Yes, You Can!

What do you get when you combine an engineer who loves to knit with an antique sewing machine, some wood and elbow grease? A really interesting spinning wheel. When the pandemic hit and we hunkered down, everyone expected “normal life” to resume within weeks. Then solitude became the norm, encouraging people as well as nations to adapt to a more self-sufficient way of life. After a year of immeasurable death and devastation, as we slowly reenter the interdependent world we so missed, we bring an appreciation for the new tools and skills we used to get us through the past 15 months. In this Sunday Magazine, we highlight this year’s do-it-yourself trends, the notable people who embody a DIY attitude and the countries striving to fill in the gaps in their do-it-all portfolios. Plus, we’ll take a look at the downsides of going it alone. Read on to see how the world is hurtling toward a transformed future. 

Transformative Upcycles

Breathing new life into objects is sustainably savvy, inexpensive and useful.

Born-Again Bicycles: Going to the grocery store was a mundane chore back in 2019. But now, it’s nothing short of an adventure. The truly adventurous added spice to their trek long before reaching for the basil and coriander. With fewer long commutes, bicycles became the ideal transportation for those aiming to keep it local. With craftiness and sustainability in mind, zero-emission bicycle conversion kits have become a popular DIY activity. Whether the goal is higher speeds, more storage for groceries, or both, companies are providing customers with kits to transform their everyday bikes into e-bikes and cargo bikes. So there is another life for your ’90s mountain bike. After all, who doesn’t enjoy feeling the wind in their face after a long day at the home office? 

#Vanlife: Those venturing outside the neighborhood are also going DIY. Ditching COVID-risky conventional lodging options while maximizing time outdoors, RV sales have surged, with RV company Outdoorsy recording growth of 4,600% between April and October of last year, with a particular uptick among millennials. The accompanying social media-induced #Vanlife craze has also soared, boasting nearly 10 million Instagram posts under the hashtag and a whopping 4 billion views on TikTok. There is no better way to join in than by repurposing an old school bus or van and turning it into your own adventure-mobile. You can even use waste vegetable oil to power your refurbished ride. 

Window Wonders: Ever considered how to use old windows? Well, there is a whole Pinterest board dedicated to turning old windows into coffee tables. The advantage to using an old window is the glass, which you’ll often find with stained or painted panes. That way, you can fill your new table with coffee table books or maybe a few crystals. It’s the perfect display table, and it is shockingly easy to build: All you need is an old window, backing and some table legs. 

Must Be 21 to Hang: Did you enjoy regular wine o’clocks during quarantine? If so, turning your empty wine bottles into pendant lights might be just the DIY project you’ve been looking for. Decorating a room with fairy lights is nice and all, but using colored wine bottles is a needed upgrade to the old trend. Plus, lighting is notoriously expensive, so doing it yourself is not only a cost-saver but also a fun activity that makes the most of the castoffs from a night in with friends.

We Want More! We hear you. Other ideas include turning old sweaters into comfy slippers; transforming antique sewing cabinets into desks, spinning wheels or even washbasins; using pallets for storage (or even sandboxes); and repurposing old dressers into planters (we see you and your victory garden).

Country-Size DIY

Self-reliance isn’t just for people. As COVID-19 highlighted barriers to international trade and unequal distribution of crucial resources — most notably with vaccines — countries are adapting to become less dependent on their international partners for survival. 

Singaporean Urban Farming: A tiny island nation, Singapore doesn’t have land for traditional agriculture and relies on imports for 90% of its food. With the pandemic underscoring the need for food security, the city-state’s government is turning to its citizens to innovate ways to improve urban farming technology, even providing free vegetable seed packets to households to promote home gardening. So far, Singaporeans have spared no creativity, placing urban farms on car park rooftops, starting greenhouses in former schoolyards and even retrofitting vertical farms into office buildings. Urban greening initiatives like vertical farming also combat the urban heat island effect, with green spaces in cities dropping ambient temperatures by up to 4 C. 

Vaccine Sovereignty: Wealthy countries that were able to get to the front of the vaccine line have been hesitant to share shots with poorer countries, prolonging the pandemic as a result. The frustration from developing nations has prompted them to start preparing vaccine manufacturing capabilities of their own so they’ll be less dependent on others in the future. Not every country can churn out its own jabs, but greater vaccine production in every region, from Rwanda to Mexico to Indonesia, may ensure more affordable and equitable distribution when the next pandemic hits. Read more on OZY

Coming Home: The pandemic exposed the limitations of a global manufacturing system that depends so heavily on one country — in this case, China, where the virus originated and which had to shut its borders to the rest of the world for several months last year. That’s why countries like Japan are now subsidizing companies to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars to move their operations out of China and back home or to Southeast Asia. 

Internal Exploring: Travel restrictions are beginning to ease, but the scars of the pandemic mean it’s unclear when global tourism will return to pre-COVID levels. That’s why several countries are trying to revitalize tourism and further their economic recovery by focusing on domestic tourism. Malaysia has allocated more than $100 million toward travel vouchers and tax relief for domestic travelers, while Italy is paying low- and middle-income families up to 500 euros ($610) for domestic travel accommodation. And Costa Rica is even moving all 2021 holidays to Mondays so citizens can take domestic long-weekend trips. The tourism industry has often faced allegations of not being sustainable and not benefitting locals. This reset offers a chance for improvement.

