The story goes that some 2018 years ago, a baby of immaculate conception was born in less than immaculate conditions. Since the local taverns were full and Airbnb was still a ways off, it fell to some goats, a sheep and a couple of donkeys to budge over a bit in welcoming forth the almighty. Stitched up immediately by having his birthday so close to Christmas, Jesus was nevertheless gifted gold by the first of three visitors, indicating a promising start to proceedings. The second fella offered smellies in the form of frankincense. Look at any profile pic of Jesus and the first thing you notice after his killer pecs is his omnipresent beard, so he had about as much use for aftershave as 90% of us receiving this classic stocking filler. At this point, the pressure was on for the 3rd bloke to pull something good out the saddle bag, so what did he give J-Dogg? - yep, myrrh, an embalming fluid and symbol of death.... Merry fucking Christmas, right??!!
What might merely be deemed an irrelevant panic-buy, could, if you're superstitious (I'm clearly not, if the level of blasphemy I've already indulged in is anything to go by) be seen as something of a jinx. Whilst not entirely blaming wise man number three's poor gift-giving, things certainly went awry for Jesus one Good (in what way?!) Friday some 33 years later....
Despite his life's work in spreading a message of love and peace alongside a humble appreciation of our shared humanity over material wealth, it was nevertheless baby Jesus's willingness to accept those presents straight out the gate which has really stuck with us 2 thousand years later (along with the whole long hair and beard thing... “Our Father, who art in heaven, hipster be thy mane”)
Today, Christmas is a time of glorious, glittery, consumerist excess, with people of all faiths joining non-believers in the giving of gifts, over-eating of expensive cheeses and watching on plasma tellies of James Bondses.... and I bloody love it. I love the twinkly lights, the mulled wine, woolly scarves and general goodwill. I can even handle the overplayed music in every shop because for every nauseating snippet of Cliff Richard, there's Shane Macgowan and Kirsty MacColl insulting their way through Fairytale of New York. I love how excited my little boy is already and that he still says “Missmas” and I love being able to drink whiskey at lunchtime without judgement.
The thing I've started to struggle with recently is the waste. It's no secret we're hammering this planet's natural resources for all they're worth and giving back slowly degrading, highly toxic plastic in thanks, but the majority of us really don't appreciate the extent of the calamity, shielded from the worst of its effects behind a wall of first-world problems. For years it's been easy enough to assume a smatter of recycling, a bag for life and not burning piles of car tyres is enough of a part to play, but with the recent landmark report by the IPCC giving us just 12 years to avoid climate change catastrophe, it's clear that's really not cutting it. Even the eternal optimist beneath my cynical armour has been shaken, and these days I'm far more concerned at being shaken by a scientist than a religious representative... one particularly scary nun at my Catholic primary school tussled us violently by the shoulders while dressing us down for our playground sins, but ultimately we were taught God forgives. Tsunamis don't. Earthquakes don't.
With a relentless push from the media and an army of advertisers, we've defined ourselves since the mid 20th century as consumers first and foremost. We're not just what we eat (or the instagram photo we share of it), but where we eat, where we live, what we drive, wear, listen to, read, watch, play....
Since we're long past the days of telling stories round a fire in a cave, wrapped in animal pelts, almost everything we do requires stuff. Just look around you at the infrastructure of objects large and small supporting your everyday life and it's dizzying to think where it all came from and the sheer energy involved in harvesting it... and that's just you. There's another 7.6 billion people on earth! Granted not all of them have as many titanium golf clubs or share your penchant for a decent drop (outside Spain, they'd call it a drink problem), but that's still a lot of resources the planet has to come up with to keep us all entertained.
Global trend-setter / international laughing stock America has a lot to answer for. In 2007 it was revealed that despite having just 5% of the world's population, it was consuming 30% of the world's resources (all sorts - not just chicken wings and gunmetal) and contributing 30% of its waste – a large proportion shipped off to become a more immediate third-world problem.
A billion dollar industry has recently developed to de-clutter the dwellings of Americans whose houses are statistically twice the size they were in the 70's, hoarding more than twice as much stuff they've become too fat, lazy or apathetic to tackle without first having to pay a stranger to do it for them.
The flip side to the gross accumulation of stuff is our throwaway culture. As things break, wear out or simply become unfashionable, we discard them without much thought. If we're going near the charity chop and we can carry it under one arm, it might live again in someone else's hands, but if it's bulky or we can't be arsed to wash it first, hello landfill. It would help if many products weren't patently designed to be replaced regularly enough to keep the cash flowing. It's called “planned obsolescence”. Look at design journals from the 1950s, when consumerism was really taking off and you'll see its inception as a guiding principle of production. Today we'll replace half a cubic metre of plastic desktop computer and monitor because the old inch-square processor which won't load Facebook quick enough is designed to be inaccessible. For us it's either an inconvenience or an exciting new shopping opportunity, but a Taiwanese worker slept on the floor at the end of a 14 hour shift earning bugger-all to make that first computer in a heavily polluting factory next to a chemical waste dump. Of course, your new purchase keeps his cousin (doing mere 12 hour stints) in the slightly newer neighbouring factory in a job.... Still, there must be a better way forward.
Here's a statistic which should shake you like an angry nun – After six months, the percentage of total material flowing through the North American system of supply and demand still in use is 1%. 99% of material harvested, mined, processed and transported is essentially trash, by-products of production or victims of over-eager consumption, planned and perceived obsolescence (fashion trends and consumer whims). That's simply unsustainable.
So what can we do about it? Well, like ex-smokers who've seen the light, we can start by hypocritically preaching - I say hypocritically, because last year I bought an adult friend a pair of children's headphones on his birthday because I knew the expression on the face of a wrestler pictured on the box would make him laugh. I wasn't wrong; he laughed right out the front of the face they were too small to fit round... It probably wasn't worth £12.99 and 500 years of slow-release environmental toxins though. I've since unfriended him as he's a despicable symptom of the problem I'm now preaching against.
Obviously there's a whole slew of things you can do to help combat climate catastrophe. It's a dauntingly huge issue and requires a collective desire for change, but since I started this article talking about Christmas, I'll try to limit my final scope to the same.
Don't buy those pointless, single-smirk novelty gifts this year. The ones that are already unused clutter by the time tree's gone. Nobody really needs a poo emoji soft-toy or a plastic wobbly-head Queen. The relief of “thank God I found something” and the flash of a smile on your giftee's face don't justify the resources that go into making these items and the exploitation of labour and the earth they represent. If we weren't such tits for tat, there'd be far less around, choking up our environment.
Ultimately you can show people you really care (about them and their future on this planet) by getting them sod all. If you're buying them novelty or filler gifts, you're essentially just reminding them you've thought of them, so do that in a cheaper, less pollutive and actually more personal way. Draw them a lovely or hilariously bad (my new tactic) picture, write them a personalised poem (again, lovely or hilariously bad work) or tell them money's particularly tight because your partner's pregnant again - also my new tactic / reality.
Alternatively just give them a big hug, tell them you love them, throw this article in their face (it's a form of recycling) and run away. If they're still genuinely offended you didn't spend money and resources on them, fuck 'em - they're not a true friend and they'll have no place on your ark when the flood comes.... stick a plasma telly there instead!
By Ian Greenland www.greenlandphotography.com