Monday, December 31, 2012

Some thoughts on Changing Lifestyles

I bought this book new in 1991, read it a couple of times then lent it out to anyone who was interested. Somewhere along the line it didn’t come back and I added it on to my list to re-buy when I saw it (along with Shockwave Rider, The Dispossessed and Ender’s Game). When Amazon came along I looked for it on there. I don’t know when it had gone out of print but it wasn’t even mentioned and for a long time it wasn’t in the secondhand section either. And then, joy! Not only was it available but there were a number of copies.

It arrived a week or so ago when I was reading Sandi Toksvig’s ‘Valentine Grey’. Given the need to scramble to get work completed I was losing the plot of VG repeatedly and so I put it aside to read over Christmas and picked up Changing Lifestyles, secure in the knowledge that it wouldn’t grip me in quite the same way. It turns out to be an excellent book to read whilst struggling with a heavy workload. The chapters are short, the language is simple and the ideas are not new, but I found a piquant pleasure in reading his exhortations to the extent that I had to ration myself to just a chapter before bed.

For many years I have enjoyed the writings of those who have recently been redefined as grumpy old men/women. Lawrence D Hills and John Seymour typify the category. They were not grumpy so much as opinionated. Lawrence Hills, founder of the Henry Doubleday Research Association (now Garden Organic), seems to have all but disappeared from popular culture but John Seymour’s Self Sufficiency seems still to be around and has stopped him falling into total obscurity.

I’ve been giving some thought as to why the highly opinionated (environmental) writer appeals to me. I think it’s because, although I believe in the urgent need to change our actions, and though my work involves raising awareness of environmental issues for businesses, I am not evangelical. It’s just so lovely to read someone who says it plainly and obviously lives his ideals. And so, John Seymour.

I first recall coming across Seymour in my teens. My father, a reluctant gardener but great dreamer, had a copy of ‘The Self Sufficient Gardner’, I think from his book club. I have no idea whether he chose it in a moment of enthusiasm or whether it turned up because he didn’t cancel it. I think he passed it on to my uncle, a man interested in gardening for food production rather than simply avoiding censure. Before it disappeared I spent some time reading it, loving its downright instructions and beautiful illustrations although I felt no call to put its advice into practice at that time.

I was a teen in the 70s, a time of flared jeans, cheesecloth shirts and a dawning awareness of potential limits. Limits to Growth was published in 1972. There had been electricity blackouts during the 1972 miners’ strike and again in 1974. The oil price shock of 1973 meant that the school cruise I went on didn’t go to Dubrovnik because the cruising speed was lowered to save fuel. A further oil shock happened in 1979. None of these issues were caused by real shortages but we became aware, for the first time in the post-war UK, that our modern systems were not invulnerable. Then, of course, there was the Good Life and Jimmy Carter’s ‘cardigan’ speech. At my first election I voted Ecology Party. In other words, I was environmentally aware and not averse to the whole idea of living more lightly.

Changing Lifestyles was published in 1991, when my son was just walking and I was expecting my daughter. It didn't change my life. I was already the breastfeeding mother with my babies in terry nappies, cooking wholefoods and heading towards educating otherwise. It wasn’t life changing but it was lifestyle affirming. He wrote about energy, transport, work and homes, rubbish and recycling, the land, farming and food. Twenty years on and there is nothing that he was saying that couldn’t be said right now, although he thought that by 2012 we would be safely post-petroleum. 

Reading it now it is really difficult to find something surprising to say about it. We should turn down the thermostat, we should drive less, we should find meaningful work that supports our communities, we should grow much of our own food and buy what we can’t grow locally, we should eschew processed ‘dead’ food, we should step back from the precipice and save ourselves. There have been twenty years worth of books saying the same thing since Changing Lifestyles, although a great deal of what we come across these days is so based on emotional manipulation that it wearies me to even begin to read it, and much is a call to action for everyone else, whilst making no effort to reduce the author’s own impact. Al Gore is the quintessential example. This book was written by a man living his beliefs and, as he notes,  ‘this book is about quality of life.‘  

I determined some time ago thatI wasn’t very happy with my own quality of life. I needed some sort of meaning. God does not really provide that for me. Shopping doesn’t do it either. John Seymour’s vision of a life lived to the full, a life of hard but meaningful work, of food made with natural, local ingredients, of making a difference, speaks to me in a way that so much of the modern lifestyle and the recent calls to action do not. 

At the end of his book Seymour looked at where we were and what options were open to us. He delineated a continuous growth scenario, a palliative scenario and a radical change scenario. He concluded that the only possible choice was radical change. I would suggest that, since 1991 we have attempted to paper over the cracks of continuous growth with a little bit of palliative action. I’m no different. Maybe a bit more palliative than continuous growth but not by much. And not anywhere near radical change. 

We are still discussing what, if anything, we should do to pull back from the brink of disaster, as the edge crumbles under our feet. As Seymour says, ‘in the end each one of us has got to take responsibility for what we do, and what we don’t do. There is only one person in the universe over whose actions I have complete control and that is myself.’ And yet. I am so weak. I know what I could do and I don’t, because I’m trying desperately to pass for normal. I think perhaps I should spend some time returning to this book where the issues are clear, and remind myself that I have control over my own actions. 

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