Monday, February 01, 2010

Born in a barn

The Carbon Mother-in-law comes to stay. For ten days. The pavement is covered in ice and she arrives wearing a pair of stiletto shoes, tottering around like a celebrity skater. She walks in, greets the children and firmly shuts the door. The house is warm as we know she likes it that way. In fact it’s tropical, with the radiators blasting away all day and half of the night. It gives the new boiler a chance to show us what it’s made of. It’s bliss. No more shivering in the morning, reaching over the double duvet for polo neck sweaters. The carbon copies wander around in their pyjamas, having shed their usual layers of pyjamas, sweaters, double dressing gowns, socks and slippers. All that’s missing now is underfloor heating in the kitchen for maximum comfort when making breakfast. Hurrah for the Carbon Mother-in-law.

But the Carbon Mother-in-law is cold. She is also very irritated: by the doors. Not just one door, but all of them. Each rooms downstairs is interlinked with another, and each has two doors. The breakfast room even has three. The kids rush in and out every few seconds with their dolls or prams, footballs or games. “Shut the door,” their granny rants. “You’d think you were born in a barn,” she rails. At first the kids attempt to comply, but after a week they can’t be bothered, and they rush out leaving doors ajar. “I told you to shut the door,“ their granny booms. She turns to me and berates me on my lack of energy efficiency, “Why don’t you teach them to shut the door? They’re letting all the heat out every time they come into the room.” I remind her that there’s normally no need to shut the door because there’s only a small window in the year when her son permits central heating. But the Carbon Mother-in-law isn’t listening. She’s busy blaming the entire heat loss of the planet on our lack of door closing habits.

By the end of the first week, I can’t bear to hear her repeat the phrase any more, so I take it on myself to remind the kids. As soon as the door opens a crack, I tell the opener to close it immediately. I’m like a door obsessed parrot. I consider taping off rooms, and think about moving to a bungalow. Half way into the second week, I start to get paranoid about door handles: before touching one I stop to consider whether the effort of turning it is worth the reminder about closure. Meanwhile the house is way too hot, I feel like I’m living in Spain, and I’m tempted to start opening the windows to let fresh air in again.

We take the children and the Carbon Mother-in-law to Morecambe for a walk. The Carbon Copies have laser guns and are keen to play on the beach. But their granny is cold, so we make for the nearest café. The middle Carbon Copy goes to the toilet, and I wink at him as he pushes the door to with a very firm hand and clicks the lock. “See Granny, you’ve got them trained up,” I say. Five minutes later the wailing begins. While I check out the adjacent toilet to see how the lock works, other customers line up with table knives, coins and pens to try and jiggle the lock. The middle Carbon Copy can’t be comforted. When we finally get him out, with the help of the café owner and a kitchen implement, he glares at his Granny.

The Carbon Mother-in-law departs for London and I firmly shut the door. The house might have retained warmth better while she was here, but it wasn’t worth all the stress. I turn the switch down on the boiler. It’s back to arctic conditions for us. After all, the most energy efficient boiler is one that isn’t using energy. The eldest Carbon Copy walks through the living room, leaving both doors ajar. I can tell he’s enjoying the simple pleasure of hassle free door opening. We exchange smiles. “Do you live in a barn?” I ask. “I was born in one,” he replies.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Greenhouse Gas

Our new boiler is installed. We hope in the long term it will provide substantial savings on energy usage and bills. But in the short term we are instantly rewarded by hot water that is actually hot. In fact it’s so hot it’s scalding. I am in bath-time heaven.

But the heating side of it turns out to be a damp squib. As Carbonlite selected the wall panel that controls the system, we have a tiny digital box mounted on the wall in the hall instead of our usual Starship Enterprise boiler console. At first glance it looks easy to use. But of course it’s a nightmare. No knobs to push, no buttons to flick. Just a series of numbers.

He explains the first figure is the outdoor temperature, which, he points out, is currently 17 degrees. I tell him I don’t care what the temperature is outside. So he moves on to the all important figure of indoor temperature. “It’s 18 degrees in here, which is just about right for the evening,” he says. ”But that’s only one degree hotter than outside,” I complain. “Turn it up!” He refuses, reminding me it’s not cold outside, or indeed inside. I tell him I’ll do it myself. But how, when the whole panel resembles a great big buttonless digital watch? He shows me what to do to reset water and heating, but computerised gadgets aren’t my strong point and it’s all a bit of a blur. He goes out to work and I settle down with a hot water bottle and the manual. Two hours later and I’m no further on. I throw the book on the floor and go to bed.

