Category Archives: Green Living

Green, or Normal?

One of the biggest obstacles to living more sustainably, is our idea of what’s normal. This is something that impacts us at the personal level, and as wider societies and cultures. Normal is comfortable, and for many people, just imagining an alternative is difficult. We don’t automatically question things we think are normal, and we all tend to resist change away from what’s comfortable for us.

Most of us at this point are used to wildlife degradation. We’re used to seeing almost barren landscapes presented as beautiful. If we’ve never seen them covered in trees, or rich grassland, if we’ve never seen them complicated and thriving we won’t know that the thin covering of grass they now have is a disaster. We’re used to living with few songbirds, and not being surrounded by wildflowers. We don’t miss things if we’ve never known them. This means we are comfortable with situations that are actually grim.

If you grew up being driven everywhere, then cars are normal. You won’t think of your feet or a bicycle as modes of transport. You might not have shoes for walking or a body that can walk a mile or two at need. You won’t have an emotional relationship with walking and you will have an emotional relationship with your car. Changing this isn’t easy.

If you’ve grown up with foreign holidays and flying as normal, you may feel that you’re being asked to give up a lot in cutting back on that. If you grew up with throwaway clothes, and throwaway toys and an expectation that anything can go in the bin when you are bored with it, just the effort of recycling can seem like a big deal. Reducing, reusing, repurposing and repairing will seem very alien indeed.

We take ‘normal’ as a measure of goodness. We see the normality of the commute, and not how much of our time it wastes. We see the normality of the food we’ve been told is tasty and convenient, and not what it costs our bodies and not what it does to the planet.

It really doesn’t help that ‘normal’ has an advertising budget. Every day you are subjected to ideas and imagery in the form of adverts that reinforce a wasteful and consumerist society. Car adverts are normal. It’s hard to see these things when you are steeped in them.

It’s also easier to make changes if you can see what those changes would look like. It’s easier to re-think what we consider normal when you can see someone else doing differently. Doing all the mental work to deconstruct your reality and social norms on your own is not easy, and for many people it may not even be visible as an option.

This is why it’s so important to share what you do. The upcycling projects, the veg plot, the lower carbon choices… What we do on social media really can make a difference because it shows other people that ‘normal’ isn’t the only option.

This week I questioned the normality of the vacuum cleaner. The old one had broken, and was a cheap one so getting replacement parts would be difficult. This kind of device isn’t made to be repaired. I wondered what we might do that would be better. I prodded the internet a bit. Repairable and more efficient and eco friendly vacuum cleaners exist. Hurrah! But there’s also very expensive. It was only then that I started to ask why we needed this device specifically. We’ve bought a floor sweeper – it will pick up dust. The cat and I do not have to endure a noise level we both find stressful. It has almost no parts and those are repairable and replaceable, it uses no electricity, and there’s so much less of it that if it breaks irretrievably it represents a far smaller impact.

It’s all too easy to default to things because they seem normal. Questioning that is a constant process for me.


Kiss the Ground

If you care at all about climate chaos, you’re probably also experiencing depression, anxiety and despair. It all looks fairly grim out there and the politicians aren’t getting to grips with the issues anything like fast enough. Meanwhile Elon Musk adds to the pollution as he fires rockets into space and crypto-currencies use an alarming amount of energy. People with money and power seem hell bent on making everything worse.

Kiss the Ground is a documentary. It’s genuinely hopeful and offers what sounds like a real and realistic solution to de-carbonisation. It’s all about soil. The best thing is that no one has to wait for their government to get moving. Anyone with any land at all can take things on board from this and do something.

The solutions offered in this documentary benefit farmers. This is a way forward that offers lower costs, greater resilience and a better chance at making money – which is persuasive. It’s not a big ask to suggest people do something that will greatly benefit them. The solutions are low-tech for the greater part, so people in poorer parts of the world can get started without having to wait for help. The principles are easy to grasp.

