(Another) Letter to Louise

Dear Louise,

Two days ago you wrote: “Do you have any tips for dealing with a climate change-induced existential meltdown? (Meltdown – ha!) I'm having a particularly hard time at the moment, and I'm walking around with a knot in my stomach. I am mostly able to keep the fear at bay, which requires quite a bit of avoiding the news. Everything feels like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. I've almost reached a point where I might start praying. No idea to what.”

With your permission, I’m corralling some of the answers (suggestions) I gave you into this blog. Especially as when I logged on to social media later, I found the same lament everywhere: people almost breathless with grief at the unfolding apocalypse we have called down on our own heads, that we have allowed our governments to expedite.

Well, I just wrote a book on how to reduce waste (the page proofs are all over the dining-room table) , and rounding up the research on climate change alone (never mind mass extinctions, clear-cutting the Amazon, the horrors we’ve visited on the ocean, the unimaginable scale of the human suffering wrought by climate catastrophes, with worse to come) made me constantly sick with despair and rage and grief. It is NORMAL, if we allow ourselves to look even sideways at the full enormity of how we have despoiled our planetary home, to feel utter despair and terror.

Sure, there are lots of things we can and should be doing as environmental activists and ordinary consumers, but never mind those for the moment: you can get the book in a few weeks’ time. For now, let’s see how we can deal with this day-to-day anguish. Is it possible to be happy on a planet we’re in the process of murdering? And, given the behemoths of stupidity and greed driving our nations, industries and economic systems, is there anything individuals can do to help heal this critically wounded planet?

First, see what I say about those deckchairs on the Titanic — a long and rather clumsy metaphor about lashing them together to make life-rafts. A writer in a group that makes washable menstrual pads put it far more simply: “If we’re all going down, let’s at least do so holding hands.”

Personally, what biographer Lyndall Gordon calls “domestic feminism” has been the saving of me. I garden and cook, knit and sew. I feel a bit better with earth under my fingernails, my socks darned, a fridge full of soup made with home-grown veg. The interesting thing is that this overlaps with two things we can do to heal the planet: plant trees and make soil. Look what just happened in Ethiopia — 350 million trees planted! Before that, it was India, and China is coming to the party as well. So here’s what to do when the planetary blues bite. The best thing is that these are mostly things anyone can do.

1) Grow something. If you have the tiniest scrap of earth, make a garden, no matter how small. Put planters on your balcony, pot plants on your windowsill. If you’re frail, consider a keyhole garden.
2) Grow your own veg.
3) Grow indigenous. Making a garden should NEVER involve tearing out indigenous plants and replacing with exotics or aliens.* (It should be illegal to do this.)
4) Grow spekboom (Portulacaria afra). These succulent shrubs are easy to propagate (cut off shoots/branches and stick in the soil), water-wise, and absorb four times more carbon than most plants. Plus you can eat the leaves in salads and stir-fries.

5) Plant to attract insects and birdlife. Make a bee-friendly garden.

This art is by Louis Masai, of the #SaveOurBees campaign.  Source of image here .

This art is by Louis Masai, of the #SaveOurBees campaign. Source of image here.

6) Lose the lawn.

7) Protect trees (these are literally carbon-storage units).

8) Regenerate soil: compost, compost, compost, and mulch, mulch, mulch.

9) Cover the soil with loving layers of leaf and bark mulch, or even gravel if you must, but never put anything impermeable (concrete, tarmac, tiling) over it. Water needs to be able to soak into it.

10) Investigate eco-friendly gardening practices: there are even green ways to weed (by hand, or using “crop and drop” methods to make green manures). I don’t have to tell you NO POISONS EVER, right?

No garden or soil? Live in a block of flats or council housing?

Find the nearest green space, even if it’s waste land. Investigate who is responsible for its maintenance (local council? private owners?) and offer to help them clean it up and make it safe and user-friendly. Adopt a park and join a litter-clearing group (if you can’t find one, start one). Track down tree planting and community veg garden projects, and volunteer. Go on park runs and alien clearing hikes (it was calculated that if alien plants were cleared from Western Cape catchment areas, we’d have an extra two months’ water supply each year).

