What work do you do?
I’m a writer and broadcaster on downshifting and sustainable living, and I also put together an awareness campaign called National Downshifting Week, which is this week. NDW is a grassroots awareness campaign, designed to encourage participants to “Slow Down and Green Up”! There’s a great quote I often use to sum it all up: “The more money you spend, the more time you have to be out there earning it and the less time you get to spend with the ones you love.”
How does it relate to the environment?
Both my writing/reporting and NDW give me the wonderful opportunity to inspire and encourage people to slow down and green up. I have never had such job satisfaction! My writing, and the campaign for that matter, can be picked up and practiced whether you live in Canada, Canberra, or Chelmsford in the U.K. All the fundamental points about embracing living with less and being kind to our local environment affect our global environment. This might explain why the second-highest readership I have after the U.K. is from America — California to be precise.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m just finishing a couple of films for Channel 5 News and am starting to work on a couple of projects with my local BBC to lower Somerset’s carbon footprint, which offers a great challenge. Also, I’ve been busy giving interviews about NDW — it’s funny being on both sides of the media fence every now and again.
NDW is in her third outing. Saturday was the first day of the campaign; it was “Sustainable Sausage Saturday,” and that has caused quite a buzz. Getting to a butcher or good food producer sustainably, buying locally reared sausages and enjoying them with friends — a nice way to kick it all off!
How do you get to work?
The commute is pretty low carbon. I leave the bedroom, flick the kettle for a cup of tea, fire up the computer and go to work in a tiny spare bedroom, which I share with the kids’ toys, the house filing, and the laundry.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
Long and winding is the answer — I’ll give you the potted highlights! My husband and I were living the usual suburban life: me at home raising our three young children and Ray doing a huge commute to London. He’d kiss the kids in the morning (they were asleep in bed) and come home to kiss them again (they were back in bed asleep). Our lives were running on parallel lines — very unfulfilling.
I was working on ways we could cut back our spending in every way, so as to relieve the financial pressure on his shoulders. I figured the less money we spent, the less time he’d have to be out there earning it and the more time we would have together as a family. We enjoyed and positively embraced living with less, because it gave us something far more precious: time. Then we moved to a 200-year-old knackered, tumbledown farmhouse, embarking on a self-sufficientish life, growing our own, rearing our own, (even killing our own), and living very simply. I documented this journey of discovery, realized there were so many ways people could benefit from making a few changes without moving anywhere, and decided to niche my writing accordingly.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in the east end of London — I’m a little cockney sparrow! Now I live in Somerset.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
I don’t really have a worst, but the most cringe-worthy was my first big interview on the BBC for Radio 4. I was chuffed to bits to have been asked on! I decided to make a list of “how to be happy” notes while I was waiting to go on air, and the bloke on before me was talking about his third failed suicide! It was very hard to focus and made me all the more determined to get my point out to cheer people up. I wanted to read all my notes! The poor interviewer didn’t stand a chance of getting a word in edgeways. I barely paused for breath and rattled it all out. Since then, I’ve never made notes for radio — if you know your subject, just open your mouth and let it find its flow.
What’s been the best?
Certainly one of the best was on my first NDW U.K. tour. I’d done a speaking thing up in Cumbria, after which I sat around the edge of Lake Windermere, pulled out my little stove, cooked up a soup, made a brew of tea, and just contemplated my navel in the peace and beauty of the lakes. Life and work balance holds the key to it all.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
Of late, probably Tony Blair with his limp-wristed comments on flying and carbon-offsetting your work and personal flights — which it didn’t look like he was actually doing, bizarrely enough.
Who is your environmental hero?
Well, it’s certainly not a politician. I’d say Tom and Barbara Good, from the BBC TV sitcom The Good Life, who continue to inspire thousands some 40 years on from when the program was first aired.
What’s your environmental vice?
Having the odd bath. But it’s generally with a friend, so that’s not quite so bad.
How do you spend your free time (if you have any)? Read any good books lately?
I make lots of free time. I love reading, cooking, and trawling around my local charity shops for books and cooking bits.
Good books I’ve read lately include Your Planet Needs You by Jon Symes and Phil Turner, Organic Gardening: The Natural No-Dig Way by Charles Dowding, and The Jewel Garden by Monty and Sarah Don — a compelling read, that one.
What’s your favorite meal?
Quite possibly baked beans, on well-buttered toast with a sprinkling of grated cheese!
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
Actually, to be honest, I think I’m entirely un-stereotypical. I’m just a regular mum, wife, and lover of the planet.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
The craggy and vibrant rock pools at Lyme Regis on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset.
Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?
Was the Bee Gees (eek). Is Robbie Williams.
What’s your favorite movie?
Easy — actually I have two. Phenomenon with John Travolta, and Truly, Madly, Deeply with Juliet Stevenson and Alan Rickman.
Which actor would play you in the story of your life?
Blimey, there’s nothing like being optimistic, eh! Probably Nadia Sawalha.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Print out the Downshifting Manifesto, stick it up on your fridge, chart your continued success toward a simpler, happier life, and inspire everyone who enters your kitchen to slow down and green up!
The best way I found to “downshift” my life was to get rid of my car and bike, walk, and use public transit more. How can we convince others that driving less — not greenwashed cars — is the best solution? — Lisa Phillips, Chicago, Ill.
What a refreshing question, and put forward with personal, positive experience too — well done to you for making the change. Let me begin with the greenwashed cars — by that, I take it you mean the emerging ranges of LPG cars, hybrids, etc. I feel very confident that they will soon stop being the “freaky vehicles” and come far more into the mainstream — they will also come in line with their prices. Anybody who purchases such a car, or converts his or her car to run on cleaned-up fuel (see Biosulis as a great example), is making a great step in the right direction in my view. They are clearly more aware of their road miles and making a conscious effort to leave a lighter impact on their environment.
However, the crux of it all lies absolutely in the great point you have made — as a matter of some urgency, we do need to convince people to drive less! Now, I think this can be achieved in a number of ways, and I favor those ideas that encourage and praise more conscientious travelers, rather than those that take a more persecutory route. That said, the large congestion charge we have for vehicles in London has made a significant and positive impact on our city streets. If it is brought in with force and a vengeance, we have little choice but to toe the line and swallow it!
Certainly, in the U.K., we need elevated public awareness of the fabulous existing car-share schemes already in place. Businesses should be compulsorily contacted with tried and tested frameworks to easily set corporate schemes up for car-share and car-pool vehicles. A powerful, upbeat public-awareness campaign put out via our radios and televisions could have a marked impact.
I think “slowing down and greening up” is key to sustainability, both for social and ecological reasons. I often have a difficult time promoting this concept — it flies in the face of conventional economic and development theory, which is based on the premise of infinite economic growth fueled by ever-increasing levels of consumption. What arguments would you put forward on the macroeconomic scale (say, to Tony Blair) to promote simpler living as something our rich, often overworked and overconsuming societies should embrace? — Emmanuel Prinet, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Whilst I do promote a positive withdrawal from the present über-consumer society we seem to be swamped in, I also encourage wiser spending and investment in goods and products that will save us money and be kinder to the environment in the longer term. I believe the power of the green pound (or dollar) is going to increase at an incredible rate over the coming years, and many a business will be born and broken by a new wave of ethically conscious consumers. I believe my ethos makes a compelling argument, not necessarily telling people to downshift, but simply to get a firmer handle on the work and life balance. They can find their own comfort level within it.
As for Mr. Blair, I understand he will soon have a little more time on his hands. As he is still a relatively young dad, I imagine he may well naturally lean toward some of the ideas I promote. Perhaps he will be a sparkling, early retired, post-PM downshifting role model, which will put me out of a job! I wonder what sized wellies he takes …
I live in Anchorage, Alaska, and wonder if it is morally where I should live. Most everything here is shipped by barge from Seattle or is flown in from around the world. Plus to visit family, long-haul flights are a necessity. Do I need to move to the Lower 48? — Rita Shirley, Anchorage, Alaska
I can see you are devoting much time and thought to the bigger picture, and I can hear such resounding guilt in your words. You must stop! Guilt is such a destructive emotion. I think it’s important we ditch the guilt for what we are not doing and start feeling good about what we are doing! If you love where you live, stay — and perhaps use your positive green energy to set up a car-share group or a shopping cooperative with friends and colleagues, or set up a Freecycle group to help keep things out of the landfill. Make positive progress to lighten your footprint in whatever way you feel drawn to. I would only move to another area if you have a heartfelt desire to do so, but I suspect there are no perfect states, as, indeed, there are no perfect countries. But certainly, feel happier about the beauty that surrounds you wherever you are and actively contribute toward its local environment.
Do you find when you are in contact with people in high gear that you are regarded as lazy or selfish for working less and making more time for yourself? How do you deal with these attitudes? — P.L., Leonia, N.J.
Actually, I’ve been called lots of things — a bit “left of field,” an eternal optimist, even “a green visionary” — but certainly never lazy or selfish. I would like to say, if you do a big downshift (change career, move house, etc.) you actually have to work harder than ever before and be quite entrepreneurial to make all the ends meet — the difference is, you’re working to your own clock.
