The Null Device

Christmas a carbon catastrophe?

BBC Newsnight's Ethical Man, Justin Rowlatt, claims that the Christmas tradition of gift-giving, in its present consumeristic incarnation, is exacting a ruinous ecological cost in carbon emissions:
The real problem is that giving presents is an inherently inefficient activity. It means guessing what someone else may want or need. Every now and then you'll buy the perfect shirt but more often than not the ornament or tie or garden thermometer will end up in the attic or more likely in a landfill site and all the carbon that went into making it is completely wasted.
A few decades ago you probably needed the socks that your mum gave you or the saucepan she was given by her Aunt. These days it is different. Consumer goods are so cheap and plentiful that even people on very low incomes have no shortage of stuff.
Indeed, if you need proof of how corrupt our present giving culture has become look no further than the "gift" shops that have colonised every high street. You know the ones; they sell things no-one wants like scented candles, little vases and foot massage kits.
Perhaps it's time for a carbon-correct rewriting of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, which starts off with Scrooge as a profligate consumerist, loading his SUV up with loads of chintzy, useless plastic tat, with the intention of wrapping it up and giving it copiously to everyone he knows, as if in the throes of some seasonal lunacy. He then would be visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, who would show him the ecological and ethical consequences of his entry into the "Christmas spirit" (child slaves making toys in some hellish sweatshop in Asia, last year's presents all discarded and crushed under landfill, leaching toxins into the water table, and the ecological consequences for the world in a few decades if people keep doing this). Chastened, Scrooge mends his ways, and from now on, each of his nearest and dearest gets a £5 note and an Oxfam goat for a village in Africa.

Rowlatt points out that giving cash would be much more efficient and less likely to result in carbon emissions being generated for no good use, though cash is considered somewhat crass; in fact, anything efficient or utilitarian is considered improper (take, for example, how socks (something people all wear) have become a byword for lousy Christmas presents):

I've never understood why giving money is considered bad form. Wasn't that five pound note folded into Granny's card the very best present of all? You could use it to buy something you actually wanted. Not only that, cash is completely carbon free (until you buy something, of course).
Perhaps, if we want to make the giving of efficient gifts (i.e., cash) acceptable, we need a special ceremonial form of cash which is not used in day-to-day transactions. This would be legal tender, much like normal cash, though would look different, and people would be socially discouraged from using it for mundane uses such as buying groceries. (A parallel, ceremonial form of legal tender isn't as far-fetched as it sounds; Britain already has one, though one that's used in giving alms to the poor.)

There are 3 comments on "Christmas a carbon catastrophe?":

Posted by: bdk Sat Dec 22 20:52:49 2007

At least where I am in the U.S., efficient giving is getting more acceptable over time. This year, with the exception of gifts for the children, my family is almost exclusively exchanging gift cards for the stores we shop at. We've always had a rule where everyone had to tender a list of things that they actually want and need, and then everyone shops from those lists for each other. This year, the lists ended up being mostly gift cards for preferred stores. Companies like American Express now sell gift cards that work like pre-paid debit cards and can be used anywhere, so it really is like giving cash, but without the negative connotations.

Posted by: Greg Mon Dec 24 07:42:39 2007

Oh My God I agree with this post (and the first comment). Gift-giving (to adults) is so wrong, for so many reasons. Apart from environmental reasons, there is sufficient tragedy in the time and money that none of have enough of, wasted buying things that will almost certainly be unwanted, benefitting only shop-keepers, to warrant a serious attempt at resisting this meme. Can this blog entry start the revolution?

I have two children and my attitude to gift-giving is simple: it's a kid thing. It's easy to make a child happy with a gift on birthdays and christmas. But adults (over about 15) are more complex beings and gift-giving without prior discussion with the recipient rarely works. However, like any meme-complex that includes an attribution of guilt to non-believers, gift-giving is hard for individuals to avoid.

As to the gift-voucher idea - again I agree - we need to improve the public image of these relatively useful items. But check out this conversation I had with my daughter only this morning! I

Posted by: Greg Mon Dec 24 07:46:04 2007

I took her shopping to get her big brother a gift. I wondered aloud if I should give him a voucher to buy clothes, as it's impossible for me to guess his preferences. She warned me that he hates gift certificates because they restrict the receiver's purchasing options to one store. I told her I'd be glad to give cash instead of a voucher, if I didn't think he'd spend it on booze. We agreed that we need a "meta-voucher" (she didn't use that word) that allows the giver to specify broadly what kind of goods can be bought. (Knowing me, this already exists and I just haven't heard of it.) In fact a lot of the gifts adults give each other are kinds of currency - booze is an example ironically.

Hey Andrew am I too wordy? My (long) comments keep getting chopped in half!