Tag Archives: green

Poverty as an art form

Here in the UK tax on goods is about to go up, and duty on fuel has risen as well. Duty on fuel puts up the price of pretty much everything, and the VAT hike will make that even more pronounced. At the same time wages are being frozen. People are going to have a lot less money to play with, and for many that’s going to be a frightening prospect. I’m going to intersperse cheap living blogs with my other content. Living cheaply often also means living greener.

Those thrown into poverty for the first time in their lives are often disorientated and upset, by the loss of insulation money brings, the loss of choice and the huge insecurity. Posts written by a friend who has recently been forced onto benefits reminded me of this. The fear of poverty makes the experience of it worse.

I didn’t grow up with a great deal of money. For various reasons I’ve lived in austerity for all of my adult life. (Long story, for another day.) I can say with absolute confidence that not having much money to play with does not automatically equate to misery, degradation and abysmal quality of life. It limits you, certainly. But it’s also a great educator. You have to prioritise carefully, work out what is essential and what isn’t. We’re taught to want far more than we need in a culture that is very much about making us buy stuff. Stepping away from that can be liberating, and if you go into it with a view to being freed from the tyranny of objects, then it becomes an entirely different process.

Attitude is in fact key. How you relate to tightening the belt will inform how you experience it. Go in anticipating misery and you’ll find it. If you can relate to it as a creative challenge, then it’s far less painful. Look back at the make do and mend attitude of the second world war. Take it as an opportunity to reduce waste – which is fantastically green. Reducing waste saves money, but you don’t have to relate to it as some kind of desperation, it’s you doing your bit to help save the planet.

Going green to save money – walking rather than taking the car, doesn’t have to look like poverty to anyone else. Cycle to work rather than take the train? It’s part of your new, healthier lifestyle choice. And at the same time while you’re walking and cycling to get about, you don’t need that gym membership, and on it goes. You can be green and healthy, keep your dignity and lighten the load on your wallet all in one go.

By the looks of it, the way things are going most of us are going to have to figure out how to get by with a lot less. Coming to that as bards, druids and pagans, we should accept the possibilities it brings us rather than letting what we can’t change make us unhappy. Some things cannot be fought to good effect, and the pain dished out by governments is all too often on that list. But, going in with the intention of living well, greenly, healthily and on a tighter budget is a good place to start. There is an art to being poor without being miserable. It comes from releasing the need to own, letting go of desires to be fashionable and up to date, and embracing a quieter, more down to earth lifestyle, one that is in many ways far more compatible with paganism than affluent consumerism is.

Financial poverty is not any other kind of poverty. There are a great many other ways in which we can be rich indeed, and these are, I find, far more rewarding.

Spiritual Green Economics

Not three words that automatically collide in most people’s minds, I suspect. However, the more I read and think, the more certain I become that putting these three words together is critically important. Those of us on the pagan path already know that green and spiritual are inexorably intertwined. Our religion is our planet, any act of environmentalism, eco-awareness, sustainability or responsibility is also an expression of our spirituality. But how does that fit with economics?

The systems we live in are powered by money. While governments pay occasional lip service to the idea that people should live fulfilling and happy lives, when it comes to making choices, they remain servants of the economy. Slaves of the money system. Economic growth is the only measure governments seem to care about. Wellness, happiness, long term sustainability and not ruining the planet are not things they show any actual sign of worrying about. It’s all supply and demand, markets, gross domestic produce, wealth creation. The faster you move the money round, the more of it there appears to be. So, to be a good citizen you should be out there buying stuff, oiling the wheels of the money machine.

The trouble with ‘stuff’ is that we already have far more of it than we need. It’s made from finite resources, using finite energy supplies, shipped using our dwindling fuel supplies, and ultimately heading for the bin and all the issues of landfill. In terms of sustainability, about the last thing we need is this continual push to buy more ‘stuff’. But at the same time, this is how the system works, so what are we supposed to do with it?

I think the answer lies in moving away from ’stuff’ and towards experiences. If there’s money to spare after the essentials have been dealt with, why not direct it towards doing rather than owning? While experiences often create issues of travelling, it’s possible to be green about this, visiting places closer to home, walking, using public transport etc. Supporting live theatre, live music, reading groups, poetry clubs, stand up comedy and so forth gives incredible firsthand experience in a social context, making it far superior to a night in with the telly. So many of the modern gadgets are about having entertainment piped to you. But being able to make your own fun is so much more engaging. The hours you can get out of a musical instrument (without needing to plug it in) make an interesting comparison with CDs.

