Biting the hand that feeds

A school friend grew up on a tobacco farm in Malawi, and like me, had been sent to boarding school in South Africa at a tender age. At our 25th year reunion recently the topic of smoking came up, and she told how whenever she gives her Dad a hard time about his smoking habit, he reminds her that tobacco paid for her education.

I can relate. Plastic paid for mine.  Visiting my Dad’s plastic factory is a vivid childhood memory: the squishy sacks of plastic polymer; the noisy machines compressing the pellets; standing at the end of the production line, waiting to see the colourful cups being spat out, still warm and steaming; the words ‘injection mould’ and ‘virgin material.’ I remember long trips back to boarding school, our Kombi packed to the rafters with plastics that we’d deliver en-route.

And yet my Dad, unapologetically capitalist, ended up with green-leaning kids. Plastic has been top of our hit list in trying to whittle down our waste. My sister, a scuba instructor who sees first hand the state of our oceans, recently shared something on Facebook and screeched ‘Stop Fucking Using Plastic!’ And my brother is seldom happiest than when knee deep in worm muck churning out compost.

It’s a tricky one. My Dad worked his ass off so he could give us what he prizes above all else – a good education. Without that (plastic-funded) education, one that lifted us out of the structural limitations set by apartheid, our lives might have taken a very different trajectory.

Something to be mindful of when we rail against the system? We all need to make a living in the world. If we’re lucky, smart, or both, we manage to marry our ideals with our livelihood; others bump up against all kinds of socio-political barriers – work is a way to pay the bills, it can’t always be aligned with our beliefs or worldview.

So while it’s wonderful to have choices and hold fast to our ideals, there’s always the flip side. Someone on the other end whose livelihood depends on the thing we’re lambasting or crusading against. It’s a theme that can be applied most anywhere – poachers trying to eke out a living; children working in sweat shops to help put food on the table. For everyone trying to build what they believe to be a better world by challenging the system, there’s someone propping it up, living hand to mouth.

Those are extreme examples and I’ve gone on a bit of a tangent. Bringing it back to those pesky single-use plastics that are choking our oceans, I still avoid them. But I’m seldom militant about it; our push and pull world is after all stupendously complex.

 

Coffee With: Rhian Berning

Coffee With: Rhian Berning

Next up in our ‘Coffee With’ series, wonderfully uplifting words from Rhian Berning, founder of Eco Atlas.

Why do you do what you do?
I am so in love with our small blue planet and the deeply interconnected life on it, from the praying mantis to the rolling whales, from rainstorms to mossy forest floors, and all the diverse people that together form part of the intricate web of life.

Yet I’ve had a deep feeling and knowing for as long as I can remember that we really can do better as a species, that we’ve taken a wrong turn down our evolutionary  pathway, based on greed and short term benefits, and we’re rapidly unravelling the very living systems on which we depend.

I find it exciting that there are better, more innovative ways of doing things, that there are people doing them and that their stories need to be told because, added together, all those positive actions become a powerful wave of change that can turn our current trajectory. That’s why I do what I do. Eco Atlas is all about telling the good news stories, empowering people with information and connecting active citizens with the businesses that meet their needs for a better future.

If you weren’t an environmental activist, what would you be?
President. Ha ha, just kidding, although I am itching to have the ability to create more proactive positive change and I think the world would do well with more of the incredible, inspiring women we know in positions of power.  But realistically….I love working with children – their interface with each other and the world around them, their purity, their curious minds, their sense of wonder for our complex world and their ability to find solutions is inspiring and needs to be nurtured and stimulated.

The 3 books that have had the biggest impact on you?
Revolution by Russell Brand
Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
My Year of Meat by Ruth Ozeki
(okay that was 4)

A quote you love?
“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” ― Arundhati Roy

Your perfect getaway – forest treehouse or beach shack?
Well we live on the edge of beautiful indigenous forest so I get my forest fix. Our ultimate getaway is most definitely a beach shack, we are all at our happiest when we are salty, sun kissed and barefoot.

Your favourite way to recharge?
Lying in a hammock with a good book at one of the many isolated cottages we love to frequent, with access to pure nature and no cell reception, watching my children soaking up the landscape.

