Author Archives: fearghal121

About fearghal121

Hi! I am a social ecology student and a Uniting Church minister who is experimenting on herself and her husband. For 6 months we will be attempting to live a very low carbon and sustainable lifestyle. We will be exploring how easy this is to achieve in Western society, how hard it is for us to forego convenience and lifestyle, and how it impacts us psychologically.

The greening of the economy

Sustainability drawing 3I am really tired of the “economy” apparently determining everything. It doesn’t.  Nor should it. There are other measures of life and well-being we need to consider, such as spirituality, happiness and fulfilment or satisfaction. The country of Bhutan, for example, has a Gross National Happiness Index. The index measures sustainable development that is balanced against economic notions of progress, and it also gives equal importance to non-economic aspects of wellbeing.

From time to time, an organisation somewhere tries to address the imbalance. World Environment Day was established by the United Nations in 1972 to stimulate worldwide awareness of the environment and encourage political attention and action.

The United Nations also declared 2012 the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All and the theme for World Environment Day this year is Green Economy: Does it include you?

It is a good question, albeit I am answering it somewhat belatedly. What do the economy and the environment have to say to each other?

In the last two centuries, some unfortunate trends have developed as to how we measure what is good. The natural environment, in the eyes of many, has become just a resource to be exploited, with little thought for immediate and future consequences. Alongside of this, we find people’s value measured primarily in terms of their financial assets. The best way I can demonstrate this is to recommend to you a short video that had a dramatic impact on me. It was filmed in the Niger Delta, an oil-rich place that Western oil companies have been drilling for some years. It is the home to many thousands of indigenous people, who have lived on this land for many thousands of years. They live on it, and farm it for their food. This youtube video shows what most of it now looks like. Amnesty International has produced this clever parody of Shell’s own publicity, to expose their hypocrisy. See it here at:


As you can see in this short film, the environment is ruined for those who live there. They will never benefit from the wealth generated by the oil. Their land, their crops and they themselves are not valued in this economy. Shell Petroleum has consistently refused to spend money to clean up the mess they have made. The people of the Niger just aren’t important to them. In this economy, the poor black people do not matter. In this economy, the cost of restoring the degradation and ruin to the environment is not counted.

What is measured as ‘good’ is the price of the oil. If we just look at what we call a resources boom, then the economy looks good. If we count the true cost of getting and using those resources, then we have a large problem. The problem with this standard Western way of judging whether the economy is good is that no one is counting the damage as part of the cost.

You have all probably heard of the World Bank, an organisation which is an international financial institution that provides loans to developing countries for capital programs.

The World Bank’s official goal is the reduction of poverty. According to the World Bank’s Articles of Agreement (as amended effective 16 February 1989) all of its decisions must be guided by a commitment to promote foreign investment, international trade and facilitate capital investment. In 1991, the chief economist at the World Bank, a man named Lawrence Summers, encouraged the placing of dirty industries in developing nations.

The reasons he gave for this were lower wages and lower costs associated with potential health problems workers may develop. He issued a memo saying “I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest waged country is impeccable and we should face up to that”.

This memo was leaked and Summers later issued an apology, but we cannot fail to perceive that this economic vision made one class of people far less valuable than another, and showed a callous attitude to some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on our planet, not to mention the way the environment itself would suffer from the threatened toxic waste. And we can see Summers’ comment played out in places like the Niger delta. Surely those who care about ethics and environment need to find a voice and protest against such injustice.

Humans are part of the web of creation; we are part of life in the biosphere known as planet earth and we are reliant on it. Our health can only be good if the planet’s health is good. Our economy can only be considered good when all people are benefitting from it. And we need to find other ways of measuring what is good for us – the development of the ‘economy’ as we know it in financial terms should be but one measure.

Instead of just having economies associated with ‘growth’ and ‘progress’, we also need to measure things like people’s happiness, their satisfaction with life, how long they live, and how much of what they consume impacts on the life and health and happiness of others.

We need to value the things that cannot be counted, such as the beauty of a wilderness, river or forest. We need to put a price on clean water and fertile soil. Because poor people, ecosystems and animals are not able to pay, their rights and well-being are not seen as important in our current system. Consumer choices and economic growth should not be the only measure of well-being.

The alternative economic system is often referred to as a ‘green economy’. This name recognises that until recently, the only economy we have considered is one promoting financial and material growth. The name ‘green economy’ stresses that a healthy economy is one that is sustainable, benefits all people and respects the natural world. The principles of a green economy include a commitment to the common good, equitable use and distribution of resources, and a belief in the importance of the integrity of creation.

A green economy recognises that unlimited growth on a finite planet is not possible. We need to re-imagine these terms to see ‘progress’ and ‘growth’ as the flourishing of all life, rather than the accumulation of wealth by a few at the expense of the many. Rather than purely economic, progress needs to be seen in terms of a world that is more just, equitable, respectful, compassionate and loving. If poor humanity continues to suffer because some of us are taking too much or many wild creatures continue to experience the threat of mass extinctions, we are not growing anything other than an impending catastrophe on our planet.

The development of a green economy needs to be understood in the context of the understanding that creation, all creatures great and small and their habitats, as well as all people, are equally important. It is essential for us to revise and broaden our definition of economy to include the natural world and defy any attempt to put a dollar-only value on it.  We should value it because of its intrinsic value, not because of its monetary worth.

