Tag Archives: environment

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.


Building an Echo Chamber

If you’re a well-meaning person the odds are that you’ve wondered if an echo chamber is a problem. You may have felt obliged to make sure you’re hearing what the haters and fascists amongst us are saying. How can you be a good person if you aren’t open minded, aren’t listening to difference, aren’t open to other opinions?

This is something I’ve talked about before. It is possible to experience diversity and difference without engaging with hate. Exposure to diverse thinking is good for us. Hate isn’t.

We are all deeply affected by our environments. It’s a massive influence on our psychological development as we grow up. As adults we may think we’re immune to what’s around us, but this isn’t necessarily so. That which becomes normal to us will shape our choices and behaviour. Even if that means we come to feel that donating to foodbanks and seeing homeless people in the streets, is normal.

Human minds are quite fragile, easily influenced and easily damaged. We all have enough ego not to want to believe that. We all want to think we are strong, free-thinking individuals who would not be sucked in to something vile. The odds are, if you’re reading this then you’d picture yourself in Nazi Germany helping Jews escape and working with the resistance. You would not picture yourself at a rally screaming in ecstasy at Hitler. Environments can be intoxicating. From the playground onwards, our desire to belong and be part of something can distort our identities and shape our behaviour.

Having had my reality broken, I am uncomfortably aware of how fragile my mind is. My mind is desperately fragile.

It may be that exposure to hate and misery does not make us want to join up with the haters. It may instead grind us down, making us feel powerless and like there’s no point doing anything. We may be overwhelmed with grief, or rage, or frustration. We may turn on the haters and hate back with all the vitriol we can muster. All of these things mean that what we’ve been exposed to is impacting on us.

One of the ways in which you can protect your own mental health, is by making careful choices about what you expose yourself to. Most of the time, most of us do that. You may, for example, have already made the decision not to watch violent pornography. You may have chosen not to go to Trump rallies. I imagine you wouldn’t go to a bull fight, or an abattoir, or to take a holiday in a war zone or disaster area. When things are large scale and obvious, we are often better at recognising the threat and keeping away. It’s the smaller, everyday nasties that we can persuade ourselves we ought to engage with. We should be informed. Educated. Aware.

Turning away from everything is no kind of answer. Pick your fights and causes. Be prepared to know about and take on a few issues you can manage. Raise awareness without traumatising people. No one, for example, needs to see images of animal abuse in order to sign petitions. It is not your duty to know about every terrible thing going on in the world. It is not necessary to listen with compassion to every troll and every hater you encounter.

It is ok to choose to live in an echo chamber. It is ok to choose to protect your mental health so that you can continue to make your contributions. It is ok to choose not to know about everything. Often it is better to focus on taking care of what you love, rather than being paralysed by things you can do nothing about.


Wear it thirty times

I saw online the other day the excellent advice that if you are buying clothes, ask yourself if you are going to wear it thirty times. The fashion industry contributes an obscene amount of carbon, waste, and stray plastic in the environment. Our clothes choices have massive impact, and many of us could do better. If you’re going to wear an item thirty times or more, you are going to wear it over several years, in all likelihood. These are the terms on which we should consider clothing.

Of course there are exceptions – you might need something for a specific activity or event and know that you won’t get much further use out of it. These items should be sold on, given to charity shops or otherwise kept in circulation. There’s nothing wrong with using something once and passing it along to someone else.

If something has to be worn thirty times or more, it has to be durable. This is where poverty becomes an issue. Cheaply made, poor quality, low cost clothing won’t necessarily survive that many rounds of being worn and washed. If poverty is a barrier, second hand is often a better way to go – you can sometimes pick up higher quality clothing with better life expectancy. Also, if you’re buying second hand, you don’t need to think so much about those thirty wears because some of the wearing has been done already.

It’s as well not to assume that price will equate to durability. It’s possible to have expensive things made out of shoddy materials. You may be paying for the label, the design, the outlet carrying it and not for the intrinsic worth of the garment. On the whole, natural fibres and fibres that are a high percentage natural are the best bet – better for the environment and often harder wearing than synthetic alternatives. Here it pays to do your research – Rayon sounds like a synthetic for example, but it is actually made out of cellulose. Viscose is only semi-synthetic despite sounding like it was made out of old car tyres. Only if you need waterproof gear does synthetic material make more sense.

With practice, you can tell a lot about a fabric by touching it. This is time well spent. So often we shop by looking – as with all online clothes shopping, rather than shopping by texture. When it comes to the experience of wearing a garment, how it feels matters a great deal. Natural fibres are less sweaty to wear, warmer in cold weather and cooler in hot weather than synthetics. So in turn, if you get this bit right, you may be able to reduce your environmental impact in other ways. If your clothes truly help you deal with temperatures then you won’t need the heating or the air con quite so much.


Plan for greener local landscapes

One of the topics in The Tree Charter is the idea of planning for greener local landscapes. This has obvious implications around protecting and extending existing woodland, but it’s also highly relevant when we think about planned urban environments. The use of the word ‘planned’ here is an interesting one – how much are cities and towns deliberately planned? How much are they made up as we go along? It seems to me that cityscapes are dominated by what commercial enterprises want to build.

