Today is International Volunteers Day, apparently. There’s a day or a week or a month for everything, it seems, but volunteering is a good thing to stop and think about now and again. Volunteering – donating our knowledge, labour or skills for free – is a powerful way of creating the kind of future we’d like to see.
I’m volunteering on a big scale, spending a year working to help to develop skills and capacity in the team that tried to balance the social and economic needs for development with the protection of Peru’s network of incredible national parks and reserves. It’s a privilege to be doing what I’m doing, to have the opportunity to experience another country and culture, using my skills to help accomplish things that I’m passionate about. I’m incredibly lucky to have the opportunity, to have found myself at a place in life where I could just pack up and go, to be able to afford to spend an entire year away without a real income. How fortunate I am to have the chance to try to change things (and how bizarre it feels to find myself the ‘expert’ in anything).
You don’t have to do something as big and crazy as I’m doing to change things though. In fact it’s often the local, community efforts that make the biggest impacts and really change the way we live. Volunteering at home, as much as abroad, gives us the ability to touch other people’s lives and contribute towards the world we want to live in. When if comes to building a sustainable, communal, joyful future, volunteering our time and effort is one of the the most powerful things we can do.
Through voluntary efforts we can fill gaps in public services, ameliorating the worst impacts of inevitable shortfalls in government funding and capacity. Through volunteering we can take actions to support our beliefs and keep things moving in the direction we value, even when the government may have different ideas. Volunteers bring our communities together and help us become more in collective than we are on our own.
On a personal level, volunteering can be very rewarding. It allows us a chance to put our values into action, to connect with others who share a vision, to feel like we’re making a meaningful contribution to our community or to the planet. It lets us build new skills and try out our ideas outside of a traditional work environment. It provides opportunities to test new ways of working and thinking and to experiment a little. Altruistic collective action can be a powerful antidote to the individualistic consumption our culture promotes. Research suggests that getting our volunteerism on makes us happier, more socially-connected people who live longer lives.
It seems that in giving for nothing we actually receive. Certainly my year here in Lima will teach me much more than what I’ll leave behind. My life will be forever changed and new doors opened in exchange for some guidelines and improved protocols (it hardly seems fair, really…).
If you’re interested in the whole overseas volunteering thing there’s heap of different programs, from unskilled pay-to-go roles through to the kind of professional placement I’m in. You can give your time for a few days or weeks as part of broader travel, like I did with my orphanage garden work last trip, or you can make the project the whole point of the trip, as I’m doing now.
Closer to home there’s all sorts of ways you can get involved in building a better future. There’s fantastic community-based environmental programs like Landcare and Waterwatch (and their equivalents outside of Aus) that support volunteers to make real environmental changes. There are groups like Extra Hands that coordinate tree planting or clean-up days. If people are more your thing there are programs that help others get outdoors and learn about the environment, like WildCare’s migrant outreach program, or you can help out in a local school or museum or community garden.
If you’re better with animals than people and have the time to spare, it’s rather rewarding to be wildlife carer (though your sleep may suffer with wee ones I suspect the cuteness makes up for it). Less demanding but still rewarding is helping out at an animal shelter (as an ex RSPCA dog-walker I can confirm that payment in puppy cuddles is all kinds of awesome).
If you’ve got great business skills these too can be donated. Committees of community and volunteer organisations will always welcome a savvy treasurer or well-networked publicity officer. Musicians can donate performance time to raise funds for things they believe in, or raise the moral of others engaged in hard slog. Domestic gods and goddesses can bake and cook things to sell for profit or feed those in need (like many of us in Hobart did to feed the fire-fighters at the start of the year). Gardeners can donate surplus produce where it’s needed.
There’s plenty of unofficial volunteering too: simple things like helping out our friends and neighbours, sharing equipment, time or skills. Checking in on elderly friends, walking the neighbour’s dogs, mowing someone’s lawn (thank you Marcus for the many times you did this for me). For me there was the connections made the season I volunteered to help coach and manage a girl’s soccer team, and the friends made over a hot BBQ when I helped out friends run a stall at the Sustainable Living Festival as well as all the little things that tied my neighbourhood together. These simple acts help to connect us with each other and build a real sense of community. It’s a way to shape and change the place you live in and get to know others who value the same things.
You don’t have to be in a privileged position like me to get out there and make a difference. Use the opportunities you have to make a difference in your own backyard, in the community to make your home in, where you get to enjoy all the associated benefits, both of contributing to something you believe in and receiving the benefits of positive change in your neighbourhood.
And of course if you are thinking about the whole overseas volunteering thing, why not see what sorts of programs can use your skills? Within Aus there’s AYAD, AVI, AVID, ABV and the Red Cross, all involved in established aid and development programs, and internationally there’s groups like Doctors and Engineers Without Borders as well as a heap of great NGO programs in pretty much every place imaginable (like the CREES scientific volunteer program here in the Peruvian Amazon). Of course there are some dodgy “volunteer tourism” organisations too, so do your homework and take the time to see if there’s something that feels right for you.
It’s International Volunteer Day, which seems to me as good a day as any to think about how each of us can help create the kind of world we want to live in. And if that just happens to include a year in Peru, well really who could complain?
