December 21, 2011 by sgoobie
In the boom of catchy “green” features on the nightly news and supplemental “eco-living” sidebars added as afterthoughts in so many popular magazines, come year-end it is common to be bombarded with environmental discussions around Christmas trees. Typically, the dialogue is limited to Real vs. Artificial — which variety of tree has a lighter footprint on the planet?
While it is positive to see attempts to gently provoke consumers to think more about where their seasonal products are coming from (and eventually ending up), the conversation usually narrows to empirical measurements of land use for tree farms and pesticide application, or to factory conditions for manufacturing and toxicity of plastics. We hear statistics about the 40 million farmed trees sold in North America, part of a half-billion-dollar industry; or the multiple-million China-made PVC-based “trees” purchased as a longer-lasting alternative. Sometimes interesting compromises are offered, such as rental services which provide a potted tree to be later planted in an area for reforestation or non-profit organizations which raise money through the sale of trees. Nevertheless, in the end consumers are left to decide which is the “lesser evil” option.
As with all environmental issues, as students, educators, and advocates there are deeper questions we must ask. As always, these questions are at the core of the ecological thoughtprint educational concept. Christmas trees offer one convenient, and timely, example for contemplation.
- What are the underlying ways of thinking behind the growing global Christmas tree industry? In other words, what is the ecological thoughtprint of a contemporary Christmas tree?
- Has this “tradition” always had this thoughtprint? Or has it changed with the worldwide rise of consumer capitalism?
- Are there alternative ways of thinking which may better support the original or potential meanings of the Christmas celebration? Better, meaning more authentic, more meaningful, stirring more satisfaction, health and fulfilment for societies and our natural kin?
At the edge of an expansive supermarket parking lot faded by salted pavement, behind a barb-wire fence illuminated by strings of flashing LED lights, step tightly-bundled families in search of the perfect specimen for their living room. A sign in the darkness above their heads throbs COUNTDOWN TO XMAS, FRESH CUT BARGAIN STARTING $19.99. The evergreens are propped and piled diagonally against the fence, their branches bound by yellow mesh and twine. Each trunk is chiselled a foot from the base of the broadest branches. The trees wait, frozen, their needles ticking down to the final moment of life.
Poking and prodding, the family looks over the many varieties on display as one might a row of cars or a shelf of toys. Finally, they opt for a tall white spruce, trucked in from some unknown Appalachian location. There is an exchange of crumpled bills for the services of a teenage boy who hoists the package up onto the roof of their van. After tying their prize securely with rope, the family piles in and lines up in a stretch of cars carrying trunks of other bargain Christmas bounty as they all exit to the highway.
At home in a corner beside a sofa stands the paralyzed spruce, bolted to a PVC stand, lapping up sweetened tap water. Its branches bear the weight of plastic trinkets and loops of tiny lights. Sprawling underneath the branches, like eggs incubated by a mother penguin, are dozens of sparkling boxes wrapped in countless colours of paper, ribbon and bows, stuffed with gadgets and fashions assembled in unseen factories by weary workers thousands of kilometres away, each gift with its own unseen impact on the air, water and land of these communities.
Fast-forward two weeks. The corpses of discarded trees litter dirty snowbanks along suburban streets kept company by plump bags of used wrapping paper. Tendrils of silver tinsel still cling to several branches, silently fluttering in the icy wind. In the distance, a collection truck ambles through an intersection, its brakes squawking as the men in the cab prepare for their first load of the day.
Ways of thinking
To many in North America, the above scene may not seem out of the ordinary. However, if we step back to observe this custom as an arbitrary set of cultural behaviours developed over time, each with their own deep consequence for the natural world of which we are a part, within this context what ecological modes of thinking are at play?
Generally speaking, we may think of capitalism as an economic system in which the means of production are privately owned and decisions about supply and demand are made in a free market. There are of course many forms of this economic system, from one extreme of regulation and centralization to another. But more specifically, most forms of capitalism encapsulate particular ways of thinking about Nature, born out of a specific culture and era.
From a capitalist worldview, with profit as a central motive, nonliving and living things are believed to exist as commodities to be traded based solely on their monetary value. In the case of the Christmas tree, over the past 60 years the genesis of an entire global industry has been hinged on the assumption that these millions of trees exist as mere commodities for fleeting consumption and personal entertainment — not for any purposes related to nutrition, warmth, survival or spiritual fulfilment, but as a temporary decoration, after which any symbolic value is lost and the now-logs become unnecessary burdens for distant disposal.
