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The Gift of Death (monbiot.com)
114 points by jcrei on Dec 17, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 63 comments

This is exactly why my wife and I give home cooked food and preserves as gifts this time of year.

We are trying to declutter our life and everyone we talk to feels the same. Why give junk when you can give an experience.

For the same amount of time as going to the mall, we can cook up a chutney and can it for 20 people.

We've been doing this for the past 3 years and everyone seems to appreciate the various preserves and liquors we've created. It's also a lot of fun to make.

I'm lousy at the maker thing.

But I try to select gifts that the recipients will find useful. Even if it's still an act of consumption, it might as well be one that meets a need -- a better carving knife or a nice pen, rather than a solar-powered hand-waving queen or a novelty toy.

Or, failing that, food and drink.

Yes, it's necessary to pay attention in order to figure out what the recipient perceives a need for. But having a close enough social relationship to be able to do that is, in my view, a necessary prerequisite for gift-giving.

NB: I think the take-away from Monbiot's article, for HN readers, is this: try to make something that people need, not just something they want (for 5 minutes).

This buying strategy generally is supporting more sustainable jobs also. Doing things like buying less degradable products and shopping locally really does make a big difference over the long term. Food and drink is also good (way better if it's not a national chain) because that money will almost always be spent locally.

Not only is it a healthy form of nationalism that benefits your economy, but purchasing local goods that were manufactured in your home country also results in far less destruction and waste of resources.

People tend to be polite, especially when it comes to expressing thanks for a gift.

One way to gauge the recipients' true enthusiasm would be to look at how many of them have followed your lead.

If you've been doing this for three years, how many home-made gifts did you receive in return in the second and third years? If you're counting this as the third year, how many such gifts did you receive last year?

My wife and I have been doing it for several years now, and over that time we've been getting increasingly many home-made gifts from people who know how to make things.

But I don't really expect the majority to follow suit, because most the people I know simply don't know how to make things. To them canning is a black art, and a batch of toffee involves hours in front of the stove and only comes out successfully a third of the time. Ironically, many members of this cross-section of my family have actually ramped up their gifts to us in an apparent attempt to "keep up."

I'm not sure it would really be so great if all of them followed suit, anyway. The end result would just be that everyone ends up with twelve pounds of baked goods and confections to decide between eating (gluttonous) and throwing away (wasteful). We only do it because we know we can't convince everyone to cut us out of their gift-giving list entirely. Giving homemade food and baked goods is just a way to accomplish the mandatory reciprocation in a way that makes us feel a bit more comfortable with the whole affair. What I really do want is for the gift-giving tradition to go away, or at least be scaled way back. Wasteful overconsumption might involve more or less wasteful materials, but less wasteful is still a far cry from not wasteful.

Instead of discouraging people from showing their care/regard for you (which, with a generous helping of social obligation, is what gift-giving is about), why not try to find ways to help gift givers give useful/desirable gifts?

Children have wishlists (adults too nowadays -- e.g. Amazon), people 'register' for weddings, etc.

I've no desire to discourage people from showing their care or regard for me. But I would strongly for them to do it directly, by engaging in activites that center on care and regard for each other. Spending time together, perhaps.

Material goods are a poor proxy for that in my case, because they have the effect of actually reducing my quality of life. I've already got a cluttered house and more possessions than I know what to do with. It's actually pretty hard for me to think of objects that I genuinely want - so hard that when people give me gift cards, they generally go unused. I've got more than enough stuff, I'm actively working on having less stuff, and so I'd rather let it go to waste than acquire an object I don't want and will just go unused until I eventually discard it during the next round of decluttering.

