Fitting your own oxygen mask

I read a beautiful thing on another blog today. Titled “Today I lived,” it is a poetic tribute to all the times we want to turn away, to scream, to hide inside ourselves, but we don’t. We want to scream at our kids, but we don’t. We want to slam the door, but we don’t. We want to shut the world out, but we don’t.

The trouble with that lovely tribute is that some days all I can see is all the times I have screamed. The students I couldn’t reach. The problems my kids had that I wasn’t sympathetic about. The doors I did slam, and the actions I regret.

When we do the Successful Thing in the evenings to remind ourselves of what we have achieved lately, I try very hard to give myself credit, even for the little things. To remind myself that however bad the day felt, I did stuff. I got up and went to work when I wanted to stay in bed. I solved a tricky programming problem. I helped someone. I used the stairs instead of the lift – or, when I’m sick, I remembered to use the lift instead of the stairs and actually ended the day still functional. That’s a score, in my book! Yet some days it’s really hard to come up with even a small success.

Have you ever listened to the safety briefing on a plane and actually thought about those oxygen masks? “Be sure to fit your own mask before helping others,” is the standard line. Which makes sense, because you can’t fit the oxygen mask on your toddler if you have passed out from lack of oxygen yourself. I think those days when I can’t find anything to write for the Successful Thing are the days when I haven’t fitted my own oxygen mask.

Recently I offered to run a short mindfulness session at work, before school, once a week. Part of the reason I offered was that I knew that this way I would at least get one mindfulness session in per week. Mindfulness is really hard for me to maintain on my own. I know it’s incredibly good for me. I know I am happier and calmer when I do it regularly. Yet it’s the first thing to go when I get busy or stressed – even though it’s most important at those times! But if I have promised to do it for someone else, I will do it. I’ll prioritise fitting someone else’s oxygen mask, but not my own. When I set it down in text like that, it sounds really crazy. But it is who I am.

I was talking to a friend the other day about how hard he is on himself, and I was dispensing sage advice by the handful. “Don’t beat yourself up when you feel like didn’t measure up on a day,” I said. “Work out what you can learn from it, and try again tomorrow. And above all give yourself credit for the stuff you did achieve today.” This, I think, is a form of mindfulness. This is being aware of your whole day, not just the bits that hurt. And this is being kind to yourself. This is also advice I am very bad at taking myself.

It’s really easy to get caught up in what your kids need. In your responsibilities at work. In making time and putting in effort for everyone but yourself. Especially if you are unwell, as I’ve been over the last few months, and your energy and time are so constrained that there just isn’t enough for everyone who needs it. It’s really easy to put yourself last. To not fit your own oxygen mask. To wind up slamming doors, screaming at the kids, and losing it at work. So far over the edge that you can’t even see it with a telescope.

For me, at least, the way I often respond to these events is to beat myself up for not being the parent I want to be. The friend I want to be. Or the teacher I want to be. And this is an ingrained habit that is hard to break. But I am starting to realise that it’s easier to replace a habit than to break one. Focusing on not doing something is like trying not to smile – more difficult the harder you try. So I am planning to try focusing on doing something instead. I’m going to work on fitting my own oxygen mask. I’m going to try to take those days as a warning – like an alarm that goes off when the plane begins to depressurize – instead of taking them as failure.

Today I’m going to go for a walk, and meet a friend. Tonight I’m going out to my favourite restaurant in all the world, and tomorrow I’m going to get some marking done, but I’m also going to spend some time lying in the sunshine with a few back copies of Cosmos magazine. And I’m going to breathe. Deeply. And maybe that way tomorrow will be better than yesterday, and I will remember to fit my own oxygen mask next time, before the doors slam and the screaming starts.



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The new normal

Here in Melbourne, Spring has suddenly sprung. Truly it has – don’t bother me with your petty calendar-based technicalities, I know Spring when I bask in it.

Outside the sun is shining, the flowers are blooming, and the temperature has reached that balmy level where, if it were summer, we’d all be muttering about brass monkeys and their frozen … er… seed cases (this is a family friendly website, ok?). Truly, it’s 17 degrees out there and we’re breaking out the t-shirts, shorts, and thongs, making plans to head for the beach. Weather like this in January would have us reaching for our coats and beanies. But coming as it does after a grey, cold winter, 17 degrees is pure, unadulterated bliss.