Way back in the dimly-recalled shadows of the 1990′s an inescapable pop song called “Waterfalls” burrowed its way into my brain. Don’t go chasing waterfalls - implored the lyrics – please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to. My teenaged self took a serious disliking to this exhortation to play life safe: chasing waterfalls sounded like a much better plan. The song is barely remembered now, but the idea stuck so fast that I still think of following big, bold and slightly crazy dreams as “chasing waterfalls”, and lately that’s just what I’ve been doing.
If you thought perhaps I’d fallen silent because I’d had an attack of good sense and spent the winter relaxing and catching up on sleep, well you mustn’t know me very well. That may have been the sensible path, but this is *me* we’re talking about and if I’m not busy challenging myself and trying to do too many things at once I don’t feel quite properly alive. I’m curious, inquisitive and have a tendency to wander off poking at things that catch my attention.
For the last year or so South America has been a source of inspiration and fascination, particularly the mix of complex sustainability issues and welcoming culture I found in Peru. I came back from my last trip in April with a head full of ideas but no clue as to how to make them reality, so I did what I always do when I lack sufficient data and threw myself into learning how exactly one goes about trying to support sustainability management in a developing country on the other side of the world.
Weekends were spent reading research papers and NGO reports to understand the issues and governance frameworks. Free evenings were swiftly occupied by Google searches for programs and companies doing the sorts of work I was interested in. I enrolled in Spanish classes. I talked to my boss about opportunities for sabbatical leave and worked out how to go about packing up my life to follow a dream. I was all in.
I leapt, and as so often happens when you’re on the right path and making the right choices for all the right reasons, I found my wings on the way down. I have a job, for a year, in Peru, doing sustainability-shaped things!
I’m going to be light on the details to make sure I stay on the safe side of the code of conduct I’ve signed with its strict conditions for social media mentions, but what I can tell you is this:
- It’s a volunteering but with living expensed covered type of gig;
- I’ll be embedded with a Peruvian host organisation, the only foreigner working as part of a small team;
- I’ll be based in Lima and working in a Spanish-speaking environment, which is wonderful and terrifying in almost equal parts;
- I’ll be helping to develop environmental management processes and protocols for sustainable natural resource management for protected areas; and
- I may be lucky enough to visit and work in some of the most biologically diverse places on earth!
I am wonderfully, joyfully excited about it all, and just a little nervous and apprehensive too. Most of all, however, I am busy as I sort out my life and get ready to go.
I’ve got projects to finish at work, and I’m wanting to leave on a high note (especially since they’re letting me come back again) There’s background reading to make sure I’m informed and Spanish study to do, plus epic amounts of paperwork, medical and logistical planning to work through (I’m immune to rabies as of today, which feels like quite an exotic thing to be). There’s the huge job of sifting through my possessions and sorting out what to store, share or sell and still all the inescapable day-to-day work of running my very lovely but rather busy life.
Yes, I’m still harvesting veggies from the backyard (so much broccoli) and cooking myself proper food, still shopping at the market and the local grocer, still cutting more and more plastic out of my life, but I will admit that I catch the bus a little more often than I used to, and drive the car a tiny bit more to save time where I can. I’m not getting as much good sleep and rest as my body tells me I’m needing, and I’m not getting out bush-walking anywhere near enough. Sometimes I really can’t do everything I want to do, no matter how determined or stubborn I am, but I’m still doing ok. I’m still acting in ways that agree with my values, and I’m happy that even when going through such a big upheaval almost all the good changes I’ve made are being maintained. Certainly my learning to do without “stuff” is paying off in spades as I have so much less to pack and store than I did a few years ago: moving 4 times in 5 years really clarifies what you do and don’t need!
What good is material stuff, anyway, when you’re off chasing waterfalls?
Adventure called and I answered. I’m off just next month for a year of finding out what I’m really made of, trying to make a meaningful difference to this crazy, beautiful world. A year volunteering in sustainability management in Peru: that’s the shape of things to come!
I’ve been working on a serious post on seed legislation, GM crops and sustainability, but it’s going to take me a little longer to finish. I’m struggling to find time to research the issue thoroughly and I really want to make sure I’m properly informed. In the meantime, here’s something I wrote a little while ago and didn’t get around to posting. Hopefully I’ll have some science-based content ready for you soon! T.
Recently I realised, really properly realised, that my life is completely dependent on modern technological society.
It’s something I’ve been aware of, to some extent, but it’s only now that it’s really clicked how total that dependency is. I’m not talking the small stuff, like how I derive my income, clothe myself and support my lifestyle. I’m not talking about the medium stuff, like my dependence on modern agriculture, transport, water and sanitation systems. Yes, if those systems collapsed right now I’d be in a lot of strife. Our society would fail and life would be extremely different and difficult, but it wouldn’t kill me. The loss of modern medicine? That would.
I am medication-dependent. I have no thyroid gland. We killed mine, modern medicine and I, bombarding it with radiation until my ability to regulate my own metabolism was no more. There was nothing wrong with my thyroid, per se. We killed it because we couldn’t find a way to stop my immune system from attacking it, and with a rogue immune response on the rampage I was pretty sick and would eventually get terminally so or go into thyroid burn-out anyway.
I am medication-dependent. My life depends on the technological-industrial machine. Somewhere they make synthetic thyroid hormone, press it into tablets and pack it into blister-packs of 100 doses. From that somewhere they ship it great distances to my local pharmacy, where it finds its way to me. They need to be refrigerated, my little life pills, as the hormone starts breaking down after two weeks at ambient temperatures.