What if cities were designed for the benefit of people? If we started from the idea that urban spaces should serve people, we would plan trees and green spaces into them. We’d do it to create spaces for leisure and exercise, for the mental health benefits trees give us, for the cooling benefits of tree shade, the reduction in light and noise pollution, and the biodiversity benefits.

Look at where you live and the odds are, the build human environment has been designed to either deliver profit or minimise expense. If an urban area has been designed to be beautiful and green, the odds are it’s a tourist spot, or home to the especially affluent.

What could a planned urban environment give us in terms of benefit to humans, and benefit to all living beings? What would our lives be like if green spaces were considered essential for everyone? What would cities look like if trees became a real priority in designing spaces?

There’s nothing to stop us doing this. Urban spaces are human constructs, we could build them any way we like. To do that, we’d have to decide that something other than profit is the most important consideration, that efficiency may not be in our best interests in all things, and that creating the worst possible environments for our poorest citizens isn’t clever or responsible.

More Tree Charter information here – https://treecharter.uk/principles-planning.html


Eco Justice

Sustainability and economic and social justice all naturally go hand in hand. Any project that doesn’t deal with all of these areas together may be setting itself up to fail.

There are two major sources of pressure on the natural world. One comes from the greed of people who have far more than they need and will destroy environments to take more. That’s what we’re seeing with oil extraction, fracking, palm oil plantations, industrial fishing practices, rather a lot of mining – anything where big industry goes in and clears out what’s valuable.

This happens not only at the expense of the environment, but also to the detriment of ordinary people living in the afflicted landscape. People may be persuaded in the short term with the bribe of jobs and money, but it is they who will deal with the flammable water, the flooding that comes from deforestation, the soil degradation and all the other long term consequences of big industry destroying the landscape. It is important to recognise that people who have been bribed and lied to about the implications are not wholly responsible for where that leads.

The second major pressure on ecosystems can come from the aftermath of the above, or be generated by war, climate change or other such challenges. People in desperation simply trying to survive become locked into unsustainable practices that further deplete the land and the wildlife. Environmental damage caused by hungry people can only be tackled if you also deal with the hunger.

We have a nasty habit of thinking in terms of nature as human-free and protecting landscapes by either ignoring the people in it or taking them out. It tends to be the poorest and most vulnerable people who are treated this way. If we want long term environmental solutions, we need the people in the landscape to be part of it, not something to drive off.

Both sides of this damaging process need dealing with. We have to curb the greed of people with far more than they need. We have to reduce the desires to consume of people who already have a decent standard of living. We have to help those who have little or nothing to live at a decent standard in a way that will work for their local environments. While there is any significant belief that those with great piles of resources are entitled to what they have and those with nothing deserve nothing, we won’t be able to sort out the way human activity impacts on the planet.

We need to find ways of being that allow us collectively to live within the planet’s means. We need to question the idea that it’s acceptable for many people to starve while a few have grotesque excess. Justice for the environment goes hand in hand with justice for people. We have to replace our long out of date feudal thinking that has the rich few at the top of the pyramid and the deprived many at the bottom, and create for ourselves social structures that are much more equitable. To preserve our environment and keep it fit for human habitation, we have to live more cooperatively, and more equitably.


Saving the planet

When I hear people talking about saving the planet, I worry. Certainly there’s a great deal that must be changed if we are to survive as a species and not take even more of our fellow creatures down with us. However, we do not need to save the plant. We need to stop harming the planet. For me, it’s an important difference.

Imagine a scenario in which you have left a person tied up inside a building you have set fire to. You run back in time to ‘save’ them. This is the kind of ‘saving’ we are talking about when we talk about saving the planet. We urgently need to recognise that we are the ones who have caused the problems in the first place. If we stopped tying life to metaphorical chairs and setting fire to our actual home and habitat, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

We’re good at taking human agency out of the conversation. We talk about pollution, not the fact that humans are polluting the earth, air and water. We talk about extinction, not the fact that human activity is directly responsible for killing many of our fellow life forms. Terms like environmental degradation, habitat loss, deforestation, climate change, conservation, emissions – these words and many others like them all have one thing in common. There’s no direct reference to human activity here. We talk about all of these things as though they are things that are happening, not things we are causing. This in turn helps us ignore our personal and collective responsibility.

It would be nice to save the planet, wouldn’t it? But we’re not superheroes, we can’t ask huge things like that of ourselves and actually expect it to work.

If we talked instead about stopping trashing the planet, we might notice our own involvement in what’s wrong. Stop causing pollution. Stop cutting down trees. Stop killing other creatures. Stop dumping our crap in the oceans. It all has a very different ring to it – one that foregrounds the harm we do and our responsibility to do differently.

We need to stop talking about saving the planet, and start speaking in a way that recognises exactly what’s causing the problems in the first place.


Unwanted gifts

You may at this point in the year have one or two gifts that are neither use nor ornament. Sending these to landfill is the quick and easy option that adds to the obscenity of waste we collectively create over the festive period.

Give it away. Take it to a charity shop. Find your local freecycle or freegle group. Sell it on ebay.