We are at a critical point in history, facing some considerable challenges including the damaging effects of human-induced climate change, the depletion of cheap abundant energy and a global food shortage. These challenges are global and they are connected to each other as both cause and consequence. They are the results of social, political and economic systems that have come to do more harm than good; systems built on values of greed, power and materialism. We have developed a global economic system that is now diminishing, rather than improving our capacity to live sustainably on our planet.

Living in a way that is fair and sustainable is a challenging message to those of us who live in the West. I hope that we can re-image a world where creation is treated with respect and all peoples are seen as equal, and that “green” will cease to a pejorative political word for some and instead be seen as also meaning fair and sustainable and just. And I hope that by doing so, we can ensure the future of our planet, its myriad of living things, and its fragile ecosystems for the grandchildren and great grand children of all the peoples of the earth.


Powering on

saving-energy car largerOur electricity bill has arrived for the last quarter. Apparently we are using around 50% of the power of a typical one person household, which our power company tells us is around 1.205 kWh. Our bill before last was 485kWh, a reduction of almost 50% on the same period last year, which was 966kWh. The last bill was 684 kWh, almost half of the 1.234 kWh of that typical one person house for this quarter. Given how power prices have risen, we think this is a pretty good result. We find there is always a slight rise in winter, because we use the electric oven a little more, and find that in wet, cloudy weeks we need the solar hot water boosted or need to occasionally use the drier to finish of clothes that refuse to dry beyond ‘damp’. With longer nights, we use more lighting.

There are various ways we try and cut down on our power consumption. We have the aforementioned solar hot water, which is a big help. Only on the bleakest rainy days do we need the electric booster, and only after we have had a few poor weather days.

Our regular cook top is gas, and we mainly use the wood fired oven in winter, which also heats the house through radiators on the walls in very room. Our wood fired slow combustion stove is an ingenious contraption, sending hot water from its wetback to all the radiators. It keeps our house quite cosy in winter, and as the stove has two ovens and an enormous hotplate area, we also cook on it during the colder months were possible.

We have tried to make the place into as much of a passive solar house as one can an old Federation house. It is fully insulated, and we have installed Smart Glass in the windows that face north and west. Our solar panel consultant has installed an ingenious fan in our roof. It runs off the solar panels by day and on thermal heat at night, reducing the temperature in the roof cavity. We set the thermostat on this fan to a reasonable temperature, and it happily sucks out hot air at no cost to us until the desired temperature is reached.

On the advice of an eco-consultant, we put in outdoor awnings on the western and northern windows, and replaced our vertical blinds with solar curtains. I have been amazed at how much heat these curtains keep out, even when the sun is at its fiercest. We have no air conditioning and use ceiling fans when it is hot and humid. During summer, it is rare for the ambient temperature inside our house to rise above 28 degrees. On the 45 degree days we had last summer, it was 38 degrees in our house. We have consistently measured our household room temperature at around 8-9 degrees less than that outside. People often walk into our house in summer and comment on how cool it is, and think it is air conditioned.

We use the standard power-saving things such as compact fluorescent globes and LED lights. And we turn lights off when we aren’t in the room, and use one of those power boards with the foot switch so we can turn TV, DVD etc off at night and kill the standby

With our electronic equipment, we have agreed with each other to only use the battery capacity at night. We charge up the batteries of laptops phones and ipads during the day when the solar panels are working, and run them on their batteries at night as we Facebook and do our work. Once the battery runs out, that’s it. No more use of the device in question. This has been inconvenient at times, but we figure a rule like this is good for us.

Putting these measures in place has been pretty straightforward. The cost of the glass, curtains and awnings wasn’t a huge amount, and it certainly wasn’t hard to change light globes to those that are more efficient.  I have a built in anathema to clothes driers, only using ours once I have hung the clothes out for as long as reasonable, and it is clear they aren’t going to get any drier due to unpropitious weather. One of the good things about our radiators is we can put damp clothes directly on them, and they dry beautifully.

I have to say our Thermalux wood fired slow combustion stove with radiators is an expensive heating and cooking option, but we are very happy with it. It is Australian made, uses recycled metal, and it is very efficient. In my opinion, it cooks the best pork roast ever. If you are interested, you can find them at

The other items which are big consumers of power in the house are the fridge and chest freezer. We buy our grass-fed, organic meat from local farmers in bulk, hence the freezer. It has a good star rating, but still chews up the power. We have it on a timer at night , to try and cut back its energy chomping habits. In our hot and humid summers, going without refrigeration is not an option. The toaster is another energy chewer, though we generally don’t use it more than once or twice a day.

For those looking to reduce their carbon footprint and their power bills along with it, there is plenty of information out there in cyberspace to help you cut costs. Google produced 799,000 results when I asked it to find energy-saving tips.electric-bill

As well as helping us save money, taking energy saving measures also helps each household tackle climate change. Average Australian households produce around 21 % of Australia’s carbon emissions. This equates to around 14 tonnes of greenhouse gas per household per year, including vehicle use. That is a lot of emissions we could be reducing with a bit more thought.

If you are interested in what your household emissions are, you can check them at the excellent Australian Greenhouse Calculator ( ) which will calculate the emissions your create  from your electricity use and your personal transport and any other energy-consuming habits you have. It also has a comprehensive information and analysis section on issues relating to climate change.

