Christmas: The All Consuming Season

December 1, 2002

By Michael Jessen

Count on the Royal Canadian Mint to give us a reality check. The federal agency responsible for the issuance of the coin wants us to buy, buy, buy this Christmas, spending of course their coin.

Advertisements placed by the Mint substitute the word "Christmas" in the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas" with the word "giving". Got the message? The holiday season is about giving. Period.

Our alarm bells should be ringing. The organization Redefining Progress (www.redefiningprogress.org) says humanity's resource consumption exceeds the Earth's biological capacity by 20 percent. The average American every week uses the equivalent of 300 shopping bags filled with natural resources for food, shelter, energy and transportation. We can't stop shopping, can we? Our economy depends on it, right?

The real question is how much is enough?

When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping. He who dies with the most toys, wins. Shop till you drop. These slogans take on a new meaning at Christmas as we engage in an orgy of shopping.

Compulsive shopping is called oniomania and the American Psychological Association even goes so far as to call it a form of self-medication against depression.

According to a national survey, more than half of the people questioned in Canadian shopping malls said they will spend between $500 and $1,000 this holiday season. One in four planned to spend more than $1,000.

As a parent, I'm also concerned about the effect our consumer mentality has on our children. My own daughter's Christmas wish list has 27 items this year, including her own telephone, computer and DVD player.

Our children are caught up in the religion of consumerism. And it is no wonder. From 1992 to 1999, the amount spent marketing to children almost doubled from $6.2 billion to $12 billion. The web site Commercial Exploitation of Children (www.commercialexploitation.com) has some startling facts about marketing to children.

In the meantime, the gap between the rich and the poor within and between countries continues to grow. What Europeans spend on ice cream alone in one year would pay for water and sanitation for everyone in the world, leaving another US $2 billion in change. What Americans and Europeans spend on perfumes each year could meet the annual cost of giving every woman in the world access to reproductive health.

While a privileged few overconsume, the consumption options of millions are so limited that they are confined to a hand-to-mouth existence, says the web site OneWorld (www.oneworld.net/guides/consumerism/front.shtml).

OK, I'm a heretic. I advocate a different kind of giving, one based on caring and love. We owe our family and friends nothing more. Stuff is optional. In his epic essay "Walden," Henry David Thoreau wrote "a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone."

Buy Nothing Day was celebrated around the world on November 29 in North America and November 30 in Europe. It was started by the Canadian group www.adbusters.org.

The Center for a New American Dream (www.newdream.org) has some excellent resources for our shopping mania. Their "Simplify the Holidays!" brochure is available at www.newdream.org/holiday/index.html and their Kids and Commercialism Campaign www.newdream.org/campaign/kids/ has a great "Tips for Parenting in a Commercial Culture" pamphlet.

When buying it is also important to know the practices of the seller. The web site Behind the Label (www.behindthelabel.org) has some important information about the Gap and Wal-Mart.

Turning to things to fill an emptiness within ourselves is not sustainable. As Henry David Thoreau wrote to Ralph Waldo Emerson on February 12, 1843, "The richest gifts we can bestow are the least marketable."

RESOURCES - "Mindfulness in the Marketplace: Compassionate Responses to Consumerism" is a new book edited by Allan Hunt Badiner with an introduction by Julia Butterfly Hill. In the context of Dharma teachings, what are truly compassionate and yet meaningful responses to the rise of global corporatization? What does right consumption look like in the emerging global market economy? Forty-four thinkers and activists, including Thich Nhat Hanh, Joan Halifax, Paul Hawken, Fritjof Capra, Joanna Macy, John Robbins, Stephen Batchelor, David Korten, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama provide a range of perspectives related to Buddhism and economics, corporate power, and globalization. The book is published by Parallax Press and available as a trade paperback. A web companion to the book is www.mindfulmarkets.com that provides up-to-date information and links to empower readers to take action and be the difference.

Other good reading on the subject of consumerism include: "Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things," by John C. Ryan and Alan Thein Durning, Northwest Environment Watch (www.northwestwatch.org), 1997; "The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer," by Juliet B. Schor, Basic Books, 1998; and "How Much is Enough: The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth," by Alan Durning, W.W. Norton & Company, 1992.

Michael Jessen is a Nelson consultant who specializes in helping companies and communities become more sustainable. He can be reached by telephone at 250-229-5632 or by e-mail at Michael@zerowaste.ca. His business -- Zero Waste Services -- has an award-winning web site at www.zerowaste.ca.


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