We can keep a lot of carbon in the soil. We can add to it at a significant rate. Ploughing releases carbon, but we don’t actually need to plough to grow crops. If the soil isn’t bare, it takes in carbon, if it is bare, not only does it not take in carbon, but there are flooding issues, and earth becomes dust, topsoil is lost and we get desertification. Maintain plant cover and everything works better.

Here’s a trailer for the film, and if you get chance to see it, I heartily recommend it.

You might also want to watch this fantastic video on re-greening.


What if we ditched GDP?

Gross Domestic Product is used to measure wealth and growth. It focuses us on what we produce in terms of goods and services, while ignoring the impact of those things. It is massively problematic as a thing for governments to focus on because it goes with the idea of perpetual growth. We have economies built on the idea of perpetual growth and yet with finite resources this clearly isn’t going to work. Taking GDP as a measure of success also assumes that anything creating money is inherently a good thing.  This clearly doesn’t work either. What we measure and focus on informs policy and decision making. The speed of movement of money isn’t that useful a thing to obsess over.

What might we measure instead to establish how well a country is doing? Carbon emissions would be an obvious one, as we urgently need to reduce those, the more attention paid to them, the better. We can easily measure health, and this is a much better way to think about how well a country is delivering for its people.  Wellness is a meaningful measure of quality of life, especially when you include mental health in that. Happiness is a difficult thing to measure because it’s so subjective, but when you put people self-reporting on happiness alongside health considerations, you might have a meaningful sense of how people are doing.

Biodiversity would be an excellent thing to measure and monitor and put at the centre of decision making.  In the UK, tree cover would also be a thing to consider. Green spaces – and being able to access them – goes with good mental and physical health.

All of these things would shift us away from imagining that money/production for its own sake is a reasonable measurement of something.  By focusing on GDP, we priorities a notion of wealth creation over the actual wealth that is health and happiness. Money and product is of limited value when it costs your wellbeing. As the gap widens between the very rich and all the rest of us, money as a measurement of a country’s wellbeing becomes ever more suspect. Although it is worth noting that billionaires are the enemy of GDP – GDP is in many ways a measure of money moving around. Money hoarded by billionaires has been removed from the economy and is of no use to anyone else.

Ditching GDP would take us into the difficult territory of re-imagining our economies. We are either going to have to let go of eternal growth as a theory, or societal collapse will force that onto us anyway. We have to let go of the idea of always having more of everything, and replace that with ideas of sustainability, and staying at a level. If we focus on wellbeing rather than on making stuff and the movement of money, we might be able to see ourselves progressing in other ways, and that might make it easier to let go of this rather toxic narrative about what a successful country looks like.


What if we re-thought fashion?

The fashion industry is one of the most planet harming, carbon intensive, polluting of human activities. Clothes are often made in sweat shops, only to end up in landfill after one or two wears. We throw away tons of clothing. Unlike issues around transport, food and energy consumption, there’s nothing inherent in the fashion industry that either justifies the waste, or makes it technically that difficult to change.

There’s a lot we can do as individuals on this one – buy less, use clothing for longer, give it to charity shops when we’re done with it, upcycle. Simply by rejecting the idea that you might buy an item of clothing, wear it once and throw it away, we could collectively get a lot done on this one.

The fashion industry itself is a bit of a poster-boy for throw away consumerism. It’s hardly an issue for this industry alone, it’s a cultural issue and an issue inherent in capitalism. If we accept that new is always better, and up to date is important, then buying things to almost immediately throw them away might make sense to us. Replace those ideas with durability, inherent worth, and the desire to own things that are inherently satisfying and pleasing, and that whole edifice could crumble.

If we wanted lasting clothing that would serve us well, we’d perhaps pay more for it and that would help move us away from the terrible conditions in which clothing tends to be made. It has to be said that currently the price tag on the clothing is not an indicator of how well the maker was paid. Unless you are buying from a person who made the clothes, the odds are there’s exploitation in the mix.

