Biting the hand that feeds

Oupa's factory
Checking out Oupa’s plastics factory

A school friend grew up on a tobacco farm in Malawi, and like me, had been sent to boarding school in South Africa at a tender age. At our 25th year reunion recently the topic of smoking came up, and she told how whenever she gives her Dad a hard time about his smoking habit, he reminds her that tobacco paid for her education.

I can relate. Plastic paid for mine.  Visiting my Dad’s plastic factory is a vivid childhood memory: the squishy sacks of plastic polymer; the noisy machines compressing the pellets; standing at the end of the production line, waiting to see the colourful cups being spat out, still warm and steaming; the words ‘injection mould’ and ‘virgin material.’ I remember long trips back to boarding school, our Kombi packed to the rafters with plastics that we’d deliver en-route.

And yet my Dad, unapologetically capitalist, ended up with green-leaning kids. Plastic has been top of our hit list in trying to whittle down our waste. My sister, a scuba instructor who sees first hand the state of our oceans, recently shared something on Facebook and screeched ‘Stop Fucking Using Plastic!’ And my brother is seldom happiest than when knee deep in worm muck churning out compost.

It’s a tricky one. My Dad worked his ass off so he could give us what he prizes above all else – a good education. Without that (plastic-funded) education, one that lifted us out of the structural limitations set by apartheid, our lives might have taken a very different trajectory.

Something to be mindful of when we rail against the system? We all need to make a living in the world. If we’re lucky, smart, or both, we manage to marry our ideals with our livelihood; others bump up against all kinds of socio-political barriers – work is a way to pay the bills, it can’t always be aligned with our beliefs or worldview.

So while it’s wonderful to have choices and hold fast to our ideals, there’s always the flip side. Someone on the other end whose livelihood depends on the thing we’re lambasting or crusading against. It’s a theme that can be applied most anywhere – poachers trying to eke out a living; children working in sweat shops to help put food on the table. For everyone trying to build what they believe to be a better world by challenging the system, there’s someone propping it up, living hand to mouth.

Those are extreme examples and I’ve gone on a bit of a tangent. Bringing it back to those pesky single-use plastics that are choking our oceans, I still avoid them. But I’m seldom militant about it; our push and pull world is after all stupendously complex.

 

They’ll de-vibe my vibe, still, these 5 eco-documentaries are on my list

Few of us need convincing that our planet is in peril (well, except….there’s that guy in the White House). The picture is often painted in broad strokes though. We have a notion that catastrophes are taking place — temperatures are rising, icecaps melting, flora and fauna are becoming extinct — but we may not know the specifics of what is causing it.

If you’re looking to deepen your understanding of climate issues, or drill down into the particulars (which behaviours are causing what destruction), there’s no shortage of documentaries out there.

Eco-documentaries are heavy going; it’s dire to contemplate the path we’re on, and most focus on the doom and gloom rather than the positive shifts taking place. But, sometimes, they give us a much-needed kick in the ass — we may be haunted by an image or stunned by a statistic, or suddenly make the connection between A and B — which in turn compels us to do that one small thing or make that one tiny change. And hopefully it snowballs from there.

Not light viewing, but these are on my list……

What’s on yours?
What are your must-sees?

Energy guzzlers

grasses1jpgIt’s a small, seemingly insignificant thing but the absence of a machine or contraption whirring in the background to regulate the temperature or clean the air is one of the things I’ve loved most about moving back home.

In Beijing there was a constant hum in our apartment – of the air conditioner in summer, the heater in winter (who knew Beijing was sub-arctic) and the air purifier most of the year. Hong Kong was not much different (this is a city where department stores open their doors wide to pump cold air onto the hot sticky streets outside). In London it was the central heating for what felt like the better part of the year.

In Cape Town the air is beautifully clean and the temperature just so, so that you’re always comfortable, and it’s felt so good to be less of an energy guzzler. Moving home has coincided with a gradual awakening on my part – of a planet in peril as a result of our unrelenting quest for comfort and convenience. Maybe it’s having kids, maybe it’s middle age, maybe it’s having lived in such artificial city environments for close to a decade.