The Sustainable Living Organization (appropriately nicknamed SLO, as in SLOw down!) at Ohio University is trying desperately to create a place for students to live more sustainably. We carpool to the farmers’ market and recycle paper into notebooks as fundraisers, but it’s hard to find students who “get it.” They’re all busy trying to speed things up to get ahead and fear that sustainable living means sacrifice. How do you translate “less is more” to eager young minds who want it all? — Katie Harris, Athens, Ohio
Thank you for raising the issue of the young and impressionable! I work a lot with schools and preschools too, trying to get the kids on the right, green track long before they step into adulthood. I’m a strong promoter of the Eco-Schools project.
To be honest, I think for the really young ones, this should be a walk in the park! The college and university age group I think presents us all with a tougher nut to crack. They are being driven by aspiration and the need to do it all better, faster, and with shiny, polished knobs on! For the ones who are more easily led to water, I believe influential, hip, trendy celebrity role models have a duty to set and endorse the trend. If those young people cannot get a grip on sustainability now, with such global public scaremongering and awareness going on, it’s going to be a real struggle when they do have to! I believe infecting a friend is one of the most amazing ways to penetrate these hard-liners. Make it your mission to get one a week on board to your way of thinking, and encourage them to do the same. Tell them, “I’m your mum and I said so.” It might work — anything’s worth a try!
I have been conscious of simplifying my life and making more time (or at least trying to) for the past year or so, especially after reading Better Off by Eric Brende and Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin. Are you aware of these books and/or have you been inspired by them? — P.L., Leonia, N.J.
I haven’t read them but have read many extracts from the latter. Books of this ilk can be very inspirational, even epiphanical (made-up-word alert! — but you know what I mean). A few reads that have helped me on my journey are In Praise of Slow by Carl Honoré, Save Cash and Save the Planet from Friends of the Earth, The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency: The Classic Guide for Realists and Dreamers by John Seymour, Scenes From a Smallholding by Chas Griffin, and the WI Book of Biscuits from the Women’s Institute, along with a whole host of cookbooks from my local charity shop.
I know I should try to work less, but can you pass along some additional advice for those of us trying to downshift on the other side of the pond? — Holly Richmond, Seattle, Wash.
You know, regardless of where you live on our planet, I think many of the problems we face are the same. In fact, a recent study of some 22,000 consumers in 46 countries at the turn of the year, asked, “What is your New Year’s wish/resolution for 2007?” Fifty-one percent wanted a better work/life balance — of U.S. consumers, it was actually one in three. I believe there is much inner power to be discovered with the willing acceptance of positively embracing living with less. I still encourage everyone to start by dipping their toes into a bit of downshifting. Analyze how you feel after making a few simple changes, and if you enjoy it and are hungry to take things to the next level, go ahead! Print out the Downshifting Manifesto (yes, I can hear you yelling, “Print out — argh!”) and pin it up on your refrigerator for starters. Please drop me a line if you want some additional one-to-one — I’ll do my level best to help you on your road to a simpler, happier life.
Do you think Brits need to downshift as much as Americans do? I have a rosy image of Europeans in general, taking a break for tea while we put in frenetic overtime, but maybe that’s just a stereotype. — Keith Alan, Oregon City, Ore.
I think the world over we could all benefit from a little time and/or financial downshifting! The survey I mentioned earlier showed 80 percent in favor of more work/life balance in emerging economies, like Vietnam and Indonesia. I find it almost inconceivable how little vacation time is offered to folks in the U.S. and Canada. In the U.K., it’s a pretty standard 20 days. I am in support of Take Back Your Time Day and Shorter Work Week. I sincerely hope your legislation changes. Regarding the tea thing, there was actually a strong decline in the institutional tea break what with the rise in coffee houses here in the U.K., but the newspapers have just reported an 80 percent rise in teapot sales, amongst other tea paraphernalia, and I suspect the balance has been corrected in favor of putting the kettle back on!
I am an urban downshifter. Even though I sold my car and I now buy only what is necessary for me, it seems I spend a lot of money and resources (travel or shipping) to get good food, treats, and vet care for my dog. Any suggestions on how to downshift my pooch? — Jodi Minion, College Station, Texas
A doggie can be a very relaxing companion, particularly when traveling and discovering new places. I certainly wouldn’t say trade him in to save on the dosh! Maybe offer your vet a skill-exchange service. Is there something you can offer in return for reduced fees — painting up the surgery or something of that nature? If not, I guess the bills are just one of those necessary evils.