This text was the opening chapter in Home Ecology and The Green Home. This version includes notes to the copyeditor.

Chapter 1: TIME

When  I told a close friend that I was researching things each of us could do to solve environment problems.  I expected her to be enthusiastic and was surprised at her reaction.  She was defensive.  ‘I care, of course,’ she said, ‘but I don’t have time to do anything extra.  I wish I did.’  Her life was so full and sometimes so difficult, with two children and a job to juggle, that she thought I was going to make her feel guilty about not doing enough.

Surveys show that women, and mothers in particular, are the group most concerned about the environment.  But they are the people who have least time to spare.  One survey of working mothers found that they talked about sleep as a starving person talks about food.  When I suggested switching to cloth nappies or making soup with kitchen leftovers, their first reaction was often “I don’t have time for things like that!”

I, too, have children and husband and job, as well as aspirations to find a little time for myself, and I decided to start the Green Home with a chapter about time – because our waking hours are what we start with, in any new venture, on any new path.  Before looking at particular environmental issues, we need to think about how we can find the time and energy to make changes in the way we live.  After all, the way we spend our time is a reflection of our values. Only you can decide about your own days and years, and taking time to consider how you want to spend the time of your life is the first step in creating a green home.

You may also worry that a green home is going to cost too much, so the  next chapter deals with the second half of the Time + Money equation.  But first let’s look at the way time – or our perception of it – makes us tick.

The time of your life

Although we often quip that time is money, if every moment spent relaxing, playing with your children, or contemplating the ocean waves were a penny lost, every human activity could be quantified in terms of its monetary value. How much is your baby’s smile worth, or a game of chess, or helping a 10‑year‑old with her math homework? How about a day spent decorating the house for Christmas, or an afternoon in bed with your beloved?

Money can sometimes buy time – by making it possible, for example, to hire someone to do a task you dislike or aren’t good at – but the idea that time is money is misleading. People end up trapped by the need to finance a luxurious lifestyle and may in fact have far less free time than those who live more simply.   E. F. Schumacher, the former Coal Board economist who became internationally renowned as author of Small Is Beautiful, economics as if people mattered, summed this up with what he called the first law of economics: “The amount of real leisure a society enjoys tends to be in inverse proportion to the amount of labor‑saving machinery it employs” – and, presumably, to the amount of money it has. In the same way, the more money a society has, the less real leisure time people enjoy.

[Cut? Our attitude toward time affects everything we do. We may want it to pass quickly. Think of the last week of school before summer vacation, waiting for news after an accident, or the long hours spent washing dishes at a summer camp when you were 18. On the other hand, we long for 36‑hour days when stretched to the limit by the conflicting demands of home and work.]   [Cut this? In economic terms it seems that we always have a role to play: if we aren’t earning money we should be spending it. A good example of this, pointed out by Ivan Illich in the Limits to Medicine, is the way women have been encouraged to switch from breast to bottlefeeding. The change has provided industry with working mothers who are clients [customers?] for a factory‑made formula.]  Contrary to the notion that we have more free time than our ancestors, a notion fostered by a culture which needs our continual contribution as employees and as consumers, people in some primitive agricultural or hunter‑gatherer societies enjoyed more leisure than we do. As a rule, they spent between 15 and 20 hours a week providing for themselves and their children, leaving the remainder of their time for socializing and relaxing. (This is not the case for many Third World women today, however; the chores of obtaining scarce water and firewood take up an increasingly large proportion of their day.)

Many people who live directly off the earth find considerable amounts of time to engage in activities that are not economic: enjoying religious rituals, fiestas and pow-wows, arranging marriages, renewing friendships.  In Victorian novels, even working people seem to find time for festivities at county fairs and on market days.  Our free time is less leisurely and more expensive than was our grandparents’.  It is also less simple to decide how to spend our leisure time because our lives are complicated by multiple roles and by our beepers, computerized diaries and cellular phones.  A Sunday afternoon ramble and pub lunch have to be squeezed between catching up with the weekly washing and finishing off a report for Monday’s staff meeting. To be important in today’s world, we have to be busy.

Time pressures

While small children and double shifts are obvious causes of exhaustion , the feeling that you don’t have time for new activities or to make changes in your life may be the result of stress, rather than a realistic assessment of  your life.  Underneath superficial energy is often weariness we can’t seem to shake off.  Count the people you know who are really healthy and vibrant, full of energy and enthusiasm. Isn’t it surprising that more people don’t fit that description, considering our affluence and our knowledge about good eating habits and exercise? But the weariness that comes from a high pressured or much hated job – requiring much wind-down time – has little to do with physical fatigue. Fatigue and depression are also common symptoms of environmental stresses, which range from poor diet or working in a modern “sick” office block to a sensitivity to household chemicals. In one way or another, the way we live is to blame.

