From the time I was going through my fragile adolescent age, when everyone’s opinions were more important than my own, up until today where I can defend my ways with ‘logical’ arguments through permaculture, I’m often accused of being a non-conformist. These days, this is a compliment!
I always thought we only need to have a few pairs of shoes and wear them until they fall apart. And then wear someone else’s shoes because she was simply bored with them even though they had at least 2 years of life in them. This always labeled me as ‘out of fashion’ and of course a ‘tightarse’. Or reusing paper for my notes, that’s already typed or written on one side. ‘Get a fresh piece of paper’, they would tell me. ‘But I’m only gonna use it to write a list and then I’m gonna throw it out, why should I waste a new piece of paper?’. My desk has more scrap paper than any other type of paper, from old lecture notes, ballot papers and children’s drawings. Actually, my favourite use for my friends’ children’s drawings is to make seed envelopes. They need no sticky tape, no staples – see end of article for instructions!
I’m also a vegetarian. In Australia, this is normal. In Greece, where I’ve been living for the past nearly 7 years, ‘Oh you’re a vegetarian’ is accompanied by a look of horror that I may have received if I announced I suffer from leprosy.
‘What’s wrong?’, they’ll ask.
What’s wrong is that we’re so concerned with being part of the crowd, that we can’t even see that there’s another way of viewing the world…that the way the majority think and act on an everyday basis is consuming our resources at a rate way faster than they are produced and that there may be a better way.
In other words, through our endless need to be in fashion with new things, to use ‘fresh’ paper, to eat meat daily, we don’t think at all about the effects that our every action has on our planet and on its resources. We are so busy with our self-destruction, that we haven’t even noticed!
Fortunately, there is a way for all of us to know, understand and compare our effect (footprint) on the planet…
The ecological footprint is a measure of a person, town, city, or nation’s use of resources. It measures use of energy, water, food, clothing, housing materials and transport. Each of these is calculated and given in hectares. There is now no excuse for not knowing what we cost the Earth, and because our footprint is measurable we can also reduce it. To reduce our ecological footprint is one of the goals of permaculture design.
Anyone can measure their footprint. Schoolchildren now regularly calculate theirs. For a fair and equitable use of Earth’s resources, each person requires a 2.5-hectare footprint to meet all their needs and sustain the processes of nature that make life possible. At the moment, Australians have a 7.6-hectare footprint. At this rate we require three Earths to continue to meet all our needs. The larger your footprint, the more of the Earth’s resources you use. For example, a child scavenging a dump in Mumbai has almost no footprint, whereas children in Amsterdam can have a footprint of 9 hectares. On average, the Dutch have a footprint of about 7 hectares. The world cannot afford this degree of consumption. It means that many nations send out and raid resources from all around the world, for oil, timber, heating, foodstuffs and clothing. A country like Afghanistan Ecology: life’s networks has a tiny footprint because it produces almost everything its population uses. The people build their own houses, grow most of their own food, use little transport and so do not contribute to reducing non-renewable resources. There is also little pollution or overloading of ecosystems. They are much nearer to being a closed system than most countries are. Look at the website www.myfootprint.com and calculate your footprint. Then, after practising permaculture for a year, measure it again and you will find your footprint is reduced. You start by reducing your largest ‘toe’ or factor. If it is water then start there; if it is transport then reduce that.
The concept of ‘food miles’ is used for reducing your footprint for food. Food miles are a measure of how far your food travels and, consequently, of the resources used for it to get to you. We need to know the food miles of everything we eat.
A third important ecological measure is harder to find out but has been calculated for some products. This is the ‘lifecycle cost’, or the cradle-to-grave cost, of any product. Most often this is measured in terms of how much energy is required to:
• source the raw materials
• manufacture the product
• package, transport and market it
• dispose of it when discarded or useless.
