29 Aug 2020

Lessons people can learn from Covid-19 lockdown: 'Live more lightly on the planet'

10:35 am on 29 August 2020

In a world struggling to cope with Covid-19 and climate change looming over its shoulder, are New Zealanders looking for ways to become more self-sufficient?

2019 drone view of our house showing solar panels, green roof, on-site-fuelled wood stove in use, chickens enclosure, some of the garden.

A drone image of Rhys Taylor and partner Anne Griffiths' property shows the home's solar panels and green roof, chicken enclosure, some of the extensive gardens and rain water tanks. Out of sight is the orchard and more gardens. Photo: Supplied

When I talk to Rhys Taylor it's nearing the end of winter and he's still reaping the benefits of his extensive garden - celeriac, cavolo nero (kale), carrots, beetroot, purple brussel sprouts, silver beets and cabbage are among the current haul.

On Taylor and partner Anne's property west of Geraldine, in south Canterbury, there are still potatoes and sturmer apples from earlier in the year, plus a freezer full of berries and pantry full of jams, pickles and preserves.

That freezer and pantry are inside an award-winning but affordable eco home that's built into a hillside - sheltered earth architecture. It has solar heating and hot water, has high thermal mass and is low on power bills.

The ability to be self-reliant isn't lost on Taylor in a world dominated by Covid-19, with climate change staring down the barrel at us.

In fact, as he's the national co-ordinator for the Sustainable Living Education Trust, he's an advocate for changing the way we live - and says now is the time to do it.

The trust teaches future living skills - it provides community education to help reduce environmental impact at home or in small businesses.

"This is an excellent time to take stock," Taylor says, as he considers lockdown experiences.

"While it was stressful for a few, I think for many, they began to realise that the things they really valued were the company of their loved ones, the natural world around them, the opportunity to go out and have a walk and be less stressed.

"And I think that those, those experiences were actually quite significant to people who may have found that everyday life has become a bit of a metaphorical rat race and the opportunity to take stock, I think was good.

"I've received a lot of comments from people who said they want to keep the best of what they experienced in that period and apply it to their everyday lives.

"So they're being more discriminating, I think, about what they do."

Rhys Taylor and Anne Griffiths.

Photo: Supplied

Taylor thinks we have a unique opportunity - socially, possibly economically, and certainly environmentally.

That's where the Sustainable Living Education Trust comes in.

"We're trying to help New Zealand be truly clean and green... And we're trying to help people live more lightly on the planet," Taylor says.

"It's that idea of maintaining the quality of life, but maybe reassessing the quantity... We shouldn't need to get through so much stuff to have a good quality of life."

The trust's education provides "practical and fun ways to reduce your environmental impact".

Councils around the country can become "members" - they then get the resources to teach classes.

"We'll help the member councils to use our program effectively with groups - it's all been designed for use with groups. It was originally set up to work for evening classes in high schools back in the day when there was funding."

The trust will provide the information then help train people - facilitators - to teach the courses and provide ongoing support.

A facilitators training session in Christchurch earlier in 2020, pre Covid-19.

Photo: Supplied / Sustainable Living Education Trust

And thanks to recent support from the Waste Minimisation Fund, "anybody, anywhere in the country" can use the trust's education materials for future living skills.

That means even if your local council isn't a member, you can access learning material on the trust's website.

Education 'literally changing' lives

Christchurch City Council is a founding member of the trust and has been involved since 2001.

The council's principal sustainability advisory Tony Moore says: "You can think of the Future Living Skills courses a little like a Tupperware Party. Friends, neighbours or colleagues come together each week in a convivial setting ... to discuss various aspects of household sustainability. At the end of an eight-week course you have new insights, many practical actions to take and a group of people who can continue to help you after the course.

"Some councils run the courses in neighbourhood groups called 'Sustainable Streets' so neighbours can help each other which builds important social connections too.

"The courses often start with easy things you can do yourself, but then as the course progresses people realise that to be sustainable we need to work together. The course finishes on community resilience and the sharing economy. Both require community collaboration, because it is hard to be sustainable, in an unsustainable world. And it is much more fun and impactful to do things together.

"Individual and collective action is required to address our multiple challenges like climate change, ecosystem collapse and inequality. Good habits help to shape personal values and can role model and influence others to do the same."

For some who use the courses, they describe the information as literally changing their lives, Moore says.

"It's like we have given people the ability to follow their passions.

What you can learn

The trust currently has eight education topics.

"We're writing and developing a new topic at the moment on the local economy as well," Taylor says.

"In terms of popularity, the most frequently downloaded from the site is the gardening material and the next most frequently downloaded is probably waste minimisation. And then after that, there are quite a lot of topics that attract interest, including water and energy."

The information ranges from guidance for small changes to daily life to "big items in terms of making major decisions about whether or not you do holidays abroad, what sort of vehicle you run - if you run a vehicle, choices about house or house extensions or modifications, which are big capital items".

It's made to be easy to use.

"It's written in plain, understandable English. It's based on science, but it sets out not to befuddle you and it's, it's accessible stuff.

"It's designed for the average … person to get value out of and to find their way through."

Taylor hopes to make the proper, tutor-led programme more widely available.

"Our wish is two years from now we'd want to have nearly every sizable population centre with proper access to our program, able to use it."

Wellington City Council (WCC) recently re-activated its membership with the trust.

WCC neighbourhood resilience advisor Mark Noyes says part of that decision is because the trust's programmes aligned with other council initiatives.

"We are interested in leveraging their learning framework to support Wellingtonians in adopting more sustainable practices in their own homes, particularly with food. The framework the trust has developed includes modules that focus on composting, gardening, and food purchasing behaviour, which are key areas of concern for long-term environmental and food system sustainability," Noyes says.

