I don't by any means think that all solutions to sustainable living lie in the past. But I have come to suspect that many of them do. The infeasibly high-energy lifestyle we are accustomed to has only been with us for the last few decades, and before that people still did stuff. So it must be possible to do stuff with less energy. The throwaway culture has been with us even less long, and before that people still had stuff. So it must be possible to have stuff without throwing masses of short-life stuff away.
The carrier bag is a wonderful example. It was only invented in 1965, but had completely over-run the world before I was born. Then, around 10 years ago, fashionable people noticed that we live on a fragile planet and decided that (whilst they had every intention of continuing to do far more harmful things) it would be very easy to make enormous amounts of fuss about carrier bags and thus appear terribly green. I don't want to sound like a defender of carrier bags- it's a bit stupid to use disposable bags made from oil every day, and I try fairly hard to avoid them. Any way, fashionable people everywhere suddenly needed to be able to carry things without plastic bags. I don't know if they all did the sensible thing and asked their mums or whether they experimented with slings made from tree bark for a bit first- but 10 years on and we're all using various sizes and shapes of fabric bags for our shopping. Just like my mum does. And her mum did. In fact, my mum still uses the fabric bags her mum made from offcuts. (Incidentally, this used to embarrass me horribly as a stroppy teenager, mum with her patchwork bags and dad with a tatty old rucksack. “Why can't you just USE CARRIER BAGS like NORMAL PEOPLE?” I thought, miserably. “Why all this palaver with the bags? Shops just hand out NORMAL BAGS for FREE.”)
So, what other wonderful olde-worlde low-tech rediscoveries can I dig out? I've already bored you all rigid (or possibly disgusted you) with tales of my hankies, so I will have to find others to delight you with this time.
Sadly, it's not all as simple as the plastic bag conundrum. Well, it is simple, it's just not always desirable. How did people cope without central heating? They were cold. How did people cope without ready meals? Women worked inside their homes and not out of them, enabling them to cook meals that took a long time. How did people cope without a car of their own? They didn't go as far and it took longer to get there.
I think there are answers to be found though, and it will take careful sifting to find them. We need to use less energy more cleverly, and ways of doing that are there to be found. Some of them are hidden in the future and some in the past.
We need to avoid the twin traps of seeing the past as some dreadful brown soup of drudge and misery or a perfect rosy agrarian past, all pigs and sixpences.
Tomorrow, I discover the housecoat...
Pics: Carrier bags and Housewife used under creative commons licence from Wikipedia - do be sure to click on the housewife picture to experience it in full; hankies my own.
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