Wednesday, December 28, 2005

What about sustainable development?

I went to bed last night thinking about how unsustainable the current consumer-driven economy is and woke up this morning to read: 90% underground water in China polluted. Cities in northern China have been the most polluted with increasingly more pollutants, causing economic losses worth of [sic] dozens of billions of US dollars.

When I say (in many places in this blog and on Organic-Ally) that buying 'cheap' has its long-term repercussions, readers might think that I am a snob. So perhaps I should change my tune and say 'cheap' is not sustainable.

Just before Christmas British fishermen were told that their quota of cod that could be landed is to be reduced by 5% (if I remember correctly). Demand for cod has led to over-fishing in the North Sea. Even juvenile fish have been landed resulting in their not being able to reproduce, thus further reducing the stock of cod.

Very soon, there won't be any cod and the cod fishermen will simply have nowt. Is this sustainable?

Fishing and agriculture might seem a far cry from what readers here might be familiar with. So let's take an urban example.

Public transport in a major city. Poor public tranport makes people decide to drive to work. More cars on the road lead to more congestion. Ultimately the roads are gridlock and no one goes any where.

I remember vividly my short work stint in Jakarta where as a pampered overpaid management consultant we were chauffeured every where. Coming back from lunch break one afternoon we were stuck in gridlock traffic (as usual). But as work still needed to be completed (well, yes, us overpaid management consultants really did work our socks off) we decided to walk the five minutes back to the office.

Our driver turned up an hour later. Is this a symptom of sustainable development?

Which brings me to cheap clothes and stuff we do not need. I was thrilled to find a (fellow) social scientist Juliet Schor making a case in Social Justice vs the Cheap Sweater.

Here the author is arguing that globalization is making products so much cheaper that consumers are led to buy more. Conventional political wisdom says that this is a good thing. But from the point of view of the planetary ecology, and perhaps even from the point of view of consumers' welfare, it's a more complex picture.

Schor goes on to note that the "cotton used for all those free t-shirts is pesticide-intensive and depletes soil at a rapid rate. Textile dyes use carcinogenic chemicals, such as azo-dyes, which have been banned in Europe, but not the United States".

Then she asks the ultimate question of "whether consumers are really better off because they've been snapping up clothes, shoes, accessories, bed sheets, TVs, computers, and toys at historically unprecedented rates".

"The fact that they're also discarding many of them almost as fast should give the proponents of cheap imports pause. And when we add into the equation the loss of domestic jobs, the exploitation of foreign workers, and the degradation of the environment locally and globally, the whole package looks a lot less appealing, and the failures of the global economy more glaring."

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Monday, December 26, 2005

How to have a stress-free Christmas

It has been my most stress-free Christmas.

I have memories of in-laws rushing about fretting over bread sauce and stuffing and the lot, mum-in-law lamenting that my table was not dressed properly as I did not have any table decorations.

"O! I'll make you one next year."

She hadn't noticed that we have a very narrow table and there is simply no room for decorations.

As a Christian, I know full well that Christmas is about remembering the birth of Jesus and its implications on my personal life. It is also, for me, a celebration of time with loved ones. As someone who had spent several Christmases on my own when I first came to work in this country, Christmas is also a time to share hospitality with those with no family, as a sort of replay of that "no room at the inn" scenario.

Last year, with husband being so ill that Christmas nearly had to be "cancelled", I am thankful that he is in good health this year.

In the run-up to Christmas I have been asked several times, "Are you all ready?"

My answers were variations on the theme of "No, and so what? If things go wrong, things go wrong."

One response to that was, "You are so calm."

And then it suddenly tweaked as to why I seemed so calm.

I realised that a lot of the stress is centred on how the meal would turn out and what we have on the table. People with no money don't worry about these things. To many around the world, the question on Christmas day is not "turkey or goose?", "mince pies or Christmas pudding?", "with or without brandy butter?". It is "Would we have food today? Or tomorrow?".