I am medication-dependent. I need access to a doctor who understands my ailment. I need routine blood tests to confirm my synthetic dose. I need international freight, aluminium blister packaging and refrigeration just to survive. That means I need the mining, mineral processing, manufacturing, petroleum, transport, refrigeration, pharmaceutical and health-care industries so that I can stay alive. I am completely dependent on the system, and that’s a very sobering thought indeed.
If I go off-grid, I get sick and I die.
How many of us are there? Every person with a thyroid condition, with insulin-dependent diabetes, with rheumatoid arthritis or one of hundreds of other non-terminal-if-treated conditions. Millions of us, all dependent on the technological-industrial complex to keep our bodies functioning, to stay alive.
Today I was seriously thinking about my future, about where I want to go, what I want to do with this one precious shot at life. I want to change the world, but at the same time I have to live within it. I could choose to reject this modern technological society, to live outside it, truly sustainably and free, but to do so would, ironically, be choosing to die.
A grim choice, indeed, but one I’m lucky to even be able to make because I had the good fortune to be born here, in the turn-of-the-century developed world. I got sick and modern medicine took care of me. For how many others is there no choice at all? No access to the life-saving interventions and drugs we rarely stop to consider? It’s making me stop and really think about what a human life is worth versus the value of our planet and the ecosystems that support the whole 7 billion (and rising) of us. Is it justified, this environmentally-costly medical intervention? I’m certainly very happy to be alive and in good health, and being aware of just how tenuous good health can be, has driven me to make the most of the time I have here, to try to leave the world in a better state, but is my life really worth it? Am I worth the sum of my impacts? Is caring for the sick environmentally sound?
Whatever the answers, I know I’m incredibly privileged to be here, to have the machine on my side. I’m forever grateful to my doctors and for everything that goes into these little white pills that keep me alive. I can’t opt out of the machine now, my life is tied to it, but I can choose what I do with this life. I’m lucky to be here, the least I can do is try to make the world a better place, not just for me, but for everyone.
This is going to be a far shorter post than I want it to be. I want to do my research and give you the numbers but I don’t have the time. I leave the country in just a few days, and writing for the blog has kept falling off my “must get done” list. I’m sorry. I’m not going to do these guys justice, and I’m going to fall silent again. Life is short and I’m busy living it, but I have so much I want to say. So, on with it!
I’ve written before about unusual and heirloom vegetables and the importance of maintaining a diversity of seed to enable us to grow crops that best suit our local conditions, that provide the quality or yield of food we seek and provide a rich genetic pool to draw on into the future. Crop diversity helps us to make best use of the land and resources we have, and to adapt to changing conditions as the climate shifts. Protecting plant diversity is important work, and seed banks around the world are contributing to it. It’s not only plant diversity that matters though: if we’re going to feed and clothe ourselves as best as we can, agricultural animal diversity matters just as much. Rare breed beasties need loving too.
Farming systems have become industrialised and standardised across much of the world. Just like crops, the animal breeds most commonly grown are those that give the greatest yield per unit cost, with little consideration given to animal health and welfare, suitability for conditions, environmental impacts, disease resistance or even quality of flavour. Much like supermarket tomatoes, many farmers are growing flavourless meat. For instance, a modern meat chicken takes as little as 30 days to raise from egg to plate1. From nothing to roast dinner in a month? That’s crazy selective breeding for yield and little else.
You may shrug and think that a pig-is-a-pig-is-a-pig, but as such farming practices spread and traditional livestock breeds are replaced by the fast-growing, so much genetic heritage, so much biodiversity, is lost. Along with that we’re losing cultural heritage: breeds that are markers of places or peoples, farming practices that are tied deeply to ways of life. All that is gone, left to fading memories, as heritage porkers are replaced by Large Whites2.
That’s the serious side of things – lost diversity, resilience and heritage – but we’re also losing flavour. Industrialised farming doesn’t grow for best taste. The aim is not the highest quality, merely consistency at a low market price. Does taste matter? Not to everyone, not to those on tight budgets, but to you and me? Sure does! One taste of proper free-range piggy ham from a breed grown for taste convinced me enough that I had to try the bacon, then the chorizo, just to be sure… I didn’t know pork could taste so good!
Lucky for me I live somewhere where I can buy free-range raised, rare breed meats. I can do this because where I live there are farmers who are passionate about rearing rare breeds and keeping all that heritage alive. Farmers who put animal welfare, product quality and taste above maximising products and have worked hard to build up enough of a market that they can grow businesses outside the cut-price supermarket paradigm. And yeah, I’m lucky that I’m in a position where I can choose to support them: I don’t eat much meat, but what I do eat, I can afford to source from these types of farmers. These farmers, who have become people I know.
Let me introduce you to two of them: Guy and Eliza from Mount Gnomon Farm. These are the folk who awakened me to the true beauty of bacon, grown from their drove of Wessex Saddleback pigs. They are fierce supporters of preserving rare breeds and choose their livestock based on an ethos of preserving rarity, suitability to farm conditions, animal well-being and quality of flavour. They are also truly lovely people, and last year I was lucky enough to visit them on the farm and see their passion in action. It’s a beautiful spot on the edge of the Dial Ranges in northern Tasmania, all green grass, red soil and dramatic sky. I’m very glad I had the chance to visit, to meet my meat and learn about the challenges and rewards of free-range rare-breed farming.
