Other people’s children

January 30, 2008 at 12:13 pm 3 comments

*IMPORTANT* This is rather a long-winded, heavy and self-indulgent post – you have been warned!

There has been lots in the news lately about the environment and ‘ethical consuming’ (I wasn’t sure whether to put ‘consumption’ or ‘consumerism’, so I’ll invent a noun for the moment). When I say lately, I mean it has been steadily increasing over the last year or so, and this is a good thing (mostly) as it stimulates debate, brings issues to people’s attention, keeps it on some level in people’s minds, which gives me hope they’ll eventually use the evidence to draw sensible conclusions and do the right thing (after all, I did it, so there’s no reason other people can’t), and provides me with a constant stream of material to rant about in cyberspace.

One side-effect of this is that because people know I’m interested in it all, they tend to talk to me about it a lot, and some of them ask me if Ecover washing-up liquid is any good, and some of them tell me, despite the fact that they have a lot of money, that they can’t afford to buy free-range chicken. Once, someone even said, ‘I don’t understand how fishing quotas stop global warming. Surely they’ve already used the oil to go out and get them, so why do they have to dump all the fish?’

I never quite know how to respond or how to approach it.

The temptation is to fall into an ‘us and them’ mentality – I, who grow parsley in re-used yoghurt pots, am a good, kind, unselfish person, whereas you, who moan about having to recycle or that energy-saving lightbulbs are annoying, are a bad, reckles, selfish person.

I don’t think this is strictly true, though.

Lots of people, taking as an example my family and friends, because I can vouch for their characters, are good, kind, thoughtful and unselfish, even if they do very little to reduce their carbon footprint or their personal dependency on oil. My bf’s mum, for example, who takes several foreign holidays a year (although has family abroad, which, while it leads onto a whole set of complications of its own, mitigates it slightly, I feel), works in one of the caring professions, is an extremely compassionate person and, when the bf was away and we’d just moved in and I was alone for four days and didn’t know anyone, let me come and stay with her, took me in, fed me, talked to me and gave me valuable career advice. Another friend, who also takes several foreign holidays a year, has used a lot of those trips to do voluntary working building and teaching, is a very responsible traveller (i.e. one of the ones who can actually claim to be ‘helping the local economy’ as she uses local guides, stays in locally-owned accommodation etc, rather than people who use it as an excuse to carry on flying while staying in big hotels and not mixing with anyone), was heavily involved in her university’s Nightline and is one of the most generous, big-hearted people I know, whose door is always open to all her friends.

I don’t mean to single them out as examples to be publically shamed and humiliated – it’s just that the flying thing bothers me, as I too love travel, and giving up flying is the only bit of being green that I wouldn’t do ‘anyway’. It’s also commonly held to be the most damaging thing for the environment (releasing the CO2 higher up) and very fuel-intensive, and also quite controversial, because the aviation industry seems to wield a frightening amount of power and get away with blue murder (or tax breaks, at any rate). So, yep, straight for the jugular there!

So, how do you respond to people, whom you otherwise love to bits, when they a) harrass you for your loopy choices, b) get defensive when you mention climate change or peak oil (e.g. ‘Hey, British Gas gave us some free energy-saving lightbulbs for changing to paperless billing.’ ‘Well, look, that’s great, but I’m a very busy and important person and I have to have a job to pay the mortgage, so I need ready meals, a car, supermarkets, labour-saving gadgets and patio heaters and I’m not going to give up my holiday in the Seychelles because it’s the only thing that gets me through the rest of the year.’) or c) say daft things about cod causing global warming?

I generally try and ignore any outright hostility, politely pointing out that recycling isn’t really that difficult or time-consuming, and we’re really very lucky not to have to go and fetch water from a stream every day or cook on a charcoal fire in the back garden, so, all in all, an extra five minutes a week to deal with the consequences of Western over-consumption by sorting your cans into a separate box from your glass is not that arduous.

If it’s unintentional ignorance, such as with the cod/global warming thing, I’ll try and gently explain it, with a studied air of not being a know-it-all…

If whoever is asking genuinely seems interested and eager to learn, I’ll gladly share information.

I don’t like the idea of being hostile or confrontational, as it’s only going to put the other person’s backs up and make them retreat further into denial. Even more, I hate the idea of being preachy, for much the same reasons, but somehow anger is more honest than smugness, so I despise myself less for it afterwards.

It’s a hard line to tread though.

I tend to go for the option of being really cheerful about how eating seasonally and walking everywhere has made me fitter and healthier, how knitting is wonderfully relaxing, how buying clothes in charity shops is much better value than Pr*mark et al and how big thick curtains or improvised blanket-related substitutes are much more effective and cheaper than turning up the heating, as gas prices are going up, you know.

