Being green and being religious can fit together well. Most religious texts contain advice on caring for natural things, and most religions use these teachings in campaigns to cut carbon and save the planet (“What would Jesus drive?” being my particular favorite). I applaud all of this, but my own political and environmental activism comes more or less directly out of my non-belief in God.
I have always been an atheist. At Sunday school I was willing to learn the moral lessons of the parables but very unwilling to believe there was anything supernatural about the commonsense advice Jesus was doling out. Later, even under extreme peer pressure when most of my friends became Baptists in the middle of my teenage years (and despite the exciting prospect of a dramatic full-immersion baptism ceremony), the idea of a divine being was something I just couldn’t accept.
I wasn’t political either. At university, I studied metallurgy and the history of science, visited coal mines and nuclear power stations with relish, and steered well clear of anything that smelled of ideology. On the college committee, I was the entertainment rep, keeping my fellow students amused with '70s discos and pub quizzes and not giving a thought to the future or the bigger picture.
It was only later that I became more thoughtful and developed a proper humanist philosophy. After college, I moved into a house with five friends who brought with them a massive collection of books, including piles of politics, literature and history. So, with these resources at my disposal, I sat down to work out what I thought about the world. After two years of serious study, the conclusion was something of a counterpoint to the Atheist Bus Campaign’s famous slogan. My version goes something like this: “Our planet, its civilizations, and its people are unusual and fragile things. There’s probably no God, so we’d better look after them well.”
Once I had this sorted out, I was ready to go. I spotted the Green Party, realized I agreed with most of what they had to say, joined up, and volunteered to help. And in the busy eight years since that day, I hope I have helped to make a difference to the way some people think about how to help the world get by. Meanwhile, I’ve spent most of my professional life working as a writer and campaigner and, in the process, learned an awful lot about how to fail badly at convincing people into a greener, more responsible way of life.
Which brings me to Christmas — a time of year with plenty of communications mantraps for both greens and atheists. These days, it’s a Christian holiday in name only for most of us, and most believers would probably agree that it’s gotten well beyond everyone’s control. What started out as a few days of festivities now lasts about nine weeks and seems to involve about a quarter of a million different acts of marking the occasion. And it’s impossible not to take part because everything to do with the Christmas season, no matter how newly invented, becomes instantly “traditional.” Secret Santa presents in the office, Harry Potter films at the pictures, EastEnders on TV, chocolate fountains with the Boxing Day buffet. All suddenly compulsory, as if they had been around forever. And what about those prawn rings that always appear in seasonal supermarket adverts? Since when were frozen tropical crustaceans a staple part of midwinter cuisine?
And there I go, moaning like a big Scrooge. But, believe it or not, I do enjoy a lot of things about Christmas. It’s the only time of the year where my voicemail and inbox calm down and I can spend a few days lounging around with my sisters without a bulging to-do list nagging at the back of my mind. At its simplest and most secular — as a family get-together to mark the end of the year — Christmas can be a joy. But it’s so easy to let things get out of hand during the run-up and get swept away in a consumer frenzy that has a terrible effect on the planet. I would love to be able to reclaim this essential midwinter break from religions on one side and from commercial interests who have turned it into a festival of waste on the other, but it’s very hard to do this without sounding like you want to spoil everyone’s fun.
In communications terms, it’s virtually impossible to strike the right balance when suggesting things to change. Those wanting to make the celebrations secular fall regularly into the trap of rash pronouncements against Christian words and imagery that are pounced on by the press, leading to headlines such as “Bureaucrats ban Christmas trees,” “School staff ban Christmas cards,” or “PC firms ban Christmas glitz” (these are all real headlines). Similarly, Greens, in seeking to point out the worst bits of wastefulness, risk sounding like out-and-out party poopers who would like to see twinkly lights prohibited and everyone’s presents wrapped in old newspaper. We put the Green press office on “bah-humbug watch” every year, but even so, it’s very hard to prevent this kind of impression from creeping out.
Another problem is that it’s just so easy to resort to sarcasm and grumpiness when the consumerism of the modern Christmas is being rammed down our throats at every advert break. And on this point, we probably have staunch allies in most Christians, who would much rather celebrate the earthly appearance of their deity in a simpler, more puritan fashion. However, while they might come across as a bit gloomy if they moan about waste and avarice, at least they have a romantic alternative to offer, with a great story, classic songs, candlelit carols and midnight masses.
Without a religious hook, secular Greens have more of a dilemma because we haven’t yet developed a way of talking about the need for change that is half as satisfying as simply bah-humbugging and slagging things off.