Then, if you’re feeling brave and radical, talk to the people who give you gifts that you don’t really want or need. Talk to them about consumerism, and waste, and the environment. Talk about how less can be more, and you’d rather they didn’t spend their money on things you don’t want and can’t use.

This of course means risking offending people. They meant well, and you probably don’t want to hurt their feelings. Except that this kind of well meaning behaviour supports our consumerist, capitalist society. If we’re all too worried about each other’s feelings to talk about how much pointless tat floats about each midwinter, we’ll keep pillaging the world for the raw materials, making that into the useless tat – using energy, buying said useless tat, wrapping it in paper, giving it to each other and finally throwing it away. Profits are made for some, and the costs to the environment are huge.


Have a green Christmas tree

The Christmas tree is one of those seasonal features likely to appeal to Pagans. How green is your tree, and what does it cost?

In 2014, some 160,000 tons of Christmas trees went to landfill. Once in landfill, they rot and give out methane, which is not good news for the environment. Yes, you can have them chipped and used for something, but growing a non-native tree in plantations, cutting it, transporting it, sticking it in the corner of a room for a few weeks and then chipping it doesn’t sound like a good use of natural resources to me.

Here’s some more data and some more tree alternatives. https://www.upcyclist.co.uk/2017/11/zero-waste-christmas-trees/

Here’s what the Carbon Trust has to say about Christmas trees and their impact. Interestingly, real trees still have a lower carbon footprint than artificial ones. https://www.carbontrust.com/news/2013/01/christmas-tree-disposal-advice/

Clearly one answer to having a tree, is to keep a live tree in a bucket and heft it indoors every year. Carbon goes into the tree and methane does not come out. However, there are issues here – you need outside space for them, and they get bigger year on year and may not suit the space you have. Locally there’s an amazing scheme that allows people to rent live Christmas trees- thus getting round the issue of storage for the rest of the year, and growth.

Another answer is to use something else – Yule logs are also traditional, cut branches from trees can be decorated and if they were going to be cut anyway, that’s lower impact. You can make a tree out of whatever’s around, as with the charming examples on the Upcyclist website. You can decorate something already in your home. I don’t have space for a tree, but I do have a rather large Christmas cactus, so I may decorate that this year.

When it comes to tree decoration, think about how much plastic you’re going to use and consider its lifespan. If you like tinsel, store it and re-use it rather than buying new each year. It doesn’t take up much space and it keeps well. Try sourcing decorations from craftspeople, and have things made of natural materials where you can. Make things yourself – it all involves more time and effort of course, but you’ll get more from it than grabbing cheap plastic baubles that mean nothing to you. Aim to send nothing decorative to landfill at the end of the season. This is a great opportunity to use your imagination and harness your creativity, rather than being sold a bland, and environmentally damaging ‘solution’ to Christmas.


Druidry and making our own environments

Following on from yesterday’s blog about nature and nurture, I want to think about how taking up a spiritual path can involve deliberately changing your environment in order to change yourself. I suspect there are elements of this in any path, but Druidry is what I know best.

We can be quite critical of the apparently superficial things people do when they come to Paganism. Early on, some people can seem to be more about the surfaces than anything else. The bling, the clothes, the pretty things. It’s something I’ve tended to be suspicious of. However, I’m fortunate in that I grew up with music, folklore, and wildlife. For the person who grows up in a ‘muggle’ environment, sorely lacking in magic and creativity, the jump to Paganism can be a big one. Changing the surfaces around you can help affirm that jump and make it seem real, I realise.

Making our environment, and ourselves look ‘pagan’ can be part of a process for change. If what’s around us affirms our choices, we’ll perhaps be better equipped to act on them. It may be that we spend a lot of our time in environments that are banal and soulless, and that dressing the part and covering your home in green men is a necessary push back against that. What looks like a superficial, consumer-orientated approach may in fact be a way of creating space for Paganism, and for changing personally. It depends on what a person is looking for.

If you use environmental shifts to support personal changes, then they can help you. If you are buying Pagan things because you like the look, and a few years hence maybe you’ll take up a steampunk look, or a hippy look… then it won’t make much odds. If you want a pretty surface as a temporary amusement I don’t rate the chances of it transforming your life. If you are changing how things look around you, and how you look to reinforce other things you are doing, it’s likely to do that.

Take a glance around your living space and consider what’s there primarily to give a physical presence to your beliefs. Perhaps you have an altar, a depiction of deity, a green man. I have house plants and a scattering of fossils picked up on walks. And I do also have some dry mistletoe. I have art on the walls that, while not overtly Druidic, does things for me. I live in a colourful, chaotic space that reflects what I do. Other people may find soothing tones, or minimalism reflects their spiritual identity – there’s no one right answer here.

Doing things to your home to make it look more druidy, or witchy, or shamanic will require you to think about what that means. Where does a big TV screen fit into that? Do your kitchen cupboards reflect your path? If you walk into the bathroom and looked at the products there, do they affirm your sense of being a Pagan? If you align your living space with your beliefs, you may end up making radical changes to do that, and thus what starts out as a superficial, simple thing about looking the part can become a serious process of walking your talk.