Without fail, this is my favourite time of the year. That’s not because it’s one of a handful of times in the year you can get a slow cooker or an air fryer for an absolute bargain on Black Friday. The real reason I love this week so much is that for the past decade on the last Thursday of November, I’ve been lucky enough to celebrate Thanksgiving with family and friends. Although we don’t officially celebrate this American holiday in Ireland, I can hand on heart recommend it as being way better than Christmas. The reason it’s so much more enjoyable? No gifts.
nyone with a decent bone in their body enjoys giving gifts and we all love receiving them. But hear me out. There is something extremely wholesome and perspective inducing about gathering family and friends together with the sole objective of sharing a special meal and expressing gratitude. The simplicity of Thanksgiving is what makes it so enjoyable. Removing the act of giving gifts changes the dynamic in a way that optimises pleasure and promotes happiness.
In the book Homo Deus, the historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari talks about happiness in a way that feels especially relevant to this time of year. He declares that “achieving happiness is almost as difficult as beating death” and that “people are made happy by one thing and one thing only: pleasurable sensations in their bodies”.
So it’s no surprise that we’re striving to pack in as many pleasurable sensations as possible during the darker, colder winter months to cheer ourselves up from impending gloom. But does the adrenaline buzz of buying tonnes of new things at the pace that’s encouraged really fulfil us? Is all this consumption contributing to or taking away from our happiness?
Harari writes that “to attain real happiness humans have to slow down the pursuit of pleasant sensations, not accelerate it” and that “we only become happy when reality matches our expectations”. To me, these statements perfectly reflect how the consumerism overdrive during the festive season (which now extends from November into February) leaves us over-stimulated and under-satisfied.
Why isn’t the simple pleasure of a nice meal with loved ones enough? All the signals we receive from ads on TV, on social media and on the radio is that we need to add in another appetite. Modern life is designed to make us feel a constant sense of dissatisfaction. In an Instagram world of ‘expectation versus reality’ no matter how much we have, we always want more.
Some would call this progress. Our in-built drive for success and hierarchy has been around long before social media. Without the pursuit of fresh goals and the acquisition of goods, humans wouldn’t have the prosperity and innovation that we now benefit from. But there are downsides to constant accelerated growth and consumerism: in emotional terms it’s a feeling of never quite reaching contentment and in ecological terms it’s disastrous levels of waste and more recycling to do.
I recently discovered that up to 80pc of items purchased on Black Friday (and the associated plastic packaging they’re wrapped in) will either end up in landfill, be incinerated or be recycled after a short timeframe. But even scarier than that is the report that UK shoppers are expected to spend almost £9.2bn (€11bn) this Black Friday. That’s 15pc more than in 2020.
Just thinking about all of the recycling. It’s enough to make your head burst.
Do we really want to have to do even more unnecessary recycling when we’re still figuring out the basics? If you’ve ever stood in front of a series of coloured bins and couldn’t for the life of you figure out which bin to put your empty packet of crisps before giving up and putting it in the black bin for general waste, then you’re not alone.
Most of us are well intentioned when we recycle, but we’re still learning and we don’t always get it right. It’s pretty demoralising to think that being a committed but imperfect recycler (what’s now dubbed a ‘wishcycler’) could do more harm than good.
The reason recycling is such a head scratcher is because of the prevalence of that little gremlin called plastic. It’s a really useful material when used in the right way. But in the context of waste, plastic can be difficult to recycle because its composition changes every time it’s processed. In some cases, it can’t be recycled at all and is dumped and burnt or sent abroad for other countries to deal with. When Boris Johnston recently told a group of kids at a Downing Street event that ‘recycling doesn’t work’ and the answer is cutting down on our use of plastic, he wasn’t wrong. His remarks may have been clumsy but they illustrate a valid point about the real effect that recycling has in reducing our impact on the environment.
Doing things like cutting out meat from our diet or no longer taking long-haul flights have a greater impact than recycling. But they are harder for people to do. Focusing on recycling serves as a distraction from facing up to the real issue which is how we consume and how things are packaged.
The World Economic Forum says we should avoid the recycling stage at all costs and prevent waste from being created in the first place. Yet the current industrial system is set up in a way that focuses on growing consumption and leads us to believe that recycling will take care of everything.
Let’s be clear. Recycling is obviously a good thing to do. We don’t want to stop doing it. And it’s something we can all continue to get better at. But it doesn’t hold all the answers. We need to move beyond recycling if we really want to build a more circular economy. That means becoming less dependent on recycling as a way to absolve ourselves from literally buying rubbish that we don’t need.
In the words of Emily Atkin (who writes a brilliant climate newsletter called HEATED) “Stabilising the climate requires systemic change. However worse the climate crisis gets now depends on how quickly society transforms. How quickly society transforms depends on how many people demand it. The most harmful lie being spread about climate change today is not that it is fake. It’s that nothing you can do can help save the world.”
We can reclaim our power. There’s no better time than on the week of Black Friday.
Anne-Marie Tomchak is a journalist and eco-entrepreneur. You can follow her on social media @amtomchak