Wednesday 20 April 2011

Tea with Keelah

The other day I had afternoon tea with a very inspirational, yet humble person: Manly-based environmentalist Keelah Lam. Known as a pioneer of sustainable living, she’s been rocking the consumerism boat for almost 20 years now, and isn’t about to stop anytime soon.

As luck would have it, Keelah lives just down the street from me, so I strolled over to her house for a chat. Before we could sit down at her kitchen table, however, I asked her to show me around her rambling property...

There’s a bathtub in the front yard (not for bathing but for frogs and fish) and the seemingly bottomless back yard is a cornucopia of fruit trees (Tahitian lime, guava, nectarine, lemon, papaya), veggie patches, a chicken coop (with three resident hens), a compost heap, a reed-bed greywater filtration set-up, a homestead-sized 22,000-litre rainwater tank, a "banana circle" (young banana plants growing according to permaculture principles, one of Keelah's interests). 

There are solar panels on the roof that, in summer, allow Keelah and her husband to export more electricity than they import (from the national grid). Inside the house they have two waterless composting toilets. They don't own a car. And she’s passionate about “zero waste”. 

When she’s not at home, incidentally, Keelah is a community representative on three Manly Council committees – Waste, Environment and Sustainability, and Climate Change – campaigns for the Greens in Manly and Warringah electorates, and is a founding member of Manly Food Co-op. She even won Manly Environment Centre’s Eco Award in 2008.

What happened to start you thinking of living with less environmental impact?
1993 was a turning point: I went to an Earthworks course on “waste minimisation” (as it was called) and it just triggered this innate feeling about what we’re doing to the planet.

Why is it important to live more sustainably in our cities?
Well, a lot of people want to leave the city and live an idyllic life in the country [for a sea-change or tree-change] but do we really want to damage more environments with our McMansions out there? If we do get good public transport and start to adapt our homes, and live lifestyles that are more sustainable, it’s going to be better living in cities than in country areas. There are facilities we need here like hospitals and theatres, and economies of scale: food distribution and energy use can be more sustainable in cities than on a one-off basis.

Since you started on this path almost 20 years ago, how have people’s attitudes changed?
When we started the Food Co-op in 1997, there was awareness that we were in a waste crisis. Over the years, interest in waste has waned. Now it’s more about me, me, me – it’s all about ‘my’ health – and there's less thinking about the health of the planet. People have become confused about the difference between a want and a need. And words have changed their meanings. ‘Home economics’ used to mean not wasting anything, conserving our resources. Now, ‘economics’ means ‘get rich quick’, and ‘waste’ means whatever you don’t want. It’s consumerism gone mad. But there is an awakening, change is happening. Not fast enough, but it is happening.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
I’m an optimist, otherwise I wouldn’t still be doing what I do. I don’t think it’s too late. There are things that won’t be reversed, but things won’t be as bad if we put a halt to further damage. I see the future being about people and communities working together, and sharing.

What are the most important things people can do, to live more sustainably?
There are so many tips about what you can do – just pick five things you think are important. And take them on, one at a time. Then move onto the next thing. The little things add up, and they are often the cheapest things to do too.

I was into high-jumping as a kid and I remember that feeling of doing a jump then moving the peg up and trying a higher jump; it was a fabulous feeling. It’s not a competition; you’re competing against yourself if anything, just to see what you can achieve. It’s a game, finding new things you can do to live more efficiently.

It’s important to think about where things come from, and where they go. Whenever you buy something, just stop and think: how was it made, what was it made from, where will it go when I’m finished with it? Whether it’s food, water, an electrical appliance, even a backpack. And if it is something that will end up in the landfill, what can I do to extend its life and postpone it going to landfill? If the zip breaks, can I sew on some Velcro so I can still use it?

Lobbying is also important – not just the government, and organisations, but friends. I get into trouble with my family for being so outspoken but I’ve noticed people have changed because of things I’ve said. People think I’m radical, but it’s extreme to not think about what’s happening.

I'm reading Gandhi's biography at the moment and I've been thinking about two things he said: "If you see something is wrong, you must speak out” and "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”.

Last words?
Living more sustainably can be fun, people forget that. I have more fun figuring out how to live more efficiently and sustainably than rushing around in my car. And there are simple pleasures. Growing up in the 1940s, we used to have a lot of blackouts and one of my greatest joys was, and still is, having a shower in the dark.

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