I know the footpaths of this area well enough to stroll along, night or day, without recourse to a map, and even though I have walked these paths often no walk is ever really the same. From the changing seasons to the changing weather, the scene the smells and the feeling of the land is in a continual state of flux. If you walk across countryside at night, which few people seem to do, you can experience a whole new perception of well known paths; two different perceptions in fact, because although the dark of the night creates a wholly new take on even the most well-walked path, walking through the half-light of the dusk or dawn represents a different experience again where the transition from your daytime colour vision (the cones of your retina) to the monochrome of night vision (the rods) creates a constantly shifting set of shapes and patterns in the mind that defies explanation.
People have historically been afraid of the dark because it represents an unknown quantity; it engenders an irrational unease, the result of a lack of certainty in our visual perceptions, that creates in this ambiguous void a vehicle for our minds and imaginations to run riot. If you can move past that state of mind, and open up your other sensory perceptions to accept the world as it is, then you are rewarded with a unique vista of smells and sounds that are distinct from any that we might perceive during the day albeit it you'll fall over unforeseen obstacles every now and then, or snag yourself more often on bushes and brambles. In much the same way perhaps we should all cease to view Christmas for what it appears to be, and instead open ourselves to the messages that our deeper intuition can convey on what the meaning of this season truly is.
I'm here for one reason; it's not in the town. I've had a hectic five or six weeks, and in that time I've walked more miles in London than I've walked in the countryside. That's a state of affairs that leaves me frustrated and solemn; it magnifies the pressure of the various calls upon my time as I find it difficult to disconnect from the intensity of my everyday work and just "be". The space out here allows me to order and where necessary shed the loads that life dumps on me. Modern society heaps similar pressures on most urban dwellers, but at the same time from TV to window shopping it provides certain self-reinforcing, economically-oriented releases to keep that load manageable. The trouble is that if you don't believe in that way of being, if you can't accept its validity or values, then you have to find some other outlet to deal with the inevitable frustrations of a life that's lived according to patterns wholly divorced from our recent evolutionary heritage. Here, in the green spaces between the staggered urban sprawl, I can walk for an hour or more without worrying about my route or threatening obstructions; sating a deeper desire for an arboreal existence within the limited spaces that exist between the harassments of the urban environment. If you try and do that in the streets of London you'd get flattened by a black cab or a dispatch rider within very short space of time!
Unfortunately today hasn't been typical of the blissful state of disconnected rambling that I desired at the outset; if anything today has been emblematic of the invasion of perception and thought that one cultural tradition, more than any other, represents within modern society Christmas.
Having decided that I just had to "get out of Dodge" for my own well-being I realised that I'd run out of miso to make soup. Consequently I would first have to brave the seasonal mania of Banbury's shopping hub to get some more. I went down through the centre of town and entered Castle Quay, but surprisingly, in the frenzy of consumer angst within, I saw before me the scene depicted in the opening paragraph of one of those great Dickensian tomes:
This paragraph so beautifully sums up what was going on around me: Materially we might have the best of times, but the stresses that it creates, and the effect of the economic imperatives that drive it, are, by comparison to our past history, a poor trade-off for the enjoyment of this material cornucopia; today we have the potential to partake of wisdom from the greatest information infrastructure that humanity has known, but we largely use these networks to communicate foolish visions of "decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live"; in the western world we might appear to have everything, but in fact the ecological and economic fragility of that system, as demonstrated by the credit crunch, means that what we have is no more than a "foul and pestilent congregation of vapours"; and, of course, for many consumerism represents a form of heavenly existence that our species has never previously know, but the price of this in the long-term stands in such stark contrast to the enjoyment of the goods available that this experience can never be more than a transitory analgesia in the vicissitudes of human existence. In Copenhagen the world community is trying to stop the planet entering a catastrophic period of adversity; here people were doing their best to add to it! Of course such a maddening symmetry was lost on everyone else taking part in this ritualistic rite of consumption.
I hurriedly buy the miso and head west through the old heart of the town. Much of Banbury's modern layout is defined within the corridors of the turnpike roads that connected to the town in the mid-Nineteenth Century; on this more ancient route you avoid the main thoroughfares and instead weave through the concentric layers of development that frame the history of the town's development. I pass through the last remaining Medieval streets and out along what's probably one of the ancient trackways that connected the original river ford on which "Banesberie" was established to it's hinterland beyond leaving the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century buildings of the town centre (from Cornmarket through Parson's Street and Church Passage past St. Mary's church), passing through the Victorian and Edwardian streets that mark the boom period of a century or so ago (through People's Park, Bath Road, Kings Road), and finally crossing the 1960s and 1970s suburban estates that fringe much of the town today (Gillet Road, Deacon Way, Mascord Road and up to Bretch Hill, leaving the town past the water tower and TV mast). My route takes an almost linear corridor that was once, only a century or so ago, a wholly rural footpath heading out to the villages on the western side of the town.
