New Year, New Direction

I haven’t written here for a while now – in fact it’s been well over a year since I last blogged regularly. The longer I’m absent, the harder it becomes to return; it feels as though the first blog post after a long break has to be a reintroduction of sorts, that I can’t just pick back up where I left off without providing an explanation and apology for my absence.

So here is that explanation-apology-reintroduction post. It doesn’t say much, really, but it gives me the freedom to talk about anything I like in my next post.

2017 was a busy year for me. On paper, it looks like a year full of success and achievements. But the final few months, in particular, were some of the busiest months of my life (perhaps excluding the time spent writing my PhD thesis, which I don’t find at all comparable to regular busyness). In the middle of the year, when I knew my life was already full to capacity with work and home life and study and volunteer activities, along came a new opportunity that I just couldn’t say no to. And instead of making room by dropping something else from my long list of commitments, I just added it to the mix and hoped for the best.

I got through the last few months only with the support of family, with too many days in bed recovering, and with asking too much of my husband while he’s trying to finish his PhD. So in 2018 I’m refocusing towards a slower pace of life. I’m not sure yet exactly how this year is going to pan out; I’m still not good at letting go of the things that I know aren’t as important to make more time for the things that are. But I want to be at home more to support my husband. I want to give myself more space to think and breathe and be. I want to enjoy life every day, not just look towards a future where I might finally have everything I want.

All this might mean I have more time to write. But then again, it might not. Slowing down is about choosing to do less, and choosing to prioritise the things that are most important to me right now. And as much as I love writing, it still falls fairly low on my list of priorities – below supporting my husband at home, below looking after my health and well-being, below spending time with my family and friends, below choosing sustainable but time-consuming options over convenient but wasteful ones. And, as much as I love blogging and reading other people’s blogs, the last thing I want to do after spending a long day sitting in front of a computer at work is to spend my evenings and weekends sitting in front of a computer screen writing and reading.

So all this is to say: I hope to see you again soon this year, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t quite happen.

Water

I’m awake. Why am I awake? It’s still dark outside – must be early. I look at the alarm clock beside my bed. It’s 5:30 in the morning; why am I awake?! Hang on, what’s that sound… It sounds like the shower is running. What’s going on? My husband is still in bed beside me. Did someone break into our house to have a shower??

I’m still half asleep and not thinking straight, but I stumble out of bed to go investigate. Opening the bathroom door I see water spurting out of a pipe beneath the hand-basin and a rapidly growing pool of water on the floor. Well fuck. My husband races outside to turn off the water at the mains. Then, with the immediate crisis under wraps, I call our landlord to ask for a plumber to fix the burst pipe, and we set to work mopping up all the water that has flooded the bathroom and surrounding rooms.

***

Water is a topical issue in New Zealand at the moment. Water quality in our lakes and rivers has been in decline for many years now. Dairy farming is the main culprit, but other factors also contribute, like overfishing and mismanagement of wastewater.

After years of scientists, environmental groups and opposition parties complaining about the poor quality of freshwater in our country, the government finally set out to do something about it. Unfortunately, that ‘something‘ amounts to weakening water quality standards so that more rivers and lakes can qualify as ‘swimmable’ without the government or dairy farmers having to actually improve water quality. Under the old standards, a river that was considered swimmable would cause illness in no more than 1 in 100 people who swam in it. The new standards allow for up to 1 in 20 people to catch a nasty bug like E. coli – a disturbingly high risk.

***

In the last couple of weeks, heavy rains have  caused massive flooding in many parts of the country. First, reports filtered through of flooding at friends’ baches (holiday homes) in the Coromandel, with lawns turning into lakes and road closures cutting off access to several seaside communities. Then the rains arrived in earnest in Auckland, with West Auckland suburbs being particularly hard hit – think waist-high flash flooding, sinkholes opening up and sewage overflows. A colleague of mine saw it as a kind of karmic retribution for letting our rivers and lakes become so polluted.

One consequence of the flash flooding and slips that accompanied the stormy weather was a lot of unsettled silt in the dams that supply half of Auckland’s water. As a result, the treatment plant is having to work harder than normal to clean the water, and Aucklanders have been asked to reduce our water usage by 20 litres each day or risk having our water supply topped up with partially-treated water that may not be safe to drink.

