By John Barker
Many years ago, close on 40, I was lucky enough to live in a more or less deserted hill village in Greece with a church, no electricity and a track winding up from close to a proper road, the asfaltos as tarmac roads were called. For several months I had a small house mostly to myself with a cat I had found elsewhere as a starving kitten but who soon became queen of the hill. Below were terraces of olive oil, nearer the house a large almond tree. In the drying grasses and shrubs were tortoises, sometimes jackals, heard and not seen. The only neighbours were an elderly brother and sister and they had control of the one water cistern in the place. In the winter this had not been a problem not with a runaway rainwater system into a clay amphora. It was different in summer. But this was paradise and at the bottom of the hill, some several hundred metres down there were two narrow stone lined spring wells one at the bottom of the track and the other in the other direction down through the terraces of olive trees. By good fortune in the spring time I was entrusted with a strong donkey by a friend’s aunt and uncle. It was a time when donkeys were common on the roads, and it came about because they were shepherds, mostly sheep but some goats, she with land around the bottom of the hill and he with pasture, or access to it, in the much higher land of Arkadia some 120 kilometres away and where it was cooler and greener in summer. At this time it was not uncommon, this annual movement. In other cases shepherds based up there would do a deal with land owners of ‘my’ area where there was only rarely frost in winter. The animals would keep the ground around olive trees clean and the owner given cheese and countless sacks of sheep dung.
When it came for the aunt and uncle to make their move, everything, sheep, dog, chickens, cooking pots, bedding were all loaded on to a lorry and off they went. They were nomads but with somewhere to live at both ends. In contrast say to those in Mongolia who move their living quarters, their yurts, with them when they move to the next seasonal pasture even if there too, a lorry might be involved. Their donkey, a strong four year old with a work saddle was left with me, my friend assuring them I would take good care of it. It may have been that they had no use or space for it but what trust, his and theirs, I was a city boy who felt like he was running wild in this paradise with no money, taking whatever day work was going, and with no experience of animals. Or they just knew the donkey was so steady and smart it would make sure it came to no harm. Equally, I was determined not to fuck this up. I’d done enough of this in the past, and to repay the trust. So I practiced putting on the work saddle, taking it off and putting it on again. The straps had to be tight so that it would not slip but not so tight as to hurt. They were made for carrying loads and riding side saddle. And the loads I needed were 22 litre jerry cans of water which is 22 kilos in weight. Heavy stuff, water, slightly heavier than olive oil per litre, and for this to work there had to be two of them, roped to either side of the saddle for balance. Easy enough with the empties and a thermos for some water direct from the well going down the track edged by thyme and oregano and riding side saddle like I was the king of the hill; more difficult loading the cans full.
There was no ownership fuss to the spring wells. The one at the bottom of the track had a metal bucket with rope for common use but the jetty cans were made of a stiff polyeurathane plastic with a 10 centimetre opening with screw tap and moulded handle in a moulded recess at the top. The trick then was to have the one roped on in such a way that it didn’t drag the saddle down or hurt the donkey while putting up the other. Even when I didn’t get it quite right the donkey never panicked and there was no weakening or damage to the handle of the jerry can. I’d seen all kinds of other load carrying handles, rivets, bolts and welds and there was always likely to be a problem, not with the plastic. At that time, for many people I knew, plastic was a kind of dirty word, a synonym for the inauthentic, for the ‘straight’ world altogether, bourgeois even. Sloppy talk when the thing about plastic is that it was and is cheap. And it wasn’t long after that the massively subsidised USA cotton lobby ran a PR campaign emphasizing the ‘naturalness’ of cotton against the threat of synthetic fabrics, in spite of the many, many chemical processes cotton fabric goes through to become that ‘softness of touch’ the campaign’s song boasted of. Such things, PR campaigns and the like, were unknown on that hill up which came most days a man in his seventies with a beautiful; singing voice and a small flock of goats.
