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.

16 Responses to Miserable Mismas

  • Well said, indeed very well said. Enjoy your Christmas and ignore such tossers. Perhaps they’ll grow up one day.

  • Merry Christmas and thank you!

  • It’s this anxiety about what other people do, and the desire to control it which is at the core of environmentalism.

    The word environmentalism in the above statement could be replaced with any authoritarian ideology. Indeed, “environmentalism” is merely a tool used by authoritarian leftists to justify a regimen of statist actions.

  • Thanks. That’s cheered me up. I used to be like George. I can remember being shocked as a teenager to read that the poor inhabitants of Mexico City spent 10% of their miserable income on images of the Virgin Mary. “How illogical!” I thought. “Why can’t we have a sensible egalitarian world government that will make them see reason?”
    Alas, we haven’t, but we’ve got mobile phones, and even (bliss!) cordless drills, and so have the Mexicans.
    (I hope the poor designers of religious images haven’t gone completely out of business though)

  • Here’s what I’m grateful for: Imagine having to be around the Christmas dinner table with Monbiot after he’s had a couple glasses of brandy?!

  • I bet George does a slapup do though. Here he is in Heat (p190) ranting at Nigella Lawson:

    “Lawson’s requirement for asparagus in October plainly takes precedence over other people’s requirement for survival. But she also betrays a limited imagination. Rocket, lamb’s lettuce, purslane, winter cos, land cress, kale, leeks, chicory, pak choi, cho sum, mizuna, komatsuna, mooli, winter savory, coriander, parsley, chervil, spring onions, spinach, sorrel and chard will grow through the winter in the United Kingdom.”

    Yummy! Another helping of purslane pie, please, and don’t spare the sorrel sauce. Oh look, there’s a sprig of lamb’s lettuce in my cracker! Lucky me!

  • Monbiot@ ““Lawson’s requirement for asparagus in October plainly takes precedence over other people’s requirement for survival.”

    What remarkable moral blackmail! How can anyone have taken it seriously? It would be hard to parody, since it leaves absolutely no room for exaggeration.

  • Ben:
    “It would be hard to parody, since it leaves absolutely no room for exaggeration.”
    I know! I’m doing my best…
    http://geoffchambers.wordpress.com/2012/09/26/apocalypse-close-an-amusement-chapter-one/

  • Lawson’s requirement for asparagus in October plainly takes precedence over other people’s requirement for survival.

    Except the requirement of all the Peruvian and Chinese peasants who grow the stuff to earn a living. Europe stops eating asparagus all year and they starve (possibly literally). I used to buy snow peas when I lived in Europe precisely because it helped the Kenyans, rather than spoiled European farmers propped up on subsidies.

    Asparagus all year round is no different from drinking tea and coffee at all. George, apparently, only notices it because it’s new. Is he suggesting that we all move to nettle tea? Really?

    Nothing would improve the lot of the Third World as fast as the First World giving up its agricultural protectionism and buying what was cheapest. The environmentalists, again, play into the hands of the chauvinists.

  • Poor old George! To quote some lines about another famous green character:

    The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season!
    Now, please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason.
    It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right.
    It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.
    But I think that the most likely reason of all
    May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.

    Let’s hope that one day, GM – like his fictional counterpart – has a change of heart!

    Merry Christmas, one and all.

  • I wonder whether the ideal gift for an educationally challenged Monbiot at Christmas might be a copy of Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific? The kula ring was a traditional gifting system the purpose of which was simply status in a primitive society. No utility there. But I suppose the dismal conclusion Monbiot would draw is that we should recycle our Christmas gifts annually too. Yet the comparison with primitive societies simply shows that such gifting has never been about utility; it is everywhere about the maintenance and creation of relationships. Sadly environmentalists disparage people and their relationships too. Their sad world view guarantees them declining influence among mainstream people. And the more Monbiot has to say, the less notice will be taken.

  • Monbiot’s praise of winter greens reminds me of another Green who seems to have a love-hate relationship with greens. Here’s Katie Mitchell of the Royal Court describing her passion for her co-author Stephen Emmott. You can read the whole interview at
    https://sites.google.com/site/mytranscriptbox/home/20120722_km
    “I really love this scientist, and I love the engagement with his mind and his way of looking at the world. Every single thing that you do with him, whether you eat or you travel on a train, he just looks at the world in a completely different way. So if you have a salad with him, he tells you about all of the processes by which the fucking lettuce got onto your plate. So it’s – you can see now I’m a bit, you know, low. It’s because I did about six hours travelling with him yesterday. So I had to look at the world from his devastatingly depressing point of view. And it has got to me, I have to say now. Sunday morning…”

  • http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00f4f37

    Puritanical Religious Zealots or Sanctimonious Environmentalists

    Check this clip out.

  • Here is moonbat’s latest statement of misery:

    “Annus Horribilis

    2012 was the worst year for the environment in living memory…”

    http://www.monbiot.com/2012/12/31/annus-horribilis/

    I think he needs to change that smiley photo.

  • Monbiot’s end of year rant is also at
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/31/year-abandon-natural-world
    together with the 400+ comments from his fans, many of whom take George to task for being too optimistic.
    It’s mostly about climate change, of course, plus biodiversity, and what he calls “a rubbing away of ecosystems and natural structures by the intensification of farming, fishing, mining and other industries” (Oh, no! Not more food! More stuff!).
    In the middle of it all, George says: “Our leaders now treat climate change as a guilty secret.”
    which, curiously, is just the way the Guardian treats George’s article, since it doesn’t appear on the Environment page or the Climate Change page.
    It’s almost as if George, or the Guardian, didn’t want it to be read by a certain kind of person.

  • Although I am a newcomer to this blog and, as a consequence, I am commenting on an old post, so I presume that hardly anyone will read my musings, I will comment anyway.

    The majority of my presents were books. I had some gift vouchers which I spent on CDs and books. My inlaws gave me money, most of which will be spent on books, and keeping my 1996 Triumph Daytona on the road. I also received jeans, socks and tee shirts which I will wear until they fall to pieces. We do buy silly novelty singing animals after Chrismas, because they are very cheap. They are not thrown away though, they are put away in the loft and then brought out every year.

    Monbiot, your rants are based on an alternate reality which is very dark. Take a look at the real world, it is far from perfect, but it is nowhere near as nasty as you would like it to be.

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