Climate Change Frida Berrigan

A Christmas Confession: I’m Taking an Eco-Holiday From It All (and So Are My Kids)

From the global shipment of products to the use of plastic packaging, American consumerism is leaving a carbon footprint.
“Our Modern Dilemma” from Andrew Hart on Flickr

By Frida Berrigan / TomDispatch

Confession time: this year, I don’t want to buy my kids anything for Christmas. Big one, right? Okay, let me soften that just a bit. I have bought a few modest, useful things. But that’s it!  No new games, no new toys, no new clothes (other than socks)… nothing. They already have too much. We have too much. Our nation is drowning in stuff and, in reality, need almost none of it.

There, I’ve said it! It feels good to get that off my chest, even if it makes me sound like a cold-hearted Grinch of a mother. But maybe that’s what it truly takes to be a good environmentalist these days.

On the radio recently, I heard this stumper: the U.S. economy depends on consumers consuming and the earth depends on us not consuming. Which are we going to choose? Once the conundrum of this moment was posed that way, I knew instantly where I stood. With the earth and against consumption! I raised my fist in support, even as I maneuvered my empty seven-person, gas-fed minivan down the highway. I mention that lest you jump to the conclusion that I’m a 100% eco-soul, which, of course, none of us can be in this strange world of ours. (On that, more to come.)

And therein lies the rub! We can always be doing better. I compost and recycle and don’t shower every day. Our thermostat is set at 63 and most of the winter I wear a hat and scarf inside. All this feels conscientious and hardscrabble, but does it change anything? Does what I do matter at all?

To put myself in context, I keep thinking of a 2019 report that found the U.S. military to be “one of the largest climate polluters in history, consuming more liquid fuels and emitting more CO2e [carbon-dioxide equivalent] than most countries.” In fact, the British researchers who did that study discovered that if the United States military were a nation-state it would be the “47th largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the world (just taking into account fuel usage emissions).”

If our military machine is such a major polluter (and TomDispatch readers would have known that back in 2007, thanks to Michael Klare’s reporting), my contributions to a greener tomorrow through low-key body odor might not make the slightest difference. In short, I’m not showering as much and I’m giving myself a hard time for driving my old minivan around, while Brown University’s Cost of Wars Project finds that the U.S. military has been giving the planet a truly hard time. In its Global War on Terror alone, it released 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions between 2001 and 2017, effectively pumping more than twice as many planet-destroying dirty gases into the atmosphere as all the cars in the United States in the same period.

Target Mania

You might reasonably ask: What does this have to do with Christmas, or rather the annual holidays celebrated by Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others who mark the darkest period of the year with festivals of lights, feasts, and gift-giving? I guess this time of year makes me, at least, want to interrogate my inner Grinch. If the military is such a staggering polluter, bigger even than Black Friday deal-hunters and Cyber Monday bargain-shoppers, why am I so worried about overdoing it this holiday season?

Okay, here’s how my thinking goes, more or less: just because damn-the-torpedoes, full-speed-ahead buying as if there were no tomorrow starts at the top with the Pentagon’s way of making war on this planet, doesn’t mean it has to go all the way down to me. I mean, I want there to be a tomorrow and a next day and a day after that. I don’t want my children to be driven from their future homes thanks to climate-change-induced rising waters, already cluttered with micro-plastic, single-use coffee cups and lost flip flops.

American consumption is a problem. The carbon footprint of, and the garbage from, every purchase can be calculated and increasingly will be labeled. As Annaliese Griffin noted recently in a New York Times op-ed:

“Every new purchase puts into motion a global chain of events, usually beginning with extracting oil to make the plastic that is in everything from stretchy jeans to the packaging they come in. Those materials travel from processing plant to factory to container ship, to eventually land on my front porch, and then become mine for a time. Sooner or later, they will most likely end up in a landfill.”

We have to be more than consumers. We are potentially part of the path out of the morass, out of being a nation that says, “I buy, therefore I am,” instead of “I think, therefore I am.” Collectively, we already have so much stuff that decluttering is a multi-million-dollar industry and self-storage a multi-billion-dollar one.