Most of us just tinker around the edges when it comes to reducing our carbon footprints.  We surgically trim off some of the fat of our lifestyles rather than taking to them with a Crocodile Dundee-style knife.  We resist making sacrifices that inconvenience us, like unplugging the TV and going for a bike ride. We feel deprived if our towels are not warm and fluffy from the drier.

Apparently more than a third of people who want to help do something about climate change don’t really know how to go about it. The easiest things we can do that are easily within our power to change is to reduce our emissions by driving less and having a more fuel-efficient car, improving how we use and conserve energy in our homes (especially heating and cooling), and to eat less meat. And you might think about changing your power source to include a proportion of cleaner energy from renewable sources, such as solar, wind or hydro power.

It is difficult to encourage people to get involved in social change, which is what is needed if we are to combat the menace of climate change. Personal lifestyle changes like this should not only reduce our own impacts, but also encourage the big social and political changes that are needed across the board. One person changing might not look like a lot, but collectively, this can build to an irresistible force that can begin to change the world.

light bulbs

Trees and toilet paper: the bottom line on why our bottoms are costing the earth

One of the most basic things we take for granted in the Western world is toilet paper. According to the Toilet Paper Encyclopaedia (, 69% of people say that toilet paper is the largest convenience taken for granted; 49% would see it as a greater necessity than food on a desert island, and 72% prefer to hang toilet paper with the first sheet going over the roll. A standard toilet paper roll lasts around five days in the most used bathroom in the house. On average apparently, people use 8.6 sheets per trip – a total of 57 sheets per day, making an annual total of 20,805 sheets. That is 1.66million sheets per person in a lifetime, and equates to around 8300 toilet rolls.


That is an awful lot of toilet paper. You would be forgiven for thinking that it grows on trees. Hang on, it does grow on trees. Or at least, is made from trees. Around 270,000 trees everyday if the World Watch magazine ( is to be believed. We either flush it or dump it in landfills every day. Even more disturbing is the fact that less than 10 percent of all paper production is for toilet paper, but it accounts for around 15% of deforestation. In other words, one out of every seven trees we cut down goes straight down the toilet

According to the article, “growing populations, adoption of Western lifestyles, and sanitation improvements in developing countries are driving the increased use of toilet paper. The result is that forests in both the global North and South are under assault by paper companies competing to fill consumer demand.”

And of course, we can always rely on Western companies to create consumer demand. Toilet paper is being promoted as a ‘civilized’ more sanitary way of dealing with life’s refuse. Countries where millions of people still use water for self-cleaning represents new marketing opportunities.  Apparently each year toilet paper sales grow around 4%, presenting an industry that looks like a good economic investment.

Part of the problem is advertisements that convince us we need the ‘ultimate in cushiony softness’ with ‘unique air-weave texture’, in order to attend to the daily business of our bottoms. In a time of climate change, when we need all the trees we can get, is it really necessary to them down to produce the ‘softest tissue’ impregnated with unicorn oil-soaked woven texture?

Trouble is, until quite recently, old growth forests were logged to provide that downy soft comfort for our rear ends. And while some brands spruik they are made of plantation wood, this solution often comes at the expense of more biologically diverse habitats, displacing native plant and animal life. Plantations also use large amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and can require enormous quantities of water. This can’t be considered ecologically sustainable either.

It just doesn’t make sense that our delicate, sensitive and tender rear ends are causing more environmental devastation than the large 4WD cars we are so fond of in Australia.

I like the way the Earth Island Journal ( puts it: “How can we meet the most basic of our needs without wrecking the planet? Or, in this case, how can we maintain our personal hygiene without wiping out virgin forests?”

One answer is to use toilet paper made from recycled paper. Tonnes of paper ends up in landfill when it could be used for purposes such as producing toilet paper. Recycled toilet paper also requires far less water to make, and many brands of recycled toilet paper also eschew chlorine bleach.

The Earth Island Journal states that it is time to draw the bottom line for our bottoms. They suggest that the time “has come to launch a Slow Toilet movement that can highlight the forest-to-flush chain of production and waste. By revealing the source of this seemingly indispensible product, we might get people to understand the environmental cost of the paper they use every day”.

Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defence Council states that “this is a product that we use for less than three seconds and the ecological consequences of manufacturing it from trees is enormous.”

“Future generations are going to look at the way we make toilet paper as one of the greatest excesses of our age. Making toilet paper from virgin wood is a lot worse than driving Hummers in terms of global warming pollution.” ( )

While he is talking about Americans, the same could be said for Australians. We are continuing to flush perfectly good trees down the toilet. So what can be done about it?

The first thing one might do is switch to recycled toilet paper. It takes far less water and energy to produce, and keeps paper out of landfill. Recycled paper preserves habitat, protects forests, and lessens chlorine type contaminants entering our water. One concern is that It also can contain very small amounts of BPA, from thermal paper being used in the recycling process. While this is probably not significant in terms of our health, if it concerns you consider going toilet paper free.

As icky as that might sound, that is what we have done in our household (we do have toilet paper for our guests if you intend to stay with us and are feeling squeamish)  and we have found it really easy to use and deal with. We could have got a bidet attachment, but in the interests of conserving our water we decided to go down the route of reusable toilet paper, often euphemistically known as “family cloth”. This involves keeping clean cloth squares beside the toilet and washing and reusing them every few days or so. No paper waste, no possible BPA contamination, and it saves us money.

