Ursula Le Guin: Always Coming Home

always-coming-home-2016Ursula Le Guin

Always Coming Home

1985, republished by SF Masterworks in 2016

Always Coming Home is a wonderful book but it challenges easy categorisation. Like most of Le Guin’s work, it belongs somewhere in the ‘science fiction and fantasy’ area, but there’s very little science in it and even less fantasy. It is not even a novel, nor a collection of short stories, but an anthology including short stories, poems, play-scripts, an excerpt from a novel, myths and (the longest item) an autobiography.

Between them, they give us a richly textured introduction to an exotic culture – much as an anthology of Kazakh folk tales and literature might do. But which culture?

Continue reading “Ursula Le Guin: Always Coming Home”

Oliver James: The Selfish Capitalist

selfish-cap-300Oliver James: The Selfish Capitalist – origins of Affluenza

Vermilion, March 2008

In this sequel to his Affluenza (2007), Oliver James argues that capitalism as practised recently in the richer English-speaking countries – that includes Australia – is making us miserable. His ‘affluenza’, a portmanteau word fusing ‘affluence’ and influenza’, is the pattern of chronic over-work, debt, anxiety and waste induced by our obsession with goods and income, and James traces its cause to economic policies.

He defines Selfish Capitalism as the neoliberal Thatcherism adopted in the 1990s and finds that, despite the ‘trickle-down’ rhetoric, those policies made the rich very much richer while leaving the rest of us no better off financially and significantly worse off in other ways. Labour market deregulation undermined job security and held down real wages, the media joined business in successfully promoting perceptions of relative poverty even as real levels of consumption reached new highs, and debt increased enormously. (In Australia, mortgages rose from 2.8 to 4.2 times average annual income between 1994 and 2004 while other personal debt tripled).

If Selfish Capitalism is so bad, what is Unselfish Capitalism? Continue reading “Oliver James: The Selfish Capitalist”

The Circular Economy

The idea of closing the industrial production loop must be in the air this month. I just came across this report on the #CircularEconomy and it meshes so well with my recent post on industrial ‘composting’ that I had to share its key points.  Here goes:

This week, a roomful of sustainability coordinators, educators, government leaders, waste professionals, and various decision makers gathered to discuss one topic that will likely transform the state of all industries in years to come: the circular economy.

Hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation (USCCF), the “Better Business, Better World” Sustainability Forum served as a springboard for leaders to brainstorm more sustainable and economically beneficial choices for their businesses. While the world turns away from a linear economy — when waste is an inevitable result of product development — a closed-loop system of reuse presents an opportunity for as much as $4.5 trillion in economic growth, Continue reading “The Circular Economy”

Composting and industrial recycling


[no author]
Penguin, March 2009, $19.95

Composting is a brief but very practical, hands-dirty, guide to turning garden waste, food scraps and waste paper into the kind of soil that will have your plants moaning in ecstasy as they grow a mile a minute. As the authors say, it isn’t rocket science and there are no hard and fast rules. Anything organic will rot if you leave it long enough, and learning about composting is simply learning how to make the process work better for you and your garden.

If you just want to put lawn clippings on the garden beds, fine. If you want to buy a bokashi bucket to keep in the kitchen, fine. If you want to make a worm farm, fine. If you want to establish a hot-compost heap and turn it every week, that’s fine too. Composting points out that many people evolve a mixed system for dealing with waste and when I looked at our own household to check, I counted nine different paths we use to convert green stuff into good soil or dispose of what we can’t use. Our system makes the most of our resources with the least possible time and effort but it was never planned, it just grew. The garden does, too.

cradle-to-cradleCradle to Cradle

Michael Braungart and William McDonough
Random House, April 2009, $24.95

Cradle to Cradle applies the composting model to industrial design. Continue reading “Composting and industrial recycling”

Blue Java bananas

The Ducasse (aka ‘sugar banana’) patch we acquired with this house has been so productive that over the last few years I have been trying to grow other varieties, although with very limited success. The Blue Java sucker mentioned in this post two and a half years ago failed to thrive – mostly, I think, because it didn’t have enough roots to support the foliage. It lived, however, and eventually pushed up a sucker of its own.

