The grey greenies

G Magazine

These senior greenies share their thoughts on a time before environmentalism, when mend-and-make-do, thrift, sharing & community were paramount, and offer up their solutions for today's dilemmas.

Stephanie Alexander

Stephanie Alexander

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Stephanie Alexander
"My earliest memories of eating lovely food start when I was about nine, when the family moved to the country. My grandfather lived with us, so we had that benefit – and it was a real benefit I think – of having another generation living with us, and he was a great gardener. In the late 50s, most people that had a little bit of garden grew something. My mother was also an exceptionally skilled cook, and a very curious cook, and that was quite unusual, not at all typical of the 50s. We got to taste all sorts of interesting things, and she would give us a little spiel about what the dish was about, why she’d chosen to cook it that day, or even what it made her think about. I don’t know that we treated all these remarks with tremendous seriousness, but we did grow up knowing that there were people in the world who cooked things differently.
“For many families over the last 20 years, convenience foods, packaged and frozen products have taken the place of growing food yourself and chopping up vegetables that you’ve pulled up out of the garden. I believe that if you grow up in an environment where everything comes pre-packaged, tinned or frozen, you are losing a lot more than the flavour of the food – you’re losing any respect for ingredients, you’re losing any understanding that we do need to care for the planet, and you’re also losing that marvellous closeness that comes from hearing about how people reacted, and related, to their food. That’s part of the reason I started the Kitchen Garden Foundation. I want children to learn that it matters how you care for your food, that you don’t put nasties in the soil and it’s easy to take it into the kitchen and cook something really lovely for yourself. They are learning that they don’t have to spend money on pre-prepared food, and it’s absolutely fabulous to sit around a table and talk.
“I think gardening is one of the easiest and most enjoyable ways of really coming to terms with what it means to be environmentally sensible. You’re forced to face the fact that the ground, the earth, needs to be fed to produce, that sunshine and water are absolutely imperative for health for everybody, and that you have to wait for some things.”

If you had a magic wand, what would you make it do?
“I’d like more people to get tremendous pleasure at that time of day when they gather around a table with friends or family – even if they can’t do it every day of the week – so cooking is joyful, sustaining and very healthy.”

David Bruer
"I grew up in suburban Adelaide, yet the predominating thing for me when I was a kid was the Cold War. We were in more-or-less constant threat of nuclear annihilation. The Cuban Missile Crisis was very scary; at school, most of us wondered if we’d see each other the next day. This constant fear was reinforced by politicians; they are good at scaring people, and they still do it today. Tony Abbott is hard at it with his his giant scare campaign against the carbon tax.
“I think some environmental issues have improved. While Australians drive everywhere and don’t use public transport much, which is a shame, cars are much more economical than 50 years ago, and they’re much safer. When I was growing up, 25 miles per gallon was considered good – that was about 12 L per 100 km. Now, I have a car that averages about 7.4 L per 100 km, that’s about 40 miles per gallon. So fuel consumption has nearly halved in 50 years.
“More than 25 years ago, ‘organics’ was virtually unknown. It was reserved for hippies, and it didn’t have a quality focus at all. So, for our quality-focussed winery, Temple Bruer, we didn’t promote anything about our organic certification until about 13 years ago because the concept of being organic was still thought of as a negative before then. Organics had a very bad image 25 years ago. It’s completely changed now, thank goodness! It’s now seen as a quality, sustainable agricultural pursuit. Carbon neutrality is also very important. Building up our soil carbon levels will increase soil fertility, and that will produce better fruit, crops or vegetables. And in our case, if we have better fruit, then we’ll make better wine.
“I think it’s extremely important that all businesses and people get their carbon footprint into balance. We’ve got to earn the credits, and preferably not buy them. It is extremely hard, but the reason I want to do this is because it’s environmentally and socially responsible. I’m extremely concerned about global warming and I think we all have to be more proactive... I would certainly like my children to have opportunities I’ve had.
“We are right at the coalface – if you’ll forgive the pun – of global warming. In our business, we have a crop that’s very sensitive to heat summation. But I don’t think we’re in a hopeless position with respect to climate change. I just think we have to act, because I don’t think we’ve got a lot of time.”