So in any case I feel bad - either because of guilt over not appreciating an object that I simply can't because it brings me negative utility, or guilt over the money or effort people put into trying to give me an object that brings me negative utility, or for actively involving myself in the acquisition of an object that brings me negative utility, or for the sense of being wasteful that comes with the inevitable disposal of an object that brings me negative utility. And I would greatly prefer for people to show they care in a way that doesn't make me feel bad. I just wish I could understand why in this one situation I'm generally considered to be a bad person for wanting my loved ones to not make me feel bad. Isn't it supposed to be a time of year when we're supposed to gather together and try to make each other feel good?

Sadly the ritual just isn't really structured in a way that makes it workable for folks like us. The material gifts are inextricably placed at the core of the social construct, to the extent that there's really no way to extract them for the sake of respecting the feelings someone who doesn't desire a material gift. So inextricably that we can't just not give an object to someone who would rather not take part in the exchange of objects because we care about them and understand that would make them happier. Instead we have to make them out to be some sort of Scrooge.

That would be a faulty correlation. I often receive gifts that I like, but I don't turn around and give the same gift the next year.

Also, while people might just be being polite, that possibly doesn't go away with a purchased gift.

Actually, no. If you give someone a delicious homemade chutney and that inspires them, they could gift you the following year with a marmalade or cherry confit or something else.

Your reply suggests that you may be giving homemade gifts and getting retail-purchased gifts in return.

I actually agree with what you're doing but doubt that many recipients truly appreciate your gifts, which are likely pretty neat.

My wife and I are considering going on a staycation (and vacations in future years) as a Christmas gift to our children instead of buying more cheap toys to fill a house that already has too many. (Our children are 4, 2.5, and 1 years old.)

Another thing you can do is something digital. Consider picking up a copy of Minecraft for each member of your family (once they get older perhaps) and spend a weekend building something cool together. Hella fun and 0 cleanup.

Originally a column in the Guardian[1], which explains a lot. If you give your loved ones store bought presents you are massacring people in the Congo, killing rhinos, and generally destroying the world. Apparently those presents will all be thrown out within a week. Merry Christmas.

This article, and the title especially, repulses me a quite a lot.


The author does not draw a nexus between Christmas gifts and dead rhinos.

The article compares the environmental impact of what Anglo-European societies generally consider socially acceptable consumer consumption - frivolous holiday gifts - to what those same societies consider socially unacceptable consumption, powdered rhino horn.

The author is pointing out that there is a double standard which is convenient for us, and not for the other.

Being repulsed is not a reasoned argument.

Care to refute his assertions at all? I'm as irritated by monbiot as the next person, but here I think he is pretty correct. The congo is indeed kept in a state of perpetual war by our desire for so-cheap-they're-disposable electronics. This is well known and well documented.

His assertion that buying my children Christmas presents will be killing rhinos? Please. He ticks off a bunch of unrelated bad things that happen in the world as a result of consumption. He lists a bunch of stupid presents some people buy. And then he makes the illogical leap that if you give gifts you are guilty by association, trying to tarnish Christmas as it goes. This is almost perfect Guardian hard left sanctimoniousness.

Do you not have a cell phone because they are evil? I just upgraded to a nice new iPhone 5. I won't be disposing of it for many years. I wasn't aware that people tended to.

This shouldn't really be a HN story, as it is fundamentally political.

Fucking everything is political!

I am sure HNers have no problem discussing politics where it directly effected them - that's news. But where it effects others 'that's just politics'.

This is relevant because it is related to your / our actions. It is relevant because these 'bad' things are actually related. There was a time when we in the western world could claim ignorance.

And the reason he gets under your nose is he is a self described polemicist.

> Off-Topic: Most stories about politics, ... unless they're evidence of some interesting new phenomenon.

Yes, he's a political polemicist, hence shouldn't be on HN. I wouldn't want to see a Fox News columnist on here either. (I don't like extreme politics of any shade. Yes, he is extreme, even if you agree with him.)

A serious discussion of how tantalum's use in electronics is damaging to the people of Congo would be appropriate, this is not.

That's cool.. i get your point here.

That is one thing I like about monbiot, he references his work. I check his facts. Not all polemicists are the same. I have never seen a fox 'journalist' reference facts.