I've walked this route many times before, as it's one of the most direct routes westward out of the town, but the joy of it is being able to interpret your relationship to everything that is around you. Certainly I can feel a more meaningful relationship to the "ecological frontages" within this landscape than the content of the more opulent shop frontages of the shopping centre that I have left behind me.
Passing the last boundary between the town and the countryside I pause and survey the view; Crouch Hill to the south, the land rising to Edge Hill in the north, and to the west the rolling hills which end at the escarpment beyond Shennington and Sibford. In the distance I can see the streaky smudge of a rain shower falling somewhere near Duns Tew, the location identifiable by its radio mast, and all around the setting sun the clouds are stacking and folding, animating the sky and the shadows on the hills below. For much of the journey up and over the hill the path follows the Banbury fault, and at this point it marks the boundary between the sands and limestone on this side of the hedge the pits and pock marks showing the signs of historic quarrying of these valuable resources and the marlstone plateau on the other. In such a rich panorama, subject to the competing interests of different groups in society, you inevitably think of the justice of modern land ownership and use; here it's becomes easier to appreciate the eloquence words of Gerrard Winstanley, and their relevance to society today from the row over MPs expenses, to the recent scrabble for land as people desire to cultivate allotments once more.
I follow the hedge over the crest of the hill and, beyond the new stile, rest for a while to eat some of my own-made nutty-seedy bread and take a drink.
As I look out across the patchwork of fields, bounded by trees and hedgerows that are folded and distorted by the bones of the living rock beneath, I think about the relative chaos that I've left a couple of miles behind me. Even here, with only the occasional dog-walker passing on the path, it's difficult to escape the high energy/high consumption patterns of activity that define our rather tarnished conceptions of modernity. Oscar Wilde noted that, "nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing"; as I sit here I am surrounded by activities that, in terms of their economic value, don't begin to internalise the costs of their ecological impacts, but this ignorance also ensures that these activities continue in spite of their effects: Above me, like an angry hornet in search of a body to take its vengeance upon, a microlight is buzzing back and forth along the Sor valley; over the brow of the hill, near Giants Caves, kids are scrambling bikes up and down the bridleway, tearing up the pathway into a quagmire and eroding the thin soils of the slope; high overhead the condensate trails from aircraft streak the sky, and at certain times of the year you can count ten to twenty such trails as planes traverse the main Atlantic air corridor from Europe to North America; but, above all, the economic activity that's having the greatest impact around here is agriculture.
Today, with Winter now truly upon us, the natural landscape has turned a mixture of monotone colours, mostly olive drab, browns and greys; the natural landscape that is, as much of the scene is dominated by the bright green of newly sown wheat, barley and oilseed that has been liberally dosed with the effervescent elixir of N-P-K (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium fertiliser, essential to support the germination and growth of modern high yield crop varieties). Within my lifetime the landscape of this area has been redesigned by agriculture. The traditional view of many conservationists is that roads and urbanisation are damaging the countryside, but it is agriculture that has done the real damage by fundamentally reworking the ecological relationships that underpin the production of biomass (both food, animal fodder and non-economic/wild plants) through the use of artificial inputs. As someone who has walked across the area for the last three decades I've seen these changes take place; more disagreeably, I feel the loss that these changes have wrought through the elimination of hedges (and their Autumn fruits) with the mechanisation of land management, and the loss of fungi and wild ground ground flora (again, many edible) that have been displaced by the use of agrochemicals.
OK, so agriculture has a deleterious effect on the natural environment and this effect can only get worse over the next few decades as we try and feed the world's burgeoning human population; but in the scheme of things it's the impacts of the specific things that we buy that determines our own global ecological footprint. This is the real, unrepresented shadow of the activities that are going on all around. Agriculture is one aspect of your footprint, but unlike agriculture a large part of this footprint remains unseen because it takes place in the global economy, well outside your everyday experience from the humongous pit mines of China and South America to the regional smog of south-east Asia. Although remote and unquantifiable within our own lives, these effects are the inevitable outcome of the actions that we all carry out today.
With the Christmas season now upon us this is the time of year when the impact of the British population reaches its zenith. In December we have, far more than any other month of the year, our greatest personal toll on the global environment: Partly because in December the weather shifts into a colder phase and we burn more fuel in the home; but mostly because of the consumer splurge that accompanies the festive season. However, as noted above, the scope and complexity of these impacts are rarely communicated to the public; to do so would challenge the validity of many activities from flying to factory farming that are considered to be an essential part of the modern growth-oriented economy.
As the media debate on the proceedings of the Copenhagen conference show, what dominates the discussions on carbon emissions is individual energy consumption the direct use of oil, coal and gas. Unfortunately this measure represents only a small part of the global footprint of the average person. If you add up the relative impact, including the estimates of embodied energy and carbon for the different elements of human consumption, then it is the consumption of food and consumer goods that has a more significant impact than the direct utilisation of energy in our homes.
