I have a story to share. A sustainability fail. It went like this: we needed to buy new brush heads for our electric toothbrush. We decided to put in a bulk order, reckoning that this would mean that less packaging would be used overall (it would also be kinder on the purse in the long run). Good sustainability logic. Total fail in practice. The parcel arrived, and we opened it to find tens of packets containing just a few brush heads each.
A couple of weeks ago I learned that one in three people in the UK think that this winter they will have to make a choice: warm their food or their home. I heard this as I sat in a chilly room and looked at three tins that I had no way of warming for my dinner. It was an effort to make real, for a little while at least, this terrible dilemma. And it’s one I’ve continued to think about.
The setting was Fuel by Jack Monroe, a pop up restaurant organised as part of the launch of Jack’s new partnership with the npower Foundation to expand their fuel bank network. Jack introduced the night by telling us something of the food and fuel poverty that affect one million people in the UK today. We were then presented with covered dishes for our dinner. Lifting the lid, this was the view before us.
It’s beginning to end, the season of abundance, of frivolous beauty in the garden, and laboured-for harvest from the pots of vegetables. It’s beginning to feel dishevelled. The runner bean plants disrupted by (and not quite recovering from) my rifling for treasure. The annuals fading into oblivion. There is no denying that winter is heading this way.
Some of this summer has been spent in wrestling with a tension in the garden:
How do we keep gardening a relaxing past-time, whilst also growing more (plants, vegetables and our own skills and knowledge)?
Our lives are marked by the decisions we make. Where and how we fill our time, who we spend it with… the answers will sculpt new possibilities whilst excluding others. Our decisions can change the lives of other people too, perhaps never more so than in our increasingly interconnected world. By the time I’ve dressed and breakfasted, I’ve interacted with continents and communities – through the source of my coffee, the makers of my clothes, the components of my phone… This knowledge can sit heavily; we need to be enabled to make daily decisions aware of – but not paralysed by – the impact they will have.
Over the years, I’ve come up with a system; a series of questions I try to ask myself when making a new purchase. It is an evolving approach, informed by conversations, reading, mistakes. And it minimises the helplessness that can arise when becoming aware of how our globalised world means our pop into the local shop can have far-reaching ramifications.
When my parents set off on their greatest sailing adventure* over ten years ago, our belongings entered a storage unit. This summer they opened that repository, and a couple of weeks ago, my childhood was returned to me. It turns out my childhood fits in seven boxes.
Water is life-giving. It’s consistent – in how it flows, fills the space it enters. But water is also fluid, changeable. Abundant in some places, absent in others. It is easy to be casual with water when it springs readily with the turn of the tap. The emptying reservoir lies unseen.
Water is local. The drops we thriftily save will not, then, be available to people in drought-ridden East Africa. That’s not how water works. But it doesn’t mean we should be wasteful with it. The water from our taps has already been through the energy-intensive treatment process to make it safe for us to drink. It seems a shame, after all that, to pour it all over our unfussy vegetable plots.
Roald Dahl novels made a big impact on me as a child. One in particular – the BFG – left me ever grateful for the food I enjoy. The novel’s titular character has made an ethically motivated decision about his eating habits, which means he has to make do with the foul-tasting snozzcumbers. He needs and has food to eat but it isn’t a pleasant experience. This story made me routinely glad that I don’t just need food to survive; I enjoy sufficient freedom and access to be able to avoid what is distasteful to me and devour what tickles my taste buds.
I’m grateful that the ethical choice doesn’t have to be an unpleasant culinary one. Ethical options are increasingly available and affordable, and don’t mean a compromise on taste (frequently the opposite). Solutions often overlap, but what constitutes a ‘good choice’ will depend upon your motivations: animal welfare, supporting independent businesses, going organic… One of my primary drivers is reducing our carbon footprint. This lends itself to a diet dominated by locally grown vegetables that aren’t over-packaged in plastic. So we started to order a weekly veg box.
One day’s work would be enough. Enough to transform the garden at our previous house from ramshackle to haven. It was essentially a blank canvas: a square patio edged by an empty bed on two sides. Turn over soil, dig in compost, two hours planting – and it would have arrived. A garden is never finished, but this one would have at least become a coherent entity. Time would only improve it. That ‘Rome’ was built in a day.
It’s been quieter than I would like around here of late. Other parts of life – work commitments, relationship forging, local exploring – have crowded out the quiet and contemplative moments at the laptop. We’ve been gentle with ourselves during this move – reminding each other that building new patterns, routines and habits takes more time and energy than it sometimes seems it should.