Christmas, we’re assured, brings out our best selves. We’re full of goodwill to all men (and women). We get together with family and friends – even those we don’t get on with – eat and drink and give each other presents.
We make an effort for the kiddies. Some of us even get a good feeling out of helping ensure the homeless get a decent feed on the day.
And this magnanimous spirit is owed to The Man Who Invented Christmas, Charles Dickens. (You weren’t thinking of someone else, surely?)
According to a new survey of 1421 people, conducted by the Australia Institute, three-quarters of respondents like buying Christmas gifts.
Almost half – 47 per cent – like having people buy them gifts. And 41 per cent don’t expect to get presents they’ll never use.
Well, isn’t that lovely. Merry Christmas, one and all!
Of course, there’s a darker, less charitable, more Scrooge-like interpretation of what Christmas has become since A Christmas Carol.
Under the influence of more than a century of relentless advertising and commercialisation – including the soft-drink-company-created Santa – its original significance as a religious holy-day has been submerged beneath an orgy of consumerism, materialism and over-indulgence.
We rush from shop to shop, silently cursing those of our rellos who are hard to buy for. We attend party after party, stuffing ourselves with food and drinking more than we should.
All those children who can’t wait to get up early on Christmas morning and tear open their small mountain of presents are being groomed as the next generation of consumerists. Next, try the joys of retail therapy, sonny.
But the survey also reveals a (growing?) minority of respondents who don’t enjoy the indulgence and wastefulness of Christmas.
A fifth of respondents – more males than females – don’t like buying gifts for people at Christmas. Almost a third expect to get gifts they won’t use and 42 per cent – far more males and females – would prefer others not to buy them gifts.
The plain fact is that a hugely disproportionate share of economic activity – particularly consumer spending – occurs in one month of the year, December.
And just think of all the waste – not just the over-catering, but all the clothes and gadgets that sit around in cupboards until they’re thrown out. All the stuff that could be returned to the store, but isn’t.
At least the new practice of regifting helps. Unwanted gifts are passed from hand to hand, rather like an adult game of pass-the-parcel, until someone summons the moral courage to throw them out.
Still, buying things that don’t get used is a good way to create jobs and improve the lives of Australians, no?
Not really. The survey finds only 23 per cent of respondents agree with this sentiment, while 62 per cent disagree.
One change since Scrooge’s day is that those who worry most about waste – at Christmas or any other time – do so not for reasons of miserliness, but because of the avoidable cost to the natural environment.
Rich people like us need to reduce our demands on the environment to make room for the poorer people of the world to lift their material standard of living without our joint efforts wrecking the planet.
This doesn’t require us to accept a significantly lower standard of living, just move to an economy where our energy comes from renewable sources and our use of natural resources – renewable and non-renewable – is much less profligate.
This is the thinking behind the book Curing Affluenza, by the Australia Institute’s chief economist – and instigator of the survey – Dr Richard Denniss.
He says we can stay as materialists (lovers of things) so long as we give up being consumerists (lovers of buying new things). We can love our homes and cars and clothes and household equipment – so long as that love means we look after them, maintain and repair them, and delay replacing them for as long as we reasonably can.
The survey shows we’re most likely to repair cars, bikes and tools and gardening equipment, but least likely to repair clothing, shoes and kitchen appliances, such as blenders, toasters and microwaves.
What would encourage us to get more things repaired? Almost two-thirds of respondents would do more if repairs were covered by a warranty. More than 60 per cent would do more if repairs were cheaper. And 46 per cent if repairs were more convenient – which I take to mean if it was easier to find a repairer.
How about making repair work cheaper by removing the 10 per cent goods and services tax on it? Two-thirds support the idea; only 19 per cent oppose.
Point is, there are straight-forward things the government could do to encourage us to repair more and waste less. Were it to do so, this would help restore older attitudes in favour of repairing rather than replacing.
Trouble is, politicians tend to be followers rather than leaders on such matters. So the first thing we need is a shift in the culture that makes more of us more conscious of the damage our everyday consumption is doing to the environment. That putting out the recycling once a week ain’t enough.
We could start by changing the culture of Christmas.
Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.