As shown in this graph, the change in the value of monthly retail sales and quarterly energy consumption jumps at the end of the year. There are 21 years of retail data and 11 years of energy data encompassed within this graph; for each period there is an average figure, the small arm on the right side of each vertical line, and the spread of values for each month is shown by the length of the vertical line. By working out the variance of the data from the mean we can assess the significance of any one month within the annual pattern of consumption. The value of retail sales in December stands wholly apart from those of any other month in the year to get statistical, it's two standard deviations from the mean of the monthly averages, which means in simple terms that it's significantly in excess of the other eleven months of the year.
If you add the upturn in energy consumption, and the fact that Christmas tends to be when people buy the most energy- and carbon-dense products, such as consumer electronics, then during December we might (as a rough average of the UK population) consume anywhere between a seventh to a fifth of our annual ecological impact; it's a rather wide estimate precisely because it is so dependent upon the nature of what people buy. For this reason, if you want to "save the planet", then it's Christmas, not flying or light bulbs, that represent the greatest challenge to our need to change our lifestyles!
I pack my bag and set off down the hill. At this point the footpath crosses the bridleway that skirts the western edge of the town. From here you can head north and west to the ironstone plateau, or south down the Sor valley, or south-west across Broughton park to the hills of Wiggington and Whichford beyond. Ideally I'd like to have four or five hours out today; if I had I'd head towards the Roman road at Tadmarton and then north into Shutford via Round Hill, but as I've only a couple of hours before sunset I'm having to curtail my ambitions and head off towards Claydon Hill. I head straight on and gradually the path drops down through a small plantation towards the Sor where it crosses the old mill leat, and then the brook itself over a new footbridge the former bridge having been destroyed by the floods in 1998 (you can see the remains of its concrete carcass below the present bridge).
From the Sor the path crosses the valley floor and goes into the village of North Newington. By the time I arrive at the village's recreation ground it's disappointingly clear that I'm not going to be able to make it to the woods at Claydon Hill either; I could make around in the dark but, at a slower pace, I wouldn't arrive home on time. I pause, consider my options for a moment, and then head north on the path that goes directly towards Wroxton; it's a pleasant walk, hanging onto the valley's steep westerly rim, but it's not as good at the route via Claydon Hill and Padsdon Bottom. As I make it to the top of French's Covert the sun is already setting behind Claydon Hill, and with mists of rain blowing through the air above Banbury the colours of the setting sun are mirrored by intermittent psychedelic rainbows in the east.
If there was ever disconnect between reality and action then surely Christmas is the paramount example that we can take from the Consumer Society. Whilst it's not possible to dispute the underlying values of Christmas, and the fact that many people attach a positive value to the "meaning" of Christmas, you have to ask yourself whether the manner in which we mark the event has any relevance to the person it is intended to celebrate. In a more literal sense, the manner in which Christmas is marked today is equivalent to marking Gandhi's birth by declaring war, or the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with a massacre. Whilst environmentalists talk about the importance of a deal at the UN's Copenhagen conference, they appear to have some sort of myopia regarding the plastic Santas and the "house bling" that have become an accepted part of the Christmas season. Thinking again of Dickens' works, it is from A Christmas Carol that we get the "baa humbug" riposte to anyone who criticises the excesses of the modern Christmas but there's a clear difference between a criticism based upon miserliness, and a criticism based upon a genuine concern for the future of all people, irrespective of whether they celebrate Christmas or not.
As I gaze at the setting sun, draping itself across the string of hills Sibford Heath, Yarn Hill, Epwell Hill and Shenlow Hill that mark the terminal heights of the Ironstone plateau, I think about the solar origins of the Christmas festivities. The majority of ancient cultures had festivals tied to the seasons. As we approach the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, it marks the point when ancient cultures across Europe celebrated the beginning of a new year and the impending rebirth of the landscape in the Spring a rite appropriated by the early Christian church to mark the birth of Christ (the Bible itself gives no precise date the present festivities arising from the pronouncement of holy emperors a few centuries later). With the homogenisation of mass culture around the globe, Christmas has now become an annual phenomena that crosses cultural divides to unite people in an activity that they can all celebrate as one, irrespective of race, creed or politics consumption.
If you read Dickens' A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge wakes on Christmas morning, and asks the boy in the street what day it is, he then gives the boy some money to buy food for Bob Cratchit's family. That's because, at that time, Christmas Day was not a public holiday it was a working day just like any other. In fact, two hundred years before the book's publication, the Puritans had banned the celebration of Christmas and other such festivals altogether because of their association with the Catholic church. Dickens' story marks the point when, on the back of the mass production of goods ushered in by the Industrial Revolution, Christmas began to become a consumer-oriented festival much of the accessories of the modern Christmas, from trees and cards to high-value presents, were originated in the fifty years following the book's publication. In the Twentieth Century, spurred on by the ever-larger surpluses generated by the Technological Revolution and the 'Green' (or techno-agricultural) Revolution 'Green' (or techno-agricultural) Revolution, Christmas has become a secularised rite of consumption, eviscerating the solemnity of the celebrations that marked the event in the centuries before.
