During my time as an environmental writer and campaigner, I have been lucky enough to meet some all-out amazing eco jihadists. I’ve met green campaigners from every corner of the world, eco-imams at green mosques and inspiring environmental speakers and thinkers who are leading the way. However, when I really think about it, the one person who brought me closest to nature and taught me to hate waste is my Indian auntie.
The funny thing is that she doesn’t even see herself as ‘green’ (and isn’t technically my auntie). Born and raised in a small village in Mumbai, she was one in a seemingly ever-growing family which her mother struggled to feed and clothe. Even so, with nature as her playground (literally), my auntie recalls long happy summers during her childhood where she only stopped playing to pee, eat and sleep. She also recalls that what her mother lacked in finances, she made up in time spent with her children imparting a life-long respect for food, water and all the other precious resources that they were blessed with.
Today, my auntie doesn’t need to be told that throwing food away is bad for the environment, that growing her own vegetables makes good sense or that buying unnecessary things is toxic for our planet – she just knows it. As such, she not only does her bit for the environment every day, but she also does it effortlessly.
She may not use the label ‘environmental jihadist’ but at the age of 60 plus, she is the greenest person I know. She buys very little, wastes absolutely nothing and shares a whole lot. And every day, she gathers more green wisdom through experience. She is always picking up tips to help cut waste. Whether it’s how to store your vegetables to make them last longer, revive wilting celery plants or grow your own spinach with little effort – she is one busy bee!
My auntie also wastes absolutely nothing. Every bit of food is salvaged and used again and if she can’t do that, then it’s fed to the birds. I have to admit that it helps that she’s an amazing cook with a million recipes for any random combination of things you find at home, but her best cooking trick is planning ahead. She keeps a very careful eye on her fridge and cupboards. If she thinks she’s not going to be using something over the next couple of days and there’s a chance it will go bad, she gives it away nice and early. More food saved from the dumpster. She’s very generous with her food and time and that means that she never wants for anything.
In the neighbourhood where we both live, nothing useful gets thrown away. As my auntie knows practically everybody, they tell her when they want to throw anything out, and she gets to work networking the old-fashioned way. She talks to everyone who crosses her path and that TV, shoe rack, cabinet or heater get put to good use somewhere else. Well, that’s a list of the amazing things I got through her recently!
It certainly pays to be friendly as when my auntie decided to plant a communal garden in our alleyways, the entire neighbourhood pitched in with their time, plants, stepping stones and support. Over the years, our garden flourished into a gorgeous, if wild, retreat from our city lifestyles. It’s the perfect place for a morning cup of tea or an evening stroll. Bees, butterflies, apple trees, rhubarb, mint, geraniums, tulips and poppies all grow side by side. The alleyway garden has also brought the neighbourhood closer.
It’s a neutral space for us all to meet and have a friendly chat rather than crash in front of our televisions or laptops. It also means that we help look after each other. If someone’s not well, we check up on each other; when the winter months set in, we make sure everyone’s stocked up with food; or when someone goes on holiday, we keep an eye on their house and remember to feed their cat.
The big lesson I’ve learnt from my auntie is that ‘going green’ isn’t new and isn’t about what you can do individually. It is age-old common sense whose benefits go beyond the environment to the people we live with and the communities we share.
If we live greener, we can also live better connected and more fulfilling lives. After all, sharing is caring.
Aunties Top Eco-Tips for Life
1. Be generous
Like everything in life, you get back what you give out. Be generous with your time, your food and you’ll never be left wanting. You’ll also be happily surprised who you can help and who can help you.
2. There’s no such thing as trash
As the saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and my auntie is living proof that you don’t have to throw heaps and heaps away. Every month, she throws out just one bag of rubbish. Everything else is either recycled or put to use.
3. Connecting people: You can’t live a simple, frugal life alone
Most of us live in small communities and neighbourhoods with resourceful people so why not make the most of it? Saying ‘Hi’may be the first, difficult step, but you will be rewarded not only with free things but friendship too.
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Arwa Aburawa is a freelance journalist based in the UK with a special interest in environmental issues and the Muslim world. She is also a researcher at Al Jazeera. You can see more of her work at arwafreelance.com and follow her on twitter @arwa_journalist