Washing the used cloth is surprisingly easy to deal with. It is no different to washing cloth nappies, which all of us managed to do before becoming convinced disposable was the only way to go. And it is actually a lot less messy. During a conversation on this topic at a family gathering, among the predictable cries of ‘yuck’! my mother somewhat acerbically observed that she had raised four children using family cloth (reusable nappies) and couldn’t see what the fuss was about.

Our ‘family cloth’ was made by cutting up into squares three second hand soft cot sheets purchased at local op shops. I didn’t bother making them fancy or hemming them, I just cut them up with pinking shears so they wouldn’t fray. I wash them in hot water (from our solar hot water) and don’t put the washcloths or tea towels in with them. We have not contracted any nasty diseases and they are much nicer to use than toilet paper, which feels rather harsh now. The best article i have found on family cloth is at and you can read more there.


I am going to leave the last word to Aaron from, ( a movement which bills itself as changing the world in the toilet. The founder states in his opinion that it is a crime to cut down 270,000 trees per day, to make toilet paper, “a crime that we are committing against our children”. I agree. The world our children will inherit is really going to be hit by the impact of our choices now, and it isn’t looking like being a pretty place.

As Aaron says, “Yes, it is only toilet paper. But, for the 57 sheets you will use today, every wipe counts. Spread the love. Change the world.”

Plastic, plastic everywhere or saving the world one less bottle at a time.

One of my readers has asked about how we manage waste when we travel. I have to say it isn’t easy, especially when we travel long distances at times for our work. At the moment, I am on leave and on the other side of the country in Perth.  I have discovered that travelling without encountering truckloads of plastic is almost impossible.

When we move around the region we work in, we take cornstarch cups to use for coffee, can pack our own snacks and food, and use our stainless drink bottles. We carry cloth serviettes, enamel milkshake cups and glass straws..

Travel ling by air, however, is a very different proposition. I recently travelled to Perth to visit my daughter and only granddaughter. I rarely see them in the flesh, and am visiting here for a week. Visiting them is a family priority, and I try and work out ways I can minimise the impact of flying.

The first issue I encountered was the amount of plastic in a meal on a plane, and all single use. Some of it looked like cornstarch plastic to me, but I still can’t reconcile all the intensive use of resources producing my cutlery would have meant. And it was intended as a one off use, not for washing and redeployment in another meal. Apparently Qantas recycle and wash their plastic cutlery on international flights, but not domestic.  Ultimately, it is doomed to end up in landfill.

On past flights we have kept and reused the plastic cutlery in our picnic set and to take travelling around the mid north coast, but still the waste worries me, and we have accumulated a lot of plastic cutlery! But it bothered me much more this time. As my level of awareness of the real issues surrounding plastic rises, so does my guilt factor. After all, this was all invented to support a lifestyle that does not tolerate inconvenience well.

I  took my own stainless steel water bottle, and cornstarch coffee cup. As a celiac, I brought my own snacks. But my meal came in an aluminium foil tray with plastic cutlery, cup and a plastic water bottle. Individual muffins, cakes, crackers and other snacky things were all in plastic packaging. The headsets to use the in flight entertainment system were also wrapped in plastic.

Apparently there are around 93,000 commercial flights each day, and at any given moment, half a million people are in the air. That’s an awful lot of waste. shows you a display of the flights each day across the world.

We have been trying to cut down our flying time (it is a major CO2 emitter) but there is no other cheap and efficient waste of accessing Perth from where we live. We buy carbon offsets and just hope they are genuine.

Our world has become very reliant on single use plastic utensils, wrapping and containers. It is very reliant on single serves wrapped in plastic, and plastic packaging around our food and everyday items.

While cheap plastics have probably revolutionised various sectors such as medicine in a good way, by ensuring sterility and infection control, it is also true that commonly available plastic has encouraged the people of our planet to expect and indeed, demand, a culture of convenient and disposable plastic. Little or no thought is given to how many resources are needed to produce it, and to the damage it may cause when it is disposed of. We appear to be addicted to cheap, disposable, one-use plastic, and do not stop to think of the resources that went into making it. Many of us may not be aware that plastic takes literally hundreds of years to break down, and then it is into tiny particles that are almost indestructible. It is somewhat ironic that goods which are designed for one-off use and to be completely disposable are going to stay around in our environment for a very long time, wreaking havoc wherever they land in the sea or waterways or where animals mistake them for food.  Plastic needs to be regarded as the limited and indestructible material it really is, and it should be recycled as much as possible or disposed of carefully.

One good example of this is bottled water. According to the website of Cool Australia (, Australians spend over $500 million on bottled water annually. The website notes that:

It has to be pumped out of the ground, packaged, transported and chilled before it gets to us. This creates over 60,000 tons of greenhouses gases a year in Australia alone….the manufacture and transport of the plastic bottles for all this water requires over 460,000 barrels of oil. Less than 40% of these bottles are recycled; the balance ends up in landfill or in our waterways…the average Australian drinks 14 litres of bottled water per year [and] Australians buy 118,000 tonnes of plastic drink bottles a year. It takes 8 years to recoup the cost of a bottle of water by refilling the bottle with tap water.

When did we stop drinking water that was free in favour of expensive water in bottles? Why is it now OK to use something once and then throw it away – especially when logically it has to go ‘somewhere’? “Away” may be landfill, or it may be the bush, or roadside, or the sea. Either way, it has not disappeared, it has gone to a place where potentially it can cause even more harm to wildlife, marine life, and to the soil.

