Stepping out into the big wide world: community action (and a rant about carbon footprints)

February 6, 2008 at 4:20 pm 2 comments

Well, by some miraculous coincidence we have managed to get our electricity consumption down this week. Only by just over 1KWh, and it’s probably because we’ve not done any washing or hoovered or something scummy and lazy like that, but, well, think what we could do if we actually tried.

In spectacularly ironic fashion, even for me, I’m now tempted to start a spreadsheet and track it throughout the year which is, of course, going to use far more energy than just writing it down in the diary and doing the maths in my head would do….

Also picked the demijohns up okay on Sunday and I luxuriated in the bath for a long time reading the home-brewing book from the charity shop, wondering idly if parsnip wine or beetroot wine would actually taste nice and if I should perhaps stockpile cartons of grape juice concentrate instead to see me through the post-peak transition.

Monday was the FOE meeting and I really, really enjoyed it! I have been in two minds about the whole FOE endeavour, partly because of some general reservations I have about the mainstream environmentalist movement, and partly because a lot of what I’ve got from being on the national mailing list seems to suggest that if we all emailed our MPs a lot and changed a few lightbulbs here and there it would all be okay. (I’m not sure these don’t overlap quite a lot now I come to think of it. Or maybe if I had a different MP I’d be more inspired.) However, we need personal action, we need community action and we need political action, and I’m very good on the personal action front (aside from the dried mango, hot showers, imported wine and excessive amount of time I spend on the computer) and very bad at taking any approach to the other two other than sitting around using energy to power my computer to wail about how nobody understands me in this consumerist hell and the government aren’t doing anything about it. It’s like being 17 again in some ways.

So, yes, I am forging links with people in my community and have already been put onto the local council’s biodiversity forum, another more local and less time-consuming conservation group (I’ve been rubbish about going out lately – people keep visiting on Sundays) and the local CRAG group.

Now, carbon footprints are one of the ways to get me riled about the mainstream environmentalist movement! It started when I began working from home. Go to any carbon calculator and fill it in and you’ll notice that they all disregard a) the carbon you produce at work and b) the energy cost of anything you buy. I work from home. This means my transport footprint is virtually nil (I occasionally walk into town to the farmer’s market or Waitrose or get the train into Reading to buy sewing bits, and even more occasionally get the train to Newcastle to visit my parents), but I appear to use a lot more energy in the home than some people, merely because I occasionally have the heating on for a boost around lunchtime (after having put on my gloves and wrapped up in a blanket) or because, as I stated earlier, I need the computer on virtually all day. And drink a lot of tea. If I was in an office, the heating, air-conditioning, computer and kettle would all be the responsibility of the office.

Now, I know that it is very easy to change your energy use at home and the fact that we’re constantly being reminded to turn our mobile phone chargers off when not in use or to only boil as much water as we need implies that there probably really are people who still do these things (who are you???) and it is very difficult to change a whole office, and you can’t be held personally responsible for the amount of printing you do, the fact that the air-conditioning is on all the time or the fact that the office is lit overnight in the same way as you can be held personally responsible for, say, leaving your telly on standby. But to ignore the fact that us all running around doing these jobs and propping up the consumer economy isn’t a big part of the problem (unpalatable as it might be) ignores the fact that it’s gone way beyond the stage of tinkering around with lightbulbs and we need to reduce our emissions by 80% FAST and that is more than likely going to involve massive cultural change: voluntarily if we do it now, less so if we wait till Berkshire is underwater badly enough to destroy the Thames Valley corridor. (Maybe we could start growing rice instead….)

Also, I’m doing this dressmaking course, and the other day I had to press the hem of my skirt. The energy used and carbon produced by that ironing counts on my carbon footprint. If I bought a skirt in Pr*mark, it wouldn’t count on my carbon footprint at all, except for how I got there. Come to that, the energy and carbon associated with heating a microwave meal would be less than with cooking from scratch (less still if you got a take-away and ate it from the carton with recyclable plastic cutlery so there was no washing up to do), but globally, it is terribly bad for the environment if we all eat ready meals and fill our town centres with take-aways, and much better for the environment if we all cook from scratch using local ingredients. And yes, we do all need to eat way less meat and dairy, especially intensively produced meat and dairy, but the carbon footprint calculators often fail to take into account that eating a small amount of local, grass-fed beef once or twice a week, say, isn’t that bad and that saying ‘vegetarian diet good; meat bad’ is really a rather simplistic way of looking at it that glosses over the positive impact that farming could have on the environment if done sensitively.