When a polemicist references another polemicist does that count as facts? I watched the "Story of Stuff" referenced in his article in a class this semester. At one point the claim was made that Chinese peasants are being “forced” into cities and leaving a lifestyle “that has sustained them for generations”. That’s not even a remotely balanced take on the situation. Urbanization in China has lifted millions of people out of grinding poverty.

Statistics proves that trade between nations reduces the likelihood of their engagement in wars (as documented, e.g., in Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature.) Therefore the western countries by buying cheap cell phones and what not made in poorer countries make them more peaceful (this of course in addition to helping hundreds of millions of people avoid extreme poverty.) If we followed the author's call and stopped buying things, wars would be more likely to start all over the world and many more people would be killed, probably also in Congo.

I'll refute it, Christmas gifts are also made of wood, our excessive consumption has lead to the complete halt of deforestation in Honduras, therefore if you'd like to prevent deforestation in Honduras you should keep consuming.

While the words of my point may be true, the overall meaning is bullshit because the deforestation stopped because there were no more trees left.

Also, I read his article on smartphone, if there were no content on the internet I would have no need for a smartphone, therefore reading mr. Monbiot's articles contribute to the massacre of the congo. He should probably stop writing lest he kill even more people.

He should probably also start talking about the wonders of North Korea where the people are so caring about the earth that they would rather starve than consume.

His assertions are all well documented, but by this line of reasoning combined a basic understanding of Economics, we are all guilty no matter what we consume or to what extent we consume it.

Like most, this article deals with the most proximal causes, but neglects to examine the way that the production of even unrelated goods can be related economically. Toning down the consumption of consumer electronics in the first world will likely do little to solve the situation. Just draft up the S+D curves and you can see why.

At least we're not shooting everything into space after Christmas. That's the only way we'll actually deplete resources. Wealthy posh people like Monbiot needs to make up things like scarcity so they can lecture us on consumption.

I'm not a big fan of buying lots of rubbish for Christmas, but it's purely because I don't really see the point and could do with saving the time and effort.

> That's the only way we'll actually deplete resources.

Like we could recycle everything. Or like energy was currently free and non-polluting. Whoever the guy is, he actually gave good arguments in this article.

Throwing plastic toys into landfill is recycling, it's just not at the pace some require to offset their upper class guilt. Energy, we'll run out of it when we the sun burns out and we've depleted the other nuclear sources, not by taking stored energy from the sun and burning it to produce a gas that is then recombined with energy from the sun to give us fuel again.

Yes, and the Earth will recycle itself after the Sun runs out of hydrogen fuel.

You're completely ignoring time here. We may never get to recycle the landfill because the pollution will kill us before. Yes, the Earth will clean itself up in a thousand years, the plastics will decompose, and the Sun will refuel the Earth, but those things are irrelevant if humanity is dead by that time. If we want to keep rising the standard of living on the entire planet, we need to stop poisoning ourselves and trashing everything around us in such a stupid way.

Interesting aside, monbiot actually publishes (publically) all his earnings. So you can find out exactly how (not particularly) wealthy he is. He started a campaign to encourage other journalists / columnists to do the same.

Not many have, unsurprisingly..

Ugh, like we don't have enough social pressure to give up our privacy already.

Not 'our' privacy. Just people who have political influence who receive political 'donations'. Ie. Journalists, politicians etc.

> That's the only way we'll actually deplete resources.

Well, at humanity timescale a lot of thing can deplete without shooting them outside the solar system. Environment for one.

| That's the only way we'll actually deplete resources.

"Depleted" doesn't mean the resources are no longer present. It means they are no longer available efficiently. 1kg of Gold is more valuable in a big pure lump than when it's spread over millions of smashed-up connectors in the world's landfills. Same number of atoms, just more accessible.

The helium in a party balloon really does escape into space, sadly. Big time depleted.