The people who believe in the market are forever telling us that the market knows best, that it’s all about supply and demand, and giving people what they want. And then what is supplied is more stuff, ultimately destined for landfill. Stuff does not equate to happiness or wellbeing and it certainly doesn’t lend itself to sustainability. What would happen if we stopped being so interested in owning things and started being more interested in doing things? What if we swapped passive reception for active living? What if we took to spending more time with people, doing things? It probably wouldn’t destroy the system, but it would change it, and everyone in it.

Once we start engaging with the world, active participants in our own lives, the scope for living spiritually is increased. How we deploy our money can easily be part of our spirituality, not as users or consumers, but as people seeking experience and opportunity. By stepping away from the ‘stuff’ we liberate ourselves, we become greener, and we have the potential to change the whole system.

Keep the home fires burning!

Central heating means that you can go out of a cold winter’s night and come home to a warm house. Hurrah for human innovation and technology… And for most people the central heating can be topped up with gas or electric heaters. Instant warmth! In the past rich people had servants who, when you get down to it, could be used much like the central heating – you go out, you come home to a nice fire. Although some of those huge houses must have been cold and draughty, and I can’t imagine that castles were warm.

Then there were all of our poorer ancestors. Most of us won’t come from wealthy, aristocratic stock. Our forebears will have lived a lot closer to the soil. And the fire. While there’s nothing more cheery than a fire in the hearth, they’re very different to live with. If you go out for the day, the fire does not light itself for nightfall. If you’re very clever at setting it up, it might stay in and a bit warm for as much as 12 hours, enough to stop your house from freezing, but not enough to keep you comfortable if the temperature drops below zero. (I write from experience).

When all you have for heating and cooking is the fire, then keeping it going becomes essential to survival in winter. This also means that you can’t all decide to go out for the night. Rolling back from the pub at midnight to a frozen home, ice inside the windows and a bed that will make you yelp from the cold (because no fire means no warming pan in the bed, no hot water bottle…) is no kind of fun. The man of the house might head out, but the odds were a woman would stay home, look after the children and keep the fire in, historically speaking.

Using electricity or gas to heat a house means not really seeing how much energy you use. Not until the bill arrives, which can be a shock. Heat happens by magic, and until we have to pay for it, it’s easy not to envisage that as resources used. Burning wood and coal is a much more immediate experience. You rapidly develop a keen sense of how much it takes to keep you warm. Once the snow and ice settle in, you aren’t going to be able to fell more trees, and most of them won’t burn green anyway. Anyone who has tried foraging sticks for the fire will know how much work it takes to bring home enough wood for a few hours. Sticks burn fast. Rotten sticks don’t burn well. Foraging in freezing conditions is hard. Snow-covered wood rapidly becomes wet and reluctant to burn wood.

Now add into the mix single glazing, no cavity wall insulation, no loft insulation, windows and doors made of wood that might not keep the drafts out, and the implications of winter for our ancestors, even relatively recent ones, start to become more apparent. To be warm at the touch of a button is a luxury they could not have dreamed of.

One day, the supply of natural gas will run out. We are pushing the limits of electricity supplies in the UK and sometimes this results in power cuts. Do we want more nuclear power stations? The fossil fuel burning stations are going to run out of supplies too, eventually. Can we really do it all on renewable energy supplies? Most modern homes don’t have fireplaces in them. How would you cook if the power went off for a few days? How would you keep warm? We’re so used to the comforts of modern life, most of us, that we take them for granted and imagine they will always be there. How would we cope if obliged to live as our ancestors did? How many of us even know how to do that? And what is the likelihood that we might be going to have to learn, if we can’t better manage our energy consumption, as a species.

Warmth in Winter

I’ve never lived in a centrally heated house. Winter has always meant cold for me. I’ve been through a fair few winters with single glazing as well, with condensation in the morning, pools on the windowsill, and sometimes ice. Go back a generation or two and this would have been normal. Either there are fires, or it gets very cold. Fires mean constant maintenance and the lugging and cutting of wood. This is the first winter in a decade when I’ve not borne the brunt of that work, and it feels like absolute luxury.

Other people talk about how you should put on a jumper on colder days rather than turn up the heating. It’s greener. Winter for me doesn’t only mean jumpers (plural today) but also vests and thermal long-johns. The idea that anyone could be warm enough to float round in a t-shirt seems weirdly alien to me, but I hear people do. For folk in colder climes, this need for thermals is normal. I remind myself that there are many people who have lived their entire lives in freezing conditions, and made their houses out of ice. I have no idea how anyone survives that, mentally or physically, but apparently they do.