I want to make more of my own clothing. It’s one way of resisting, and as I can sew, it’s an option I have.  I also very much like having clothing that doesn’t look like what everyone else is wearing! I aspire to being able to afford to buy things from makers, rather than mass produced things, but there’s a significant economic aspect to that, and it’s a bit beyond me at the moment.

We don’t need throwaway fashion. It isn’t life enhancing, and it’s not especially joyful. There’s much more delight to be had in clothing that can be re-worn, and that can be a friend on the journey. Clothing full of associations and memories can be life enriching. Clothing into which time, care and thought has been invested has a lot more to offer us than something bought cheaply and immediately forgotten.

We don’t need fast fashion. There’s really no inherent good in it. The whole process goes with a strategy of selling us dissatisfaction so that we keep spending money on new things. What if your wardrobe was fine and did not need updating? What if it made more sense to replace clothes when they wear out or you change shape, investing in things you can enjoy for years to come? Think how much time, energy and effort that would save people! Think how much more joy we could have by only owning things we really wanted and that we make part of our lives.

I’m enough of an animist to make friends with the things I own. My clothing has been on journeys with me and is full of stories. When it wears out, I salvage what I can and re-use it, meaning every now and then I find an old friend in whatever place they’ve been re-purposed to. That’s a nice feeling. I’ve got fabric that came from my grandmother, clothes that are twenty years old and more. I’ve got parts of my life in my wardrobe, and I like how that feels. There’s meaning in it, and significance, and companionship.


World building in fiction and real life

The advice to ‘write what you know’ is good advice because writing in ignorance can lead to a lot of unconscious assumptions and prejudices. I’m very much in favour of imagination, but for your imagination to take you somewhere, it needs to engage with reality in some way.

I’m world building at the moment and most of my Tuesdays have gone over to pieces that relate to that. The world I am building with Dr Abbey is post-war, post environmental disaster. My aim is to write something hopeful, something in the hopepunk genre perhaps. To do that well I need to think both about what might go wrong and what might be restorative. So, I’m playing with ideas and I’m also reading around and looking at what people are already doing to find solutions for climate chaos.

Fantasy is not enough – in fiction and in life. We’re all engaged with world building as an everyday issue. The choices we make, the dreams we pursue, the things we value and the things we reject all go into making the future, into building the world we inhabit. Or tearing it apart. The crisis we are in has a great deal to do with wilful ignorance and denial of truth. We’re living in the fantasy of an economic system that says you can have infinite growth with finite resources. We’re living in the fantasy of lies created by a fossil fuel industry that has long known how dangerous it is for life on Earth. We’re living in the fantasy of people who believe that we can have a viable future without making radical changes.

World building is important. Fiction writing is a place to explore that, but even fictional world building has massive implications. We have so much dystopian fiction out there, on the page and on the screen. Our shared imaginative worlds feed us doom and gloom, and do not offer us much we can use for building our own future.

Dreams and ideas are the places we begin to come up with change. What’s true for authors is also true for the rest of life – if you imagine with no basis in reality, it will be full of assumptions. People who are not writing from a place of knowing tend to regurgitate what they’ve seen without questioning it. And so you get yet another faux-white-medieval-Europe  fantasy world with elves and dwarves and orcs. You get another dystopian future in which people have to fight each other for resources. If you start to ask about what happened, and what is happening, if you enrich yourself with better information, you are likely to tell different stories. Those stories will have more room for diversity, and for different outcomes.

Perhaps one of the most important stories to know about, is the one about how humans cooperate in face of adversity. There are lots of those stories out there, in our history and in current life. Cooperation isn’t as self announcing or dramatic as conflict, but wherever there is conflict, there are always people working together trying to come up with something better.

I don’t know why people are persuaded that in a dystopian setting, it would all be about weapons and fighting over scraps. It would be about basic skills – being able to grow food, and keep warm and sheltered.  I don’t know why people are so often persuaded that they would magically grow combat skills in face of disaster and not that they would wake up one morning with some ideas about potatoes. Why is one more persuasive than the other?

