Grey on Green part 1: older people shaping a sustainable future

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This guest post from María José Ramos Acevedo, Visitor Team Assistant and Culture Champions Volunteer Assistant, introduces the fantastic project, Grey on Green: older people shaping a sustainable future. In this post, the first in a series of blogs about the project, María José focuses on the initial workshop during which key topics emerged, based on the insights into more sustainable habits that were offered by participants. These ideas have since helped to shape the project and, as will be shared in future posts, have informed the themes for subsequent workshops.

Grey on Green aims to explore the contributions that older people make to a sustainable world; changing the misconception that this age group cares less about the environment than younger people. This year-long project started in November 2021 and is a partnership between Manchester Museum and Southway Housing Trust.

A woman wearing a mask talks to one of four people sitting at a table with paper on
Andrea Winn (Curator of Community Exhibitions) talking to participants in the first workshop.

To date, we have hosted three museum workshops, during which a group of wonderful 60 to 90 year olds have been sharing sustainable everyday habits, exploring natural history collections and reflecting on the future, in light of the current climate emergency.

To prompt conversations and to start the ball rolling, we structured the first workshop around three main questions:

  • Do you think our lifestyle was less harmful for the environment 30 / 40 / 50 years ago? Why?
  • What practices from the past could we adopt now that will make a difference?
  • What do you already do in your everyday life that helps protect nature?

To support discussions we brought along a selection of museum objects to illustrate positive stories and practices, such as the Peppered Moth and a Calabash Bowl. As the objects were passed between the participants lively conversations filled the room; creating the perfect conditions for everyone to start to do a bit of thinking and talking around the questions we posed.

Man holding a box of British insects
The collection of British insects proved to be a great conversation-starter for participants

We have gathered a range of really insightful responses, both from the participants who attended the workshop, and via email from those who were not able to be there in person. The feedback raises both the scale of the challenges faced by society in terms of being more sustainable, but also offers solutions, big and small.

Hand-written notes on a sheet of paper

Through this activity, we noticed that five main themes emerged, namely: stuff, food, air pollution, green spaces and energy / water usage and these themes are shaping our plans for subsequent workshops. But we also felt that the responses we gathered during this first workshop were so beautifully simple and insightful, that they deserved to be shared more widely. Therefore, the rest of this post offers a summary of the discussions and feedback from our first workshop.

Four women sit around a table talking

We started the discussions by encouraging the group to compare past lifestyles and habits to how we live today: Do you think our lifestyle was less harmful for the environment 30 / 40 / 50 years ago and why?

STUFF

  • Yes, because there were fewer disposable items such as plastic in the past.
  • People shopped locally and often daily, meaning less waste.
  • Bottles were always recycled / money back for them
  • Clothes were homemade / repaired / knitted / cobblers
  • Now a throw-away society
  • People have lost their skills- don’t know how to repair
  • There was less reliance on electrical appliances
  • People lived happily with less stuff
  • Now we’ve got far more that we need.
  • Less advertising.
  • Now we live bombarded with advertising to buy things all the time

FOOD

  • People baked more and preserved fruit and veg
  • Food was seasonal.
  • Seasons were defined

AIR POLLUTION

  • People commonly used public transport, less cars on the road
  • Also walked and cycled more

GREEN SPACES

  • Lots more gardens with flowers and trees
People sit around a table, talking and looking at museum specimens

We then moved on to focus on good habits and practices that participants already do or did in the past, asking: What practices from the past could we adopt now that will make a difference? What do you already do in your everyday life that helps protect nature?

STUFF

  • To use less
  • Use reusable containers for food items and recycle more
  • To reuse shopping bags
  • Repair clothes
  • Buy second-hand
  • Think before buying things
  • Skills exchange service (for repairing / mending)
  • Recycle more
  • Think twice before buying things

FOOD

  • Create more green spaces to grow fruit and veg
  • More education about what food could be foraged
  • Buy local and seasonal food
  • Groceries to be delivered by bike by local shops
  • The manner of production must evolve in a carbon conscious way: Farming of crops, water collection, animal husbandry, are all in the process of much needed evolution
  • Cooking in bulk and freezing
  • I would like to support growers and farmers, but I’ve found that where I live is not possible
  • Buy organic products/ growing organic
  • Make your own jam

AIR POLLUTION

  • Walk and cycle more
  • Use public transport

GREEN SPACES

  • Planting trees and plants that attract wildlife, collect rainwater to irrigate the garden
  • Help birds, insects and squirrels thrive: food for animals
  • Maintain small garden, plants indoor and outdoor
  • Use environmentally friendly cleaning products

ENERGY / WATER USAGE

  • Turn lights off when room not in use.
  • Nothing left on standby / turn off at the socket
  • Boil the water you need
  • Shower timer
  • Have a water meter
  • Toilet brick in cistern to save water
  • Not have water running when brushing teeth

We noticed that Food and Seasonal Eating were particularly important topics for the group: since food is a basic universal need for everyone and, given that the food industry accounts for over a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, this comes as no surprise. Therefore, we decided to focus on these themes in the second workshop, but that deserves a separate blog: coming soon…

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