Category Archives: Green Living

Embroidery and Upcycling

Carrying on with the craft theme, here are some images from the embroidery I’ve been working on. As you can see in the image below, I’m using the kind of hoop that is traditional in British embroidery. I can’t manage the denim without it, and the layers of fabric would make a sashiko needle impossible to manage, I think. So, nothing authentic about any of this, but, I’ve been really inspired by what I’ve learned about sashiko and boro.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Form follows need as the embroidery reinforces seams and helps me deal with the otherwise rough and vulnerable edges of the denim. Working with such a heavy fabric, folding the edges of each piece to make a hem isn’t feasible, but means the patchwork pieces are otherwise likely to unravel. I’ve learned by experiment how best to secure seams and edges of cloth.


Craft, culture and boro

Back in the winter, Pinterest lured me in with images of boro. At the time I had no real idea of what I was seeing only that I found it very attractive. If you get in there with a search engine, the internet will give you a lot of images of mostly denim patchwork, visible mending techniques and embroidery. As an enthusiastic needlecrafter and upcycler, this all had instant appeal. I dug in.

I like to have some idea of where things come from and what their significance is. Partly because I delight in such knowledge and partly because accidental cultural appropriation is not my idea of fun.  Here’s a brief synopsis of what I found out when I dug in. Boro means rags, and it is a tradition from Northern Japan, inspired by poverty and necessity, that takes what little fabric is available and keeps it in sound, wearable, protective condition. It fell out of favour after the second world war because of the poverty associations, but is having something of a renaissance. Of course traditionally it wasn’t done with denim but currently that seems to be the fabric of preference. There is also an embroidery tradition that goes with it, called sashiko.

We really need these kinds of traditions right now – we need the inspiration and to reclaim cultures of re-use. To take our throwaway culture towards something more sustainable we need to start valuing re-use, repairing, upcycling, and keeping whatever is usable in use. This of course is what poor people have always done, of necessity, and that’s part of the problem. While we see these techniques as being about poverty and insufficiency, many people will be actively put off them. Who wants to look poor? Who wants to do what poor people do? Affluence means discarding things whenever you like.  It means never looking shabby, or ragged, or even mended. We equate smartness with newness and wealth.

It will take a bit of a shift to see the value in what is old and repaired. But, there is a great deal of beauty and innovation in these traditions. Off the peg clothing is bland stuff that seldom lasts long. It means looking like everyone else and having limited scope for self expression. The upcycler on the other hand gets to play and make over, and has adventures in clothing unavailable to other people. There are plenty of things to find attractive here.

Over the coming few days I’m going to be writing a bit about my adventures with boro, so, watch this space. To be clear, I am not making boro – I’m using the wrong materials and the wrong tools. It’s not my cultural heritage, and my grasp of it at this point is fairly superficial. However, there’s a lot I’m excited about and inspired by, and there’s a world of difference between being inspired by something, and misrepresenting it by claiming to be doing it.


Life Without Cars

I admit I’m greatly enjoying the reduced traffic. I’m enjoying how much easier it is to hear the birdsong from inside my flat, and that the dawn chorus today did not have an accompaniment of vehicles. All of the roads round here are quieter, easier to cross, safer.

Yesterday I noticed that there is no longer a taste in the back on my mouth when I go out. It was so normal, that I hadn’t been aware of it before. Lorries and buses give me a brief round of it, but it is no longer intrinsic to breathing. It was an unpleasant flavour. I breathe a little more easily without it. The air is cleaner.

Of course cars have greatly advantaged people as we’ve moved towards lockdown. People in their own car are safer than those crushed into public transport. People with cars have had options of panic buying and stocking up. They also won’t need to top up shop that often. Those of us who carry our shopping home on our backs cannot buy so much in one go.  As usual, the people who have least and cause least harm are disadvantaged.

I have dreamed for a long time of seeing this kind of reduction in car use. I would not have chosen to do it this way. Those absent cars represent lives in chaos. Education disrupted and the massive stress of still not really knowing what will happen for GCSE and A Level students. Those cars belonged to self employed people who have been left totally exposed by callous political choices. They were the cars of people visiting their loved ones. We needed to learn how to do without them, but not like this.