We have eight years to halve carbon emissions before our species irrevocably alters the planet’s climate, according to the latest report from the U.N. Environment Programme. Getting there is going to involve beginning to dismantle the military-industrial complex, banishing more fossil-fuel-driven cars from the roads and planes from the air, and reining in consumerism in a major way. In short, it will take a reordering of how we — and that includes me — do everything.

And yet, even knowing all this, even having sworn all this, I find myself at Target on a Monday three weeks before Christmas. I’m there with a strange shopping list that ping-pongs from bras to celery and milk to kids’ toothpaste to a screwdriver set small enough to open our thermostat. And I have just one hour. “Target will have it all,” I tell myself. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? They have everything on my shopping list, as well as holiday garlands and sugar cookies and swimsuits and cute toilet brushes. (Why do toilet brushes need to be cute?)

It all demands my attention. I grip my shopping list, grit my teeth, and try to stay the course. And then I remember the birthday party the kids are invited to this weekend at a bowling alley. I usually have them make cards and give books as gifts, but I’m not going to be there with them to navigate the gift-giving portion of the afternoon, so I feel compelled to buy a “real” present.

That’s how I end up in the Lego aisle where the shelves are almost empty. I stand there for 20 minutes talking myself in and out of buying one of three choices. Finally, I get all three, telling myself that they’re on sale and we can give the other two away as gifts. And so it goes in this country’s version of consumer heaven (or hell).

In the parking lot afterwards, I feel awful, thinking about the carbon footprint of those Lego sets and their long journeys from factories in Brazil and China. I try to perk myself up by remembering how that Danish company is trying to get rid of its plastic packaging and investing in recyclable materials.

At home, I tuck the Lego sets away and wonder: What will my kids be missing out on if I’m truly able to keep this Christmas low key and experience-focused? I go online to find out and my idle research turns up an astounding array of loud, robotic, expensive plastic objects with strange names. The Purrble is a stuffed animal with an electronic heartbeat that, when you pet it, purrs and “calms down.” It sells for $50 and if that isn’t expensive enough for you, there’s always Moji. For $100, that interactive Labradoodle toy does tricks on command and responds when you pet it like a real dog but won’t chew up your shoes or have an accident on the carpet.

Moji and Purrble are likely to be top sellers in this holiday season, but it looks like most people who want them under the tree have already got them because they’re now scarce indeed. Still, I kept clicking away. The last toy I see in the “hot toys for 2021 list,” however, doesn’t make me purr or do tricks. Instead, it summons up all my bad feelings about people who make and market toys — and gives me a sense of validation for my simple Christmas plans. 

It’s the “5 Surprise Mini Brands Mystery Capsule Real Miniature Brands Collectible Toy.” Say that three times fast. On second thought, don’t. The plastic capsules are wrapped in plastic and contain small plastic objects, each behind its own plastic window. It’s plastic, plastic, plastic all the way to the end of the line. When your children unwrap them on Christmas morning, they’ll find five tiny replicas of brand-name supermarket items like ketchup bottles or peanut-butter jars in each of them. As the ad copy explains about these ads you’ve given your kid: “Create your mini shopping world: Collect them all and tick off your collector’s guide shopping list as you go!”

Oh, for the love of mistletoe, really? Yes!  The Toy Guy, Chris Byrne, claims that it’s a popular toy because “kids love miniature things and they love shopping.” For the privilege of entrenching brand loyalty in your small children and making grocery shopping with your offspring even harder than it already is, you pay $15.00 plus shipping for two of them and the 10 tiny objects they contain.

Sadly enough, I know that my kids would love them. Considering their carbon footprints and the psychology and marketing behind them, I despair.

How to Fly Through the Air on the Highest Trapeze (All on Your Own)

It isn’t all doom and gloom, though. It can’t be. My daughter recently reminded me that kids can play with anything — even garbage — for hours on end if you let them. Madeline, who is seven, was sent home from school for 10 days after close contact with a kid who was Covid positive. I decided to skip the assignments her well-meaning teacher emailed me and hid the tablet she sent home in Madeline’s backpack. I was not going to survive those days if I had to sit next to her, monitor progress on worksheets, and make sure she wasn’t toggling over to YouTube to watch doll-transformation videos.

