If it’s not easy being green, why do it?

spiked-TV: The rat race looks heavenly compared with BBC 2's peek into one family’s attempt to go eco.

Neil Davenport

Topics Culture

We all have our prejudices, and mine is anything that has the faintest whiff of hippiedom: tie-dye t-shirts; yin and yang posters; Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon; Goa Trance; and last, but definitely not least, environmentalism. Blame it on my formative years absorbing a mod-indie aesthetic, but I’ve never even been to the Glastonbury festival. It would be the equivalent of stepping into my own personal nightmare.

So it is with some trepidation that I alight upon BBC 2’s It’s Not Easy Being Green. For the past couple of weeks, it has charted the progress of the Strawbridge family and their quest to live an ecologically sound and self-sufficient existence in Cornwall, England. Goodbye Tesco, hello muddy fields.

The programme’s diary format is narrated by Dick Strawbridge, an ex-Army officer, inventor and now regular BBC TV presenter. Sporting a ludicrously overgrown walrus moustache, the ebullient fortysomething seems to be an attention seeker. In this week’s instalment his family and friends were shown building walls, constructing green houses and rearing pigs. It’s handy that Strawbridge is an award-winning inventor, as he can quickly identify solutions to problems of ‘sustainability’.

As impressive as his practical know-how is, it’s all a bit like reinventing the wheel. Fixing basic generators and installing make-do central heating systems is not exactly Tomorrow’s World. Nevertheless, such ingenuity provides a reminder as to why human society has evolved from living off the land to living it up. Even when there’s a romantic desire to experience a rural idyll, the urge to make life easier always gets the better of us.

One of the labourers helping the Strawbridges marvelled at how ‘many hands make light work’. Funnily enough, that is precisely why I favour a social division of labour over a small traders’ economy. In fact, if there’s a criticism of contemporary society it’s that a global division of labour doesn’t go far enough in producing more goods in less time. Watching the Strawbridges back-break their way through 12-hour days, it doesn’t leave a great deal of time to do anything more interesting or rewarding. Yet it’s precisely such a punishing and austere existence that the Strawbridges want to advertise. The ‘It’s not easy…’ bit is meant to show how much they sacrifice in order to save the planet. Hey look at us – unlike those 4×4 drivers we really care.

Of course, communal self-sufficiency isn’t exactly new. It has always been a cornerstone of hippie counterculture, which is probably why I’ve found it as indigestible as a vegan curry. However, there is something very different about today’s twenty-first century communes compared with the ones in the Sixties and Seventies. While ecological issues were prevalent then, they were often overridden by human concerns.

For instance, experimenting with communal human relationships was seen as a way out of the restrictive and patriarchal nuclear family. Also, the desire for self-sufficiency was seen as an alternative to the frustrations of alienated labour in modern society. In the bleak but very funny Seventies comedy The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, the middle-aged protagonist is driven slowly mad by repetitive and soul-destroying work. Perrin’s plan to escape ‘the rat race’ was partly informed by wanting to save his marriage rather than the planet. Likewise, the BBC’s sitcom The Good Life, in which a middle-class couple became self-sufficient in Surbiton, also wrestled with notions about a more rewarding, less alienated existence. Of course, opting out of society was a deluded replacement for transforming society; but at least then such activities raised existential questions about human fulfilment.

In It’s Not Easy Being Green, communal living is simply a damage-limitation exercise against human’s ‘wasteful’ habits. And this is the aggravating irony of green politics today: environmentalists are far more obsessed with the minutiae of consumption than the spend-happy likes of, say, Victoria Beckham or Katie Price. This is why rather than spending free-time reading, writing or painting, the Strawbridges fixate on making sure their every intake is entirely ecological.

As the old hippies once said of the 9-to-5 treadmill, surely there’s more to life than this?

Neil Davenport is sociology and politics lecturer and freelance writer.

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In spiked-TV last week: James Heartfield on Pinochet in Suburbia.

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Topics Culture


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