Look, too, at some of the bigger issues in your life. Why do you work and live where you do? How do you travel to work? What about your health – how do you feel most of the time? How happy are you? All these things are interrelated, and need to be considered as you take on the ideas and suggestions in the Green Home.  [Delete? People sometimes tell me that change simply is not realistic, but when you consider the alternative to reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and cutting our exposure to hazardous chemicals, the alternative path looks considerably brighter and certainly realistic.]

Consumers of convenience

Our need to do things faster has lead to a vast increase in convenience products, from frozen meals and fast‑drying paint to permanent press clothes. We have been sold the idea of convenience, because a sense of urgency and helplessness about everyday chores is one way of increasing consumer demand. The cost of this convenience is a loss of quality, along with a number of environmental price tags.  Journalist Erik Larson quipped, “As far as food engineers are concerned, the microwave oven is one lousy cooking device but consumers are very forgiving when it comes to microwave foods. They readily swap quality for speed.”

As we consider the quality of life we want, however, our priorities may change. The time‑saving nature of convenience products is often illusory.  Natural rice needs to cook for longer than the instant variety but its preparation requires no more of your time. Cooking and sharing a meal and doing the dishes afterwards takes more time than sticking individual frozen pizzas into the microwave, but eating together plays a vital role in any human group, and shared preparation is both creative and pleasurable.  Think of the extent to which friendships are built up by years of shared experiences. Taking a child to a museum or building a dollhouse together is likely to mean far more in later years than any number of purchased toys.

Time values

Beyond this, we all have patterns of time use that may not reflect what we really want and value in our lives.  We talk about ‘quality time,’ which means not much of it.  We talk about ‘killing time,’ waiting for something good to happen. Some people suffer from compulsive busyness, every minute carefully preplanned in a datebook. Others want to retreat from the many conflicts of modern life, becoming couch potatoes who retire each evening with a microwave meal and a stack of videotapes. Here are a few suggestions for those who want to become more attuned to the passage of time:

  • Take your watch off for a day or two over the weekend. Does it really matter whether it is 2:36 or 2:39? Eat when you feel hungry; go to bed when you get tired.
  • Get involved in a time‑consuming craft like pottery or knitting or bookbinding, and get to know a different rhythm of work, creating something that will probably outlast you.
  • Spend half an hour or so walking every day for a week – just walking, not going anywhere.  Get to know your neighborhood or a stretch of rural footpath, and use the time for quiet reflection away from the daily demands of home and family.
  • Do something  extraordinary for someone you care about without spending any money.  This will mean a gift of your time, in some way or other, and is a good way to show how you value your relationships.

Time and the environment

As more and more of us use increasingly powerful computers, psychologists and sociologists as well as environmentalists are expressing concern about the effect this new perception of time will have on our relationships with each other and with the environment. They say that our obsession with speed has gone too far and that the desire, especially of the Western world, to produce and consume at a frantic pace has led to social inequities as well as the depletion of natural resources and the pollution we see around us. Nature’s own production and recycling rhythms cannot keep up with modern industrial society.  The demands of economic efficiency and ever-increasing speed mean that planetary ecosystems are no longer capable of renewing resources as fast as they are being depleted, or recycling waste as fast as we discard it.

We read less, watch television more, and want our news and information in smaller bites, to grab on the run. Environmentalists complain that people won’t understand the complex choices of our modern society without taking more time to listen and learn.  But we are becoming a world of soundbites in which our choices, our decisions and our behaviour are too often determined by quick takes rather than serious consideration.

US activist Jeremy Rifkin points out that computers are making changes in the social, physiological, and political dimensions of the way we perceive time. Computers measure time in nanoseconds, billionths of a second, which we can conceive of theoretically but which we cannot experience. “Never before,” says Rifkin, “has time been organized at a speed beyond the realm of consciousness.”

These changes have happened, in part, because of the Western idea of time as linear, with a separate past, present and future, with the present being the most important.  Other cultures – including the Hindu, Chinese, and many Native American cultures –  have a circular view of time.  Because they believe that what they do in the present affects the lives of people, and their own lives in the future, they have been more likely to live lightly in the present.