What kind of world are you building? Do you notice when you are doing it? Is this a deliberate process or are you just going along with whatever flow has caught you?


What if we had 15 minute cities?

The idea of the 15 minute city appeared last year, in part I think as a response to lockdown.  It’s a simple principle – that if you live in a city, most of the things you need should be within 15 minutes walk of where you live. Work and schools, health care, food, leisure, green space and so forth.

Most of us can walk for 15 minutes, and those of us who can’t, would benefit from fewer cars on the roads. Many people would benefit from being more active. Reduced travel in our daily lives would cut carbon use, and give us more time back. So many people sacrifice so many hours of their lives to commuting, which is a joyless and literally toxic thing. We’d have better air quality for not doing that.

In a 15 minute city people would get to know their neighbours. There would be more social connectedness. We’d only travel for fun and to do unusual things that aren’t on our doorsteps. While it might be hard to organise towns and villages in the same way, the principle of having access to essential things with as little need to drive as possible, backed up by decent public transport, would make a lot of odds.

If most of us could walk or cycle to do most of our everyday things, we would need far fewer car parking spaces. As it is, the average car is only used for an hour or two every day. The rest of the time it sits somewhere, taking up space and requiring tarmac. What could we do with all that urban space? Imagine if we halved the number of car parking spaces and replaced the tarmac with plants. Imagine green and shady streets, fruit trees, and play areas woven into our urban spaces. Imagine benches, and sheltered spaces for sitting out in inclement weather. Imagine social spaces that don’t depend on paying to access them. Outdoor gym equipment, street pianos, safe places for children.

Children would benefit greatly from fifteen minute cities. With school close enough to walk to, children could exercise and socialise going to and from school. That’s much better than being trapped in a car each time, with no scope to let off steam. Children would be healthier and less stressed if they had a short trip to school in a green and playful environment. Take out some of the car parking and every child could have a safe play area really close to where they live. Every child could cycle and walk safely without the fear of traffic. With more people present in the streets, children would be safer from stranger danger, from bullying and generally less vulnerable.

Take out car parking spaces and put in green spaces, and we’d bring more wildlife back to our towns and cities. More trees and other plants means more insects, supporting more birds. It means biodiversity, and more space for wild things. We wouldn’t have to travel to encounter nature – instead nature would be something we’d encounter every day and that would be living and thriving around us.


The trouble with clothes

Fast fashion is a major source of plastic pollution and a driver of climate chaos.  Clothing is often made in terrible working conditions by people – usually women – who are sorely underpaid. Buying more expensive clothes does not guarantee that there wasn’t sweatshop labour involved.  It’s quite hard to take an ethical, eco-friendly approach to clothing, and a tight budget makes it even harder.

Buying second hand isn’t always the answer. You need to be time rich to do that, and you need an average sort of body. Less usual body shapes, sudden health related shape changes, and limited mobility can have a huge impact on your clothes options.

Part of the environmental impact of clothing comes from how we wash and dry it. If your budget is tight, you probably don’t wash clothing after one wear anyway. Air drying is cheaper and greener than a tumble drier. Fewer washes means putting fewer plastic particles into the world. Repeat wearing helps reduce impact. The worst problems are caused by buying something, wearing it once or twice and then throwing it away – there’s a terrifying amount of clothing that ends up in landfill.

The cheap solution to sweatshops is to make your own clothing. This is an answer that does however require time and skill. Skirts are easy. Trousers are not. It’s taken me years to get the hang of anything resembling viable trousers. I favour cobbling things together from dead items of clothing to keep as much as I can out of landfill, but that also takes time and skill and won’t be available to everyone.

The trouble with clothes is that we’re surrounded by stories about how we should look. That our clothes should look new is considered key to looking smart, professional and successful.  To be tatty is to court accusations of being not only poor, but unwashed. We are encouraged to read low personal standards into old, faded, tatty and mended clothing.

