Miserable Mismas

I’ve been busy elsewhere… Work… Moving city/home, and going on holiday. Hence, no posts recently.  I’ve some catching up to do. Full service will be resumed in the New Year. 

If environmentalism is a religion, it needs its religious festivals. The problem for environmentalism, however, is that celebration is anathema to its values of asceticism, austerity and restraint. Noting the idea that some religions were more successfully propagated in part due to their ability to adapt to new cultures, absorbing their festivals, rituals and mythology, I wondered if we can see the same thing happening with environmentalism.

George Monbiot, of course, is the person to ask… This is how he sees Christmas, and the giving of gifts:

They seem amusing on the first day of Christmas, daft on the second, embarrassing on the third. By the twelfth they’re in landfill. For 30 seconds of dubious entertainment, or a hedonic stimulus that lasts no longer than a nicotine hit, we commission the use of materials whose impacts will ramify for generations.

I’m getting a cordless drill for Christmas (I hope). I’m old and sad enough to be excited by it, too. But George’s concern is with presents without such utility…

But many of the products we buy, especially for Christmas, cannot become obsolescent. The term implies a loss of utility, but they had no utility in the first place. An electronic drum-machine T-shirt; a Darth Vader talking piggy bank; an ear-shaped iPhone case; an individual beer can chiller; an electronic wine breather; a sonic screwdriver remote control; bacon toothpaste; a dancing dog. No one is expected to use them, or even look at them, after Christmas day. They are designed to elicit thanks, perhaps a snigger or two, and then be thrown away.

It’s this anxiety about what other people do, and the desire to control it which is at the core of environmentalism. Whereas the spirit of Christmas — albeit perhaps somewhat removed from its origins — is generosity, the environmentalist reformulates it as a ‘festival’ of restraint…

Bake them a cake, write them a poem, give them a kiss, tell them a joke, but for God’s sake stop trashing the planet to tell someone you care. All it shows is that you don’t.

This concept of ‘utility’ is intriguing.  The novelty items Monbiot describes — yes, some of them ridiculous — have no obvious practical use, and so they seem to speak, under environmentalism’s rubric, about the authenticity of relationships between people, not just between an object and people.

The Christian festival now is celebrated outside Christianity. And much of its religious significance has been lost. But it is nonetheless a festival that owes something, at least to its origins. We take time off work, which we spend with families and friends and reflect on the year that has nearly passed — including the events and circumstances that prevent such enjoyment for some. And of course, it is a celebration of material indulgence, too,  drawing the ire of environmentalists. The kitchen is well-stocked, and a feast is prepared, which can last for days. Chocolate suddenly becomes as abundant as pennies. Beer and wine flow.

Nobody needs another cake at Christmas, much less another poem, another kiss, or another joke — these things come at Christmas in the form of Christmas cake and Christmas pudding, books as presents, mistletoe, and in Christmas crackers. But then, nobody even needs Christmas. Christmas itself has no ‘utility’; all the presents that are exchanged could just as well have been bought as and if they were needed, at any other time of the year. If ‘utility’ is a useful concept to understanding the rights and wrongs of Christmas, we might do away with almost all  of that over-indulgence… of eating, drinking, and gift-giving. Why have a large turkey with all the trimmings for Christmas lunch, rather than a round of egg sandwiches? Why have a tree, with lights on it? Why exchange bits of card that say no more than ‘Hello’? Why wrap gifts in expensive paper? Why take time of work at all? And where’s the ‘utility’ in spending time with friends and family? Why not spend Christmas day at work instead?

All these things are surely as frivolous and unnecessary as the exchange of novelty items.

There’s another understanding of ‘utility’, which is lost on Monbiot. Utility doesn’t merely refer to use-value, but also to human ends, no matter how arbitrary they seem to the cold-hearted ecological rationalist. What if the exchange of seemingly useless items nonetheless served some other purpose? What if buying something ‘useless’ really did show someone that you care? Isn’t this ‘utility’, per the claim of utilitarianism? The seemingly frivolous gift gives only a moment’s pleasure, perhaps, before it is sent to landfill or perhaps the recycling centre. But this is utility, nonetheless, in its purest form. In a world of abundance and without scarcity, it would be impossible to talk about what is and is not ‘necessary’; no thing would have ‘utility’ in the sense that Monbiot uses it.