Because, really, I’m not a better person.* I just happen to have decided to act on the evidence in front of me in what I perceive is my best interest, and sometimes I think, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have a take-away tonight?’ and it makes me terribly sad that there are whole swathes of the planet I’ll never see and I’m tempted to jump on a plane to go and see them all before the oil runs out. I ate cheap food, I took short-haul flights, I bought cheap clothes, sometimes I got lifts when I could have walked or taken the train, and I still drink lots of imported wine, tea and coffee, eat chocolate, dried mango and apricots and spend far, far too much time on the computer; and while I am in many, many ways happier, healthier and more fulfilled than I was when I couldn’t see beyond the consumerist treadmill, ultimately, I’m just lucky I enjoy reading, gardening and knitting, and if I enjoyed motorbiking, or flying, or parachuting, or recreational deforestation or some other carbon-heavy hobby I’d probably find it a lot more difficult.

As well as being lucky (and having always had a steadfastly unconventional streak), I’m also frightened, and that’s what makes me feel like a hypocrite when I try and convince people to ‘join me’ by merely expounding the positives of my peculiar lifestyle. I am really, really concerned that even though oil depletion will probably be slow and peaceful and managed by market forces, it will still entail a dramatic (albeit gradual) shift in our lifestyles and expectations, and we have not been prepared for that by our society, our parents or our education system. I want my friends and family to be able to cope with it.

I also, selfishly, don’t want everyone I know to come knocking on the door of my smallholding, demanding we feed them vegetables and home-reared pork, the bf brews them beer and I knit them some socks. I’d let them in and share with them, but I’d secretly wish they’d thought ahead a little. After all, I did tell them…

We might not be so lucky with climate change, either. I don’t think peak oil will result in the fabric of society breaking down overnight, but have you seen how Britain (especially the South East) responds to extreme weather? A bit of snow? Everything grinds to a muffled halt. Floods? Chaos and hand-wringing. Wind? Power cuts? End of civilisation as we know it. Long, hot summer? Oh, it’s too hot to do anything – let’s go and buy an electric fan and drink Pimm’s. Last summer’s flooding was bad enough, but if anything really bad (like, New Orleans bad) happened, we’d all be b*ggered.

As a society, we do not know how to cope when we can’t get to the supermarket in the car, when we can’t flick a switch and have light or heat, when we can’t have clean drinking water coming out of the tap. We are not prepared, emotionally or practically, to deal with a crisis, and yet most reasonably intelligent people believe that climate change is happening and know why. Do they not think this might cause crises? Do they think they’ll be immune?

For this is why I do all these crazy things, why I knit mittens, why I grow spinach under milk-bottle-cloches, why I have a cold house and lots of blankets, why I recycle, why I am seriously considering not going on holiday with the bf’s family next summer if they ask me. Because I am scared, and because people are going to die if we don’t act now.

People are going to die if we carry on as we are. Extreme climates, such as the equatorial regions and the poles, where people already live a tough, marginal existence, are going to be hit first. There’ll be droughts and there’ll be floods. Habitats will be destroyed. People will die. If we grow biofuels instead of food, we might be all right cos we can afford both, but other people won’t have enough to eat.

Personally, I just cannot convince myself that the time I spend sorting out my rubbish, or waiting ten seconds for a lightbulb to warm up, or making soup when I could have a take-away, or the holiday I could have in Spain, or the convenience of having a car, or eating more meat and dairy than I need, is more important than the fact that other people, somewhere in the world, might have to see their loved ones die as a result of my lifestyle.

It really is that important.

So, yes, of course, we should all be doing these things anyway. They make us happy and healthy. Home-grown veg is more nutritious and gardening is good for us, so we should do it anyway. Cycling is better for us than driving, so we should do it anyway. Being frugal is just common sense, so we should all mend clothes anyway, but if I’m brutally honest, that is not why I do this, and to think that that is what will convince other people to do it too is therefore somewhat disingenuous.

At the end of the day, I do it because I feel it is my moral imperative, because I can’t say that my comfort is more important than the life of a child in the Sahel whose family can’t feed themselves any more because the Sahara keeps on creeping further south.

And this is what I want to say to all the people who ask me why they should buy local food, or walk to work, or not buy clothes made out of oil, or not fly on holiday this year. Sure, I make it look as though these things aren’t hard to do and if you did them too your life would improve dramatically, so what are you waiting for? But deep down, it’s just that these things coincide with what I feel gives me a good quality of life. Really, I simply don’t feel that I have the right to pursue a lifestyle in the knowledge that it wouldn’t be sustainable if everyone on the planet lived like me, and I don’t want to be responsible for other people not having the means to survive, whether they are on the other side of the world, down the road or my own children.