Top of your bucket list?
When I had just finished varsity I headed up Africa on my own traveling by train, bus, minibus and boat and it was the freest and most connected to my continent I have ever felt. My time staying with the Masai as the only mzungu and experiencing the balanced rhythm of village life was especially formative. I would love to head off with my children and husband and explore our own beautiful country and continent slowly, slowly.

Advice you’d give your 16 year old self?
Follow your intuition, don’t worry about what other people think, remember to be here now and seize the day, do what makes you happy, a swim in the sea is a cure for many things, remember to breathe, treasure your children when they are young.

Your favourite ‘wild’ place in the city?
In the Mother City it would have to be in the dappled light of a Keurboom tree on the soft grassy banks of Silvermine Dam. In my hometown of Plett it would be any of my favourite wild hideouts in Nature’s Valley.

Humanity in a hundred years — where do you think we’ll be? 
That is a very topical question! Stephen Hawking reckons that if we have not found an alternative planet within the next 100 years it’s not looking so good for us humans here on Planet Earth. I am more hopeful that enough of us will swing the status quo and innovate, regenerate and grow a verdant, abundant,stronger and better system that is in sync with all life on Earth.

Your source of strength when the going gets tough?
The effervescent, contagious laughter of my children that gives our whole family a good belly laugh round the supper table.

For you, winning at life is ……….
Being happy and healthy, living simply and sustainably and having a positive impact on the world around you.

What you’d still love to accomplish in this life?
Inspire people to realize their own power to make better choices for people and planet until we reach a tipping point – a critical mass for enduring good with highly functioning regenerative systems that positively feedback into the interconnected web of life.

Energy guzzlers

Energy guzzlers

It’s a small, seemingly insignificant thing but the absence of a machine or contraption whirring in the background to regulate the temperature or clean the air is one of the things I’ve loved most about moving back home.

In Beijing there was a constant hum in our apartment – of the air conditioner in summer, the heater in winter (who knew Beijing was sub-arctic) and the air purifier most of the year. Hong Kong was not much different (this is a city where department stores open their doors wide to pump cold air onto the hot sticky streets outside). In London it was the central heating for what felt like the better part of the year.

In Cape Town the air is beautifully clean and the temperature just so, so that you’re always comfortable, and it’s felt so good to be less of an energy guzzler. Moving home has coincided with a gradual awakening on my part – of a planet in peril as a result of our unrelenting quest for comfort and convenience. Maybe it’s having kids, maybe it’s middle age, maybe it’s having lived in such artificial city environments for close to a decade.

I do wonder though, if I moved back to any of those concrete jungles, would I just revert to my old ways? Crank up the aircon after a day in the insane stickiness that is Hong Kong? Or seal myself in my apartment, air purifier going full-tilt, after an afternoon breathing in the noxious Beijing air? What are the alternatives? Learn to be a little (or a lot) less comfortable?

I can feel smug about ditching the temperature control machines but I now live in a suburban house with a thirsty garden, and I haven’t used public transport in three years. I’ve swapped out one set of conveniences for another – if I did one of those carbon footprint calculations and compared life then to life now, I’m not sure I’ve progressed as much as I think.

It does feel though that once awareness has crept up on you, once it’s got your attention, it starts demanding more of you. What you know becomes compounded so that you’re forced to continually refine and adapt your thinking. You recycle furiously and feel great about keeping waste out of landfill, then investigate a little more and realise recycling is a sticking plaster, not a solution, and that what you actually need to do is stop accumulating. You become water-wise, flick those switches off and compost your food waste but then watch Cowspiracy and feel like you’ve had blinkers on all this time – gorging yourself on meat whereas in fact ditching meat could have a bigger impact that all your recycling efforts combined. You browse the sites of zero wasters displaying their entire years waste in a small glass jar – and then, feeling inadequacy creep in, you step away from the screen, go for a walk and get some perspective!

Learning is iterative and it’s hard to overhaul your life in a day, a week, a few months or even years. But you can always start and do what you can when and where you can, with the wherewithal you have at the time – and you can rejig things as you go along. And I think a journey of sustainability should be a joyful one – moments of outrage and maybe even exasperation at times yes, but ultimately something that brings you a semblance of peace in a crazy beautiful world.

“Little by little, one travels far”
– J.R.R Tolkien