We are a remarkably adaptable species. We adjust quite quickly to new circumstances, and sometimes we forget that anything has even changed. What’s normal today is entirely dependent on what happened yesterday. Was it 12 degrees and rainy? Then 17 degrees is fine. But sometimes it pays to examine the new normal, and wonder if we have actually progressed. So here is a random list of normalities that could use some adjusting.

1. Politicians lie. They do. It’s a fact. We’re so used to it that it’s not even newsworthy anymore. It’s just a thing we know they do. I don’t know what the point of elections is anymore. We vote for some party on the basis of promises that we know they will break. We accept the lies, the inhumanity, and the gross inequity of their actions. Perfectly intelligent people swallow all kinds of lies like “saving lives by stopping the boats” and “budget emergencies”, even when evidence has shown them to be complete rubbish. And we are neither surprised nor horrified when they turn out to be corrupt. It’s just the way they are.

But we don’t have to accept it. We don’t have to vote for politicians. We can vote for independents, and minor parties. The major parties would have you believe that it leads to chaos, but Julia Gillard steered a hung parliament and a very fragile senate through some of the most significant progress Australia has seen in years. We got a National Disability Insurance Scheme, we got a price on carbon – a step that much of the world is now implementing, while watching in horror as we dismantle ours. The worst thing that can happen to a government is to have complete control. Good government is a process of negotiation, balance, and compromise.The more independents and minor parties get the vote, the more politicians will take note and start to listen to us. Your local member broke a promise? Sack ‘em. It’s the only way they’ll learn.

2. We need new stuff. It’s hard rubbish time in my area, and the number of large, fully functional televisions that have been thrown out because their owners have shiny new flat screen tvs is ASTOUNDING. All because we need new stuff. We picked up a coffee table that needs a couple of nails and a polish to be as good as new. It’s a sturdy, high quality table. It’s lovely. But it was chucked on the scrap heap, because we need new stuff. More with the shiny things. Newsflash: We don’t need new stuff. Things can be repaired. Things can be polished. I can imagine a whole new class of profession in the future: people who fix stuff. Freaky, eh?

3. There’s rubbish everywhere. Yes, there is. But like politicians, we don’t have to accept that. We can take responsibility for our own rubbish. We can create less rubbish (don’t get me started on coffee pods), and dispose of what we do create carefully. We can pick up a little of everyone else’s rubbish every now and then. How many times have you walked into a school, a shopping centre, or a carpark and thought “how disgusting, people are such pigs!” and yet not done anything about it? Be the change you want to see in the world.

4. We need cars. We don’t, you know. We have feet. We have bicycles. We have public transport. Sure, there are arguments against many of those things, but you have more power in your body than you give it credit for. You can walk further than you think you can. You can ride further than you think you can. And the beautiful part is that the more you do it, the more you can do it. Got kids to transport? Get yourself a cargo bike. Cheaper than a second car, and you’ll save yourself the cost of a gym membership too. I’m not saying cars aren’t useful, but does your family really need two?

5. Productive=Busy. We are greatly invested in being busy these days. Wasted time is anathema. Got to be up and doing! But if there is one single thing I have learnt from being ill for a long time, it is that sometimes the most productive thing we can do is nothing at all. Mindfulness, stillness, peace and quiet – whatever you call it, we all need it, and we don’t value it nearly enough. I recharge my phone with ferocious obsessiveness, rarely letting it get flat. But I let myself get flat all the time. When was the last time you prioritized recharging yourself?

6. We mustn’t interfere. I have friends who live on a beautiful beach in Tasmania, where signs say dogs aren’t allowed, as it is a significant nesting area for a number of threatened species. Nonetheless, dog owners take their dogs there regularly, even off the lead. Rather than tut-tutting under their breath, my friends call them on it. Gently. Tactfully. But ever so firmly. They’re clever about it. They give people a chance to save face with comments like “Did you realize that dogs aren’t allowed on this beach?” which gives the owners the chance to say “Oooh, no, thanks for letting me know” and scuttle away with their tails between their legs (sorry). They still see dogs on that beach, but there are less of them, and they rarely see anyone they’ve spoken to coming back. This is how progress is made.