At some point, I made the connection between my short-haul flight, my polyester top and my imported vegetables and the subsistence farmers around Lake Naivasha or in northern Togo and Ghana who haven’t got enough water to grow food. And, yes, I probably made that connection because I’ve seen how small Lake Naivasha is compared to 20 years ago, and I’ve seen the reforestation projects in northern Togo and Ghana, and I’ve met people who live there and they are real people who love their families and want a prosperous livelihood, and that’s because I flew there and that makes me a big, fat hypocrite – shoot me.

I can’t change what I’ve already done. I can only try and make up for it now and not carry on doing it, now that I know.

I genuinely, genuinely believe that this is morally the right thing to do.

It’s joining the dots and making that same connection that will make other people do the right thing too. As I said before, it’s tempting to slip into an ‘us and them’ mentality – I keep doing it myself: ‘people’, ‘other people’, ‘them’; ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘us’ – but there really is no reason that we can’t all make that connection and all do the right thing. I’ve done it before a lot of people, but there were other people who started before me, and they don’t believe that my contribution is worthless because I once flew from Newcastle to London, so I don’t want to judge anyone who still does, and if my friend says she’s going to use Ecover washing powder even though she’s still flying all over the world, then, hell, good on her for using Ecover washing powder!

Furthermore, given the approach of the mainstream media (simplifying and polarising the issues and sometimes publishing outright misinformation) and the government (singularly failing to take it seriously, talking about green taxes, insisting on a confusing, un-joined-up recycling system that even I don’t believe in, and yet expanding Heathrow and taking away grants for wind turbines), I can’t really blame anyone for feeling powerless and uninspired. Also, we live in such an alienated, disengaged society, that we are actively discouraged from thinking about the consequences of our actions or the systems that we implicitly support by buying into them.

I have all this understanding and compassion in me, and I do not want to be all ‘holier than thou’, because I, too, am lazy and selfish, and I thank the lord at times that I live in a society that allows me to be so.

Which makes me feel that perhaps I am doing people a disservice by avoiding engaging with them about the real issues at stake. Maybe I should start talking about floods and droughts, about the people in the third world who are going to die, about the walls we’ll build to keep them out, how they’ll die trying to scale them to get in. Maybe I should mention all the people in the West who are going to die, that might have more impact – maybe I should suggest it could be them, their family, their children, their grandchildren. Maybe I should mention the damage we all do when we wear clothes made from oil or when we drive to work, when we eat that dried mango or spend 16 hours a day on the laptop.

Maybe I should tell them just how absolutely terrified I sometimes feel, how I’m just as selfish as everybody else, and I’m not choosing to live like this as an exercise in self-abasement or in making other people feel unworthy, but that if and when we are forced to make drastic changes or a crisis of some kind hits us, I want to be sure of the best chance of survival for ‘me and mine’.

If anyone asked me, I’d say we were never going to make anyone change to being greener by lecturing them. If someone says to you, ‘You shouldn’t use plastic bags, they kill wildlife and pollute the environment,’ you’re likely to feel judged. If someone says to you, ‘Those new recycled Sainsbury’s bags** are really rubbish, aren’t they, the handles always snap*** – I take my own, now, much sturdier and don’t hurt your hands,’ you might think they had a point.

But, when it comes down to it, my purely selfish, animal desire for survival and for my children’s survival has got nothing to do with skipping home with organic carrots in a hemp bag, knitting a yoghurt or two and then recycling a cat into a garden ornament, and if that isn’t the lifestyle that appeals to you, then you’re not going to want to do it. (Conversely, you might do it anyway – my envirosceptic parents have always cooked from scratch, grown vegetables, eschewed the latest gadgets and disposable fashion and holidayed in the UK, just because it gives them greater pleasure.)

Perhaps by suggesting that you should enjoy all the things I enjoy, I’m being far more patronising than if I simply said, ‘Look, we all need to make some tough decisions, for ourselves, for our parents, who will be elderly and vulnerable in a few decades time, for our children who have as much right to a future as we do, for their children, and for everyone else, everywhere in the world whose lives we are risking by carrying on claiming it is our ‘right’ to lay waste to the planet by doing all the little, tiny things we do every day without thinking.’

Perhaps I should stop being so afraid of making people feel judged, or suggesting that I’m right and they’re wrong, because I don’t want them to enjoy knitting and gardening and stop enjoying going on holiday. I want them to wake up and acknowledge their moral responsibility.

——–

Sincere apologies for the long, boring, heavy, ranty post. It’s been troubling me a lot lately. I’d ask for your thoughts, but I’ve covered so much and gone on at such length that you probably wouldn’t know which bit to respond to even if you did want to.

