What was ‘normal’, anyway?

What does a healthy recovery look like when what came before wasn’t good for us either?

Hello, it’s been a while. It turns out being lucky enough to find a job that involves writing and researching all day is bad for the creative, spare time writing process. Especially when it involves a four-hour daily commute. Plus, sometimes it’s easy to lose faith in yourself, and feel like what you have to say either doesn’t have the right words available or doesn’t seem like something anyone else would want to read.

But everything – really, everything – is different right now. I haven’t seen my office in two months and I suspect I may not see it until 2021. Not that I’m especially sad about that, other than missing my colleagues and the numerous joys of London. I can work just fine in our nice little home, with our foster cat, patch of garden and nature reserve just a careful, people-dodging 20 minute walk away.

And perhaps, when it comes to a creative release, it’s worth getting the words out no matter how clumsy they are and regardless of the audience.

So below is a meandering selection of thoughts on the current COVID-19 crisis. They aren’t especially coherent, and definitely raise more questions than answers. But it felt nice to get them down anyway.

I know I am definitely one of the lucky ones. It induces a strange feeling of guilt and relief. Although circumstances mean we’re a single-salary household for now, we can still afford the bills and to support our local cake shop for a weekend treat. I can’t hug or have long, chatty dinners with friends, but we can speak online and chat through windows when dropping off supplies to share. I’m fine.

Except none of us are fine, are we, really? Before I expand on that, it is clear that there are degrees of ‘not fine’, on a scale so expansive neither end can realistically imagine the other. Take for example, Syrians living in refugee camps where humanitarian organisations describe their situation as “more scared of starvation than they are of the coronavirus”. Closer to home here in the UK, homeless people, who have been put up in hotels and given support through the outbreak in unprecedented numbers so far, now face being sent back to the streets as a leaked report suggests the government will stop funding the outreach programme. The health and social care workers who have seen unimaginable death and suffering, while risking their own lives, to treat and care for people with coronavirus. And that’s before we even get on to the potential mental health crisis after this eventually subsides.

At the other end of the privilege scale, while regular air travel is down 60%, there is a tenfold increase in private jet bookings. There have been fears that people travelling to their holiday homes to ‘lock down’ outside of cities were spreading the virus further, as well as putting pressure on local health services which were not expecting the sudden additional population growth.

So for those of us somewhere in the middle, who have been lucky enough to hunker down somewhere safe and habitable, with a bit of a financial and social safety net to catch us, why do I feel a sense of distinct unease and unhappiness when I think about our future return to normality? Is it selfish to fear ‘getting back to normal’ when our normal was really quite nice in comparison to so many?

Because I absolutely do. For the first time in my life, the riverbed and underwater plants are visible in the river that runs through the town because the water is so much clearer. We can breathe easier, possibly due to the massive drop in air pollution. We can hear birds and not cars when we’re out. We check in with and share more things with our neighbours and people in the street are friendlier. I have time to cook healthy meals and exercise before work. I’m no longer permanently exhausted and using weekends to catch up on sleep, or to batch cook meals I’ll bolt down after work, having been stuck on a delayed train for four hours, before collapsing into bed to do it all again the next day. I find myself mourning the thought of when the river gets dirty again and I can no longer see the fish in it.

I think it would be a mistake to pretend these feelings don’t matter, or that it’s just middle-class handwringing. Because these things – healthy air, soil and water, time with loved ones and time to slow down – are important to everyone’s ability to thrive, even more so to those who don’t have the time or money to think about them now.

In the rush to return to ‘normal’, we need to realise how abnormal ‘normal’ was. It should not be normal for 320,000 people to be homeless in the UK – one of the richest countries in the world. It should not be normal that the World Health Organization estimates seven million people are killed each year as a result of air pollution – all those lives lost matter just as much. It is absurd that a care assistant’s average salary in the UK is £8.94 an hour, just 22 pence more than the legal minimum if you’re over 25 years old. How is it a job that involves keeping other people safe, happy and alive is considered to be worth so little?

‘Normal’ should not mean having to return to previous levels of air pollution for the sake of ‘progress’. It should not mean people in hard, low-paid jobs can go back to life merely being a struggle rather than a living hell.

