Little Things

It’s funny what sticks in the mind.  While huge chunks of my life have vanished from my memory I can remember certain things vividly.  In the story below it is what one student said to me as a joke one day three years ago that lodged in my brain.

When I first started at the school where I work now I was thrilled that I could walk to work instead of having to drive for half an hour.  Changing jobs is not a small change, but it had lots of small, unexpected consequences and one of them was that I could now walk to work.  It made me think that if everyone could walk to work happiness levels would increase slightly globally.  Of course in the past people did walk to work because work was where they lived, and without cars and motorways it would be impossible to work anywhere else.  Schools, especially primary schools, are built on the basis of being able to walk there.  Primary schools haven’t moved but the ability to walk to them has been eroded by lots of things, principally parents being at work before school begins and after it ends, and an increased fear of stranger danger and traffic.  Work places, in my humble opinion, should give one parent walk to school leave through to Year 6.

When I walked to work I noticed a lot of little benefits.  Firstly, I had the Scrooge like delight of mentally calculating how much petrol money I was saving every day I walked to and from work.  I can’t remember the numbers now but it was a heck of a lot of money (and petrol has gone up since).  This led to a much larger saving when we sold our second car.  Secondly, I had the sanctimonious pleasure of improving my health while also saving money.  My health of course would have been even more improved if I had been able to walk away from roads more often.  I also had the sanctimonious pleasure of feeling like I was doing “my bit for the environment”.  Actually I don’t think that I was achieving anything on that front, but at least I wasn’t contributing to the problem.  Finally, I suddenly noticed my community.  Walking through a place and driving through a place are totally different things.  Driving is a very blinkered business that also involves stress and aggravation.  Walking is not blinkered, and frees you from road rage.  When you’re feeling not so keen on engaging with your community you can listen to music or a podcast and because you’re not driving somehow the listening is deeper and more enjoyable.

One day while I was ribbing some students about getting dropped off at school instead of walking (I must have been feeling particularly sanctimonious) I went on to gently mock one of the students for having her lunch all crammed into little plastic containers instead of in one big lunch box.  I pointed to her sandwich pressed forlornly up against the sides of its too small plastic prison and wagged my finger at it.  The student asked me if I used gladwrap for my lunch and I said yes.  She then proceeded to tear strips of my environmental credentials by pointing out how incredibly wasteful it was to wrap your lunch in plastic every single day and then throw the plastic wrapper away.  Her method, she pointed out, created no such waste.

It was a moment that made me review many little things in my life.  Since then I have, needless to say, taken gladwrap out of my lunch box, but I also – for example – changed from aerosol shaving cream to shaving soap (it lasts WAY longer and only has one piece of paper as its waste), and reviewed our household cleaning products in general and replaced them with products focused on the environment.

As a family we also did a few other things.  We started to have our dinners at the dining table, and we started going to the fruit and vege market every Saturday.  I could go on, but you get the idea.  Little things.

Yesterday I dragged the kids down to the local bit of park and we spent an hour picking up rubbish.  We do it quarterly.  Rosamund who is four doesn’t see the point.  Eleanor, who will be eight soon, does.  As usual we removed perhaps a dozen beer bottles, half a dozen cans, a pile of cardboard, and a rubbish bag full of plastic bags, wrappers, disposable coffee cups, and random crap.    I’m glad that I have kept coming back to do this every few months because it has made me think about it in more detail.  To me going to pick up rubbish has shown me the pros and cons of little things versus the big picture.  Obviously the major pro is that this tiny scrap of earth is a bit cleaner for a while.  The other pro is that I once had two daughters who couldn’t see the point of this exercise and now one of them does.  The con is that it is a mostly futile exercise.  There is unlikely to be a day when I show up and there is  no rubbish to pick up.  Wind and late night booze sessions will insure that bit of park against ever being clean.

This con made me feel depressed at first, but then I remembered a piece of wisdom that my friend James had told me a long time ago: the way we change things is through law.  So I wrote to the Minister for the Environment and asked her what her government was doing about packaging regulation.  Her office replied (which I always think should be praised and acknowledged), but the reply was not good.  The reply was about voluntary standards and penalties that had never been used.  “Voluntary standards” is code for “the market knows best” and a complete failure of people power.

My next action was to vote.  I voted for the Green Party.  This may seem a laughably small action, but it is a very important one.  Alongside it goes the possibility of explaining why you are voting for the party you are voting for as widely as possible.  Another little thing, but it might help a few people make up their mind.  Hopefully to vote the same way, although perhaps not.  Now the election is over, and the house is in session, and the business of making law is in action again.  What should I do?

Well, I have a few thoughts on that matter.