Sunday, December 23, 2012

Useless Giving

Americans weren't always lobotomized, drooling consumers:
In 1911, faced with a surmounting culture of buying cheap, throwaway presents to give for Christmas, philanthropist August Belmont announced before a crowd of low-paid working woman at an event in New York City the formation of a new club: The Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving.

The objective of SPUG, said Belmont, was to "eliminate, by co-operative effort, the custom of giving indiscriminately at Christmas, and to further in every way the true Christian spirit of unselfishness and independent thought, good-will, and sympathetic understanding of the real needs of others."

Though it might have been a radical idea to shun the cheap trinkets and easy mindlessly popular gifts beckoning from behind store windows, by December of 1912 thousands of 'Spugs' had joined the Society. Membership was so strong, that SPUG's 10 cent dues helped fund America's first community Christmas Tree ceremony in New York's Madison Square Park.

New York City alone already had 82 Spug Squads, covering department stores across the city, and within a week of Teddy Roosevelt joining, the city squads boasted more than 2,000 women members—and 500 men. It was becoming hard for store owners to avoid the issue. "They are the ne plus ultra of the progressives in the United States," one newspaper proclaimed, and at meetings you could hear more than just Christmas being discussed—one rally speaker even proposed "an anti-marriage strike of all single working girls until a universal eight-hour labor law should be passed."

The great challenge for a Christmas movement is to keep it going after the holiday, though—and as the first glimmers of the next holiday season arrived in November 1913, the Times announced that "The Spugs are on the warpath again."
Useless consumption has become ever more crazy, and ever more tragic since then. Here's George Monbiot:
Researching her film The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard discovered that of the materials flowing through the consumer economy, only 1% remain in use six months after sale. Even the goods we might have expected to hold onto are soon condemned to destruction through either planned obsolescence (breaking quickly) or perceived obsolesence (becoming unfashionable).

But many of the products we buy, especially for Christmas, cannot become obsolescent. The term implies a loss of utility, but they had no utility in the first place. An electronic drum-machine t-shirt; a Darth Vader talking piggy bank; an ear-shaped i-phone case; an individual beer can chiller; an electronic wine breather; a sonic screwdriver remote control; bacon toothpaste; a dancing dog: no one is expected to use them, or even look at them, after Christmas Day. They are designed to elicit thanks, perhaps a snigger or two, and then be thrown away.

The fatuity of the products is matched by the profundity of the impacts. Rare materials, complex electronics, the energy needed for manufacture and transport are extracted and refined and combined into compounds of utter pointlessness. When you take account of the fossil fuels whose use we commission in other countries, manufacturing and consumption are responsible for more than half of our carbon dioxide production. We are screwing the planet to make solar-powered bath thermometers and desktop crazy golfers.

People in eastern Congo are massacred to facilitate smart phone upgrades of ever diminishing marginal utility. Forests are felled to make “personalised heart-shaped wooden cheese board sets”. Rivers are poisoned to manufacture talking fish. This is pathological consumption: a world-consuming epidemic of collective madness, rendered so normal by advertising and the media that we scarcely notice what has happened to us.
The Gift Of Death (

How did a holiday dedicated to some of the noblest elements in the human spirit turn into this? I've often wondered what the world would be like if our Christmas "tradition" were to give to charity instead of each other. Imagine if all of those billions spent at Best Buy and Wal Mart went instead to the needy. Poverty might be eliminated overnight. Too bad society's priorities are determined by TV and the media.

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