Dec 112011
Authors: Joe Vajgrt

Christmas is fast approaching, and the religious right would have us believe that there’s a full-blown war against the holiday.

While there is no war against Christmas, maybe there should be a war declared against the aspects of the holiday that don’t have any connection to religious observance.

Christmas has fallen victim to overt commercialization fed by our ravenous consumerist culture. We equate the good life with the goods life, and believe that owning more things will make us feel happier, more loved and respected.

This is far from the truth, with research clearly showing that the more people value materialistic aspirations and goals, the lower their happiness and life satisfaction and the fewer pleasant emotions they experience day-to-day.

Private consumption by U.S. households increased fourfold between 1960 and 2000, when it reached more than $20 trillion a year. In 2004, the U.S. accounted for less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but was responsible for 33 percent of global consumption.

The rise in consumption has not led to a rise in happiness among U.S. consumers. About a third of people in the U.S. report being “very happy,” the same share as in 1957, when we were only half as wealthy.

This level of consumption not only doesn’t make us any happier, it’s completely unsustainable. If everyone on the planet lived as we do in the U.S., we would need the resources equivalent to three earths.

We are targeted by more than 1,500 commercial messages a day, up from 560 per day in the 1960s. Companies spend more than $200 billion on advertising in the U.S. each year and are increasingly targeting young people. Now, perhaps as a result of this increased marketing, credit card debt among 18- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. has more than doubled.

Maybe at this point, you’re justifying our behavior on your belief in American Exceptionalism. Perhaps it’s justified because you’ve been taught that this is just how capitalist free markets operate.

Ah, there it is: capitalism. We are told, over and over, that capitalism is not just the system we have, but the only system we can ever have. Could this really be the only option?

It’s undeniable that capitalism has helped make America what it is today, and to contest capitalism, we’re told, is simply crazy.

It’s true that no other economic system even approaches the efficiency of capitalism in utilizing economic capital to meet individual, material, human needs and wants.

But rejecting and resisting predatory corporate capitalism is not crazy. Holding onto our humanity is not crazy. Defending democracy is not crazy. And struggling for a sustainable future is not crazy. In fact, these are all eminently sane positions.

Capitalism — or, more accurately, the predatory corporate capitalism that defines and dominates our lives — is anti-democratic 
simply because it’s a wealth-concentrating system. If you concentrate wealth in a society, you concentrate power.

“Capitalism is not sustainable by its very nature. It is predicated on infinitely expanding markets, faster consumption and bigger production in a finite planet. And yet this ideological model remains the central organizing principle of our lives,” wrote Robert Newman in The Guardian.

Free market capitalism is ecologically unsustainable because it reduces waste and pollution or reuses resources only when it is profitable to do so, meaning only when it is in a person or firm’s individual self-interest.

If market economies are to function efficiently, people must compete rather than cooperate. When people spend more time and energy being economically productive (working), they have less time and energy to spend on personal relationships within families and communities.

The current state of American capitalism devalues personal relationships and disconnects people. When we buy things based solely on price or convenience rather than buy from people they know and trust, personal relationships within communities suffer.

No, criticizing modern American capitalism is not crazy. What is truly crazy is believing that an inhuman, anti-democratic and unsustainable system that leaves half the world’s people in abject poverty is all that there is, all that there ever can be, all that there ever will be.

To restore sustainability to capitalism, people must make conscious, purposeful choices to rebuild positive, mutually beneficial relationships with other people –– not only for economic gains, but also to restore social capital.

Doesn’t building and valuing personal relationships, connecting with the people you care most about and restoring social capital sound more in line with the spirit of Christmas than focusing on the material aspect of the holiday?

If you can find a way to get past the materialistic aspects of Christmas, you’ll be contributing to a happier, more socially just and ecologically sustainable world.

Instead of obsessing over gifts this year, I hope you’ll spend this Christmas break focusing on the people in your lives and what they mean to you.

Joe Vajgrt is a senior journalism major who believes that the best things in life aren’t things, and is no longer a regular columnist. He can be reached at

 Posted by at 11:32 am

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