But we don’t live in such a world, of course. And that makes the once-a-year indulgence all the more important. It gives us something to look forward to — especially children, who have little grasp of the concept of ‘utility’. These moments are what we spend our working lives working for. They have no ‘objective’ meaning. Joy, fun, indulgence and celebration are not ecological concepts, however, and thus they do not fit onto the Ecologist’s calendar. Accordingly, the festival of Christmas is re-written by the environmentalist as a dark tale…

People in eastern Congo are massacred to facilitate smartphone upgrades of ever diminishing marginal utility. Forests are felled to make “personalised heart-shaped wooden cheese board sets”. Rivers are poisoned to manufacture talking fish. This is pathological consumption: a world-consuming epidemic of collective madness, rendered so normal by advertising and by the media that we scarcely notice what has happened to us.

Let’s call the Monbiot version of Christmas ‘Mismas‘. I don’t need to describe it, other than to say it’s austere, hollow, and founded on a myth. Gone is the celebration of life for its own sake. In its place is a reflection only on how bad people are for the planet, and how much better it would be if there were fewer of them.

There was another article this month, which is the antidote to the Mismas myth.

Why 2012 was the best year ever

Never in the history of the world has there been less hunger, less disease and more prosperity

The words belong to The Spectator magazine.

 That sounds like an extravagant claim, but it is borne out by evidence. Never has there been less hunger, less disease or more prosperity. The West remains in the economic doldrums, but most developing countries are charging ahead, and people are being lifted out of poverty at the fastest rate ever recorded. The death toll inflicted by war and natural disasters is also mercifully low. We are living in a golden age.

On his own blog, the version of the story Monbiot publishes there carries the title ‘The Gift of Death‘. But the Spectator would seem to read the world’s vital statistics differently. And indeed, they are much more convincing.

To listen to politicians is to be given the opposite impression — of a dangerous, cruel world where things are bad and getting worse. This, in a way, is the politicians’ job: to highlight problems and to try their best to offer solutions. But the great advances of mankind come about not from statesmen, but from ordinary people. Governments across the world appear stuck in what Michael Lind, on page 30,describes as an era of ‘turboparalysis’ — all motion, no progress. But outside government, progress has been nothing short of spectacular.

Take global poverty. In 1990, the UN announced Millennium Development Goals, the first of which was to halve the number of people in extreme poverty by 2015. It emerged this year that the target was met in 2008. Yet the achievement did not merit an official announcement, presumably because it was not achieved by any government scheme but by the pace of global capitalism. Buying cheap plastic toys made in China really is helping to make poverty history. And global inequality? This, too, is lower now than any point in modern times. Globalisation means the world’s not just getting richer, but fairer too.

To the ears of Monbiot and his ilk, this optimism no doubt sounds like an argument that we live in some kind of cornucopian fantasy. But this speaks most loudly about Monbiot’s inability to listen. He can only hear an argument in defence of abundance as an argument for environmental destruction and death based on some mathematically impossible concept of ‘infinite growth’, no matter that the claim he makes finds little substance in reality. On Monbiot’s view, your desire to give your kids Christmas presents with no obvious use-value next Tuesday, is directly responsible for the murder of a child in eastern Congo — you put joy on your child’s face with bloody hands.

Such is the way environmentalism toxifies relationships between people. It replaces the Christmas spirit of celebration and generosity with guilt and disgust. The complexities of war are reduced to simple moral stories of a zero-sum-game in which your child’s win is another’s death. Your frivolities are another person’s tragedies.

But that simply isn’t the world we live in, either. And nobody is arguing that the world as it stands is a cornucopia and without problems — some of them environmental. As the Spectator points out:

Nature can still wreak havoc. The storms which lashed America’s East Coast in October proved that. But the speed of New York City’s recovery shows a no-less-spectacular resilience. Man cannot control the weather, but as countries grow richer, they can better guard against devastation. The average windstorm kills about 2,000 in Bangladesh but fewer than 20 in America. It’s not that America’s storms are mild; but that it has the money to cope. As developing countries become richer, we can expect the death toll from natural disasters to diminish — and the same UN extrapolations that predict such threatening sea-level rises for Bangladesh also say that, in two or three generations’ time, it will be as rich as Britain.

And the picture is similar throughout the world

The average life expectancy in Africa reached 55 this year. Ten years ago, it was 50. The number of people dying from Aids has been in decline for the last eight years. Deaths from malaria have fallen by a fifth in half a decade.

That’s no comfort for the people who do live in war or poverty, of course. But it defeats Monbiot’s claim to speak for such people. Environmentalism offers them nothing. Nothing at all. Environmentalism will not end or prevent a single war. It will not stop a single instance of someone’s poverty. But it may well provoke or deepen such problems. And this forces the question about about the ‘utility’ of Christmas to be asked again. Even the most vapid celebration of Christmas that it is possible to conceive of, stripped of all its meaning by the excesses of consumer society, is preferable to Monbiot’s joyless Mismas.

Happy Christmas, if it’s what you celebrate. And a Happy New Year.