The difficulty with this is that our entire system is geared towards economic wellbeing, rather than personal or planetary wellbeing. An economic recovery, even when it comes, will not benefit us all equally. If a more even wealth distribution would mean fewer private jets but that care assistants could afford to save money, I’d be all for it. But how do we do that? How do we reconcile the fact that the current system needs us to go out and buy stuff, with the fact that so much of this stuff will directly or indirectly pollute the air and the water again?

These are the questions I struggle with at the moment.

Again and again, it comes back to the feeling that everything needs to change, and not just go back to normal.

Another thought that has plagued me is how much of a privilege it is to have choice. I love the extra time I have, and may consider moving permanently to part-time work, therefore paying less tax and spending less money. I mend my broken clothes and goods rather than buying new, am happy to take a long walk rather than jump in a car, and only tend to buy things I need rather than want (aside from that occasional slice of cake).

Environmentally, this is all good. But for us ‘simple living’ advocates, we need to make it clear we understand that for those with much less, there is no joy to be taken in being ‘thrifty’ when it is done by necessity and with no option to opt out. As we turn our thoughts to the bigger picture of recovery, environmentalists and our ilk need to be careful to not align the language of the climate crisis with people’s experience of what is happening now: the poor are fed up with making sacrifices for the rest of us, and the rich who are rich enough to know they be ok (at least in the short term) frequently aren’t interested in paying anything more than lip service.

So what to do? For those of us lucky enough to do so, probably continue to hunker down for a while yet. But let’s start thinking and talking about what we want next. It may not be much, but here are a few options:

  • Talk to others about how they’re feeling – is there a groundswell of people with an appetite for change?
  • Learn a bit about, and then consider lobbying your MP (or other representative, depending on where you are) about different economic ideas for recovery, such as Universal Basic Services or Universal Basic Income.
  • Read about just how unequal our society is, and the difference this actually makes, in The Equality Effect, by Danny Dorling.
  • Or, try Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, a brilliant and innovative look at how “to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet”.
  • Support your local, ethical independent businesses for things you do need, with a gift card for future use if they aren’t open now. Don’t let the convenience of Amazon eclipse its tax avoidance or environmental issues.

I was reminded of a long-forgotten quote in an article I read earlier today: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” If we let normal slip back in unnoticed, we lose an opportunity to make something better. Rarely – I hope – will we have such a chance again, and to come out of such suffering and have learned nothing would be the biggest mistake of all.

Normal anyway

 

Book review – Eco Thrifty Living: Save Money, Save the Environment, and Live the Life You Want

When I first become interested in the concept of zero waste a number of years back, it was still a very niche topic. This was in the days before supermarkets had ever considered charging for plastic bags, waaaay before the ‘Blue Planet’ effect, and when recycling was still generally considered the actual solution to most of our waste problems.

Information about how to actually live in a way that was more zero waste, more frugal and more environmental was harder to come by. There weren’t articles in newspaper or magazines about the plastic waste crisis, or carbon emissions, or much in the way of suggestions as to what people could do in their own lives to live more lightly.

But then I came across a blog at the start of my journey, and discovered a treasure trove of wisdom in Zoe Morrison’s blog, Eco Thrifty Living.

I was lucky enough to meet Zoe a few years back and have followed her progress ever since. I was thrilled when she contacted me a couple of months back to let me know she was publishing her first book, and kindly shared an advance copy with me.

The following is my honest, unbiased (although you can already tell I think she’s pretty awesome) review of Eco Thrifty Living: Save Money, Save the Environment, and Live the Life You Want…

Something I especially like – and one of the first things that comes across – about the book, and Zoe’s writing in general, is how non-judgemental and down-to-earth it is. She respects that everyone has different levels of environmental awareness, as well as different budgets, lifestyles, priorities and motivations. Right from the beginning of the book, you’re asked to think about your ‘why’ and your ‘how’, rather than be hit by a barrage of suggestions that may have no relevance to your life. She’s nice like that.

