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
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,"
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."
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.
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
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:
- Substitute plant-based foods for animal-based foods whenever possible.
Raising livestock requires large amounts of land and is very inefficient.
It takes 16 pounds of grain, for example, to produce just one pound of beef.
And that pound of beef requires more than 200 times as much water to produce
as the same amount of wheat. Furthermore, the energy equivalent of one gallon
of gasoline is needed to produce one pound of grain-fed beef. Try pasta
and rice dishes as substitutes for meat dishes.
- Include as much locally-grown food as possible. Food produced in the
local community consumes less energy for transportation. Local food purchases
also support the region's economy.
- Buy organic. Non-organic foods are grown and produced with chemical
pesticides harmful to humans and the environment.
- Buy in bulk. Large quantity purchases help eliminate wasteful packaging
and often save money. Beer kegs are an excellent choice for those wishing
to include alcohol in the celebration. Large bowls of fruit punch and lemonade
made from concentrate are also efficient beverage choices.
- Carpooling to holiday celebrations saves lives and gasoline.
- Use tree-free invitations. Use recycled paper, a telephone call -
or E-mail - to invite guests.
- Avoid disposable plastic and paper dishware. These products are usually
expensive and wasteful, and often are not biodegradable.
- 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?
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
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.
- Bicycles. A healthy gift that requires only human energy to operate
and gets people outdoors.
- Books. These gifts provide a lifetime of use with minimal damage to
the environment if printed on recycled paper. Books seldom end up in landfills.
- Homemade crafts and food. Practical gifts that demonstrate genuine
- Reusable grocery bags. Cloth bags cut down on the use of paper and
plastic and raise environmental awareness at the same time.
- Plants. Oxygen producing, carbon dioxide consuming, peace radiating,
- Hemp products. One of the strongest fibers on earth, hemp has great
durability. Hemp can · produce more than twice as much fiber as cotton
from the same amount of land. Unlike cotton, hemp requires no chemical pesticides
or herbicides to grow efficiently. Hemp products include paper, oil, hemp
meal, rugged clothing, backpacks, surfboard bags and hats - products as
strong as rope and as fine as lace.
- Organically grown or recycled cotton products. Like organically grown
food, organic cotton growers use natural predators such as ladybugs and
other beneficial insects instead of chemicals to control pests. Free of
harmful finishes, bleaches and dyes, organic cotton also has a unique and
softer feel. Recycled cotton is made by an innovative new process that spins
post-consumer and post-commercial waste fiber into new yarn. The process
involves only hydrogen peroxide, phosphate-free soaps, and tapioca starch.
- Recycled utilitarian gifts. Many stores and catalogs offer a variety
of recycled, environmentally responsible gifts. A random sampling includes:
pencils made out of 100 percent recycled newspapers; "reclaimed"
silverware wind chimes; recycled paper clips; trash cans made out of recycled
- Socially responsible gifts. Many nonprofit programs like Self Help
Crafts facilitate the sale of Third World handmade gifts. These programs
help market quality products while improving the lives of poor developing
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.
"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."