When I think of Christmas, I see the stuff under trees: toys and books and computers, DVD players and colorful paper.
I don't mean the Christmas tree. During the holidays in my neighborhood in New York, I often see this stuff left under the spindly, anemic black trees that line sidewalks, waiting to be carted away to the landfill, or wherever else it goes (more on that later). It's estimated that Americans generate about 5 million more tons of waste than usual between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day.
Now, I don't want to sound like the green Grinch, raising sobering concerns about consumption in the middle of the holiday cheer, the cavorting under the mistletoe, or the egg nog-soaked sweater fashion shows around the new flat-screen TV, where everyone's watching "It's a Wonderful Life."
For a while it was a wonderful life, and if anyone needed proof, our Blackberries and laptops and gas-guzzling cars provided some of it.
Now that one era of excess is over, concerns about waste may seem moot. We're already cutting back our spending, and if anything, economists argue we should be worried about too little consumption, not too much. Now, the angel Clarence might say, every time a Wall Street opening bell rings, a kid gets less things.
Some of us are staring at that reality (and the contents of our wallets) with a kind of dumbfoundedness. Others with more fluid cash flows may find ways to keep buying presents as usual, almost as if it were Christmas 2005. A recent Bloomberg article reported on ultra-rich buyers like an American interior decorator who called off her 10th anniversary party because it "didn't feel right to send out invitations" and yet still managed to buy "some 2,000 euro dresses from Lanvin and Balmain for year-end festivities, 600 euro shoes from Jimmy Choo and a 5,500 euro brown Birkin."
But for those of us still living on earth, the downturn is nothing if not a good learning opportunity. It's a moment to consider not just how Wall Street's excess speculation drove us into the hole, but also how our own unfettered consumption has been burying us and the rest of the world in another kind of debt.
It's also an opportunity to think about what does make life so wonderful.
I've been thinking about these issues a lot since I moved to China. On the streets of Beijing, where I live, it's hard to find the garbage piles that populate the streets of New York around Christmas time. It helps that China doesn't celebrate Christmas -- not yet. But even if it did, China's culture of thrift breathes new life into old or broken objects before they reach the garbage pile; when they finally do, the city's informal army of scrap collectors dutifully picks out what can still be recycled. For a while, when I took the garbage out, I was often intercepted by a neighbor, Mr. Li, who would thank me profusely before pouring my bags onto the pavement and picking through them. Now, I leave the trash out for him.
Western countries have a similar if unspoken arrangement with China. In scrap towns down south, the country that makes most of our electronic stuff also recycles it: from DVD players to monitors to iPods, much of our holiday junk will end up being mined for their precious metals through a kind of alchemy with toxic results. Recently researchers announced that in the town of Guiyu, China's biggest e-waste purgatory, pregnancies are 6 times more likely than normal to result in miscarriage, and 7 out of 10 children have too much lead in their blood. The story -- repeated in towns across southeast Asia and the Ivory Coast -- puts concerns about toxic imported toys (and toxic assets) into perspective.
Yet e-waste recycling is a big business, and it can be a viable way of saving energy and conserving materials. And governments around the world, including the Chinese, are working to improve environmental standards. But in practice, recycling our old fax machines and videogame players is often literally sickening--and fed in part by our buy-and-toss culture, which in turn is abetted by the virtuous feeling that we get from recycling.
Even if we could ensure that recycling were a healthy affair, we still could not ensure that our stuff will actually end up being recycled. Only 19 percent of our plastic is being reused. A day's sail from Los Angeles towards Hawaii partially reveals what happens to the rest of it: there the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a steadily growing flotilla that is said to be larger than the United States, continues to suck in everything from discarded shoes to toothbrushes to plastic bags.
Then there is the other collateral ecological debt fed by our spending sprees. The cloud of pollution that hangs over Asia is like a scarier, airier version of the garbage patch, with a similarly eerie name: the Atmospheric Brown Cloud. It's not relegated to Asia either, but tends to float across the Pacific, across the garbage, to pollute the skies over the United States. The effects of our Middle Eastern oil addiction--fed in part by our use of all-too-disposable plastic--are too obvious and regrettable to need a mention.
The answer is not to stop buying presents. But I think we need to think more carefully about what we're buying. If it breaks, it may be repairable, not just replaceable; if it's old, and still works, it still works. There's nothing wrong with giving the gift of an experience, like a dinner or a trip. And there's nothing impolite about re-gifting presents we don't want or need to someone who does; in fact, we should be proud to do so.
Nor should we be ashamed -- especially at a time of economic turmoil -- to give cash, either as gifts to our loved ones, or in their names to charity. Red envelopes of money are considered lucky presents in China, a country that also happens to have an enviable ability to save.
In many ways, concerns about consumption come down to how we save things, from money to oil to time. If companies could think more these kind of savings -- if they could think creatively about how sustainable and durable their products are (Detroit's cars, for instance, or Apple's iPhones), we'd be better off ecologically and economically.
Similarly, if politicians could get creative with regulations on manufacturing and tax policies, and if we could think better of buying, say, a new video game system when we don't really need one, we won't just be better prepared to cope with an economic downturn. We'd be resisting a downturn in resources, in health, in a precious natural world that no stimulus package or bailout could save.
"It's a Wonderful Life" is a wonderful movie, and an appropriate one for now: it's about a man driven nearly to suicide by financial ruin, before learning that there's more to life than money.
The movie and it's lesson gets tossed around a lot during Christmas. And yet the holidays remain the captive of the "holiday shopping season." For all the good cheer spilling out onto the streets, there's just as much trash spilling out there too.
Perhaps more than any other in recent memory, this recession holiday has given us an unexpected present. It's a reminder about how we're all connected, as countries, economies and as people. And it's an opportunity to consider what the holidays, and the other days, are really about, rather than wasting them on things we don't need.
More on good giving this holiday at Treehugger