Recession could have a silver lining for us and planet

Sat, Jul 19, 2008, 01:00

Stress, excess and environmental damage are just some things we might usefully jettison in leaner times, writes Breda O'Brien.

ROB HOPKINS, in his new book, The Transition Handbook - from Oil Dependency to Local Resilience, has a humorous analogy that might have some relevance for our looming recession.

He says that persuading people to change is like inviting a reluctant friend to come with you on holiday. "Environmentalists have often been guilty of presenting people with a mental image of the world's least desirable holiday location - some seedy bed and breakfast near Torquay, with nylon sheets, cold tea and soggy toast - and expecting them to get excited about the prospect of NOT going there. The logic and psychology are all wrong."

However, Hopkins may be too kind in his description of the picture that environmentalists paint. Rather than a seedy B&B, it is more like a holiday on the last remaining ice-floe with a starving and agitated polar bear. Environmentalists want to alert the world and shake it out of its complacency, and yet, at the same time, it is all too easy to reduce people to fatalistic passivity.

If selling environmental change is hard, even Pollyanna would be hard-pressed to sing the praises of a recession. The shiver down the spine is particularly real for those of us who remember the 1980s. However, for the middle classes who lost the run of themselves entirely in the last decade, it could represent a return to some form of sanity.

Even better, the demands of a recession overlap to a large extent with the demands of a planet where global warming and peak oil are realities. It may help some people take a giant leap in awareness now that we are being forced into change by economic realities like soaring petrol prices.

Our lifestyles, as we became more rich and privileged, became ever more wasteful. Cobblers went out of business because people just threw shoes away rather than getting them repaired. Household appliances were replaced because they did not match the new kitchen decor, not because they did not function. Children were casually tossed €20 or €30 every day to purchase their paninis and lattes, because packed lunches were so 1990s.

Meanwhile, we managed to ignore the real poor in our midst, and consign them to the category of losers. Strange how that tendency fades when we ourselves experience a touch of economic frost.

At some stage in the future, our grandchildren may look at the hideous waste mountains that we generated and the species we wiped out with the same horror that we regard children working down the mines in previous eras.

Yet in spite of our affluence, aside from property prices, stress was the second most common topic of conversation. People had more of everything except time, and that included more ulcers. For some people, there may be a secret sigh of relief now that the frantic quest for more, more, more seems to be coming to a halt all by itself.

Hopkins believes that a vision of the future that is positive and uplifting is far more effective than a lesson on how to avoid a holiday in a soggy B&B near Torquay.

He often uses humour to illustrate what he means. For example, he has a tongue-in-cheek tale of the Beckhams in 2029, still trendsetters in their 50s, building a cob house, and cooing over how they managed to make it smaller and smaller. Their new hobby is growing heirloom fruits and vegetables. (Cob is a building material made of clay, sand and straw.) That's a sly dig at how our expectations of celebrity currently shape our lives, but there is more than a grain of truth in it. Already, celebrities are embracing the painless aspects of change - buying ethically sourced clothing, raiding secondhand shops or toting cloth bags instead of some monstrosity of a handbag that costs as much as a small car.

They are being followed by the middle classes. Frugality is becoming chic, if only because cash is becoming scarcer. It won't be just a matter of buying in the pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap supermarkets, but of really looking at the food we eat.

The era of artificially cheap food is over. But wasn't a great deal of what we were eating pure rubbish, anyway? More takeaways and TV dinners and less home cooking did not lead to gastronomic bliss.

The urban fruit and vegetable garden is already making a comeback. There is something deeply satisfying about eating from one's own garden.

Recently I was thinking about my father's generation, and how they ate organic food in their youth because no one had invented artificial fertilisers or pesticides yet. Hopkins lived in Ireland for a long time, but as this book is written primarily for a British audience, he appeals to the spirit of the last great "powerdown", the second World War.

During our own quaintly-termed Emergency, people managed and even thrived when rationing was in place. The despised "black" bread of the time would be marketed as a health food today.

Hopkins describes how our whole education system will have to change, given that it has produced the most skill-less generation that we have ever known, to the extent that some people are lucky to emerge from cutting a slice of bread with their fingers intact. In an era of fossil fuel scarcity, people will have to be able to be much more self-sufficient. He believes that from primary school on, gardening, cooking and woodwork skills will become a core part of the curriculum. School grounds will become intensive gardens, and secondary schools will teach pupils how to create, install and maintain renewable energy systems.

Travel abroad will become something rare and special, with people saving for long but infrequent trips. Beats the heck out of the hellish vista that greets most people at airports today, and the steady tread of stewards' feet up and down the airplane selling everything from lotto tickets to phone credit.

Our current system depends on people spending beyond their means, and inevitable cycles of boom and bust. If instead of being seen as a disaster, this recession was seen as a transition to a more sane and sustainable way of life, perhaps we could begin to visualise a world where enough really was enough.