There are, perhaps, some steps we can take in the right direction. In theory, it shouldn’t be that hard to synthesize secularism and respect for nature into a set of activities that people want to take part in. Early Christians did, after all, subsume a riotous and decadent pagan festival to create Christmas in the first place, and most aspects of ancient festivities that survive in traditional Christmas activities are those that relate not to pagan gods and beliefs but to the marking of the passing of the year. So perhaps we could revive some of these ancient season-based traditions while cutting down on the consumerism? That would surely be a sellable combination, if we can just avoid sounding like hippies.
On the other hand, calming things down might be an easier push. After all, by the time December comes around, what most of us need is a bit of a rest, and there’s nothing less harmful to the planet than a nice sit-down. In fact, once the shopping is done and the family is digesting the dinner, our natural instincts on Dec. 25 are pretty much carbon neutral. “Let’s turn off the TV and play a game” and “Let’s all go for a nice walk” are both festive suggestions with a carbon impact of approximately zero.
Much more exciting, and by far the best modern subversion of Christmas-style über-consumerism I have seen, is the multitalented performer, activist, and 2009 Green candidate for mayor of New York, the Reverend Bill Talen. Rev. Billy is the parodic preacher famous for leading the Church of Stop Shopping in a crusade against chain stores in New York. His actions have inspired and amused the city for years and helped stem the flow of Starbucks, Walmart and Disney into New York’s historic and unique neighborhoods, while boring and alienating no one.
However, we can’t all pull off a piece of mock-revivalist street theater when we are faced with questions of what to say and do about Christmas. At home, we need to be able to push things in the right direction in ways that require less chutzpah and far less talent. Most of all, we need some actual, on-the-ground practical suggestions. Over the years, I’ve been asked to think about this question for numerous articles, books and — hardest of all — radio phone-ins, and have identified a few ideas for making the holiday less stressful and more ecofriendly. So here, with my bah-humbug detector turned up to 11, are four perfectly reasonable ways to make the holidays greener and more constructive, without ruining it for everyone.
Replace cash and carbon with thought
We all know that with gifts it really is the thought that counts, but we still end up stuffing shopping bags with irrelevant gadgets for the people we love. As well as these being pointless and forgettable gifts, we also risk annoying our friends and family by leaving them with cupboards full of tat and the problem of how on earth you recycle a fiber-optic golf ball polisher.
The easiest way around this, especially for people we don’t know very well, is to rule out desk toys, juicers, and other attic fodder and go for non-material gifts instead. Vouchers for meals, downloads, books, and theater tickets should come in handy for everyone one day, and won’t take up storage space in the meantime. Similarly, memberships for organizations like the National Trust or the RSPB gets your giftee an easily recyclable magazine several times a year, plus discounts and free entry on days out.
For closer friends and relatives, nothing beats the tribute of a well chosen book or a sentimental souvenir of something you both shared.
My Christmas list always starts out filled with good ideas for these kinds of presents, and a few years ago, with local shops and secondhand booksellers being wiped off the high street, I might have had an excuse for giving up on finding what I want and getting my dad a golf accessory, but now that we have the power of the Internet, almost anything is possible. Want to find the program from that Cup final your uncle never stops talking about? Fancy a vintage Biba bangle for your mom? How about an early edition of the Eagle for your granddad, or a signed copy of John Lydon’s autobiography for your brother? All virtually instantly tracked down with a few clicks and a credit card.
And the good green news is that not only are you recycling in a very chic way, but most Internet sellers of secondhand and vintage goods are also small, independent (though not necessarily local) businesses, maintaining their specialist status online and overcoming the challenges faced by retailers who rely solely on footfall in shops. “But what about the transport miles?” I imagine I can hear you say. Well, while it’s not the same as popping out to an “emporium of everything” on your street corner, Internet purchases aren’t as wasteful as you might think. By relying mainly on the regular mail service, the extra impact of small items is tiny, and even for large items, the savings compared with collecting the goods yourself are substantial. Of course, delivery vehicles still have to take to the roads, but they can visit many different houses in one trip, so the total number of journeys is reduced. Studies across Europe have shown that where people generally get to the shops by car, shopping from home results in more than a 70 percent reduction in the traffic miles involved in getting the same amount of goods to people’s homes.
Throw a party
I’m against guilt. I want to change the world by making green options the most obvious, cheapest, and above all easiest things to do. Since I started out in politics, my mission has been to take the difficulty out of being green and make it second nature and, ideally, invisible. So, for me, the best green measures are done secretly or under cover of a completely different purpose. When you give people free loft insulation, ask them to thank you not for cutting their carbon footprint but for cutting their heating bills. Similarly, when you replace your town’s regular Christmas decorations with strings of LEDs, point out how much prettier they are rather than bore people with how much less energy they use.
