem “daft on the second, embarrassing on the third” day of Christmas. Yet their environmental toll endures: the climate change from all of the energy put into their materials, assembly, and transport; people in the Congo killed in conflicts around rare earth metals for smartphones; plastics from toys and packaging that will litter the oceans and be eaten by sea life, decimating their populations. Unfortunately, in our economy there are few products with little or no environmental impact, and the hyper-consumerism around the holidays is no good for the planet.
Tradition compels many secular and Christian people to show people that they love and care for others around Christmas by giving them gifts. In the context of a society in which we’re constantly bombarded with advertising messages that equate greater consumption with normalcy and happiness, gift-giving around the holidays stands out as the paramount moment of materialism. And news reports around this time even impress on us fears of economic decline if “black Friday” and cyber Monday sales are weak.
Because of our relative wealth in the West and because many people have so many others to buy for, giving silly and novelty items has become an accepted norm. Having to buy so many gifts makes it difficult to invest the time and energy needed to make thoughtful decisions about what people really want and need—and will actually be able to use. Many of us in the industrialized world have most of what we need to live happily already, so we don’t truly need (and will hardly ever use) many of the gifts we receive.
Post-holidays conversations are full of stories of the odd, useless, and thoughtless gifts that people have received. And the curbside trash bins are full of many of those presents, including some never removed from their store packaging (a boon for post-holiday trash pickers and dumpster divers). The cost can be not only environmental but also psychological: receiving something that shows that the giver gave little thought to your personal values or desires can be worse than receiving only a token gift (or perhaps none at all). Actually, people feel anxiety and stress over both receiving and giving gifts, not least because it’s so difficult to know what other people will like. And givers often stress themselves financially in the process.
The healthiest future for the environment and for our psyches both may be one of toned down expectations and practices around holiday gift giving. The point of all of this exchange is, of course, to strengthen our social bonds—not to enrich the people in our lives, or even to drive the economy. Those strengthened bonds are the main reward in and of themselves. If you have someone that needs your significant material support, why not do so outside the context of the guessing-game of holiday gift giving. Ask what they really need, and get it for them. Perhaps that’s just cash.
Humble gifts from the heart can fulfill all our gift giving and receiving needs. Bake a cake for someone. Give them a card redeemable for a dinner at your home. Offer to do a chore for them that you know they hate or find difficult—maybe once a week for a month. Other environmentally friendly gifts include services that you know the recipient will enjoy: gift certificates for a message or a dinner out. The strong bonds you build with your friends and family can thus be reflected in a better relationship with nature—a gift to Earth.
When the focus is on the relationships and not the objects exchanged, gift giving becomes gentler for both us and nature.
Learn about my new book: Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Environment
Follow my environmental blog: Finding the Human Place in Nature.
Read more of my posts on The Green Mind.