Projects like these are not only good for your mental and physical health: they are vital airbags against the blows of climate disruption, especially for less plushy neighbourhoods. Leonie Joubert explains all this here, but in a nutshell, green buffer zones (wetlands, green belts, indigenous plantings, forests, savannahs, rivers, lagoons and more) protect our homes, property and infrastructure from flood and fire. I’m sure many of the citizens of Beira (or what’s left of it after this year’s cyclones) can testify to the impact of deforestation on their region’s capacity to weather violent storms. (See 7 above.)

So find a “Friends of X River/Wetland/Botanical Garden” nearby and sign up.

Fight developers. Go help these people (the Philippi Horticultural Area activists), they’re heroes.

Inhabit wild spaces. We have a massive crime problem, including in our most beautiful nature zones. One solution is to reclaim these spaces in large numbers. Thugs aren’t likely to wade into big groups of hikers or walkers. Claim your green. Organise group walks and picnics in beauty spots.

Get stuck in. If you do all or some or even a few of things above, I PROMISE you will feel better. Consider this Dr Moffett’s prescription.

Oh, and your question about prayer? As a dissident Catholic, here’s something of a mantra of mine: “Activism: being the answer to your own prayers.”


* I will never recover from witnessing my former landpersons ripping out an established fynbos garden (including rare species of pincushions) and mature (endangered) silver trees to replace with LAWN and European-style flower beds. Which were watered with sprinklers from the borehole (remember that groundwater is a precious COMMON resource) that ran from 9am until 4pm each day during the third summer of the worst drought the Cape had experienced in a century. Away with the visiting wood owl and harrier hawk, the black-shouldered kite that lived in the bottom of the garden, the hundreds of white-eyes, sunbirds, olive thrushes and robin-chats that made the garden throb with life and song. I’d still like to see the “landscape architect” who executed this (yes, the verb is deliberate) put in the stocks.

Helen Moffett
1001 Water and Waste-wise ways: The meeting point between art and nature

My waste book is in production with the wonderful Bookstorm team, I’m joyously anticipating writing my cookbook (the next in this series of Little Green Books), and I should kick back and relax a little, right? Here’s something strange: I can’t stop writing the waste book. Maybe all that research, often grim, sometimes devastating, has been a way of coping with the grievous harm I’ve seen done to the planet in my lifetime.

I’m still bookmarking every useful article, jotting down every helpful tip I find. (Pity my poor editor, who is going to have to deal with the ultimate nightmare author — one who keeps rewriting.) But there’s a slant to the kind of material I’m focusing on now: even as I get more militant (make me queen of the universe, and I’ll empty out all tax havens), I’m primarily interested in kindness. In healing. Solutions, even if these are long-term and mean the transformation of civilisation as we know it (let’s face it, the current one isn’t working very well). Even hope.

One message that keeps popping up on my screen is that there is a relatively inexpensive and easy way to salve some of the planet’s more grievous wounds: plant trees. Lots of them. Billions of them. Make that a trillion. Here’s an intelligent analysis of the pros and challenges: worth a careful read. To this I’d add that with the exception of alien clearing, we need to stop cutting down trees, and protect existing forests. Donning my empress crown again, I’d make tree-felling a criminal offence, and clear-cutting forests grounds for excommunication and life imprisonment (only very slightly joking). Ripping out established indigenous vegetation should be utterly verboten. The article above is slanted towards northern hemisphere conditions, but look at this good news — and path to follow — right here in our own backyard. Carbon farms like this one can not only draw down carbon, but replenish soil and groundwater, repair erosion, and supply new models for desperately needed employment.

Speaking of jobs and alternative economies, here’s another great idea: repair workshops, which, according to this article, are good not just for the planet, but also our sense of community connection — and souls. Look at what the author says about the “right to repair” movement: throwaway culture is bad for the environment, our histories, our networks. Treating goods as disposable leads all too easily to treating people the same way: check out the amazing repair manifesto in the above piece.