It was an inspiring trip for this sustainable eater, and one that you too can make if you’re going to be in Tasmania this weekend. You see, Guy and Eliza are so dedicated to what they do that this weekend they’re opening up the farm to the public to share their passion and show anyone who wants to know how their meat is raised. This Sunday (March 24th) they’re inviting you to a Rare Day Out at Mount Gnomon Farm.
You can visit the farm, get up close and personal with the animals, see what they’re doing to protect the soils and support on-farm diversity and even sample the very tasty meats their animals become. If you’re interested in heritage breeds or free-range farming, or just getting to know a little bit more about where your food comes from, I highly recommend you go along and check it out, and while you’re there, give Cyril a good scratch for me…
Why won’t I be there? because I’ll be on my way to Peru! Catch you in a month or so and as always, thank you for reading!
 “The first harvest might occur as early as 30-35 days and the last at 55-60 days.” Australian Chicken Meat Federation Inc.
 “The Large White has become well established as a major breed in virtually all pig producing countries in the world.” NSW Department of Primary Industries.
These last couple of weeks I’ve been feeling a little low. This time of year does it to me: I get over-scheduled, over-committed, under-slept, and with most folk getting busy with family commitments sometimes I feel pretty alone. I’m tired, and some days it can feel like a bit of a struggle to keep going, but then the little things come along that lift me.
This afternoon I took myself on a fossick around the garden. You see that luscious-looking big, buttery potato there? I grew that. Or more accurately, I provided the soil and the compost and the seed potatoes and the mulch, and it grew itself.
I’ve never grown potatoes before.
Neither have I grown the beans, beetroots, chard, oca and numerous other things doing well in my garden. It kinda makes up for the disappointments, like having only 3 carrots come up, and discovering the self-sown peas I’ve been nurturing were pretty sweet peas and not lovely food. Then there are the strawberries: what fruit has survived the unusually hot and dry conditions of late has been pilfered by the blackbirds: I have had one lone ripe berry.
Tonight I’m going to steam up that potato, diced into little cubes. I’m going to dice and fry some divine local free-range bacon (payment for assistance rendered) and throw in some broadbeans (donated by a colleague with a surplus) plus some chopped up garlic greens and sage leaves I picked this afternoon. I’ll squeeze over a lemon, taken from my friend’s tree, and toss the lot on top of some lettuce leaves that have evaded the worst of the recent weather in a shady part of my garden.
Between my patch of dirt and my community, I’m feeding myself. Tonight I’m eating outside of the system, far removed from the supermarket. I’m actually doing this, with my sad little garden that the heat has burnt and baked the soil to clay. I’m doing this in a rental house, with a full-time job and a life that takes me out and about quite a lot. I am doing this, and if I can do it, maybe so can you. Maybe together we can build ourselves a food community, connecting eaters with growers and using the land we have to grow the food we need.
Imagine that: a world without dependence on the big supermarkets, with their demands for unsustainable farming practices and shelves stacked with pretend food. A world where we know our neighbours and trade our backyard surpluses, where we’ve met the grower who sells us vegetables, where we’ve gotten close and personal with the animals that become our meat. Lower emissions, more sustainable farming, connected communities. Grow, forage, trade, cook: do it.
Sometimes all it takes is a humble potato to remind me what it’s all about.
Tasmanians, the Forest Peace Deal Agreement is going through the Upper House, where the legislation will either pass, or crash and burn with a huge loss of public faith and return to community division and ongoing stalemate.
The agreement isn’t perfect, I know, but it’s better than no agreement and it has involved compromise from both sides to reach. We can always build from here and work towards a better agreement once people have adapted to change and seen that the Agreement hasn’t led to wholesale economic collapse. Please don’t ditch the agreement because not every patch of high-value forest is protected, or not every forest job is saved. Extremism will never reach a compromise, on either side. The problems will never be solved by holding out for your own ideal of a successful outcome. Remember that it’s a step in the right direction to building a more sustainable future. The first step, with many more to come as we walk down the path together, as a cohesive community with a shared vision for the future.
Those against the peace deal – those who want unrestricted forestry at any cost, despite the reality of falling demand and industry decline, and those who will not accept that not all high-conservation-value forests can be protected – have mobilised opposition, further feeding bitterness and division in the community. They are petitioning the Upper House to reject the Agreement legislation and they’re creating a lot of noise.
Don’t let division and extremism determine the future of our State. Stand up for working together for long-term, sustainable outcomes for Tasmania. Sign the counter-petition and let our politicians know we support peace in our forests. If we don’t speak up, the voices of conflict will win. Rejection of the Agreement does not benefit anyone. Please raise your voice in support of a more sustainable future for Tasmania.
I have a few strange habits:
- I keep every rubber band that enters my house in a container in a kitchen drawer.
- The frilly tulle bags from jewellery shops get tucked into a box in a draw.
- I stack up old egg cartons on top of the fridge.
- Glass jars get washed up and stowed in a box under the table.
- A pretty box in the study stores used wrappings, packaging and ribbons.
- What plastic bags and tubs cannot be avoided are washed up and stored.
