Photo: Is a healthy economy good for people?

Occupy Christmas is mostly symbolic. It won't change global economic systems, and it could hurt businesses and workers. But it might get us thinking about what really is important to us (Photo credit: if winter ends)

By David Suzuki with contributions from Ian Hanington, David Suzuki Foundation editorial and communications specialist

On November 25, referred to as "Black Friday" in the U.S., a woman pepper-sprayed fellow customers at a California Wal-Mart during a mad rush to get a bargain-priced Xbox. In North Carolina, it was police who used pepper spray to subdue shoppers hell-bent on getting deals on electronic gadgets during the biggest shopping day in the country.

Despite these and other incidents, including shootings, U.S. business leaders are buoyed by an expected rise in consumer spending — to nearly $500 billion this year — in the shopping season, which begins the day after U.S. Thanksgiving.

Meanwhile, Adbusters, the Vancouver magazine that sparked the worldwide Occupy protests, is encouraging supporters to "Occupy Christmas" by boycotting holiday gift shopping, among other actions. (Adbusters also popularized Buy Nothing Day, which fell on Black Friday this year.) The prospect of a seasonal shopping boycott isn't making people in the retail industry jolly. Retail Council of Canada spokesperson Sally Ritchie said such protests would hurt businesses and working people when the global economy is in turmoil.

The argument is that without the seasonal scramble for gadgets and gizmos and disposable goods, businesses will fail and people will lose jobs. So, if you want to keep the economy strong, go out and buy as much stuff as you can, even if — or especially if — it will end up in the landfill!

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Here are some other ways you can help keep the economy strong, according to John de Graaf and David K. Batker, authors of What's the Economy For, Anyway? You could have a car accident. That would mean money spent on repairs, insurance, investigations, and maybe even a new car. You could get a divorce. All that money spent on lawyers and court services is good for the economy. On a larger scale, you could hope for a massive oil spill. Cleanup costs contribute to a growing economy.

Forget about protecting a forest or conserving a wetland, though. Ducks and bears don't spend money. And services that nature provides, such as carbon storage, water filtration, and habitat for plants and animals, don't factor into most economic equations. That's because the measure most of the world uses to gauge the "health" of the economy is the Gross Domestic Product, the total value of goods and services a country produces in a year.

One month of crazy consumerism won't have a huge impact on the world's teetering economies. We need something bigger — a war perhaps. That would get money flowing. And we need to drill for more oil, dig up more minerals, convince people to throw out old stuff and buy new. We won't be any happier and we won't be healthier — quite the opposite. But the economy will be stronger. And that's all that counts, right?

Sadly, for many political and business leaders, it is all that counts. But it shouldn't be. We need a new way of looking at what it means to live well within the Earth's natural systems. We need to consider what we truly need to be happy and healthy. It's not more stuff, and it's not working harder for longer hours at often tedious, pointless, or environmentally destructive jobs so that we can produce more stuff and get money to buy it.

Occupy Christmas is mostly symbolic. It won't change global economic systems, and it could hurt businesses and workers. But it might get us thinking about what really is important to us as we head into the holiday season. I'd argue that spending time with friends and family or helping out people in need are more important and satisfying than getting a new Xbox.

Not that gift-giving is bad. If it's sincere rather than just an obligation, it helps us connect with people. And meaningful gifts really do contribute to the betterment of the community — locally produced items or services, something you made yourself, donations to charities the recipient supports, invitations to partake in a shared activity.

The holiday season should be a time for resting, sharing, and celebrating, not for being stressed and overwhelmed at the mall. My wish for the season is that all of you are able to take the time to relax and reflect, and enjoy time with loved ones.

December 8, 2011
http://www.davidsuzuki.org/blogs/science-matters/2011/12/is-a-healthy-economy-good-for-people/

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5 Comments

Feb 20, 2012
11:28 PM

We need to think outside of the box and imagine an economic and legal system that rewards activities that contribute to sustainable living. An example of such a law could be: "Every new home must have a roughed in provision for solar and wind generation."

The price of a new home is mostly made up of perceived land value. If we are already comfortable paying an exorbitant price for a building lot, surely there must be room to factor in the relatively low cost of energy generating technologies. If we all had to do it, the monies to fund this equipment would come from diminished land value.

Feb 20, 2012
7:07 PM

"You could have a car accident. That would mean money spent on repairs, insurance, investigations, and maybe even a new car. You could get a divorce. All that money spent on lawyers and court services is good for the economy. On a larger scale, you could hope for a massive oil spill. Cleanup costs contribute to a growing economy."

Few economists believe this in fact it was disproved by Fredick Basiat in the 1850's in his essay That Which is Seen and That Which is Unseen. Take that oil spill, we see jobs being created to clean the oil, the workers spending more money and local business spending money. But what don't we see? The oil company has to clean the oil so they have less money to expand and buy new equipment, which means jobs they would have created aren't and sales to small businesses aren't made. Since it costs the oil company the same to clean the spill as to expand the oil company now doesn't have the money to expand to the community as a whole is poorer. (Since an economy stems from human trade both people AND the economy are poorer)

this happens in other ways, take stimulus in green jobs. A study from King Juan university found that Spain's green jobs programs created jobs but every job created cost 1.3 jobs from somewhere else in the economy. That's because to give money to green companies the Spanish government had to collect money from he Spanish people in the form of taxes or inflation, leaving Spaniards with less money to spend on things they wanted, making the nation poorer as a whole.

Dec 10, 2011
7:03 PM

Isn't it true that if consumerism gave us a robust economie that we would surely be so far ahead and living in paradise by now, all that $ spent instead of where we are now…? Am I the ONLY that has ever questioned this before NOW Friggin brainwashed mass insanity way too late to do a thing and it will be ugly. Cheers Bent Moral

Dec 09, 2011
2:49 PM

I wonder what the point of our economy is when companies have to jobs, employee pay or employee benefits in order to increase profitability. It is such an unsustainable behavior. It's wonderful for the CEOs and investors that keep making more and more money, but not for the average person who finds it ever harder to find employment or has to work at a lower pay. I guess we are seeing the effects of that system in the growing wealth gap. I don't know what the solution is, but I know I don't like where the current system is headed.

Dec 09, 2011
11:35 AM

A few years ago, I told all those who felt obligated by 'tradition' to stop buying me gifts for Christmas and I would do the same. Instead we would just spend some quality time together. There was a collective sigh of relief and the meaning of the season for us has been restored.

I remembered the philosopher Herbert Marcuse who several decades ago pointed out that through the controlling influences of consumerism we seem to see our own souls reflected in the material stuff our lives revolve around.The way we had been celebrating Christmas had not been our choice but that of the Grinch who stole the original. Time to take it back. Happy Holidays!

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