The book covers a whole range of areas, including food waste, fashion, home, going out, exercising and kids. Throughout, the message is to try some of it, even if you can’t do it all. I would now consider myself a seasoned zero waste pro, but I still found plenty of new approaches and ideas to try.

Possibly my favourite thing about the whole book is that it doesn’t require signing up to anything scary – no buying expensive ‘zero waste’ kit, no making changes that you can’t change your mind on later if you want to. She’s also honest about her failures as well as her triumphs (a personal favourite being a suspected pipe-melting experience after too much vinegar down the loo!) and none of it feels unachievable.

While we can all enjoy a perfect Pinterest/Instagram fantasy in our head of a life of a mason jar of a year’s waste, with gleaming metal straws and beautifully-designed flat whites in our glass Keep Cups, perfectly accented by a succulent in an upcycled concrete pot (oh come on, we all do, right?) – most of us also know that’s not what we actually look like or how we actually live. Zoe will be your constant champion and companion in the real human world of eco thrifty living, showing you how zero waste works for you. You couldn’t ask for a better companion on your ZW journey.

 

Eco Thrifty Living: Save Money, Save the Environment, and Live the Life You Want, is available to buy online now.

ETL book

Header photo by Aliis Sinisalu on Unsplash

Don’t Waste

Warning: This post starts off factual, but ends up in a bit of a meditation about life, the universe and everything. Please stick with it!

On 5th April, Netflix released a groundbreaking new series, Our Planet. Presented by Sir David Attenborough, it combines (the usual) stunning footage of the most spectacular and beautiful hidden bits of nature on Earth.

But what this series also does is warn about the climate crisis and about the increasing pressures that the climate catastrophe, caused by human activity, is having on ecosystems, and the creatures and plants that depend on them.

In a video filmed for the series, Sir David stated:

“If I were to give one piece of advice to people regarding the preservation of our planet, I would say – don’t waste. Don’t waste food. Don’t waste power. Don’t waste time.”

On a recent walk down by my local river, through the new green growth, blossom and leaves on the trees, I mused on each of these points – what each one means, what more it could mean. And I wanted to share a few of these thoughts with you here: Continue reading “Don’t Waste”

Rethinking Zero Waste

When I first became interested in the concept of ‘Zero Waste’, it seemed like such an easy to understand, if not always easy to follow, set of ideas to reduce my impact on the environment. By avoiding single-use plastic, buying food unpackaged (or if not possible, in paper, glass or metal), reducing and reusing the waste I created, I could reduce my carbon footprint and ‘do my bit’.

I was very proud that our ‘black’ bin (i.e. waste that would be landfilled or incinerated) went out just once or twice a year, got excited about milk bottle deliveries instead of throwing away plastic cartons, and carefully packed all my reusable ‘essentials’ to go on holiday – bamboo cutlery, reusable coffee cup, solid shampoo and more.

But I’ve come to realise that this idea of ZW is too simple and isn’t really tackling the actual problem or source of all this waste. With daily news stories of a growing planetary emergency of climate change and biodiversity loss, I propose to you now that we need a rethink of how we ‘do our bit’ and what ZW really means.

No simple solutions

Thanks to the work of campaigners, activists and the BBC’s Blue Planet II series, awareness of the seriousness of plastic pollution is greater than ever before. For people who had lived through years of trying to refuse plastic straws, carrier bags and get their takeaway coffee in a reusable cup, only to be met with strange looks and embarrassing refusals, it was the dawn of a new era.

It was a lovely surprise when coffee shops started offering money off for using your own cup. And much easier when supermarkets starting presuming you would bring your own bag. I was among many people celebrating this new, plastic-reduced world, which was surely only a good thing for the planet, right?

Wrong. Well, potentially wrong. Continue reading “Rethinking Zero Waste”

Speaking at the London Festival of Sustainable Fashion

I was very proud to be asked to take part in Sustainable Threads’ London Festival of Sustainable Fashion, which took place on 24th November 2018, in Hackney, East London. You can read more about the event on the London Community Resource Network website.

There was a repair cafe, a clothes swap, and I was very excited to take part in a roundtable discussion hosted by stylist and CEO & Founder at Fashion Roundtable, Tamara Cincik.