It’s my birthday. Carbonlite is away and my mother comes to celebrate it with me. She turns up with six bottles of Radox. I line the bottles up in the bathroom so I can scald myself with a different flavour of boiling water every night. It’s lunchtime but unusually the house feels hot. I check the temperature gauge on the digital box. It reads 23 degrees. Inside! The heating shouldn’t be on in the daytime so I look closer and find the panel displays the word, ’fault.’ I shrug. Too bad if it breaks when Carbonlite is away. I have no idea how to turn the heating down or off. What a great birthday present.

As the day goes on the house feels hotter and hotter. My mother is sweating and asks to open a window. But Carbonlite hasn’t quite finished the restoration job on the sashes, and has warned if anyone touches the woodwork, the glass will fall out. “It’s like a greenhouse,” my mother says as we sweat our way through dinner. I fumble around with the manual for a while and stare hopelessly at the digital figures, before giving up.

At breakfast time my mother comes down, her eyes heavy. “I didn’t sleep at all last night in this sauna. How much is all this heating going to cost?“ I know exactly how much the electricity is costing, because Carbonlite has reinstalled the carbon calculator next to the kettle. But as for the greenhouse gas? No idea. Probably all the money we’ve saved this year by installing the new boiler. So much for low energy bills.

I stand at the box in the hall. It still reads 23 degrees while outside remains constant at 17. I never thought I’d long to press the ’off’ switch on the central heating, but I do.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Six baths in seven minutes

There’s only so long you can go on recycling cardboard boxes and composting vegetable peelings and pretending you are sorting out the environment. Eventually there comes a time where you either need to get your photo in The Guardian by getting arrested at a power station protest, or back your green aspirations up with some hard cash. I decide on the latter. Prison wouldn’t suit me.

Carbonlite is pleased. He’s been keen to push some money into greening up the house for years. The first thing is he does is call in Boilerman to find out his views about the latest in energy efficient water and heating systems. We’re talking combi-boilers and zoning. But Boilerman has his own ideas, “A fantastic system that will let you have three baths, then after just seven minutes another three baths! It’s new, it’s beautiful looking and I can install immediately.” My mother, who has joined us for a cup of tea, snorts into her Princess Diana mug, “Even the Radox Queen here would struggle to have six baths in one day!” I try to shush her, but Boilerman isn’t listening, he’s busy describing the sexy curves of the new tank he’d install to facilitate the six baths in seven minutes.

Fed up with going round in circles on the subject of boilers, we turn our attention to the attic. A new roof several years ago left us with little insulation in the loft. Greening it up will be a substantial job. But can we find a builder to even come and give us a quote? Not until the spring, it seems. “Perhaps I’ll do it myself? ” wonders Carbonlite. The re-pointing job to plug the gaps in the exterior wall notches up a similar level of enthusiasm from the building community, and the chances of getting a workman down to view our cellar-with-a-stream-running-through-it are now seeming rather remote.

We move on to the windows: the sash windows that we looked at replacing in the spring. They’re still rotten, but if we can’t get them double glazed, is there any point in paying a thousand pounds a window for their non-efficient replacements? I stamp my feet. “I want to pay someone to make the house more environmentally friendly, and the planet is crying out for people to save energy. Why won’t anyone take our money?” Carbonlite goes online. “I know how we can spend some cash,” he says.

Two days later a special delivery arrives. A very, very long ladder. One by one, Carbonlite rebuilds the sash windows. We have to go with single glazing, but at least some of the gaps are plugged. Boilerman mark II can source the exact system we need. And we look at materials to insulate the attic and consider clearing it out for the first time in eight years. OK, I admit it’s not going to stop a polar bear from falling off his perch of melting ice, but at least it’s a start. Six baths in seven minutes? Clean, but not green; and we can do better than that.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Compost capers

“Ugh. That’s disgusting.” I slam the lid back onto the compost bin. While we’ve been away all summer, nature has gone into full throttle on the vegetable peelings. It’s like a creepy crawly version of Noah’s Ark; there seems to be at least two of every insect on earth crammed under the lid. It’s all wriggling about and it smells like a cow’s bum. Even the eggs have laid eggs. I’m not going to compost anything any more. It’s too foul.