We don't typically find gold in 1kg lumps. IIUC it is quite sparse even in the ore processed in gold mining. Surely running a bunch of connectors through an appropriate purification process would be cheaper than processing a similar volume of ore? If it's not, that tells us something too.

I predict this will be the real killer app of self-assembling and -maintaining nanomachines: processing landfills into ingots of useful material. That's a pretty long range prediction however.

If markets are working more or less efficiently, digging natural gold must still be cheaper. There's a lot of toxic stuff in landfill and it's usually located close to population centres.

Gold-harvesting nano robots would be awesome. Just don't let those suckers loose downtown...

Yeah, that's kind of what I was alluding to with my "that tells us something too" comment. We can't assume that markets are "efficient" in the general case, but we can say that there must be some point at which the ratio of the concentration of gold (or platinum, etc.) in landfills to that in mines will prove irresistible to someone talented enough to harvest it. Long before that point, recyclers will figure out which connectors they want to buy at a premium. They already are quite keen to purchase old catalytic converters.

WRT letting nanomachines loose outside the landfill, I'm not actually as concerned about the "gray goo" scenario as some are. It has seldom been a problem in other engineering endeavors that mechanisms have required too little maintenance, and so in a sense all of our machines face an uphill battle. One could probably make a thermodynamic argument that a given volume of soil contains only so much potential energy, and then calculate how much gold can be moved with that. Then "if the gold concentration is below this value, do nothing" could be a good safety rule to design in.

The gray goo scenario requires self-replicating nanomachines, so not applicable to harvesters that can't replicate.

The problem of where the energy comes from for micro- and nanomachines is very tough. But if you can make the landfill harvesting work, no doubt they'd harvest the hell out of the electronics in an office tower.

Robot foraging and energetics is my area of expertise. Pleasantly surprised to see a cogent comment come up on HN, thanks and nice to meet you!

I've been to the highest yielding part of one of the biggest gold mining operations in the world. I went 2.3km under ground, and down 6km of tunnels horizontally, to a part where they were getting 40 grams of gold per cubic ton of what is essentially hard rock.

Someone doesn't understand the second law of thermodynamics.

"People in eastern Congo are massacred to facilitate smart phone upgrades of ever diminishing marginal utility."

It's not just smart phones; it's anything that uses tantalum capacitors. If, as an engineer, you can avoid using tantalum capacitors in your designs, please do.

"However, although important for the local economy in Congo, the contribution of coltan mining in Congo to the world supply of tantalum is usually small. The United States Geological Survey reports in its yearbook that this region produced a little less than 1% of the world's tantalum output in 2002–2006, peaking at 10% in 2000 and 2008."


“It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour.” ― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

I'm not sure that Dicken's or pop culture calculated that our laughter and good humor might cause the disease and sorrow. Current Christmas culture just accentuates the problem that the average consumer is born into a world where it is often unclear how daily decisions affect the rest of the world.

I agree with you but I also believe that it goes further than current Christmas culture.

As long as environmental externalities of human economic behavior are underpriced, they will continue to happen for reasons that many consider insipid.

And that won't be changed by articles bemoaning consumerism and urging people to be virtuously frugal, while neglecting to mention potentially useful things like externality taxes.

It's always touching to see these people who have no problem at all with consumption during the whole year suddenly shed a tear around Christmas time to denounce the materialism of our lives. And to remind everyone how the world was such a better place when we had nothing at all to share and buy. They should go for a trip to North Korea and enjoy a "non-materialist" Christmas there, with just bananas as the little extra they can permit themselves to have on special occasions. That must be pure bliss! That does not explain why people are so eager to leave these countries whenever they can. (and of course there is a connection between authoritarian regimes and consumption. Isnt that obvious for everyone yet?)

I'll assume you're either not commenting on the article, or you're unfamiliar with Monbiot.

