You know what I really love reading while plutocrats turn the U.N. climate conference into meaningless blather? The onslaught of seasonal service pieces about how to make my Christmas tree more sustainable. They’re completely unhinged.
Let’s start with the central question driving these stories: Should you buy a real or artificial tree? Most people want a simple answer—and for what it’s worth, most experts say the more sustainable option is a real tree, unless you reuse your artificial one for decades. But it won’t take long perusing the Google hits before you conclude that, whatever you pick, you’ll need a horticultural degree and a lot of time if you want to celebrate Christmas without feeling like a planet-destroying little shit.
CBS ran a piece this year suggesting people buy tree species native to their region—for example, a Douglas fir if you live in the Pacific Northwest—and “look for local nurseries that protect their soils from erosion and minimize harm to surface and groundwater from runoff.” This on its own may be tough, since the nursery industry is now dizzyingly complex and not particularly local.
And once the holiday season is over, you’re supposed to dispose of the tree responsibly so it doesn’t end up in a landfill and produce methane as it decomposes. If your municipality doesn’t offer tree-chipping services, and you don’t have a yard in which to compost your tree, CBS adds that “trees can be used as an erosion barrier for sand or soil or as fish habitat in lakes. They can even be donated whole to zoos, where the trees provide entertainment for animals … or they can be tossed into a bio-burner to provide heating for buildings. Some people even feed trees to goats.”
Now, you might balk at sourcing local goats to eat your Christmas tree. But that’s only because you haven’t read how complicated it is to turn your tree into a fish habitat. Per the story linked above: “As an avid angler, your boat likely has an electronic fishfinder with GPS capabilities. You can use your fishfinder to scan the bottom for the best areas lacking any cover. Take into consideration seasonal fish transitions, relation to deeper water and close proximity to a main river channel.” Once you’ve heaved your tree into the inky depths below, “keep it a secret and mark the location with a GPS waypoint.” That way you can return to slay the little fishies attracted to your tree and eat them for dinner without any fear that other anglers will steal your catch. The spirit of Christmas, folks!
I’m cherry-picking the most ludicrous suggestions here, but only a little. A WBUR item last year urged people to buy an organic tree or keep their artificial tree “well-dusted and vacuumed around regularly so their PVC materials don’t shed heavy metal dust.” This admittedly sounds like a good tip. But having read that their tree is poisoning them, people might be reluctant to follow the next suggestion: “Try to keep your [artificial] tree as long as possible to avoid waste.” Salon says that in order to calculate whether a real tree or artificial one is better, you should factor in the distance you are driving to the Christmas tree farm. Sentient Media, a nonprofit focusing on factory farming, suggests the best option is specifically “an artificial tree purchased second-hand” or “a potted live tree that can be replanted outside after the holidays.”
The Washington Post this year endorsed potted trees as well, disdaining cut conifers because even if your municipality shreds them into mulch, the wood chipper is powered by fossil fuels. The proposed solution is mind-bending:
This year, consider rethinking the Yule tradition by opting for a young potted tree instead.… Many of these Tannenbaums—ranging from tabletop-sized to seven feet tall—can work well in smaller living spaces. And after Santa has visited, they can be planted outside to extend (hopefully) fond memories of the holidays. All it takes is a smidgen of planning, a touch of maintenance, a well-executed exit plan and the right tree.
I see versions of this “plant your Christmas tree” a lot, and find it perennially confusing. Even if you suppose The Washington Post is read solely by homeowners, what percentage of them have the kind of yard that could absorb a Christmas tree being planted outside year after year? Are these people living on multi-acre estates? And if so, why are they also in “smaller living spaces”? If the idea is to dig the tree up again the next year, do people understand how hard that is? Do they have backhoes?
That’s before we get to the “smidgen of planning,” which involves a “two-inch layer of pebbles” to foil bathroom-seeking house cats, pre-digging a hole outside before the ground freezes, moving the tree after Christmas to an unheated garage for a week to “acclimate,” moving the tree—still in its pot—back to the hole in the ground, and then in spring taking it out of the pot and planting it in “dirt and compost,” mulching the top, and watering it.
So basically, in order to have a sustainably decorated living room this holiday season, you need to start your own Christmas tree farm.
What makes this all so maddening is that sustainability around this time of year is a real problem. American households generate an estimated 25 percent more trash between Thanksgiving and New Year’s than they otherwise would, resulting in one million extra tons of junk each week. But here’s the thing: If you celebrate Christmas, all you really need to do to make it more sustainable is buy less stuff.
Do that however you like. Repurpose items you already have—ladders, Christmas cards, books—into gorgeous tree-like installations. Reduce the gift-wrapped goods (and wrap the gifts you do buy with paper from your recycling bin). Whether you’re religious or secular, there are many customs and traditions that don’t require consumerism. Some surely have universal appeal: Bake cinnamon rolls or some other indulgence, spend an evening by candlelight, volunteer at your local food bank, host a soup potluck. For the die-hard “my Christmas must look like a Dickens adaptation!” folks, add a Smoking Bishop or a Yule log.
Some environmental activists would argue that all this “sustainable Christmas” talk is a dangerous distraction anyway, since households—particularly lower-income ones—aren’t the biggest problem when it comes to either emissions or trash; fixating on Christmas sustainability is exactly what fossil fuel executives want and exactly the kind of stuff that makes people think environmentalism is no fun. There’s an element of truth to that.
But a lot of people, me included, want to live their values. For the sake of those people, let’s not make sustainability sound like it takes weeks of research, specialized manual labor, and thousands of dollars. It’s quite easy, more fun, and even a bit radical to spend your holiday on things—and with people—you actually enjoy. But whatever you do, please don’t get yourself arrested dumping a tree in the lake as part of some well-intentioned clandestine op.
Good News/Bad News
Stat of the Week
That’s the number of electric vehicle batteries the Salton Sea in Southern California could produce, according to recent analysis, if extracting lithium from the “geothermal brine” currently used to power turbines becomes cost effective. Read more at the Nevada Current.
Elsewhere in the Ecosystem
It has now become clear that the climate change presently taking place stems from the overheating of the planet, caused chiefly by the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere due to human activity, which in recent decades has proved unsustainable for the ecosystem.… We find ourselves facing firm and even inflexible positions calculated to protect income and business interests, at times justifying this on the basis of what was done in the past, and periodically shifting the responsibility to others. Yet the task to which we are called today is not about yesterday, but about tomorrow: a tomorrow that, whether we like it or not, will belong to everyone or else to no one.
Particularly striking in this regard are the attempts made to shift the blame onto the poor and high birth rates. These are falsities that must be firmly dispelled. It is not the fault of the poor, since the almost half of our world that is more needy is responsible for scarcely 10% of toxic emissions, while the gap between the opulent few and the masses of the poor has never been so abysmal. The poor are the real victims of what is happening: we need think only of the plight of indigenous peoples, deforestation, the tragedies of hunger, water and food insecurity, and forced migration.
This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.