- I pile up plastic plant pots in an old plaster bucket under the house.
- Bottles of old engine oil get dutifully stored under the house.
- I bring home occasional piles of newspapers from work or bags of coffee grounds from my local cafe.
And yet, I’m not a hoarder. My home is small with little storage and I’m pretty strict about stuff. So why keep these things? Because they are still useful – to me or someone else – and needn’t be thrown away.
The rubber bands go to the market vendors who use the blighters to bundle their veg (with a few kept on hand because they’re always useful). The frilly tulle bags that still look brand new are taken back to the shop (eventually), saving the vendors money. The egg cartons get split between colleagues with chooks and the CWA shop (I tried using some as bio-degradable seedling pots this year, but it was a bit of a fail). The jars are re-used for storing dry goods and home-made preserves, with the excess passed on to a local charity for others to use. Rescued tissue paper and cellophane are kept to wrap another day, post-packs are recycled and ribbons re-used.
Those unavoidable plastics* are re-used to store fruit and veg in the fridge, and to freeze left-overs for future lunches (though I’m a little bit worried about the health implications of this). Pots are recycled (it’s best to sterilize them first, if you can) for the next lot of seedlings, now that I’m growing from seed, or passed on to gardening friends. The old engine oil goes to a guy who uses it for weather-proofing timber for his landscaping projects. Newspapers help light the fire, get shredded into the compost or added to mulch, while coffee grounds are deployed as slug and snail protection around pale green garden things.
This year’s seedlings shot up in recycled pots (but did less well in egg cartons), while an old olive tub gets used again for storing home-made hummus.
These things that would otherwise be thrown out as waste, added to the vast pile of landfill, are still useful. There is no need to throw them away. Each and every item that comes into my home came from somewhere, was made from something. Resources were consumed to make it and transport it to me, and living sustainably is all about conserving our resources as much as possible. Whether it’s the petroleum products in plastics or the plant nutrients in the coffee grounds, I feel I have a duty to make the most of the resources I consume and so I do my best to re-use and recycle.
What I really like, though, is the expression of pleasant surprise on the faces of shop-keepers and growers when I turn up with a bundle of tulle bags or rubber bands. I’m saving them money by my small acts, making a tiny contribution to reducing their operating costs and keeping my favourite businesses going. Now how’s that for sustainability?
Our little choices and small, simple acts can all add up and make a real difference.
* Any tips on how to go about buying locally-grown olives or other deli goodies without bringing home another plastic tub? How to store leafy veggies in the fridge without plastic bags? I’m keen to de-plastic my existence!
There is nothing like travel to give you a heaping dose of perspective.
We in the western developed world, the vast majority of us, anyway, are so damn spoilt.
Here in Australia we write ourselves the narrative of the battler; hard-done-by working class hero, struggling to get ahead. The reality, however, is far, far different. We’re incredibly wealthy. Daily we take for granted riches of which much of the world can only dream, and yet somehow we think we deserve it, that we’ve earnt the good life that has befallen us by the sheer luck of being born on these fortunate shores.
We turn on a tap and we have clean drinking water. How lucky are we? So lucky that we think nothing of using this precious resource to flush our toilets and water our plants. Over 780 million people lack access to safe drinking water[1, 2] and we let it run down the drain then complain about the cost.
Safe, clean water, on demand, at a fraction of the true cost. Want it hot? Turn on another tap and let electricity or gas work it’s wonders. Energy that’s cheap and reliable enough to heat our water 24-7. Energy so cheap that I’m sitting here, running a computer and monitor and listening to the radio while a pot of chickpeas simmers on the stove and a head of garlic roasts in the oven (I’m making humus). Yes, I’ve turned the lights off in the rooms I’m not using and I’m working by a single energy-efficient globe but even then my bills tell me I use an average of 15 KWH per day, which is only a little below the average for my dwelling type and suburb. I can do better (and yes, long, hot showers remain my biggest guilty pleasure. Maybe next year’s promise for World Environment Day…).
We’ve got safe water, ready power, large houses we fill up with stuff (biggest in the world, apparently, and this place feels exorbitantly large after my recent travels) and there’s the access to food and consumer goods. Walk into your kitchen right now and take a good, hard look in your cupboards. How much food is actually in there? How long could you go without really needing to shop? How much diversity of product is there? I have 2 types of rice, 2 types of lentils, 5 types of flour (I’m gluten-sensitive, so it’s somewhat excusable), black quinoa, quinoa flakes and a number of syrups and oils I most never use and don’t really need (lime oil, rosewater, pomegranate molasses and a serious tea collection…) and that’s after considerable down-sizing and being very mindful about what I buy.
It’s easy to indulge in food without even realising. Walk into any supermarket or grocer and look around: there’s so much food and so much choice! With the shelves so richly stocked our trolleys and household pantries look restrained by comparison. We have a culture that encourages food as a recreational pursuit rather than a nutritional need. Food shortages don’t even cross our consciousness for most of us, despite recent record droughts and soaring prices of staples. If we have the money it’s always there, waiting. Easy.
We are so damn lucky. Lucky to have been born in a wealthy country, a place of political stability and prosperity. No wars have torn my country apart. No dictators have drained us of our wealth (though Gina Rinehart may well try), no diseases have ravaged our people or our food production. Although drought, flood and fire take their toll, we’ve thus far been rich enough and agriculturally diverse enough to weather the storms and bitch about the cost of bananas.
