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Christmas: ’Tis the season for shopaholics

In this installment of Mercy Traveller, Philip Maher looks at our passion for consumption and the paradox of a simpler life, which is actually complex
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Christmas began with Guelph Mayor Cam Guthrie, lighting the Christmas tree in market square recently. Christmas is a seasonal perfect storm of indulging in family, friends, food and, of course, gift giving—guilt free.

Christmas follows the American traditions, and if not already Canadian traditions, of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, a celebration of purchasing stuff.

Some stores welcomed fellow capitalists by applauding consumers as if they were walking down a red carpet. A drive-by of the palaces of capitalism around Guelph displayed parking lots overflowing with cars from shoppertunists hunting for items to fill their rec rooms and pockets.

I’ve always been fascinated by our acceptance of the “sale” concept. Vendors sell items at unreasonable prices for 11 months, then once a year sell the same item for a fair price. We somehow think this is a good idea. It’s like thanking a dog for not biting you once a year and releasing it to continue chomping at your leg every other day. This month will be an orgy of materialism. 

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for celebrating Christmas, the birth of Jesus, etc. However, I’m fascinated that in our newfound commitment to the environment that we have detached our desire for stuff from our desire to protect the environment. Is there not a link? Let me be the first to acknowledge that I own things like a car and a TV, etc. So I struggle with this as much as anybody. During this Christmas season, our misty-eyed notion of Christmas and its accoutrements collides with our earnest desire to be responsible citizens of the environment. The link is not lost on protesters from “Extinction Rebellion” who campaigned against materialism in Montreal on Black Friday. They have a point, but it does get complicated. 

Although it comes with its own set of problems, most of us can live with reusing and recycling. The real challenge is to reduce. At some point, that could mean less stuff. And Christmas has especially become the celebration of stuff. 

In our society we have built our success on the purchase of goods and, I would argue, on continual destruction. We measure how much ore is extracted as success. We measure how many houses are being built as a sign of growth. It always seems strange to me that “housing starts” are seen as a good. While it does mean jobs and accommodation, it also means we are covering more land with cement. It’s like measuring success by the number of hunters employed to kill baby elephants. At some point we are going to run low on elephants. That may seem extreme, but many cities are running out of space and are now building on land upon which we use to grow our food! Take a look at the land being covered around our own region. 

We have the disease of comsumptivitis at Christmas and all year round. If we are going to match our environmental words with our wallets at Christmas, where does this leave us? Many groups want us to lobby our politicians to lower carbon emissions and force corporations to be more responsible and to offer us green options, even things like slower shipping that reduces the environmental impact. That’s all good—go for it. But what about on a personal level?

I’m not going to preach about how you should live your life. There are lots of places to get that advice. The tree-hugging, Blundstone crowd want us to live in a yurt and drive around in a Vespa. That’s just not practical for most of us on a frosty winter day. But that does not mean we can’t make a difference before we are forced to.

Think about avoiding shopping as recreation for example — that’s why we have hockey and knitting. The paradox of a simpler life is that it is complex. It always has been. Most of us can’t move to the country and grow lentils. However, we can try to be responsible shoppers, taking into account the environmental cost of the things we purchase. 

And maybe this Christmas you can buy a chicken or seedling from one of those charity catalogues. If it’s the thought that counts, and helping someone else is a really nice thought. 

From my house to yours, Merry Christmas.