Most people historically have patched and mended clothing to extend its life. This is often easier to do with natural fibres than it is with synthetic fabrics.  In a culture that takes pride in carefully maintained, patched and repurposed garments, it’s much easier to be someone who does that. If you were going to be judged for the skilfulness of your repairs, not for looking like your clothes are brand new, there would be more incentive to learn how to repair things.

We’ve told ourselves a story about what looks good and what is most desirable. It goes along with other stories about the expression of material wealth being a good thing to do, or emulate. It is not a coincidence that this helps people sell clothes to us instead of us maintaining what we have. There’s not much profit to be made from clothes lovingly maintained over many years. There’s a lot to unpick here and a great deal that needs to change.


Adventures in patchwork

I really like unique clothing. I also hate waste, and these two things often result in me making patchwork clothes out of otherwise dead items.

When jeans wear out, it tends to be at the ankle, the knee and the front of the thigh. This leaves a lot of fabric still in good condition in the calves and backs of thighs. So, when a pair of jeans die, I take them and I salvage the usable bits.

In this waistcoat project I’ve been using the small scraps left over from making a jacket for Tom. I used an old waistcoat as a pattern, and a lot of pins to get the small pieces into shape. The sewing is rough – it just needs to hold the denim together. I am now in the process of embroidering the whole thing – the embroidery will do most of the structural work and makes the garment solid and durable.

The resulting garment will be unique. It doesn’t matter how many waistcoats I make, no two will ever be the same. That cheers me. There’s something so very sad and drab about one size fits no one  supermarket clothing, and so many people are stuck wearing that for lack of anything better that’s also affordable.

Throw away fashion is incredibly harming to the planet. Anything we can do to slow down our consumption of clothing is a good idea. For me, this kind of repurposing is a way of doing that while also having clothing that is original, and interesting. I find joy in making things, and in remaking. There’s a pleasure in keeping clothing out of landfill and in getting to use skills I have developed. Nothing in this waistcoat is especially difficult to do nor did it require much specialist kit – pins, scissors, sewing thread and needles, fine wool and an embroidery needle. Mostly it calls for patience. It’s an affordable hobby alongside being useful and eco-friendly.

This is all based on boro patchwork and sashiko sewing.


Birch tree insights

A Guest Blog from Ellen Evert Hopman

Birch Tree (Betula spp.)

Beneath you birch with silver bark

And boughs so pendulous and fair,

The brook falls scattered down the rock:

and all is mossy there.”

  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Beltane fires in Scotland were ritually made of birch and oak, and a birch tree was often used as a, sometimes living, maypole. As birch is one of the first trees to come into leaf it would be an obvious choice as representation of the emergence of spring. Deities associated with birch are mostly love and fertility goddesses, such as the northern European Frigga and Freya. Eostre (from whom we derive the word Easter), the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring was celebrated around and through the birch tree between the spring equinox and Beltane. According to the medieval herbalist Culpepper, the birch is ruled over by Venus – both the planet and the goddess. According to Scottish Highland folklore, a barren cow herded with a birch stick would become fertile, or a pregnant cow bear a healthy calf.” 1

1 Trees for Life, Birch, https://treesforlife.org.uk/forest/mythology-folklore/birch2/    

In many cultures, but not all, Birch is considered a feminine tree sacred to the Earth Mother and other Goddesses. Meditate in a grove of Birches to form a mystical bond with female deity.

Birch is protective when placed in the cradle, in the coffin, or planted in the graveyard.

Make your own set of Runes

Birch is a traditional wood to make runes for divination. Enter a Birch wood during the Waxing Moon. Place your left hand on a Birch tree and ask her if you may cut a branch (or even better, go out after a storm and find a branch on the ground). If the tree says “yes” then leave her a gift and saw your branch.

Dry the wood slowly, sealing the ends of the branch with wax, to hold in moisture as long as possible. On the next Waxing Moon, cut your branch into small round sections, sand them, and then carve or paint a rune on each piece.

Here is the Elder Futhark, the oldest Runic alphabet from Scandinavia and other Germanic areas.

