Celebrating with the earth: making a sustainable & joyful season

by Albert Lewis
hick gravy slides down the turkey breast at the center of the table. Ten women, men, and children hold bottled soft drinks and beer as grandfather offers a toast to the new season. The bottles are set back down on the table and ten hungry mouths begin enjoying a lavish feast. When the meal is finished, the family heads for the stack of neatly wrapped presents in the middle of the living room floor. Gathered with loved ones, appetite sated, among the ribbons, wrapping paper, new appliances, gadgets and video games, the family gathering almost seems ideal.
But wait a minute. Isn't the holiday season supposed to be a time of conscience and good will? And if so, doesn't that include a careful consideration of how our holiday activities affect the natural environment?

The consumption factor

Vicki Robin, environmental role model and coauthor of Your Money or Your Life, seems to think so. "We no longer live life. We consume it," writes Robin.
Traditionally, the months of November and December are a time when Americans join together and do what we do best - consume. Manufacturing plants produce a mountain of goods for the holiday season, but the "goods" can often be bad on our environment. Every new product requires some expenditure of the earth's resources, in the form of extracted raw materials and energy consumed to produce and transport it. "Our affluent life-styles are having an increasingly devastating effect on our planet," writes Robin. "As civilized and advanced as we may have become, we still depend on breathable air, potable water and fertile soil for our daily existence."

The numbers

She is not alone in her concern. "It boils down to a simple equation," says Alan Durning, head of the Northwest Environment Watch. "How many people are consuming how much stuff?" Americans currently consume close to their own body weight in natural resources every day, according to Durning. These resources are extracted from farms, forests, fisheries, mines and grasslands, all of which are essential to the health of the planet - and to the health of human beings. Once a season of genuine kindness and spirituality for many diverse cultures, the holiday season has in many respects become an increasingly commercial event. However, "The holidays were not always considered to be a consumer season," says Robin. "They were created to be a consumer season."
Accompanied by a relentless advertising blitz, the holiday season appears to be a gift-giving, materialistic frenzy. But there is an alternative vision for the holidays. High spirits can replace high consumption. Environmentally responsible gifts can be substituted for frivolous and wasteful products. With enough creativity, there are no limits to the ways we can effectively and gainfully minimize consumption and reduce our negative impacts on the environment.

Green gatherings

What is an environmentally sound holiday celebration anyway? Does it mean that family and friends sit around drinking water and eating carrots and celery off the same plate, exchanging unwrapped jars of herbs and spices, in a cold, dark room? Certainly not. The green holiday gathering is best kept simple and creative. Although there are many ways to prepare and organize a satisfying and environmentally sound celebration, here are some places to start: The above list is only a beginning. There are many additional ways to make holiday gatherings more fun, less expensive, and easier on the planet. If there is any doubt about whether or not to include or exclude something from the celebration, ask these simple questions:
Is a particular item, product, or activity enhancing the celebration or simply complicating it?

How is a product made and where does it come from? Is there a more environmentally benign alternative? If not, is it still worth including?

Giving green

Before brainstorming for specific holiday gift ideas, it is helpful to consider some additional criteria for green giving. How is the product made? The manufacturing process should be energy efficient and involve as few artificial inputs as possible. Eliminate gifts items that require the use of toxic or carcinogenic materials. Products made of recycled, renewable, reclaimed or salvaged, and biodegradable materials are the best choices.
Packaging is also a significant consideration for green shoppers. Look for products with minimal packaging made from the same types of materials mentioned above. Flashy packaging can make a product look more appealing, but it does not indicate better quality. And, honestly, how long does it take before most packaging ends up in the trash or recycling bin?
Many consumer items are designed to last only a certain length of time - "planned obsolescence" - and then they must be replaced. Consider purchasing only those items that are durable and long-lasting. Products of superior quality usually cost more, but are well worth the extra money.
Finally, consider the environmental and social record of a product's manufacturer. Does the company consider the environmental impacts of their actions? Are any of the company's revenue donated to organizations working for environmental issues? If you are unsure about something, ask questions. Many local retailers specializing in environmentally responsible products can tell you a lot about the manufacturing process - use them. Or, write or call the product's manufacturer.

The green list

Here are a few outstanding green gift items.

The cutting edge

Vicki Robin has some brave holiday gift ideas for those willing to break with convention. She believes gifts should receive less attention during the holidays, noting that originally presents were only given to children, who were not expected to give back. However, for those who choose to give, Vicki has some interesting suggestions.
"One of the things I do is give gift certificates for services - for time," she says. People spend a great chunk of their lives trying to "keep up with the Jones'" and as a result they have less free time. Instead of giving mindless objects of distraction, Robin believes "time" given to family members - offering to baby-sit children, doing their yard work, or even offering to host a catered hike or picnic - is much more valuable.
Money is tight these days, so why not give the next best thing? "Give somebody something that they would buy for themselves anyway," says Robin. People are tired of getting stuff they don't need or want. Buy your father his favorite brand of cookies. Renew your sister's annual subscription to Ms. magazine. Give a membership in a non-profit group they admire. This type of giving makes a difference and will make the giver, receiver and the earth a bit happier.

Reused gifts

"The single most important thing you can do in terms of green consuming, if you're going to spend money, is to buy things used," according to Robin, who enjoys shopping at second-hand stores and thrift shops. She prefers to buy gifts used, wrap them in the Sunday comics, and adorn them with amusing home-made name tags. Second-hand items require no expenditure of the earth's resources, no energy to produce, and cost a lot less money. Thrift shops are also the place to go if you're looking for far-out, one-of-a-kind gifts, or even high-quality gifts of practical value such as winter coats and toaster ovens. "Once a piece of the earth becomes a product," notes Robin, "the one task you have is keeping that product in service as long as possible." Second-hand purchases are one of the best ways to do that.

The Ecological Golden Rule

Is all the extra effort worth it? "I think it's difficult, and in that way similar to a sacrifice," says Durning. "But it's actually deeply rewarding." He notes that, according to many psychological texts, it is relationships with other human beings and meaningful work that bring us genuine happiness - not the endless acquisition of material goods.
However, there is another compelling reason to avoid endless consuming: it contradicts the basic principle of sustainability. Durning calls sustainability "the ecological equivalent of the Golden Rule." The concept is simple. Each generation should meet its needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Recently this has not been the case. In the last forty years, per capita consumption has gained the momentum of a runaway freight train. Although Americans constitute only 5 percent of the world's population, we consume roughly 30 percent of the world's resources. Between 1950 and 1995, the U.S. population also doubled to approximately 262 million people. As a result, many of the country's previously renewable resources have since been depleted or damaged beyond self-repair.
John Robbins, an outspoken critic of the American diet and author of May All Be Fed, recently expressed the situation this way:
"I think we have reached a point of diminishing returns in our material world, where we are buying and consuming so much more and yet not getting any real value from it. We are spending our precious lifetimes, often in tasks that have little meaning to us and may even be burdensome, in order to make money which we then squander on things that do not really bring joy, soul or love into our lives. So I would ask people to consider, in terms of any [holiday] purchases, is this really worth it?"

Consumers or citizens?

"The holiday season is a good time to be talking about this because it is a time when a very large chunk of the consumer expenditures in this country take place," according to Durning. Many leading environmentalists, including Durning, share optimistic feelings about altering consumption patterns in the United States. "Citizens are the main players," says Durning. He believes we could cut our consumption in half by exercising self-restraint and implementing better public policy. When asked what the single most important environmental benefit of a less consumptive lifestyle would be, Durning calmly replied, "We stop killing the planet."