With Aucklanders using on average 160 litres of water per person per day, this water reduction request isn’t particularly onerous and we’ve so far managed to stick to it. But the possibility of not having drinkable tap water seems a far cry from what we’ve grown accustomed to in urban New Zealand (last year’s drinking water contamination scandal in Havelock North notwithstanding).

***

This Wednesday 22 March is World Water Day. Oxfam are running Taps Off Day, a challenge that aims to raise awareness about the many communities around the world who don’t have access to clean water, and to make us consider how we would manage in the event of an emergency that cuts off access to our regular water supply.

I’ve already experienced the frustrations of going without tap water recently. After the pipe burst in my bathroom earlier this year, my husband and I had several hours at home with the water turned off while waiting for a plumber to arrive. Having no access to running water made our usual morning tasks – like bathing, washing our hands, having a cup of tea with breakfast, rinsing our dishes – much more challenging. If we didn’t already have a 10-litre container of water left over from a camping trip then we wouldn’t have had access to any clean water for drinking or washing. (Yes, I’ve heard the old trick about using water from your toilet cistern, but having seen the inside of our cistern I’d rather not go there!) This experience made me appreciate just how lucky we are to have clean, running water. Running water makes simple things like washing your hands so much easier. And instant access to drinkable water is a privilege we shouldn’t take for granted – and essential for reducing the waste associated with bottled water.

It seems fitting that Taps Off Day is happening now. The events of the last few weeks highlight how vulnerable our water and wastewater systems are to extreme weather events, which are predicted to become more common as climate change progresses. Can you imagine a life without clean tap water? What would you do if your water supply was cut off for a few hours, a day, a week or longer? And how do we make our water systems more resilient in the face of an increasingly unpredictable future?

New Perspectives

Hello, old friend. I know I’ve been absent for a while – nearly six whole months, in fact. Where does the time go?

Truth be told, the last few months of 2016 seemed to disappear in a flash. “Is it really October already?” I thought. “November? December? 2017?!”

I kept meaning to come back here, and write a blog post – or five. My absence has not been for lack of inspiration. But when life is rattling along at a breakneck pace, the easiest commitments to drop first are those I keep solely for my own enjoyment, and blogging sits squarely in that basket.

That’s not to say my life was passing swiftly by without me. When I look back over the past year, I can see I filled my time with things I love and that are important to me – dancing; hanging out with family and friends; learning Te Reo Māori; rediscovering downtime; finding a new home with my husband; moving to a place that helps me to live more in line with my values…

It’s those last two points I’d like to elaborate on now. Moving to a new home brought about several changes in my attempts to tread lightly on the earth, for better and for worse.

Ginger cat sitting on footpath at intersection

The neighbourhood cat

Unfortunately, I found the process of moving to a new neighbourhood rather disruptive to my nascent zero-waste habits. I’d spent months finding local shops and suppliers that enabled me to reduce household packaging, and now I was back at square one. Not only that, but the stress of moving into and setting up a new home took its toll and I found myself growing lax about buying plastic-packaged food. I’ve started to establish new waste-minimising routines here, but getting back on the zero-waste bandwagon is definitely a work in progress.

This was the first time my husband and I moved into a completely unfurnished home, so we had to acquire a number of new-to-us items. Some of these items we did have to buy brand new, either because we needed them urgently or because it’s the only way to source apartment-sized furniture and whiteware in New Zealand. But we also found a lot of the things we needed secondhand, in op shops, online, or donated by relatives. 

One of the things we acquired was a car. It’s the first time I’ve officially owned a car, and I have very conflicted feelings about it. Car travel is far more damaging to the environment and to local communities than going by foot or public transport, but I must admit that it’s so darn convenient to own a car in Auckland. In the past I’ve always been able to access a parent’s car for those trips I couldn’t make by bus or train. At our new house, my husband and I don’t need a car for any of our day-to-day work, study, shopping or recreational trips. But when it comes to visiting far-flung friends and family (or bulk bin stores) there really isn’t a good alternative to the car.

