Environmental costs of the holiday season

Environmental costs of the holiday season

Photo Credits: KATHERINE FRANKS / AGGIE

Following “green holiday tips” won’t save the planet

In the 2018 movie “Leave No Trace,” an Iraq War veteran with PTSD lives with his daughter in the sprawling wilderness of the massive Forest Park in Portland, Ore. They live in isolation in the dense and murky forest, but as skilled survivalists, they live in balance with nature. And they’re happy.

But after being discovered by social services and arrested for illegally camping on public property, the two are relocated to live in and work on one of Oregon’s many industrial-scale Christmas tree farms. Raising and razing trees by the thousands so people can have something tall and green to stare at for a few weeks from the comfort of their living rooms does not sit well with the dad. The audience comes to realize how his pure and harmonious relationship with the natural world — the Pacific Northwest’s wondrous evergreen trees that previously gave him shelter — has now been tainted and compromised just for the sake of our Christmas tree tradition. Why do any of the trees have to be cut down? Why can’t we just keep planting them?

The enormous level of energy and effort that goes into planting and chopping down Christmas trees has always disgusted me on a gut level, as does the culture of mass consumption and waste that defines our holiday season. It’s definitely not news that our seemingly wholesome, family-centered traditions of begging for candy, trying to murder our crazy conservative uncle by over-stuffing him with food and buying hundreds of dollars worth of gifts to honor the hippy who died for our sins are not good for the environment.

This column could very well have been another so-called “think piece” that scolds Americans for doing things that are wasteful and not environmentally friendly. But as the Huffington Post recently learned before Thanksgiving, telling Americans that traveling millions of miles and eating millions of turkeys is increasing their carbon footprint will not do much beyond stirring the simmering stew of outrage over at Fox News, eventually prompting President Donald Trump to cite some supposed war that liberals are waging on Thanksgiving. 

First of all, Trump never exactly “cites” anything. Second, there is no “war on Thanksgiving.” And third, if there was, it certainly would not be about trying to “rename” the holiday as Trump claimed — it would be about the holiday’s environmental impact (same for the “war on Christmas”).

I could easily go on and on about holiday environmental consequences: the carbon cost of Christmas; how much higher greenhouse gas emissions are during the holiday season; how much uneaten food, wrapping paper, packaging and candy wrappers are thrown out; how much plastic is in Halloween costumes and decorations; how much energy and money is wasted on holiday lights; how many Christmas trees are killed. But my goal is not to scold Americans for participating in these traditions, no matter how wasteful and environmentally destructive they are.

I simply want people to outgrow the simplistic idea that everything about their holidays and traditions is good simply because they believe that the tradition itself is good or wholesome. And more importantly, I want people to get past the idea that people earn immunity from blame for that destruction just because they followed a few “green holiday tips.” This time of year, the internet and social media become densely populated with clickbait-y listicles that claim to give you all the answers for saving the planet — that is, if you can read whatever text is squeezed in between all the advertising banners. 

Of course, following those tips is better than not, but in reality, it’s just a drop in the bucket. These tips are often oversimplified and make people feel artificially good about themselves for doing the bare minimum, like buying a reusable plastic Christmas tree. 

As I explained before, it’s not hard to look at these colossal Christmas tree farms in the same way we see those enormous, cramped and inhumane poultry houses. “Close all these awful farms and I’ll be a vegetarian forever,” one might think.

But it’s a lot more complicated when it comes to the trees because plastic trees have their own environmental costs. And despite the ethical misgivings that people may have with the idea of tree farms, the trees on the farm actually provide valuable habitats and ecosystem services while they remain rooted in the ground for their short lives. In other words, we are at an ironic juncture where Christmas trees are so ingrained in our culture that the best way to mitigate the damages of our ecologically destructive tradition might be to continue our ecologically destructive tradition and milk any of the short term benefits that we can. 

Long story short, you won’t actually make a difference until the question you ask yourself (and that society as a whole asks itself) is not “How can I participate in these harmful traditions in the greenest way possible,” but rather, “Does preserving the values of these traditions really necessitate so many wasteful charades?” 

But the abundance of these convenient, lickety-split “solutions” to all of our environmental sins just goes to show that even the most environmentally conscious people will jump through hoops to feel good about themselves despite their only marginally less destructive behavior. They have convinced themselves that all the waste that’s become synonymous with these traditions is justified because they’re part of a tradition. Perhaps we should instead prioritize the “tradition” of being able to sustain a large population on the only planet in our solar system with water and breathable air.

American liberals and conservatives often seem to be more preoccupied with simply going through the “right” motions to demonstrate that they have the “right” values rather than pausing to consider whether their behavior actually reflects those values. As a result, I regretfully say that it’s doubtful our culture will allow us the collective self-awareness and mental bandwidth necessary to see how detached our contrived and overly-elaborate holiday celebrations are with the values these holidays are supposed to honor.

Written by: Benjamin Porter— bbporter@ucdavis.edu 

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