My second tip is therefore to host a Christmas party and make it secretly green. You’ll be able to rub your hands in carbon-miser glee at diverting people from ready meals or nightclubs for an evening, and you’ll also give them a great time in the process.
There are lots of easy ways to quietly make a party greener, all of which would sound like the worst kind of nagging if you suggested them to someone who was inviting you round to their house, but with you in charge, you can go to town. Get local food, bulk-buy organic wine and local beer, use real glasses and plates instead of throwaway plastic (you can usually borrow spare glasses from the people supplying your wine), and you’ve virtually halved the carbon footprint of the evening already. Finally, track down a local firm with hybrid electric taxis and write it up with the simple word “taxi” next to the telephone. Almost everyone will use the number, and almost everyone won’t notice that their strangely quiet journey home is also low-carbon.
A typical festive dinner can contain ingredients that have been transported over 30,000 miles, but it’s easy to cut this right down, even in a supermarket, simply by picking native products off the shelf instead of far-flung alternatives: hazelnuts rather than brazil nuts, English beer rather than Australian wine, local ham instead of Indonesian prawns for the Boxing Day buffet.
But you can, of course, do even more. The original midwinter festival involved a feast of seasonal produce, embellished with preserved items from earlier in the year, so root vegetables, cabbages, sprouts, dried fruit, nuts, local cheeses, and chutneys are all real, traditional low-carbon fare. They are also easy to find in the seasonal markets that spring up everywhere in December. These markets are usually put together by farmers in your area, so this is also a good green way to boost your local economy.
Sourcing a non-imported organic, free-range turkey, duck, or goose for dinner isn’t that difficult but is definitely more expensive. So choose a smaller bird to make up for the extra cost per kilogram and you’ll get a non-frightened, tastier meal and fewer leftover bits to deal with afterward.
And you can cut down dramatically on food miles, packaging, preservatives, and leftovers by spending the break doing a bit more proper cooking. It’s the one time of year when you might actually have the time to follow recipes from Nigel and Nigella, so channel your inner domestic goddess and get the kids involved in creating homemade biscuits and cakes or boiling up chutneys and jams to see you through the rest of the year in home-cooked gourmet style.
Start a green tradition
There’s no escaping the fact that December comes around every year. Still, coming up with new strategies every twelve months for avoiding “traditional” rituals (both religious and consumerist) soon becomes very tedious, so why not start your own personal secular traditions for marking the middle of winter and, while you’re at it, make these green activities too?
Some of the most heartwarming things about family holidays at home follow these lines already. Whether it’s a game of Monopoly after dinner, a sing-along with Granddad playing the spoons, or dusting off primary school tree decorations made from pasta, these are some of the family rituals that, for me, make Christmas something worth taking part in, rather than being cynical about. If you are now in charge of a family yourself, take advantage of your power and impose some homespun green traditions on your own kids. Perhaps you can help instill an interest in nature by spicing up a family walk with an annual competition to find and photograph animal footprints in the mud (or snow, if you’re really lucky). Or make decorating the house more ecofriendly by setting aside a Saturday for making painted paper chains in a child labor factory disguised as a “fun art project.”
The tree has plenty of potential for making a secular Christmas greener. A symbol of nature devoid of religious meaning, it’s also ripe for adding your own traditions and having its impact on the planet reduced. The question of which is the best choice — artificial or natural — is one of the classic green arguments, with commercial interests on both sides putting out press releases claiming theirs is the greener option in the long run.
Personally, I’m not convinced by the claim that artificial trees are best, partly because I like the smell of a real tree so much, and partly because metal, tinsel, and plastic still release plenty of nasties as they are manufactured (unlike a growing tree). They are also virtually impossible to recycle once they wear out, and I don’t believe they are reused as many times as the manufacturers claim.
So, on balance, a well-managed tree farm — ideally not too far from your house — is the better option. Try to find one that allows you to plant a replacement tree as part of a day out — something kids will love. And remember that each year 6 million conifers end up in landfills, so when you have finished with your felled tree, make sure to use your local tree recycling service.
If you have the space outside, you can do even better by using a growing tree that lives in your garden most of the year and is brought inside for a couple of weeks in December. This has lots of advantages, including seeing your tree grow up with your family, and a huge reduction in needles trapped in the carpet pile.
And finally ...
Remember, whatever advice you follow, don’t let your efforts get in the way of having a very merry Christmas!
Excerpted with permission from "The Atheist's Guide to Christmas" (Harper Perennial). Copyright 2010 by Siân Berry.