On the other hand, I love the location of my new home because it means I don’t need to use the car very often. I can walk to work in less than an hour; the nearest supermarket is just five minutes away by foot, as are op shops and whole foods stores. I can go to dance and yoga classes with a fifteen-minute walk. The local bus route runs every five minutes all day and every ten minutes late into the evening and on weekends, and the train line is also nearby. As far as Auckland locations go, it’s pretty much perfect for (almost) car-free living. Ultimately, being able to access such a variety of destinations on foot gives me a sense of freedom and autonomy. I love that walking can legitimately be the easiest and fastest way for me to get where I’m going, and I love being able to get a regular dose of exercise as part of my commute.

On balance, the move to a small, central apartment has made me feel like I’m living more in keeping with my values. I can drive less, walk more, spend less time commuting and cleaning, and more time enjoying my home. And I can access the people and places I want to visit more easily, so I’m looking forward to another year filled with the things I love. 

Jacaranda tree in bloom

Jacaranda tree in bloom

P.S. I’d love to end on that positive note, but as we dive headlong into the second month of 2017 I feel the need to somehow acknowledge the darkness clouding the world at this time. I’m feeling pretty powerless down here at the bottom of the planet though. While I don’t have the capacity to engage with the issues in a meaningful way right now, I promise: I am here, I am awake, I am watching, I am listening. 

While the light lasts I shall remember, and in the darkness I shall not forget.

5 reasons I love my fruit and vegetable box

Earlier this year my family started getting a box of fruit and vegetables delivered to our house each week. We decided to order from a company called Ooooby — Out Of Our Own Backyards — because they specialise in local, organic produce, but there are a ton of other companies offering a similar service.

After a couple of months using the service, here are five reasons I love our fruit & veg box.

1. It’s fresh, local, seasonal, and organic

So this is four reasons rolled into one, but they’re all related. Ooooby makes a point of sourcing all their produce as locally as possible. The fruit and veg arrives fresh at our doorstep within a day of being delivered to Ooooby. Because the food is fresh and locally grown, it’s in season too. And Ooooby also focuses on organics, making it much easier (and cheaper, and less packaged) than buying organic produce at a store.

2. It’s super convenient

Between our weekly Ooooby box delivery and a bulk shopping trip for dried goods every month, we don’t have too much more in the way of grocery shopping. That saves a lot of time each weekend that we used to spend traipsing around the supermarket.

3. It’s like Christmas every week

I get excited about receiving a package full of healthy, tasty goodness each week! Opening up the box and seeing all the fresh colours there gives me a thrill similar to unwrapping Christmas presents — but without all the waste and misdirected consumerism.

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Sneak peek… look at that colour!

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A week’s worth of delicious fresh fruit and vegetables

4. We get to try new types of food

Each box comes with a different variety of fruit and veg, depending on what Ooooby’s growers have available that week. And each box includes all sorts of items I never would have bought (or even seen) when shopping at the supermarket! So far the new types of food I’ve tried cooking thanks to Ooooby include:

  • Chestnuts
  • Kale
  • Beetroot
  • Tatsoi
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • Fennel
  • Daikon radish

We’ve also received exciting new varieties of familiar plants, like pointy capsicums and rainbow chard.

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Another week’s haul (minus a bunch of kale that had already been sent to the fridge)

5. It’s (almost) waste-free!

The main packaging is the box, which Ooooby collect and reuse each delivery. Aside from tape on the box, paper to protect leafy greens, paper bags for dirty root vegetables, and the odd rubber band, our produce now comes virtually packaging-free, which makes it much easier to avoid plastic and other waste — perfect for Plastic Free July. It also means no more pesky fruit stickers! And we can now buy organic, fair-trade bananas without the plastic tape they come wrapped in at the supermarket.

Of course, getting our produce delivered is not a perfect setup. We have less control over how much fruit and veg we get each week — some weeks we’re barely scraping by and others we end up with a lot more than we need. And when the supply chain is this short and local, any hiccups at the supplier’s end have a much greater influence on us as consumers. But on balance, I’m totally in love with my weekly produce delivery and I highly recommend it as a way to buy local, seasonal, and plastic-free food.

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with Ooooby in any way; I’m just a happy customer.

April spring blossoms

As autumn started this year a blustery storm stripped our plum tree of its dying autumn leaves.