Without the school schedule and the attendant fights over screens, time passed quickly; we went to Covid-test appointments, took long walks, spent time with my mom working on puzzles and doing watercolors, and engaged in house-cleaning projects room by room. In between all of that, I left her to her own devices: unplugged, unscripted, and unsupervised.

One day, while I was typing at the dining-room table, she found some old foam dolls she had made at a craft fair. I had pulled them out from under the couch with all the dust bunnies and put them in a box to take to the trash.

“No, no, mom!” she exclaimed. “These girls are my favorites. I made them. They’re not trash. I’m playing with them right now.”

“Alright,” I replied.  “Let’s see you do so.”

She spent the next three and a half hours in an elaborate circus landscape of her own creation. She tied strings between lamps and bookshelves, moved chairs around, magic-markered faces and costumes onto the dolls, and then put them through trapeze routines on those strings. As I emailed, while checking off items on my to-do list and adding new ones, she chirped away, putting dialogue, feeling, and action in the mouths of these small pieces of airy plastic. Every once in a while, she’d march through the dining room heading for the kitchen art shelf to get more markers, wire, or paper.

Finally, she invited me into the living room, asked me to find circus music on my phone, and presented me with the show. I stood marveling at the extraordinary mess she’d made and calculating how long it would take to clean up as she flipped, swung, and danced her characters through the air with the greatest of ease on their flying trapeze(s). I clapped, smiled, and went back to my to-do list, suggesting that it might be time to clean up.

“I’m not done, mom!” she insisted. “I have another hour or so of work to do with them.” And as it turned out, she did. I put my own mess away, started dinner, and then helped her sweep up the last of the project just as everyone else was getting home from work and school.

What struck me, of course, was that it cost nothing. Her play was engrossing, dynamic, self-directed, and creative and it didn’t come from across the sea in a shipping container, but from inside her.

Mind you, I’m neither a monster nor a Grinch. There will be presents. The kids will be getting umbrellas for Christmas, as well as new socks and used books from those series that they so adore. They’ll get diaries that lock with tiny keys and new pens in their stockings. They’ll help us make cookies and candies to box up for friends and families as gifts.

We’ll celebrate and connect and share, but it won’t be a branded frenzy of consumption at our house. We don’t need it, not in a world that’s threatening to come down around our ears. 

We have eight years to crawl back from the brink of total climate disaster. And we’ll do what we can and try to enjoy every minute of it.

Frida Berrigan

Frida Berrigan is the author of It Runs In The Family: On Being Raised by Radicals and Growing into Rebellious Motherhood. She is a TomDispatch regular and writes the Little Insurrections column for WagingNonviolence.Org. She has three children and lives in New London, Connecticut, where she is a gardener and community organizer.

12 comments

  1. Thank you Frida, I am a tremendous admirer of your father Phil, uncle Dan and your mother Elizabeth even though I never met any of them I consider them my spiritual mentors! As a husband and father of two boys 10 and 12 I totally relate to your descriptions of family life and raising children in our desperate times while trying to instil in them values that care for the planet and reject our culture of consumption. You hit the nail on the head on all fronts how Christmas has become nothing more than a capitalist free for all that empowers the forces of empire. Nevertheless, your resistance and prophetic call to engage in the struggle gives me much hope! Peace and Blessings to you and your family during this sacred season with deep gratitude!

  2. Books and Art Supplies and Clothes they Need.
    Trader Joe’s sells Vegetarian Turkeys.

  3. Your commentary and the reports on this site are direct evidence that you should be running the world and not the present cast of clowns. Everything is upside down. We need to resist, step back and evaluate everything we have done. The feverish pace of daily life serves but to confuse issues and distract everyone from what is real and what is important. Fear mongering from the White House is evidence of the Fourth Reich. The people need to take back all control. Stop following orders.