Speaking of community and connection, one reason I’m so excited about writing a cookbook is because cooking is a favourite way of strengthening commitments and expanding networks. Last night I cooked dinner for a lovely group of friends who in different ways support Short Story Day Africa — an NPO I adore, and on whose board I serve. It was a small way of thanking them for their care, but as I simmered mushrooms down to a rich stock and chopped garden mint into a blend of apple cider vinegar and onion, I remembered this lovely line: “Cooking is the meeting point between art and nature”. It’s also about chemistry — and in that way, alchemy. In other words, it’s the most practical form of magic we can all practice, a basic lifeskill that allows for more human interaction, ingenuity and creativity than, say, ironing shirts. Nourishment needs to be exactly that: something done with as much love as possible. To adopt another line, cooking is love made visible.

And so a group of old and new friends met to celebrate stories, and to nourish bodies and souls with Earl Grey and thyme cordial, mushroom soup, guacamole, kedgeree served with mint chutney, peach relish, lemon pickle, chilli-garlic sauce (all home-made by friends or from their recipes) and a dish of bright leafy greens straight from my veg bed. Pud: raspberry-coconut ice-cream. Enjoy.

Helen Moffett
1001 Water and Waste-wise ways: The pantry edition

The waste book has gone into production! With a working title of Waste Wise: 169 Ways to Save the Planet (final title will depend on how many tips get added). Thanks to the super-efficient folk at Bookstorm, you can expect to see it in bookshops in about six weeks time — we’ll keep you posted.

I’ve seldom been so relieved to hit “send” on a manuscript. I found grappling with the issues not just hard — as in the truths now staring us in the face are hard (terrifying, too) — but because I kept having to revise the way I think. But that’s a topic for another day. The grand thing about getting the waste book into production is that now I can write Number 3 in my green series: the cookbook I’ve wanted to write all my life. Hurray! Expect to read a lot more here in the near future about the role cooking can play in saving your family, your sanity, your health, and possibly the planet.

I spend Sundays (usually my e-sabbath day) cooking for the week ahead. And as a way of making the shift from the burning issue of waste to the vital matter of (good) food, I decided that apart from absolute essentials (I had to stock up on onions and garlic), I was going to take a leaf from my own book, go shopping in the fridge and pantry, and create dishes with what I already had.

Following Megan Kerr’s famous principles of using the stuff with the shortest shelf/fridge life first, I unearthed: an open carton of longlife milk the cats were beginning to turn their noses up at; a bunch of wilting spring onions, a brinjal, two and a half carrots, one lonely spud, an equally lonely sweet potato, three wrinkly peppers and half a red cabbage; a quarter jar of cranberries left over from Christmas; half a box of oats; a litre of double-cream yoghurt and a jar of tahini (half-price specials because they were about to hit their sell-by dates). Then I had five bottles of oil and vinegar with an inch left in each of them. I also had a jar of dark, intensely flavoured honey from the Low Impact Living deli (which came with a full history of the bees and hives), the rare treat of cheap hazelnuts (spotted at the Peachpip farmstall and pounced upon) and a vast assortment of spices. I’ve learned that the latter need to be used up at a steady rate, or they lose their pungency. I’d also scored punnets of raspberries and tomatoes the day before from a Community Exchange market (in other words, I paid for them in “talents” not rands); I had lemons from a friend’s tree; and rainbow chard, rocket, basil and mint a-plenty in the veg bed.

So this is what I made. A raspberry mousse (the berries whizzed with yoghurt and honey). Toasted granola — that took care of the oats, hazelnuts and cranberries. (Breakfast the next three days was pretty amazing.)

Next I slow-roasted roma tomatoes with garlic, rosemary, the spring onions and the last splodge of balsamic vinegar — the result was a jammy, chunky pasta-tomato sauce. The leftover yoghurt became raita, with mint and the grated zest and juice of a lemon (in fact, lemon zest and juice went into every single dish except the granola). The tired peppers and brinjal were roasted with a LOT of garlic and basil, perked up with the tahini, and turned into baba ganoush.

Into a heavy-bottomed frying pan went whole coriander, cumin, cloves, cardamon pods, dried chillies, a hunk of cinnamon bark and fennel seeds (harvested from my backyard) — these were dry-roasted until the air was dense with fragrance, and blitzed into masala once cool.

And because I bring books into everything, I acknowledge that this particular effort was inspired by the second edition of Durban Curry by Erica Platter and Clinton Friedman (very funny and biting — ha — intro by Ashwin Desai), hot — ha again — off the press. I had also just found a copy of Nico Verster’s Safaris and Spices: An African Food Journey in the back of a church hall, which lovely book starts, sensibly IMO, with spice mixes and rubs. I’ve decided to make masalas my go-to green gifts — read on for more.

