When I hear people talk about animal or environmental activism, protests, marches, people chaining themselves to railings and standing in front of bulldozers always spring to mind.
However, if I look at the true meaning of “activist” I get pretty diverse meanings – “campaigner”, “protester”, and “advocate” along with “radical”, “liberal”, “open-minded” (not always a word I’d associate with “radical”) as well as “forward-thinking”, “highly developed” and “modern”.
So activism can be all of these things and covers a range as small or large as one can accommodate. I know of tree-protesters who look down on people who work fulltime and squeeze a variation of green living into their busy schedules, I know others who look down on people who give up conventional lifestyles to live alternatively, the better to spend time on activities directed by their hearts.
And yet, all of these people are activists, in the way that is possible for them to be. Not everyone is brave enough to stand in front of bulldozers, not everyone can give up their jobs or chain themselves to railings. Small, consistent actions can make as much difference as the large, dramatic ones. Each has their place in activism. It is the small actions that I will address over the next two months in this column.
… in your home
It is said that a person’s home is their castle. And yet, we furnish our homes with goods made by child workers because it is cheap; we purchase kitchenware from countries such as China, which has an appalling record of abuse towards its people, its animals and the environment; we buy pesticide-laden fruit and vegetables because it’s too much of an arse to produce our own and finally, we buy that really cute toy cat curled up asleep for someone as a birthday present because it is so loveable and manage to forget what our fingers tell us – that the toy cat is made up of cat, which makes it so realistic. They’re made in Germany and China by people who skin the cats alive because then they don’t have to waste money on bullets or drugs to kill them. And we buy them because they’re cute and convenient and we know loads of cat lovers who’d want one.
Not all actions require huge effort. Sometimes we can make a difference by not buying something. Here’s how to make small, cheap, quick differences to our lives and the lives of the people and animals whose earth we share …
(i) Conserve water by switching off the tap when brushing your teeth.
(ii) Buy organic fruit and vegetables which admittedly is more expensive. However, this is a no-brainer. The cheap stuff is mostly imported from a country you have probably never been to and produced on vitamin and mineral-depleted soils using large amounts of pesticides (some of them banned in your country but still used on what you and your children eat). Better (and cheaper) still – grown your own. If you have a garden, this is easy. If you have a flat, grow your own herbs instead. Or share an allotment with a friend. A fully-functioning allotment can produce enough to keep a family of four in fruit and vegetables for nearly a year.
(iii) Do not buy cosmetics tested on animals. Be aware that some companies have “this product has not been tested on animals” on the label but use animal-testing on the ingredients of those products. PETA has a full list of manufacturers which both do and do not test and which do and do not buy from others who test and to what degree (see http://www.peta-online.org) although their criteria includes those companies which used to test and no longer do so. Also, some companies who do not test on animals are either subsidiaries or owned by companies that do, for example, The Body Shop (don’t test) – which is now owned by L’Oreal (which does) which in turn is part-owned by Nestle (which does and conducts even more unappealing activities).
(iv) Switch to Ecover products (www.ecover.com) which are now also available from most supermarkets. In my opinion they are not quite as effective as the conventional ones but they are better for the environment, better for you and better for your children and animals. What’s a bit of elbow-grease in comparison?
(v) Save up and buy ethically produced clothes and furniture rather than cheap ones. Not only will they last longer, but you will know that you haven’t lined the pockets of somebody who exploits people in order to make a buck. Make informed choices and do your label checking though – for instance many stores with previous good names are now buying Chinese-made clothes and shoes (in the UK Debenhams, Marks & Spencers and Evans) to name but a few. Debenhams are listed in the book “Ethical Shopping”, ISBN number 1-904132-08-1, as a company with a code of conduct which prohibits them from buying goods produced by children which is good, but they purchase from China? If people stop buy these goods, shops will stop selling them.
(vi) Where possible, buy wooden articles out of reclaimed wood. If this is not possible, purchase from suppliers who buy from ethically managed plantations. There is an environmental cost associated even with responsibly managed forests – when trees are cut down, birds lose their nests (sometimes with chicks still in them), insects lose their homes, small mammals are killed and the eco-system is disturbed. However, this is small fry in comparison with illegal logging which not only destroys the immediate environment but also the rivers the logs are sent down (this is easier in some parts of the world than transporting by road), the birds and beavers’ nests along the way and the environment when that illegal timber is treated with pesticides to preserve it.