  4. Overconsumption and overpopulation are the biggest and most important problems on the planet. Unfortunately, these problems started thousands of years ago, and it will take probably just as long to fix them. The author is quite correct that living frugally while still living industrially is not going to fix anything, though living frugally is better than not doing so. What we can realistically do to move things in the right direction is to make incremental changes, like limiting our families to one child and organizing our lives so that we don’t have to drive regularly. Join the Church of Stop Shopping. Work on expanding your consciousness so that you focus less and less on the material world. Etc. We didn’t get into this mess overnight and we’re not getting out of it overnight either, but we can get started moving in the right direction now.

    Overconsumption causes far more than just global warming/climate change, which is actually a symptom, not a cause. From destruction of ecosystems and extirpation or extinction of species, to massive pollution and massive unnatural noise everywhere, overconsumption amounts to war against the Earth. Global warming/climate change IS an existential problem, but obsessing on that while ignoring its cause (industrial living) and other environmental and ecological problems just causes more environmental and ecological destruction and harm.

    There IS way to not obsess on material things, starting with kids. I remember how harmful the whole presents thing was when I was a little kid. It got to the point where when my dad came home from work, my first thought was whether he brought us presents. Once you get kids started on this evil path, it’s very hard to get them off of it. Even if the parents don’t succumb to the consumption model of life, kids will see other kids getting presents and feel neglected or cheated, so this is a very difficult problem unless you remove yourself from society. Instead of the material world, humans should be focused on expanding our consciousness. For kids, that could be a lot of things, starting with playing. Keep in mind that when they become adults, kids do what they SAW their parents doing, not what their parents told them to do or not do. So it’s really important that the parents set an example by only buying what’s needed and focusing on other things than material things.

    And BTW, what is this modern parental psychosis that won’t allow kids to play outdoors on their own, and that everything in their lives has to be on some schedule? I was walking to & from school by myself before I was 5 years old, had a key to our apartment when I was 7, and played outside unsupervised from around that time. And this was in Chicago, not some bedroom suburb. Constantly supervising kids, over-structuring their lives, and disallowing them from being on their own for a while is psychologically harmful to children and is creating a really horrible society where parents who want to just let their kids be kids are considered negligent, and creating kids who grow up to be more like robots than people. When I’ve asked about this, the response is always that times have changed, etc. Well, the fact is that they haven’t. According to FBI crime statistics, stranger kidnappings, which are rare, are at the same level they were at when I was a kid in the 1960s. So what’s the excuse parents?

  5. No, you’re not being a cold-hearted Grinch of a mother. That message comes to you from the friendly, local tape-in-your-head that was placed there by the incessant advertising (propaganda) to be a Good Consumer. It’s not your children who will suffer from your sensible decision not to engage in the hog-fest that we celebrate every winter; the corporations fear that they will suffer.

    I believe that we, the people, need to have a general strike immediately, and part of the general strike would be to stop buying anything but bare necessities. (We would have to make what we mean by “bare necessities” clear: many people might believe that a diamond-studded tennis bracelet is a “bare necessity” to their life.) I appreciated that you defined “socks” as one item that was included in your Christmas presents.

    I tried to start my then-infant daughter’s life out by giving her one present her first Christmas: a handmade Raggedy Ann doll. Too soon, I was swept up into the shopping spree that we are expected to perform as our tribute to the marketing masters. Good for you! Keep it up. Remember that you are teaching your children the right moral values: People and the planet before profits!

  6. Bah, humbug.

    Latest (revised) predictions from bought and paid for bureaucrats at the UN give us only 8 years (just in time for Agenda 2030) to get in line with climate change austerity before the big, bad end of the world gets us all. One must have a religious devotion to (corporate controlled) gods of Science comparable to unblinking belief in fundamentalist forecasts of Judgment Day to swallow this swill.