I find the cold exhausting. But I look at the cottage I’m in. It has porches and other modern additions. If any of the insulating layers is fifty years old, I’d be surprised. When the place was first built, it had a front door that opened from living room to road – normal for a labourer’s cottage round here. Single glazed. There was no loft insulation back then. There are stories in my family about boys sleeping in attic rooms (nothing unusual there) and obliged to put their coats on the bed in winter. I can’t begin to imagine how cold it must have been. I think about people going out to fetch water from wells when everything was frozen. My Gran talked of when she first had hot running water in the house. Yesterday a local woman described how as a child she, her parents and a sibling had lived in two rooms with an outside toilet. How cold must that have been when there was snow on the ground?

Life for our ancestors in winter must have been entirely focused on survival. The bringing in of fuel for the fire, the sourcing of it, the making of food, the drying of clothes and shoes, the warming of chilled bodies. They must have been a lot tougher than we are, mentally and physically.

In this weather, heat to me seems like the most amazing luxury. Hot food and warm drinks become essential. Summer seems like a distant dream. And yet there are schools of thought in Druidry and other pagan traditions that winter is the time of sleep, of dark restfulness and quiet. If you live in a milder place, perhaps this is so. If you have central heating then sure, winter means snuggling up inside and looking through the double glazing at the frost. Our ancestors relied on fire for heat, and fire needs constant feeding. Our ancestors had to forage outside, not in supermarkets. The sleep of winter is only possible if you are insulated from the climate by modern technology, maintaining toasty temperatures that aren’t green or sustainable.

But we get hungry for heat, as we do for any other essential thing in brief supply. The cold can, and does, kill people. The desire to be comfortable is a very human one. But without the knowledge of discomfort, we take those mod-cons for granted. At this time of year, I relish heat, and the days of sunlight, as rich, luxurious blessings, and I reconcile myself to the cold as best I can, armed with extra socks. And I do not, ever, find winter to be a sleepy time of rest and retreat.

Art and Craft Politics

If it has a use, it is a craft item. If it doesn’t, it’s art.

This is a definition that holds up in high school art classes, galleries, auction houses and all kinds of other places too. I once held an ashtray made by Picasso. Had it been a tiny painting, it would have been under lock and key, and hugely valuable, but an ashtray isn’t art. It was, however, beautiful.

Now, take a moment and consider these questions. Who produces art? Who makes craft items? Who chooses what to spend the money on?

Art is made to be sold to an art market. That’s its sole purpose. At the top end, it’s made to be sold to galleries, companies, wealthy individuals, or it is commissioned for public spaces. Its function is to be decorative, impressive, inspiring, and/or to be a show of wealth and power. The vast majority of famous artists are and were men. There’s an aura of exclusivity about Art, and most of us ‘ordinary’ people couldn’t afford to own any. We buy the poster versions.

Craft items are made to be used. We’re talking Shaker boxes, painted pots, baskets, blankets, rugs, clothing, pottery, decorated furniture… the fine art of using ordinary materials to make your home beautiful. Crafts belong very much to poorer people, to indigenous people, folk traditions. Crafts are often the domain of women.

Every now and then some group of indigenous people, or a folk movement (Shakers for example) become unexpectedly sexy and then collectors want a piece of it, but on the whole, things made for use are treated as secondary to things made purely for decoration. I do not believe this has anything to do with skill, or quality of work (I’ve been in modern art galleries….) and everything to do with class and gender politics.

There is an important green issue to raise here too. Things that are made purely to be things, art for art’s sake is, from a certain perspective, just stuff and clutter. And on the flip side, just because a thing has a function, that’s no excuse for making it ugly and depressing. (Can I mention car parks?) There’s so much fair traded house clutter out there, and that seems to defeat the object of green living in so many ways. Beautiful things made to serve a purpose, are inherently useful and lovely to live with. We have finite resources. Many of us have finite spending power as well, and finite amounts of space to put things on and in. Given the choice, I’d rather have a thing that is both beautiful and useful.

Thinking Positive

It’s easier to follow through on a positive intention than a negative one, so when planning changes, there’s a lot to be said for couching them in ‘I will do’ style terms, than thinking about giving up, cutting back and so forth. Human nature is such that we do not like to feel we are depriving ourselves. If we think of a planned action as a chore, or something inherently miserable, it’s that bit harder to see it through.

I’ve talked a lot in previous blogs about the need to be able to get by with less. We have a wasteful culture that consumes too much. But, saying ‘you have to give stuff up’ is, I realise, a quick way of turning people off. So, today I thought it would be interesting to look at framing such ideas in more positive and productive language. Not least because once you get into living in greener ways, it gives far more than it costs, and the personal benefits are significant.

