A Christmas confession

The U.S. economy depends on consumers consuming and the earth depends on us not consuming.

Customers wrap up their holiday shopping during Walmart's Black Friday events on Thursday November 27, 2014 in Bentonville, Ark. Deep savings continue at Walmart Friday though Cyber Monday as part of five days of events in stores and online. (Photo by Gunnar Rathbun/Invision for Walmart/AP Images)

Confession time: this year, I don’t want to buy my kids anything for Christmas. Big one, right? Okay, let me soften that just a bit. I have bought a few modest, useful things. But that’s it!  No new games, no new toys, no new clothes (other than socks)… nothing. They already have too much. We have too much. Our nation is drowning in stuff and, in reality, need almost none of it.

There, I’ve said it! It feels good to get that off my chest, even if it makes me sound like a cold-hearted Grinch of a mother. But maybe that’s what it truly takes to be a good environmentalist these days.

On the radio recently, I heard this stumper: the U.S. economy depends on consumers consuming and the earth depends on us not consuming. Which are we going to choose? Once the conundrum of this moment was posed that way, I knew instantly where I stood. With the earth and against consumption! I raised my fist in support, even as I maneuvered my empty seven-person, gas-fed minivan down the highway. I mention that lest you jump to the conclusion that I’m a 100% eco-soul, which, of course, none of us can be in this strange world of ours. (On that, more to come.)

And therein lies the rub! We can always be doing better. I compost and recycle and don’t shower every day. Our thermostat is set at 63 and most of the winter I wear a hat and scarf inside. All this feels conscientious and hardscrabble, but does it change anything? Does what I do matter at all?

To put myself in context, I keep thinking of a 2019 report that found the U.S. military to be “one of the largest climate polluters in history, consuming more liquid fuels and emitting more CO2e [carbon-dioxide equivalent] than most countries.” In fact, the British researchers who did that study discovered that if the United States military were a nation-state it would be the “47th largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the world (just taking into account fuel usage emissions).”

If our military machine is such a major polluter (and TomDispatch readers would have known that back in 2007, thanks to Michael Klare’s reporting), my contributions to a greener tomorrow through low-key body odor might not make the slightest difference. In short, I’m not showering as much and I’m giving myself a hard time for driving my old minivan around, while Brown University’s Cost of Wars Project finds that the U.S. military has been giving the planet a truly hard time. In its Global War on Terror alone, it released 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions between 2001 and 2017, effectively pumping more than twice as many planet-destroying dirty gases into the atmosphere as all the cars in the United States in the same period.

Target mania

You might reasonably ask: What does this have to do with Christmas, or rather the annual holidays celebrated by Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others who mark the darkest period of the year with festivals of lights, feasts, and gift-giving? I guess this time of year makes me, at least, want to interrogate my inner Grinch. If the military is such a staggering polluter, bigger even than Black Friday deal-hunters and Cyber Monday bargain-shoppers, why am I so worried about overdoing it this holiday season?

Okay, here’s how my thinking goes, more or less: just because damn-the-torpedoes, full-speed-ahead buying as if there were no tomorrow starts at the top with the Pentagon’s way of making war on this planet, doesn’t mean it has to go all the way down to me. I mean, I want there to be a tomorrow and a next day and a day after that. I don’t want my children to be driven from their future homes thanks to climate-change-induced rising waters, already cluttered with micro-plastic, single-use coffee cups and lost flip flops.

American consumption is a problem. The carbon footprint of, and the garbage from, every purchase can be calculated and increasingly will be labeled. As Annaliese Griffin noted recently in a New York Times op-ed:

“Every new purchase puts into motion a global chain of events, usually beginning with extracting oil to make the plastic that is in everything from stretchy jeans to the packaging they come in. Those materials travel from processing plant to factory to container ship, to eventually land on my front porch, and then become mine for a time. Sooner or later, they will most likely end up in a landfill.”

We have to be more than consumers. We are potentially part of the path out of the morass, out of being a nation that says, “I buy, therefore I am,” instead of “I think, therefore I am.” Collectively, we already have so much stuff that decluttering is a multi-million-dollar industry and self-storage a multi-billion-dollar one.

We have eight years to halve carbon emissions before our species irrevocably alters the planet’s climate, according to the latest report from the U.N. Environment Programme. Getting there is going to involve beginning to dismantle the military-industrial complex, banishing more fossil-fuel-driven cars from the roads and planes from the air, and reining in consumerism in a major way. In short, it will take a reordering of how we — and that includes me — do everything.

And yet, even knowing all this, even having sworn all this, I find myself at Target on a Monday three weeks before Christmas. I’m there with a strange shopping list that ping-pongs from bras to celery and milk to kids’ toothpaste to a screwdriver set small enough to open our thermostat. And I have just one hour. “Target will have it all,” I tell myself. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? They have everything on my shopping list, as well as holiday garlands and sugar cookies and swimsuits and cute toilet brushes. (Why do toilet brushes need to be cute?)

It all demands my attention. I grip my shopping list, grit my teeth, and try to stay the course. And then I remember the birthday party the kids are invited to this weekend at a bowling alley. I usually have them make cards and give books as gifts, but I’m not going to be there with them to navigate the gift-giving portion of the afternoon, so I feel compelled to buy a “real” present.