Greener Eating

In recent weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make the household more environmentally friendly. The most obvious actions for us to take are around food – reducing the animal products in the diet (one omnivore, two vegetarians) and cutting back on plastic waste associated with food.

Limitations of both sourcing and budget mean that the only way we can do this, is to make more from scratch. Between us we do a fair amount of meals from scratch, but it’s the extras that need looking at especially. Snacks, puddings, biscuits, and bread.

There are in turn implications about comfort, wellness and energy levels. I make my least good food choices when I’m ill, exhausted, overworked and uninspired. At that point, making everything from scratch is a push too far. We walk for transport, shop on foot – there’s a lot of greener things going on that mean spare energy is not always available. I’ve also learned that it pays to eat with an eye to mental health, and that means carbs – often toast. Low blood sugar causes a lot of mood problems and if my mental health goes to the wall, nothing else is going to work out well.

So I’ve been experimenting a bit. There are issues around how and when I plan the food, and what breaks I get between food-making and other jobs. Tom is finding that having managed to bring work-related stress levels down, he has more energy resources for this sort of thing, too. It’s clearly possible to get into vicious cycles where a poor diet adds to body weariness and makes it harder to get on top of things and do better around food. There would be all sorts of benefits to getting this right. Mass produced food is always more bland and less nutritious than the stuff you can make for yourself.

But, convenience food exists in a culture that puts us under a lot of pressure to work. If you’re mentally exhausted, even thinking about what to cook can be overwhelming. Energy is required to be making bread and biscuits and whatnot. Having the kind of day jobs that requires massive amounts of concentration over long periods, Tom and I both tend to snack to keep going. There’s a complicated relationship already between how we work, how we shop and how we eat and it’s something I’ve had to think about carefully.

The conclusion I’ve come to is that making good changes depends on seeing the bigger picture. It means examining how we’re living to see what, overall, could shift us. This also requires time and energy. The key place to start is to ask why things are as they currently are, because without exploring that, any changes are likely to be brief and superficial, or counterproductive in some other way.


Stand By Tree: Protest Songs To Save The Trees

A guest blog by Steve Andrews

As a singer-songwriter who cares passionately about the natural world I use songs in my protests for environmental causes. I often change the lyrics of songs I cover, and so it was with Stand by Me, which became Stand by Tree!

Back in 2017, I joined the local demonstrators in the Cardiff suburb of Roath where trees along Roath Brook, which ran through some parkland, were under threat. The badly named Natural Resources Wales had approved the felling of trees along the stream as part of a flood defence plan, even though residents there had not had problems with flooding. Sadly by the time I got involved several of the trees were nothing more than stumps, and others marked for removal. Protestors had attached placards to some of the threatened trees calling for them to be spared. As if it wasn’t bad enough that the trees were being felled, Roath Brook is a haven for wildlife but Natural Resources Wales didn’t appear to care. Kingfishers were often seen there, the European Eel, a Critically Endangered species was known to live in the brook, and Water Voles were said to have been seen at the location. 

When I went along I took my guitar and sang some songs I thought were appropriate, including my own ditty entitled Kingfisher, and my amended Stand By Me cover.  Another well-known song I changed the lyrics for is Give Peace a Chance. My version goes: “All we are saying is give trees a chance.” One of my new verses has the lines: “Everybody’s talking about Jarvis Cocker, he’s a rocker, celebrities saving trees,” and then the chorus. The singer who came to fame fronting the band Pulp, had supported the campaign to save the trees in Sheffield, where thousands were felled. Even Michael Gove, the then Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, spoke out at the time, and was reported in the Yorkshire Post to have called the felling of thousands of street trees, a ‘“travesty” that should never be allowed to happen again.’