Technology

While many environmentalists extoll the virtues of technological innovation – telecommuting, for example, and email, and more efficient electrical appliances – others are uneasy about the mesmerizing effect of new technologies. Building computers uses rare natural resources, requires the use of many toxic chemicals (linked in California’s Silicon Valley to congenital defects and miscarriage), consume an increasing amount of the world’s energy, and produce a great deal of waste.  And they have not produced the paperless office, one of the benefits that was supposed to result from increased computerization.  In fact, modern offices use more paper than ever before.

It is true that computers and computer networking are powerful tools for environmentalists.  They enable fast, cheap communication as well as sophisticated monitoring of current problems and modelling of future environmental scenarios.  But social consequences aside, technological advance is devastating in terms of human consumption for the simple reason that every time computers get twice as fast and half the price, millions of people buy new machines.  The same is true of fax machines, laser printers, telephones, sorbetieres, CD players and the hundreds of other machines we use.  The equipment we use is so complex, and changes so dramatically every few years, that it isn’t possible (or economically feasible) to simply adapt the old machine.  And there is no end in sight, no satisfaction of need for the hacker, or the businesses who will always wants to do things faster and cheaper.

The Amish, who use neither cars nor electricity, have long restricted the use of certain farm machinery because they value neighbourliness.  If a machine replaces the need for the help of neighbours, they often choose not to use to because they value the human connection to be found in working together.  Technology is always going to be exclusionary.  Only a few people will have the latest and the fastest, and technological advance takes no account of the fact that humans do not operate faster and faster.  The idea of a quantum leap has no relationship with human lives, where change is slow, and where we value stability and familiarity.

If going faster means a loss of quality (artificial ripening of fruit), of human contacts (shopping by computer), and of human values (traditional village life, for example, and a responsible and responsive relationship with the place we live), we ought to think about slowing down, and we ought to slow down while we think.

Chronobiology

There is also a biological component to the way we live our days and hours a nd  minutes. Plants, animals, and human beings have inbuilt “clocks.” Seasonal growth cycles, mating patterns, and the way we wake up on New York time after a flight to London are examples of this.

Studies have found that the effects of a given drug can vary depending on the time of day it is administered. Long distance truck drivers are three times as likely to have an accident at five o’clock in the morning. The nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, occurred at four in t he morning, because of errors made by workers who had been rotating shifts around the clock every week for a month and a half.

Job satisfaction, general health, and productivity were dramatically improved at a plant in Montana when a new schedule allowed workers to stay on the same shift for three weeks in‑stead of one, and when the rotation went forward rather than backward; this makes a difference because most people’s biological clock runs on a 25‑hour rather than 24‑hour day. Shift work and jet lag can cause dramatic changes in mood and mental clarity, but trying to live by “social time” can pose problems for people whose natural biorhythm has unsocial peaks and troughs.

Find your own prime time before you tackle the suggestions in the rest of the Green Home. If you aren’t sure about your own biorhythms, consider the following:

  • Are you more likely to feel chilled in the morning or the evening? Body temperature tends to peak along with alertness.
  • Try doing a crossword puzzle at different times of the day when is it easiest?
  • Exercise for five minutes in the morning and again in the late afternoon or evening. Does one session leave you feeling exhausted and the other energized?

Simplify your life

The Green Home is not like one of these beauty books which tells you that in 10 to 15 minutes a day you can significantly improve the state of your nails, and in the next chapter asks for 10 to 15 minutes for your eyebrows, half an hour for your face, and 20 minutes for meditation.  When you add it up you could be spending more time on the author’s program than you spend at work.

While many authors have approached the idea of green living as a complicated enterprise requiring lots of extra equipment and a completely new program, I think of it as a way of clarifying the things that really matter to me so I can simplify the rest and concentrate my effort  (and my time and money) where it counts.  Living more simply can bring dividends of  leisure because you decide that you’re just not going to bother doing some things any more!

Think about ways you might eliminate clutter from your home, and about the worries or responsibilities that make for mental clutter. What can you get rid of, stop doing, do less often, or get someone else – your partner, children or even hired help – to do? What can you do more simply?  Food, makeup, clothes, decorating, vacations?

The secret to happiness is  not getting more but wanting less.  Simplifying your life does not mean doing without things that really matter to you – the objects and activities that give you pleasure and satisfaction and nourishment of soul or body – but doing without all the things you’ve been told you need which end up confusing the view, cluttering your closet, and wasting your time.