Around that time too the Polish foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski wrote about the difference that the introduction of plastic water containers was making to the women of Africa. In the first place it was cheaper than the old clay or metal pots. Then, it was lighter in weight and so easier to carry over distance home from the water source, and being lighter could also be carried by children. And, as he noted such containers could be left to stand in queues on places where water came by truck so that the carrier would not be subject to the tyranny of bored waiting around; they might find some shade with friends or go to the market, knowing that unlike clay pots they were too cheap to be stolen, he said. It was a pragmatism I could understand, not some kind of techno-fix like carbon trading or ethylene fuel, ‘problem’ displacement, but something that worked. There is analysis too: how rectangular containers take up less and less space than circular ones but need a thicker plastic because the force on the corners is greater. There is even application of the Borg (RPE) scale which measures the intensity of the labour carrying of water. In the first world such a measure has not been applied to factory or construction work but restricted to fitness centres and cardiology surgeries.
But there is always context. In Greece water was plentiful, a huge deposit if underground water, springs and rainfall too. Even then, spring wells and cisterns were never far apart. In a study of water fetching in Limpopo province in Southern Africa there is no mention of donkeys or mules; it is estimated that women still spend 26% of their time doing it; it has been called “time poverty”, a loss of time for doing something else or indeed doing nothing at all, at ease; and that whatever the shape or composition of the container musculoskeletal problems are likely to develop for the load carrier.
Then there are contexts around contexts, battles around ‘ownership’ of water where there is an attempt to put it in the hands of private interests for one. Then there are increased incidences of drought as consequences of global climate change whereby in a band across the West Asia and East Africa “it is already creating a vast surplus population that is no longer able to survive in the economy as it stands.” Elsewhere, the nomads of Mongolia have lost herds in winters of newly extreme cold on conjunction with fodder reserve system being discarded post-1990. A yurt shanty town has developed in Ulaan Bator of some 600, 000 people. To move to a city can be a matter of choice and cities are conducive to some freedoms – especially for women-, opportunities and to an acquired tolerance. There is though a difference between choosing from desire and having to move because of land dispossession by one means or another, or the ‘impossibility’ of an economy that once worked. In these circumstances one arrives vulnerable in stingily provided outskirts where there is additionally liable to be a water crisis in different scale mega-cities. For many in the drought vulnerability band (re-categorised as a band of terrorism and counter-terrorism so as to hide the realities of climate change) there is no city to head for and a ferocious denial of any place for the displaced in Europe.
My lucky time in the hilltop village makes me think of these things, that time when there was a donkey for load carrying, water not so far away (and which certainly did not take up a quarter of my daily time) and it vet unlikely I would be doing this for ever. Some 25 or more years later in the same part of Greece I was part of a loose environmental group agitating at the level of local politics. By this time there were none of the donkeys or mules that had been common on the roads, only a few in a donkey sanctuary that were more a therapeutic pleasure. Neither were there ‘nomad’ shepherds, just one or two small all-year round flocks. The land was more susceptible to wild fires because of this, the land less cleared before grasses went dry, along with more roads being made for hoped- for tourism. Despite this, because of the particularly democratic land holding system in the country, the much earlier flight of many to the city after the 2nd World War, the modest development of tourism and the abundance of water, the landscape and its economy have not changed that much ,and tortoise populations have somehow survived the fires. There is though, far more stuff. That began soon after my spell in the hill village, the commodities that had come gradually in Northern Europe arrived in the area in a rush. Cars, packaging, and audio-visual electrics observable in the privatization of TV watching, no longer dependent on the local cafe in the multiplication of rubbish. Once it has been dealt with domestically even if some times that was tipping stuff off a mountainside, and with an occasional garbage tuck from the municipality. In our area despite an apparent increase in the number of trucks rubbish in and around the villages and in the local town had become a horror.