After dinner, I scrape the remains and peelings into the regular bin, announcing to the kids that I’m through with composting. There’s a sharp intake of breath. Even the Carbon-Toddler raises her eyebrows. “I don’t care about the planet any more. I’m through with being an eco worrier,” I tell them. “I’m going back to not being green. It was more convenient…and less…wriggly.” “But…”the youngest Carbon-Copy volunteers...” “Talk to the hand,” I tell him. The conscience isn’t engaging any more.

The drought in Kenya is in every newspaper. National Geographic does a feature on Venice; more at risk of flooding than ever before. The miserable British weather continues. Global warming is ramping up. But I don’t care. I’m not being green any more. The Guardian brings me news of the 10:10 campaign. I read all about it, devouring every celebrity endorsement, and despair that so few of the population have signed up. But I don’t join myself because I’m done with trying to help the planet. My mum has bought a new car. My brother’s flying to his second home in France again. It confirms I’ve made the right decision. There’s no point in making any effort when everyone else undoes it. I only bother to recycle the papers so I don’t have to digest news of any fresh environmental disasters.

Carbon-Lite is down at the compost bin, shovelling the earth out of the bottom of the barrel. It’s not like the top of the bin; all wormy and horrible. It’s fresh, moist and plentiful earth, which he spreads on top of our thin, weedy soil. It’s new life; all healthy and organic. I pick out bits of plastic shrink wrapping and wonder at how all those potato peelings, banana skins and egg boxes have miraculously transformed into this. I’ve always bought my compost in bags from the garden centre before. Suddenly I can see the results of our efforts and it feels good. Like those little green shoots they talk about in a recession. It’s not going to change the world, or save the world, but it is undeniably a positive start. “Ok,” I say to the Carbon-Copies. “I might start composting again.” They jump up and down and cheer. In the compost bin beside them, the worms are wriggling with delight.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

All Green Wedding Blues

We receive a wedding invitation through the post. Carbonlite’s old friend, the best man at our wedding, is getting married. Again. But this time he’s saying ’I do’ in an obscure part of Germany. My whole family are invited. I sigh. Here we go again.

The last time we had an invite to a far-flung wedding we debated it for months, talking about whether or not the celebrations were worth the emissions. The planet is still trying to deal with my sister-in-law’s Slovakian wedding which involved five of our family sized bums on airplane seats, plus all the transfers and a long weekend of excursions to Borat-like attractions.

Watching Carbonlite’s brother waltz his new wife around a church hall without taking the fag out of his mouth probably wiped out a year’s worth of plastic bag saving by the population of Hastings, and formed a low point in my eco-worrying life.

So understandably we are reluctant to go. Love miles they call them. A modern wedding in another country is a test; one of the most challenging tests for the eco-minded. Especially if it’s the wedding of someone you like.

Now if I’d been invited to take a mini-break in Germany I’d have no trouble in making up my mind. The devil himself invented long haul mini-breaks.

Carbonlite’s best man and his fiancée have a website. A whole website about their wedding. I go on it, not to check out the wedding list, but to see whether we can get to the ceremony by boat, bike or horse. And the first thing I see is a picture of us. They have uploaded pictures of all their favourite wedding guests onto the site. Saves doing it on their honeymoon I suppose.

There we are, the whole family, grinning like the Waltons. And on the preceding pages are the full families of the happy couple. But when I look closer, I find no trace of his ex-wife or children. I can understand the ex-wife part of the equation, but his two little girls have also been airbrushed out of his life.

Now this puts a whole new slant on things. Not only would we be screwing more polar bears, but we’d be in serious trouble with the ex-wife of our best man. She’s probably gone right off us already after seeing our mugshots on the happy couple’s web display.

Now it’s a no brainer. Love miles plus wrath of ex-wife equals no show. If only all our environmental decisions were as easy.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

a giant plastic polar bear on the bar?

Rugby club kitchen duty is compulsory if you want your kids to play rugby.
As a new member, and one of the last to sign up, I am allocated a ‘match’ day as all the easy slots have gone. It's a heavy duty catering job. Bacon butties, coffee’s and squash until lunchtime, then a meal for each of the players.

By midday it’s manic. Tray loads of dirty plates, cups and cutlery arriving by the minute. I throw them into soapy water along with the plastic pint glasses the players have used for squash to quench their thirst after brutal matches.

“Are you washing those? Oh. I’m just putting them straight into the bin,” one of the other helpers says to me, chucking a pile of the plastic glasses into a black binbag. I take a quick look inside it and among the leftovers lie dozens of the see-through pint glasses. But as they’re covered in bits of stew and old teabags, Im not inclined to pluck them out.