A few weeks later we started seeing new buds, white blossoms and fresh green leaves appearing… Our poor plum tree doesn’t know what season it is!

Plum tree blossoming in autumn

Plum tree blossoming in autumn

This autumn has been uncommonly warm, and while it’s tempting to point the finger at climate change, the blame probably rests with the El Niño weather pattern we’ve been having.

I just hope our plum tree has enough reserves left to survive the winter and blossom again next spring.

Things I learnt from city living

A year ago my husband and I were living in a small apartment in Auckland’s city centre. We only stayed there for six months before moving back out to suburbia, but I learned a lot during that time.

1. Small can be beautiful

My apartment had a floor area of just 31 m², including a mezzanine sleeping area with a rather low ceiling (only my shortest friends could stand up straight without hitting their heads). But the high ceiling and full-height windows in the main living area made the room feel much more spacious than many of the other tiny apartments we viewed while flat-hunting. Continue reading

Summer in the Garden

I’m spending my summer holiday at home. There’s no better time to enjoy the garden than a lazy summer day.

What makes a home?

My partner and I moved into our own place together for the first time a few months ago. No flatmates, no family, just the two of us. In anticipation of this event, I got incredibly nesty and found myself lusting over homeware catalogues and decor-filled pinterest boards. For some reason, the purchase of homeware became synonymous with making a home a place of my own.

This all vanished as soon as we moved in — partly because I was acutely aware that we didn’t have space in our tiny apartment for any more stuff, but mostly because the desire for a place of our own had been fulfilled.

"Home is where the books are" (photo by Kamal Hamid, https://www.flickr.com/photos/evergreenkamal/3774469213/)

Home is where the books are (photo by Kamal Hamid, https://www.flickr.com/photos/evergreenkamal/3774469213/)

The question of homeware acquisition is coming to the forefront of my mind again in a different way, as we plan our wedding gift registry. Like many modern couples, we’ve been living away from home for several years and already have a lot of what we need. Replacing it all with shiny new items doesn’t appeal to me. More importantly, we know we’re going to be living in a pre-furnished house for at least another year after we get married, so any homeware gifts we receive will just join our existing boxes full of stuff in storage. What’s the point? Why not receive something we can use right now, instead of acquiring yet more items that we’ll forget we even own?

But when I recently read the story of another couple who have had a similar experience with wedding gifts sitting in storage for a couple of years, I began to see that my short-term thinking is at odds with the long-term planning of a marriage. What does it matter if we have to store our household belongings for one more year, or even several years? We all intend for a marriage to last the rest of our lives, and good quality wedding gifts can serve us for that entire time. Then, as we grow old and grey(er) together, we can look around our home and be reminded of the love and support of our wedding guests all those years ago.

A Low-Impact Guide to Christmas Presents

It’s December already, which means Christmas is just around the corner! My childhood love for Christmas has remained intact into adulthood — I love spending time with family, delicious seasonal food, summer holidays by the beach, and even Christmas carols. I also love the excitement of unwrapping gifts, but I don’t love the needless waste that comes with Christmas gift-giving. (Note that gift vouchers are part of this waste. They may provide a bit more choice to the giftee, but ultimately they’re still enforcing the idea that we have to buy more stuff, and typically come from big chain stores rather than local independent retailers).

It started five years ago when I moved out of home for the first time. I had to pack and move boxes upon boxes of accumulated belongings, much of which had been given to me by other people. I’ve moved to a different flat every year since then, and each time I move I think “oh hell, I have so much stuff!

After the first big move, I sent out an email to my aunts, uncles and grandparents requesting that they don’t give me any Christmas presents. I explained that I just don’t need the extra stuff, and if they felt the need to spend money I’d rather it went to a good cause like Oxfam Unwrapped. I’m glad to say that every Christmas since then I’ve received a variety of charity gift cards from my extended family, and no presents more physical than chocolate (and who can say no to chocolate!)

I like to think my request benefited my family too. By letting them spend less time and energy on shopping, they have more time to spend doing other things.