That’s how I end up in the Lego aisle where the shelves are almost empty. I stand there for 20 minutes talking myself in and out of buying one of three choices. Finally, I get all three, telling myself that they’re on sale and we can give the other two away as gifts. And so it goes in this country’s version of consumer heaven (or hell).

In the parking lot afterwards, I feel awful, thinking about the carbon footprint of those Lego sets and their long journeys from factories in Brazil and China. I try to perk myself up by remembering how that Danish company is trying to get rid of its plastic packaging and investing in recyclable materials.

At home, I tuck the Lego sets away and wonder: What will my kids be missing out on if I’m truly able to keep this Christmas low key and experience-focused? I go online to find out and my idle research turns up an astounding array of loud, robotic, expensive plastic objects with strange names. The Purrble is a stuffed animal with an electronic heartbeat that, when you pet it, purrs and “calms down.” It sells for $50 and if that isn’t expensive enough for you, there’s always Moji. For $100, that interactive Labradoodle toy does tricks on command and responds when you pet it like a real dog but won’t chew up your shoes or have an accident on the carpet.

Moji and Purrble are likely to be top sellers in this holiday season, but it looks like most people who want them under the tree have already got them because they’re now scarce indeed. Still, I kept clicking away. The last toy I see in the “hot toys for 2021 list,” however, doesn’t make me purr or do tricks. Instead, it summons up all my bad feelings about people who make and market toys — and gives me a sense of validation for my simple Christmas plans.

It’s the “5 Surprise Mini Brands Mystery Capsule Real Miniature Brands Collectible Toy.” Say that three times fast. On second thought, don’t. The plastic capsules are wrapped in plastic and contain small plastic objects, each behind its own plastic window. It’s plastic, plastic, plastic all the way to the end of the line. When your children unwrap them on Christmas morning, they’ll find five tiny replicas of brand-name supermarket items like ketchup bottles or peanut-butter jars in each of them. As the ad copy explains about these ads you’ve given your kid: “Create your mini shopping world: Collect them all and tick off your collector’s guide shopping list as you go!”

Oh, for the love of mistletoe, really? Yes! The Toy Guy, Chris Byrne, claims that it’s a popular toy because “kids love miniature things and they love shopping.” For the privilege of entrenching brand loyalty in your small children and making grocery shopping with your offspring even harder than it already is, you pay $15.00 plus shipping for two of them and the 10 tiny objects they contain.

Sadly enough, I know that my kids would love them. Considering their carbon footprints and the psychology and marketing behind them, I despair.

How to fly through the air on the highest trapeze (all on your own)

It isn’t all doom and gloom, though. It can’t be. My daughter recently reminded me that kids can play with anything — even garbage — for hours on end if you let them. Madeline, who is seven, was sent home from school for 10 days after close contact with a kid who was Covid positive. I decided to skip the assignments her well-meaning teacher emailed me and hid the tablet she sent home in Madeline’s backpack. I was not going to survive those days if I had to sit next to her, monitor progress on worksheets, and make sure she wasn’t toggling over to YouTube to watch doll-transformation videos.

Without the school schedule and the attendant fights over screens, time passed quickly; we went to Covid-test appointments, took long walks, spent time with my mom working on puzzles and doing watercolors, and engaged in house-cleaning projects room by room. In between all of that, I left her to her own devices: unplugged, unscripted, and unsupervised.

One day, while I was typing at the dining-room table, she found some old foam dolls she had made at a craft fair. I had pulled them out from under the couch with all the dust bunnies and put them in a box to take to the trash.

“No, no, mom!” she exclaimed. “These girls are my favorites. I made them. They’re not trash. I’m playing with them right now.”

“Alright,” I replied.  “Let’s see you do so.”

She spent the next three and a half hours in an elaborate circus landscape of her own creation. She tied strings between lamps and bookshelves, moved chairs around, magic-markered faces and costumes onto the dolls, and then put them through trapeze routines on those strings. As I emailed, while checking off items on my to-do list and adding new ones, she chirped away, putting dialogue, feeling, and action in the mouths of these small pieces of airy plastic. Every once in a while, she’d march through the dining room heading for the kitchen art shelf to get more markers, wire, or paper.

Finally, she invited me into the living room, asked me to find circus music on my phone, and presented me with the show. I stood marveling at the extraordinary mess she’d made and calculating how long it would take to clean up as she flipped, swung, and danced her characters through the air with the greatest of ease on their flying trapeze(s). I clapped, smiled, and went back to my to-do list, suggesting that it might be time to clean up.

“I’m not done, mom!” she insisted. “I have another hour or so of work to do with them.” And as it turned out, she did. I put my own mess away, started dinner, and then helped her sweep up the last of the project just as everyone else was getting home from work and school.

What struck me, of course, was that it cost nothing. Her play was engrossing, dynamic, self-directed, and creative and it didn’t come from across the sea in a shipping container, but from inside her.

Mind you, I’m neither a monster nor a Grinch. There will be presents. The kids will be getting umbrellas for Christmas, as well as new socks and used books from those series that they so adore. They’ll get diaries that lock with tiny keys and new pens in their stockings. They’ll help us make cookies and candies to box up for friends and families as gifts.

We’ll celebrate and connect and share, but it won’t be a branded frenzy of consumption at our house. We don’t need it, not in a world that’s threatening to come down around our ears. 

We have eight years to crawl back from the brink of total climate disaster. And we’ll do what we can and try to enjoy every minute of it.

Copyright 2021 Frida Berrigan


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