The Fine Art of Green Living – and Dying

Bonaventure in Savannah, GA, aka “the garden of good and evil” – possibly the greenest cemetery you’ll ever see.

Big Pharma, Dirty Lies, Busy and Eco Activists: excerpt from Chapter 18

I REMEMBER AN OLD GAME: would you eat something – typically something gross like a live garden slug, or a fresh dog turd – for R1 000? No? How about R10 000? A similar scenario that, apparently, saw the actual harsh lights of a TV quiz show was “would you take the money?”

You are offered a suitcase stuffed with money, typically a million rands, pounds or dollars. However, if you do take it, it is with the knowledge that somewhere in the world (preferably a faraway, overpopulated place like India or China), a child will die by virtue of the process we know as the butterfly effect. Would you take the money?

We all do, we all take the money every day, each time we drive a car, or fly in an airplane, turn on a heater or even cook a meal. In the great inter-connectedness of the biosphere, because of this, somewhere a baby dies. It’s usually a young chimpanzee or orangutan whose forest home is being chopped down to plant fruit palms to make palm oil, so that your child, or the brat next door, can have the Oreo for which they threw a tantrum in the supermarket.

By the same knock-on effect, we are all complicit in the destruction of nature, a small comfort being that we down here in the Southern Ocean are not as bad as some people. I recall being in Florida in the United States one muggy summer. Just walking around outside brought on a sweat. My partner and I ducked into a shopping mall – where we were blasted out again by the sub-arctic air-conditioning. They just do everything there in extremes, whether it’s kindness or craziness.

I remember laughing to myself during the very funny movie Down and out in Beverly Hills. There’s a scene where the hobo character played by Nick Nolte goes rummaging in a dustbin for food. It was huge, so big in fact it had wheels! It was a time when we still had old-fashioned metal dustbins in South Africa. Now we too have plastic wheelie bins, four times the volume of the old ones, same as they did in the United States back in the early 1980s. Mostly, they are filled with plastic and thrown-out food. But I’m no longer laughing.

We are each of us that person in David Bowie’s song “The Man Who Sold the World” (everyone you meet, face to face, is that person): we sold the world for mostly trivial increments in comfort and convenience, for trinkets made from rhino horn and sea shells. Now’s the time to start buying it back, one piece of litter at a time, with all the money we made while selling it.

There are a few good reasons why we need to reassess the way we live. One is that most of us who have First World lifestyles use way too much: too much petrol and too much toothpaste, too much sugar and too much food generally. But more telling is that we use way too much electricity and water. We buy stuff we don’t need, then we throw away stuff, much of which we didn’t need in the first place. And with that comes all kinds of waste and pollution and other problems down the line, for ourselves as well as for others.

In South Africa we have become captives of a centralised state that has failed us – miserably – with service delivery. Although we might just have bottomed out of the “state capture” pit, it will take untold years before things get back to tolerable levels; maybe longer depending how things go on the political front. This alone is a pretty good reason to go running for the hills.

One of the best environmental lessons we learnt in recent times was during the acute water shortages across South Africa in the late 2010s: that was how to conserve water, mainly by using less. For many of us, it opened our eyes to the fact that clean water is a limited resource, not just something that, on demand, pours out silver spouts in our homes.

A bad habit the COVID-19 lockdown highlighted was commuting. Already in the first week of “stay put”, people in various cities around the world posted on Facebook claiming considerable reductions in air pollution. On that first day you could virtually hear Mother Earth breathing out and the sounds of nature filtering back in. Surely there must be better ways to do this? E-bikes come to mind.

LIVING GREEN IS ALL VERY WELL, but what about all those old and worn out vehicles – our tired, diseased and toxic bodies – when they’ve blown their last gasket and are headed for the casket? The only thing we can say reliably about all of us is that we are all going to die. And even in death we end up cluttering the works.

Many cultures burn their dead, which uses lots of unnecessary firewood. Among India’s Hindu population there used to be a custom known as sati, which required a widow to climb on top of her deceased husband’s funeral pyre: thankfully, this practice has been outlawed for some time. All the burning of wood and spouses aside, the fumes from a burning human body are truly noxious, as we learnt above.

Some more spiritually enlightened societies feed their dead directly back into the nutrient cycle, usually to vultures, but in some places hyenas. I’m guessing this means of human disposal will not be an easy sell to everyone, no matter how practical, but it does put a new spin on the conservation definition of a vulture restaurant.

But what if a tree were planted on each of the estimated 300 000 new graves each day worldwide? Instead of burying our dearly beloved departed ones inside brass-festooned wooden coffins in vast acreages of good land, we dig a hole for them, throw in a bag of compost and plant a tree?

I’ve thought it all through. Indigenous trees would be preferred, in order to regenerate or create natural woodlands. But other flowering species as well as any fruiting ones would be acceptable, to provide food for insects, birds and hungry people. The hole should be just 1.5 metres deep, one metre for the tree and the extra bit for the body.

The burial containers would need to be strong enough to carry the weight but ones that will biodegrade quickly, preferably a cardboard box with some light timber bracing. The unique selling point would be the name: remember that the first person to patent this product and copyright the name is going to be the next green billionaire.

My best shots so far are the Burial Box, Bye-Bye Box and the Snuff Box, but I’m gifting them to you. All I ask is that you send a commensurate donation from each sale to a conservation cause – and that when it’s my turn, I get a yellowwood.

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