Your second assumption is correct, but I was commenting on the article. This is not the only one of this kind I have seen in these past 2 weeks - so it is a general "thing to do" around Christmas for many political commentators/activists who have apparently nothing interesting/new to say.

I'll give you one of two things: lego if you're under 12, tools if you're over 12. And good tools, no crap. And I'd rather give a select number of people something good than a lot of people something crappy. I'm also 100% anti-social in that I do not send out Christmas cards.

Good ideas, thanks.

A little exaggerated but not far from true. Not speaking of gifts specifically- I'm amazed by the amount of junk toys and useless gadgets coming from China. I actually don't know what amazes me more- that someone thought: "Hey, it's a great idea to make this <useless piece of crap>" or that someone out there is actually buying that stuff.

In a similar vein, a lot of internet bandwidth is filled with advertising.

Which is sad, if you consider how much energy people waste on it and other similar things (e.g. political campaigns), that are basically internal processes required to run things. It is scary how many things with positive feedback loops on costs are part of upkeep of the world. If our society is a wealth generation engine, then it is a hugely inefficient one.

Not really that much; video (mostly Netflix & Youtube) uses more than normal website resources as a whole do.

Besides, like RAM and unlike e.g. plastic, unused bandwidth is wasted bandwidth.

Moving information requires energy, and in the case of advertising, on the scale of Google's data centers.

The only thing I ask for on Christmas is money to help me buy textbooks, because that's the only thing I really need. That, and maybe some bedsheets.

Even then, I really must point out that this problem is as old as humanity itself. There has never been a single generation of humans that has not attempted to flaunt their wealth in grotesquely pointless ways. The rise of the upper middle class simply creates more people rich enough to do so.

Drop me an email please (or put yours in your profile).

An email has been dropped, but may or may not get sent to your spam folder.

  In the US in 2010 a remarkable 93% of the growth in incomes accrued to the top
  1% of the population(7). The old excuse, that we must trash the planet to help
  the poor, simply does not wash.
Yes, and we all know that those crappy gadgets are all made in the US.

The last time I had a quick look at the numbers, global inequality is down due to global trade. It's really that the bottom bit of developed nations lost a bit to those in developing nations.

Personally, I have implemented a simple gift policy for the gift I make and the gift I receive:

- no more than 1 gift

- the gift must not cost overt 20 EUR, and the less expansive the better

- if a list of suggestion is made, better pick up from the list.

Simple, effective and it does not prevent gifts or consumption.

I usually say that to everyone around me to avoid getting stuff I don't know what to do with and will hate myself if I throw it away (it's a gift you know!)

An example : last year xmas present I got from my mom : red ties. Still using them BTW.

If you receive something unexpected, accept it after taking time to inform the offerer of your policy, so that next year you won't be uncomfortable. A single awkward moment, then it will be fine for the next years.

BTW I'm trying to have people stop sending me cards, but I haven't succeeded yet, even after multiple requests- even when I stopped sending them.

The best agreement so far with my family : I explained some people love to receive cards, but I don't, and in fact it makes me very sad - as much as if they don't receive one. So I send them a card IFF they don't send me one - that's a compromise acceptable by both parties.

And everyone is happy. No need for a bleeding hart moralizing article during a guilt trip.

George Monbiot really should be given a nobel prize, it's absolutely amazing that if we just stop Christmas (and using Tantalum capacitors) everyone will live forever and no one will ever die.

Perhaps instead Mr. Monbiot should give himself the gift of a reasonable and nuanced position that doesn't make outlandish claims.

He's done every bit as much as Obama when Obama won the Prize.

I was amused that half the stuff he lists seems to be for sale at Think Geek.

I do try to buy people useful stuff though. Things that they may want to use for a while, and no gag gifts.

I just had a realization on why people may consume like this.

People spend so much time working hard instead of doing what they really want to, because it is expected of them. By consuming they feel their work was worth it and it is the only way they can avoid the dread that they have wasted their lives not following their dreams?

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