"Climate Change, food security and resilience, and harnessing the increased public awareness of the impact of consumer behaviour were key motivators in WCC's decision to come on board with the Trust."

As for benefits for Wellingtonians, Noyes says: "Wellington residents have a strong 'foodie' culture, and the Future Living Skills programme provides a strong framework for peer learning groups to support each other to live more lightly, reduce household costs, and prioritise healthy, good food. We also have pockets of food insecurity in the city, and this programme can help residents wherever they are in life...

"The programme has a good framework to support residents as they have become more intimately familiar with their own homes and communities. It also has an emphasis on making consumer decisions that positively impact the environment, and help them take charge of household costs. We anticipate this emphasis on cost-savings to be a particularly important benefit that peer learning groups can support each other on."

Covid-19 drives interest in resilience

Interest in future living skills appears to be high at the moment.

"We noticed a big pulse of interest during the time that people were exploring the net during their lockdown. So we did find a pulse of interest there from all over the country," Taylor says.

"And then we started seeing place-specific bursts of interest when our member councils got on with publicity for example, in Wellington - we had 200 people register on the site within about two days (after publicity).

"That's a good sign because it shows that there's a latent interest out there. People want to know about these things, but they wouldn't know where to look and where to find (it)."

Noyes says of Wellington: "Since the beginning of the pandemic, we've seen significantly stronger interest by residents in their own hyper-local communities, and an uptick in interest in gardening".

Moore says in Christchurch there was "absolutely" more interest in learning future living skills amid climate change and Covid-19 concerns.

"The Future Living Community Resilience topic teaches people how to be more community focused, to become more psychologically and physically resilient during epidemics and natural disaster; gardening and food topics give practical ways to be more self-sufficient by growing and processing your own food, maybe save having to go to the supermarket as often; water and waste topics show how to save resources - key topics when many towns and cities are struggling with managing drinking water and recycling services; the building topic helps people to build or renovate their home to be warm and healthy, especially important when many New Zealanders are stuck at home because of Covid."

The most popular subjects for the Christchurch City Council over the first Covid-19 lockdown were food-related, Moore says.

That surge in interest in self-sufficiency was widely reported on at the time, as people made a run on garden centres for seeds and supplies.

Taylor says what people want to learn about right now is related to the situation the country is in.

"We're getting questions about how you go about preparing and selling and promoting produce for farmer's markets and for sale locally.

"We've had people asking us about how you can run financial institutions, which are locally based. So there are exchange and barter schemes in some parts of the country.

Massey University's Professor Bruce Glavovic is the EQC chair of resilience and natural hazards planning.

Professor Bruce Glavovic, of Massey University School of People, Environment and Planning, hols the EQC Chair in Natural Hazards Planning.

Bruce Glavovic. Photo: Massey University

He says New Zealanders taking on self-sufficiency is an understandable reaction to Covid-19.

"I think it in this Covid situation and being forced into lockdown, it's kind of giving people a moment to take stock of what the daily patterns and practices are... And, you know, we questioned some of the things that we have taken for granted as the way we live.

"And there's a long-standing movement of buying local and living within the means of your context. And I think people are more open to that now, because it's unclear quite how this is going to unfold over time."

Glavovic speaks about making social choices about climate change in a Covid-19 world.

"And resilience is part of this, because it's not just about reducing risk, it's about development pathways that improve, that meet our basic human needs, that are equitable and just within the limits of this finite world that we live in, mindful that there are other creatures and non-human life that is important as well."

Dealing with Covid-19 does not mean we can stop working on climate change, human rights and environmental issues, he says.

"These are what I describe as... interconnected risks and challenges and the choices were making need to chart a difficult path through the turbulent waters of all of these shocks and stresses."

But he also cautions against making resilience an issue for individuals alone.

"It's hardly enough to expect individuals who are in dire circumstances especially those who are vulnerable, marginalised, with limited resources at their disposal to become resilient on their own... So those who simply say resilience is good - you've got to check and challenge it... There's quite a debate in academic literature and in practice about so what do we mean by resilience? And is it good or bad?"

Making a difference

Some of the lessons the trust teaches can be small steps - choosing more energy-efficient light bulbs, for example.

But they still make a difference, Taylor says.

"It's a cumulative impact. You can make a difference and it's a cumulative difference, but it's not a huge difference with each step."

And aside from good you're doing for the planet, there's satisfaction, too.

"That's a huge, huge amount of feedback over the years about the satisfaction people have when they grow their first lots of garden veggies, even if it's just in a window box or a raised garden, or what used to be a piece of lawn - tremendous satisfaction.

"And that's about mental wellbeing as well as having healthy, interesting diet. I think that's one of the strongest ones.

"I think the comments about how, when they've decided to walk to work one day a week, or to ride on a bike, or even if they're older, perhaps, and stiffer getting any bike, how healthy they felt doing that instead of traveling by car - those are wellbeing indicators to me, as are the wellbeing that comes from eating seasonal food and cooking food from real fresh ingredients, not just from packets and tins, those are all to do with wellbeing. And they're also - all those examples - very much to do with sustainability."

The lessons stick with you, too, he says.

"You can't unlearn stuff. When you start learning about climate change and you start learning about waste and resource shortages and so on, you can't unlearn it. So you have to start applying it."

As for what learning these skills mean for self-resilience, Taylor says it was "actually a pleasure being locked down".

He acknowledges he and Anne are privileged in their position as landowners, but said of the first lockdown:

"I had much more time with my partner, which was great. I quite enjoyed it... being able to go on gardening and produce a lot of our own food during lockdown was fantastic. We felt we were more resilient in the face of that challenge.

"Well, because we had a lot of food in store, we were certainly not under stress. We didn't do panic buying and we didn't need to rush out.

"We could be self-contained for quite a period of time."