APDO Book Club: The Sustainable(ish) Living Guide

I’m really glad that APDO Book Club chose this book as this month’s read, because, I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t have read to the end any other way.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s worthy of its 3 stars, which in my rating means the author has achieved what they set out to do – there’s just nothing in it that I personally loved or found inspiring.

Jen Gale presents us with lots of useful links, and to that extent it’s worthwhile getting hold of a copy. There are also a few nice soundbites that I’ll use on the Tidy Beginnings Instagram at some point in the future. I’m certainly not discouraging anyone from reading this book, which has the solid aim of demystifying green issues and I guess achieves that for the sort of person Jen Gale was herself before she spent eight years reading and blogging on these topics.

In the introduction, Gale herself accurately identifies the sort of person who, like me, isn’t going to enjoy Sustainable(ish):

“I’ll be honest here, it’s probably not for you if you’re already well on your way … you’re going to be disappointed by this book. There’s nothing groundbreaking in it … it’s just me, a very ordinary person, an ex-vet, knackered mum of two, sharing the things that I’ve learned in what I hope is an accessible and actionable way” (p. 11).

Actually, I wasn’t “disappointed” and I wasn’t reading expecting the book to be a scientific study – it was clearly going to be a consolidation of useful facts. It’s the self-diagnosis as “a very ordinary person” that points to what I personally found off-putting. The majority of people in Britain don’t live the middle class life that Jen Gale thinks is ordinary. I’m in her income-bracket now, but I grew up working class and, also young in the 80s, I loathed the sort of excess she describes herself as espousing as the norm.

In short, I really wish Gale’s editor had said, “It’s not a problem to write from a perspective of middle class privilege. Other people like you will love this book, and there’s enough of them that it will sell really well and do some good in the world. But you can write for a primary audience of people like you without actively excluding others.” And I wish they’d tidied up all the places in which her lack of awareness of her privilege leaks out in her tone. Environmental activists – either skip the chapter on activism or read it with a sense of humour and fun. There are also issues every time she recommends something as a choice that people with less privilege just do as the only option available: handwashing dishes and using public transport are the most obvious ones. (And I say that as someone who does have a dishwasher and has transport choices).

To be fair, this isn’t solely this author’s issue. Lots of books in this market adopt a similar tone. “We’re all starting from this point, and doing these things, and isn’t it great?”

My conclusion: it is great that Jen Gale is taking steps to improve her impact on the environment. It is great she is willing and able to share them. And perhaps there’s some comfort that the “smug marrieds” so accurately portrayed in the Bridget Jones novels are now trying to do something to be more environmental. After all, they’re not the majority by numbers in the UK, but they have certainly always let it be known they are the moral majority. Yay! Well done, smug married sustainable(ish) demographic!

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