Walking home from an unplanned trip to the grocery store a few months ago I ran into a friend of mine who took one look at me and shook her head in criticism “Plastic Bags???” Ever since then I have made an effort to carry a spare eco-friendly bag with me just in case.
Although I am all for conservation (I did my masters in the subject), I sometimes wonder how many of our sustainable practices are about a real desire to impact the Earth positively, and how many are just about trend and social pressure.
The eco-trend has certainly been an obvious one in book publishing over the past few years, with many authors and publishers compiling how-to guides and “My Year Living in Such-and-Such Way” memoirs that are part entertainment, part advice, part “learn from my mistakes.” But how many of these books actually help the rest of us live more sustainable lives? Is this kind of sustainability even a reasonable goal for the average person? To try to answer these questions, I have taken a closer look at a few titles in the genre, many of which have the added advantage of being New Zealand specific.
Off the Radar by Te Radar
As you might expect, this book documenting the making of the television program is much heavier on the humour than it is on adoptable sustainable practice. There really isn’t much in the way of helpful advice on sustainability, unless that advice is “Don’t try this at home.” However, Radar’s narrative reads like Bill Bryson and has had me laughing aloud quite a bit. The book also has the advantage of recounting those occurrences deemed unsuitable for family viewing and is, therefore, a bit more truthful than television. Overall, the impression given is that one can survive off the land (even when incredibly unprepared) if one has neighbours as generous as those Radar benefits from.
Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
Masterfully written, what this book lacks in practical application (not many readers will be able to copy the extreme locavore measures Kingsolver and family utilize), it makes up for in sheer entertainment value. This is particularly true of the chapters that deal with trying to breed turkeys that have grown up thinking they are human. Kingsolver also has valuable things to say about growing/raising heritage plants and animals and provides quite a few recipes along the way. Although it hasn’t revolutionized my life, this book remains a favourite.
Unless you are living on a farm or lifestyle block, many of the experiences and instructions in this book will not be very useful to you. However, that doesn’t make them uninteresting. Murray treads the line between imparting the knowledge of her experience to other “townies” and defending her ignorance in comparison to “real farmers.” Although sometimes a little over-the-top, there is an endearing quality to Murray’s “Maybe this still isn’t the best way, but it works pretty well for us” voice. Substantial sections on cheese-making, bread-making, and companion-planting are likely to be the most useful to those of us with the standard-sized suburban back garden.
Tips from your Nana by Robyn Paterson
The first sustainable practice book that I purchased after moving to New Zealand, I was attracted to this title in part for the adorable photos of waste-not Grans, apron-clad, hands sunk in soil. They remind me of my own grandmother, who throws away nothing that can be used for something else.
However, there is non-aesthetic value to this book as well. The section on making your own cleaners at home opened my eyes to the myriad non-cooking uses of white vinegar.
Tips from Your Grandad by Robyn Paterson
A companion piece to the above, this title has the same old-timey charm as the first (my favourite quote is “Markus says: Two bricks, a fire and a grill equals a barbecue. Anything more is just bourgeois.”). As you would expect, this title has more hints about auto and home maintenance than the Nana version. Perhaps most intriguing is the section on making your own soap. Both books in the series contain tips that are fairly reasonable for the average household, i.e. you won’t need to rush out and buy live chooks or a cow to participate. Most supplies will be things you already own or can get easily from your hardware store and/or supermarket.
Living Green by Annmaree Kane and Christina Neubert
For overall comprehensiveness, this title is hard to beat. It contains thorough information on the products we use for nearly all aspects of living (from childcare to healthcare to clothing to home renovation) and provides green, non-toxic alternatives for many and minimization strategies for others. If you only want to buy one book to move your life in a green direction, this may be the most practical choice. That said, in some ways it feels like a giant list of things to be afraid of, especially when you get to the section on electromagnetic fields.
Eco Kiwi by Simon and Jane Cotter
Another comprehensive book, the Eco Kiwi also covers most aspects of home life (including building materials, furnishings, water use and recycling). The tone is friendly and informative but, as with Living Green, I miss the narrative aspect present in some of the other titles.
A Home Companion by Wendyl Nissen
This may be my new favourite. Wendyl manages to portray the message that women deserve time to themselves, away from the demands of family, work, and household, while at the same time suggesting many useful ways in which to make daily domestic tasks easier, more satisfying, and/or more sustainable. So far my favourite is her recipe for Lemon Dusters (pg. 21). These are easy to make, use and store and she’s right, they smell amazing.
Some of these books spend a lot of time talking about chemical additives; in our food, in our personal care products, even in our tap water. Although I like Wendyl Nissen’s philosophy that she won’t put anything on her skin that she wouldn’t be willing to eat, I get the distinct feeling that some concerns may be a little blown out of proportion.
After reviewing the contents of these books, my philosophy about the green transition in my life has become, “If it feels good, do it.” I’m not the first to say it, but there is something really empowering about doing things for yourself. Not only do you know exactly where what you’re eating/cleaning with/etc. comes from, but you have much more control over the disposability/re-usability of it. As a result, making your own personal care and home cleaning products, and growing your own produce can be as enjoyable as it is economical and green. That may be why I prefer greenie books that are part narrative. Like the food revolution to which it is connected, the green revolution is, in many ways, about community and family as much as it is about health and the planet. Turning off the tv and sharing a meal that was made by your own hands from your own produce just feels good and, surprisingly, so does tidying up from that meal using a bench-cleaning spray you made yourself. When an author shares these types of experiences from their own lives, the personal connection communicates as much as the recipes and instructions do. More than social pressure, more than fear, shared joy has the power to change us.