Now, my job props up the consumer economy as much as anyone’s. In fact, I gave up being a support worker (socially useful and necessary) to effectively serve big companies like BP because it was better paid and I have a lot of debt, so, please, don’t think I’m blameless here! The onion soup I can make from local onions or the salad crops I can tend because I’m at home all day and can work flexibly (i.e. I can garden or go to the farmer’s market during the day and then work in the evenings) probably don’t make up for it, and if I start commuting to London in order to earn even more money to pay off my student loan a bit quicker and save up for my five acres and a cow then, well, you have every right to shoot me if I start eating more ready meals as it’ll surely be counterproductive even if I do knit on the train!

The point is that my impact on the environment doesn’t just occur in a vacuum. I’m part of a big, complex social and economic network and that network (i.e. the West!!) is a big part of the problem. Saying that I can carry on making a living out of a system that ultimately uses and exploits the environment, rather than acting as part of it, and yet make the changes necessary to avert disaster is a rather disingenuous and, I feel, unhelpful way of looking at the problem. I’m not saying we should all give up work tomorrow – that really isn’t an option for most people – and we have to make compromises: my dream of living a low-carbon, sustainable life is in part dependent on my paying off my student loan and having some savings (and I get to spy on the corporate world while I’m doing it, muahahahaha). Furthermore, if you tell people that changing lightbulbs and cycling to walk are making an impact and are valuable, worthwhile things to do (which they are =) ) then the net impact of everyone doing it is still overwhelmingly positive, and if people start to feel more empowered, as well as healthier and happier, maybe they’ll get enthused about it all and look for ways to go further and engage with the more complex, less ‘cuddly’ aspects of it all.

Okay, so I’ll let the carbon calculator people off the hook about work-carbon for the moment, but really, people buy all sorts of cheap, plastic rubbish that they don’t need and writing in big letters ‘STOP SHRINK-WRAPPING COCONUTS AND BUYING FLIMSY ACRYLIC JUMPERS, WE NEED THAT OIL FOR AMBULANCES’ in prominent places would be one of my preferred methods of combatting climate change and slowing down peak oil. Shopping is another of those controversial environmental issues, and I’m extremely sceptical about the ‘ethical consumer’ movement, but replacing one essential product that you are already buying (i.e. shampoo or toilet cleaner) when it runs out with an alternative that doesn’t come from petrochemicals can only be a good thing. If I was designing a carbon calculator, it definitely wouldn’t give any points for buying ‘ethical’ non-essentials, but a bit of consideration for reducing the impact of your toiletries and cleaning products would come in to it. And just buying less.

Maybe a question along the lines of:

Do you consider shopping a leisure activity?

a) Oh, yes, definitely, buying new consumer goods is the only way I can validate myself as a human being.
b) Well, I’m a normal person with a normal job, so I occasionally need to buy smart clothes, but I get them from People Tree or charity shops when I can.
c) Well, I like farmer’s markets, chatting to the guy in the ironmonger’s and fondling yarn in John Lewis, but out-of-town retail parks are my idea of hell on earth.
d) I am totally self-sufficient in food and textiles. What is this ‘shopping’ of which you speak?

Ohhhh, I so want to write my own carbon calculator now (one which, by necessity doesn’t involve numbers, as I’m inept in that area) but I really need to prop up growth capitalism this afternoon…

How did I get here? Oh yes, carbon calculators and the CRAG group. Yes, I wanted to go along to the CRAG group and ask them about this in person and then decide if I want in, but it clashes with sewing, and the main thrust of my argument is that frugality and self-reliance come before bickering about CO2 emissions!