    Now let us do penance with pittances while the “masters of mankind” (Adam Smith) reset the global economy for the Hunger Games dystopia they have planned for us proles. It no longer serves their purposes to have wasteful consumer markets into which to dump their problems of overproduction and realization of capital. Now collapsing neoliberal rule of Ponzi schemes and debt bondage demands another ‘solution,’ indeed another, more comprehensive ‘final solution,’ whereby wage slavery and masses of labor livestock will be laid waste in the war on/of bioterror, from plagues to floods of biblical proportion, and replaced with digital slavery to such schemes as carbon credit scores determining our access to resources under the watchful eye of Big Brother, overseeing (reduced) population control grids within the internet of things, and bodies as things (be sure to update your booster regimen with the newest nanotech!).

    So confess your sinful humanity before the high altar of Science. And follow the prescribed methods of atonement for your conversion to the New (ab)Normal. Conserve water in stinking sackcloth and ash of unwashed flesh while our masters suck the teats of Mother Earth until she’s dry. Offer your recycled goods to greenwashing bizzness as usual while Industry devours ever more means of existence in its death march of ‘progress’ and ‘sustainability.’ Fast upon Frankenfoods of genetically modified insects and lab-grown mystery meat beneath the tables of the few who feast upon our misery.

    Or spend this holiday season and the new year renouncing these idols of Science and acquire the critical armor to fight the big lies by which the monsters of mankind seek to swallow us.

  7. Bravissima. Anch’io (me too). To curb my consumption of anything but necessities during the holidays is my gift to the biosphere, which I adore both as an intelligent complex adaptive system and as a vital presence in my life.

  8. I think the best presents you could get your kids would be a microscope, a telescope, art and craft supplies, a musical instrument, science, wildlife, and humanities books, science project kits, vegetable and flower seeds, and a 20 or 50 gallon preformed pond with a few pond plants (and NO pumps, filters, or heaters needed). The birds, frogs, and dragonflies will come. You could get a lot of these things used. Nothing wrong with that.

  9. Every saint is a sinner. Israel is not an apartheid country. On this, some education goes a long way toward understanding the issues. Israel, the sole Jewish nation, is a tiny country, roughly the size of New Jersey. It’s some 1% of the Mideast region, with the remaining 99% consisting of the Arab countries. Every Arab within Israel lives within easy traveling distance of an Arab border, and is free to stay or leave. For examples of the real apartheid nations, look to the Arab countries that have killed or driven out their Jewish populations., One can be as much of an anti-Jewish racist as he wants., but let’s stick with the facts.

    1. @D.H.Fabian
      Israel certainly IS an apartheid state. “Apartheid” is institutional racial segregation, which is exactly what Israel does to Palestinians.

      Your Israel apologist comments about the size of Israel are irrelevant. Israel has a military that is so powerful that it could probably defeat every Arab country in the region at the same time, not to mention that it also has nuclear weapons, which no Arab country has.

      If this were just Arabs v. Jews with NO OUTSIDE INTERFERENCE, I’d say let them go at it if they’re too stupid and/or foolish to stop fighting (a fight that started because a couple of brothers couldn’t get along thousands of years ago). I’m Jewish and have close Arab friends, and I find this fighting and hatred to be absolutely ridiculous. But this has always been a geopolitical situation, starting with western colonialism in that part of the world during the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Regardless of the lies and pretexts, the modern state of Israel was created in order to give the west a client state in the Middle East so that the west would have some control of the oil there. I have no doubt that some of the people involved in creating Israel had other motives and reasons also, but as the saying goes, if the main export of the Middle East were olives instead of oil, the state of Israel would not exist.

      The pretext for the creation of the state of Israel was to give European Jews a homeland because of what the Nazis did to them. What SHOULD have been done was to give European Jews a piece of Germany, because that’s who caused the problem. The Palestinians are in no way responsible for the Holocaust or any other Nazi harms. The theft of Palestinian land was absolutely inexcusable, but hey, when oil is involved, anything is excused, including mass murder and destruction of the planet and every species living here. Additionally, none of this excuses antisemitism in Arab countries or anywhere else. But as your mother should have taught you, other people’s transgressions are no excuse for yours.

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