And that’s what gets me really. We have this incredible wealth yet we complain about it. We sit here with our hands out, crying poor, asking the Government for more, always more. How can you be a battler with a place just for you and yours to call home, all the safe water you can drink, power whenever you want it and access to all the food you could ever dream of? When you have health care and social security? When education is free for all and retirement is considered a right? Yes, there are some Australians who truly are poor (particularly our indigenous people, who live in a different world to most of us), but for the vast majority of us and our compatriots in the western developed world, we are rich beyond our own comprehension. We have so very much. By accident of birth we find ourselves in the land of plenty.
Is it surprising, then, that others covet our way of life? That when we travel we’re seen as wealthy targets to exploit? You can hardly blame the rest of the world for wanting in on our privileged party. Yet the planet cannot sustain our current levels of consumption. We can’t pull everyone else up to our standard of living. So do we try to keep it all to ourselves, spoilt children who don’t want to share our shiny toys?
Truth is it’s an inherently unsustainable way of life. We can’t maintain it while the rest of the world scrapes by. Sooner or later the rest of the world will come looking for their share as resources run out. We can try to hang on until then, in a final orgy of consumption, or we can start to learn to live with less. I believe it’s time we learnt the difference between wants and needs, asked ourselves some searching questions and reduced our footprints a little. It’s the only fair choice (and as Dr Samuel Alexander writes, it just might also be good for us).
There’s no point feeling guilty about an accident of birth, and not all of us are in a position where living more simply is a viable choice. Most of us can do a little more, however. We can be just that little more mindful about the choices we make and think about the type of future we want to build. That’s what I’m trying to do and y’know, I’m happier for it.
 water.org fact sheet
 WHO water and health program
 Energy Made Easy Australian power consumption benchmark
 ComSec housing data report 2011
 World Bank food crisis data
 ACOSS Australian Poverty Report 2011
 Radical simplicity and the middle class: exploring the lifestyle implications of a great disruption, by Dr. Samuel Alexander
The lovely Pauline Mak recently requested that I discuss the science behind my opposition to the FV Margiris “super-trawler” in a little more detail. Specifically, she quite rightly asked me to explain why I felt the quota was unsustainable given that respected fisheries scientists like Professor Colin Buxton and Dr Bob Kearney have spoken out in defence of the quota. If I’m going to cite my science degree to claim an informed perspective on the super-trawler issue I really ought to be backing it up with facts!
> You can read my original entry here.
First off, let me clarify that I am not a fisheries scientist. I’m an aquatic ecologist who specialised in freshwater systems and integrative ecology. Once upon a dim, dark undergraduate past I studied fisheries science before deciding that messing about in rivers was much more my thing. Fish ecology and aquatic ecosystems are, however, things I’m passionate about and I’d like to think I’m reasonably well-informed. Plus being a systems/integrative ecologist I’m trained to think in terms ecological interactions and broader ecosystem changes, which I think is relevant to the Margiris case.
So let’s get into it, shall we?
The quota currently set for the Margiris is 18 000 tonnes, or 7.5 % of the total estimated population of jack mackerel and redbait. Is this sustainable? My honest answer is: possibly.
7.5 % is a very conservative quota. For many fisheries a quota around 10 to 15 % is considered sustainable, and for some quickly reproducing species in productive waters, takes of up to 30 % may be managed. The species to be targeted – jack mackerel and redbait – are fairly short-lived species that do breed quickly and have bounced back from previous fishery activity, suggesting the populations are fairly resilient. On the face of things, 7.5 % seems ok, but when I think about it a little more, concerns start to surface.
The first big worry is where the stock estimates come from. Some of the data used to set the fishery quota dates back to studies done in 2002-2004. Normally, the age of the data would not be a concern since there has been no commercial fishing activity in that time, thus no reason for fish numbers to have decreased. Normally: we’ve never really had to think about the impacts of climate change on fish populations before.
Recent CSIRO studies have revealed that fish populations in southern Australian waters are changing in response to climate change, and changing faster than predicted. The ranges of temperate species like jack mackerel and redbait are shrinking. On top of this, tropical species are shifting further south and no one knows yet how the changing species interactions are impacting on predator-prey relationships and marine food webs. Given this environment of rapid, unpredictable change, 8-year old data doesn’t really seem good enough.
Is 7.5 % of an estimated fish population sustainable, in light of the impacts of climate change on ocean ecosystems? Uncertain! We simply don’t have the data or ecological knowledge to say for certain, one way or another. Throw in the uncertainties around local fish depletion, the amount and species of by-catch and potential issues regulating the vessel and you start to understand why some scientists are concerned. Sure, the Margiris is unlikely to cause a catastrophic fishery crash but there’s enough uncertainty there to be questioning if the quota poses an acceptable risk.
So what is an acceptable risk? It all comes down to error: Type I or Type II.