As noted above, Scrooge's miserliness was most egregiously demonstrated in response to a request to give to the poor; at that time charitable giving was an obligation on the rich an unwritten social contract to balance their personal acquisition of wealth. In a similar manner to Scrooge's withholding of charity, the ecological impact of Christmas today is predominantly the result of consumption by the world's rich and ultimately the adverse impacts of this will be felt by the world's poor due not only to the impacts of climate change, but also the more general depletion of natural resources that will restrict our development options in the future. If Dickens' criticism were to fall on society today then, equating the values of the different eras, consumption without concern about the impacts on the globally poor is just as morally distasteful as Scrooge's miserliness in his disregard for the poor of his own parish.
If we look at this as an issue of moral and spiritual conduct then clearly we shouldn't question the cultural basis of the Christmas festival, but rather the way in which modern consumer culture demands that it be marked in short, "be happy and buy". Consumption has become the means by which Western societies are able to generate the illusion of prosperity, creating, by association with the act of consumption and the possession of consumer goods, the appearance of personal wealth. Of course, such an attitude is an anathema to some of the central themes of the Bible for example, St. Paul's epistle to Timoth (1 Timothy 6:9-10)
That's probably a better reflection on the obsessions of the business and political groups in western society, and their totemic pursuit of economic growth, than it is on the celebration of Christmas itself. More generally we can look at the New Testament as expressing a position that is anti-materialist or, in a more modern context, anti-consumerist. Certainly you can find many passages in the Gospels that deal with the ills of wealth and consumption, for example Matthew 16:26
And again, in terms of the "conspicuous" nature of modern consumption, there are references which deal with that too (Matthew 6:24-29; and for the more Pythoneque amongst you, no, I haven't "got it in for the birds")
The Gospel of Matthew also contains perhaps the most apt reference to the conflicts between materialism and spirituality (Matthew 19:16-24)
As I walk on north towards Wroxton the sun finally sinks below the south-western horizon, and the strengthening wind is creating, as I look back and forth, a swirling zoetrope of towering coloured clouds across the sky. As I stand, looking at the view through some elegant trees, in the grounds of Wroxton Abbey nearby a brass band strikes up playing Christmas carols. The sensation this creates, here of on the edge of a dry valley that contains the remnants of an old landscaped park, makes my presence here seem rather absurd; I can't quite equate the visual and the aural setting since this is the same music that I heard only an hour or so ago set against the shopping frenzy of the town centre.
Ironically, given my desire to escape the psychological intrusion of Christmas, I was stood in the middle of a field well outside the town and yet just half a mile away a band was now blasting out the modern conception of Christmas in the guise of its iconic melodies; the abstract representation of a pagan celebration to mark the turning of the year, wrought by Dickensian prose and the excesses of Victorian material productivity into a festival of consumption, and finally given form by its modern-day associations of consumption and excess through the anthems of Christmas carols.
However, from the point of view of "Christ's Mass", we seriously have to question this implicit link between the moral and social aspects of the season, and the economically-oriented orgy of consumption that now marks its passing. The band in the grounds of the Abbey might, from the consumption imperative within American culture (the Abbey is a UK outpost of the New Jersey-based Fairleigh-Dickinson University), be promoting a message of universal truth and love of which the Augustinian founders of the priory might approve; but this message is now sublimated into a simplistic framework for consumption and acquisition by the overriding economic imperatives within which this festival is now contrived.
During the months of December and January, either side of the solstice, the sun reaches its lowest elevation in the Northern Hemisphere, and in this area it sets at roughly 235° south-west, rather than the traditional idea that the sun sets 'due west' (270° roughly where the sun sets at the equinoxes). I wanted to walk via Padsdon Bottom, the next valley over, because it runs at roughly 235°, meaning that from Castle Bank enclosure (an Iron Age or Roman earthwork) the setting sun is framed perfectly by the valley and the hills beyond it's the ideal location to stop, rest, and have a brew. I wonder about stopping here but decide to walk on, the enforced merriment of seasonal band music is not exactly conducive to a tranquil sunset picnic. In any case, today I've been in no particular hurry, my pace has slackened, and as a result time has caught up with me and I must now skip a rest stop (I don't carry a timepiece as over the years I have found that I can "feel" time pass through the movement of the sun, moon, stars or the light of the day deferring my progress to a standardised timepiece would take all the fun out of walking!).