I do wonder though, if I moved back to any of those concrete jungles, would I just revert to my old ways? Crank up the aircon after a day in the insane stickiness that is Hong Kong? Or seal myself in my apartment, air purifier going full-tilt, after an afternoon breathing in the noxious Beijing air? What are the alternatives? Learn to be a little (or a lot) less comfortable?

I can feel smug about ditching the temperature control machines but I now live in a suburban house with a thirsty garden, and I haven’t used public transport in three years. I’ve swapped out one set of conveniences for another – if I did one of those carbon footprint calculations and compared life then to life now, I’m not sure I’ve progressed as much as I think.

It does feel though that once awareness has crept up on you, once it’s got your attention, it starts demanding more of you. What you know becomes compounded so that you’re forced to continually refine and adapt your thinking. You recycle furiously and feel great about keeping waste out of landfill, then investigate a little more and realise recycling is a sticking plaster, not a solution, and that what you actually need to do is stop accumulating. You become water-wise, flick those switches off and compost your food waste but then watch Cowspiracy and feel like you’ve had blinkers on all this time – gorging yourself on meat whereas in fact ditching meat could have a bigger impact that all your recycling efforts combined. You browse the sites of zero wasters displaying their entire years waste in a small glass jar – and then, feeling inadequacy creep in, you step away from the screen, go for a walk and get some perspective!

Learning is iterative and it’s hard to overhaul your life in a day, a week, a few months or even years. But you can always start and do what you can when and where you can, with the wherewithal you have at the time – and you can rejig things as you go along. And I think a journey of sustainability should be a joyful one – moments of outrage and maybe even exasperation at times yes, but ultimately something that brings you a semblance of peace in a crazy beautiful world.

“Little by little, one travels far”
– J.R.R Tolkien

Overwhelm!

I love those gifs (or are they called memes?) that do the rounds on Facebook – about life in the eighties pre-technology when we rode our bikes everywhere, could only contact each other via landline, Pac Man was the only video game around and we never watched TV. A much simpler time, when we were told to make ourselves scarce or read a book if we were bored. Being scuttled off to OT, swimming lessons and pottery? Pah!

Incredible how things have changed in just one generation. Seems like right now, our kids, and us, have a lot more to worry about. Rhinos are nearly extinct. Our bee population is fast dwindling. By 2050 there’ll be more plastic in the sea than fish. The ice caps are melting and the sea rising. We’re running out of water. The Indonesian forests are burning. We’re consuming so much our landfills are running out of airspace. The food we eat is toxic and laden with preservatives. We’re hyper-connected yet many of us are still lonely and isolated. And while some of us gorge ourselves on meat and junk food, many of us are still starving to death. The pressure on our kids to perform has reached new heights (I’m pretty sure we didn’t write exams in Std 4?!). Trump. Brexit. ISIS. Zuma.

It’s hugely overwhelming and can make you want to curl up in the foetal position or be an ostrich and bury your head. Ignorance is after all bliss. But once you know something, you can’t un-know it.

ruby
Cuddling Ruby helps with the overwhelm

Something that has also helped, for me, is to start small. Baby steps. Pick one thing that resonates with you, however tiny, and start doing that thing. Stop buying straws; take your own bags to the supermarket; eat less meat; join a beach clean up; stop shopping; be more patient and present with your kids; give the guy at the traffic light the courtesy of eye contact and a smile. Start small and don’t beat yourself up when you forget to do it or slip up.

For me, stuff is a big thing. I can never resist a magazine, covet just about any coffee table book ever published, and have an embarrassing amount of jeans. But I often feel crushed by the weight of the rubble in our household – the wrapping paper, party favours, broken toys and kids paraphernalia, old gadgets and shoes from yesteryear. This year, I’m going to tackle the mountain of crap that threatens to bury me. It’ll be donated, repurposed or upcyled. I have much to learn about the most responsible way to dispose of stuff (what should we be doing with foil and food packaging that isn’t recyclable – find alternatives and stop using them altogether probably!).

This is the year we lighten the load and start making some tweaks. We’ll tweak and tweak until eventually the small habits become ingrained and effortless. In the same way that I’m now unable to throw food waste into the rubbish bin without a shudder, I’m hoping, eventually, that one day, sooner rather than later, every decision around accumulating is a conscious one, ever mindful of our responsibility to tread a little lighter. Number 1 on my hit list – packaging! Watch this space.