This is usually referred to as the embedded energy cost. However, it can also be calculated in other ways. For example, every litre of bottled drinking water takes 200 litres of water to produce. This is its cradle-to-grave cost, or the real cost of finding water, piping it, cleaning it, making bottles, transporting them, packaging them and then tossing away the bottles and their effect on climate change. The cradle-to-grave cost of a pencil is 30 per cent of that of a ballpoint pen. A staple has a greater cost than a paperclip because the paperclip is reused many times. Every product has a cradle-to-grave cost. Any product with more packaging than an equivalent product has a greater cost. Always choose the product with the lower cost and boycott the other one.*
*(Excerpt from ‘earth user’s guide to permaculture’ by Rosemary Morrow)
There are a myriad ways to reduce our ecological footprint. Here are some of the things I do on a daily basis and that you can safely try at home!
• Start by reviewing your definition of wealth: is it really all the stuff, or could it be clean food, water and air, great friends, a home made out of natural materials, home-made stuff, reusing materials, love and community?
• Compost all the organic waste from your kitchen – if I’m on land, I compost on the ground, if I’m in an apartment, I use pots (Layer 1: old soil, layer 2: shredded cardboard, layer 3: organic waste. Cover with soil and cardboard. Repeat until pot is full).
• My favourite pets are compost worms! Wherever I am, I carry my vermi-compost bin, which I’ve made myself out of salvaged bins!
• Cultivate as much of your food as possible, using the compost you’ve made.
• Collect and eat wild edible greens and fruit at every chance you get!
• Dry/conserve surplus produce, eg sundried tomatoes, tomato paste, pickles, etc.
• Reduce your meat consumption (I’ve been a vegetarian for 5 years and I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been, but it may not be for everybody).
• 90% of my clothes and shoes are used, which are normally donated by or swapped with others. It’s my favourite way to shop!
• My computer is second-hand, my mobile phone is donated.
• My bills (actually I only have a mobile phone bill) are only sent via email.
• I use my legs to walk, I travel by bike or bus or share rides (car-pooling). I am more conscious about my flights.
• Serviettes – if they’re already on the table and they are the ‘luxury’ 10-ply kind, I will cut it into pieces and each piece will have at least 3 uses:
• I make my own eco-cleaning and beauty products (vinegar is a great disinfectant, baking soda is great for salts, make my own oils, etc)
• When I wash the dishes, my hands, my body and brush my teeth, I keep the water and use it to flush the toilet, instead of flushing. If it doesn’t have soaps, I water the plants with it. If I’m on a farm, they go through grey-water filtering systems and water the garden.
• If I’m at the farm, I use compost toilets or dig a hole.
• Collect rainwater.
• Refill your bottle instead of buying it in plastic.
• Reuse paper, plastics, glass jars for just about everything. Sometimes I ask the taverns here to keep small glass bottles (from tsipouro) for oils, etc.
• Collect materials from the rubbish or recycling bins and upcycle into useful objects (eg drawers for planting lettuces, doors as tables, etc)
• Wherever possible, I buy local, seasonal and organic produce in bulk, either re-using plastic bags or taking my fabric one with me.
• Make useful gifts instead of buying useless crap.
• Reduce internet usage as much as possible.
• Strike collaborations instead of doing everything on your own.
• For those who buy take-out coffee: take your own cup/mug for the earth’s sake!!!
• I don’t drink coffee, alcohol nor smoke.
• Plant trees.
I may be the consumerist society’s worst nightmare, but I’m the planet’s best friend. My ecological footprint is very low (0.2 hectares) and my conscience is clear! If everybody consumed at my rate, we would need 10% of the planet to cover our needs. The other 90% would be free for nature to do what it does best: keep us alive!
As we apply permaculture, it’s a good idea to measure our footprint after time, to see if we’ve managed to reduce it. It’s a good exercise in order to help us realise that many of our actions are costing the earth. If the earth suffers, we will too, because every action (such as throwing rubbish, even if it’s in the bin) has an equal and opposite reaction (such as swimming amongst it). This year, the greek beaches and seas were noticeably more full of rubbish…to the point of disgust.
Unless, of course, we want to make ourselves extinct! Just make sure we’re holding the latest smartphone in our hand, whilst wearing the latest fashion, stuffing a big piece of pork into our mouths, wiping ourselves with a gazillion-ply luxury serviette and washing it down with water from a plastic bottle. Now take a selfie!
Our lives can be better, so let’s start where we are, use what we have, do what we can!