As I continue on the wind strengthens; I feel the odd spit of a shower, and at the same time the air temperature drops with the approach of a bank of cloud from the north perhaps a weather front. I pause and take my keffiyeh from my rucksack and tie it around my head to keep warm. I've had it for years, and it's probably the most wonderfully versatile pieces of clothing that I have; it's a scarf, hat, balaclava, towel, sunshade, anti-mosquito veil, improvised rucksack and pillow case, all in one light and handy garment! The Arab cultures who invented it deserve praise for their ingenious creation; an unchanging, metastable design, it's the antithesis of modern consumerism one item fulfilling so many functions for, if looked after, such a long period of time. The only difficulty is that when wearing it, given that I also have a beard, you do get some strange looks from passers by. About a year ago I was walking on a very windy day and tied it around my head to protect my ears. Shortly after I took shelter under a hedge and had lunch bread with hawthorn and goose grass leaves that I plucked from the sward around me. Suddenly a woman on a horse came around the corner; she saw me, obviously a person who by their attire was a member of the Al Queda rambling club, and galloped off at speed.
The temperature falling, I decide to press on until I'd crossed the park; Wroxton Abbey was a large and wealthy estate, and consequently this entire area was reshaped by scenic landscaping in the late Eighteenth Century although the encroachment of agriculture, and the fact that many of the original trees have now passed their prime, mean that the landscaping has become a little tattered of late. From the hill above the manor house you can see the monuments that remain from the original design: the stone dovecot; the obelisk; and in the distance, on the far side of Sor Brook, the folly arch.
As I walk through the grounds the sky is beginning to darken, the peach and yellow of the sunset giving way to lilac and crimson. I descend the steep valley from the dovecot, passing across the causeway between the old fish ponds (possibly the last remnant of the original Augustinian priory), and climb the grassy slope on the other side until I reach the obelisk. As I pause to take in the view the beech trees, silhouetted by the spectacular sky beyond, are mesmerising, but the growing hunger inside prompts me to carry on.
Descending from the obelisk I reach the small stone bridge that carries two footpaths across Sor Brook. It's showing the signs of wear from the farm vehicles that continually use it part of the bridge deck has recently collapsed. The passage of farm traffic and scramble bikes also means that the farm tracks around the bridge are deep in mud. I pick my way past and head on up the track on the far side that leads up to the folly (for reference, this isn't the footpath route marked on the Ordnance Survey map, it's an unofficial route along the farm track that everyone has become accustomed to using to reach the folly directly). By the time I reach the folly the sunset has atrophied into one angry red eye on the horizon, framed by thickening dark clouds and capped with a lid of maroon cumulostratus. I sit on the small step at the foot of the arch and survey the scene. It's getting dark quickly and I wonder if it's worth stopping, but after a short moment of reflection I decide that if I don't stop now then I'm not going to have a chance for a long time. I unpack my groundsheet from the rucksack and set-up my stove.
I'm sure that our relationship with fire is a custom more ancient than any other feast or festival that we observe today the simple act of sitting by the warmth and light of an open flame, within the darkness of the night, engenders such a welcome sense of well-being. In my pack I carry a tin of dried birch bark; the flaking, tarry sheets make it the ideal tinder. I pack some of the bark in the base of my storm kettle and throw on a handful of small wind-fallen sticks, gathered from the side of the field on my way up the hill; as my match touches the bark it explodes into flame and the sticks begin to char. All around the encroaching darkness is pushed back by the dancing flames, lighting the imposing Eighteenth Century arch above against the amorphous oppression of the darkening night. I place the water-filled kettle on top of its base, causing the flames in the base to be drawn up the tapering chimney and out of the top, pogoing from its funnel like punks and causing the shadows on the arch to dance with a reciprocating syncopation.
About four or five minutes later, when the water begins to boil, I whip the top off the kettle and, over the glowing embers that now lay within, fit a steel grill on top of the base making something that resembles a small circular barbecue. I decant half the boiling water into my mug, the other into the paste I've prepared in the bottom of small saucepan, and place it on top of the grill to simmer. After ten minutes of effort I relax on my groundsheet with a saucepan of savoury miso noodle soup and a mug of black coffee; the embers in the kettle, stoked with the few remaining sticks, creating a perceptibly warm pocket of air in my sheltered resting place. All this warmth and refreshment is the result of collecting a handful of small sticks, but their utilisation creates an incalculably greater return in terms of the feeling of satisfaction I now have certainly it's something that can't be gift wrapped in any Debenhams!
As the flavours of the soup insinuate themselves into my mood my eyes survey the landscape before me the last glimmers of the sunset are now marbling the barely perceptible horizon, and what I thought to be the warm soup fogging my glasses turns out to be a thickening mist occluding my view of the valley below. This moment has much meaning for me, but to many it might appear wholly aberrant. Even so, is this an illusion, like those marketed within the shopping hub a couple of miles behind me?; or is it a phenomena more perceptibly real, or rather more honestly apparent, than any past-time that can be simply bought? Am I consuming in the same manner as the throng I negotiated earlier today?, or does the value I attach to my existence here now, in these conditions, define a sentiment of well-being wholly separate from the material input of this meal?; does soup in the cold dark of the Sor valley in December represent something that has a distinct and inestimable value to everyday consumer activity?