The mum next door screams at her kids a lot? Strike up a conversation. Maybe she really needs someone to talk to. There’s a dad in the supermarket with his toddler on the floor, screaming up a storm? Reach out to him. “Hah, I’ve had days I’d have liked to do that!” or “we’ve all been there, eh?” to let him know he’s not alone. When I was away from work for an extended period, I got lots of messages, emails, texts and phone calls, just checking that I was ok. I even got a few visits.

The world needs more reaching out, not less. So often we have no idea what’s going on, even next door to us.

What’s normal to you, and how much of it needs to change?

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The total perspective vortex

I’ve been on sick leave for 3 weeks now, and today my GP urged me to take the rest of this week off as well. What started as a virus ended up with heart complications, which although they are benign, are exhausting. So I have been napping the days away, and when I haven’t been napping, I’ve had plenty of time to think.

For me, too much time to think can often be dangerous, as I have a tendency to take myself too seriously and spiral in on my own thoughts in a vortex of despair. This time, though, I haven’t had the energy to despair, and I’m starting to think that perhaps I don’t take enough time to think in the day to day marathon that I call my life.

I tend to push myself hard, stress over everything, and believe that if I stop pushing everything will fall apart. Well here’s the thing: I stopped. I was forced to. And here’s the tally:

People dying as a result: 0

Civilizations collapsed: 0

Worlds ended: 0

Fires started: 0

You get the gist, I’m sure. What happened was that a good friend took over my beloved year 11 class, and by the sound of it they’ve been having a great time. My year 10s are safe in the hands of my team teaching partner. Sure, people have noticed I’m not around, but there has been a marked lack of screaming and catastrophe.

I have so many things I was going to do in that time. I have so many things I want to do when I get back. So much to build, so much to fix. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the world does not revolve around me. My school does not revolve around me. Even my classes don’t revolve around me. If I quit tomorrow, I’m not sure there would even be a ripple before everyone adapted and moved on.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not getting all maudlin and “woe is me” about that. I know I have a lot to contribute. But if I don’t contribute it all in one day, the world will continue in its daily course undisturbed. I love my job, but maybe I need to take a step back from it every now and then, take a deep breath and look around me. Maybe I need to learn how to love it without being consumed by it.

Douglas Adams wrote that “In an infinite universe, the one thing sentient life cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.” But maybe sometimes we need to feel a little bit small, in order to remind ourselves that we are not wholly responsible for the universe. Sometimes the universe can get along just fine without us.

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Danger, Will Robinson!

Much of the Australian Government’s current behaviour seems to be predicated on danger. Apparently, aside from the “only visible out of the corner of your eye” budget emergency, we also have a security emergency, a border protection emergency, and a desperate need to sacrifice privacy and freedom in order to be safe from the ever increasing terrorism emergency. Indeed, one news article I read today suggested we Australians live in “increasingly dangerous times”.

Certainly we feel increasingly unsafe. The news is full of reasons why we should be terrified of, well, just about everything. Of strangers (especially around our children). Of hijabs and head scarves. Of hoodies. Of refugees. Of politicians (actually that one seems pretty logical).

We are told that we need to sacrifice the presumption of innocence, together with our privacy, and accept laws creating a new level of surveillance (maybe, depending on who’s talking today), and requiring people traveling to “suspect” places to prove that they were not there with nefarious intent. We have to accept this, or be on the side of the terrorists. Obviously. Because we are in so much danger.

And yet… Are we actually at risk? Are we more likely to die? The Bureau of Statistics says that in 2003 132,292 people died in Australia, whereas in 2012 the number was 147,098. So we are more at risk, no? Well… no. If you factor in population in those years, in 2003 the ratio was 0.0067. In 2012, it was 0.0064. So you were actually less likely to die in Australia in 2012 than you were in 2003. The overall death rate has dropped.

If you consider the facts (a proposition neither politicians nor the media are keen on, it seems), we are growing older, safer, and more prosperous all the time. We are increasingly blind to how good we’ve got it. We have an unprecedented degree of financial security. We can afford to extend our good fortune to refugees. We can afford to protect our privacy, our freedom, and the presumption of innocence. We can also afford universal healthcare and high quality education, whatever Tony’s cronies might say.

