Life and Everything, Politics

Hey! Keep your smugness to yourself.

I got involved in an interesting discussion online. Part of the ongoing project of a friend who is on a mission to reduce the waste her household produces. She’s doing an impressive job, but occasionally she comes across something that is neither reuseable nor recyclable nor compostable. This morning it was waxed paper. (Which is more biodegradable than plastic, but never the less takes a really long time to break down on account of the wax.) Eventually she discovered it makes quite good kindling in her log burner. I have no idea how environmentally friendly that is, but there’s no waste in her bin.

I think many of us are becoming more aware of the damage too much plastic waste is doing to our planet, and I have been trying to think of ways of reducing it’s use too. I’ve become too reliant on cling film and food bags, and bin liners and whatnot, and it’s time I changed my ways. I used to be good at this stuff, but then as I got older and more time-pressed, and less fit and healthy, convenience and labour-saving products started to take over. I know I can and should do more. I’d rather be part of the solution than part of the problem. That’s why I’ve been keenly watching my friend and joining in the discussions on her Facebook page.

But then the discussion went a bit sour for me. Someone got smug. Oh, he said, modern world problems. Our grandparent’s generation coped without all this convenience, he said. TV, he said, if you didn’t watch so much TV you’d have time for doing more stuff and you wouldn’t need convenience. Go to the greengrocer rather than the supermarket and get veg in paper bags, buy milk from a milkman in recyclable glass, do things the long way round, watch less TV, live like your grandparents….. Hmmff.

Well, firstly, Mr Smug, my nearest greengrocer is 4 miles away. My nearest market is 6 miles away. I use them if I’m in the area and have the time and the money and energy for the bus. And by the way, they only have plastic bags these days. Clearly you haven’t shopped in a greengrocer or a market for a while.

Milk from a milkman in a bottle costs much more than it does in the supermarket. Of course it does. It should. I don’t support the ripping off of dairy farmers by supermarket giants. But sometimes I can’t afford a pint of milk from the supermarket, never mind from the milkman.

Families of my grandparents’ generation mostly had one person stay at home and work at housework, daily shopping, and so on. The other person usually earned a family sized wage. Financially they didn’t need to both work. Someone had time to go shopping every day, cook from scratch, take bottles back to the shop, scrub the floor on their hands and knees with bicarbonate of soda. Actually, both my grandmothers worked. One of them was the main wage earner in her family. She used convenience foods. She didn’t bake her own bread and dig her own potatoes, and compost her own waste. She didn’t have time. Or land. She had a back yard and 5 hungry mouths to feed after a long day’s work, and it was going to be quick and easy before she collapsed in a heap. She shopped at the Co-op.

My grandparent’s generation weren’t faced with shops who only sell things in plastic. They didn’t have shops who only sold things in plastic bags and plastic wrap. The supermarkets hadn’t driven milkmen (and dairy farmers) out of business. My grandparent’s generation didn’t have TV, or mine didn’t anyway. But you know what, if they had, they’d have watched it and been glad of it.

You can’t compare then with now. Everything is different. Businesses have different models of working, there are no local shops left, they all want to wrap everything. Something’s got to change, but me spending hours and money and energy I don’t have finding a local shop that uses paper bags isn’t going to bring about that change.  It’s got to be something bigger than that.  So don’t but this on me and my supermarket shopping.

What I found most annoying about this man’s grand statements about people’s laziness in using convenience was his readiness to judge lives he knows nothing about. Until he is a single parent with no money, ill health, no car, no local shops (because ASDA swallowed them all up decades ago), and very little energy, he has NO right to tell me I’m watching too much TV in favour of convenience. He is privileged enough to have the time and the health and the land and the lack of dependants to do his thing, and good for him. But it IS a privilege, and not many have it.

Sure there are some people who over-consume, and they really should look at that consumption in terms of the unnecessary damage it does the environment. But this is how a capitalist economy works. It needs people to consume things they don’t need. It needs people to spend money on products that aren’t that useful. We can take steps to mitigate that, or if we’re of more revolutionary bent, to overthrow it. But you can’t blame individuals for being part of that.  Many of us have little choice in the matter.

I reuse what I can, I recycle what ever is recyclable. I repair rather than replace. I compost whatever the worms will eat. I buy mostly second hand clothes. I travel by public transport on the most part. I’ve done all that all my life.  I was avoiding aerosol before I’d heard of ozone, I mended stuff since I was a kid, because I can mend and I like mending and because I’ve never been able to afford not to. I haven’t been on an aeroplane for 10 years. I use Freecycle rather than chucking stuff in the bin, I’ve used my own bags in supermarkets always, and I eschew plastic packaging if it’s both possible and affordable. I do all that as a matter of course. Now, I am trying to up the ante by reducing my own use of plastic in the kitchen, because like I say, I’ve taken my eye off the ball.  I think I’m doing OK.

It’s definitely time for the supermarkets to take responsibility at their end, and I’ll continue to do what I can to put pressure on them to do that. I know we have to recognise that for things to really change, we have to forego some of the comforts and conveniences of 21st century capitalism. But we have to do this as a society, as a planet (no more palming our excess -waste, emissions allowances – off on India and China). We can’t guilt trip people into buying things they can’t afford, shopping in places outside their budget, or doing things outside of their capabilities. And if you are able to live a waste free, convenience free life, good for you, that’s great, but don’t judge everyone else’s lives by your own privilege. And actually, some of us really need this twenty first century convenience to survive.

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