In the midst of a crisis there are always a ton of voices to listen to, highly qualified voices to give you an in depth analysis of current trends and economic forecasts. For my part, I just see the world through the eyes of the families I work with. Many of these families are scared at the moment, perhaps more scared than they’ve ever been.

Christmas is generally a time to splurge and many people are faced with having to tighten their belts dramatically at a time when they’re usually letting them out. Kids expect a decent Christmas which puts added financial pressure on their parents. This pressure, exacerbated by uncertainty, in turn provokes family stress and discord.

Words like ‘recession’ and ‘depression’ abound and they are scary words. For many people, the knowledge we have of the Great Depression extends to little more than the standardized textbook description we were forced to read as school children. Since then, we have probably seen the odd documentary or movie depicting the unemployed poor, riding about on trains in desperate hope of financial deliverance. Few of us have any real idea of what life was really like.

The trauma of the Depression was long-lived. Our adopted Canadian grandmother who lived through it, saves everything. Every plastic bag is washed out and re-used. Food is horded well past its sell by date. Christmas wrapping is saved from year to year and milk is purchased dried to avoid the usual wastage that comes from infrequent use. ‘Waste not, want not,’ is her favorite mantra. Depression era thriftiness seems to me as a modern mom, like an obsession, but to those that lived through the Great Depression, the word ‘necessity’ has taken on new meaning, which often fails to be understood by the rest of us.

Contrast such thrifty attitudes from those that went through the Depression to the more prevalent ones today and you can see the difference. To many of today’s parents, the maintenance of a certain standard at Christmas time is an absolute necessity, despite a rapid change in their economic circumstances.

The modern marketing machine has created a world where necessity and want cohabit, one indistinguishable from the other. Although the economic crisis has already cooled many wallets, there remain a significant number of consumers who continue to consume despite economic turmoil. These are people who obviously can’t say ‘no’ to lower prices whether for themselves or their children. Nothing made this more obvious to me than an article I read in the paper recently. Apparently in the US, in a rush to take advantage of the first real Christmas shopping day occurring after Thanksgiving, one Walmart worker was crushed to death in the ensuing stampede. To kill a person simply to buy more stuff is tragic.

On the TV report of the same incident, I watched to see if the desperation of shoppers had been somehow been fueled by a lack of food or essentials, so I scanned what was in the carts to get an idea of the purchases made. The TV report lingered long enough for me to get a reasonable look, not an exhaustive one, but an indication. This man was killed not for diapers or other necessities to keep hungry families going. No, on the contrary, he was killed for flat screen TV’s, blue ray disk players and a bunch of other high tech equipment. Not only is this a tragedy of the highest order, it begs a larger question. How on earth when people are suffering financially in unprecedented numbers, are they queuing up to buy ‘stuff’ that is no doubt not needed and can be ill afforded, just to fulfill the expectations of a holiday?

Now I know there are people out there that are seriously suffering who are not able to afford food, let alone fancy TV sets. I also know there are many others in serious danger of joining the ranks of the unemployed and truly poor, that act in ways that seem to make no sense. What force is it that creates people’s inability to regulate their consumption even when faced with direct personal peril? A marketing industry certainly helps to be sure but how much are we, as humans, capable of rejecting the demands of marketers and our own seeming need for ‘acquisition.’

If you put my family down in the wilds of nowhere and give me an axe and a few basic supplies, I will cut down trees to create shelter, kill local wildlife to eat and clear land. I will in short, acquire. My question then is this, will my desire to acquire stop at some level or will it continue despite having enough? Am I hard-wired to eat two rabbits when one is enough? Or am I manipulated to continue consuming only by our consumer environment?

From the study of early man, we know that humans will stock up in times of plenty in order to deal with periods of lean pickings. Is this then the drive that has been so efficiently exploited by the marketing world? Is this the same drive that propelled the Walmart frenzy?

Our environment obviously plays a huge part in how strong that acquisition drive is. If I live with my family in a tent and all the people I know live around me in tents, I will probably be reasonably content, even perhaps if I had known better times. If on the other hand, the person living next to me lives in a mansion and drives her SUV up the driveway to live a life of comfort, I will probably be driven insane. In other words, if I can see more, I will want it.

The financial crisis is hard enough, yet we face serious additional challenges in the years ahead in the form of peak oil and climate change. The success of our adaptation is dependent on developing a consensus amongst all people to move toward a more sustainable way of life.

History has shown us that as the environment changes negatively, so do our attitudes, pulling us together for the better and helping us accept less with common purpose. Think of the Great Depression and the war years. This financial crisis may force many people to adopt the idea and practice of less from which their attitude may be permanently altered, much like my adopted grandmother.

There will always be those that do better and retain much of their wealth and no doubt consumer attitudes will remain with those that have the ability to pursue them, presuming that ability exists to some degree. The question remains however, whether those who have suffered least or escaped the crisis altogether will see the need to adopt a different lifestyle, based on a moral imperative?

If enough people are forced to consume less, this financial mess may have an upside and we may yet see a brighter day. It may be a rocky ride and one we’d rather not take but in the end, we may be in a better position to tackle the world’s most pressing concerns.