When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, I genuinely believed that humanity was never going to make it to the year 2000. It was so obvious that we were going to annihilate ourselves with nuclear weapons, it hardly seemed to make any sense to dream of a life, have a family or make any plans if I was going to die before I was 30. Then the wall came down and everything changed; the future opened up before me. It’s been amazing to spend nearly three decades free of that fear, and to see young people growing up around me who have never felt oppressed by the scary future.
But in those years, something else has happened. In Western societies freed from the Cold War, and in increasingly globalised markets, absolutely everything has been seized on and exploited by capital. We can have everything new and shiny, and cheap – so cheap! No need to dally here for long – so much has already been written by better-informed people than me about the impact of these processes. But I think we can see that in the past decade, a fashion for handicrafts (both participating in crafts and buying handmade products) and even more for the ‘Industrial’ interior, which values old, battered objects that speak of work with the hands and import ‘authenticity’ and history into the home, have been part of the response to this bright and shiny world of the new and mass-produced.
It extends into all areas of our culture – look at an old episode of Top of the Pops and the naivety and crudity of the production will seem laughable. The alpha-example for me was walking into Topshop a couple of years ago and seeing denim cut-offs for £25. Who in almighty hell buys such a thing? That’s hours of minimum-wage labour for a teenager, for something that should essentially be ‘free’ – a by-product of the jeans you’ve already had for years, that you just chop the legs off of. Quite apart from all the problems of over-production, labour rights in developing countries and pollution by the garment industry, it bespeaks quite another issue: dependency. If we are dependent upon shops and industry to supply our needs, they have an immense power over our lives.
Recently I heard Jay Brave talking about his veganism as a political issue, how if you could grow your own food you became instantly free of a whole industry. I found this very inspiring. I’m no longer convinced that there will be a post-apocalypse to deal with, or even that capitalism will crash and burn, although either of those may manifest in some form, but I do increasingly want to detach from a system that is rotten to the core. Not all of us can, or want, to live off-grid in an adobe house and weave all our own yoghurt. But we can all start to become more self-sufficient through handicrafts and gardening, by sharing large items like lawnmowers instead of buying them individually, and by re-using or donating old things. Simple acts like cutting up your own jeans, painting an old chest of drawers or growing some salad on the windowsill are small acts of revolution. If you can learn survival skills like camping, lighting a fire, making a stone tool or a basket, so much the better; you will feel even more free and less dependent on a system that only views you as a consumer, a cash cow.
I also get an enormous sense of satisfaction looking around and knowing that I made, or upcycled, or modified, or embellished the things that I use and wear. Making things is good for our physical and mental health, it’s calming, satisfying and fun. I hope this year to spend the summer living off-gird, eating mostly home-grown food, learning all sorts of new skills that will make me feel more secure in this uncertain world, more self-sufficient and more capable.