As each team finishes their match, they pile in to the clubhouse, muddy hungry, cold and tired. The demand for meals quickens, and I abandon washing up the plastic glasses when I see that all the other kitchen volunteers are chucking them in the bin as well.

We finish serving, mop up and haul a giant plastic bin bag full of rubbish into the yard. I’ve just served two hundred people without having breakfast or lunch myself, and I feel slightly sick. All that waste, much of which I’ve just helped send to landfill. I should have kept on washing the plastic cups.

When I return home, Carbonlite and the kids are watching a David Attenbourgh programme on the i-player. “Come and watch, it’s about polar bears.” says Carbonlite. I am tired and hungry, and frankly not interested in polar bears. But sitting on the sofa is the easiest option. And watching a polar bear try and last out the winter on the ice makes me realise I’m not all that tired or hungry after all. Starving after months without any calories the creature makes it’s way back on to the newly formed ice pack in spring to catch its prey once more, and try and replenish its energy. It's a cycle that has repeated itself for thousands of years. But this year for the first time, the ice is too thin. I hug my son as we watch the bear crash into the icy waters and try without success to haul its giant body back onto ice that continues to crack and break under its weight. It’s pitiful. Even the carbontoddler is now silent. The programme ends and we continue to sit in silence. The empty feeling in my stomach isn’t just down to lack of food.

“I’ve just melted more of that ice,” I say. Everyone looks at me, so I elaborate, “I tossed a load of Ribena cups away today and now another polar bear is going to fall in.” I tell Carbonlite the tale, and confess my part in it.
“We all do it," he says, trying to cheer me up. "...we forget the big picture. That what we do in our own little village can have consequences on the other side of the planet.
"I know people say who gives a stuff about polar bears, I’ve said it myself, but how can you watch that and not care?” I reply.
“Well, what are you going to do about it?” asks Carbonlite?
“Ask the rugby club to use glasses from the bar instead?”
“Think bigger,” he says.
“Make a giant plastic polar bear out of milk cartons and bubble wrap and sit it on the bar every Sunday to remind people that every one of those cups they chuck away is helping melt each new millimetre of ice?”
“Now you’re thinking,”says my mentor.
“I've got an idea,” shouts the eldest Carboncopy, and he runs upstairs. He returns moments later with the dung beetle costume he has made for his school show assembly on Egypt.
“Rugby players know nothing about polar bears. But they do know about Dung don’t they Mum? Sit this on the bar next to the plastic glasses. No one will be interested in Ribena any more."

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

new best friend

In another day in my cafe life, I pick up the Daily Express and start browsing through. Several pages in is a column by the prolific Richard from Richard and Judy. And within this column is an opinion piece on recycling.
Now I like columns in newspapers and expect a lot from columnists. I expect to be entertained and amused. I also respect a strong opinion, and a bit of topicality.
But while Richard is certainly topical, his dismissal of recycling is ill informed and irresponsible. Sure it’s fine to question the point of recycling, I huff and puff about going to the tip all the time. But even I know it’s important to present a balanced argument. And to suggest that in ten years time we’ll look back and wonder what the fuss was all about global warming is contradicting scientific evidence and giving the sceptics reassurance. Frankly, irresponsible.

With some reservations I show it to Carbonlite and as I predict, he explodes. "You need to write to him," he says, chucking the newspaper on the table.

"Me...write to a newspaper?" I query.
"No to him. That book club tosser." he replies.

The first problem I encounter is that Richard is so famous I have no idea of his surname. That's sorted out by googling him. Then I'm so fascinated by what turns up that I waste an hour. Then I have to work out what to say. I begin by announcing that I've never written to a newspaper or a columnist before, but it's not long before I've got into my stride telling him that there are many people out there who deny global warming through laziness or ignorance and 'opinion' like his only encourages their behaviour. I tell him that his children, and grandchildren, like mine will be left to pick up the pieces of our selfish living in future years. And I inform him that it is a privilege to be given a platform in a national newspaper and along with this privilege comes responsibility. And while I’m sure he would not dream of using this platform to make racist or sexist comments, how can it be ethical to incite people to damage our vulnerable environment even further?

I wonder if it'll scare him? I wonder if I'll get a reply. If I do he'll become my new 'friend,' along with Emma Thompson who is still sending me e mails.

Job done, I put it in the post then sit down to watch the Bafta's and check out if any of my new mates are there.