This isn’t just an issue about taking less from the planet, it’s an entire lifestyle. How we live, how we treat ourselves is very much part of the process. Self care should be an intrinsic part of any green agenda. Taking care of the planet begins at home, with better self care, and actions that save resources, and money. We need to do this for ourselves and our own wellbeing as much as we do it for altruistic reasons. We are pushed to work longer hours to buy more things we don’t need in order to hide from ourselves the ways in which this lifestyle makes us unwell, and unhappy. Time taken for the self, enjoying no, or low cost rewarding activities, is good for the soul, and the body, and the planet. These things are not separate. Being green is not about self denial, it’s about recognising we’ve been sold an idea of happiness that is all about making other people rich, and has nothing at all to do with what is actually good. Being green is also about reclaiming your life, your control, and your happiness.

I offer below a list of positive actions which I’m undertaking, all of which have a green element, add to life in good ways, and none of which are difficult. If you can think of more, then please add them to the comments.

 I will buy only what I need, and save myself money.

I will turn off devices I’m not using them, which will cut my electricity bills.

I will walk more.

I will eat more fruit and veg, and less pre-packed stuff.

I will use greener cleaning products.

I will drink more water, for my own wellbeing and economy.

When something ceases to be useful to me, I will find it a new home.

I will spend time outdoors, in green places, relaxing.

I will get my money’s worth out of the things I buy.

I will invest in things that last rather than waste money on cheap tat I have to keep replacing.

I will spend more time with friends, and less time with the television/computer.

I will grow some of my own food.

I will be in control of what I eat and make food I can really enjoy.

I will work out what makes me truly happy, and do more of it.

I will slow down and enjoy things more.

I will make choices I can feel proud of and take joy in.

Free Range Children

As a child, I played in the street, and wandered about in the woods with other young folk. I was about eleven when I was allowed to go walkabout in the day. My mother had played in the street, as had my grandmother. Previous generations of children grew up with a lot more freedom. Laurie Lee’s autobiography ‘Cider with Rosie’ shows boys playing in the woods and fields of a summer night in the early twentieth century. Other memoires from the time show children running wild from an early age.

These days, most children are battery farmed. They stay safely in the house until they can be driven to school, then we drive them home and keep them under close supervision. We do this to keep them safe. Anxiety about stranger danger is high – not that I think it’s actually increased, but it makes the news and so we hear about it when things go wrong. Of course, the fewer children there are out and about, the more exposed and vulnerable they are.

The other great danger we truly have to protect children from is cars. Streets are not safe places any more. Traffic is heavy, too fast, too likely to kill. Crossing the road is a dangerous business. And so we drive our young humans to school, and to the park and the cinema, adding to the problem of an excess of traffic.

For the parent intent on bringing their child up well, there’s also the feeling that we ought to be spending every available moment cramming them full of learning opportunities. However, that takes away as much as it gives. Children don’t learn to innovate, if they have every activity handed to them. They don’t learn how to make their own fun, or their own choices.

In addition to the little house and car shaped boxes, we further box in our young folk with televisions, games consul and the internet. We encourage them to spend hours staring at little boxes because it keeps them quiet. We keep them in the house, safe, and buy them all the boxes they desire to keep them happy. We battery farm them, expecting them to squeeze out excellent exam results, once we start testing them – aged seven. What kind of childhood are these younger generations actually getting?

Children need the opportunity to learn and make choices. They need the space to run around and the company of other children. They need the freedom to explore and create on their own terms, following their own inspiration, not just doing what they’ve been told. If they aren’t able to tackle small risks and dangers, how are they supposed to function as adults when there’s no one to hold their hand?

And what happens when these kids turn into teenagers, unable to entertain themselves? Then we let them out to stand around on street corners. When I was a teen, it tended to be the most closeted, overprotected kids in my circle who drank until they threw up and otherwise got into difficulty because they had no idea how to handle things. Now most of them seem to have been overprotected, and far too many go off the rails. Excessive alcohol consumption in the young is a recognised problem, and I don’t think this is a coincidence.

Time outside is good for children. Unstructured time where they can play and explore without having adults perpetually monitoring what they do. Children need privacy too. I’m lucky, I live on a fairly quiet street with a small cluster of trees at the end, and other parents round here are also in favour of free range children, so they rampage about together. It makes for happier, healthier kids.

Our streets should be safe to walk on, play in. We shouldn’t be designing infrastructure based on the assumption that everyone will go by car. As drivers, we need to slow down and be more careful. Thirty miles an hour is too fast in residential areas. In London some places have a limit of twenty, which is a bit more like it, but there are too many folk who don’t respect those limits as it is.

We need to reclaim our streets and public spaces if the young folk we bring into this world are to have any quality of life. If we all undertook to walk more and drive less, that would make a lot of odds. There is so much to gain here, but it’s going to take a concerted effort to make spaces safe for children again – not from the fear of stranger danger, but from the very real threat of irresponsible car use. If you don’t think battery farming chickens is ok, then please do spare a thought for the issue of free range children.