I’ll write about cakes and knitting again next time, I promise! =D

* And if you want to read it put more eloquently and succinctly than I ever could, here are a couple of posts from one of my favourite blogs: http://casaubonsbook.blogspot.com/2006/10/theories-of-exceptionalism_09.html and http://casaubonsbook.blogspot.com/2006/10/more-on-exceptionalism.html. In fact, read the whole blog through from beginning to end, because it is inspiring, heart-warming, terrifying, thought-provoking, intellectual, beautifully written and very, very human. It’s like someone’s saying to me, ‘It’s okay that you have a degree from Oxford and all you want to do is knit and grow vegetables. You are not wasting your brain doing these things. You are in fact very wise.’
** Only, last time I checked, 1/3 recycled and still using a lot of virgin plastic and a bit of chalk. Oh, greenwash, thy name is J Sainsbury.
*** Actually, maybe it isn’t greenwash, maybe it’s a very clever conspiracy to annoy us all into stopping using plastic bags.

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Entry filed under: climate change, peak oil, pensiveness, ramble.

Start the week…. Garden planning

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Lucy  |  February 2, 2008 at 2:59 pm

    WELL! I’ve just read your entire post. I have to say, I feel exactly as you do. I sometimes wonder whether my efforts are actually worth it, and how I’m always so conscious about my consumerism and effect on the world. But then if there are 100, 1000, 100,000 or a million people trying to live more ethically (and by that, I mean environmentally-animal-welfarey-human-rights-conscious),
    then it does make a difference.

    It just feels like a huge uphill struggle half the time. I always feel like I want to eat my fist in certain situations. Like my grandmother leaving the heating on low in her house whilst she’s in hospital for 6+weeks. She says it’s to stop if feeling cold and damp. Or going out with friends of the family who order chicken on the menu, knowing full well it’s not going to be free range.

    It’s hard not to sound preachy but sometimes I think you just have to say something – the last few generations from the 50s onwards have become too used to having what they want, when they want and how much they want. People don’t like being told they can’t have something, or can only have so much. Look at the petrol crisis we had a few years ago – people just don’t know! I feel though there is an emerging tide of re-education, certainly amongst the middle classes (perhaps the biggest consumers?) anyway. I don’t care if being green is a fashion thing, if that’s what it takes to make super-consumerism socially unacceptable, then so be it!

    What’s heartwarming is that at 25, I am seeing a lot of my peers returning to family values, growing vegetables, making their own clothes. We still have a hugely long way to go, but all is not lost. This country coped with a war (granted, that was when a lot of people were used to going without, I think rationing now would spark riots), so I think it’s about time schools starting educating children to make the changes previous generations didn’t bother to.

    Reply
  • 2. Hamster  |  February 4, 2008 at 5:12 pm

    Hi Lucy,
    Thanks for reading to the end and leaving a comment. Do you mind if I ask how you found me?!

    I think you make a very good point about being too used to having what we want all the time. A lot of people are very resistant to even thinking about making do with less or working to meet their basic needs (e.g. growing food, chopping wood) – most people meet their needs by earning money and then paying other people or machines to do things for them, despite the fact that this, broadly speaking, makes them less healthy and less happy, beyond a certain point.

    I’ll ponder it over and post again about it soon.

    Reply
  • 3. Lucy @ Smallest Smallholding  |  February 5, 2008 at 7:04 pm

    Hello…I found your blog on Hedgewizard’s blogroll…had a peruse and liked what I saw, so I added it to my blogroll too (am I the only person that automatically misses out the ‘l’ in blogroll???).

    I too am a freelancer, I have hens and veg plots, and now an allotment, I struggle on a day-to-day basis with all things ethical, my consumerism etc. My sister thinks I’m ‘intense’ – I call it being conscientious!

    Reply

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The Heritage Crafts Network

Rob Hopkins, Transition Handbook

“Environmentalists have often been guilty of presenting people with a mental image of the world’s least desirable holiday destination – some seedy bed and breakfast near Torquay, with nylon sheets, cold tea and soggy toast – and expecting them to get excited about the prospect of NOT going there. The logic and the psychology are all wrong.”

Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

"Food is that rare moral arena in which the ethical choice is generally the one more likely to make you groan with pleasure."

Carlo Petrini

"A gastronome who is not also an environmentalist is an idiot. An environmentalist who is not also a gastronome is, well, sad."

Sharon Astyk

"I am, of course, firmly opposed to consumerism and corporatism in all its forms, and I believe that we are deeply confused about material needs and wants. Now let me explain how books and yarn are totally different than the material things that other people want ;-)…."

Raj Patel, at Slow Food Nation

"Biofuels, which is the preposterous policy that we should grow food not to eat it but to set it on fire."

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