Last Hanukkah my parents got me, my older, and my younger sister baby Yoda dolls. The second season of The Mandalorian had just come out and ‘The Child’ merch was all the rage. Me and my younger sister were, only slightly ironically, ecstatic; we immediately tore open our presents’ packaging. My older sister was politely thankful but obviously unenthused; she left her present’s packaging intact. Our family made fun of her poorly disguised intention to return the gift. After a couple minutes she started guiltily picking at the packaging.
I stopped her and mumbled something incomprehensible about capitalism. I’m glad I don’t remember exactly what I said; I often struggle to speak well in the moment and if I recalled every time I tried to say something significant but ended up sputtering my greatly exaggerated self estimate would be uncomfortably disillusioned.
However I do remember what I texted my sister later that night. Or rather my phone remembers: “The sentence I was trying to exhale tonight and choking on was ‘It’s a capitalist conceit to open a gift and in so doing render it unreturnable for the sake of the gift giver’s feelings if you have no intention to use the gift as it creates waste and false demand which warps the market incentives towards producing even more waste’ which I know you know it’s just I forgot the word ‘conceit’ tonight and this whole nice sounding thought kindof died of that forget which I remain agitated about and this text is the exercise of that agitation.” I think it’s one of my better texts. Top ten maybe. In short, the holidays are broken.
As global warming worsens and becomes more and more obviously the preeminent threat to humanity’s well being, the need for consumer restraint is as high as ever. The more we materially consume the more carbon we pour into the atmosphere, and the more trash we dump into our environment. And yet we continue, often consuming things we not only don’t need but don’t even want.
The best example of this is holiday gift giving in the West. It’s considered impersonal to merely ask a friend or family member what they want when Hanukkah and Christmas come round. Giving a gift is an opportunity to show off your (often mistaken) understanding of a loved one. But the obvious result of picking out others’ gifts yourself is that one receives presents they either actively don’t want or, more commonly, are merely ambivalent towards.
If we were to instead ask whoever we’d like to give a gift exactly what they want for a gift before buying it, a huge amount of carbon emissions, and trash, could be avoided. For those that still want to provide a more heart felt surprise, they can do so in the form of non-material or carbon neutral or near-neutral gifts, such as online magazine subscriptions, plants, stocks, proof-of-stake crypto, E-, audio, and used books, charitable donations, adopting endangered animals, tickets to local experiences like museums or cooking classes, products produced with recycled materials, or subscriptions to online streaming or educational services like Netflix, Spotify, Hulu, Rosetta Stone, or Brilliant. The options abound. Curtailing your carbon footprint need not curtail your capacity to express your appreciation.
So this Hanukkah, either ask your friends and family what they want before buying their presents, or choose gifts with minimal environmental impact. Especially in the case of parents gifting to their young children who will live to see the worst impacts of climate change, the present of a livable planet far out ways anything that can be wrapped.