But first, all the other veggies were chopped and fried with the last glugs of oil and the masala. I purloined a little chicken from the cats’ defrosting supper, added half a tin of chopped tomato and those chard leaves and stalks starting to look rather frilly from all the snail-chomping. Et voila, a very nice “kitchen-sink” curry (omit the chicken, and you have a tasty, cheap vegan dish). But what was I going to eat for supper? Coleslaw made with the red cabbage, a carrot, red onion, rocket and the raita. Oh, and the milk went into the hot box where it magicked into yoghurt.

I’m going to keep doing this, which is going to be an interesting challenge, given that I’ve discovered cassava flour and dried seaweed hiding behind the usual tins and dried beans in the pantry. I shall keep you posted.

But in the meantime, I had a 50th birthday party to attend: a wonderful celebration of a wonderful person. But what to give as a gift? Once again, I took the advice of my own book: give food — because it’s consumable. Give home-made food so that you’re not just throwing money at the consumer monster. (It’s also much more special, and you can murmur spells or prayers for the recipient as you sift, stir, whir and blend, so it’s good for your mental health, too.) Finally, package everything as gently as possible.

So loving and much-loved Karen got a soft, dry masala mix (no cumin, heavy on the coriander, cinnamon and cardamon) and a very feisty curry paste — I combined every spice I could find with tamarind pulp and fresh ginger, garlic and chilli.

These went into small glass jars (I beg these off my friends), and it gives me great delight to tell you the labels are cut from a pharmacy medicine packet and tied with ten-year-old raffia. I’m having fun — can you tell?

Helen Moffett
1001 Water-and-waste-wise ways: Different city, same plastic
One hundred reusable pads headed off to a clinic in the Eastern Cape: the cores stuffed with waste fabric. Because this blog needs to start with something hopeful.

One hundred reusable pads headed off to a clinic in the Eastern Cape: the cores stuffed with waste fabric. Because this blog needs to start with something hopeful.

Last weekend I had the pleasure of taking part in the beautifully oiled machine that is the Kingsmead Book Fair – kudos to the organisers, and thanks to my fellow authors: it’s such fun hanging around other folk with a yen for inventing imaginary people and worlds.

But the trip itself took me right back to the impulse that started the waste book: plastic plastic everywhere – and all in the name of convenience. Airports, hotels, chain restaurants are one huge horrifying sea of single-use plastic. This while seeing the same old bleat on social media: that instead of shaming the huge corporations who generate tons of branded rubbish, the onus is on us not to litter. Sure, but dropping our Big Mac wrappings or Coke bottle or plastic cutlery into a bin simply moves that garbage a few metres to the left or right. It doesn’t address the problem of generating that waste in the first place, or the energy and planetary costs of disposing of it. According to National Geographic, HALF of the world’s plastic has been manufactured since 2000. That’s in our children’s lifetimes. We need to send loud and clear messages to manufacturers: enough is enough.

Anyway, I was so shaken by the profligate appearance of plastic on my weekend of travel, I carted most of it home with me, not trusting the good people of Jozi to recycle it. Then I realised it was ridiculous for me to angst about plastic jam tubs when I had FLOWN up to Johannesburg in the first place. Sigh. But this is no excuse NOT to sweat the small stuff

Here’s some of that small stuff: the vanity kit in my hotel bathroom. Note the “greenwashed” box, with the magic “eco” word. But what’s the point when the two earbuds (plastic) and single cotton pad it contains are wrapped in extra plastic? And what earthly reason is there for the emery board to have its own plastic jacket? No man, this nonsense has got to stop.


And now (brace yourself for slappable virtue-signalling), pics of the garbage I’ve generated this year (1 Jan to 31 May). Those two plastic bags: all I’m sending to landfill so far in 2019. Their contents consist almost entirely of the polystyrene trays and cling-wrap in which the raw chicken for my cats is packaged. (And there’s a solution in sight, as I’ve found a free-range chicken outlet in Tokai – just need to check whether they’ll let me bring in my own containers.) So yay for me, right?