Another exciting thing that came out of FOE was that (actually two things) another ‘newbie’ came along, a chap who used to have a smallholding in South Africa and has trained with Be the Change, a fantastic-sounding organisation who train people to give hard-hitting yet inspiring presentations and seminars which then inspire people to take action in their own communities. We get a sneak preview next month and then (if it’s good 😉 ) we’re thinking about hiring a hall somewhere in town and having a public viewing, possibly coinciding with ‘relaunching’ the group! I think it would be a timely move, and it’s exciting to feel that I could really be involved with spreading the word and making changes on a local level. I might even write to my MP some day too! 😉

And we talked about compost. And someone else said, ‘The idea that supermarkets offer choice is a total illusion.’ And I got asked if I could think of any foodie type campaigns that we could do. I couldn’t, at least not anything practical that I could come up with a working model for and promise to dedicate the necessary time to (suggestions??) short of writing, ‘Well, I could think of at least ten good reasons’ on the ASDA: ‘Why pay more?’ adverts.

Anyway, I came home all inspired and enthused which is a good thing.

Oh, and I was about 6 inches away from finishing my skirt (hem is actually quite neat, mind, aside from one tiny bit) and then I was thwarted by the silly machine – couldn’t get it to pick up the bobbin thread and wasted ages trying to get it to work, even though I’d done it about 10 minutes previously. Grrr. Sooooo close to finishing too.

And now I really am going to go and perpetuate our unsustainable consumer economy. Hopefully I’ll be done by dinnertime.


Entry filed under: carbon footprint, community, consumerism, electricity, energy, FOE, homebrewing.

Home-brewing – the proof of the pudding Doing my bit for the bumblebees

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mara  |  February 13, 2008 at 9:28 am

    I came across a not bad carbon calculator which took into consideration the fact that even if you recycle you are still contributing to your footprint. That was the first time I’d considered recycling as a problem in itself. Thinking further about that led me to questioning a lot about the whole supposedly green movement. Such as the ethical consumption notion of continuing to buy, buy, buy as long as it is environmentally friendly buying. Can’t remember the link off hand alas, but I got it from Permaculture Magazine and will look it out if you are interested.

    I used to keep a record of our electricity/gas/water consumption. I was somewhat disheartened when i had managed to reduce our gas consumption by half but because of increases in costs the bill ended up being more! At least it wasn’t double. 😀

    Glad to hear you enjoyed the FOE meeting; I went to one a few years ago which had a one hour film of one of the member’s visits to a rainforest or something, then the rest of the time spent ranting against the local planning department. I worked in planning at the time…! Like you, I’ve got reservations about mainstream environmentalism. FOE having government funding worries me a bit.

    I feel that I’m becoming very radical about unnecessary consumerism – people who spend just because it’s a pleasant way to pass the time or who seem proud to boast that they are consumers are increasingly infuriating me. Can they not see past the end of their credit cards? Their lifestyle is totally alien and abhorrent to me.

    I’m so glad you are getting out and about and meeting likeminded people. 🙂

  • 2. Eliza  |  December 22, 2008 at 3:48 am

    Have you seen the movies Zeitgeist 1 and 2? If you find a few hours to spare, I think these movies would really inspire you. They ultimately discuss the creation of a world with a resource-based economy, instead of money-based.


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February 2008
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The Heritage Crafts Network

Rob Hopkins, Transition Handbook

“Environmentalists have often been guilty of presenting people with a mental image of the world’s least desirable holiday destination – some seedy bed and breakfast near Torquay, with nylon sheets, cold tea and soggy toast – and expecting them to get excited about the prospect of NOT going there. The logic and the psychology are all wrong.”

Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

"Food is that rare moral arena in which the ethical choice is generally the one more likely to make you groan with pleasure."

Carlo Petrini

"A gastronome who is not also an environmentalist is an idiot. An environmentalist who is not also a gastronome is, well, sad."

Sharon Astyk

"I am, of course, firmly opposed to consumerism and corporatism in all its forms, and I believe that we are deeply confused about material needs and wants. Now let me explain how books and yarn are totally different than the material things that other people want ;-)…."

Raj Patel, at Slow Food Nation

"Biofuels, which is the preposterous policy that we should grow food not to eat it but to set it on fire."

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