I must also just mention the now infamous great plastic garbage patch. According to Wikipedia, “the Great Pacific garbage patch is a gyre of marine debris particles in the central North Pacific Ocean located roughly between 135°W to 155°W and 35°N and 42°N. It extends over an large area, …and has exceptionally high relative concentrations of pelagic plastics, chemical sludge and other debris that have been trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre.” Discarded plastic waste from various parts of the world end up here, where it breaks down and is easily ingested by marine life and birds, leading to choking, starvation, and death.Plastic garbage is swimming on the water surface

Many people treat us as if we have moonstruck madness in our bid to live a live with far less plastic. Educating people about why this is indeed a good idea can be a complicated process.

Replacing one use plastic does have its challenges. When we travel, we carry stainless steel drinking bottles, use cornstarch coffee cups, and have a set of sandwich pockets which eliminates the need for plastic bags and cling wrap so we can eat our own food instead of take away.  We carry reusable glass straws with us to use for smoothies, ice coffees and milkshakes purchased as we move around for our work – and this has led to some quite interesting conversations when people are curious as to why we have glass straws. Glass-Dharma-SE-in-glass-LR-e1352174683892

We buy things in bulk from our health food shop, and make our own bread and biscuits to eliminate commercial plastic-wrapped biscuits, etc. We have replaced cling wrap in the kitchen with a stylish set of different sized “mob caps” for use in covering dishes in both fridge and microwave (from Our cats are feed fresh mince with appropriate nutritional additives, purchased in our own containers from the health food shop. We make our own toothpaste. I buy Lush’s solid shampoo and conditioner bars that come wrapped in recycled paper, and make my own washing detergent or use fair-trade soap nuts.

4MyEarth food covers.

Setting this up does take some time and money initially, and one does need to be very intentional about it. But we have very quickly got used to this way of life, and to using our various reusable containers. We also do find at times when we are travelling for work that avoiding disposable plastic all the time is not possible, and we accept that. We accept that we will be offered various plastic items by family and friends and co-workers, and we do not lecture them, as research has shown this is not going to change their minds.

Susan Freinkel in her book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, offers some observations about plastic use we that we should be taking seriously. Our world has apparently produced nearly as much plastic in the last ten years as for most of the last century. She notes that in the space of one generation, the average American has moved from consuming around 13kg of plastic a year to ten times that. In Australia, most of us use around half that amount.

Freinkel also notes that because of the amount of plastic in our society and our food chain, most of us are “just a little plastic now”. “Just as plastics changed the essential texture of modern life, so they are altering the basic chemistry of our bodies,” she says in her book.

It is nigh impossible to live what we understand to be a normal life in the Western world and avoid all plastic. Even if we avoid all packaged food and goods that come in plastic, for most of us there remains essential items we need for everyday life and work, such as telephones, plastic banking cards and electronic devices such as computers and tablets. I also require daily medication, and that is all packaged in plastic.

But we can be much more intentional about how much plastic we can accept in our lives. We can use reusable items such as steel water bottles, we can refuse to buy or accept one-use plastic items, we can write to manufactures and companies to request they use different packaging. We can rediscover the delights of making fresh homemade biscuits and bread. We can consciously commit to recycling our plastic waste. Though at times it seems like we are drowning in an endless array of convenient, plastic wrapped consumer goods, every plastic bag we refuse, every bottled drink we don’t buy, and every take away coffee we purchase in a reusable cup does make a difference.

Such individual actions do have power. They are a catalyst for changing our habits and our thinking. They help make us more aware of our environment, and of the resources required to sustain what is basically an unsustainable way of living. And larger entities are also taking up the challenge. The southern Highland town of Bundanoon has gone plastic bottle free ( Macquarie University in Sydney is working towards a plastic bottle-free campus ( ).

If you want more incentive, think of the money you will also save by not buying bottled water  or drink or lots of takeaway or convenience food.

It is important to remember that we can positively impact the future well-being of our planet. We can demonstrate responsible buying habits and dispose of our waste thoughtfully. And just maybe, we will cause a quiet reduced plastic revolution among our friends, family and work colleagues.

garbage patch bottle tops

Eating local and why we give thanks for the Black Duck Brewery

sustainability image 6 It is time to evaluate how we are travelling with some of our rules of the household. It is one thing to devise such things, and quite another to actually carry them out. We have found some easy, and we have compromised on others for a variety of reasons. Some, like achieving around 80% self sustainability in fruit and vegetables from our garden, is still a work in progress, especially as we are only just coming into spring now. But we will probably get there with this one, and we have plentiful green vegetables and root crops like sweet potato, Yukon and Jerusalem artichokes still available. Coupled with eggs from the household chickens, and the mountain of preserved citrus we have, we could conceivably feed ourselves a lean albeit monotonous meal once or twice daily.

The rule about purchasing food grown within 3 hours of where we live, with Fairtrade exceptions, has been challenging, though not outrageously so. We do continue to support our local farmers via our monthly markets & other local outlets. But we have found that we have persuaded to make some exceptions given the amount of produce we have grown. For example, we had a huge surfeit of citrus fruit. We squeezed it into juice, and decided to turn a lot of it into jam, cordial and marmalade. But that takes sugar. And we are not in the cane fields here in the mid north coast. Our original thought had been to replace sugar in our cooking with local honey. This is certainly possible for some things, but trickier with others, and quite expensive if one doesn’t own hives and one has the equivalent of a small mountain of citrus fruit. So given the several odd tonnes of oranges, mandarins, lemons and other citrusy odds and sods we had, we reverted to making jam with Bundaberg sugar, an Australian grown and processed (though not owned) product from sunny Queensland. The Australian ethical consumer guide gives it a grey tick. We have bartered it for other local produce, have given some away and have used many jars of the resulting jam, and have many still in the cupboard, so it seems like a fair deal. If we ever get our own honey bee hives (we only keep native bees), we will revisit the honey and jam-making scenario again.