In five months, two bags of unrecyclable waste (irony: spot the recycling sign on the polystyrene tray that held raw meat…)

In five months, two bags of unrecyclable waste (irony: spot the recycling sign on the polystyrene tray that held raw meat…)

NO. I compost, I recycle all my glass, metal and paper, I burn food-stained paper and used cotton-wool, but LOOK at the bag of plastic I collected for recycling over the same five-month period! HORRORS. And that’s trying as hard as possible to not to buy stuff packaged in plastic. Plus it doesn’t include the six eco-bricks I’ve filled this year with little bits of single-use plastic (those jam tublets and what-not).


So if for all my draconian waste-free and anti-plastic measures, I’ve generated a sack of plastic nearly as tall as myself in five months, what kind of plastic waste is the average middle-class household producing? We’re pretty much forced to be complicit as the consumer industry shoves the stuff down our throats. So we need to keep pressuring our food supply sources (Woolworths, I am SO side-eyeing you) to rethink their plastic use. I’ve pointed out before that plastic can be hugely valuable: for preserving food and thus preventing waste, for enabling people who do not own cars to schlep their shopping home without dislocating their shoulders, for products like medical supplies. But there is way too much of it, and now there is this thing of double bagging, Russian-doll-style: where vitamins are packaged both in a jar AND a box, where chicken pieces (and many other goods, including, unforgivably, espresso pods) are individually wrapped in plastic when the entire item is ALREADY packaged in plastic.

Yes, my sack of plastic will go for recycling. And thanks to the informal sector, South Africa is not too bad at this. But much of the plastic we “recycle” actually makes an expensive, planet-mucking trip across the globe to the landfills of South-East Asia, where it piles up in tons, or is burned in toxic polluting pyres that make local people ill. In 2018, China stopped accepting plastic waste, and now Malaysia and the Phillipines are following suit, tired of being dumping-grounds for the waste of the West on top of their own.

Are there solutions? I like the Swiss one, which legislates that every single district/canton is responsible for disposing of its own waste – they may not be ship it off elsewhere. Citizens are welcome to take their rubbish to their local dump – at a cost of about three US dollars per bag. I loved this about my brief time living in Maine: the only way to dispose of waste was to buy (fairly small) garbage bags from the town hall for a dollar each, fill them and take them to the dump. However, we could unload anything recyclable for free. And I remember the recycling centre in Massachusetts (SA journalist Charlene Smith took me to visit): a magical place where everything imaginable could be dropped off and picked up (it had a library, a barn full of furniture, racks of clothing and a toy “shop”). After winding our way through all the different spots allotted to tin, glass, engine oil, lawn clippings, e-waste and much more, we finally handed our (by now tiny) packet of genuine garbage to a worker who interrogated us as to its contents: we were SURE nothing in there was recyclable?

So it’s time to start leaning on big businesses and small municipalities: create less waste at one end, and provide smart, sensible recycling options (with much-needed incoming-generating possibilities) at the other end.

My visit to Gauteng, a water-stressed region, also made me wonder when “acting like a Capetonian” is going to catch on country-wide, especially given that the Eastern Cape is in almost as pitiful a state of drought as Cape Town was a year ago, and water in many major rural centres is either undrinkable or scarce.(Phuthaditjhaba, for one, and don’t even start me on the mismanaged train-wreck that is Makhanda/Grahamstown.) A friend who regularly travels for work arrived at her guesthouse and asked for a bucket for catching her shower water. “We got another one from Cape Town here!” called the receptionist. (I disassembled the waste basket in my hotel room to create a flushing bucket: worked perfectly.) I’ve also noticed that when in other cities, we tend to emerge from the loo to announce, with degrees of defiance, “I’m from Cape Town, so I didn’t flush.” It’s funny, but not funny: we all need to start acting like this.

Thirty packs of pads for new mothers at Mowbray Maternity Home: keeping disposable pads out of landfill.

Thirty packs of pads for new mothers at Mowbray Maternity Home: keeping disposable pads out of landfill.

Is there good news? Yes! Look at these pics of the reusable, washable menstrual and maternity pads a bunch of women in my neighbourhood, led by writer Helen Brain, created — stuffed with beat-up fabric that would otherwise go into landfill. Plus each of those pads is going to keep multiple disposable pads out of those same landfills. The lessons here are obvious — also heartwarming.