To my mind it is clearly insane to destroy perfectly healthy mature trees, which besides helping to keep the air of cities free from pollution, are also the homes of many species of wildlife, including many insects and birds. Nevertheless urban trees have been cut down in very many cities and towns throughout the UK, and many more are still under threat. I commented on this in The Nightingale, a song which also features vocals by award-winning poet Mab Jones: “They’ve killed the trees in Sheffield and it’s happening across the UK, big business doesn’t care about nature, despite what they may say, businessmen and councillors don’t care about a ‘Green City,’ they care about making targets, they care about big money.”  

The chorus for this song is a question and answer which goes: “Who will stop the destruction of so many trees, who will save the birds, the butterflies and bees? It comes down to the protestors, to people like you and I, we cannot let them kill our world, we cannot let it die.”


Green-ish, but at what cost?

It would be better for the environment if more of us travelled by train. Does this mean that destroying pockets of ancient woodland for the sake of more trains is an environmental solution? HS2 offers us just that. Trains are better environmentally than cars, but trees are better environmentally than no trees and ancient woodland cannot be replaced.

I had similar arguments more than a decade ago with an MP who thought a Severn River barrage was a good idea. Save the planet with green energy! But at the price of destroying a unique habitat. She felt it was worth the trade-off. I didn’t.

Every time we get into one of these, what we’re really saying is that carrying on as normal is worth destroying something for. If we used less energy, we wouldn’t need to mess about with the Severn River. If we didn’t travel so much, there would be no justification for destroying woodland for the sake of trains. If we tell ourselves we’re making the more sustainable choice, it’s amazing what we can justify.

We need imagination. We need the willingness to make radical change. We need to recognise that we cannot keep consuming at our current rates. We have to use less. Sacrificing some aspect of the natural world so we can carry on as usual is not a sustainable choice.


Worth and convenience

Modern western lifestyles are underpinned by a notion of convenience. We’re told how much we want things to be quick and easy, but how often do we stop to do any real cost-benefit analysis? The cost of our convenience increasingly includes environmental disaster, which will be highly inconvenient for all of us. So, I thought I’d explore some of those convenience stories and see what else might be said about them. If you have specific needs that put you in a different relationship with these issues, that’s a different matter.

It is convenient to do big shopping trips and stock up on food and it is not convenient to buy food every day, or every few days as used to be the way of it. Of course, to do this you need a car to bring the stockpile home and you need a fridge and freezer for storage. You’ll probably buy things you don’t use and that will go off because the longer term your shopping is, the harder it is to get this exactly right. All of this will cost you money, requires energy (fuel, and electricity) and the maintenance of costly items (fridge, freezer, car).

It is more convenient to buy ready-made food than make it yourself. This of course increases the amount of packaging you’ll have to recycle or throw away. Ready-made food is often bland and predictable, and not always that great nutritionally. It reinforces the idea that we have to be on the go all the time and shouldn’t expect to have time or energy for basic self-care. Making and sharing food can be a pleasure and does not have to be a chore, but if you’re run off your feet, it may be too much. Maybe not being run off our feet would be more convenient.

It is more convenient to buy ready-made clothes. Of course it takes time and skill to make your own clothes, and it costs a lot to have someone with time and skill make clothes for you. The convenience means we mostly wear clothes that don’t quite fit, that are bland and make us look like everyone else. Alongside this we’ve lost a lot of repairing skills so for many people, small damage can make a garment unwearable, which also has a cost.

Cheap disposable things are convenient. Except that they aren’t, because you keep having to deploy time, effort and money replacing them. They cost more in the long term than things that last longer. They break down and leave you missing kit you wanted or needed. They let you down.

It is more convenient to drive everywhere. Except the freedom of the open road is often the freedom to sit in queues, suffering immense frustration and breathing in pollution. Sometimes it is faster to walk or cycle, and it’s often a good deal more pleasant. The convenience of personal transport needs weighing against the cost of noise and air pollution, jammed roads, the cost of the car, and the environmental damage. Dying prematurely from car-related air pollution is not something any of us find convenient.

Flopping out in front of the television is convenient for relaxing at the end of your working day. And here they get you with adverts and images of how your home should look and yet more pressure to buy stuff. Convenient, low effort entertainment robs us of real human interactions, and all that we might find emotionally sustaining. We end up bored, lonely and unfulfilled.


