The silver lining of the apocalypse
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.
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.