We have 2 potential outcomes: the null hypothesis, that the quota is sustainable, and the alternative hypothesis, that the quota is not sustainable. The fisheries science to date suggests that the null hypothesis is correct, but there is a concerning level of uncertainty around that data. What are the consequences if we’re wrong?
|Null hypothesis is true:
Margiris quota is sustainable
|Null hypothesis is false:
Margiris quota is unsustainable
|Reject null hypothesis:
Stop the trawler
|Type 1 error:
Fishery could have sustained quota but remains unfished
Fishery unsustainable and trawler stopped
|Accept null hypothesis:
Allow the trawler
Fishery sustainable and successfully fished
|Type II error:
Fishery exploited beyond sustainable yields
So, if my concerns are false but the trawler is stopped or the quota reduced, a Type I error has occurred, but the consequences of that error are pretty minor. SeaFish Tasmania loses some money, AFMA (www.afma.gov.au ) loses a contract and the Margiris’s European owners lose a potential market selling the catch to Africa. Forty theoretical Tasmanian jobs disappear.
If my concerns are true and the trawler fishery goes ahead as planned, a Type II error has occurred. The consequences here are a little uncertain but potentially much more serious. We could see local fish stock depletion, changes in marine food webs, loss of local predatory fish species, changes in fish communities and impacts on local fisheries. We could see jack mackerel and redbait numbers crash, with unknown ecosystem consequences. It’s not certain to happen. It may not even be likely to happen, but the uncertainty is high enough that I believe it’s a significant risk.
I don’t believe we’ll see an orange roughy scale disaster with the Margiris, but I do believe there are serious risks related to her operations and quota and think we should apply a precautionary approach. Personally, I’d like to see the quota lowered to 5 % with monitoring of fish populations over next 3 years to:
- Confirm stock estimates, including identifying any evidence of shifts in response to climate change;
- Confirm no evidence of localised depletion or loss of genetic diversity; and
- Confirm no resultant shifts in predator populations.
When I take into consideration my other concerns about the Margiris – that she and ships like her have been implicated in fishery collapse in European and African waters, that she is a vector for the spread of marine diseases and invasive species, and that the industrial nature of her operations means she’ll only provide employment for 40 locals – I believe the risks outweigh any potential benefits. Add to that the environmental impact of sending a ship from Europe to operate in Australia for fish to sell in Africa and it doesn’t look sustainable at all; environmentally, socially, financially or ethically.
This is why I still say no. Pauline, I hope this answers your questions!
Y’know something that really annoys me? Food waste. It could be the many hours I spent working in kitchens to support my studies, or it could just be simple economics, but it riles me.
There’s little sadder than seeing the hard work of our primary producers wind up in the garbage bin, uneaten and unwanted. You’re not just throwing away your own money, but also the labour, water, nutrients, transport and storage that got that food from the farm to you. It’s not just the lost resources either. Food rotting in land fill produces methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more climate-affecting than CO2. That’s a whole lot of unnecessary waste!
How bad is the problem? I don’t know about the rest of the world, but here in Australia we throw out around 7.5 million tonnes of food waste every year. That works out to about $ 7.8 billion in food waste, just looking at sale price alone! 40 % of our average household garbage is food waste – that’s taking out the people who compost – and in some parts of the country as much as 20% of the total food we buy is thrown away. With 30% of our population living below the poverty line how can we afford to waste so much food? I just don’t get it!
Lately I’ve come across a few organisations doing their bit for reducing food waste in Australia by taking the surplus from the fortunate and using it to feed the hungry. Here in Tasmania there’s Produce to the People, who collect the excess from backyard veggie gardens. In the bigger Australian cities groups like OzHarvest, Second Bite, Foodbank and Fare Share collect from supermarkets, restaurants and farms. Similar volunteer groups and food charities are popping up in major cities across the westernised world. These are fantastic programs, helping to reduce the environmental impacts of food waste and redistributing the surplus it to where it’s needed, but I think it’s also important to do what you can on a personal level to ensure you get the most out of the food you grow and buy.
Very little food goes to waste in my house and what does goes back into the system via my compost bin, rather than rotting away as landfill. It does take a certain amount of effort though! I have to think about what I’m buying and make myself cook even when I really don’t feel like it. I buy in smaller quantities and seek out fresher local produce, so have to hit up the shops a little more often, and when I have over-bought or have been too busy to cook I need to come up with creative ways to use up the excess before it spoils (or freeze it until I land an idea later). As a side benefit, getting the most out of my food gives me a little more disposable income to splurge on a nice wine to wash my meals down with, or the occasional gourmet treat!
Here are my favourite methods for using up food and preventing waste:
- Save any sad-looking veggies or edible offcuts for making stock. I have a bag in the freezer that scraps get thrown into as I go, then once it’s full I’ll add some dried mushrooms or the bones from a roast chook and turn it into tasty stock.
- Preserve it! Make sweet sauces from over-ripe fruit, turn a tomato glut into chutney or simply pickle extra veggies for a piquant treat to enjoy when they go out of season.
- Turn extra herbs into pesto, or chop them finely and freeze in small servings for future cooking.
- Freeze cream or plain yoghurt into icecube trays, then add a few cubes to stews or sauces when you need to.
- Poach or bake fruit that’s past it’s best and add it to your morning cereal or enjoy it as a dessert.
- Get creative in the kitchen; challenge yourself to use up everything perishable before buying fresh food and see what you can invent from the odds and ends hiding in your fridge and cupboards (I’ve made some of my favourite meals this way)
- Cook it all up into tasty meals and freeze them in portions for lunches. With a hot home-made curry or stir-fry instead of a sandwich you’ll be the envy of the work lunchroom!