Changing our eco stories

There are a lot of stories being put about right now about what it means to live responsibly. For the examples below, I’ve taken words from stories I have encountered. Nothing here has been made up.

There are people who will tell us that talk of the climate crisis is fearmongering, brainwashing and not to be believed. They ask what we are afraid will happen. I’ve taken to answering this by pointing at the things that are happening – the fires and floods, the tens of thousands who die from air pollution each year, what plastic does in the oceans, that it is in our bodies too, and so forth. Climate denial is a dangerous story that is going to kill a lot of people.

Then there are the people who say things like ‘you can’t possibly care about the environment if you eat chocolate.’ There are many variations, but the gist is that if you aren’t 100% carbon neutral and ethical in all things then you have no right to suggest anyone else try harder. Of course most of us who care can’t manage to do everything in economies that are set up so badly in the first place. It is good enough to do the best you can, and realistic to expect that you may be stumped by some things.

People who find an eco change easy to make can be unhelpfully intolerant of people not also making that change. This often comes wrapped in a lot of privilege. Of course everyone can go a year without buying new clothes? Well, maybe not if a medical crisis and dramatic weight gain/loss means you own nothing that fits. Of course everyone can give up plastic packaging! Except that’s really hard to do if you are living in poverty. Of course everyone can give up their car! Which may be totally unfeasible if you have serious disability and so forth. Humiliating people because their lack of privilege makes something hard for them really isn’t the way to go.

There’s the story that living lightly will mean ‘going back to the stone age’. As though our lifestyles are so gorgeous and glorious that it’s not worth giving anything up for the sake of not trashing the planet.

The idea that we can carry on in much the same way and just source things more greenly is a subtle and persuasive story. We can’t just switch over to electric cars – those require resources, too. We can’t just replace energy with renewable and keep consuming at the same rate. We can’t just replace plastic packaging with something else. We use too much, and we have to cut back, and any story that tells us otherwise is setting us up to fail.

There’s also the story that there is no point trying. My one change isn’t big enough to matter. My country is small, what does it matter if we aren’t onboard? This is utterly counterproductive and encourages everyone to do nothing as though it is someone else’s job to fix things.

We need a radical re-think, and we need stories about how to do that. How to change our lives. How to live lightly and want less and be happy. We need to fundamentally change what we do and how we do it – both individually and collectively and to do that, we have to build it as an idea and reject the stories that stop us from making real change.


Reducing Plastic

The trouble with a lot of advice about reducing plastic is either it’s very basic – take your own shopping bag level of stuff – or there are privilege issues. I’ve been giving some thought to ways of reducing plastic that don’t depend on your health or your income too much.

Avoid overpackaging. It’s not always easy to tell the first time you buy something if it will turn out to have layers of plastic on the inside, but once you know, these are easily avoided. Overpackaging is most often a feature on snacks – multipacks of crisps, cake bars, sweets and whatnot. These are hardly essential. If you’re desperate for snacks, there are options with less packaging.

Carry a water bottle or a thermos flask – this has the bonus of saving you money. If you can’t afford a fancy water bottle, re-using bottles is workable. Keep your bottle cool to reduce the risk of it leaching plastic into your water. If you have to buy a drink, there’s a lot to be said for a re-usable cup in a cafe if you can afford it. Failing that, fruit juice in tetrapacks is worth a thought – better than paying someone to extract and bottle water – which is a preposterous thing. You can then re-fill the pack with water – I’ve done this at events.

Re-use packaging – jiffy bags, bubble wrap and all that sort of thing can be re-used, saving you money at the same time. If you end up with a lot of it, give it to a charity shop so they can re-use it when people buy breakables.