A particular form of this economic system, consumer capitalism, has risen to epic status around the Christmas celebration. What was once perhaps a genuine religious observance is now largely an economic mega-event driven by production, distribution, consumption and swift disposal of consumer goods. Christmas has become the Olympics of commercialism, with shopping as its official sport and the castrated Christmas tree as its flaming cauldron.
Within this perspective, a tree is merely one more of these trifling products. Each typically grown by hard-working, well-meaning farmers over the course of a decade for eventual destiny as ornaments in homes and hotel lobbies, any reverence for these living beings is trumped by the desire to fulfill one’s modern cultural obligation to “celebrate X’mas” (otherwise to risk being labelled an outcast — a “Grinch” or “Scrooge”).
2. Instrumental rationality
Instrumental rationality, related to utilitarianism, is a way of thinking based on the belief that only the most efficient means to an end is important; that the value of the end is not important. In this view, Nature exists only for use by Humans; Nature has no distinct inherent purpose beyond its potential as a “resource”.
What is a tree? There are many ways to answer this seldom-asked question. There is a rational scientific answer based on physical characteristics and categorization, born out of Western European values in the 16th and 17th centuries: “A woody perennial plant having a single elongate main stem generally with few or no branches on its lower part.”
Who in modern societies would reply differently? Certainly few would reference a traditional Coast Salish view that trees are the embodiment of pure goodness, “the kindly people, the humane, sympathetic, charitable people” (Pauline Johnson) transformed by the Great Spirit. Likewise, nowadays few would recognize the likely symbolic nature of a Christmas tree as the “Paradise tree” in the biblical Garden of Eden, from which apples hung (now represented by red glass balls), or the wooden cross from which Christ is storied to have been crucified. Indeed, trees used at Christmas time have been submerged to the level of inflatable vinyl Santa Clause figures placed on front lawns in suburbs — not a life form, but rather an object, a thing, a trinket to be used up and thrown away with little second thought.
Ethnocentrism, now taking its form in globalization, derives its power from the belief that certain “civilized” cultures are superior to others. The spread of the now-secular X’mas celebration beyond the spiritual Christian world is certainly an example wherein local, time-worn traditions are threatened by the colonizing powers of Santa, gift-giving and pop-poisoned carols.
Take Dubai as an example. The import of evergreens to this desert-climate from countries like Canada in order to fulfill the ex-pat and growing local desire for a “European” Christmas is a mark of ingrained extremism of a globalized Christmas. The Christmas tree has become a symbol of modern sophistication and affluence, based in spreading capitalist values of the West.
Yet, as with all modern practices, when we look to the past and to authentic cultural diversity, we can find signs of hope for a seasonal celebration based in an alternative ecological thoughtprint.
Long before Christianity, we find in many cultures a special reverence for those trees and plants that remained green all year-long. Collecting their sacred boughs to adorn homes brought a sense of anticipation for the renewal of growth and life each spring. Indeed, evergreens inspired a belief in ever-lasting life. Decoration of living trees allowed for people to appreciate the importance of their green kin in human society, and to recognize the interdependence of all beings.
We also find in the varied history of Christmas itself a focus on more authentic “reasons for the season”, which for practicing Christians is presumably the birth of their central spiritual figure, Jesus Christ. Still in a number of cultures, the “Christmas cradle” rightly remains a more important and meaningful symbol of this celebration. As with the nativity scene, it is a reminder that this festivity has at its proper roots neither consumption nor entertainment but the very purpose of life for a particular group of believers, espoused in the ancient story of their savior.
These practices point to crucial alternative ways of thinking about the natural world, ways which may offer balance to the extremes of the destructive modern thoughtprint. They point to a colourful creation of a more meaningful, focused and integral spiritual celebration of life.
Few have said it better than the fictional Charlie Brown (see video below). The modern Christmas tree craze is just one more symbol that, at the crux of our ecological crises, we find a society desperately in need of balance and harmony. The modern ecological thoughtprint is not set in stone; our current cultural complex does not have to be static for eternity — in fact, given the limits of the planet, our current ways of thinking cannot continue for long. Through helping our students, colleagues, fellow citizens and our own selves better grasp our ways of thinking about Nature through practical examples such as Christmas trees, we can open up possibilities for change, renewal and purposeful preservation.
As Charlie Brown reflected: “I won’t let all this commercialism ruin my Christmas.”