Slavoj Žižek talks of the "desert of the real" how the imposed strictures of modern society impoverish us spiritually by removing individual meaning from our lives and redefining it in terms of external, largely economically-based, behaviour. This results in a façade of existence within which we must negotiate our lives
On that basis I'm clearly partaking of something that has a different value since, both in its creation and in its enjoyment, only I can define its form. It is not a shared façade, since the values it seeks to exemplify are internally defined within my own use of it. I might have bought my storm kettle, but it's almost identical to the design that was used by fishermen more then a century ago, and in its versatile use what defines the quality of its output is the refinement of my own skill in using it, not just the simple act of possession. More significantly, the use of the kettle in this setting obviates the need for further consumption by reinforcing modes of action that are more economically and materially self-sufficient.
Then again perhaps the iconoclast of post-modern society, Jean Baudrillard, provides a more acute observation on the relationship between consumerism and the imposition of the consumption ethic on the individual
If "consumption is... something which is forced upon us", then what does that make Christmas?; a scourge upon western society? consume or be damned! Thinking of this passage I'm suddenly struck with the response that it might provoke from the economic fundamentalists of government planning "baa humbug!"
As noted earlier, seeing the world in such a way can isolate you from modern society, driving you by your own volition into the lonely wilderness of the heretic; it's difficult to be a part of something when the values it demands are something wholly alien to your own sense of being. Returning to Baudrillard's other work of note, Christmas, like many other aspects of the modern political economy, has in recent times ceased to have reference to any natural process; as a result Christmas has become a simulacrum a counterfeit, a hyper-reality that is remote from the objective form of the age-old themes and values that Christmas represents. To reconcile this relationship between material consumption, and the core of Christian values, requires that we delude ourselves on the materiality of one argument over the substance of another a process in which deception, omission and the falsification of accepted reality are implicit. Or, as Baudrillard states, "the simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth, it is the truth which conceals that there is none".
If, in Žižek's terms, consumerism is merely a "play on affluence" where we enter into an unwritten contract with society to believe that acquisition defines wealth and well-being then Christmas must be the annual re-dedication of that process; the point at which the absurd, almost perverse imprinting of Christian values upon the processes of Mammon is a necessary rite in order to render them acceptable to a society increasingly devoid of spiritual meaning in the patterns of everyday existence. Even so, such associations cannot escape the significance of Christmas as a driver in the annual burdens of material consumption, and the obligatory nature of participation in this process, irrespective of the affluence of the individual. Ultimately it means that Christmas ceases to be a religious festival and instead takes on a greater significance as an economic instrument with consumerism.
Perhaps more significantly, in terms of the canon of Christian philosophy, the modern Christmas encourages activities that are, through their global ecological impact upon the poor, outside the moral and spiritual messages that Christ himself sought to convey. Logically, you cannot commemorate the life of a person in ways that oppose the work of that individual; it is a calumny that insults their life, and deceives those to whom you make such claims. Few people in Britain are active Christians, although many might describe themselves as "Christian" if asked but that is not the point. The issue here is that a highly damaging exercise in mass consumption is to some extent solemnified, and for that reason isolated from a more active criticism of its impacts, through its association with the Christian faith.
Therefore, irrespective of our faith (if any), in our own relationship to this season we must disassociate these two contesting forces: material consumption, and the economic imperatives upon which this takes place; and the religious (Christian philosophy) and spiritual (the earlier pagan rituals of the solstice) context of the season itself. For example, returning to the message of Matthew 19 and Dickens' A Christmas Carol, if American/western culture seriously wished to commemorate Christmas then it would forgo the excess of personal consumption during the Christmas season and instead re-direct that wealth towards supplying the poorest people around the globe with the essentials sufficient shelter, water, food, healthcare and education required for civilised human survival. If they did this then perhaps it would engender a change in global relations, and this in turn would create the atmosphere of peace and love that is at the core of Christ's teachings a more true enactment of "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men" (Luke 2:14) would be difficult to devise.
My in-built time clock tells me that the evening is drawing near, and that if I don't leave soon then I'll pass the deadline I had specified for my return (keeping such obligations is important when you don't have a mobile phone with which to inconvenience the plans of others in order to satisfy your own whimsical changes in schedule). The encroaching cold and mist has banished people back to the warmth of the town; the dog walkers, scramble bikes and microlights have long since gone, and all I can hear now is the distance thunder of road noise and the occasional siren. Grudgingly, given the idyllic setting within which I find myself after the antagonisms of the day, I begin to pack my rucksack and devise a route home.