PS: My next book — 101 Waste-wise Ways — is finished! Hurrah! I just need to respond to the really useful edits I got, most especially from the ever-reliable Paige Nick. And then it will hop into production and be on its way to a bookshelf near you.

Helen Moffett
The silver lining of the apocalypse
Recycling fabric into reusable maternity pads. *All pics taken and posted with permission*

Recycling fabric into reusable maternity pads. *All pics taken and posted with permission*

I haven’t written a waste blog for a while because I thought I’d finish my waste book first. I had a complete first draft ready for edits nearly a month ago, and then life got in the way. What’s amazing is that in the few weeks in which I was attending to various personal crises, public responses to the environmental crisis seem to have changed. There is a new sense of urgency, a recognition (as Mozambique is battered by unprecedented cyclones, African countries reel under successive droughts and floods, entire ice-shelves disappear overnight) that climate change/catastrophe isn’t in the near future: it’s already here. Photos not just of entire cities under water (Beira) but of luxury cars in sinkholes on the Durban coast indicate that even the rich are starting to feel the effects (which is sadly, what it takes to get some folk to sit up and pay attention).

Environmental reporting has moved front and centre, with a belated recognition that this IS urgent political and economic news, not a “nice-to-have” option. When I started this project, I bookmarked every link that might add a tip to my book: only a month ago, doing a couple of hours of research a day, I was collecting twenty reports a week. Now it’s twenty in that hour or two, and I could add dozens more.

The silver lining to the apocalypse is seeing how people are responding to what is the greatest threat to the entire planetary population and all its ecosystems and civilisations. And amid all the (appropriate) horror and despair is a great deal of kindness and grace. American philosopher Joanna Macy talks about how the current bleak position offers an opportunity to break “the isolation we have been conditioned to experience … especially by this hyper-individualist consumer society.”

I keep finding wonderful people doing extraordinary things. As we move to lifestyles where we’re making more conscious and creative choices about how we use the world’s resources, we’re finding that hanging around solution-oriented people is good not just for the planet, but for our souls.

This really struck me when, on a fabric and clothing recycling Facebook group, I stumbled across photos of tiny exquisite garments made by someone who recycles old donated wedding dresses into gowns and “pockets” (she doesn’t use the word “shroud”) for stillborn babies to be baptised, buried or cremated in. She does this for love. I tear up every time I think about this. This kind of project might have only the tiniest impact in terms of the planet, but as a form of repurposing that showcases the best in human nature, and our capacity for compassion and connection, it’s hard to beat.

Cape Town writer Helen Brain has started a project on similar principles, rounding up a team who make washable reusable maternity pads. She collects tatty old towels and T-shirts, flannel nighties and PJs past their sell-by date and uses them as filling. Obviously some of the fabric used is bought new, but as a double-impact form of waste-recycling, this is a personal favourite of mine. Both disposable pads AND clothing too beat-up to donate to charities are kept out of landfills, but the real value of the project might be the sense of connection between the women who gather to make the pads, and the women to whom they’re donated. Through the non-profit that does the distribution, we get feedback that enables us to tweak design and improve the pads, which saves us from being a bunch of middle-class do-goodie-gooders who give poor women what we think they need. The whole is truly greater than the sum of the parts: it would be very difficult to do this alone, but as a collective, it works beautifully.

Many hands making light work, but also lighter hearts.

Many hands making light work, but also lighter hearts.

This is perhaps the strangest thing about the coming apocalypse: that it creates these connections and synergies. I'm reminded of maybe the "best" thing about the water crisis -- the way it got Capetonians (infamous for insularity and worse) talking to those around us. Rebecca Solnit recently wrote a piece on how we’re smitten with stories of a single hero coming to save us — whereas the truth is that it’s the less glamorous communal efforts that repair the holes we tear in the fabric of existence: weaving, gathering, planting, making soup, knitting a blanket, attending a community meeting, cleaning up a park or river. Let’s get stuck in.

Not one scrap of fabric is wasted: the offcuts are all shovelled into these huge bean bags, which are then donated for use as furnishing.

Not one scrap of fabric is wasted: the offcuts are all shovelled into these huge bean bags, which are then donated for use as furnishing.

Helen Moffett