Our elders have a lot of wisdom to share with us, but we are not always ready to listen to them. They may give us good advice based on their knowledge and experience, but we stubbornly insist on learning from our own mistakes. Then, at some point, we realise that they were right and had we listened to them earlier, we would have saved ourselves lots of trouble. With my newly developed eco-consciousness, I have come to recognise and appreciate the guidance given to me by my parents, grandparents and in-laws, who often lead green lifestyles without even realising. For them, green choices that we consciously make and often struggle to keep are just normal, common-sense decisions. They were raised in the pre-consumerist era, when people truly led a sustainable lifestyle and wastage could not be afforded. The world around them has changed and the standards have changed too; the new philosophy of ever-wanting-more has affected everyone. However, the ideals that were instilled in their minds at a young age – the principles of truly sustainable life in harmony with nature – still guide them and can be lessons for us, too. That is, once we get over our infatuation with the fast, modern, careless lifestyle. Let me share with you some re-discovered pearls of green wisdom from my elders.
“The best vegetables are the ones that grow in your own garden. The carrots from the shop just look too good to be truly good” – my late father, Zbigniew.
I was blessed to grow up in a house with a huge garden which my father lovingly cultivated and which supplied our kitchen with lots of vegetables, herbs, greens and fruit. I did not appreciate it at the time and the only time I could be seen in the garden was when the strawberries were ripe – eating them straight from the patch! I used to find excuses to avoid any work in the garden and now I regret that I missed the chance to learn gardening from my father. Now I’m trying to grow some herbs on the windowsill of my flat in England, but it turns out it’s not as easy as I thought. I miss my family house and garden in Poland and the taste of real, natural vegetables and fruit freshly picked from the patch!
“If I don’t know it, I don’t eat it” – my maternal grandmother, Janina.
Sometimes in the supermarket I get tempted to look for a creamy cake or fancy chocolate dessert, but when I look at the ingredient list to make sure it’s halal or vegetarian, I see a list too long to be read standing in the aisle and blocking the way – I feel I should be a scientist to understand it! I’d imagine cake is made from flour and eggs and butter and sugar, but I cannot even imagine what half of the ingredients listed on the box would look like. So I put that box back on the shelf, remembering my granny’s motto, and look for something more familiar. Eating only what I know does not mean that I would not try new dishes, but it means that I would try to eat foods made from good natural products, nothing concocted, derived or modified.
“Why would someone give their children all this vitamin-enriched rubbish? Give them good pure ghee and wholemeal foods and they will have all the vitamins they need” – my mother-in-law, Naheed.
On every box of children’s cereal or sweet yoghurt you can read information like ‘Vitamin D is important for your bones’ or ‘Contains vitamins and minerals’. Yes, lots of these products might be artificially enriched in vitamins and minerals, but predominantly they consist of sugar and often artificial colours and flavours. The big sweets manufacturers and the TV have spoilt our children’s diet and even convinced us that something as high in sugar as a bowl of sugary Frosties might be a healthy breakfast! My mother-in-law feeds her grandchildren with lots of love and some wholemeal parathas fried in pure clarified butter and served with free-range eggs. Now, this I can trust to be a healthy breakfast! But I have to admit it’s just recently that I realised the truth about highly processed and highly sweetened foods that are often marketed as ‘healthy’.
“Make it a habit to turn off the lights” – my father-in-law, Niaz.
Turning off the lights is such an obvious eco-conscious practice. It is so easy to switch off the lamp when leaving the room. And it is equally easy to forget it. I used to forget and leave the microwave oven on standby and my father-in-law used to remind me every day to turn it off. And his continuous reminders really did help me in developing a habit of switching it off and it also extended to checking all other appliances and lights in the kitchen. So much energy and water is wasted without us realising and we are not in the habit of saving it. So it does need a conscious decision to make a change and it needs some perseverance and discipline to develop good green habits – something elders do understand to be important.
“You never know what you are going to need” – my late father, Zbigniew.
My father didn’t like throwing away things and he was great at fixing things and doing everything himself, from building our family house to growing his own vegetables to making a kitchen table from re-used wood. In our home, books and toys that were damaged were always fixed – not thrown away or replaced. My father even used to fix our shoes if they needed some stitches or a bit of glue to hold the sole on properly. In the world of fast fashion and easy bargains, these practices may seem eccentric, but older generations were blessed to grow up in times when things had their value and you didn’t just go shopping to kill time. For them, money might have been the biggest issue, but even if we are not restricted financially we should at least remember now that the planet, its delicate ecosystem and its precious resources are the biggest issue. So now I do fix my children’s broken toys and torn books, and I even fixed my daughter’s slipper’s broken sole with a bit of superglue! I’m a frugal mother and proud – just like my father would wish me to be!
“If you buy something and pay all that money, then buy something good and solid” – my maternal grandmother Janina.
My grandmother would scorn the purchases of some fast fashion shoes, saying that they looked as if they would only last five minutes. This is not how she would have spent her money; she would think it’s better to buy a quality pair of shoes that would last more than a season than to buy three and throw them all away when the season ends. In her youth, she used to save money to buy good shoes. There were fewer shops and less to choose from, but the produce was of better quality and therefore had its price. In those days, there were no sweatshops supplying customers in rich countries with fast fashion at the expense of poorer countries’ resources and human lives. Also, people used to buy things when they really needed them, when what they had could not be fixed any more, and so there was minimal wastage.
“Why buy water when it comes clean and free from the tap?” – my late father, Zbigniew.
Producing one gallon of bottled water takes two gallons to make it and most of the plastic bottles end up in the landfills or floating in the seas. Our parents and grandparents had too much common sense to buy bottled water no different to water coming from the tap. We, too, should be smarter than the bottled water producers would like us to be and drink tap water instead!
Living an eco-conscious life may seem hard at times, but in reality we are very privileged these days; we have so much choice – much more than our elders used to have. Being thankful for what we are blessed with is yet another green lesson to be learnt from them, insha Allah.
Klaudia Khan is a frugal mother of two and a writer with a passion for green issues.