What we can’t afford to do is reject science, facts, and the reality we live in, in exchange for a politically constructed illusion that is convenient for people trying to gain power, but catastrophic for the rest of us.

There is increasing danger in these times, but it is neither terrorism nor economics. The real danger is ignorance and credulity. It lies in blind acceptance of political spin, and a failure to question the statements and the emotive slogans that are stuffed down our throats every day.

Whatever your political views, whatever your beliefs, the one thing we must all do is to keep asking questions. It may be too late to keep the bastards honest, but it’s not too late to call them on their lies.

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What makes a leader?

I was excited when a friend of mine went for promotion recently. He was diffident about it, but I watched him light up when he talked about things he wanted to achieve, and the possibilities he saw in his organization, and I knew he’d be amazing. I’ve worked with him before in leadership positions, and I’ve seen him interact with people on a daily basis. He has that rare gift of giving you his whole attention and making you feel important. Everyone knows him, everyone likes and respects him. And yet I know that’s a good start, but it’s not enough to make someone a great leader. So what is it that makes me absolutely certain he’ll be great?

Not long ago I was lucky enough to hear Bob Brown speak, and you can’t listen to Bob for so much as 60 seconds without being struck by his passion, his optimism, and his drive. The central tenet of his talk was that optimism is a driving force. If you let pessimism knock you out, there is no way forward. It takes optimism to drive change. You have to believe that change is possible, and that you can make it happen.

Bob is an intriguing character. It’s enthralling to hear him talk, but he is not one of the world’s great orators. His speeches seem unplanned. He digresses from his digressions recursively, until you are so many levels deep you can’t remember where it all began (yet you are fascinated all the way through). He is not king of the media friendly three word slogan (“Axe the tax!” “Stop the boats!” “Harass the Homeless!” “Revile the Refugees!” “Persecute the poor!”), or master of the newsworthy soundbite. And yet he is a great leader, with talented and passionate people rallying around him in their thousands. Why should that be?

I believe it’s his passion that makes Bob Brown a leader. Bob sees what needs doing and he goes for it. He is dedicated, driven, committed, and utterly honourable. He leads from the front, always first to put himself and his principles on the line. Bob became a leader, not for power or control, but for change. He wanted things to change, so he stood up, grabbed them by the throat, and damned well made them change.

My friend, who is now on the management fast track, is the same. I don’t think he sees himself as a leader. He’s not interested in power, or making a big noise about his achievements (which are many). But he has a vision for how the world should be, and he wants to make it happen. And he will, too.

I am beginning to see that the best leaders have no particular interest in leading. They want to change things, to fix them. They accept leadership as a troublesome necessity for making that happen, but they are not interested in power for its own sake.

“Those who most want to rule should under no circumstances be allowed to.” Douglas Adams.

Leadership in politics and in business is all too often painted as being all about power and ambition. But that’s not leadership. That’s naked self-interest. Leadership is about a vision for the future. It’s about a drive to effect positive change, and to leave the world better than you found it. As Bob said, there is one question we should be asking that overrides all others:

“Will people 100 years from now thank us for what we are doing? If you can’t say yes to that, you ought not be doing it.”

 That’s leadership.


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It’s lonely in the ER

Last night when my friend Kate went to bed her heart decided to start skipping beats. Lots of them. For around 20 minutes. Unsurprisingly, she found this a little unnerving, so although she didn’t feel particularly unwell in any other way, and she wasn’t in pain,  Kate decided to call 000. She felt a little bit of a fraud by the time the ambulance arrived, because of course the skipping had stopped, so there was nothing for them to record on their portable ECG, or to hear with a stethoscope.

The paramedics were amazing. Alex walked in, introduced himself, and shook Kate’s hand. He smiled into her eyes and asked her what was up. He made a fast and incredibly effective effort to build a personal connection, and Kate felt immediately reassured. As she told him what had happened, he asked lots of questions, and collected information very calmly, while his partner, Sharon, hooked Kate up to the ECG machine.

There was no rush, no sense at all that she was wasting their time, or that they had more important cases to attend to. They were calm, they were competent, and they were immensely reassuring. When Alex said he thought they should take her in to hospital, Kate was surprised, but not at all scared, because of the compassionate and matter of fact way he handled the whole situation. He explained all of the possibilities clearly and eloquently, and left her feeling that she was in the best of hands.

