Leading Article: Yes, save the planet, but spare us these latterday bah humbugs

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In certain primitive societies, there is an annual festival around the time of the winter solstice. The people fear that, unless they spend lots and lots of money in shopping temples, they will close, never to open again. They would then, according to ancient myth, be condemned to exist in darkness, unable to take part in the life-giving ritual of buying unnecessary plastic objects (which will be paid for in the afterlife). They believe that, at this time of year, they must crowd together in these shopping temples and engage in traditional rituals known as browsing, just-looking and searching for things without knowing what they are looking for. The people fear that unless they find suitable offerings to make to the other members of their tribe, consumerism as they know it will collapse, and the gods of their religion will be angry.

Thus most of the ceremonies are conducted in a trance-like state of anxiety and exhaustion, after which entire societies come to a halt for 12 days of rest, recuperation and over-eating.

Welcome, then, to No Shopping Day, a heresy as yet subject to contempt and ridicule, but which is destined to overthrow the ancient superstitions. It is not as if anyone enjoys the orgy of commercialism and consumption: it is just that no one can even conceive of stopping it.

The country divides into those who on becoming aware of the onset of December (that's Monday, for those who have been busy) feel a chill of terror in the pit of their stomach, and those who know they have already ticked cousin Brian off their list. At one extreme end of the spectrum are the true phobics, mostly male, who have been known to return from six hours of "shopping" empty-handed apart from a book which they bought for themselves.

They are capable of doing this on Christmas Eve in the morning and having to return to the temples in the evening (which of course is the best possible time as they are almost deserted). At the other extreme are the super- rationalists, mostly female, who drew up a list in October and have already ordered everything from a catalogue. The rest of us muddle through the middle, a list of half-thoughts on a scrap of paper in one hand and a vague recollection that the average child receives pounds 75-worth of presents at the back of the mind.

Of course, it is possible to restrain the arms-race of Christmas spending through mutual non-aggression pacts between adults, although the negotiations could be more delicate than any Start Treaty.

But it is the children who make any de-escalation really difficult. The television advertising has been running for weeks and the anticipation is already rising. Hardened tiny cynics who give every appearance of testing Jack Straw's under-10s curfew to the limit reveal a touching faith in the corporeal reality of Santa's sleigh, loaded with its improbable cargo.

The only thing that can make the shopping treadmill bearable for many is the mental picture of happy, smiling primary-school-age faces.

That, and the prospect of having a go on the Scalextric or computer game, can inure adults to walking around endless shops with that detestable modern catchphrase, "shop until you drop", echoing in our minds.

We may not like the commercialism, but who can say that they have never gained some pleasure from buying presents?

This is where the green case starts to become confused. Charles Secrett, the earnest director of Friends of the Earth, tried to sound jolly on the radio yesterday, saying No Shopping Day was supposed to be "fun".

Well, it didn't sound fun, it sounded tall-hat puritanical. The "No Shop", a Friends of the Earth stunt, is a tempting window design advertising all manner of "special offers". But the space inside contains images of empty shelves, a "No Sales Assistant" and a cash register. Visitors receive a shopping bag and a receipt which thanks them for "Not Shopping at No Shop". The aim is said to be "to get the message across that going on an orgy of shopping is not going to save precious resources". This is the kind of vomit- inducing moralising that gives greens a bad name.

Yes, most people buy more than they need. Our lifestyles are not sustainable. But Christmas shopping, for children at least, is the fun bit. It is just the mechanics that can be so tiresome. Let's do all the boring green things like put in energy- saving lightbulbs and give up the car, but let the children have a few large boxes of non-renewable plastics on the one big day of the year.

The important difficulty is how to get the boxes home and stashed in hidden places without hitting the out-of-town Toys R Us and putting the loot in the boot of the Volvo.

What we need is a green home delivery service, so that presents can be requested by mail order and delivered under conditions of great secrecy in the middle of the night. Preferably by air, using an environmentally friendly mode of transport. By a big friendly bloke with a beard and red coat.