There are suggestions for simplifying your life throughout the Green Home, but here are the basics: [How to present this general list?  Should I expand it?  Organise it as a paragraph or two?]

  • Get rid of the clutter
  • Rethink your buying habits
  • Reduce your need for services
  • Ask yourself whether the time you spend on upkeep  (houseplants, pets, clothes, cars, appliances) is really worth the effort

Planning

As I talked to people about the Green Home during the green boom of the early ’90s, I realized how many suggestions there were for ‘ways to save the earth.’  I felt overwhelmed by them.  I did certain things and not others, and finalized realized that I had to find a way to make decisions about what mattered most and what made most sense in my life.

Start with things which are particularly easy or particularly important, and perhaps both (boycotting CFCs, for example).  A few things cost a substantial amount of money (like building a conservatory).  Some depend on the cooperation of the people you live with and should probably be left for later in the process of creating a green home

Set priorities.  Don’t become overwhelmed by the prospect of filtering your water, changing cleaning products, and spending more time in natural light, all this week. Specialize.  Decide what matters to you or bothers you most. Concentrate on the things you will enjoy: finding good secondhand furniture for your new apartment or retuning your car engine for improved efficiency.

Many people find it helpful to start a household notebook, where you can keep track of ideas to try and questions which come to mind as you read.  It can become a place to keep good, easy vegetarian recipes and DIY patterns you clip from magazines, and a place to plan the steps in creating a green home.

Planning your meals is a great aid to ecological eating. Menus do not have to be complicated or overly detailed. I find it reassuring to know that on Thursday we’ll eat ‘pasta with sauce and a salad.’ and that all the ingredients are in the larder.  One reader says she plans menus for a whole month in advance, which I find enormously impressive.  She can take full advantage of shopping bargains by buying in bulk when prices are low.  Planning ahead saves time and money, and enables you to avoid last minute dashes to the store, reducing car use.

Keeping your spirits high

If after reading through a few chapters you are hesitant about getting started on your own green home, even though you see ideas you could use, don’t feel guilty and give up. There will be definite reasons for your hesitation.

You may worry about opposition from loved ones. As you get excited about cleaning up your home environment, that enthusiasm may be contagious and your partner or housemates or children many jump on the bandwagon.  But they may cling ever more tightly to the remote control device and the microwave instruction booklet, flaunt their drycleaning, and throw away the box of used newspaper you were saving for the recycling center.  Don’t try to do too much, too soon.  Change can be very threatening, and you cannot force true cooperation.  Be patient – give it time and remember that no matter how small the beginning, it is always better to do something than to do nothing.  If something is worth doing, it is also worth doing a little at a time.

Gradual change is far more likely to be permanent than a crash program, as anyone who has struggled to lose weight will know.  Remember that new ways of doing things soon become old ways.  Keep a sense of perspective and don’t be hard on yourself when you slip from the straight environmental path.  Relish the ironies of life, and don’t fret when the children regale your  mother‑in‑law with a body count of the wine bottles in the last load they put out for curbside collection.  You won’t convert anyone to the green cause by being grim and miserable.

Perhaps you are afraid of looking ridiculous riding a bicycle or building a compost pile. Or you may feel you still don’t know enough, you need more information or advice.  Here, the solution  is to find other people who share your concerns and want to explore options for change with you. If you are worried about air pollution or increased traffic in your neighbourhood or about the pesticides being sprayed along the roadside by the local school, there are certain to be other people worried too. Organising a food co-operative or joining an allotment is a way to build a community of people who can share information and practical advice.

You may find yourself depressed at the extent of the problems we face. I’ve tried to emphasise solutions but environmental issues can be alarming and upsetting.  I have faced this myself  while writing about the Green Home and find that taking action in the world outside my home is essential to maintaining my enthusiasm and hopefulness. Empowerment comes from a sense of hands-on involvement. All of us need to see positive change. If you look around your neighbourhood or town you are sure to find good causes vying for your attention, perhaps the conservation of an historical building or building of a wildlife area near a school.  Be positive.  As well as combating plans to build a shopping centre on a site of special scientific interest, look for projects that will make your part of the world a better place.

There are always trade-offs as we move through our lives with limited time and resources. Pace yourself. Don’t try to turn your life upside down, and don’t feel guilty because you continue to drive your children to music lessons. Keep looking for options and evaluating your choices. And take time to enjoy and learn about the beautiful world we live in.