Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The Stuff of Christmas

In the 1936 film, "Things to Come", based on the H.G. Wells novel "The Shape of Things to Come", an elderly man watches his grandchildren excitedly opening their Christmas presents and reflects a little sadly on how complex their playthings have become, pondering "I wonder sometimes if all these new toys aren't a bit much."

It is perhaps a little passe to lament that "Christmas has lost its meaning" as some are wont to do every Christmas, because the Christmas we know - of yule trees and Santa Claus and presents - is a relatively new phenomenon, driven almost entirely by commercial considerations. The Victorians were first, using it to showcase the gains of Empire when the emergent middle classes sought to keep up with their neighbours in a social arms race. As developing technology permits ever greater mass production, this trend has continued ever since. Even Santa himself, based on a 4th century Bishop who lived as a pauper and gave all his wealth to the poor, has been appropriated, his red and white uniform consolidated (though not, as myth claims, actually invented) by the Coca Cola multinational for their mass marketing in the inter-war years.

Santa Cola
Until we reach this sad pass: perhaps the first time some approving parents have posted on Youtube the reaction of disgust of a toddler when his present of a book is not sophisticated enough to match his expectations: "Books for Christmas...what the heck is that?" What would 1936's grandpa make of it?

Of course, Christmas is simply an extreme manifestation of the commercial society we live in, of the mantra that says our value is not within ourselves or our actions, but rather contained in the financial cost of our possessions. An advert currently running  shows a woman and her partner admiring their new cooker and units in their amazingly over sized kitchen, worryingly more than a little excited by their acquisition. "That will get the neighbours talking!" the voiceover proclaims smugly as a (woman) visitor appears in the doorway, similarly keen to see the shiny new cookery. "Look!" the voiceover continues, "they're here already!"

Perhaps they needed "a new kitchen", but the message is nothing to do with real need. It is about status. And, driven on by the gurus of marketing, this is what sets the pace of our society and our lives, regardless of how miserable deep down it makes us feel. The message is simple: you do not yet have enough; once you have some more, a bigger car, a wider TV, a larger house, a shinier bathroom, then, you will be happy. 

Except of course you won't. Because in a world where products are made with a deliberately inbuilt obsolescence, sooner or later you will have to replace what you have got. That's of course if you haven't already replaced it because your next door neighbour has a more expensive one. With satisfaction forever elusive, endless gratification is all that remains.


All this comes at a price to the environment as we gobble up more and more resources as foretold in Hardin's 1968 masterpiece, "Tragedy of the Commons". With emergent economies such as Brazil, India and China creating between them billions of more consumers keen to clamber up the same frenetic ladder of acquisition and consumption as the West has already ascended, there is no sign of a let up. Chillingly, if they reach the same level as the western economies, we will need four more planet Earths to sustain the unsustainable.

Just take the pills
But personally, it is not desirable either. There is a plethora of evidence that beyond a level of reasonable sufficiency (one UK survey suggests an annual income of around £30,000/$46,000, a US one £48,000/£$75,000), happiness does not increase with income - indeed, there is some indication of an actual decline. Except of course, the message of the market society is that you can buy more happiness, if you just work a little harder, longer, earn that bit extra...keep going...satisfaction is just around the corner. And if you fail, if you fall into unpayable debt or fall off the greasy pole, then it is your failure, your inability to work hard or smart enough. Your are fated not to be a Master of the Universe, as some international traders style themselves. Should you get depressed about that, of course, there's money in that for someone else too.

In a survey of British and American employees on what motivates them most, managers identified pay, benefits and promotion but by contrast, the staff identified security, fairness and control of their own work. However, society works on the basis of the first group of perceptions - capitalism sets us all up, ultimately, in competition with each other over resources and rewards - within our organisations, between them, between countries and cultures.

Social simians
Yet humans are striking not on account of our competitiveness; rather we are marked by our co-operative spirit, our community and our shared humanity. It is not without good reason that when we talk of the humane, we mean the compassionate, the caring, the empathic, the sharing. These qualities are at the heart of our development and progress on this planet - they were core to our origins as evidenced by the social nature of the apes that are our closest relatives. And these traits, too, have been central to the rise of societies of people, interacting and working with each other, caring for one another infinitely more frequently than being in conflict.

This is the true, eternal Human Spirit. The economic system we exist under, by contrast, is alien to our innate Nature and the root of much of our unhappiness and struggle with ourselves and with others. For nearly all of our existence, we have worked to different aims and values than profit maximisation and individual self-interest. Not all of these were laudable, but many were predicated on community and shared resources, and a common fate.

There is much wrong in our world. But our hopes, and the hopes for the many species whose survival now depends on what we choose to do, lie with our own intrinsic instincts of mutuality and selfless sustainability. For aeons, humans lived with our planet, nurturing its resources for future generations and for times they would not personally live to see. If, perhaps at Christmas, or New Year, or whatever moment of transition is important to each of us, we reflect on what has been, we can still, even now, make a new beginning for us all.

"It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” (Neil Armstrong)

1 comment:

  1. Take a look at Elinor Ostrom's amazing work on human cooperation and the commons.

    The real tragedy is the continuing abolition of the well managed commons in places like the Peruvian Amazon.