On the ride in to the hospital Kate was still hooked up to the ECG, but Alex made sure she was warm and comfortable, and then talked to her all the way, about her job, about her kids, about anything and everything – laughing, joking, and connecting, with the result that by the time they got to the hospital she was quite relaxed. In fact her blood pressure was textbook normal, which for a stress bunny like Kate is all but miraculous!

Kate commented to Sharon while waiting in reception that she felt rather silly, since the abnormal heart beat had disappeared, and Sharon warmly reassured her that it was much better to get it checked out and find that it was nothing, than to ignore it when it was serious. Both Sharon and Alex kept assuring Kate that she had done the right thing. Here she was, in the ER with heart problems, and she was feeling relaxed and happy. That speaks volumes about the incredible skill and compassion with which those paramedics did their jobs.

Then Kate asked Sharon what time she was due to finish, and she said 7am. They had started at 5pm. And they’d done the same the day before. 14 hour shifts, not as a once off, but a regular occurrence! It amazes me that even though they must have been feeling exhausted, stressed, and massively under-appreciated as the government makes it clear that they do not believe ambos deserve a pay rise or better conditions, Alex and Sharon still made Kate feel far better than any medication could ever manage.

As they left they wished Kate well, shaking her hand and smiling at her in a way that both reassured her and made her want to beg them to stay – she had felt so comforted and protected by their competent, compassionate professionalism. For around 5 minutes Kate lay on the bed in the Emergency ward, wondering what was coming next, until a staff member appeared. Relieved, Kate assumed that things would start happening now. But no, this was a matter of fees and forms to be sorted out. Still, it relieved the monotony, so it was welcome. A nurse dashed in and made grumpy comments about the location of the chart, which she snatched from the administrator before dashing out again. Kate was not looking forward to having this nurse look after her!

Nonetheless, when the nurse did show up she was brisk but kind, as she told Kate to get out of her nighty and into the hospital gown. I know it has been said before, but do hospital staff really understand how humiliating these gowns are? They are cold, they are drafty, and they are impossible to tie up secure enough not to show your naked vulnerability, and indeed your knickers, to the world.

Fortunately Kate was allowed to keep her pyjama pants on, so she did not feel quite so exposed, but the curious thing is that these gowns open at the back – and Kate needed to have a huge array of sensors stuck to her chest. So her nighty with the convenient buttons down the front would have allowed much easier access. As it was, when the cable was uplugged so that Kate could go to the loo, vainly trying to clutch her gown closed behind her, the orderly (male, of course), had to rummage around inside the gown to try to reattach it. In the front of the gown. Around her breasts.

Luckily Kate is not a particularly shy person. In fact she has strong views about the naturalness of the human body, and how there is nothing embarrassing about the naked human form, but even so this stranger rummaging around in her top, and peering at her breasts, left her feeling incredibly vulnerable and exposed. In fact the entire ER experience made it clear that Kate was completely powerless.

She had to ask permission (and help, for unplugging all of the cables) to go to the toilet.  She had to ask to be allowed a cup of water. She was hesitant to bother the staff, because she did not want to distract them from all of the other patients, who she was sure were in much greater need than she was, but for the first half an hour she could not even reach the buzzer, and she fretted about how she would alert them if her erratic heartbeat returned. They had even taken her handbag and placed it on a bench at the side of the room, out of her reach, so she could not reach her phone.

Kate was lucky that she had a book in her pocket and was able to read to while away the time. She was also lucky that she had private health insurance and could afford the out of pocket expenses to choose to go to the local private hospital, rather than the invariably crowded and busy public hospital that would have been the default. In the end she was only in there for 4 hours, with a battery of clear tests showing that there was no immediate danger, and a fistful of forms for follow up tests to confirm the initial diagnosis of a benign, if disconcerting condition.

The staff at the hospital were kind and attentive, given that Kate’s case was not particularly urgent. But in a hundred little ways her dignity was stripped from her and left at the door.