If you had a magic wand, what would you make it do?
“I would say, ‘From now on you will only purchase goods that are certified organic and carbon neutral’.”

Peter Cundall
"I was born at the beginning of the great depression. My parents were homeless, and I was born in a rented room into a world of absolute poverty, yet I had an extraordinarily happy childhood.
“When I grew up, there were no computers or televisions, and very few people had a radio or car. Like every other child at that time, I spent most of my childhood playing outside, from the moment I came out of school and often well into the evening.
The streets were filled with children playing. We used to walk to the nearest hill, eight miles away, to eat the crab apples. Nobody would eat crab apples these days, but we thought those lovely sweet, sour little things were delicious. A lot of young people now spend a great deal of time indoors, and they’re missing out on that.
“In those days nobody even thought about the environment. Where I live now, in the beautiful Tamar Valley in northern Tasmania, an attempt is being made to build a stinking paper pulp mill. There’s no way the people will let them get away with it. I mean, literally thousands of people will be on the streets protesting if any attempt is made to build it.
“We’ve lost, but to some extent are starting to regain, the unity among ordinary people. People used to live in small terrace houses, but they were all together – they knew each other. And then we went into our little fenced-off boxes. And now you get whole streets where people hardly know each other, or blocks of flats where people wouldn’t even know who’s next door.
“I absolutely believe in the power of the consumer. People are starting to realise that now, and they’ve got extraordinary communication these days. This power of communication, amazingly and wonderfully, has no censorship. If you read the newspapers or watch television, there’s a certain amount of control of the news. But not on the internet. If you want to find out what’s going on in Iraq or Syria, or Libya or the US, you look at the alternative websites and find out.
“Rather than going back in time, I’d prefer to go forward to when nationalism and any form of discrimination or racism no longer exist. And those days will come, when people start to understand that we’re all humans, that there’s only one race, and that’s the human race.”

If you had a magic wand, what would you make it do?
“I would make it a criminal offence to be greedy. Greed for resources and power is the major cause of pollution and war. In the extraordinary struggle for existence within nature, there is no greed.”

Keelah Lam
"I had a charmed childhood. My parents bought a block in Castlecraig in Sydney, in 1938 and they built right on the point, and so we grew up with bush around us and on the harbour. We used to walk everywhere and play in the bush. Today, it’s not the same place that it once was; from being a very simple north facing family home it’s now a mansion with chandeliers and a big winding staircase like a film star’s house.
“The other thing that was different was that our parents had been through the Depression, and also it was the lifestyle during those days not to waste anything. So everything could either be repaired or turned into something else. Things like milk bottles were made of glass, and they were sterilised and refilled. There was very little waste, and what could be classified as waste was composted. There was no plastic, no plastic bags. In the ‘good old days’ it was economic to reuse, and also there was no choice, unlike now.
“I lived overseas in Malaysia for 17 years. When I arrived in 1966, they had no plastic disposables. I watched Malaysia embrace the Western consumerist lifestyle, and now it’s such a mess with everything disposable. In the days before they had plastic, everything was made out of natural materials; food was packaged in paper or leaves, and it was thrown out where it was unwrapped and eaten, and because it was tropical, storms would just break it down. But the mentality hasn’t changed there, so things just get chucked where they’re opened up and eaten. To me, in a way it’s a good thing as it’s just so obvious – it’s on the streets and everywhere. In Australia we have this mentality that when things are out of sight, they’re out of mind, so nobody has to think about where the plastic comes from and where it goes. So our society is totally oblivious, but in Malaysia it hits you in the face that they’ve got a big problem, and I think they’ve realised that they have a big problem, but they haven’t worked out how to deal with it yet. Whereas we are still just taking it to the tip.
“Certain things have changed for the better, but to me all our problems go back to our attitude to waste. If we are not able to think about where things come from and where they go at the end of our lives, and feel that everything has a value, then people lose their value as well. I think a lot stems from our disposable lifestyle.”

If you had a magic wand, what would you make it do?
“I would have all industries and businesses redesign and manufacture zero waste into their products.”

