Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Winter Lights

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that there is one bizarre passion that both the British and French share at Christmas time, and that's the noble breed who cover their houses with wasteful, gaudy Christmas lights. Père Noel climbing into a chimney seems to be a favourite round here.

The fine example of the tradition pictured right is taken from the local (Autun) paper but it does bring up that perennial 'eco-question' which is; what should those who are for a more environmentally sustainable society say about this kind of flagrant and wanton waste?

Well, I suppose we could say that people should do something more environmentally friendly to celebrate the season - plant some lovely trees or make decorations out of recycled tat, but somehow that all feels a bit too worthy.

I mean if people want to do those things please do, I'm sure it will give pleasure to all, but let's not se them to claim individual moral high grounds instead of trying to develop a social conscience.

What I like about this sort of tradition is that it feels like a genuine expression of fun, aimed at giving the community a sense of shared warmth. It feels like people trying to make a contribution to their area, and an alloyed positive one. There's no TV station, national newspaper or radio station telling people they have to do this, in fact this kind of behaviour is often mocked, it's more grassroots than that I think.

It's about people using their part of public space. At least I think it is.

I understand that some people are uncomfortable with the consumerist, meaningless consumption side of these displays, and I'm not claiming they're anti-capitalist or politically charged, but it seems to me that we need to keep it in perspective. In terms of household energy use at this time of year heating makes up the vast majority of the consumption. Christmas lights are a tiny fraction of the total (although those houses that go bonkers certainly notice the effect on their bills).

If we want to bring down energy use then insulation and home improvements are still the easy ways to make the big gains, and that's about improving the quality of our lives, not lecturing people to cut back. Even if we seriously tried to end these lights displays we'd be making next to no difference on December's national energy use. Social attitudes changes *can* make a big difference - but not this one.

Perhaps these displays encourage people to think of themselves as part of a community in a way that telling people to stop enjoying their holidays might not. If we're to save ourselves (and it is an 'if' I think) it will be through the understanding that we're more than just a collection of individuals buying this and watching that, and expressions of love like these light displays help us do just that.

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