The ethics of Christmas presents
- 18 Dec 07, 06:22 PM
Let’s not beat around the bush: Christmas is a carbon catastrophe and the reason is our ludicrous culture of present giving.
I know I’ll be called a mean old Scrooge but here’s the Christmas manifesto of this (former) Ethical Man: if you must give, give money.
Why? Because you don’t have to want Tiny Tim to starve in the workhouse to recognise what bloated consumer nightmare the festive season has become.
Take my family, for example. We try to meet up over the Christmas period but I am beginning to wish we didn’t.
Not because I don’t enjoy seeing everyone and eating and drinking far too much before falling asleep in front of the telly. Last Christmas I couldn’t wait to tuck into Ned, the Newsnight turkey. No, the reason is that I hate giving presents.
There you go you see – you are thinking I’m an old Scrooge aren’t you?
Well I say bah humbug to that. I hate receiving presents too and here’s why.
I’ve got three children and they have ten cousins. If each of my children buys everyone a present that’s thirty-six presents. If all the cousins do the same we’re talking 13x12 presents – a staggering 156 in all.
And that is just the start. We’ve got to get presents for my folks, my three sisters and their husbands, my mother-in-law and her partner as well as my father-in-law, my wife’s grandmother and her brother. Then, of course, they’ve all got to do the same for us. So that’s another 9x8 presents – 72 more gifts - even if we assume that couples get just one present.
So my direct family alone could buy each other as many as 228 presents every single year and that’s before I’ve popped over to my cousin Xand’s for a mulled wine or two (another present plus one for my Aunt Anthea) or even begun to think about presents for friends (not that I do, you understand).
So why are these 228 presents a carbon catastrophe? That’s simple: because every single one has a carbon cost. It wouldn’t be a problem if this glut of gifts were actually useful. But be honest, when was the last time you actually got something you wanted or more importantly, needed?
Tsunami of tat
My children are too young to read this blog so I can be completely honest here. They now get so many presents that we collect up the ones we don’t like and give them to the local charity shop. I know it sounds cruel but we live in a small house and we would be engulfed in a veritable tsunami of tat if we didn’t.
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. Nevertheless they seem to do reasonable business.
Cash is best
Some of you may be thinking that I’m missing the point. You’re thinking that present giving isn’t about the inherent value or utility of the gift but is about the act of giving itself.
I’ll concede there’s something in that but gifts don’t have to be useless. I’ve got a rule of only buying consumables as presents: food and drink (and sometimes fireworks). At least you know someone is going to enjoy them.
But surely it would be more ethical if we all bought each other stuff that you knew we really needed. Stuff like washing up liquid, toilet paper and breakfast cereal. Or better still, cash.
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).
Hence my Christmas manifesto.
But by way of a post-script I’ve got a bit of an ethical confession to make. I’m still sufficiently in thrall to Christmas to feel obliged to give some gifts so direct family are getting goats (and a couple of toilets for really special people). And my daughters are getting appalling plastic dolls which shed “real tears” and giggle.
Which, I suppose, goes to prove one of the central problems of tackling global warming: it is one thing to get people worried about the issue, quite another to get them to do anything about it.
And on that note, Merry Christmas.