Supreme Leader of DIY: Say what you will about North Korea, the world’s most secretive country, but the authoritarian state’s desire for few international friends has prompted it to become an unlikely model of self-sufficiency. Under the official state philosophy of juche, which roughly translates to “self-reliance,” the independent national economy flexes its own auto and film industries. But even the People’s Republic needs a little help sometimes, with a history of economic hardships mandating aid and investment from outsiders. Most recently? Despite the state’s claims of having zero COVID-19 cases, human rights advocates have expressed concern over a “humanitarian disaster” as it accepts nearly 2 million AstraZeneca vaccine doses.

Sénamé Koffi Agbodjinou

DIY Superstars 

Ron Finley: This self-taught gardening guru transformed the empty swimming pool in his backyard into a green oasis in the heart of South Central Los Angeles. Now, Ron Finley is spreading home gardening to his produce-deprived urban neighborhood and beyond, highlighting how gardening can change lives and turn around struggling communities. His mission took on a new urgency amid the pandemic as food supplies fluctuated and it became risky to leave home for produce. Finley describes the self-sufficiency of gardening fresh produce as an act of defiance against systems of inequality set in place. “If you ain’t a gardener, you ain’t gangsta,” he says. “This is no damn hobby, this is life and death.” 

Nicole McLaughlin: Beginning her upcycling career dumpster diving in Boston, designer and Instagram star Nicole McLaughlin has since taken the idea of reuse to the extreme and even bizarre. From shoes made from volleyballs and suitcases made from shoes to vegetable peeler high heels and a croissant brassiere (the Brassant), McLaughlin’s designs bring a lighthearted sustainable creativity to the dark relationship between fashion and the environment. She has earned collaborations with high-end brands like Hermès and Prada in the process. 

Sénamé Koffi Agbodjinou: Togo imports roughly 500,000 tons of electronic waste annually, polluting the land and poisoning its people. But one person’s trash may be another person’s treasure. In 2012, Sénamé Koffi Agbodjinou founded WɔɛLab, a startup tech firm based in the capital city of Lomé that is helping the West African nation turn itself from a dump for Western e-waste into a leading tech innovator. By building gadgets like 3D printers and computers out of the waste, Agbodjinou is helping Togolese youth access technology that they otherwise couldn’t afford. Read more on OZY

Gittemary Johansen: Did you ever think that you would need to learn how to make recycled paper? After discovering that every piece of plastic ever made still exists, Danish creator Gittemary Johansen transformed from DIY fashion designer to DIY environmentalist, becoming a warrior and champion of the zero-waste movement. From shopping and recipes to toiletries, Johansen shows how you can be eco-friendly in every facet of your life, sharing tips and educating others on how to live waste-free on her YouTube and Instagram.

Risks of Flying Solo

Whether you’re an individual or a nation-state, going it alone is accompanied by serious drawbacks.

War and Peace: The evidence is clear. Countries that are more interdependent are less likely to go to war. Researchers studied more than 290,000 pairs of country-country relations between 1950 and 2000, and they found a clear correlation between increased bilateral trade and reduced risk of military conflict. Indeed, regions and continents that are less integrated — such as South Asia and Africa — in terms of trade and connectivity are constantly on the precipice of war. By contrast, think about the biggest global rivalry of our time: between the U.S. and China. They’re constantly trading allegations, squabbling over everything from human rights to espionage. But China is still the biggest destination for U.S. exports outside North America. And the U.S. imports more from China than from any other nation. That deep economic interdependence has helped keep tensions between them from tipping over into a military conflict.  

Community Cutoff: Community interdependency is critical to human survival — they don’t say “it takes a village” for nothing. While we all have sought avenues to help us adapt to this new, self-sufficient normal, loneliness is on the rise — along with a mental health crisis. Marginalized communities already face additional health risks from the pandemic, as well as greater challenges finding a sense of belonging. Any semblance of community, however small, has become a rare commodity. 

LGBTQ+ Loneliness: Even before the pandemic, members of the LGBTQ community were twice as likely as their heterosexual and cisgender peers to report mental health disorders — and the loneliness exacerbated by the pandemic has only increased that vulnerability. Spending time in inclusive physical spaces is a lifeline to the community, so not being able to meet with friends or support groups this past year has taken a toll.

Border Chain Reaction: A vibrant domestic industry is usually beneficial for a country, but if the trade is in illicit drugs? Not so much. The opioid epidemic has already plagued the United States, killing nearly 50,000 people in 2019 alone. But the U.S. has tightened its border with Mexico in recent years, and security increased during the pandemic. With access to the U.S. market more restricted, Mexico’s drug kingpins are targeting new customers, their fellow Mexicans, with narcotics like the highly dangerous fentanyl and sparking a fresh opioid crisis. Read more on OZY

Home Office Hours: Easy commutes and meetings in pajamas with no boss looking over your shoulder. The so-called pandemic perks of 2020 are less sexy than your well-worn sweatpants but so too is the fact that your laptop (and the piles of work it contains) is forever at your fingertips, destroying any work-life balance. It’s not just you; there’s a new pandemic . . . of worker burnout. The only working demographic in America that isn’t suffering from burnout at a rate north of 50% are baby boomers (they’re at 31%), according to a recent Indeed survey — a situation made worse by the inability to disconnect fully or take proper vacations. And sadly, recovery is going to take longer than many realize. DIY, it turns out, can also be exhausting. 

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