The Climate Won’t Survive Our Current Appetite for Consumerism and Consumption

Confession time: this year, I don’t want to buy my kids anything for Christmas. This is a big one. Okay, let me try to soften that a bit. I have purchased a few small, but useful items. But that’s it! No new games, no new toys, no new clothes (other than socks)… nothing. They already have enough. WeThere is too much. Our nation is drowning with stuff, and in reality, we need almost none of it.

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

Recently, I heard this bizarre statement on the radio: The U.S. economic system is dependent upon consumers consuming, and the earth is dependent on us not consuming. Which side are we going with? Once the conundrum of the moment was presented that way, it was clear to me immediately where I stood. With the earth and against consume! As I drove my minivan, which was empty and gas-fed, seven-person-sized, down the highway, I raised my fist to show support. 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. (There will be more on this.)

This is the crux of the matter! There is always more we can do. I compost and recycle and don’t shower every day. Our thermostat is set at 64 degrees, and I keep my scarf and hat on inside during winter. This may seem conscientious and difficult, but does it make any difference? Does it really matter what I do?

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 an environmental pollutant (and TomDispatchReaders would have known this in 2007 thanks to Michael Klare’s reportingMy contributions to a greener future through low-key body smell might not make any 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 ProjectIt has been found that the U.S. military is causing the planet serious problems. The U.S. military released more than twice as many greenhouse gases in the atmosphere during its Global War on Terror between 2001 and 2017.

Target Mania

You might ask yourself: What does all this have to do Christmas, or the annual holidays celebrated each year by Christians, Jews. Muslims and other religions that mark the darkest part of the calendar with festivals of lights and feasts and gift-giving? This time of year makes me want to question my inner Grinch. Why am I so concerned about this holiday season overdoing it?

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 don’t want to see a tomorrow, but a next day, and another 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 cupsFlip flops were lost.

American consumption It isA problem. Every purchase has a carbon footprint. calculatedAnd it will continue to increase. labeled. Annaliese Griffin recently noted 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. These materials travel from factory to factory to container ship to finally land on my porch and become mys for a while. Sooner or later, they will most likely end up in a landfill.”

We need 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 declutteringIt is a multimillion-dollar business. self-storageOne that is multi-billion dollar.

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. To get there, we will need to begin to dismantle our military-industrial complex, banish more fossil-fuel-powered cars from the roads, and rein in consumerism. In short, it will take a reordering of how we — and that includes me — do everything.

Yet, despite all of this, and even having sworn it all, I find myself at Target on the 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. I have only one hour. “Target will have it all,” I tell myself. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? They have everything I need, including holiday garlands and sugar cookies, swimsuits, and cute toilet brushes. (Why is it so important to have cute toilet brushes?)

It all demands my attention. I grip my shopping list, grit mine teeth, and try my best to keep my feet on the ground. Then I think about the weekend’s birthday party that the kids are invited for 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 spend 20 minutes trying to decide which of the three options I want. 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).

I feel terrible in the parking garage afterwards, thinking about the carbon footprint of those LegoSets and their long journeys factoriesBrazil and China. I try to lift myself by recalling how the Danish company is trying 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 decided to do some research online and discovered a wide variety of loud, robotic, expensive plastic items with bizarre 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 contain small plastic objects and are wrapped in plastic. Each window has 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 mistletoe. 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.

I know that my children would love them, but it is sad. I am devastated by their carbon footprints and the marketing and psychology behind them.

How to Fly through the Air on the Most High-Range 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, seven-year-old, was sent home from school after interacting with a Covid positive child. 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.

Time flew by without the school schedule or the attendant fights for screens. We went to Covid test appointments, went on long walks, worked with my mom on puzzles, did watercolors, and cleaned up the house room by room. I left her alone, unsupervised, and unscripted between all this.

While I was typing at the dining room table, she came across some foam dolls she had made for a craft fair. I pulled them from under the couch along with the dust bunnies and placed them in a box to throw away.

“No, no, mom!” she exclaimed. “These girls are my favorites. These are my creations. 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 hours creating a circus landscape. She strung strings between bookshelves and lamps, moved chairs around, magic-marked faces and costumes onto dolls, then put them through trapeze moves on those strings. While I was e-mailing, she chattered away, adding dialogue, feeling and action to the small pieces of 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 us into her living room and asked us to find circus music on our phone. She then presented the show to me. 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 list, suggesting it might be time for me 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 cleaned up my own mess, made dinner, and helped her clean up the rest of the project as everyone was returning from school and work.

What was most striking to me was the fact 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 children will get umbrellas for Christmas. They’ll also receive new socks and used books from their favorite series. 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 more years to pull ourselves back from the brink. And we’ll do what we can and try to enjoy every minute of it.