[SCMP Column] The Christmas Gift of Time

December 18, 2017

As we enter the last lap of the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas hyper-consumption marathon, I have slumped into my normal guilt-driven funk over all that stuff, all that waste, and all that inequality.

I feel repulsed by the egregious overindulgence, guilty over the evidence of excess when so many worldwide still struggle just for enough food, mortified by the clear evidence of the perhaps terminal harm we are inflicting on our planet – and yet can’t honestly find myself so pious that I am willing to exit the world of unsustainable materiality, or say “bah, humbug” to it all.

Perhaps I am influenced by having just landed back in London, with cold, wet feet, a runny nose, snow threatening, and darkness descending by four in the afternoon. All those Christmas lights and flamboyant shop window displays do so much to lift the country out of the wintry gloom – including the surreal bleakness of a country adrift in the Brexit disaster of its own making.

It is at this time of year that I return again to Annie Leonard’s Story of Stuff – a 20 minute video unveiled exactly 10 years ago that provided what is still today one of the simplest and clearest descriptions of our culture of hyper-consumption, and how much harm it is doing. And in one line, what is her story of “stuff”? “We have too much of it. Too much of it is toxic. And we don’t share it very well.”

On the Christmas season – which in the US and most of Europe accounts for about a quarter of annual retail spending – she is more emotional: this is the season we spend “determining the exactly perfect kind of toxic-laden superfluous piece of junk to buy for the people who matter the most to us.”



She rightly reminds us that of all that “stuff” flowing through the consumer economy, only around 1 per cent will remain in use six months after sale, with most of the things we buy “designed to elicit thanks, a snigger or two, and then be thrown away.”

Despite a decade of Annie Leonard and many other environmental lobby groups campaigning globally for us to consume less stuff, there is simply no sign of increased restraint, or even embarrassment. As I fly into London, I read that Christmas spending (defined as spending in the eight shopping days in December ahead of Christmas Day) is predicted to rise by around 5 per cent to around £78.7 billion (US$105 billion).

And this is in a year when household income growth has sat below 2 per cent, making it clear that people are raising their spending faster than they can afford. To my simple brain, that means one of three things: either families are going into debt, or they are buying time on credit cards, or they are reducing savings. None of these likelihoods can have happy endings, but surely cannot continue indefinitely.

Back in Hong Kong and in China, without the excuse of the Christmas season and not satisfied with the consumer stimulus that comes with the Lunar New Year festivities, we only need to turn to the success of Alibaba’s November 11 Singles’ Day to see that the urge to consume is not only pathological, but universal. In the nine years from the “invention” of Singles’ Day, China’s 24-hour, stuff-focused online shopping frenzy has grown 3,000-fold to amount to around US$26 billion – almost 10 times the total of the US’ equivalent over the Thanksgiving weekend.

Another factor driving my angst and annoyance over the Christmas shopping season and Singles’ Day is the conspicuous and persistent success of the marketing industry in persuading us to spend money we don’t have on things we really don’t need – a spending season fuelled by brands, status symbols, pursuit of novelty, and persuading us to buy the new and discard the old.

If I were religious, I would be upset that cathedrals in which most people worship today have (metaphorically) been transformed into today’s shopping malls, with saints being replaced by celebrities, and the aspiration for a better life after death being replaced by the quest for a better life now. In truth, I have never seen anything wrong with trying to have a better life this side of the grave, but would feel a great deal more comfortable if more people were sharing in it, and if it were inflicting less harm on our environment in the process.

It also strikes me that we have lost our sense of direction on what kind of “stuff” we should be seeking to consume. When so many in the rich parts of the world have reached a point when just about every conceivable want or need has been met, when growth in spending depends increasingly on selling new “stuff” that is intrinsically useless, and when increased spending appears to be doing very little to make us happier, surely it is time to pause and reconsider.

Annie Leonard’s campaigners concede that we have a perhaps insatiable urge to possess and to show generosity in the form of gifts to those friends and family who matter most to us, so they ask what gifts we truly seek to give and receive. Their suggestions that we should sing together, make things together, or cook meals together sound a little bit too pious for my liking, but behind these suggestions is an important truth: in the frantic lives most of us lead today, the gift we most need – and perhaps most need to give – is the gift of time, quality time, both for ourselves and with those we are closest to.

In our time-short working lives, this need is nowadays being grievously neglected, but must surely be one of the most precious gifts we can give. Sometimes it may be a gift that costs very little in money terms, but is hugely expensive and challenging in terms of stepping away from our relentless work pressures.

Flying into London over the weekend to spend a week with old friends and distant family, I have in no way escaped the shackles of the Story of Stuff. I come heavy laden with chattels and hope they will give pleasure. But when I pause to think about it, I am sure the greatest gift I bring is the gift of the time we can share in the all-too-short week ahead.

David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view. Opinions expressed are entirely his own.

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