Check the price for weight on fruit and veg. Unhelpfully sometimes loose stuff is sold by the item not the weight, so you may need to give it some thought. Sometimes the loose stuff is the same price, or occasionally even cheaper than the bagged produce. Also consider the food miles though – loose mangos and pineapples may not be as good an idea as apples in a bag…

Clothes made from synthetic fabrics release plastic particles when you wash them. Try to wash a bit less frequently and/or on gentler cycles, or going over to handwashing (I do this, synthetics are easy to handwash).This will reduce the amount of plastic you put out. It also increases the life-expectancy of your clothes, which saves you money, and saves you money on water, electricity and laundry soap – which also improves your sustainability. Win all round.

Car tyres are another source of plastic particles in our environments. If you have to drive, then going at lower speeds, cornering and braking to reduce wear and tear on your tyres will save you money on replacing them, and save you money on fuel consumption and that all helps with being greener as well. If you can do without the car of course that’s even better from both an environmental perspective and a body health perspective. For those of us who can, walking and cycling is healthier.

Picking up rubbish is a good way of helping if you have the time and energy. Plastic bags and other detritus end up in our water systems, and then get out to sea and into the bodies of marine creatures. Plastic breaking down in wild places can strangle and choke wildlife. It doesn’t solve the existence of the plastic in the first place, but you can at least reduce the harm.


Making the connection

A guest post by Avril A Brown

 

Statistics from the oxymoronically-named Humane Slaughter Association (https://www.hsa.org.uk/) indicate that every year in the UK approximately 2.6 million cattle, 10 million pigs, 14.5 million sheep and lambs, 80 million fish and 950 million birds are slaughtered for human consumption.

That’s an awful lot of blood on human hands.

I was prompted to research these statistics on animal slaughter after a recent visit to the Tribe Animal Sanctuary Scotland (https://tribesanctuary.co.uk/).  After following them on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/updatesTASS/), I knew that I wanted to visit the sanctuary.

Nestling in Scotland’s Clyde valley, the 11-acre site is home to around 100 ‘food’ animals rescued from slaughter, neglect or abuse. The sanctuary was set up 2.5 years ago by tattoo artist Morag and her husband John as the culmination of a long-held dream.

Morag told me that she has been vegan for 25 years. Her activism has matured in that time. Less the ‘angry vegan’, she prefers now to help people make the connection between the meat on their plate and the animals that she cares for.

Making the connection is the TASS mantra. Morag and John firmly believe that the pigs, sheep, goats, Highland cows, chicken, turkeys and donkeys have just as much intelligence and personality – and therefore intrinsic value – as all the cats, dogs, rabbits etc that we currently celebrate as pets. However, most people never get to meet one of these creatures, let alone see those sides to them.  That’s why TASS encourages visitors to come and meet the animals in the hope that by being able to look into the eyes of a sheep or a chicken, then people will be able to make that connection that will allow them to forego meat in future.

TASS is a peaceful place, relaxed and full of love.  None of the animals are required to ‘perform’ or to earn their living; they are simply allowed to ‘be’.  The joy and the satisfaction that they bring is obvious as Morag’s face lights up when she talks about them. I asked her if she had a favourite species or animal among her crew, “They are all so different, so special in their own ways that I love them all and couldn’t possibly choose just one. Every animal at TASS has a name and they all have their own story.”

My visit to TASS certainly left me with a lot to think about.

Being neither vegan nor even vegetarian, I have no particular axe – metaphorical or otherwise – to grind over how or even what other people eat. What I have been increasingly conscious of, however, is the impact of animal husbandry on our increasingly fragile ecosystems.

Whatever your own stance may be on meat consumption, I doubt that anyone can argue that much needs to be changed in the world of the intensive agriculture industry that so damages and wastes as much as it produces. At the very least, food animals must no longer be considered as ‘product’ so that they can enjoy better lives.

The rewilding project at Knepp in West Sussex (https://knepp.co.uk/home) shows how ecosystems can recover if left to nature. However, in the short term it is unlikely that such projects will feed populations, particularly in areas where poor soil quality (eg the Scottish Highlands and islands) has led to a dependence on animal husbandry that would be hard to justify let alone unpick.

In the meantime, the very least we can do as individuals is to significantly reduce our consumption of animal products, to support compassion and welfare in farming and to purchase ethically wherever possible.