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Volume 4 Issue 2 ISSN# 1708-3265
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The Irony of a Consumer Christmas
by David Suzuki PhD

Seven years ago at this time, the Y2K bug loomed over us like a spectre, threatening to scramble our cell phones, bomb our bank accounts and stymie the stock market. Today Y2K seems like ancient history. Indeed, it's hard to remember what all the fuss was about, since nothing much happened and the story, which the media had been following intently for a whole year, died within a few days after we finished celebrating the dawn of a new millennium.

So now it's just the usual Christmas rush, with people madly flocking to the stores to buy into the latest fad or gizmo. This year it's a $659 Playstation 3 or a robot dog - not a real one that would require responsibility and love to care for, mind you. No, this one is plastic and you can just turn it off when it starts to become annoying on Boxing Day.

Every year it seems that the Christmas hype becomes just a little bit more intense and the commercialism just a little more garish. We all know the holidays are supposed to celebrate values like love, community, friends, family and spirituality, but every year these seem to be buried under a mountain of more and more consumer goods.

You know there is something seriously wrong with our relationship to these goods when even the stories who are meant to remind us of things more important than money are being used to get us to buy more stuff. Look at The Grinch Who Stole Christmas - a simple, anti-consumer children's tale about the true meaning of Christmas. Now it's a special effects-laden blockbuster movie with a $100 million dollar budget and corporate tie-ins at every available opportunity. There's even an "official" credit card of Whoville. A credit card! Dr. Seuss must be rolling in his grave.

Meanwhile, the classic movie It's a Wonderful Life was broadcast on television a few years ago linked to a live contest giving viewers the chance to win $100,000. And this tale of about the generosity and influence of a small-town business person, the dangers of corporate concentration, and the importance of community was sponsored by none other than Wal-Mart!

The irony here is obvious and it isn't overlooked by advertisers, who often actually play it up as part of their sales gimmick. In fact, some observers argue that advertising is now in the "post-ironic era" because consumers are so used to irony we don't even think twice about it anymore. We accept it as humorous on a superficial level without actually considering the source of the underlying tension.

Of course, chuckling at the irony between our buying habits and what we consider to be our real values is a luxury reserved for those of us in the developed world, where there are more rich people now than ever before. In 1990, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was below the seemingly insurmountable ceiling of 3,000, but by 1999 it had powered past 11,000. Globally, there are now more than 500 billionaires, while North America alone boasts 2.5 million millionaires.

Yet 1.3 billion people in the world struggle to survive on $1 or less a day, while three billion people (that's half the population of the planet), eke out a living on $3 or less a day. So while those of us living in the developed world are lucky to be able to worry about things like getting our hands on the newest video game system because it means that we can afford to, subsistence farmers in Africa have bigger worries - like staying alive.

It will be interesting to see how we, as consumers, evolve in a post-ironic era because how we resolve the deeper tensions between our values and our behaviours could very well affect how we evolve as a society.

David T. Suzuki PhD, the Chair of the David Suzuki Foundation, is an award-winning scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster. David has received consistently high acclaim for his thirty years of award-winning work in broadcasting; explaining the complexities of science in a compelling, easily understood way. He is well known to millions as the host of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's popular science television series, The Nature of Things. Take the Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org

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