A few weeks ago it looked as though the original plant was dying without having produced a bunch but I propped it up to give it the best possible chance and a few days ago I saw that it had, after all, flowered. The flower wasn’t very big and nor were the immature bananas of its first hand but I was pleased with even that degree of success. The flower bell is much slimmer than a similarly-developed flower of Ducasse or Lady Finger, and smokier in colour.

banana flower
Blue Java flower with (mostly obscured) new fruit

Sadly, a possum noticed the flower, too, and ate both fruit and bell some time in the last couple of nights. It’s very disappointing. Somewhat surprising, too, since I don’t recall that happening – ever – to a Ducasse: the possums are always around but they leave our bananas alone until the fruit are fully formed and getting close to full size.

I still look forward to some Blue Java fruit in the coming year as a reward for my patience but now I have to put all my faith in the sucker. It’s strong, healthy and taller than I am, which is a good start. With a bit of luck – and not too many scrub turkeys, possums or cyclones – I might have them before Christmas.

Words we need: Mathom

As we move, ever so slowly, towards a sustainable society, it is gradually becoming clearer that we in the West just have too much stuff – too many material goods, to be more formal – to be able to achieve long-term balance. ‘Mathom’ is a word which can help us reduce our excessive consumption.

It’s a word which goes all the way back to Anglo-Saxon times and re-entered the language via Tolkien:

“It was a tendency of hobbit-holes to get cluttered up; for which the custom of giving so many birthday-presents was largely responsible. Not, of course, that the birthday-presents were always new; there were one or two old mathoms of forgotten uses that had circulated all around the district…”

— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, Vol. 1

As Wikia tells us, “Mathom” was the hobbits’ term for anything which they had no use for but were unwilling to throw away. A Tolkien Mathomium has much to say on the real Anglo-Saxon origins of “mathom”, the traditions behind it and the “comic irony” intended by Tolkien who knew exactly what he was doing when he re-made Anglo-Saxon “mathum” into Hobbitish “mathom”. It’s fascinating stuff (for word-nerds, at least) but the modern usage is what we’re really here for. Urban Dictionary defines it well:

Mathom: A regift. A relatively trivial object that has repeatedly been given as a present.  …
[Mathoms] most likely persist because they are slightly too valuable or unusual to dispose of outright or give to Goodwill, yet have such limited use or appeal that few wish to retain them. Modern-day candidates for mathomhood are commonly visible in catalogs for novelty electronics, pop art, junk jewelry, and sports memorabilia, as well as in roadside “local” gift stores.

Elaine St. James, in Simplify Your Life (1994) uses it more positively:

When packing, start with treasures such as vases and art objects (of course, these are now going into the mathom box, […]) … Now, when special occasions arise at which a gift would be appropriate, I search in our closet for a suitable mathom. I’ve also let my friends know that they are free to pass on (or possibly fob off) these “treasures” to someone else whenever appropriate.

I could say more about why and how we should reduce our consumption but Madeleine Somerville has just said most of it for me – starting with the headline, Yes, you recycle. But until you start reducing, you’re still killing the planet –  in the The Guardian so I will finish with a word from one of Tolkien’s contemporaries. It’s better known and perhaps even more important to our future: Enough!


The Christmas season

The approach of the Christmas season is heralded by signs no less consistent than those foretelling the approach of the Wet season. Emails from the Red Cross, the Wilderness Society and other charities arrive in our inboxes, reminding us that not everyone can afford the Christmas they want and that we should help where we can; banner headlines announce that Aussies will spend X billion dollars before Christmas and celebrate/lament the growth/slump since last year; paper catalogues land in our letterboxes, sometimes in spite of our “No Junk Mail” stickers; and every shop in the city is festooned with glittery red, green and white decorations and “Pre-Christmas Sale” signs.

Where, in all this, is Christ? MIA, apparently, either smothered under a heap of Santa costumes or sitting quietly in a corner lamenting our thoughtless, selfish materialism.


I’m not quite so angry about it all as the American gentleman above (thanks to FB for the image) but each year since I began this blog I have written about how not to lose sight of our common sense and decency in the commercial maelstrom. Give Twice for Christmas (2012) is as relevant as ever and I would encourage you to click through to it if you haven’t already read it, but here are some more suggestions by way of an update on it:

  • Kiva now allows people to set up a gift register if they would like gifts to them to become loans to Kiva borrowers. (Don’t know Kiva? Start here.)
  • A blogger whose focus is simple living has created a worthwhile list of non-toy gifts for children; scroll down and you will find similar lists for other family members.
  • Sustainable Table, a not-for-profit organisation which focuses on food sustainability, has put together a similar guide to Christmas shopping. The Energy Collective has done the same.

Whatever you do, try to have a good Christmas – good as in ethical, ethical as in sustainable – as well as a happy one.