Walking in the dark requires a little more forethought. When taking a rest you need to have the minimum of equipment, and use it in an orderly way, to avoid losing things in the darkness, or absent-mindedly leaving them behind (don't use a torch it spoils your night vision!). I carefully repack my bag with the cooking utensils and the now cool stove; finally I roll up my groundsheet and place it in the top of my pack, stand up, and set-off home once again. The mist has grown thicker in the thirty minutes or so that I've been here, and even if there were any remnants of the light of the dusk they would be all but useless in these conditions. Instead I navigate by the distant orange haze, and the noise of my boots upon the varying surface qualities of the path.
As I walked from the folly I noticed a curious small light on the path ahead, like a miniature Cyclops staring at me from a distance. When I reached it I found it was a discarded disposable butane gas lighter that incorporated a small ultra-bright LED torch. Perhaps due to damp or damage it was now uselessly shining its remaining battery life into the night. A result of walking at night is that, rather like the general degradation of the natural environment, you begin to appreciate the issue of light pollution more markedly too because your eyes become more sensitive to the dark than in the town. However, during the Christmas season, this sensitivity to the use of lighting takes on a whole new dimension.
I re-enter the town on the footpath from Drayton that crosses Bretch Hill road, carries on through Trinity Close and through public park beyond arriving starkly into the reality of Christmas once more when I join the bustling Warwick Road. Every now and then I see cars that, defying their expected vector of movement, appear to be randomly slowing and slewing across the roadway. In the distance there was a screech of brakes and the blast of a horn. Halfway down the hill I ascertain the cause of the phenomena; a number of houses are caked in the luminary paraphernalia of the Christmas season from flashing icicles to animatronic Santas and passing motorists are rubbernecking the spectacle as they drive by. Today a tree isn't a sufficient totem for the festive season; we must instead clad our homes in electrical devices that consume ever-greater amounts of polluting resources in order to show our devotion to the seasonal orthodoxy of consumption. The conflicting speed and direction of traffic mean that, before I've reached the intersection with Ruscote Avenue a little further on, there had been two more loud contestations between drivers over access to the carriageway clearly the energy of this garish lighting is amplifying the more antagonised spirit of Christmas that I observed in the shopping centre earlier in the day!
Of course all these baubles merely represent a fashion that, enabled by mass manufacturing technologies that can reduce unit costs, allow people to do things that they would have once considered unrealistic. It's also a fact that changing the extant economic circumstances might invalidate these factors, which could just as easily reverse these trends. Such consuming desires are not novel in society. To take a less seasonal example, consider mobile phones. Throughout the day I've seen people walking around with small boxes seemingly clamped to their ears from the harassed devotees of the shopping centre, to dog walkers in the middle of fields. A few even have headsets, meaning that what you see is someone walking along the street with a disembodied gaze, animatedly talking to themselves; twenty years ago passing policemen would have taken them to one side and asked politely if they were taking their medication!, but today it is acceptable conduct.
Whilst on this subject, this week I met an old friend who told me that some of the warehouses in the town have the latest thing in computer management systems (a.k.a "voice-driven logistics"). From the moment that the operatives clock-in and put on their headsets a computerised voice tells them where to go, what to pick up, which bay to drop it in, and when to take a break reducing people, in the name of increased efficiency, to automatised low-skilled handling devices (but at a comparably cheaper price than, if it were practical for that application, fully mechanised processing).
There is seemingly little difference between these uses of digitised communications technologies both represent a submission to a technologically mediated framework of existence outside our immediate reality. People attribute value to the disembodied voice over the phone, divorced from the context within which they reside at that time. In many such subtle ways communications technologies are re-working, at an accelerating pace, the millennia-old human power of verbal communication into something that has discernibly different values. It seems that the naturally loquacious nature of our species is being subverted by a greater controlling purpose; but whilst the opportunities to communicate are being extended, the purposes for which this communication can take place are being narrowly confined to certain economically productive activities. Another example of the way technological ideals can be redirected to less ideal purposes is the way in which the Internet promised greater human communication, but has instead has been driven by economically-oriented objectives in its construction; for example, email services and targeted advertising that are based upon the ever-greater electronic surveillance of the activities and attitudes of the public that use them (even for user-friendly services such as Google, who compromised their core values in order to gain an economic advantage in China).
My critique of mobiles might appear to stray away from the theme of Christmas but try to think, within the analyses of Baudrillard and Žižek, in more generic terms; human society is very good at assimilating changes that, objectively, have little benefit for individual well-being but which benefit external interests.