The other big issue was grains, as we are not in the wheat or grain belt here in the mid north coast either. I had not really thought about how much our cooking relied on little bits of flour (or even big bits of flour) and rice and pasta. There was the option of turning paleo, but paleo cooking relies on some quite exotic ingredients, such as coconut oil and flour which seems to be in everything. We could have just cut grains out completely, but that meant a bread, biscuit, pancake and porridge free existence. To complicate things, I am a celiac. So we have decided to order a 12 kilo bag of Australian organic wheat flour for John, and I am making my own gluten-free flour using various Australian grains, seeds and legumes purchased in bulk (no packaging) from the local health food shop. We make our own breads, crackers and porridges from these, and are supporting small scale Australian organic farmers. It seems like a reasonable compromise, though it has given me moments of unease, as it wasn’t what I originally had in mind. But wimpy or not, I am not ready to give up grains and grasses. Surprisingly, we had previously discovered a small organic rice farm actually within the three hour zone. But the crop does not appear to be ready for sale this year, though I still have half a jar of it in the cupboard from last year. And if I want pasta, I am going to have to learn how to make it, not easy using gluten free flour. At the moment I am doing without.

Sticking to buying no packaged food or highly processed food has proved to be easier. Most packaged stuff we had bought originally was either gluten free stuff, like bread, yoghurt or cereals or porridges, or oil. We are either making our own or buying these in bulk from the health food shop. We are also making our own cat food, using fresh mince purchased locally from locally grown animals in containers supplied by us. Pets and sustainability is a whole other topic, which I will write about in another blog.

It should be clear that buying food in bulk in our own containers to avoid packaging has not been an issue for us. We are extremely fortunate to have an excellent health food shop here where we can do this, and the staff have been very obliging in looking up the place of origin for us of their various products. All their products are organic, but not all are Australian so one has to ask. I will talk about why we prefer to use food produced chemical-free in another blog. The owner also tries to source her fresh fruit and vegetables from local farmers, so mostly they are from within our three hour limit. We can’t avoid packaging on meat, which our beef and pig farmers are obliged to package in plastic in order to meet regulations for sale. While we aren’t looking to generate more plastic waste, this is a compromise we were prepared to make, as small organic free range farmers would soon be out of business without local support. We also support the local biodynamic cheese maker, who sells us wedges of Swiss cut from large wheels, and which he wraps in paper. When he is waiting for his cheeses to mature, there is a local cheese factory, though their cheeses come wrapped in plastic – to the great disgust of the biodynamic cheese man, who says no cheese should ever be subjected to plastic as it needs to breathe.

One unexpected piece of pain for John was dried fruit, which he is very fond of. He has run out of raisins, sultanas and currants. None of these are local, and the organic raisins at the health food shop were from Argentina. So no dried fruit for John on this occasion. This week though, they got in some Queensland ginger from a small farm, and I relented and we got that. We then also added some recently arrived apricots from a small organic South Australian farm that the proprietor waved at us with the assurance the famers needed the support of people like us to make a living. Well, it sounded like a noble cause at the time. We are rationing them as small delicious snacks. And also fortunately for John, the local macadamia farm makes macadamia butter. So his predilection for peanut butter at least has a worthy substitute. It does however, come packaged in plastic. So there is always a catch.

The other unnecessary food (or beverage) item in our house was beer. The original idea was John was going to brew his own, and he has a brewing kit and some different brews to make. He never quite got there, but discovered the Black Duck micro brewery in Port Macquarie, which has around eight different beers. When we visit the doctor or go for meetings in Port, we have been known to drop by the Black Duck brewery with our boxes which the owner fills with various beers in exchange for filthy lucre. We can recycle the bottles and lids.

It has also been easy to support Fairtrade products, which aim to raise poor communities out of poverty. We buy limited purchases of coffee, coconut products, and tea. Coffee is actually grown at the top of our three hour region, so we can also buy that here in the health food shop. We also buy fair-trade castile soap, which is one of our stock standard cleaning products.

So far the exercise has raised serious questions for us as to what we are prepared to do without. In Australia, most of us are used to a very varied diet, much of which is not essential for life. While all of the stuff we eat is seasonable and Australia, we have easily found what look like reasons to break our three hour limit for food. While we might be supporting a small organic South Australian fruit grower, are we actually demonstrating local community resilience traits by eating their fruit? And on the issue of beer, it is hardly essential to life, and the grains used in its production could presumably be used for food. It is though, an ancient tradition, originating in ancient Egypt where they apparently brewed a variety of excellent beers. Along with wine (which I am very allergic to) it features in communal celebrations and is part of human conviviality and hospitality. Does that make it OK then, to drink the local brewer’s beer, knowing that he probably used non local barley, malt, hops and some imported stuff to make the product?

