Thursday, November 19, 2009

Earth-Friendly Christmas Presents

I had a conversation with a student today that got me thinking:

Student: Why should my taxes go to help others? Communism doesn't work!

Me: But socialism does - really well. Helping the weakest in society improves society as a whole, decreases health costs, crime, and so on. I actually think communism could work if we could make sure the governing parties' actions were entirely transparent and if there were many checks in place to keep corruption to a minimum.

Student: (jovially) Commie!

Me: I just laughed in real life. But I realized a better response would be to explain how close Jesus's views were to communism. I mean that in the best possible way. It's kind to give to those in need, our last two cents even, without getting anything in return....

And it reminded me about the new movie: What Would Jesus Buy?: The Shopocalypse. (Nice use of "Disney font".) The film doesn't appeal to me, but I like the question. Because even if you're like me and don't believe Jesus is the son of God, he still had some pretty good ideas. And I don't think he'd visit the marketplace over the holidays. He doesn't prove his love with perfumes and new sandals for his disciples. He acts lovingly all year long as he lunches with prostitutes and tax collectors. And that's enough.

And that's worth so much more than another scarf, or an original oil painting, or a one-of-a-kind hat, or a tree ornament, or even some sharp new earrings. If you're not convinced, a new book, Scroogenomics, makes an excellent case for stopping the madness immediately.

Jesus advises us to serve one another, to wash people's feet for them. For Christmas, we can give gift cards for skills you can offer to one another that can be collected when needed. It's free, and a better use of our time than shopping. In the new year, I'm thinking of making a "Skills for Trade" board where people can post what skills they have to offer - with a solid reference or two, and what skills they're looking for. I'll have to think more on that one.

But beyond the WWJB theory, that first question my student asked has enormous environmental implications. Why should we do anything that doesn't directly and obviously benefit us? Why turn down the thermostat? Why drive the car less? Why put litter in the garbage can instead of on the street?

Sometimes I think that if we can't circumvent this question and steer people into acting for the benefit of all, then we'll never get anywhere without massive governmental legislation forcing us to be more thoughtful (e.g. fines for not car-pooling). Because, as my student further explained, if we act for the benefit of others, the people acting selfishly will get ahead in life. All we'll have is a nice warm feeling that we've done the right thing possibly tainted by a little voice in the back of our brains telling us we're chumps.

We need people to care about the welfare of the whole over the benefits to the individual. And I sometimes think these divergent foci are somewhat inborn, that they can't be taught. Well, not by me at any rate. I'm still struggling to get my family to turn off the lights. And my partner argues with me when I insist on turning off power bars because "electricity's so cheap." But maybe it just takes more time and persistence to sway the masses.

In The Geography of Hope, Chris Turner, fellow Canadian, explains that the environmental movement isn't working because it's being run like a religion. People are made to feel guilty if they don't join the congregation, and guilt sends most of us in the opposite direction to escapist pursuits. As a movement, environmentalism isn't at all appealing. It pretty much sucks. Live a life of bodily denial or watch world-civilization collapse. Remind you of church yet?

According to Turner, we're never going to shift this attitude, instead we have to use business tactics to sell environmentalism, and make being green the cool thing to do. We need to use the tools of corporate marketing campaigns: make information simple, manageable, and sexy. I agree, yet wouldn't it be nice to live in a world of people who can see the big picture and focus on the sustainability of the entire system instead of the gains of the individual? It'd be handy if it happened before catastrophes start to bring us all on board.

The Eco-Challenge starting next week will be to buy nothing! Next Friday is Black Friday or Buy Nothing Day. We're extending it for the entire week as a challenge, and encouraging it to continue until Christmas.

In the month of December we're going to set up a booth where students can buy charitable donations for friends. There's money changing hands, but no stuff. Many students don't have a Visa card, so can't donate to charities themselves. This way, we'll donate all the money in a lump sum at the end of the drive.

And, for people who can't get past the need to give a thing for Christmas, we're also going to extend the FreeStore to include "present-able" gifts - unopened or unused items that have been at the back of the closet since your birthday or last Christmas. Bring them in, and take someone else's old presents for a loved one. It's not really re-gifting when it goes through a third party! That's the idea anyway. Hopefully people can add to it (and subtract from it) at the premiere of No Impact Man we're hosting on December 16th.

And of course we'll be showing "Story of Stuff" at lunch all next week. It's becoming a Christmas classic for me!

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