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

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”

Spring is coming!

February has been an exciting month because SPRING IS COMING! Just when I was starting to think that it really was going to be muddy, cold and miserable forever, the first flowers are finally peeking their heads up. Here are the celandine and snowdrops on my way to work:

The river where we go swimming is still a chilly three to four degrees Celsius (around 38 Fahrenheit) so I know ‘proper’ spring is still a way off, but it turns out it isn’t going to be winter forever. Continue reading “Spring is coming!”

The ‘no new clothes for a year’ challenge

In December 2016, I watched a film called The True Cost. It’s about fast fashion, and showed the awful working conditions endured and the environmental devastation caused by our throwaway attitude to clothes.

In particular, the film looks at the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh in 2013. If you haven’t heard of Rana Plaza, you will almost certainly own items bought from a brand who had some of their clothes made there – J.C. Penney, Matalan, Benetton, Primark, Zara – to name a few.

In total, 1,134 people died and 2500 were injured when the factory collapsed on 24th April 2013. The incident shone a light into the dreadful conditions that people working in the garment industry were subject to, and the huge cost they paid with their lives so that those of us in richer countries can buy clothes at such a cheap price. Continue reading “The ‘no new clothes for a year’ challenge”

Green on screen: 10 must-see environmental films

There’s few things I love more as a treat than to snuggle under a blanket on the sofa and watch a great documentary. Films are a great way to learn without really trying when you’re having a lazy day, or introduce friends or family to new concepts without feeling like you’re lecturing them. These are some of my favourites, covering plastic pollution, simple living, waste, the ocean, climate change and fast fashion. All of them are beautifully made, by passionate, interesting people who will (hopefully) leave you feeling inspired and ready to take action.

The freebies – films freely available online (legally!)

A Plastic Whale: This is part of the series of short films made by Sky. It is the story of the body of a whale that washes up on the coast of Norway, found to have died as a result of consuming so much plastic. The documentary follows a team of scientists and interested members of the public as they look to use the tragedy to highlight the growing effects of plastic on ocean creatures. Continue reading “Green on screen: 10 must-see environmental films”

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”

A Plastic Ocean (and how you can start doing something about it): Part 1

Plastic, plastic everywhere. Everywhere it shouldn’t be.

Earlier this year, I went to see A Plastic Ocean as part of the Raindance Film Festival in London. Directed by Craig Leeson and starring world-record breaking freediver Tanya Streeter, it’s a film about how plastics get into the ocean, the devastating effects they have, and what can be done about it. I thought my trip to see it would end up being a one-person event, as whilst many of my friends politely humour me about my enthusiastic commitment to avoiding plastic,  I appreciate that for many people it’s a bit of niche subject and perhaps not what you go to the cinema to see.

To my surprise, four friends agreed to come along.  Continue reading “A Plastic Ocean (and how you can start doing something about it): Part 1”

Countdown to book launch: Zero Waster’s Travel Companion!

So I’m counting down the hours, because Friday, 14th October is the day that the Zero Waster’s Travel Companion goes on sale! A helpful guide to take you round the world whilst looking after it 🙂

This project was the idea of the lovely Inge, who blogs over at www.gruenish.com and is the brains behind the Zero Waste Bloggers Network. She has worked her socks off, and lots of us have been helping, each contributing a chapter on where you can eat, shop and live zero waste in a whole host of cities across the world!

The book will be available as an ebook, and you’ll be able to purchase and download it from http://zerowastebloggersnetwork.com/products/

I am very proud to be able to have written the chapter on London, covering all the way from Bloomsbury, through Camden, Kentish Town and up to Highgate. Continue reading “Countdown to book launch: Zero Waster’s Travel Companion!”

Sustainable Book Club: This Changes Everything


Sustainable Book Club is a great initiative from Zoe Morrison of Eco Thrifty Living, where environmentally-minded people can come together on Twitter and Facebook to chat over our chosen reading material. My suggestion was This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein (non-Amazon shopping link – no affiliation). I chose this book because rarely have I experienced a non-fiction book that brought me so close to tears, that made me so angry, and so inspired me into action.

Lots of us take personal action on a daily basis against environmental destruction by consuming less, making better and more local food choices, rejecting excess packaging, reusing, mending and so on. All great things, but this book isn’t really about that. Instead, this book starts at the very top of society, looking at the destruction and selling off of our environment by governments and corporations. It calls for a complete overhaul of how countries and businesses conduct themselves, treat their citizens and looks at reinventing the entire global capitalist society. It is quite simply, huge. Continue reading “Sustainable Book Club: This Changes Everything”