Another stress comes from "Have we bought all the presents?". I don't think the Wise Men were stressed up about what to bring to Jesus. They brought what was at their disposal. Just as my five-year-old drew little pictures and put them in envelopes he had fashioned out of paper, and wrote "To Mum with Love from ----" and the same "To Dad ...."

Even if we didn't manage to buy presents by Christmas, the shops re-open on Boxing Day. Why buy presents before Christmas when they cost half as much after Christmas? It's not what I receive that matters, it's whether it comes from the heart. Why buy when you could make?

So I realised that I should be thankful that we even have food on the table and a roof over our heads. If we happen to have a bit more to spare, then it's great to be able to celebrate. If not, life goes on.

With this perspective, it became clear that Christmas is not about cooking a meal in a certain way by a certain time to feed x number of people. It is not about how the table looks. It is not about buying and receiving the "right" presents.

It has been a glorious weekend for us, relaxing with family and friends, eating well, but not over-eating.

Bing Crosby sings "And may all your Christmases be white."

I say, "And may all your Christmases be just as stress-free." Enjoy!

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Friday, December 23, 2005

Cheap, plentiful, harmful Part II

I forgot to mention in my last post that retailers and supermarkets in UK have been up in arms about a EU proposal that seeks to stop China from "dumping" cheap plastic bags here. See article here.

The article also tells us that every year an estimated 17.5 BILLION plastic bags are given away by supermarkets, equivalent to about 290 bags for every person in the UK."

Well, I don't collect 290 bags a year, and neither does my husband nor my son. So someone else must be collecting our 290 x 3 bags every year.

We are also told that "The average plastic bag made in China costs between 1p and 2p, although fancy bags used by fashion shops could cost double that. A retailer such as Marks & Spencer might use 200 million bags every year."

The retailers are afraid that a tariff on these bags from China would increase their overheads. This proposed tariff has come about because "30 EU manufacturers complained that Asian competitors were selling bags for export more cheaply than they were sold on their domestic markets."

It did not come about because EU manufacturers are concerned with the health and safety issues surrounding the manufacture of such bags in China, or fair trade, or ethical trade. The proposed tariff is solely protectionist (ie selfish).

Then, look at this piece of news I had missed earlier this month: "Plastic bag tax dropped by MSPs". The Scottish Parliament, or part of it, were more concerned about "the potential for job losses in the plastic bag industry". Again, it's jobs (ie votes) before the environment.

We are told "there was strong opposition among Labour MSPs who saw the proposed levy as a tax on the poor".

How could it be a tax on the poor when it could well mean that "poor people" (which ever way you choose to define it) will now think twice about shopping on an impulse because they don't want to be paying 10 pence for a plastic bag?

If they don't have to worry about that 10 pence, they cannot be that poor. If they are that poor, they should not be impulse buying.

For the rest of us, there is something called "Bring your own bag".

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Thursday, December 22, 2005

Cheap, plentiful and this harmful

So there is a second toxic chemical spill in a China river today:

The first spill, resulting from a Nov 13 explosion at a chemical plant upriver from Harbin, has reached Russia:

Eventually, these harmful chemicals are going to reach the sea.

According to a report in,1518,387392,00.html, authorities cited human error at a tower that processed benzene, a toxic, potentially cancer-causing chemical used in making plastics, detergents and pesticides.

Here's some information about benzene:

Another reason to reduce the use of plastic?

Developed nations accuse China of being slack in their health and safety regime resulting in such environmental disasters. If there isn't a demand for cheap plastic and pesticides, would China be producing these chemicals in such quantities and under such conditions?

If there was an even greater demand for organic food, for example, wouldn't a country (including China) rush to meet those demands instead?

The market is based on supply and demand.

So it good that today's news also tell us that "British organic food sales soar":

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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

This day last year

Is not a day I wish to re-live. Yet I cannot forget it.

Until last year December 22nd was remembered as my late mother's birthday.

Last year husband was so ill he didn't get a wink of sleep, and neither did I. He had to go to the toilet about, we've lost count, twenty times? during the night, throwing up both ends.

