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How to Save the World in Seven Purchases

The Pacific Standard reader’s gift guide.

By Elena Gooray


(Photo: Brain Flakes)

Here at Pacific Standard, we believe in do-gooding. But we also know it’s hard work. We all want to save important things: the environment; civil rights; Kanye West’s coveted health records; the middle class. But where does one well-meaning citizen start? And can altruism be practiced while sifting (or clicking) frantically through post-Christmas sales?

We think yes, and we have some ideas. Whether you need to catch up on late holiday gifts, get a jump on 2017 purchases, or just treat yourself, here are some of your best options to delight loved ones and earn good-samaritan bragging rights well into the New Year.

What to Buy If You Want to Save:

The Children: The last few years have seen panic about the decline of American math education — a possibly misguided concern, as I’ve previously reported. But as we wait to see what’s next for American schools, consider buying the kids in your life some (wonderfully named) Brain Flakes. They’re like surrealist Legos that may end up teaching kids those much desired engineering skills, without their even realizing it.

The Planet: Consider a solar phone charger as one way to reduce energy use. It probably won’t be enough to charge your phone from scratch within a day, but it’s useful for topping up on battery, and for surviving long spells away from outlets. And then there’s the broader impact: The more the solar industry expands, Nathan Collinsreported, the cleaner it seems to get. That’s good reason to feed the solar-energy beast.

American Democracy: It has been a tumultuous year for the American Republic, with some researchers arguing that our democracy could be under threat. “Our nation,” Seth Masketwrote, “is confronting some decidedly anti-democratic movements.” That’s a pretty daunting sentiment — which is where comic books come in. Credible historical and political comic books — ranging from Malcolm X: A Graphic Biographyto 08: A Graphic Diary of the Campaign Trail — offer a colorful respite from overwhelming news cycles, alongside highlights (and hopefully lessons) from American civics.

Your Soul: Do you or a loved one want to become a kinder person? Don’t stress about a cohesive plan for self-improvement; just watch a bunch of romantic comedies (perhaps from thesecollections). One study this year found that such films make us more “ethically sensitive,” at least compared to action movies. As Pacific Standard’s Tom Jacobsexplains it: “Perhaps simply focusing on interpersonal relationships, rather than driving fast and blowing stuff up, puts one in a more sensitive frame of mind.”

Your Health: Many of us could benefit from good exercise — and where better to do so than our national parks? An $80 America the Beautiful pass from the National Park Service grants access to more than 2,000 recreation sites, from Acadia in Maine, to Yellowstone in Wyoming. And that money will go to the primary federal organization protecting land through our parks, which are “preserved only by the grace of people,” as Jeffrey Zuckerman wrote in Pacific Standard.

Money/America’s Savings Accounts: Boutique foods like fancy pickles — and anything else sold in mason jars — might feel unnecessary at best, and too-precious at worst. But canning food yourself is a solid penny-pinching tactic. You can get a granite canner for $25, and so stock up cheaply on your own jams, pickles, salsas, and condiments. Most of us could use the help: Americans at all income levels struggle to save money, with long-term consequences, as Dwyer Gunnreported.

The Book Industry: Americans on the whole read less literature these days — sobering news for an industry in flux. But you can turn that around with membership to the Paris Review and New York Review Books classic book club partnership, which will send one literary stand-out per month and four issues of the iconic magazine for a year. All that reading might even boost social skills, since, as Tom Jacobs reported, literary fiction seems to make us better at understanding the emotions of others.