I am still pondering these questions. I feel like I haven’t really been prepared to grasp the full extent of this project yet. How much am I really prepared to forego for the good of the planet? How much should I support local food growers in spite of the required plastic packaging? How are we navigate the complexities of modern life that we have grown used to, and that we take for granted, yet live more sustainably and simply? I haven’t really arrived at many good and definitive answers yet, with what should be a challenge for all of us. But we hope to try and keep minimising our impact so that those who come after us may also enjoy a similar world to the one we currently have.


When 70,000 kms is apparently closer than my backyard: foodmiles 101


The phrase “food miles” has been bandied around a lot over the last 15 years or so. I had no idea of the type of fierce debate this concept has apparently raised. It just seemed like common sense to me, to support local food production and keep carbon emission used to store and transport food as low as possible.

According to various articles I have read, the “food miles” campaign has not gained a lot of traction in Australia. It has been labelled simplistic, protectionist and even anti-free trade.  It is “successfully rooted in a blind ideology about man’s contribution to global warming – a popular obsession” according to Australia’s Institute of Public Affairs. Food miles is nothing short of a greenie plot to stop economic growth, it would seem.

Two other considerations are what impact low “food miles” would have on third world economies and populations looking to raise themselves out of poverty by exporting food, and how  they would effect the worth of Australia’s international exports.

A study done of New Zealand lamb has become famous for showing that there is four times less CO2 emissions created by a NZ grown lamb than a lamb grown in the UK. Apples and onions produced in the UK were produced in hothouses heated by electricity, which also increased CO2 emissions at the production stage of the product.

As the average basket of food purchased by Australians has travelled over 70,000 kilometres before it gets to the local supermarket, I find it difficult to believe that food miles are not a significant contributor to greenhouse gases.

I understand that food takes energy and water to produce. CO2 emissions are produced at every stage of the food life cycle, from planting seeds to harvesting to processing to storage and to the place of sale.  But surely one of the issues of ‘food miles’ is not only should it be reasonably local, but also seasonal. It is pointless demanding tomatoes in the dead of winter that require hothouse production, even of they are local. The UK’s Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs has not unsurprisingly found that it is more energy-efficient to import tomatoes by road than growing them in a hothouse. It is simple. People: if they are not in season, don’t eat them.

Of course, eating seasonal, local food means one’s eating choices are restricted to fruits and vegetables in season. Well, how dreadful. Fancy us in the Western world having to eat what is seasonal and come in line with the majority of the world’s population! We seem to think we have the right to eat tomatoes and apples and pineapples all year round. Why?

There are other arguments made against sticking to local food production which are many and varied and not all are created equal. One is that local food costs more, making fresh fruit and vegetables too expensive for some people.  I find this mildly astonishing. I buy from our local farmers’ market, and the plant produce there is cheaper than the supermarkets. The farmers bring the stuff there themselves, and sell it at stalls with low overheads. It is seasonal, grown locally, much of it is organic, and it is cheap. I don’t get how this is possibly creating more emissions.

The claim that sticking to local food can damage economies of developing countries which rely on food exports is a fair criticism. In our six month experiment, we agreed we would still use certain fair-trade products for this very reason.

As for the claim that low ‘food miles’ is a ruse to justify protectionism, I treat that with the contempt it deserves. I hadn’t even thought about it until I researched this. My understanding is that it makes local economies more resilient by protecting small farms, local jobs and local shops. I am not a fan of large corporations planting large monocultures, such as we see with canola. My understanding is that biodiversity is a much better protection against drought, pestilence, disease and locusts. Surely we don’t want the equivalent of the Irish potato famine again.

I have read any arguments against keeping food miles low which look at this particular problem. Many small holdings have been forced to sell  and their properties have been amalgamated into increasing large farms, increasing run by large corporations who not only control the growing of the crop, but also the storage, transport, processing and retail of products. Increasingly, food security appears to rest in the hands of large corporations.

Even growing our vegetables and fruit comes in for a serve.  A CSIRO expert claimed that “even home-grown vegetables, with ”zero food miles”, do not necessarily have a smaller carbon footprint than those bought in the supermarket. “With my veggies, I drive to Bunnings to buy fertiliser, and I go away for the weekend and forget to water them, and in the end I only harvest a few things that I can actually eat. By contrast, big producers, who can invest in the latest energy-efficient, water-efficient technology, and make use of all the parts of food, can be much more efficient,”’ he says.

Are you serious, Mister Expert?  Are you really saying that driving to the nursery and back with some seedlings and soil equals the emissions of thousands of miles of food being trucked? Oh, please. And what I don’t eat, my worms or chooks do. So nothing is wasted here either. And I use rainwater that is captured free off our roof, which costs nothing. I can’t believe that you think my garden may emit more CO2.

We are now in an era where easily accessible fossil fuels are over. As oil becomes scarcer, local production of food is going to become a necessity, not a luxury. Communities need to become more self reliant in a number of ways.

Maybe the concept of ‘food miles’ is overly simplistic – but increased local food production is going to be the reality in the future. The real  question may therefore be whether we are forced to adopt that course out of desperation, or whether we plan for and embrace the reality of global warming and diminishing oil. 

Sustainable-Food-WordsI have long been interested in food. I like watching shows like Masterchef and Heston Blumenthal, and I used to read recipe books like novels. I enjoyed cooking up a storm with a variety of ingredients. But somewhere in the early noughties things began to look different. I grew concerned that farmers in Australia apparently could not sell their oranges, yet there was a clear demand for orange juice. It was being met by importing it from overseas. It didn’t make sense. I started to notice that fruit and vegetables in various greengrocers was from countries far away. There were debates raging about whether pesticides were ‘safe’, and whether organic produce was better. Despite this, I was still fairly oblivious to things like sustainability, and why organic really is better.

