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Lucy Mangan: "There is no time to waste"

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I'm writing this on Earth Overshoot Day. At first I thought the imparter of this information was trying to warn me that an alien attack had failed and given me a chance to pack some provisions and my family into the cellar before they wheeled round and tried again, but no. It is what US think tank the Global Footprint Network has named the day that we use up what the earth can provide us with for the year and marks the point at which we start plundering nature’s irreplaceable capital, thereby hastening our doom. Bet you wish it was aliens now, don’t you? And people mock me for being a catastrophist...

On a more microclimactic scale, I recently helped my sister pack before she moves house. We packed away 60 boxes, leaving a fraction of her possessions to cover the weeks between exchange and completion. She texted me this morning to say that she hadn’t missed a single thing. On a more whoa-dude-this-is-all-getting- a-bit-too-coincidental scale, a book recently arrived on my desk called The Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide To Simplifying Your Life – an account of author Bea Johnson’s success in reducing her family’s rubbish to an almost unbelievable one litre (yes, the volume of a supermarket cola bottle) a year.

Sometimes it is almost as if the gods of synchronicity are trying to tell you something. If so, O Great Ones, I get it. We all consume too much. I, you, me, us, we all do. It’s true. But it’s so hard not to. And in some ways it is becoming harder not to. In theory, these recession-hit times should lead to a drop in consumption and waste because we can’t afford to buy as many things and those we do buy we take better care of – or, if it’s food, turn into disgusting leftover-based dishes – rather than throw away and purchase anew. And that does happen, on a small scale, with a few things.

But on a larger scale it’s not that simple. Because what a recession also means is that people are working harder than ever in order to keep their companies afloat for fear of losing their jobs, or are stunned, disorientated and depressed by sudden joblessness. And once that wears off, they will be too busy applying for jobs and worrying about how to make ends meet to be able to spare much thought for the planet.

Which is to say it takes a lot of what academics call ‘social capital’ to manage even a fraction of what Johnson particularly and the Greens generally propose. Putting the 5Rs mantra – Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot – into practice requires a lot of spare mental and physical energy. It requires – or at least is massively helped by – things like

We all consume too much. I, you, me, us, we all do

access to recycling facilities; a car or residence in an area whose council is rich and well-disposed enough to have a free and effective collection system; a garden big enough to take a compost bin. And ideally a wormery. A veg patch too; a library nearby or enough money and leisure to buy books on how to how to grow veg and not kill worms in a wormery. Leisure is important. It takes longer to source things in bulk, to cook from scratch, to acquire the skills for altering clothes or turning curtains into cushions.

In the meantime, politicians and energy lobbyists take advantage by doing things like experimenting with fracking (it’ll bring down energy prices! Hopefully enough for everyone to be able to afford bottled water when the underground gas fissures start joining up and making the water supply flammable – hurrah!), cutting green subsidies and hiking up the costs of public transport (because inflation is rising and rail profits are in danger of slightly decreasing – to the rescue, commuters who have already subsidised the owners via tax!).

But Earth Overshoot Day is a potent reminder of our transgressions – of our ability to overeat, overspend, overheat, over-everything by a third, every year – and of the need to do everything we can to limit them, especially if we are lucky enough not to be as overstretched by life as the planet is by us. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to put some stale bread in the freezer and promise myself that when I have enough I’ll make bread pudding, even if I have to drop an episode of Law & Order: SVU to do so. There is no time to waste at all.

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