- Share the love: put on a feast for friends or give away food you won’t use instead of letting it go to waste.
Wood heaters, eh?
In the month I’ve been living here in the Cottage I’ve developed a complicated relationship with mine.
I’ve learnt, now, how to get a decent blaze going with minimal fuss and there’s little nicer than curling up in front of a toasty fire on a cold night, glass of red in hand. The heat it produces is lovely, and when it’s working properly I can set it before bed and the house will stay toasty warm all night. Poking and prodding the fire into cooperation is fun and it’s immensely satisfying to get a good burn going on a cold night.
It’s less fun, however, on nights like tonight when the weather’s foul and I work late, and at 9 pm it’s still a little chilly even with the fire going. It’s been raining all day so the firewood is damp and the baffle plate on the flue has bent (yet again), jamming the flue wide open and significantly reducing the efficiency of my burn and heat transfer.
Heh, a month ago I had no idea what a baffle plate was, let alone what it did. I’d not spared much thought to wood moisture content or burn efficiency, and I’d never considered the price of firewood by the tonne (between $150 and $200, for the curious).
I still feel a little guilty about lighting the fire. In a State where my power is hydro-electric (not exactly environmentally benevolent, but a darn sight better than coal), lighting the fire is both less efficient (in terms of energy cost by yield) and generates a lot more emissions (CO2 and particulate emissions) than using electric heating.
On top of that, the wood I’m burning has to come from somewhere. The current fuel for my fire comes from a beautiful old eucalypt tree that had to be felled over at the House of the Gumtrees (mmm, free firewood!), however my ex-landlord only let me take what I could fit in my Corolla (a surprisingly large amount when you’re determined…) and I’m about to run out. Firewood sales in Tasmania are unregulated, with many sellers setting up trucks on the roadside with cheap loads for sale. Problem is you don’t know where that wood has come from or what condition it’s in:
- Is is green, wet or rotten?
- Was it illegally taken from State Forests, National Parks or trespassing on private land?
- Were old hollowed trees felled that provide important habitat for wildlife (including several endangered species)?
And that’s without considering if it’s actually the tonnage they’re saying it is!
There’s no hiding from the truth: the wood heater is not an environmentally friendly way to heat my home! It’s what I’ve got, however, so it’s up to me to make the best of it.
I’ve been researching wood heaters and firewood recently and I’ve learnt that:
- The moisture content of your timber needs to be below 25% for an efficient burn.
- Burning green or wet timber increases particulate emissions (as well as being much less efficient).
- Even stored under cover, firewood has an amazing capacity to absorb moisture on rainy days.
- Burning pine needles is fun.
- Baffle plates significantly improve the heat exchange from your wood heater (and having it bend and jam open – again – is a bad thing. *sigh*).
- Burning old painted fence posts is an environmental no-no, no matter how much free timber it is or how much your lovely new neighbours assure you it’ll be ok.
- Accidentally throwing in an envelope with a plastic window results in noxious fumes: don’t do it.
- You can’t add the ash and charcoal to your compost, but a small amount mixed with other things is ok in mulch.
- There’s no regulation of the firewood industry in Australia, and there are a lot of dodgy vendors in Hobart (if the internet is to be believed)
- There is a voluntary industry code of practice that sets out standards that wood will be sustainably harvested, in accordance with all laws and protective orders, stored correctly and sold with moisture contents below 25%, with weighbridge tickets provided.
- There is one supplier in the whole of Tasmania who is signatory to the voluntary code, and they’ll deliver to my suburb.
- The cold metal of my bed frame is very nice to rest my blistered skin on when I inevitably burn myself on the wood heater door/frame/handle
- So. Many. Splinters.
So, after a little research and environmental guilt I’ve come to the following positions:
- The wood heater only gets lit if (1) the temperature is below 10oC and (2) I’m going to be home all night (no fire on taiko training nights!)
- Use discarded newspaper from work and household waste (loo rolls, paperwork from the last lease, letters from politicians) to get the fire started
- Pay the extra to buy firewood from the lone code signatory supplier; it’s not that much more than other suppliers and I know it’s as ethically sound as I’m going to get.
- Keep my garden prunings to burn next winter: at least the damn invasive vine I cut down will be useful!
- When the fire’s lit, actively enjoy it.
Hence I’m writing this sitting on my couch, watching the flames over the top of my monitor instead of working with the lap-top docked in the study. If I’m going to commit environmental crimes in the name of keeping warm I may as well keep the most of it, and once Winter properly arrives and the fire is going during the day on weekends I intend to try my hand at cooking on the coals. I’m thinking coal-roasted foil-wrapped eggplant (that’s aubergine for the northern-hemispherians) is going to be a beautiful thing. Baba ganoush for all!
This weekend I’m going to buy my first load of firewood and spend far too much time hauling and stacking the stuff in the little space under the house, and I’ll be talking to my landlord about getting that warped baffle plate replaced this time instead of another attempt at repair. Right now though I’m going to finish this post then put another piece of tree on the fire, sit back and watch the flames while I finish the glass of red that’s mysteriously appeared in front of me.
Have you ever lived with a wood heater or fireplace? Got any firey tips for this recovered teenage pyromaniac?
Come sit with me and tell me all about it. There’s enough red wine to share and though my couch may be fat and bulky it’s pretty comfy.