by Christie Klimas
I enjoy the holiday season. Giving is a key component of this season, yet it seems that we’ve gone to an economic extreme (or perhaps I’ve just reached my personal tipping point). Commercials about using layaway to buy holiday gifts, pictures of presents piled high under trees and rushes for “hot” holiday items abound. While some start buying earlier, the “Black Friday” after Thanksgiving represents the time where balance sheets go from red to black for retailers. This consumptive surge has recently coincided with violence. Albeit still a statistical rarity, this year’s season marked a shopper spraying others with pepper spray to gain access to great deals in what is being described as “competitive shopping.”[i] The day after Christmas, there was a “ruckus” at the Mall of America.[ii] Discontent the day after a holiday season focused on gaining what we desire?
What is interesting is that what I most value often has no economic value. Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff states that “even the leading capitalist economies have failed to price public goods such as clean air and water effectively.” So, when I go to purchase a new gadget, say one of the new Apple products that create such consumer anticipation, it is difficult to judge the effect of my purchase on the environment that I so highly value. Was my new project made with rare earths mined in China where environmental regulations are lax?[iii] Since approximately 95% of rare earths come from China, the chances are good. Even if I want to move toward a more sustainable lifestyle and buy a plug-in hybrid car, I may still support environmentally destructive mining of rare earths in China; many green technologies also require rare earths.
As an aside, rare earths can be harvested with fewer environmental impacts. Indeed, the U.S. observes strict environmental policies on mining and other activities. These practices, however, lead to higher costs for rare earths. So by not incorporating the environmental impacts of mining in China into the cost of rare earth production, China has a competitive advantage in their market price of rare earths.
So, does our “stuff” make us happy? Is it worth the environmental degradation that accompanies it? Is my unease with holiday consumption due to increased blood sugar from excessive cookie consumption over the holidays or is there a real concern with our focus on material goods without a focus on accurately pricing the resources used as inputs for these goods? In other words, is there a problem with a disposable economy in a finite world? Well, it may be more than just my holiday sugar intake. Recent scientific studies show that higher levels of consumption are, at most, very weakly related to higher levels of subjective well-being.[iv] Subjective well-being refers to how positively or negatively a person experiences their own life, and it includes things such as positive emotional states, cognitive appraisals of one’s life satisfaction, and a person’s subjective sense that they are leading a meaningful life.[v] This is not to say that there is no relationship between income and happiness. Once per capita GDP rises to a point in which people are no longer struggling to meet basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter and healthcare, additional increases in overall national wealth don’t seem to make much of a difference in happiness (but this is, perhaps, the subject of another blog post).[vi] Indeed, I have recently read multiple newspaper articles on the need to simplify our lives. Articles on removing emotional and physical clutter seem to be featured in the Chicago Tribune on a regular basis. Also, collaborative consumption (sharing) is coming into vogue with networks like OhSoWe[vii], and Swaptree[viii]. Freecycle, where users offer items (for free) they no longer want to other listserve members to keep items from the landfill are also popular.
So, what’s an environmentally concerned citizen to do during this season of consumption? How can we fully enjoy this season of giving, promote happiness, and still try to reduce the impact on the environment? Well, one of my friends made truffles for family and friends[ix] (if you’re interested in recipes and organic farming, I highly recommend her blog). I requested quick-cook meals as holiday gifts and my parents made soup mixes by hand. My husband gave a donation in my name to support cacao famers in the Phillipines. I also received some great experiential gifts, like restaurant gift certificates. And in a previous year, my brother and sister-in-law gave us a year-long membership to the Shedd Aquarium, a gift we enjoyed all year (and many of our guests enjoyed the benefits of this pass as well). Maybe I’ve become a curmudgeon this year, but I wonder what a U.S. would look like without a consumption-based standard of happiness/well-being. Maybe I’ll ponder this over some chocolate – to remind me of the cacao project in the Phillipines…
[iv] Ahuvia, A.C. 2007. Wealth, consumption and happiness. In A. Lewis (Ed.), The Cambridge handbook of psychology and economic behavior.
Ahuvia, A.C., Friedman, D. 1998. Income, consumption, and subjective well-being. Toward a composite macromarketing model. Journal of Macromarketing, 18: 153-168.
[v] Ahuvia, A. 2008. If money doesn’t make us happy, why do we act as if it does? Journal of Economic Psychology, 29: 491-507.