Things didn’t really change until I got energised enough to start growing food. As usual, I decided to read up about this, swapping cookbooks for gardening books. Inspired by the no-dig gardening method, we ordered raised beds (still something of a novelty at this time) and planted green leafy things, tomatoes, and zucchinis. We bought a fruit salad tree with nectarines, peaches and plums on it at the ABC Gardening Expo. I received a subscription to Organic Gardener magazine, and joined the Diggers Club. By this time, I had become a full convert to the sustainability cause.

Where food comes from, how it is grown or produced, and how this impacts ultimately on our communities has become a prominent consideration for those who wish to eat ethically and reduce the stress on our planet’s resources.

Many consumers now want to know where their food comes from, and the impact that it has had in both the developing and developed world. Stories of children working as slaves in cocoa farms, of tea pickers being poorly paid, of workers in terrible conditions churning out processed food in factories in China, and with the habitat of creatures like the orang-utan being threatened with destruction due to our appetite for palm oil, it was becoming clear not all food was created equal. The consumption of food in the Western world was having negative impacts on humans and beasts alike.

As understanding of climate change grows, many of us also want to reduce our carbon footprint and tread as lightly as possible on our fragile planet. What we choose to eat is a very basic decision, yet it has huge implications – for the sustainability of species, for the quality of the environment, for both human and animal rights and for the world’s climate. If we take the time to scrutinise what we put on our  table and where it comes from, it becomes clear that not all food is equal.

I was also increasingly concerned about eating animals and animal produce. I was a vegetarian for a while, and having read up in veganism, I decided that was beyond my abilities and lifestyle to manage. I instead found the Free Range Butcher in Sydney. His shop had four signs, which I have produced below.

Provenance (the place of origin)

Traceability (the ability to follow the history of something)

Sustainability (the capacity to continue operating perpetually by avoiding adverse effects on the natural environment and depletion of natural resources)

Ethical (a food produced under conditions which do not involve mistreatment of people or animals, or misuse of the environment)

I was very struck by these signs, enough to write them down. I hadn’t thought before of just how important it was to know the history of our food. Did I really know what had happened to that chicken or lamb chop on its journey from paddock to plate? How was the animal treated? Where was that vegetable harvested? Was it sprayed? How far did it travel from its source to arrive in my kitchen as dinner?

I looked up sustainability. I learnt that sustainable sourcing ensures there is only a limited negative impact on the source communities that produce the food and their ecosystems. Growing food sustainably means it can be supported environmentally in the long term. I also discovered it meant that we should eat food produced locally and food in season, in order to limit food miles, forced ripening, hothouse production and genetically engineered crops.

On average, apparently, food travels between 1,500 to 2,500 miles (4,000 km) every time that it is delivered to the consumer. This seems like an awful long way to me, but I have discovered that food miles are as hotly debated as climate science. Mental note to self to come back to this topic.

‘Ethical’ added a further dimension. I learnt that we should not purchase food that is produced to the detriment of indigenous and local communities, or to the animals involved in food production. I also decided to add not supporting large monolithic food chains to the ‘ethical’ list. The Colesworth duopoly in Australia routinely crushes local producers, they insist on hybrid, long life produce, and they also fly food many miles around the world. When we used to shop at Colesworth, despite both of them claiming their fresh food was really fresh, I found, for example, green veg wilted and sogged within 2 days of purchase, sometimes sooner. If nothing else, ‘food miles’ to me means ‘less than fresh produce’. It stayed crisp long enough to beguile the consumer into buying it, then immediately wilted on arrival home as an act of protest against its removal from the supermarket shelves. Within two weeks I gave up, as it was a complete waste of money unless I was eating it that day.

By contrast, tomatoes remained firm enough to play cricket with. Pale, hard and pretty tasteless, they were bred presumably to withstand trucking and cold storage. Once we had discovered home grown black krims, that ended our relationship with the supermarket tomato. Seriously, I would rather not eat a tomato if the only choice I have is a supermarket one.

There is also the matter of how workers who grow and pick the produce are treated, what chemicals are used, and whether the environment is being affected adversely. And I would rather not eat eggs or chicken or bacon if the animals are caged or confined.

It is a sad truth that in our modern, civilised world, we have changed natural farming practice to intensive farming practice, we have allowed synthetic created chemicals to poison our air and our waterways, we have destroyed natural habitats so animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, indigenous peoples have been driven off their land to satisfy large corporations requiring mono crops, and we have allowed the over-fishing of many species. With the increase of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels, we have changed the climate of our planet, threatening the homelands of many. Greed has enabled giant business corporations to turn food into an industry that threatens the home of indigenous peoples, the holdings of smaller primary producers, and the health of many nations.

So right now and throughout our lifetime, the reasons to live sustainably are good ones. Climate change, energy costs and problems of supply, personal happiness and contentedness, species extinction, disastrous environmental destruction, our family’s health and safety, adaptability, food and water supply issues, waste, a fair go for those who grow our food … the reasons are many, and I am sure you could no doubt add several more to this list.

Our lifestyle is the one thing over which we have some control, and the choices we make can affect the lifestyle of others. If we all lived sustainably, our world and our future would hopefu.lly be assured.