Dreaming of a green Christmas

IN JONATHAN Franzen's novel, The Corrections, there is a scene where an old man gets down the family Christmas lights only to find that they are broken. He knows he can fix them, although it will be a challenge as tree lights are more complex than they once were. He also knows that what he really should do is chuck them in the bin and go to the nearest Walmart where he can replace them for the price of a packet of fishfingers. However, in a small act of defiance against the throwaway society, he devotes the rest of the day to repairing the cheap decorations.

If you were to examine Earth through a telescope you might see spinning around our blue planet any number of bits of jettisoned junk - old satellites, bits of shuttles, tools dropped by astronauts. Even space cludgies and their contents.

A friend once commented that it was the best reason she had ever heard for sending more women into space - to clear up the mess the men had left. But, joking aside, it is a sign that we live, more than ever, in a throwaway world.

This is more obvious than usual at this time of yearwhen we are all under pressure to buy and consume even as we get rid of last year’s presents to make room for yet more possessions.

I read that, one year, Nigella Lawson, seeing her children were overwhelmed with the presents they had been given, repackaged all but a few on Christmas morning and sent them to Great Ormond Street children’s hospital.

Children who are bombarded with gifts over time grow demanding. Perhaps more of us should downsize Christmas.

And yet, this orgy of consumption is dictated by the logic of the system of economic organisation under which we live – late capitalism. If we don’t shop like we can’t stop, the economy will suffer.

For profits to grow, year on year, as the market says they must, people must make and do more and more things which others must consume.

Capitalism has brought enormous progress, but it also creates destructive pressures on the planet. The holy grail of “sustainable development”may be an oxymoron.

This is illustrated by two problems facing Scotland. One is fishing. It seems clear that many of Scotland’s political parties are attempting to reap short-term electoral advantage by telling coastal communities what they want to hear. However, nothing is more certain to kill Scotland’s fishing villages stone dead than more over-fishing.

Over time, industrial fishing methods have become more and more sophisticated and fishermen have been virtually sucking the sea dry of animals. The argument that the economic health of the fishing communities is the most important consideration has trumped scientific advice and EU governments have allowed over-fishing for 20 years. The Scottish Green Party may be right when it says that the argument on fishing should shift
to how Scotland can be allowed to draw down some of the EU money that is available and how it should be used to shelter fishing communities from the effects of restrictions, a demand the UK Treasury opposes for fear it could affect the UK rebate from Brussels.

But it is clearly difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile the twin imperatives of increasing profits and respecting the environment.

If the fleets had always fished using only traditional methods, there would be no problem.

Another difficulty caused by development is climate change.

Going back to the view of Earth from space, as with many kinds of waste, it is the stuff you can’t see that does the most damage, and the invisible CO2 seeping into the precious atmosphere is an unintended byproduct of massive industrial development, car and air travel across the globe.

How can that huge problem be dealt with? It is not easy for politicians to take hard decisions that would limit emissions but also potentially damage the economy. So they have taken only small steps towards reductions.

So it was no surprise last week to see that the UK government has had to reduce its targets on CO2 emission – although it has done rather better than Scotland. Scotland has managed only one-third of the UK figure for reduction in emissions – a paltry 5.6per cent between 1990 and 2003. LibDem leader Charles Kennedy lost no time in attacking Tony Blair over the UK figure, although, ironically, the Scottish Executive’s environment minister, Ross Finnie, who has overseen a much poorer effort, is a member of his own party.

But, when the politicians fail, as they are doing, by and large, nationally and internationally to tackle this problem effectively, what can be done?

It needs to be more generally understood that the free market is a device of human invention, a means to an end, not a totem. The same cannot be said of the planet. Paradigms and mindsets shift when many, many people start to think differently. Change tends to start small, and although recycling bottles, walking the kids to school or buying an organic vegetable boxmay seem useless given the scale of the problem, they are the
beginning of anotherway of life.

Recycle your bottles this Christmas – you could help to save the world.

The Scottish Herald
December 15th 2004