ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
There are certain times of year that retailers don't just look forward to, they depend on: early summer sales, fall back-to-school shopping, Black Friday. But this year's holiday sales remind commentator Adam Frank of exactly what this season should not be about.
ADAM FRANK, BYLINE: It's an ongoing and depressing holiday tradition. Every year in December, thousands of human beings stream into big-box stores searching for things: objects to place under a tree, objects to present to one another. Things they will soon forget all about once the ground begins to thaw and the snow starts to melt. Things that simply will not last and that we simply do not need.
Heading into the holidays, maybe we can reflect for a moment on the roots of our collective consumer delusion.
Recently, I finished a book tracking the way human beings organize society around collective conceptions of time. The effort left me deeply struck by the origin of our modern version of time, the way, for example, we learn at school that 9 a.m. is for math but 10 a.m. is for history. It all started with a simple concept of efficiency. Efficiency means you can make more stuff if you can reduce the time each step in this stuff-making process takes. This idea of economic growth through efficiency soon became the holy grail of industry. It spread to every aspect of modern culture, from the shop floor to the front office and then, remarkably, to the storefront.
The long-term problems with this scenario are obvious. You can't have infinite growth on a finite planet. What is less obvious, however, is the price of the idea on a smaller scale within our human communities. Somehow, efficiency in industry morphed into the demands of convenience consumerism in everyday life. Growth became a holy grail that even families were expected to worship.
Now, don't get me wrong. I like my stuff as much as the next guy. From a solidly made shovel to a brilliantly designed app, from a sharp steel kitchen knife to a beautifully written book, making things is what we humans do. But at this moment in history, we desperately need to figure out if a balance can exist between what we make and how much we take in terms of planetary resources, which brings me back to the holidays.
Since most of what we do in the next month is voluntary, the holidays give us a wonderful opportunity to opt out of what's happening and do something different. Here's what I mean. What if you simply bought half as many gifts this year? That's it, just half. And what if those gifts were really well-made? Things that will last. For each gift you don't buy, you could write a card and tell that person that they're important to you. If you have kids, get them one cool thing that relates to nature and the environment. How about a book about tigers? Everybody loves books about tigers.
If they're old enough, use that present to explain the links between all of our stuff and the natural world. For adults, you could even replace presents with gifts in their name to something like Heifer International. Rather than yet another Christmas sweater, they'll see that money go to buying cows and chickens for families that need them.
These are ideas I'll try with my newfound holiday time consciousness. I'm sure you have your own. The point here is to be creative because that's what human beings do best. The question for all of us, though, is this: Can we opt out of this crazy shopping frenzied holiday time and create something new, something better, something that can truly sustain us all?
SIEGEL: Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester. He's also the author of "Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang." You can comment on his essay at our website. Go to npr.org and click on Opinion.