(vii) Buy your friends and family a copy of “Change The World For a Fiver”, ISBN number 1-904095-96-8. It is full of good, easy ideas to make a difference and is fun to read.
(viii) Put your money in ethical ISAs. This will ensure that your money is invested in companies which do not exploit others or the environment and the money you make will not be soaked in the blood, pain and suffering of others.
(ix) If you don’t recycle tins, then cut lids completely off and clean both parts before putting them in the rubbish. Wild animals injure themselves horribly by cutting themselves on the tin’s sharp edges or getting the tins stuck round their muzzles.
(x) Put a bell on your cat to prevent it decimating the local wildlife. If one does not work, try two or three. Your cat won’t be impressed with you for a short while but the local bird and small mammal population will. Bring it indoors at dusk and keep it in until dawn. Not only will your cat be less harmful to its environment, it will also be safer.
(xi) Stop using pesticides, slug pellets and other harmful chemicals in your garden. Your garden will take about a year to settle down afterwards but it does balance itself out. More slugs mean more birds, more aphids mean more ladybeetles. I grow nettles in my garden because the aphids love them and having them keeps the aphids off my roses. The only spray I use occasionally is a dilution of washing up liquid and vinegar – it kills aphids but needs to be applied carefully and at the right time as it will also affect bees, spiders and other beneficial insects. Encourage caterpillars– they turn into butterflies and moths, populations of both have suffered over the last 25 years due to chemicals being used in gardens and parks.
(xii) If you are lucky enough to have a garden, keep a part of it uncultivated for bumble bees to nest in, hedgehogs to rummage round in and foxes to raise their young in. You’ll have fun watching them in a natural and safe environment.
… in your neighbourhood
How often do you moan about the state of your neighbourhood, the fact that all your small, local shops have closed down, the amount of crime about? If you’re me and the people I know – lots! And not all of us try to fix it. It is far easier to moan than to instigate change. And yet it does not take much effort …
(i) If your neighbourhood needs regeneration or is having regeneration it does not need (more cheap housing for instance, in an area saturated by people), start a petition. There are loads of these about but if enough people sign them and they are publicised in the right way, they are taken seriously at local and national government level. If you don’t have the time, sign one. If you have a bit more time, engage with the petitioners and agree to write a letter to the local press supporting their cause. It all goes towards showing those in charge that the people they represent abhor what they are doing.
(ii) Don’t be afraid to confront people who behave unsociably but do be careful. If someone looks deranged, is acting in a threatening manner or your gut tells you they’re going to do so, don’t confront them or put yourself in danger. Go to somewhere safe and call the police … even if you have to wait 15 minutes to get through and feel a bit foolish because the police then can’t find said idiot (yup – I’ve done this one).
(iii) Teach your children and those children with whom you come into contact to behave responsibly towards animals, birds and the environment. Don’t let children pick up your prejudices and turn them into excuses for causing harm, under the guise of having fun or doing the right thing (such as kicking birds because they frighten Aunty Alice).
(iv) Encourage your friends and neighbours to recycle – many neighbourhoods and councils now run recycling collection schemes. Where this is far-reaching, encourage everyone to make it a way of life. Where it does not cover enough, campaign for your local council to extend the range of goods it collects and recycles.
(v) Make your own gifts and cards. I know many people (including children) who much prefer a hand-made gift or a gift of time than a mass-produced, store-bought item. Jam, cake, biscuits and herb baskets are quick and relatively easy to make. Home-made jam, made with organic or home-grown fruit in sterile conditions lasts up to two years. Give a child a voucher of time to spend with you – kite-flying, teaching them to sew, going to the beach or any other activity they enjoy.
(vi) Support your local charity or charities which act on issues close to your heart. I would love to spend a day a week working at the local animal shelter. I know that I would be utterly useless at it – I am not in great physical shape, I am far too emotional about animals in general and would cry buckets if any animal or bird was put down and would just get in the way. So I support them by attending their open days, sponsoring animals and letting others know about the great work that they do.
Small, concerted contributions make a difference. Change begins with each of us, acting individually as an example to others or together as a group making a difference.