Christmas can be a difficult time for anyone wishing to live ethically without offending family and friends by appearing to reject their goodwill. The frenzy of gift-giving is a big issue. On the one hand, Christmas has been commercialised beyond belief, becoming yet another pretext for blatantly wasteful over-consumption; on the other, giving is always a good thing (and receiving can be nice, too). The religious aspect may also be problematic, since the endless barrage of sentimentalised carols and nativity scenes is irrelevant at best, and may be oppressive, for atheists or members of non-Christian faith communities. And then there’s the obligatory socialising with co-workers, members of your sporting club, or those members of your extended family whom you do your best to avoid during the year. It has its good side but enough is enough, surely?
We can’t do much, individually, about the superfluity of Christianity or conviviality but we can certainly do something about the material waste. This seasonal blog post has been slowly evolving for nearly ten years, with that objective in mind. An earlier version of it was called “Give Twice for Christmas,” my first strategy for getting as much good as possible out of the obligatory gift-giving.
Give twice with every gift by finding gifts which benefit as many people as possible, and especially those in need.
- Buy from charity shops which handle third-world craft products (e.g. World Vision). Some of the money goes back to the maker, and the rest supports the charity’s other projects.
- Buy Fairtrade goods if you can, rather than the standard commercial equivalents.
- Make a donation in the recipient’s name to a charity whose aims they support. Kiva, which provides micro loans in poor countries with Western help, is worth considering here alongside Red Cross, WWF, the ACF and the rest.
- Remember that Unicef, CARE and Oxfam sell gift certificates whereby the purchaser buys school books, a solar panel or a well for a third-world family. Buy one in the name of the recipient, who will receive a card with details of the donation.
- Buy gifts from local art galleries to support struggling artists (and believe me, nearly all artists are struggling).
- Buy cards, calendars, t-shirts, Christmas cakes, etc, from the Heart Foundation, BirdLife, the Wilderness Society or similar organisations. The goods may be mass produced but at least the profits are doing some good.
If you can’t give twice…
- Make or grow something yourself: a cake, herb sachets, a framed photo, or a pot-plant in flower.
- Maximise the benefit to your own community by buying from locally-owned independent shops and keep the profits in the community instead of sending them to the Cayman Islands.
- Minimise waste, and still keep the money in the community, by giving services, subscriptions or memberships rather than goods – vouchers or gift certificates from theatres, restaurants, gardening services, yoga studios, the local cinema club, etc.
- Give according to your own values, as well as the recipients’ wants. If you care about native birds, giving your friend a kitten may make you feel guilty for years, so find something which you have no doubts about instead – a bird-bath, perhaps.
- Ask, suggest or hint that others do likewise. Use this article as a starting point if you like, and put it on Facebook or email it to people you know. You don’t have to say, “If you were thinking of giving me something, I would prefer,” which could be kind of awkward; just say, “I think this is a good way of thinking about Christmas.” You could bring a lot more happiness into the world by doing so – and isn’t that what Christmas is supposed to do?
Ursula Le Guin
Always Coming Home
1985, republished by SF Masterworks in 2016
Always Coming Home is a wonderful book but it challenges easy categorisation. Like most of Le Guin’s work, it belongs somewhere in the ‘science fiction and fantasy’ area, but there’s very little science in it and even less fantasy. It is not even a novel, nor a collection of short stories, but an anthology including short stories, poems, play-scripts, an excerpt from a novel, myths and (the longest item) an autobiography.
Between them, they give us a richly textured introduction to an exotic culture – much as an anthology of Kazakh folk tales and literature might do. But which culture?
Continue reading “Ursula Le Guin: Always Coming Home”
Oliver James: The Selfish Capitalist – origins of Affluenza
Vermilion, March 2008
In this sequel to his Affluenza (2007), Oliver James argues that capitalism as practised recently in the richer English-speaking countries – that includes Australia – is making us miserable. His ‘affluenza’, a portmanteau word fusing ‘affluence’ and influenza’, is the pattern of chronic over-work, debt, anxiety and waste induced by our obsession with goods and income, and James traces its cause to economic policies.
He defines Selfish Capitalism as the neoliberal Thatcherism adopted in the 1990s and finds that, despite the ‘trickle-down’ rhetoric, those policies made the rich very much richer while leaving the rest of us no better off financially and significantly worse off in other ways. Labour market deregulation undermined job security and held down real wages, the media joined business in successfully promoting perceptions of relative poverty even as real levels of consumption reached new highs, and debt increased enormously. (In Australia, mortgages rose from 2.8 to 4.2 times average annual income between 1994 and 2004 while other personal debt tripled).
If Selfish Capitalism is so bad, what is Unselfish Capitalism? Continue reading “Oliver James: The Selfish Capitalist”
The idea of closing the industrial production loop must be in the air this month. I just came across this report on the #CircularEconomy and it meshes so well with my recent post on industrial ‘composting’ that I had to share its key points. Here goes:
This week, a roomful of sustainability coordinators, educators, government leaders, waste professionals, and various decision makers gathered to discuss one topic that will likely transform the state of all industries in years to come: the circular economy.
Hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation (USCCF), the “Better Business, Better World” Sustainability Forum served as a springboard for leaders to brainstorm more sustainable and economically beneficial choices for their businesses. While the world turns away from a linear economy — when waste is an inevitable result of product development — a closed-loop system of reuse presents an opportunity for as much as $4.5 trillion in economic growth, Continue reading “The Circular Economy”
Penguin, March 2009, $19.95
Composting is a brief but very practical, hands-dirty, guide to turning garden waste, food scraps and waste paper into the kind of soil that will have your plants moaning in ecstasy as they grow a mile a minute. As the authors say, it isn’t rocket science and there are no hard and fast rules. Anything organic will rot if you leave it long enough, and learning about composting is simply learning how to make the process work better for you and your garden.
If you just want to put lawn clippings on the garden beds, fine. If you want to buy a bokashi bucket to keep in the kitchen, fine. If you want to make a worm farm, fine. If you want to establish a hot-compost heap and turn it every week, that’s fine too. Composting points out that many people evolve a mixed system for dealing with waste and when I looked at our own household to check, I counted nine different paths we use to convert green stuff into good soil or dispose of what we can’t use. Our system makes the most of our resources with the least possible time and effort but it was never planned, it just grew. The garden does, too.
Cradle to Cradle
Michael Braungart and William McDonough
Random House, April 2009, $24.95
Cradle to Cradle applies the composting model to industrial design. Continue reading “Composting and industrial recycling”