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

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”

Why small actions matter

A common criticism of environmentalists by other environmentalists is the focus on  ‘small wins’ – things like energy efficient light bulbs, swapping to canvas shopping bags, saying no to plastic straws. The criticism is usually that this is a ‘rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic’ approach – something akin to “for god’s sake, sea levels are rising, the planet is warming, the oceans are acidifying, and your signature on an online petition, or using a reusable coffee cup isn’t going to fix this! We need huge, systematic change.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m under no illusion here, I know swapping to eco-friendly bathroom cleaner is not going to prevent the sixth mass extinction event that is currently underway. We cannot beach clean ourselves to a maximum 1.5C degree rise in global temperatures.

But it IS important. It’s important because of what it says about our collective mindset.

What started me thinking about this was watching a screening of Before the Flood, an environmental documentary presented by Leonardo Di Caprio. A particular quote in the film struck me:

Politicians are not elected leaders, they are elected followers. They will do what consensus wants.

Politicians represent their constituents. Extrapolating to wider society, businesses make or procure objects and services for consumers to buy. Politicians who don’t do what the electorate want get voted out, and companies that make products that no one buys go out of business. Continue reading “Why small actions matter”

Restaurant review: Silo

silo-philosophy
A Silo philosophy: Waste is a failure of the imagination
Last weekend, I was lucky enough to find myself in one of the very nicest cities in the UK, Brighton. It has pretty much everything I could want in a city – the sea (with accompanying gorgeous views), market stalls, indie shops selling one-of-a-kind vintage items, enough vegetarian cafes to make it seem like a normal lifestyle, and a great approach to life (they elected the only Green Party MP in the UK, which makes them pretty awesome and progressive in my book).

There is a huge range of places to eat – the wonderful Terre à Terre makes some of the most exciting vegetarian food I’ve ever tried, or the excellently-named Wai Kika Moo Kau (say it out loud), but there was somewhere new that I have wanted to try ever since it opened…

Silo is a restaurant with a rather unique and exciting way of doing things – the zero waste way. It oozes out of the room itself, which is furnished with functional second-hand furniture and repurposed items. All food is delivered in refillable or reusable packaging, and any waste that created is compostable, although Silo’s website says they create so little of it that they also offer their composting services to local business and residential neighbours! Continue reading “Restaurant review: Silo”

Green shopping in London: The People’s Supermarket

As someone who tries to avoid shopping in supermarkets, I love The People’s Supermarket. Mainly because it’s not really a supermarket in the regular supermarket sense (if there was an award for the most number of times you can use the word ‘supermarket’ in a post about a shop that isn’t really a supermarket, I’m pretty sure this would be a contender).

The People’s Supermarket (or TPS as we’ll call it from now on) is a lovely find in the centre of London, being independent, community minded, ethical, and all in all a jolly good egg.

It’s run as a co-op and mostly staffed by volunteers. For just four hours a month, volunteers get 20% off all their food shopping there, and a say in how it’s run.

Continue reading “Green shopping in London: The People’s Supermarket”

September: What a rubbish month it’s been

September has been a very rubbish sort of month. Happily, I mean a month where rubbish (or the avoidance of it) has been a popular topic, especially amongst us with an interest in all things sustainable.

Awareness events

We kicked off the month with Rachelle Strauss’s Zero Waste Week, looking at the many ways to create less waste on the theme of ‘reuse’. You can see my posts about reducing waste in the bathroom and kitchen here and here.

Some of my favourite blog posts from this week were:

Zoe of Eco Thrifty Living wrote a really inspiring post on her first Zero Waste Week event, where people swapped clothes, books, DVDs and more and made a rather lovely mural from waste materials.

Dawn’s ever-lovely blog, Be a Green Bean, let us have a nosey through her kitchen cupboards as she used up the contents of the cupboards rather than buying more.

Jen at Make Do and Mend-able was as Continue reading “September: What a rubbish month it’s been”

Zero Waste Week: Kitchen and Food Swaps

The kitchen, the whole kitchen, and nothing but the kitchen (except the beginnings of the dining room and lounge)
The kitchen, the whole kitchen, and nothing but the kitchen (except the beginnings of the dining room and lounge)

In my second post for Zero Waste Week, we’re going into the kitchen! Renting in rather-pricey North London means that our kitchen is on what estate agents optimistically refer to as the ‘cosy’ side. On one hand, this is good for zero waste living as there’s very little space for over-shopping, either in the cupboards or the fridge (not that it’s doesn’t happen sometimes!). On the other, batch cooking is curtailed by a single freezer shelf and buying numerous large items in bulk is out.

Here are some of the good habits I’ve managed to develop on my ongoing zero waste journey:

Tea

Loose tea is available to fill my own bags with from the ever-wonderful Earth Natural Foods in Kentish Town, where everything comes in beautiful self-serve glass jars. This week, WestyWrites also mentioned on Twitter that a number of Whittard’s branches have refill options, where she reports that they were happy to refill her own container.

If you don’t mind the possibility of a small amount of plastic in your teabags (who knew?! Polythene Pam at Plastic is Rubbish, that’s who), but don’t want the horrible crinkly unrecyclable plastic-y foil and the extra layer of unrecyclable plastic round the outside as per a normal box of tea, there is another option! Continue reading “Zero Waste Week: Kitchen and Food Swaps”

Zero Waste Week: Bathroom Swaps

This year’s Zero Waste Week runs from 7th-13th September and the theme is ‘reuse’. Anyone and everyone can get involved, just go along to www.zerowasteweek.co.uk and make your pledge! My pledge is to purchase and use nothing that goes to landfill for the week. Self-promo moment – you’ll also be seeing a post from me on the Zero Waste Week website about some of my antics at work very soon!

Zero Waste Week is the invention of Rachelle Strauss, and you can read more about her journey and how she started this initiative on her website and in this article she wrote for the Guardian last year.

I started going down the zero waste path a couple of years ago, and for me it’s an ongoing journey – there are so many areas of our lives where waste just seems to magically appear! The decision to not use resources, or use resources that don’t create excess packaging, has to be just that – a decision. It doesn’t happen by accident. Our society set up at the moment is based around convenience – coffee to go, sandwiches to grab at lunch, and even if you do have the time to slow down you’re likely to be confronted by supermarket pre-packed vegetables, ready meals and a million special offers on food wrapped in plastic (my personal bugbear being multi-pack crisps – non-recyclable plastic wrapped in extra non-recyclable plastic just to sell us more crisps in one go!). Continue reading “Zero Waste Week: Bathroom Swaps”