He suffers from an inflammatory bowel disease and was on heavy medication with very undesirable side-effects. His condition was so serious that this standard medication did not work on him. He was also very susceptible to infection and something triggered off this horrendous flare-up.

After that sleepless night I emailed family and friends all over the world to say: Pray! If he couldn't keep his food down, he would have to be put on a drip. That means being in hospital over Christmas. That would have been quite unthinkable for young son. I also needed wisdom as to what to feed him to get his energy back.

Meanwhile, we had invited a girl who was going to be on her own at Christmas to eat with us. We were not sure whether we would be having Christmas at home at all. I had to contact her to give her a chance to make alternative arrangements.

We had ordered food which needed collection. I had to ring a friend from church to go on 'stand-by' in the event that we could not go collect this order ourselves.

Son's godfather and his elderly godmother were to be picked up at the airport. I had to try to make alternative arrangements for them to be picked up as well as try to get a message to him. No, the airline was not very helpful.

And on and on it went. Frankly, at that point, I really didn't want to bother with all those other people. It was more important that husband could get out of bed and eat. We've had many episodes before when husband just could not get out of bed from sheer pain. This time it seemed worse than ever.

He was 'dosed up' with tea with glucose and buttered toast. Meanwhile emails were coming back from all over with assurances of prayer.

Husband managed to get some sleep, and managed to keep some food down. I also snatched a few minutes of sleep while son played by himself. Then, miraculously, by about 4pm, husband was able to get out of bed.

Through it all, son was good as gold and did not present any problems -- thank God! I managed to keep going, somehow.

We had a quiet Christmas, just the three of us with a friend who lives on his own and within walking distance. Husband barely had enough energy to keep him going, but put on a brave face and soldiered on.

It was not until July this year that the consultants finally sorted out a 'concoction of chemicals' to help his body cope, and I am pleased and thankful to say that as of August he has been officially "in remission".

So we are looking forward to Christmas this year with special gratitude. I shall have my niece and nephew visiting from different continents. And I shall remember for a long time that sleepless night when my world threatened to fall apart.

Thank you, Lord!

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

What's the point? (Why I Hate Shopping, Part III)

The lines in front of "customer service" at M&S after Christmas. And Next, and BHS, and you name it.

Gift-buyers labour over what to buy before Christmas and recipients labour over returning these gifts straight after Christmas.

What's the point? Stick to gold, frankincense and myrrh the next time?

Years ago before husband became boyfriend: What would you like for Christmas?

Me: I don't need anything for Christmas.

Him: I didn't say "What do you need?". What do you want for Christmas.

Me: I don't want anything for Christmas.

His aunt insists on buying us stuff and she has to lug it all the way to us on the Tube. This year she is only allowed to buy us both a box of chocolates and a book for our son. I bet she'd show up at the door laden with pressies.

I shall have to say to her, as if she was at the airport: Sorry, Ma'am, the parcels have gone past the weight limit. We can't accept this.

The thing is she had rung to ask my son what else he would like for Christmas apart from the book How to beat your Dad at Chess. Son did not want anything else.

What's the point?

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Monday, December 19, 2005

Why do I hate shopping? Part II

I took my son and visiting nephew to lunch last Friday.

Then son and I looked around a couple of shops for some reading material and shoes for him.

At WHSmith I suddenly felt -- rather strangely -- hey! my phobia for shopping meant I am missing out on all this festive atmosphere. It's actually quite fun. There's a feeling of adrenalin in the air as people strive to complete their shopping.

About twenty minutes later, after son had decided on the Horrid Henry book he wanted from another shop, we stepped out into the shopping precinct and I felt like we had been invaded.

There were hordes of high school children out and about. They seemed to be hunting in packs. Some of them were behaving in such a manner that at least one shop pulled their doors half-shut and stationed a security guard at the door.

I felt so threatened and son and I made our way out of those crowds as quickly as we could.

I still hate shopping.

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Sunday, December 18, 2005

How not to shop. Or Why do I hate shopping so much?

