By Donella Meadows
–December 7, 1995–
The holiday shopping season has gotten off to a bad start, they say. They don’t say it, actually, they moan it, as if no worse tragedy can be imagined. The problem is, they say, that too many of us have maxed out our credit cards. The solution is to send out more credit cards.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that a description of mass insanity?
We take a holiday that celebrates the birth of one of the gentlest spirits ever known, one who told us to store up treasure not on earth but in heaven, and we turn the occasion into an orgy of eating, drinking, and buying gifts people don’t need with money we don’t have.
Each item we buy — the plastic Santa made of oil, the satellite dish made of metal, the wrapping paper made of trees, the eggnog made of milk, sugar, and rum — has been taken from the earth and will be returned to the earth as waste sooner or later, mostly sooner.
We complain for months about the traffic jams, the crowded stores, the hecticness of mobilizing all this material and energy.
But we think our national welfare, as well as our personal welfare, depends upon doing it more each year than the year before. So we take on more debt.
The average adult American holds nine credit cards with an average unpaid balance of $3900. (At say 15 percent, which is low for credit cards, that means we pay $585 a year in interest.) The average shopper takes six months to pay off his or her Christmas charges. Consumer debt is rising faster than income; personal bankruptcies are increasing; yet banks and other card issuers mail out 2 billion new card offers a year — eight for every man, woman, and child of us.
We can blame the card-purveyors and advertisers and store-keepers for whipping us up into a Christmas frenzy, but why do we allow ourselves to be whipped? Why do we take the cards? Why do we use them to turn Christmas into a spending and borrowing fit?
Let’s start with the good reasons. We love to please the people we love. We like the rush of excitement in the stores, the pretty decorations, the beautiful music. We can picture our kids’ eyes shining with the magic of Christmas.
Then there are the not-so-good reasons. If I buy my boyfriend’s mother something, maybe she’ll like me. If I find something nice for Aunt Ellie, maybe she’ll think I like her. I have to send cards to those people, because they send cards to me. If I out-party and out-spend everyone around me, they’ll think I’m a success.
You can add to the list of reasons, good and bad, for your own holiday madness. Having done so, look at them hard. Look again. Maybe you’d like to toss them all away and join a rising number of Americans in a quiet, unorganized movement to return Christmas to its original purpose.
Swear off the insincere presents. Everyone sees through them anyway. Save the money.
Imagine how to make your kids’ eyes shine without buying them stuff.
Think of ten ways to show people you love them without any material transaction required.
Declare the day after Thanksgiving an annual Buy-Nothing Day.
If you’re not the type who pays off your credit-card balance each month without fail, get rid of the cards. Take the $585 in saved interest and give it to someone who really needs it.
For pretty decorations and beautiful music, try church. Fill your house with decorations and music you make yourself. If you don’t have time, work less. You don’t need so much money, if you don’t buy so many things.
When it makes sense to buy something, go ahead and buy it. We are so unfamiliar with sensible frugality in our culture that we assume it’s about tight-lipped stinginess, living miserably, being cheap. But there is a great, enjoyable middle ground between miserliness and gluttony. On that middle ground buying becomes a well-considered means to true ends — ends defined by you and not by an advertiser. When you buy, go for honest value, long service, high quality. If the cheapest product was made in a way that demeans workers, destroys the environment, and puts your neighbors out of business, don’t buy it. Buy the best.
Above all, forget the nonsensical idea that the economy needs us to buy in excess. Neither the planet nor our souls can afford that kind of economy. Why work ourselves to death to buy things we don’t need in order to provide jobs to keep ourselves working? If we backed off from mindless buying and searched instead for true meaning, we would be able to spend less, borrow less, earn less, and reclaim our time, attention, and serenity — our lives.
The spirit whose birth we are celebrating would say there is nothing better to give to our loved ones than our time, attention, serenity, and lives.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1995