What struck me, though, as Kate told me her story, was that her overwhelming impression of last night is the warmth of Alex’s hand, and his smile, as he shook hands to say goodbye. Alex and Sharon held Kate’s life in their hands last night, but she felt secure and protected from the moment they walked in her front door. Lonely and vulnerable though she was when she arrived in the ER, Kate coped with it all, because of the support and strength those paramedics left behind them. Those overworked, under-appreciated paramedics on their 14 hour shift. I don’t know what we pay Alex & Sharon, but it’s not enough.

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If it ain’t broke, throw it away anyway

Our 20 year old microwave broke yesterday. The mechanism still works, but the door opener snapped so that the microwave could no longer be opened. My husband, who has the heart, soul, and incidentally the degree of an Engineer got it down, choked a little on the accumulated dust behind it, and took it apart to see if he could fix it.

Inside he found a piece of aged, brittle plastic that had snapped. And then he asked me a curious question: “So, Lin, do we want a new microwave, or shall we fix it?”

“Is it hard to fix?”

“No, I just need to find a bit of wood or metal, shape it to fit, and screw it in.”

“Ok, I think we fix it, don’t we? By which I mean you fix it, and I’ll stand around looking impressed.” (I’m a software girl. I don’t do hardware. It’s fiddly and I tend to break myself in the process.)

Roughly 20 minutes later the microwave was fixed, cleaned, and back in its rightful place.

What puzzles me is that if I did not have access to this wonderfully talented & obliging engineer-type person, I don’t think I would have hesitated – I’d have chucked it out and got a new one. Sure, the big ticket items like fridges and washing machines usually rate an attempt (generally expensive, often futile) at repair, but smaller items like microwaves and coffee machines are alarmingly disposable. I’m not even sure I could find someone willing to repair a 20 year old microwave, if I tried.

Indeed, when my coffee machine broke under warranty a couple of years ago, the shop did not even look at it, they simply replaced it. Odds are that machine wound up on a rubbish heap somewhere, even though the broken part was simply a piece of tubing that needed replacing.

That’s the act of a society that has infinite resources to call upon. No limit to the metals and plastics we can chew up, and no constraint on the pollution we spit out.

Let me hear you say ‘smogulous smoke’ (smogulous smoke)
Schloppity schlop (schloppity schlop)
Complain all you want, it’s never ever, ever, ever gonna stop.
Come on how bad can I possibly be?
How ba-a-a-ad can I be? I’m just building an economy.
How ba-a-a-ad can I be? Just look at me pettin’ this puppy.
How ba-a-a-ad can I be? A portion of proceeds goes to charity.
How ba-a-a-ad can I be? How bad can I possibly be?

How bad can I be? The Lorax.
There are other signs of a society that believes it has infinite resources. Such a society might, for example, buy a new mobile phone, laptop or tablet device every year. My phone company spammed me incessantly when my contract was up, trying to persuade me to buy a new phone. They could not wrap their heads around the idea that the one I’ve got is working just fine, thanks.
Or it might package food to within an inch of its life (or perhaps beyond) in foil, foam trays, and plastic. It might produce plastic toys that break on the first use, and pack them into plastic packages, tie them down with plastic cable ties, anchor them to a plastic backboard, and shrink wrap the lot in still more plastic.
It might produce an infinite variety of single purpose items that nobody actually needs, like separate cleaning sprays for kitchen, bathroom, and laundry benches, another for shower screens, and still another for the toilet. Oh, and don’t forget the magically different floor spray. (We use a combination of vinegar and bicarb for all of that, and it’s amazingly effective, despite the devastating lack of brightly coloured packaging and almost, but not quite, entirely unreal floral perfumes.)
Such a society might throw away bike tubes every time they puncture. Buy coffee in take away cups every day. Store leftovers in disposable plastic wrap, and take lunch to work or school every day in new plastic bags. It might even buy a single item at the supermarket, put it in a plastic bag, and then just drop the plastic bag on the ground somewhere when it’s no longer needed.
And maybe, one day, such a society might pause and take a good hard look at itself. Such a society might wonder what kind of a world it was handing to its children.
And then it might take a travel mug to buy coffee. It might choose simple, multi-purpose cleaning products, and use reusable containers for leftovers and lunches. It might buy in bulk to minimize packaging, and refuse plastic bags. It might even choose to ride, walk, and catch public transport instead of driving.
And who knows? Such a society might even feel good about itself, eventually.


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