Leader comment: Christmas in a consumptive age

Christmas presents can leave people in debt for weeks.
Christmas presents can leave people in debt for weeks.
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Consumption once referred to the potentially fatal wasting disease we now call tuberculosis. In the days before modern science, the disease was named for the way it seemed to consume its victim as their weight dropped dramatically.

Today we live in an age of a different kind of consumption – of material goods. Consumer spending is the lifeblood of our global economic system; the sale of products that range from the incredibly useful to the unbelievably useless is what makes the world go round.

So it is perhaps unsurprising that our main festival of the year, Christmas, is increasingly becoming a secular celebration of consumerism. There are people who will have saved for months to give their children a “good Christmas”; others will find themselves paying off debts for months to come for the same reason. It is almost as if only a bad parent, a bad person, would do anything else.

But occasionally it’s worth remembering that consumerism is not an end in itself. It’s not as if the person with the most stuff at the end of their life somehow “wins”. Products can make life easier, provide entertainment or even save lives, but real life is about something else entirely: our relationships with other people.

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That should include people without the wherewithall to take part in the rituals of a free market economy, particularly given the original message that Christmas was supposed to convey. One does not have to be religious to see the merit in the teachings of Jesus Christ. We need to build a society where there is a place for all.

But social exclusion is not the only adverse side-effect of consumerism. When we eat food, we create a waste product as a consequence. The same is true when we consume other goods and much of that waste is plastic. It is estimated that we have thrown away or dumped 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic since its use took off after World War Two. Much of this waste has ended up in the sea, prompting the United Nations to warn we are “ruining the ecosystem of the ocean” and causing a “planetary crisis”. There is already evidence this human detritus is coming back to haunt us in our seafood. All plastic eventually breaks down to tiny pieces that can pass through the stomach lining of marine life and get into their body tissues – then do the same to us when we eat them.

So, unless we change, consumption could become a serious disease for the planet.

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