I also had the opportunity to speak at the festival, and share the story of my ‘No New Clothes for a Year’ challenge. I’ve blogged about this before here, but thought it’d be nice to share my festival speech with you below as well:

“Thank you so much for inviting me here today. My area of interest is usually zero waste and plastic-free living, but I’d like to talk to you today about an experiment I did in 2017, which was to buy no new clothes for a year. And I’d like to start with a little thought experiment for everyone: If you were only allowed to keep the clothes you own that you could write down in a list now, how much of your wardrobe do you think you’d get to keep?  90% 50%? Less? Continue reading “Speaking at the London Festival of Sustainable Fashion”

Plastic Free July 2018 – the results!

As you’ll see from the pictures below, my July this year was not plastic free. Nowhere near. It wasn’t even as plastic-reduced as almost any other month of the year you’d care to mention.

So what happened? I caught some kind of disgusting sickness from an open water swimming event down the Cam River, in Cambridge. Several other people who attended the event came down with similar illnesses. It was a bit of a shame because the swim was very pretty, but it’s made me somewhat more cautious about sticking my face in any ol’ body of water. It’s also helped me appreciate our local clean stretch of the River Great Ouse, which has not sickened me yet!

But all of this meant that just a few days into July, I found myself with joint pains, fever, sickness, the lot. At the same time, my partner got called away for work. So I found myself at home, alone, with no food, and in no fit to state to leave the house. Continue reading “Plastic Free July 2018 – the results!”

Plastic Free July: 31 ways to reduce your plastic footprint

Welcome to Plastic Free July! Originally a small initiative starting in Australia, Plastic Free July is now a global event, with over two million people from 159 countries taking part in the challenge to live without single-use plastic for a whole month.

After years of campaigning by charities, NGOs and the public, it’s amazing to see governments and global organisations taking real action. But you only need to look around you in every shop, street and home to see that single-use plastic is still very much embedded in our day-to-day lives, which is why challenges like Plastic Free July are so important. Continue reading “Plastic Free July: 31 ways to reduce your plastic footprint”

Green Gadgets: Making more eco-friendly tech choices

Quick disclaimer: This post was inspired via a chat on Twitter with the team at Compare and Recycle, who made the excellent infographic in this post. However, I have no affiliation with them, or any other company mentioned here, and make no financial gains from anything linked in this article.

There’s a pretty significant chance that you’re reading this post on a smartphone or tablet. These devices have become firmly embedded in our lives, with over five billion people expected to own a mobile phone by 2019.

Phones and tablets have arguably saved the production of a lot of other materials in what they’ve been able to replace. My phone really isn’t just a phone – it’s my calculator, diary, pedometer, food planner, personal trainer, virtual yoga instructor, note-taker, camera, video, music collection and it provides storage for countless magazines, newspapers and books.

tech

Continue reading “Green Gadgets: Making more eco-friendly tech choices”

Virtual Water: An introduction to saving the water you can’t see

I think it’s safe to say that pretty much everyone knows by now that wasting water is a bad thing. In general, we know we should turn off the tap whilst brushing our teeth, only boil as much water as we need for a cup of tea, and take shorter showers in place of deep baths.

And whilst all of these things are important, they really are (steady yourselves for the upcoming predictable pun) just a drop in the ocean. Evidence suggests that we are approaching a global water crisis:

  • Only 3% of the world’s water is fresh water, and two thirds of that is locked away in glaciers and other inaccessible places.
  • At the current rate of consumption, two thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages by 2025.

Source: WWF: Water Scarcity

A global perspective

Continue reading “Virtual Water: An introduction to saving the water you can’t see”

Garden update and zero waste presents

April has been a month of celebrations – big ones, like birthdays and a wedding, and small ones, like the first warm, sunny day and tiny new shoots from planted seeds.

Both my partner and I had our birthdays in April. But we face the same problem – what to buy people who don’t want more ‘stuff’? No plastic tat, no joke presents, nothing just for the sake of it? Continue reading “Garden update and zero waste presents”