Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate abundance, and to give thanks for the labor, the good fortune, and the blessings of God that make it possible. But increasingly we are being told that it is a time to observe limits. The front page of Sunday’s Washington Post Food section tells us that Thanksgiving offers “a real opportunity to eat sustainably.” Other articles in the section promote the sustainability theme. But the whole point of the holiday is to do that which is unsustainable. The pageantry of the day doesn’t suggest limits. How many weekday mornings can we sustain motorized floats, marching bands, clowns, the Harajuku Girls, and gigantic helium-filled balloons parading down Broadway?
The hard-core anti-Thanksgiving movement has traditionally been centered around the Native American cause, whence came the term “Thanks-taking.” Animal-rights and vegan groups have traditionally criticized the annual “Turkey genocide.” Now the themes of the ecology movement is creeping into the festivities. They don’t want to see the holiday abolished, just layered with new meaning. Thanksgiving, they assert, is a time for both gratitude and responsibility. “The more you eat,” the Post cautions, “the larger your carbon footprint.” And the larger your waistline, but that cogent argument hasn’t proved a deterrent either.
The good news is that a turkey has a quarter the carbon output of a ruminant, like a cow, bison, lamb or deer. So those who have customarily feasted on Thanksgiving bison are out of luck but omnivores need not be forced to eat Tofurky to be responsible. Most other traditional feast items are also not off limits, provided they are organic and obtained in an environmentally approved manner. Since a small portion of the carbon in foods comes from shipping, you can be a better citizen by buying local produce. You may have to pay extra, and some items may be locally unavailable, but contemporary Thanksgiving is all about sacrifice, so suck it up.
Which wine to buy is a question with important ecological consequences. You could always buy locally — all 50 states produce wine. But since most people seem to choose between California and France, the Post supplies a convenient map showing the boundary across the country — the “wine line” — where importing a bottle west from Bordeaux is carbon-equal to shipping east from Napa. Of course if you are a real eco-criminal you’ll drink Australian, in which case try the aptly named Turkey Flat 2007 Rosé Barossa Valley, or for something inexpensive and fun, the Paringa 2004 Sparkling Shiraz.
Shopping eco-wisely requires you to be able to count the carbon points for everything you buy. You’ve counted calories and carbs, now here’s something else to add to the matrix. And for real savings over the holiday, ecologists recommend not traveling, an activity which probably accounts for the greatest amount of holiday emissions — so to speak. So if you were planning a big family gathering to show off your 35-percent carbon-point savings over last year, you’re working at cross-purposes.
It’s O.K. if people choose to observe Thanksgiving this way, if it makes them happy. But it won’t make much of a difference. Human activity accounts for a fraction — ten percent or less — of global carbon-dioxide emissions. Thanksgiving is one day out of the year, a holiday celebrated by 4.5 percent of the world’s population. So you want to save 11-percent carbon points by buying the more expensive local acorn squash? Start multiplying the fractions and you’ll get an indication of how insignificant it all is.
What I do object to is appropriating a holiday of abundance to make it about denial. Thanksgiving is not about reducing your carbon footprint, it’s about making your real footprint deeper. It is about gathering with family and friends, feasting, having fun, and not worrying about consequences. Sure, when Uncle Morty asks where the whipped cream is for his pie, you can let him know that cream, being dairy, comes from those pesky ruminants, and three tablespoons of whipped cream add 14 percent to the carbon points of a slice of apple pie. “What for ruminants?” says Morty, “I like it with whipped cream.” Slather it on, Morty. We’ll save the planet tomorrow.