Don Chambers
"My early recollections were during the war years, when my father was away overseas, and we were all expected to put in and help on the farm. We had to get up very early as it was a dairy farm, and we had to be there when there was work to be done – whether it was feeding the chooks, collecting the eggs, watering the vegetable garden, picking the tomatoes and the beans.
“Many more people worked on farms in those days because we didn’t have the machinery. I think one of the issues that we as a society have lost sight of is physical work. As a small boy I had a lot of physical work to do, and we ate well. Today, kids are still eating the same amount, but they’re not doing the sort of physical work we used to do in those days. Also, kids today aren’t aware of how things are grown on farms. City children need to go and touch farm animals, watch how they’re born, to get them to connect back to nature.
“Farming has really changed from letting animals be animals, to intensive areas, which I have big problems with. Pigs used to be grown in styes or in paddocks, but in the new day you’ve got to produce pork cheaper and compete against other countries’ pork, so we have battery cage pens for pigs, they’ve only got these small areas. If we want cheap food we’ve got to find other ways of doing it.
“Some things have changed for the better. My great, great grandparents, when they took up a lease on the land, were required to clear it. But now, governments are giving money for replantings. As a farmer, you improve your productivity by having wildlife corridors. Another good thing is a better understanding of soil fertility. We’ve learnt that organic material needs to be returned to the soil, and that increases the micro-organisms, and helps to pull that lovely resource in the air called carbon dioxide back into the soil.
“I believe we’re all custodians of the land – whether you’re in the country, or if you’ve got a little patch of soil near your house. Even if you live in a high rise city building, there’s got to be a park near you, so take responsibility of that park with your friends, and be custodians of the park, because we can improve every bit of our environment if we as individuals start taking responsibility, rather than saying ‘the government or industry can do that.”

If you had a magic wand, what would you make it do?
“I think we need to start talking to strangers. We need to get back to the idea that ‘it takes a community to raise a child’. It’s the whole community that develops that child, but first we have to start making contact and talking with each other. People need to start taking responsibility for themselves, and trust in their fellow community members.”

Len Specht & Wendy Davie
LEN: “I was a bit of a scallywag when I was a kid... My dad had a vegie patch and chooks down the back and we all helped out, especially climbing into the mango and macadamia nut trees. Then, in my twenties I worked in New Zealand. I had a lot of Mãori friends and was invited to a lot of hãngis and family events; it was certainly different to how we’ve treated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia.
“I guess I’ve become a ‘greenie’ in the last seven years, since becoming involved in aquaponics, which uses fish poo water circulating through gravel beds to grow fruit and vegies. As Wendy and I are older, we don’t want to dig in the ground anymore, so we use above-ground beds. We can grow almost every vegetable here in North Queensland.
“I’m a showman, so I don’t mind showing off what we’ve done. We’ve been helping people to get involved in aquaponics because I want to encourage people to grow vegies in their backyard.
“I would certainly like to see some changes environmentally. I am worried about food security, and I believe aquaponics is one way we’ll be able to feed ourselves in the future.”

If you had a magic wand, what would you make it do?
“I’d like people to realise they can grow vegies and fruit in their backyard. That way they can be more sustainable, rather than having to rely on supermarkets.”

WENDY: “I think part of our role as older, retired people, is in education. We’re involved with three community garden projects, mostly through community centres which are in state-run housing developments and community housing, where people are on low incomes and aren’t in control of their lives. There are a lot of migrants and refugees just waiting for the chance to contribute to the community and to their own wellbeing.
“The social habits now are to meet your friends over coffee, rather than going somewhere attractive outside. If people meet in a shopping centre or a coffee shop, then there’s more consumerism. I’d like to return to a more basic attitude of life, meeting at a friend’s home instead. I know it sounds almost petty, but I’m missing out on seeing people because they will only go to a coffee shop, or a café in the shopping mall.”

If you had a magic wand, what would you make it do?
“I would go back 200 years and try to stop the capitalist slant on society. Advertising has such an influence on us. Wonderful young women say they can’t live without the latest fashion, or replacing their car every two years. I would get people to think about what they need, rather than what they want.”