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

I don’t need all that stuff to have fun

Green Lizard blogged earlier this week about the waste associated with running events, saying:

Why does something aimed at personal health lead to so much that affects the health of the planet?

I cannot emphasise enough how much this statement resonates with me! There are so many hobbies with the potential for creating a better world through improved health, happiness, self-sufficiency, or environmental footprint. Swing dancing, running, playing ukulele, hiking, knitting and gardening all come to mind.

The trouble is, with every pursuit comes an associated cult[ure] of consumerism: “Buy these eight hundred and seventy-three items and they will make you a better dancer/runner/player/hiker/knitter/gardener!”

More insidious is the undertone that you are not an authentic participant unless you purchase all the associated paraphernalia. This is fuelled in part by the simple desire to fit in and look the part. Each subculture has their uniform and tools of the trade — lycra for the cyclists, vintage attire and suede-soled shoes for the swing dancers, or moisture-wicking clothing for the runners. Of course, most activities do require some minimum amount of gear, and the selective acquisition of extra equipment can enhance the experience. However, I wish we could redirect the conversation away from all-the-things-you-need-to-buy-right-now and back towards the simple joy of doing something that makes your heart sing.

All I really need to cycle is a bike.

All I really need to dance is a partner and a smooth floor.

All I really need to make music is my voice.

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.