There is nothing in my size and colour and the heaving crowds put me off.

My eyes get tired from looking at the range of clothes and useless items on display.

I think of the poor girl/young lady/young man/boy paid a pittance for long hours of back-breaking, fine-finger work and I can't bear to part with money that would only fund the profligate lifestyle of the (often corrupt) owner/businessman who might just happen to be at the right place at the right time, or who network with the right people, or who have the means to make donations to certain political parties, or all of the above.

There is no room in my wardrobe and until I throw out something that I have outgrown or needs replacing, I do not need another cheap jacket/blouse/skirt/pair of trousers, etc. And then only if I have the means to arrange for these to be recycled properly.

Living simply does not mean living cheaply. It means learning how to spend one's money wisely.

As an impoverished undergraduate I once bought a pair of cheap sandals. I thought I had a bargain. But the sandals broke within a day or two. We didn't have a culture of returning faulty goods in Singapore then. Mama taught me you get what you paid for (In Cantonese: yaat fun tsin, yaat fun for.) . I paid little and got little in return.

So I had to scrape together money to "invest" in a pair of expensive sandals. This pair lasted me several years.

I am often tempted to buy "cheap" these days when I do get out to the local shopping precinct. (I have to, to get to buy food.) Then I remember "cheap" comes with a price. It's either paid by myself (through goods that do not last or of poor quality), or the producer (underpaid, disadvantaged worker) or someone else in the next generation (through long-term environmental damage, see eg signpost to Boreal Forest).

"Do-gooders" say: But if you don't buy these goods, the poor, hard-up producers won't have a job.

My answer: Instead of buying useless trinkets, why not save the money to give away to charities that do make a real difference to people's lives? Give, so that young children and young people get a chance to be educated instead of work in a sweatshop, and be condemned to a life of meaningless labour that is "productive" only in theory if it only serves the purpose of assuaging our desire to own useless things.

Instead of buying another toy that a child does not need, why not save it to give away to a charity that makes a real difference to people's lives by, for example, building a well to provide drinking water?

Ultimately, the secret to living simply is to say "enough" and not "more".

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Monday, December 12, 2005


Our son came home from school last week with this in his school bag:

Both Husband and I had a good chuckle.

For those who find it difficult to decipher what he has written: It's entitled 'egg Poem' and it says "I am a stupid egg. I don't know a thing."

He calls this a 'shape poem'. They had been doing one in the shape of a Christmas tree in class. Somehow he was inspired to do this during his 'golden time'.

I was a bit concerned with the sentiment expressed. 'Do you feel you are stupid?'

'No, Mum, it's only a poem.'

My boy is growing up so fast.

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Saturday, December 10, 2005

Stamping out waste

The Royal Mail has announced that it is going to raise the price of its First Class stamps again.

My son made a catapult out of two toilet roll cardboard tubes.

What have the two in common? The humble elastic band.

Son had collected two tubes. He asked for Mummy's help to make two diametrically opposite holes near the rim of the first tube. He cut up an elastic band, threaded it through these holes and stretched the elastic band across, and taped the ends of the band down the outside of the tube.

The second tube he cut right down the side and snipped off a piece of it and joined it up together again with tape to turn it into a narrower tube. He then cut notches on diametrically opposite sides of one rim. This second (now) narrower tube is pushed, notched rim end first, into the first wider tube against the stretched elastic band. The notches in the inner tube ensures that the elastic band on the outer tube is properly engaged. He turns it over on the floor to get a grip on both tubes, turns it back up again, aims and lets go. Son has made himself a very respectable catapult. Quite a feat for a five-and-a-half-year-old.

Then, disaster. The elastic band broke.

Never mind, Daddy will bring home an elastic band from the office.

Next day, after dropping him off at school, Mummy noticed elastic bands on the pavement on her walk home. She picked one up for him. His face lit up when he saw the elastic band when he came home.

These bands have been abandoned by Royal Mail staff delivering post. Letters are often bundled together to make it easier for post workers to handle, but once the mail is delivered, they just drop these bands on the ground.