This became the point of mobilisation of our group amidst allegations of corruption or simply not caring so we decided we would attempt to shame the mayor by a rubbish collection on a defined and well known area, an small ‘island’ connected by a short causeway. It was early summer and after a few hours among its cedar trees we had made a pyramid of rubbish some 4 metres high. A large proportion were plastic water bottles, half litres mostly some One and a half. All together what had been collected required several trucks which the mayor had been shamed enough to send.
Those many years ago upon the hill there was no fridge or TV, even down in the more convenient world close to the asfalto with electricity and buses. These were still the luxuries of the nearest cafe for a really cold beer or to watch Panathanaikos, then a team to be reckoned with in European football, or the Sunday afternoon film which, comedy or tragedy, always started with the young woman from the village moving to Athens. At that time perishable food was kept in a large tin hung from the ceiling with mesh side for air circulation. Cold water from the well might last cold as long as it could, or could be put in a thermos.
It is easy enough to be nostalgic about such a life when many years have gone by since you spent a sweaty hour or two in the village cafe’s phone cubicle trying to make a call out of the country; when those films told a real story, Athens as a liberation for young women in the village; easy enough instead for it to be old geezer talk; lazily avoiding the liveliness of the present. The temptation is easy enough and the only solution to laugh at oneself. In this instance, out of the sweaty hours of rubbish collection, popped up a comic riff about how it was the coming of the ice cube that spelled, with the decadence it implied, the death if European colonialism when it depended on the ‘stern white man’, the self-discipline required to discipline the invaded
And yet, and yet, reading of the retreat of the Mongolian nomad and more poignantly of the pastoralists of Somaliland finding that their economy and the life that goes with it is recently made ‘unviable’, it’s hard not to think that the breezy write-off – ‘that’s simply how it is’ – with a shrug of the shoulders, that a whole economy is somehow irrelevant, is something a lot worse. Still more so when there is an environmental addenudum, pastoralists as an intrinsic menace or the depredations that go with peasant firewood: the environmental flim-flam of land-grab. When it’s not just a question of context but of the proportions of different causes when it comes to the size of effects. These are being muddied in a daily basis, like the trillions of hidden global money and the one hundred quid loan shark.
The plastic bottles we picked up are made of a different kind of plastic to that of the jetty can, polycarbonate, and which have excited a whole literature of personal health concerns centred on two components bisephonal A (BPA) and the polymer terephtalate (PET). The first that is the starting material for polycarbonates has been ‘linked’ (the proof ‘not definitive’)in two studies to low birth weight babies and the hormonal system, mimicking estrogen, because of how what is not consumed in the chemical reaction can leach into the plastic bottles contents. ‘BPA-free’ bottles, advertised as such, contain BPS and this sis said to be no better and the advertising ‘sneaky’. The re-use of such bottles filling them with tap water as is now common among people keen to stay hydrated but aware of environmental concerns, has been singled out as especially bad because they ‘break down’ over time. As so often, knowing that advertising can be ‘sneaky’ and research contaminated by private interests, how to know what to do for the best, as an individual on whom so much ethical environmentalism is placed.
In Greece in summer it’s the availability of cold water that counts, really cold water that deals with the dry crust in the mouth that comes with the journey to the beach, now you don’t have to go to the village cafe and its exclusive fridge, instead it’s easily available in plastic bottles from petrol stations, kiosks or bars. But, remembering Louis-Ferdinand Celine and his take on the arrival of those ice cubes in the colonies, it’s impossible to moralize about laziness even if it is a capitalist-encouraged kind of laziness, the Convenience store. Convenience and decadence, one rhetoric slapped on top of another. And yet, talking with the day’s fellow rubbish pickers, why not the thermos flask. In Mongolia it’s an essential for the nomad, hot water available without the need to start a fire or replace the gas bottle: should be the same for cold. Or what’s wrong with schlepping one of these polystyrene covered cold boxes with that special liquid in the very tough plastic that can be recharged/refreezed over and over in the fridge, are they too much of an effort? These questions were inescapable even when the bigger contexts within bigger contexts are too well known and the collective needed to deal with them so pressing.