Elder Futhark  2

2 Omniglot, the online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages, Runic alphabet https://www.omniglot.com/writing/runic.htm

Herbal Uses

Birch sap wine was considered medicinal in Britain and Ireland and was taken to relieve rheumatism. 3

3 Allen, David E. and Gabrielle Hatfield, Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition, P. 88

The sap is collected in the spring from mid-February to mid-March and I would suggest tapping a River Birch, Black Birch, Yellow Birch, or any Birch other than the White Birch, because the latter has no flavor.

A recipe for Birch sap wine from 1676:

To every Gallon whereof, add a pound of refined Sugar, and boil it about a quarter or half an hour; then set it to cool, and add a very little Yeast to it, and it will ferment, and thereby purge itself from that little dross the Liquor and Sugar can yield: then put it in a Barrel, and add thereto a small proportion of Cinnamon and Mace bruised, about half an ounce of both to ten Gallons; then stop it very close, and about a month after bottle it; and in a few days you will have a most delicate brisk Wine of a flavor like unto Rhenish. Its Spirits are so volatile, that they are apt to break the Bottles, unless placed in a Refrigeratory, and when poured out, it gives a white head in the Glass. This Liquor is not of long duration, unless preserved very cool. Ale brewed of this Juice or Sap, is esteem’d very wholesome.” 4

4 Worlidge, John, Vinetum Britannicum: Ora Treatise of Cider and Other Wines and Drinks … Fruits Growing in this Kingdom … Propagating All Sorts of Vinous Fruit-trees … Making Metheglin and Birch-wine. The Second Impression. To which is Added, a Discourse Teaching the Best Way of Improving Bees, Thomas Dring, London, 1678, PP. 175-176

Herbal Uses

The inner bark of White Birch (Betula alba) has no flavor but it is loaded with gamma linoleic acid and useful in cancer treatments. The wintergreen flavor of the bark is found in Black Birch (Betula Lenta), Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis) and River Birch (Betula nigra) and other Birches with a yellow or brownish bark. Gather the inner bark in spring when the sap is flowing.

Birch bark tea is a great grease cutter and can even be used to clean your kitchen stove – I believe it probably will do the same for your blood when taken as a spring tonic.

Simmer the inner bark for 20 minutes and then steep Elderflowers (Sambucus spp.) in the brew for another 20 minutes, to make a spring tonic.

The inner bark of Birch is a mild sedative and very useful for insomnia.

Externally the bark tea is used as a soothing wash or bath for skin conditions and can be rubbed into the scalp to benefit thinning hair.

The spring-gathered leaves can also be made into a tea and rubbed into the scalp for thinning hair.

Cautions: avoid during pregnancy and breast feeding. Birch pollen could cause allergies in people who are sensitive to Wild Carrot, Mugwort, Apples, Soybeans, Hazelnuts, Peanuts and Celery. Birch leaves are high in sodium which could elevate blood pressure. 5

5 WebMD, Vitamins & Supplements BIRCH, Side Effects & Safety https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-352/birch

Method of Preparation

Leaf tea: steep 1 tsp. per ½ cup of freshly boiled water for 20 minutes

Bark tea: simmer 1 tbsp inner bark per ½ cup water for 20 minutes. Take ¼ cup, 4 times a day, not with meals.

https://www.innertraditions.com/books/the-sacred-herbs-of-spring


Green hearts show the love

Every year in February, the Climate Coalition runs an online campaign called Show The Love which is about creating a voice for change. Green hearts feature heavily, and it’s a chance to talk about what we love, and what we want to protect. I’ve been involved with this for some years now, in a small way.

I like soft campaigning. While there’s most assuredly a place for harder hitting stuff, I don’t have the emotional resilience to do it. I’m better deployed on awareness raising  and trying to draw people in. My contributions to fighting climate change are made in my personal life and in trying to engage and enthuse other people in gentle ways.

This year I am drawing green hearts and using them to talk about things I want to protect.

If you’d like to get involved, visit https://www.theclimatecoalition.org/show-the-love