So here are some ideas for reducing the amount of stuff you give this Christmas:

  1. Charity gifts let your money go to those in need. There are plenty of options available, such as Oxfam Unwrapped, Unicef Survival Gifts, CWS Gifted, Greenpeace Giving, Heifer International, WWF Adopt an Animal, and SPCA Give some TLC. If none of these appeal, you can make a donation to any charity of your choice and create your own card telling the recipient which great cause their gift is supporting.
  2. Give the gift of time. For example, you could offer to help with housework, gardening or babysitting, cook them a meal, take them out for a dinner or coffee date, or buy tickets to see a movie, play, comedy show, concert or other event.
  3. Food can be enjoyed once, then it’s gone and doesn’t sit around cluttering up your home. Bonus points if it’s homemade — my partner’s ginger-bread houses went down a treat last year!
  4. Bath products are consumables like food, but use this option with caution: I’ve always struggled to use up all the body washes and moisturisers that I receive so they end up being clutter anyway. You also have to watch out for the nasty chemicals that many products contain, and be aware that many people have sensitive skin.
  5. Ask them what they really need — this is something my immediate family always does and it works well for us, but it takes away the element of surprise so not everyone will appreciate it.

If you can’t move past the idea of giving a lasting physical object, then consider buying something that will have a positive impact on the world. Think fair trade or locally made; carbon neutral; cruelty free; second hand, recycled or upcycled; organically grown; minimally packaged; reusable and built to last; or home made. Great places to start looking include Trade Aid, ecostore, Huckleberry FarmsRed Cross or Mercy Hospice Shops. Or choose a gift that can provide hours of entertainment and social fun, like a board game or a ukulele for indoorsy types, or a soccer ball or frisbee for sporty types.

On the other hand, you could make a joint decision with your family to not give presents at all, and instead appreciate the time spent with loved ones at Christmas. However, I am hesitant to suggest moving away from gift-giving altogether, and not just because I enjoy unwrapping presents! Giving can have personal and social benefits. At a personal level, the Sovereign Wellbeing Index notes that “giving money away tends to make people happier than spending it on themselves.” And many cultures see gift-giving as an integral part of forming and strengthening social bonds. For example, New Zealand historian and author Michael King wrote in Nga Iwi O Te Motu that in Māori culture “aroha and mana gave status to distribution, not to accumulation.” In other words, you would gain prestige and affection from your community by sharing your wealth instead of hoarding it. Perhaps, then, the best way forward is to reorient our modern gift-giving practices to focus on sharing not shopping.

What is really meant by “housing affordability”?

The last few years has seen an ass-load of media coverage about the housing affordability crisis in Auckland. The median price of a house in Auckland is now 7 times the median salary of an Aucklander, compared with 5 times in 1998… And quite frankly, the thought of saving enough money to place a deposit on a decent house* in a decent location** and to service the mortgage for three decades afterwards*** terrifies me.

For this post I want to focus on one aspect of the housing affordability debate that never seems to get much coverage: What exactly is an affordable house?

The most common measure is that affordable housing should cost no more than 30% of household income.† However, I’ve seen different sources report this as either pre-tax or post-tax household income, and in some cases the cost of power and water are included while others refer only to the cost of rent or mortgage payments. Often, none of these variables are mentioned at all. Depending which combination of criteria are used, my current housing costs are between 25% or 40% of my income (for rent only as a proportion of gross income, or rent plus utility bills as a percent of net income, respectively), so clearly defining the criteria of housing costs and household income makes a significant difference to the proportion of people who have access to affordable housing.

Furthermore, why is the percentage of household income used as the affordability threshold in the first place? Let’s say household A earns $50,000 per year, while household B earns $150,000, and both spend 30% of their income on housing costs. Household A has $35,000 leftover for all other living costs, while household B is left with $105,000, i.e. three times as much as household A. That $70,000 difference will make a huge difference in the overall lifestyle and living standards of the two families. It seems to me that overall living costs, and the availability of a living wage, are more important considerations for assessing affordability than the proportion of income taken up by  any one living cost in isolation (e.g. housing, food, or travel).

In my next post on housing affordability, I’ll discuss the different ways that housing costs can be measured, which are cause for debate about whether housing in Auckland is actually less affordable than it was a generation ago.

 

* i.e., not falling apart
** i.e., where most of my transport needs can be met without using a car
*** i.e., most of the remainder of my working life
† Although it’s worth noting that in the first half of the 20th century affordable housing was considered to cost no more than 20% of household income