The Climate Propagandist's Guide to the Holidays: How Far Should You Push Your Eco-Principles?

It can be hard to figure out how to navigate the holidays as environmentally-conscious individuals.

Overhead view of table during Christmas dinner
filadendron / Getty Images

Later this week, many of us will be gathering with family and loved ones—and sometimes even family we actually love. We’ll be giving and receiving gifts we don’t need and sometimes don’t even want. And many of those gifts will come wrapped in materials made from dead trees and pesky microplastics. After that, we’ll be feasting on beef and ham, turkey, and (maybe) tofu. And, my friends, it will be fabulous. 

As climate- and environmentally-conscious individuals, it can sometimes be hard to figure out how to navigate the holidays. Do we use it as an opportunity to raise awareness—wrapping everything in used newspapers, giving experiences instead of things, and swooping in to recycle every last scrap of wrapping paper? Do we lobby hard to ditch the beef at the dinner table, and to avoid single-use silverware, even for the post-holiday leftovers when nobody, literally nobody, wants to wash up? 

Or do we relax? Do we take time off from our eco-anxieties? Do we accept that we are among a diverse group of people with different levels of knowledge and motivation about the climate crisis we are in? 

The answer—it'll be no surprise from a fence-sitting, conflict-averse climate hypocrite like me—is that it absolutely depends. On the one hand, there may be a very good reason to insert climate and environment into the heart of the family holiday. Whether through giving a few pre-loved goods with genuine meaning or exploring new climate-friendly alternatives to family favorites at the holiday table, we can not only find ways to reduce the impact of our celebrations, but we can actually find opportunities to enhance them too. 

We can also, however, overstep the mark. While there are legitimate and gigantic problems with consumerist excess at the holidays, the time to point that out is probably not when your climate-skeptic uncle gives your children a My Little Pony. And while tofu or bivalves are infinitely climate preferable to a standing rib roast, it’s probably best to weigh your objectives carefully before you chain yourself to the roasting pan yelling, “Meat is murder!”

As someone who has both ruined and enhanced holiday experiences for others—based on my infinitely flexible and inconsistently enforced principles—I offer up this tactical list of observations that may be of use as you plan your level of holiday "activism":

  1. Know Your Audience: It’s one thing to be pushing climate action among an already engaged group of like-minded souls and quite another among a more diverse, dismissive, or denialist group of individuals. There are opportunities in both cases, but the tactics you use will be different. So think through who is there, and how you would like to engage with them. 
  2. Seek Opportunities to Delight: If you’re giving gifts—and are not yet done shopping—then focus on fewer, more special, and possibly preloved goods: vintage jewelry, antique cast iron cookware, a used chorus pedal for your kiddo’s guitar. The possibilities are endless and often more interesting than new goods that anyone could have ordered from anywhere. The same goes for food: You’ll likely win more converts to plant-based eating by offering up a really good side dish they might not have tried, rather than insisting that meat be banished or giving your carnivorous sister-in-law the side-eye. 
  3. Learn to Relax: I know many climate-conscious folks, especially those who try to live a low consumption lifestyle themselves, who have a hard time with holiday excess. Yet it’s important to remember that it’s not all on you. You don’t (and shouldn’t) have veto power over how others choose to celebrate, and it’s possible to both enjoy the holiday and stay true to your principles too. Whether that means asking (politely) that folks don’t give you gifts, or simply accepting the day as what it is, is going to depend on your own personal values. The most important thing is to find the place that will allow you, and those around you, to still enjoy their day. 
  4. Keep Your Eye on the Prize: If you are intent on using the holiday as an opportunity to win hearts and minds—and who wouldn’t like an end to rising sea levels for the holidays?—then remember the true nature of the problem. Like antibiotics, shame and shaming are limited resources, and the more we spread them around, the less effective they become. So while the "100 companies" canard doesn’t exactly let us off the hook, it’s also not helpful to paint the impending collapse of the Thwaites Glacier as the specific fault of your less climate-conscious family and friends. A well-timed gift of Katharine Hayhoe’s "Saving Us" may end up doing more good than pointing the finger.  
  5. Still Speak Your Truth: It might be tempting to read the above as a plea to not rock the boat during the holidays, yet that really is not my intent. Instead, it’s to argue that you think through when and how that boat can and should be rocked. If you’ve got a loud, obnoxious family member who is intent on arguing or repeating untruths, then it might absolutely be the right thing to challenge them on their misinformation. If you have guests who are oil execs, then sure thing—have at them with questions about their family values and the meaning of the holiday. But for most people, we need to recognize that we’re all on a collective journey to figure out this god-awful mess we find ourselves in. So we may do better to act with kindness, empathy, and a level of humility about how much power we have to change others. 

Ultimately, for many of us, the holidays are an important time to gather with those we hold near and dear. They are also a time to celebrate old traditions and develop new ones. If they are to have meaning in an age of ecological challenges, then it makes perfect sense that climate- and environmental- efforts will be an increasingly important consideration. Yet it also makes sense that what that looks like will be different for each of us. 

Happy Holidays! And go in peace.