Then Mummy and son started noticing more and more red elastic bands on the pavement. Today we counted 23 down one side of our road as we walked to the bus stop to get to the library, and 25 up the other side when we came home. Forty-eight elastic bands on our one road alone.

How many elastic bands are our postal workers throwing away every day on their rounds up and down the country? How much money is the Royal Mail spending on the purchase of these red elastic bands every day? In other words, how much money are postal workers throwing away every day, literally?

How much money could the Royal Mail save if these bands were collected and re-used instead of having them strewn all over our streets by their staff, thereby saving us Royal Mail users from another round of stamp price rise?

My Mama taught me how to: waste not, want not.

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Friday, December 09, 2005

Tiffin on sale

Been very busy lately with fund-raising projects at son's school to organize and just back from a Christmas party we organize for parents-and-toddlers who come to our weekly groups.

But I must tell you about what I discovered late last night. Bishopston, the people who supply my organic cotton fabric with which I make gift bags now sell a tiffin carrier for Christmas. Here's the link (sorry, link broken).

If you've missed previous blogs about the use of a tiffin, you can catch up here, or here.

I am not sure if they would still have these after Christmas.

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Sunday, December 04, 2005

Men who multi-task

This piece has got nothing to do with the environment. It is just an observation I made recently.

Last year I had the privilege of being awarded a research grant by the British Academy to conduct research on graduate stay-at-home mothers in Singapore. It was an interesting topic of study as mothers in Singapore are expected to work. Many leave their two-month-old infants to the care of foreign maids hardly out of their teenage years to return to full-time work.

Graduate mothers, especially, are expected to return to work full-time after the 'investment' by the country in their university education. To quit work altogether to become a stay-at-home mother is very much counter-cultural.

One of the most interesting interviews I conducted was with a woman engineer, a mother of three young children. As with every other interviewee she mentioned that one of the skills she honed as a stay-at-home mother is to multi-task.

"I am talking to my friend on the phone while watching my children play, and in my head I am planning tonight's dinner."

Why can't men multi-task? She brought in her Christian perspective.

"What was Adam made of? Dust! A bit of rubbish! But Eve was made from the rib of Adam. You start with a different material, you'll get a different product." She should know. She's an engineer by training.


Take my husband, for example. Engineer by training as well (but no more practising). I've done well to train him not to stand around with arms folded as the kettle is boiling.

"Don't do nothing when you can do something! Empty the dishwasher while you wait for the water to boil. Or tidy up." Waiting for the kettle to boil is one task. To do something else while waiting ... O! that's too much hard work!

When we have a pile of clothes to fold -- and I do it in front of the TV -- and he purports to help, his hands are often frozen mid-air. When something exciting happens on TV, his hands stop. No, men can't cope with something exciting happening on TV and folding clothes at the same time.

Ah, have you noticed what they are like in a car?

We joke about women drivers. But it's true, some women can't reverse their car. My excuse is that I am so small I can't see where the car ends. Apart from the driver's side of the bonnet, I have no idea where the other extremities of the car are.

I always fear that I cannot anticipate well enough what other drivers would do due to my limited field of vision. That is why women love 4x4's. Seated higher up then normal motorists, they can see further afield. They might still not be able to reverse.

I used to be given lifts by a friend who didn't dare raise her hand to say 'thank you' to a driver who had given way to her. She didn't dare take her hand off the steering.

But men -- those creatures who cannot fold clothes while watching TV -- put them behind the steering wheel and they can:
  1. curse and swear,
  2. describe how badly the driver who had just overtaken him on the motorway had been driving while behind him,
  3. notice attractively (or strangely) attired women and/or women with 'jelly on a plate' bouncing in the opposite direction, and continue to watch them in the rear view or wing mirror,
  4. change radio stations, adjust volume of sound,
  5. open various compartments and cubby holes and either deposit or retrieve items from these

while driving and without swerving one tiny bit.

Who says men can't multi-task?

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