Conversations around a Christmas table

Christmas is a reminder of how far we have still to travel to achieve universal peace and goodwill, but for all its problems life is still worth celebrating. [21 December 2010 | Peter Boyer]

Christmas is family, friends and a glass of good cheer. Peace and goodwill. A time to reflect on life’s blessings.

May you enjoy a peaceful and rewarding Christmas.

May you enjoy a peaceful and fulfilling Christmas.

That’s the theory. In my experience it’s less peace and goodwill, more rampant consumerism, as we’re pressed to spend what we haven’t got. Over the years I lost touch with the spirit of Christmas.

Well, almost. A persistent small voice keeps telling me that there’s something worthwhile in all this. That hearing these messages of hope and passing them on to others are somehow worth doing. That getting together with family and friends has a value beyond the festive season.

From the perspective of someone once part of the Christian flock but since strayed to other pastures, Christmas is a reminder of our humanity, of our need for other people and for all living things, and of our solemn responsibility to take better care of our beautiful, fragile world.

We celebrate Christmas knowing that for the most part we’re far removed from its ideals. We know that in this 21st century peace and goodwill are as elusive as they ever were, and that a generous heart can’t be manufactured by a once-a-year exchange of gifts.

But we shouldn’t abandon our ideals to become better citizens. We can get to know our neighbours or join a local voluntary group. Or take a regular breather from the daily grind to slow down, smell the flowers, be nice to people, help a friend, a relative, or a person we don’t even know.

We can take on the ideal of stewardship, by which we acknowledge that humanity can adversely affect our planet’s natural systems. As stewards we take responsibility for the long-term prospects of many species, including our own, by living more in harmony with nature.

It sounds enticing, but society’s demands and expectations make this challenge more complex than it seems. In developed countries like Australia we’re expected to be able to travel independently, to have cash or credit always to hand, and to be thoroughly network-savvy — things that are far from the back-to-nature ideal but which can help us to perform more effectively as citizens.

We can’t opt out if we care about our natural environment and want to do something to conserve it. Heading for the hills isn’t an option. We have to stick around, engage, have our say, make our mark. In doing so, try as we might we won’t be able to avoid becoming an irritant.

This is a problem, never more so than when we meet around a dinner table to enjoy nature’s bounty. In a 2004 study of how society deals with global warming, the Norwegian sociologist Kari Marie Norgaard found that this was one of those awkward subjects that people tacitly agreed was not an acceptable conversation topic.

In joining others to dine, we also join an unwritten agreement on what we can talk about. There’s no better conversation-killer than questioning something that involves personal choices made by our fellow-guests, like how much carbon is emitted by an airliner per kilometre per passenger seat. That’s not the way to keep friends.

Belief systems are complex beasts. There may be some rational thought included in them, but the real force in shaping them is our social life. Our beliefs change not because of a single rational message, but because of a shift in the beliefs of the people we mix with.

Since we’re dominated by irrationality, is there much point applying reason to the hefty matter of climate change? Economist Dan Ariely in a study of people’s behaviour called Predictably Irrational seems to think there is, because “our irrational behaviours are neither random nor senseless — they are systematic and predictable”.

Ariely writes about economics, but his ideas apply to everything that makes people tick, including how they might become engaged to address human-induced climate change. It can be depressing, as he says, “to realise that we all continually make mistakes”. But it can also be empowering.

Ariely’s most powerful teaching is that our very irrationality, our propensity to make mistakes, can provide us with unexpected benefits that reward all parties involved — the “free lunch” that standard economics tells us is an impossibility. Applied to planetary stewardship and sustainable living, behavioural economics may have something quite profound to teach us.

Some unexpected benefits might be just what we need after the biggest banquet in history, a vision of the fossil-fuel binge conjured up by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their book Merchants of Doubt. As Oreskes and Conway see it, this particular lunch definitely doesn’t come free.

Their metaphor for the glorious bounty that fossil fuel has brought us is an imagined feast to end all feasts, where hundreds of millions of people gorge themselves, day after day, to their hearts’ content. Then, one day, as they tell it, a man in a white dinner jacket turns up.

“He says he is holding the bill. Not surprisingly, the diners are in shock. Some begin to deny that this is their bill. Others deny that there even is a bill. Still others deny that they partook of the meal. Finally, the group concludes that if they simply ignore the waiter, he will go away.”

But maybe, just maybe, Ariely is right. Maybe something good will come out of all this, from a place where we least expect it. In any event, I’m going to relax a bit this Christmas and enjoy with profound gratitude the good life that’s been given me. And I hope you do too.

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1 Response to Conversations around a Christmas table

  1. Braveheart says:

    So far, the global climate has warmed by almost 1 degree C, and it’s already putting the local weather all around the world out of kilter, just as the scientists have been warning us for years. But the weather effects so far are mild compared to what we can expect when we reach 2, 3, and 4 degrees (and which are already locked into the system). How much more damage will we do to ourselves before we stop polluting? When will we let common sense rule and accept that most, if not all, recent extreme weather events around the globe are obvious evidence of climate disruption, and that discounting a particular event as being “unable to be positively & definitely linked to climate change” is just an academic loophole?

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