Thursday, December 27, 2012

Christmas Time - a season of excess? The engine of consumption.

Christmas has come and gone for another season.

More than we can eat - or afford?
I had a very enjoyable and stress free Xmas. Lovely breakfast with the family arranged by my daughters in one of my daughters new house. I followed this up with ham and buns at a musical friends place  so it was pleasant to listen to the guitars.  Then out to the beach for the evening meal and swim. Couldn't have been better. Even got some great presents - new frying pans and gumboots!

Simple pleasures
But it all makes you wonder. This year lots of people needed help with their budgeting and Christmas meal. And lots of people will have to face up to debts incurred which will be stressful. Ironically this is the season of increased family violence as well.

Humble beginnings
As an aside the Christmas (Christ's Mass) celebrations have an interesting and somewhat confusing history. It is a shame that schools are closed for the summer break because there are a lot of questions for children to research. How did Christmas evolve? How did Father Christmas get involved?  Why is he also called Santa Claus? Who was Saint Nicholas? Why do we have a big feast, give presents and decorate a tree? Where did the idea of a conifer tree come from? When did cards begin to be sent? Why holly, mistletoe and ivy? And what is the origin of  Boxing Day

It would be interesting  for students to learn about the mix of  pagan pre-christian and religious origins involved in Christmas. What questions and views do children have about Christmas?

Chandran Nair
To be honest the issue of Christmas as a season of excess consumption has been brought to my mind through listening to a radio replay of a talk about 'Consumptionomics - Asia's role in Reshaping Capitalism and Saving the Planet'  given by Chandran Nair  at the 2012Auckland Readers and Writers gathering .

Christmas is the peak season for retailers. In the USA a quarter of all spending occurs during the season and Boxing Day has evolved into a shopping day with the greatest turnover of any day.

Chandran Nair's point is that if the Asian countries consumed goods at the rate of the West the results will be catastrophic across the globe as nations scramble for diminishing resources.

He feels that this issue is important as failing Western 'market forces' countries are encouraging Asian countries to consume more to help save the global economy. It will be like Easter Island on a large scale where competing tribes felled all the trees in a competition to roll their huge monument into place.

He believes Asian governments find them selves at a crossroads. They may take up the challenge to consume to the level of Western nations or take the responsibility of leading the world to a more sustainable path. It is message for New Zealand as well who, he thinks, could be a model of a sustainable community.

Do they need the American dream?
For Asians to aim for the 'American Dream'  is neither desirable or even possible. Imagine, he asks,  all the resources that Asia would need to bring their citizens up to the consumption level of the West? Imagine the results if all Asians became middle class consumers  . If the Chinese and Indians used as much energy per capita as Americans use their total power consumption would be 14 times as great as the United States! Take cars. If Asian countries reached Western levels their could be 3 billion cars in the world. Where would the fuel come for all theses vehicles? Similar calculations can be made for everything we take for granted in the West - even Christmas turkeys!

So, he believes, Asian governments need to reject the views of those who urge Asians to consume relentlessly - free markets, faith in technology and hope for the best is not a plan.

He is not arguing that Asians must remain poor , nor is he against economic development, or capitalism , or democracy. He is for 'contstrained consumerism', funnelled in a way that does not deplete the demand for resources that in turn depletes the environment.

 Asian governments must prioritise and provide incentives to use fewer materials. Management of resources needs to be at the centre of all policy making if consumption habits are to be changed. Efficient public transport needs to be in place to replace cars and motorways - a lesson for New Zealand. This move away from today's extreme capitalism could mark the start of a new industrial revolution.

How many cars are too many?

To achieve this will require strong and bold government interventions especially to combat vested interests. Such measures must be supplemented by 'draconian rules' constraining consumption of a range of goods , particularly fossil fuels, fisheries and forest products. It will require massive investments in public infrastructure to give people the transport, water and sanitation, health and education services badly need in Asia. Food, security and safety must be a priority.

Chandran Nair knows this will not be easy particularly for countries influenced by Western economics  who believe prosperity can be achieved through conventional forms of consumption driven economic growth.

Collective welfare and a 'hands on' state is preferable to the destructive current ideology of  less government and a 'free for all' unbridled market economy resulting in few greedy winners and lots of losers.

He concludes , 'if the governments of the region can rise to this challenge, it will be the decision makers in Beijing, Delhi and Jakarta that will determine whether our world has a future - not , as it has been for the last two centuries, the capitals of the West'.

Cutting back on Christmas excess might be a start for us?

Maybe looking after the needs of all people, particularly those living in poverty, would be a return to the true spirit of Christmas?

No comments: