Saturday Series: An Interview with Shirley the Baglady

By Carly Chaapel

In our new Saturday Series, we interview inspiring people that our readers have nominated. These people are working on the frontlines to improve the global food and agricultural systems. Want to nominate someone? E-mail your suggestions to Danielle Nierenberg!

Shirley Lewis as Baglady. (Photo credit: Baglady Productions)

Name: Shirley “Baglady” Lewis

Location/Affiliation: Baglady Productions

Bio: Shirley Lewis is the founder of Baglady Productions, an organization that works with schools, individuals, and the government to put sustainable behavior into action. She is most well-known for her original campaign to say “no” to plastic bags.

You have become an icon for sustainability in Northern Ireland, Britain, Canada, and Australia. What inspired your campaign for sustainability, and why did you choose to literally become a “bag lady?”

We’re not living sustainably; it’s stirringly obvious. Our future is in danger, and we need to wake up to this quickly. I became the Baglady in 2001 in my first national campaign in Australia, called the National Plastic Bag Awareness Week. I had to go to a lot of meetings, and I invented the Baglady character out of boredom. It’s a very good image because our plastic bag usage is a world problem that we must solve without waiting for governments to pass laws. It’s an easily changed habit that is also really disgusting. And it fits in very well with my work now, which is living “ASAP,” or As Sustainably As Possible.

As part of the “As Sustainable As Possible” (ASAP) challenge, you are calling for everyone to take personal responsibility and action. Why is it so important to make individual pledges for more sustainable lifestyles?

It’s mainly because we don’t think enough about how we are wasting stuff in our lives. We’re not just living on the basics of survival with just enough air to breathe or food to eat. Most of us living in the Western world are high above the basics, and we’re used to our lifestyles. So what I’m doing is making a vow to do without some of that stuff. I am living without a refrigerator for a year, and I’ve given up a car, a television, a printer, and a cell phone. I use public transport and grow my own food where possible. I try to shop as sustainably as possible by avoiding packaging, and I’m very conscious of food miles. These are all really simple things that are gradually growing in public awareness.

What do you tell people who argue that it’s too late to save the world, especially through small changes?

I very rarely meet anyone who argues that it’s too late to save the world. I think with most people you need to talk a lot about the state of the world. People who say it’s too late don’t think about enough, and they are in denial. A small change makes you aware of one thing, and what’s more, it makes you feel good.

We don’t have the right to think it’s too late. We can’t look at our children and apologize for their future. First of all we don’t know, and second, we are being appalling parents if we do that. Everyone holds responsibility for the children of the community. Animals have always taught their young how to survive in the world and live sustainably. It’s a question of passing on knowledge, and that was severely broken in the twentieth century when labor-saving technology became overwhelmingly popular. Today, people are in a state of shock, or stupor.

Your work tends to focus on direct interaction with people, especially children. Why are children and young people essential to the ASAP movement?

Children have to go to school every day, and teachers have to fill the day with something that relates to the curriculum. That means children are getting guidance from wise and responsible teachers who are willing to learn and acknowledge that we are all human and can all make mistakes. Children are brilliant because they’ll do what the teacher wants, and they’ll also pester the teacher to do the same.

The spirit that we’ve engendered together in Northern Ireland has been absolutely brilliant. From September onwards, we will advocate Positive Pester Power (PPP) worldwide, and it’s already catching on. We will work with 760 schools in Northern Ireland that are part of the Eco-Schools program (which operates in 52 countries) and FEE, or Foundation for Environmental Education. Children are vital to this campaign because they are flexible, willing, imaginative, and caring enough to actually participate. Children have a wonderful way of making things simple, whereas adults spend more time explaining why they can’t do it. I think we’ll move through this problem with help from our children, and I’m immensely looking forward to working with Eco-Schools and FEE.

If someone wants to take the ASAP pledge to specifically eat more sustainably, what would you recommend as the most effective personal choices?

It’s about growing your own food wherever possible. Whatever you can’t grow yourself or get from your neighbors will have to come from the shops. The supermarket is the greatest evil of all time because it’s so impersonal and involves so many shortcuts that cost the planet. The most sustainable thing after producing your own is shopping ASAP. Ideally, this means buying locally grown or produced foods with minimum packaging and minimum food miles. It also means supporting smaller shops where you can take your own bags and containers. Be conscious of how much energy you’re using to cook and how much you waste. Try to compost and feed kitchen scraps to the chickens where possible. Ask yourself if you really need a freezer and try to buy less. Just think all the time and share what you learn with other people. I hope everyone will take the ASAP pledge.

What are your next steps as the leader of Baglady Productions?

Baglady appreciates all the wonderful praise and friendly responses, but she is always walking off stage because she believes that most of our problem is due to the fact that we experience pyramid consciousness. Because the sun is up in the sky, we all fight for our place at the top of the pyramid. The Baglady is about gently dismantling those pyramids and settling into waves where we all share the ups and downs in life and experience the natural joy when we are at our peak.

Our work with Eco-Schools and FEE is coming up in the near future. There’s an inspiring film called The Pledge on the Hill about children who have taken ASAP pledges to politicians, who now work to put those pledges into action. I’m very proud of the work by politicians in Northern Ireland, but I am appalled by those in Australia. All they are concerned about is moving up the ladder and winning the next election, and I’m sure it’s the same in America. We got the Northern Ireland politicians to take the pledge and choose their own local school to meet Baglady and connect with the children. It’s all about good news, good publicity for the politicians, and children knowing that they are really important.

I took a vow in 1995 to work for 20 years inspiring people to look after this beautiful planet, and so for the next 3 years I will continue my role as a leader. What this project has taught me is the depth of need to heal the human spirit. My only true hope is that we will be able to find this deep healing in time to stop the otherwise fairly inevitable collapse of the world. 

Carly Chaapel is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

Read our other Saturday Series interviews: Kari HamerschlagMary McLaughlin, Bruce Melton, and Sarah Alexander.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one-minute book trailer, click HERE.

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