Voices of Sustainability: Scott Sernau is dreaming of a Green Christmas

Program: All Things Sustainable


Airdate: 12/17/2008

Scott Sernau is Director of International Programs and a professor of sociology at Indiana University South Bend.

Even though certain singing amphibians would suggest otherwise, I think it can be easy being green.  But we need more "green peace" and "green joy" and less "green guilt."  I want to be singing joy to the world while still having a sustainable celebration.  Though many of us remember holiday traditions fondly and still look forward to Christmas and New Years -- and perhaps Hanukah, Kwanzaa or Eid al-Adha -- these holiday traditions may also bring more than a little apprehension, stress and guilt if everything isn't just right.  Certainly, for anyone who cares about environmental sustainability, the advertising blitz that now begins before Halloween, the consumer frenzy that precedes the holidays, and the incredible bulk of trash that lines the curb afterward it's enough to bring out the inner Grinch in us all. 

But having a green holiday, rather than adding to the guilt of the season, can add to the joy.  This year I'm going to use sustainability as an excuse to stop doing what I never liked anyway and to focus on my favorite parts of the holiday.  Truly, when I reminisce about my favorite holidays, I never exclaim, "Ah the mall, the glorious mall, it was all about the mall!"  Instead, I remember family gatherings, spiritual traditions, friends getting together, favorite foods, and the magic in the air.  With few exceptions those are also the sustainable parts of our holidays.  

Now this year I know some are cutting back on the purchasing, but not without this uniquely American economic guilt.  We know that retailers and their employees depend on the Christmas season for large parts of their sales, sometimes their entire profit margins, and so if we don't spend, spend, spend, somehow we're responsible for damaging the economy  and deepening the recession.  But be not afraid, there are ways to contribute to the economy, especially the local economy, without contributing to the local landfill. 

I'm considering a theme for this year.  Maybe it will be a buy Michiana holiday.  Instead of petrochemical plastic products packed in peanuts and shipped around the world, our locally grown tree can spread over a few handmade items from local craftspersons, items from local artists, and gift baskets from local producers -- maybe healthy Michigan apples or decadent South Bend chocolate.  Now of course the chocolate isn't grown in Michiana, but that does raise another alternative.  Some years we have bought all our global products at places like Ten Thousand Villages and Just Goods, where the products are made by fairly paid local artisans who work with local and renewable materials. 

For that wrapping, my not so nimble fingers love reusable gift bags.  If I must wrap, I'm skipping the glossy foil with raised velvet reindeer, which is so last century, in favor of simple papers with lots of recycled content and designs printed in soy ink.  Then that paper can at least go in the recycling bin when it's no longer reusable.  

Even better, for some on my list, I may scrap the stuff altogether.  We could give them tickets to local cultural and music events.  Better yet, take them along, and then out for a treat at a local restaurant.   We'll be supporting our local economy, and probably having a good time in the process. 

My environmentalist-sister in-law loves alternate gifts.  She'll get us a goat through the Heifer project, not for our backyard but delivered to a poor rural family somewhere in the world.  Even my 13-year-old has gotten the idea; recently she gave me a moose -- symbolically adopted of course, through a World Wildlife Fund project.  The point is to leave the season feeling like we've had a good party, that we're more joyful and more peaceful, and more in touch with friends and family than when we started.  Less hassle, less guilt, less time in line at the big box retailer: maybe it is easy being green.

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