“We must shop till we drop to prop-up the economy.” The theory seems to follow the logic of clinical inoculations – take a little bit of the disease (a debt-fuelled financial crisis) and inject it into the patient to immunise against the full infection (economic depression). Then cross your fingers and hope.
This is flawed. From an economic perspective, generalised spending on mostly imported goods is a highly inefficient way to reflate the UK economy. Most of the spending benefits just leak away. It will do little to combat what Richard Holbrooke, former US ambassador to the UN, called an “existential threat to the planet”, managing to conjure the curious image of chainsaw wielding French philosophers converging on a rainforest. Exhorting a rebirth of binge consumerism on the high street may be less exotic, but it is equally destructive.
Economic activity is not an end in itself. It is a means to ensure relatively long and satisfied lives. So, we should ask, how fit for purpose is conspicuous consumption in achieving that goal? On this, the literature is quite conclusive: consumerism turns out to be the crack cocaine of human wellbeing. It delivers a short-term high that quickly fades.
There are much better, proven ways to keep our spirits high in the slide towards economic depression. They include being physically active, learning a new skill or developing an old one, regularly connecting with people in community groups, with friends or family, actively taking notice of the world around you, in other words, being mindful, and finally, giving – best of all if it’s your time, help or something you’ve made yourself.
Last year the UK imported around 66,000 tonnes of Christmas decorations from China. One of the must-have presents in 2007 was the Nintendo Wii games console. Yet a single one left on stand-by and used only modestly would generate more greenhouse gases annually than a whole person in some African countries. Another popular present was the digital photo frame, but if only one in 25 UK households bought one, it would increase annual CO2 emissions by 11,000 tonnes. One of this year’s must-have toys is likely to be the life-sized robotic golden retriever dog marketed as “Biscuit, My Lovin’ Pup“. I hate to think what size carbon pile a Biscuit will leave on our atmospheric carpet.
But with 96 months to go, at a conservative estimate, before the world enters a new, potentially uncontrollable phase of global warming, there are glimmers of movement on some political and business Christmas trees.