The twentieth century saw some radical cultural shifts for the western poor. We moved away from self-sufficiency, and towards consuming low cost goods. We stopped cooking from scratch and bought processed food. Many of the skills that had historically been essential for paupers, became lost to the vast majority. We’d ushered in a new era of prosperity and ease, and no one would ever have to cut worn bed sheets in half again to re-sew them for a re-use.
Now, many people are finding they don’t have the money to support the lifestyle they’d once taken for granted. It comes as a shock. Being poor is very hard if you have no idea how to do it. Let’s just consider food. If you can grow your own veg and fruit, make jam from the fruit, keep a few chickens, if you know how to re-use your leftovers, how never to waste anything, then you can eat for very little cost. It takes time. We’re used to throwing away a third of the food we buy. There’s a huge distance between those two ways of being, and the pauper arts are not reclaimed over night by people who find they need them.
The twentieth century taught the western poor to want all the same things the rich were getting. Of course we want fairness and equality, but we didn’t pause to ask on what terms we were getting it, or what it meant. Nor were we encouraged to, because turning us into an avidly consuming class drove the economy along. The more we can be persuaded to want, and the more willing we are to go into debt to have those things, the more vulnerable we are. We’ve been sold the idea of comfort and convenience, and now we have to work ever longer hours to pay for it, or the money dries up and we suddenly can’t afford to eat.
The cheap boom of the twentieth century was underpinned by low cost goods from abroad. The environmental cost of cheap food is huge. In another country, people are working in dangerous conditions for little pay to put cheap consumables in our shops. That’s a very high price, and just because we aren’t the ones paying it, does not entitle us to be comfortable. We can’t go on consuming at the current rate or in these ways.
What we need to do is stop being seduced by advertisers and junk pedlars. We need to stop accepting that we need everything done for us, by someone abroad, or by a machine. We need to reclaim the pauper arts that truly can allow us a better quality of life for less money. Much of that knowledge is still out there, and much can be re-invented. The important thing is to know there are options.
If you know how to do a good job of being a pauper, a little money goes a lot further. There is a sense of power and achievement in self-sufficiency, in being able to repair clothes, mend useful items, convert one thing into another. There’s a lot of use in cooking with leftovers and making compost out of kitchen waste. No one is going to pick all of this up overnight, but thinking creatively and imagining solutions is a good place to start.
In front of me on the table is the sorting and storage system for Tom’s art gear – an old, unwanted metal tea set, bought for a pound, and doing the job very well. Next to it is a plastic sweet box that I cheered up by collaging it with paper from old calendars, and am using to store my sewing kit in. We had fun with those, they will serve us well for a long time, and they cost very little. They kept a few things out of landfill, too. We’ve got a draught excluder made from a pair of worn out jeans. Bags made out of old curtains. Old curtains cut down to be smaller curtains suitable for these windows. It adds up.
What we all need is a new aesthetic; a sense that clever re-use is chic. If we only collectively decided that ‘make do and mend’ is a great look for this year, it would be easier for a lot of people to tackle poverty whilst feeling good about it, and to step back from the over-consumption that is pushing our planet to the brink. We need to declare re-use the sexiest thing imaginable. That it currently isn’t, is just a trend, and trends can change.