Christmas, throughout most of the world has ritualized the heavy consumption of meat.  Bayerischer schweinebraten, krustenbraten, la dinde aux marrons, pavo navideño, devils on horseback are cooked in millions of homes and restaurants and celebrated by legions of television chefs.  Christmas means meat … and lots of it … but is this particular tradition under threat?

Our Christmas culture has the illusion of almost stolid stability: legitimised indulgence, excessive generosity, and hedonism without consequence. All very predictable. But maybe we should start looking beyond the clichés and instead focus on a Christmas future of greater sobriety, less gluttony and growing eco sensitivity.

Our proposition is that Christmas will not survive as the special space where modern lifestyle virtues – eating healthily, drinking in moderation, exercising regularly – can be temporarily shelved. It is precisely because the December / New Year window has been so emphatically positioned over the years as the season of indulgence-dispensation that it is bound to attract more focused activism for an age of new purposes and sensitivities. This activism will take both personal and/or political forms, but can be best expressed as ‘Santa’s in detox’ and ‘Santa’s gone green.’

1. Santa’s in detox

Christmas has traditionally been a cultural barricade against moderation: a time when exuberant consumption is permitted and historically encouraged. Set a time when many nations face an obesity crisis, how long can Christmas legitimise gluttony? The Jingle Bell Jog – and similar fun runs, featuring thousands of participants in Santa outfits- is becoming as much a symbol of Christmas as the groaning buffet table. Santa wearing a pair of running shoes, rather than suffering from morbid obesity, is an appropriate icon for a holiday season increasingly devoted to health and activity.

Growing health awareness is also changing attitudes to other forms of indulgence. A survey conducted by Dissident in October of this year – in the aftermath of health warnings about excessive consumption of processed meat – revealed that 40% of UK consumers claimed that ‘I try to have at least one day a week when I don’t eat meat’. According to Mintel, 12% of UK adults are already following a vegetarian or vegan diet, rising to 20% of 16 to 24s and ‘flexitarianism’ (the new dietary trend based on occasional vegetarianism and reduced meat consumption) is set to become one of the words of 2016.

2. Santa turns green

Christmas can no longer be a period in which public concerns about sustainability – and particularly the wasteful use of increasingly scarce resources – take a back seat. The carbon footprint of the festive turkey, goose or the rack of ribs will become increasingly mainstream concerns.  Turning away from excess, especially in December, is to become a new form of social heroism. We forecast a ‘Christmas yet to come’ in which these activist sentiments will become mainstream.

In 2015, the UK’s Royal Institute of International Affairs, in its study ‘Changing Climate, Changing Diets’ reports that: “Globally, food systems are responsible for up to 30 per cent of all human-driven greenhouse gas” and specifically that: “Emissions from the livestock sector – primarily from cattle and sheep, but also from chickens, pigs and other animals – account for as great a share of global GHGs as tailpipe emissions from fuel burnt in all the world’s vehicles; each contributes around 14.5 per cent of total emissions.”

We are confident that a swelling burden of personalised eco-activism will inescapably fall on the citizens of the Western world. All consumerist indulgences will shortly be costed in overtly ecological as well as financial accounts. As the slow global progress towards Stern-scale reductions in carbon emissions becomes all the more stark (along with the absence of formal policy-driven acceleration towards that climate-resilient economy) so any kind of hedonistic consumption splurge, however occasional, will attract ever more odium and enjoy ever less justification.

As a consumerism and as a lifestyle ethic, the rising curve of environmentalism has been disrupted in this century by two phenomena: 1 the Great Financial Crisis of 2008 and all its rumbling, reverberative consequences and 2 the sweeping reality of globalisation and the new power and affluence of quondam emergent economies. The first interrupted what would have been a natural intensification of ever-greener outlooks and behaviours on the part of Western consumers. The second fuelled the worldwide competition for scarce resources, while stimulating the demand (in China, India, some parts of Africa…) for an equivalence of prosperity with the West (thus rendering politically agreed reductions in greenhouse gases so much harder to achieve).

Even as the UK’s and some other EU economies grow (however slightly), so excess de-legitimises. The contribution of mass livestock-rearing/meat-eating to ecological despoliation is, along the way, bound to become ever more widely understood while meat-avoidance – however occasional – will become socially and culturally endorsed as a behaviour contributing to global well-being.

At the same time, the combination of relatively weak household income growth in this decade and beyond plus the state’s desire to press down hard on healthcare costs will make ever more intense the spotlight falling on individual choices.

Our point is that the cult of moderation will spread like a social religion, creating new sins and taboos and inhibitions. If the Christmas banquet is thought to carry too heavy a carbon footprint, then it will start to lose its attractiveness?

Whatever one’s views about whether the ultimate threat from greenhouse gases is truly and immediately severe or whether governments or companies should be primarily responsible for addressing the problem, it is just the case that our traditional Christmas will be soon re-defined by a new order of sobriety. The goose is getting thin.

by James Murphy, head of forecasting, Dissident