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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Give the Earth a Christmas Present by Giving Nobody a Christmas Present

Yesterday was Black Friday, the traditional first day of the Christmas shopping season. But before we rush to buy Christmas presents for our friends, we should consider: what is the environmental cost of our holiday habits?

One of the world's great environmental problems is overconsumption in developed countries. We in the United States consume at a wasteful and excessive rate that is causing various forms of environmental problems.  Among the problems of overconsumption are the following:
  1. Global warming. Almost every thing that we buy and consume requires energy use which contributes to global warming. It uses up energy to manufacture goods that you see stocked on department store shelves, and it requires energy for the items to be transported from the factory to the store. If you then send a package that travels quite a distance, that will require an additional energy expenditure. Since almost all energy in the United States is currently created by oil, gas, and coal, this energy use ends up contributing greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, which makes global warming worse.
  2. Trash accumulation. Americans generate an average of 4 pounds of trash per person per day. The accumulation of this trash is a horrendous environmental problem. Christmas gifts have a higher-than-average likelihood of being discarded, for the simple reason that so many gifts are just wild guesses about what a person wants. Even if you ask a person what he wants, he will often say, “Oh, I don't need anything.” Then you end up guessing about what the person wants. All too often the person getting the gift will just toss it out, thinking, “How could he have thought I wanted that thing?”
  3. Resource depletion. Resource depletion is a huge environmental problem on the same scale as global warming. We may soon reach peak oil (the point at which the global demand for oil exceeds the supply). Peak coal may occur within a few decades. Forget the old canard that we have hundreds of years of coal. More recent estimates are much gloomier, suggesting that production may plummet after a few decades, with one study suggesting US coal production may have already peaked. These facts are relevant because almost every thing you buy at a department store required the use of fossil fuels for it to be manufactured, and the supply situation for fossil fuels is troublesome. We should save our fossil fuels for things we really need (such as feeding and heating the world), rather than using them for some fancy Christmas gadget such as a waffle maker that someone will use only a few times. There is also the fact that within several decades we are expected to run out of several important metals. We should not be using up metals for gifts that people aren't likely to use much.
  4. Pollution. Besides global warming, there is the fact that the manufacture of goods helps to produce smog. Today a large fraction of the goods bought in the United States come from factories in China. But Chinese cities are facing horrible smog problems, partially because of all these factories. That shopping cart full of gifts may be helping to hurt the lungs of the Chinese.
This year, give the Earth a Christmas present by giving no one a Christmas present. Or, give Christmas presents only to small children. Adults don't need the items typically bought as Christmas presents. Adults need a healthy planet that offers clean skies, moderate temperatures, and ample supplies of energy and metals, rather than a smoggy, trash-filled, depleted planet that is running a fever.

But, you may ask, what can I put under my Christmas tree? There's a simple answer: don't buy one. When the planet needs every tree it can get to soak up our global warming pollution, there is no sense in the custom of cutting down a tree every year to put in your house for a month. This year rather than having a tree cut down so you can have it in your house, you should instead plant a tree. 

 Christmas trees are green, but Christmas usually isn't