Once again I pass through People's Park, St. Mary's Church, and then take a right down Tink-a-Tank into the High Street. As I pass the burgeoning pawn shop that's been mopping up the detritus of a cash-strapped economy for at least the last year, and see that the local authority's Christmas lights are rather insipid by comparison to a number of private homes that I've recently seen, I think in more relative terms about the value I've drawn from my outing today. More precisely, I consider how the investment of resources in my recreational activities might compare to the more mainstream past-times that the shops all around me purvey. Like the economic processes that have subverted mobile phones into devices for market-oriented surveillance or the remote control of warehouse staff, the commendable aspirations of the Christmas festival have been subverted to perform a wholly separate economic role within society. Thankfully this need not always be the case; if the circumstances change, from the seemingly imminent demise of the value of the pound to the global acceptance that conventional oil production has peaked, then the forces that have created the present economic environment could quickly unravel and return us to more meaningful patterns of activity.
Returning to Oscar Wilde's wry observations on life, he also stated that, "the basis of optimism is sheer terror". Quite simply, if people really thought about what was going on around them, and seriously considered and understood the likely implications of this on their future well-being, then they would in all likelihood be in a perpetual state of terror. The practical, if unfortunate reality is that as observed by Wilde the human psyche finds it very difficult to assimilate the more abstract challenges to our future well-being; our consciousness is keyed to the immediate environment, not to abstract future scenarios. Even so, perhaps as a way of dealing with problems that are beyond our capacity to accept, in the face of obvious difficulties many people will instead take a delusional optimism in the contemplation of other, more pleasurable past times such as consumption (the modern Christmas being perhaps the optimal expression of such a cornucopian attitude to existence).
The most positive outcome we can take from the seeming ecological terror of the modern Christmas is that it cannot last; it will be subject to the uncertainties that the present human ecological crisis portends for our development over this century. The truth is that no one person conceived of its present structure; from individuals umbilically connected to cellular communication devices, to Yuletide homes drawing the power of a small industrial unit for tawdry lighting, the form of our present Consumer Society has not proceeded according to any preconceived design. It has arisen by the functional creep of technological developments into various economically-oriented niches; this allows the consumer system to grow and create a greater return on investment; in turn these economic niches then become self-sustaining and can then begin to supplant other types of economic activity that may have been carried on for decades before... "that's progress!"
Accordingly if we, or more likely the impending economic realignments that energy and resource depletion will enforce, change the operating conditions of the modern economic system then this will, in turn, redefine what people consider as "realistic" within their everyday lives a process that the Bishop of Manchester, Nigel McCulloch, seems to have appreciated when he said last year that the, "collapse of the god of materialism and consumerism was forcing us to think again". Of course, such a viewpoint ignores the psychological realities of how people deal with life-changing events; changes that necessitate a response when concrete realities can no longer be ignored for example, the five stages of the Kübler-Ross model. Whilst accepting that people are very good at convincing themselves that "everything's going to be all-right", there comes a point when the average person cannot resolve the conflicting messages that they receive in their everyday life, and the stress that such dissonance creates in their mind, no matter how much they try and optimistically ignore it.
For example, the limits of our capacity for self-delusion can also be demonstrated empirically in the way people assimilate the benefits of material consumption. Western society may promote, within our social attitudes toward consumption, the concept that material wealth is good and will make us happier but our psychological make-up still stubbornly refuses to comply with this outlook. As demonstrated in the research of Frey and Stutzer, the acquisition of greater wealth does not automatically translate into greater happiness, and so having more does not make you proportionately happier
So, the power of delusion to win-out over the stresses of the modern consumer society clearly has its limits, whether we honestly admit it or not (and even if we cannot admit it to ourselves, psychological research is finding ever more elaborate ways to wring the truth from our minds!). As noted above, such delusions can be fickle in the face of adversely changing circumstances; accordingly, once you have climbed over the great wall of self-delusion, and you have accustomed yourself to the realities of the ecological precipice upon which we all sit today, then you will probably find it a fairly simple transition to visualise less materialistic ways to live our lives. Once you can distinguish between the myth and the reality of consumption it's becomes relatively simple to understand that, whilst being materially less endowed than today, society can still have the capacity to support the essential aspects of a viable and rewarding existence. However, the value we will take from such a society will not be through the external enjoyment of "stuff", but rather the exploration of our own expression through our social and spiritual interaction with others, and through realising our own relationship to the wider ecological world that underpins our existence today.
Perhaps then, through such ways of expressing the essence of our being, we can (even for those not of the Christian faith) more honestly mark the values of Christ in the celebrations of Christmas. Perhaps we can willingly become more like Dickens' character Scrooge: Not the miser that those who criticise the modern Christmas are so often associated with; but rather the Scrooge who was able to realise the implications of his actions and change his outlook on life to avoid such a frightful fate
I arrive home about fifteen minutes later than the time I had
set by the clock. Discarding the accoutrements of my countryside
walk, I make a drink and have a sit down. The rambling conclusion
of the day?:
Don't go Christmas shopping, go for a long walk; such words are the best present that I have to give to you this year.