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Cult 1970s BBC TV show The Good Life examined Tom and Barbara Good’s experience of attempting to opt out of the rat race by becoming self-sufficient. They grew vegetables in their back garden, milked a goat, tried to knit their own clothes and collected their animal’s waste to create methane to generate electricity.
With the first theatre production of The Good Life just starting a UK tour, a look back at the environmental activists of the 1970s reminds us that those trying to cut their carbon emissions today aren’t the first to aim for a greener lifestyle.
In the 1970s, only a generation after the second world war, many who remembered deprivations and shortages still happily practised the “make-do-and-mend” mentality that had been promoted by the government in their childhoods. Some embraced a more environmentally friendly lifestyle, others just opted for saving money.
For many people in the 1970s, clothes were bought more sparingly and, significantly, were repaired, if a dress needed taking in or a hole appeared. With the rise of fashion chains such as Primark, repairs went out the window for many as replacements were so cheap. But green campaigns are now popping up to encourage people to mend their clothing rather than throw them away.
Well before the Repair Shop became a popular TV show, getting everything from televisions to furniture fixed rather than throwing it away was normal. Many people would do simple fixes at home and shops offering repairs were found on most high streets. Fifty years later, the desire to reuse is only just coming back into fashion, driven by today’s environmentalists.
Food, though, only slightly more expensive than it is now, was a higher proportion of weekly spending by households and leftovers were often turned into meals for the next day now the UK throws away 7 million tonnes of food and drink from their homes every year, the majority of which could have been eaten. The pioneers of recycling began to make their mark in the 1970s, building on established household practises such as putting empty milk bottles on doorsteps to be taken away and reused. Many drinks companies offered a deposit on glass bottles which could be refunded if an old bottle was brought back to a shop, a form of recycling that is again under discussion.
Owning chickens to provide a daily supply of eggs has become a trend recently. In the 1970s, this might have been a step too far for many town or city dwellers. But growing vegetables on an allotment, normally land owned by councils, was popular, and many people grew vegetables in their gardens, even if they only had a small plot. Allotment use is bouncing back, with an increased interest in growing your own food.
As well as offering an opportunity to eat fresh seasonal produce at a low price, allotments offered an element of self-sufficiency and offered a sense of community among users. I helped my dad on his allotment and remember the sense of wellbeing it provided as well as the taste of produce that had been harvested only a couple of hours previously.
Households from that period were careful about not wasting energy. It’s notable that since 1970 total electricity consumption has increased by almost 54%. In the house I grew up in, each room had one lightbulb and one power socket. Anything other than one black and white television was viewed as unnecessarily decadent. Video players and the plethora of associated entertainment devices, now common in every household, were seen as futuristic – or hadn’t been invented yet.
Of course, there was plenty that wasn’t environmentally friendly about the 1970s. Coal was the main fuel used to produce power and heat homes. Though increasing energy costs in the early 70s caused some to worry about the amount of heat lost, the vast majority of houses were draughty, and even those just being built did not incorporate insulation that would comply with modern requirements.
Sustainability, and protecting the environment from emissions of greenhouse gases, as well as pollution, were not mainstream issues in the 1970s.
What the government’s net-zero strategy is intended to achieve, it may be argued, is to encourage us to embrace a simpler lifestyle that would have been regarded as standard in the 1970s. Energy resilience and self sufficiency remains an aspiration.
Though there are many obstacles to living like the Goods, especially in urban areas, there’s much we can do to emulate their example. It’s critical we reduce our carbon footprint, cut consumption and engage in activities such as recycling and reuse. And use of fossil fuels – which has almost trebled since 1970 – must be reversed.
The future contemplated by the Goods was one that was better than in their youth. For many Gen Zs, the environmental future looks less optimistic . If those engaged in protest to save the planet could recognise anything from the Good’s story, it’s that those advocating radically different lifestyles are rarely welcomed. As Gen Z now know, environmental challenges they need to confront are much starker.
Steven McCabe does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.