Monday, October 30, 2006

scary stuff

"Of course we're going to the halloween party. The kids have got new costumes," said a mother in the playground, hugging her darling as I covered my own childrens ears and hoped they hadn't heard. In our house Halloween costumes this year were same as last year and the year before; a witches cape and a bit of improvisation.

We painted out fingernails black with felt tip, pinned rubber skeletons to our back and put on our capes. The carbonbaby was beginning the annual tradition of fighting off her headband adorned with pumpkins on spirals. Each successive carbonbaby had been made to wear it, and all had managed to throw it out of the pushchair before leaving the house.

We approached the party along with an elaborate range of ghouls, Adams family lookalikes and witches. The first thing I noticed on entry was how many babies sat head to toe in their parents arms in full fancy dress. They wore elaborate costumes; mainly black cats and pumpkins. I'd seen the pumpkin outfit reduced to three quid in Asda and wondered how many child slaves in developing countries had given up their childhoods to make it for that amount. It was a big fleecy orange puffball, with hat and accessories, made to kit out a very small child.
"What will they do with all these pumpkins next year when their babies are grown," I wondered out loud. But I already knew the answer. They'd pop out to Asda for a new costume for their little darling. And the pumpkin would join last year's Christmas Party dress as something that was worn once, for a couple of hours at a village party.
We got on with 'pinning the nose on the witch' and doing the 'unlucky dip,' and the kids won a range of treats including sweets backed in plastic and cardboard, plastic spiders had travelled all the way from China to be with us, and scary pencils with little plastic climbing ghosts. At no point did they win an organic pumpkin or toffee apple, or in fact anything that didn't involve plastic.

I went home slightly depressed. Because it's just another of those events that used to involve a bit of bobbing for an apple, that has now turned into a plastic fantastic carbon using nightmare. And while I felt like a scrooge as the whole point of the party was to raise money for the local playgroup, I couldn't help reflect on how many bad practices it was reinforcing to the kids involved.

And the really depressing thing is that what's happening in our village is also happening all over. Today I read in the paper that the whole of Britain is following the Americans in going Halloween mad. Five years ago we spent a total of £12 million on wigs, capes and broomsticks (not forgetting the little pumpkin costumes.) This year the figure is expected to reach £120 million. And that's just in this country. The figures from the States are even scarier. The report that sent shivers down my neck was the one that said in America, three and a half million people buy a halloween costume each year....for their PET.

Happy halloween!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Feeling the heat

“Package for you,” said the delivery man, thrusting his electronic notepad into my hands. “Nice day,” he added, as I scrawled my name onto the screen, and accepted a brown package.
“Is it?” I asked, feeling like Eeyore without a tail. From where I was standing, this day was anything but nice. Without even breaking the seal of the cardboard I knew the contents would be disastrous for me and the kids. At the start of half term, the last thing we wanted was another 'expert' book on climate change, spelling out how quickly the planet was combusting and how we were responsible. This innocent little package of words would cast a cancerous shadow over the whole holiday week, by plunging Carbonlite into one of his global depressions. As far as I was concerned we'd only just recovered from James Lovelock's assault on our consciences and household working practices.

The first signs of panic followed the same day, as switches around the house, as if by magic, turned to 'off,'and when I went to take the Carboncopies' tea out of the oven, it was still frozen. Next the Carbonbaby was plunged into a bath only an inch deep, and then followed a whole evening fretting about why the water butt isn't connected to the toilet to flush away the water, rather than taking water from the system. Well what's the point in fretting about that? "You're an engineer aren't you?" I told Carbonlite, "either invent a new system or just enjoy the fact you have water at all. Some people don't, you know."

By the next day, Carbonlite's grey mood had turned into a black smog, enveloping us all and strangling any surviving holiday feelings. A morning of criticisms and interference was followed by a public enquiry into why I'd ruined the bedroom quilt cover. I explained my reasons for dyeing the pale blue cover to match a burgundy room, saving the planet from the manufacture of yet another burgundy quilt cover, but my protestations held no sway. It developed into a full on row in front of the oldest Carboncopy, at the end of which I threw my magazine into his face and stormed out of the house in tears, straight into my neighbour. "I can't cope with it any more. This whole planet can bloody well burn to a frazzle and take him with it." I told the elderly gentleman, whose gentle smile turned to a look of terror.

Over dinner, I gave Carbonlite an ultimatum. "Deal with what you're reading or don't read it at all. Find a way of coping with it. The only way you're using this information is as a weapon against me,and I won't stick around to be gunned down by all your dogma." He attempted to protest, informing me I was in denial, just like most of the planet. "The main emission in this house isn't CO2, it's your anger," I told him. He stormed off, book in hand, feeling the heat of my anger.

Butt out...

The enormous green bucket had been sitting in the yard for a month. The problem was it didn't have a hole in it and I didn't have the right drill bit to make one. And without a hole there was no way to connect it up.

"Why is the water butt empty?" asked one of the Carboncopies nearly filling it himself as he clambered up to inspect it. "Is it because we haven’t had any rain?"
"No, it's because your Dad is full of big ideas and no follow-through," quipped the Washingqueen, dutifully hanging Carbonbaby's eco nappies out to dry.
I let it go, not wanting to risk a retreat to disposables or the tumble dryer. Truth is it has taken four months to get the butt installed, but three of those were waiting for it to arrive due to a surge in demand as a result of drought in the South East. However, I am responsible for the fourth month; two weeks to negotiate over placement and agree how to prevent toddlers drowning in it, a week to buy a drill bit and a further week to get the pipes and joints needed to plumb it into the guttering. Well the details do take time.

But now it's done. And just in time for the rain. And now it's overflowing and the Carbonbaby is soggy as a soggy thing crawling happily around in the puddle between the water butt and the compost bin.
"Why is the water butt overflowing?" asked the Washingqueen, interrupting Carbonbaby's wet play.
"Because the installation is just so efficient," I replied.
And it really has astounded me. OK so I didn't get the details quite right and the overflow doesn't flow back into the gutter but we did gather over 200 litres of rainwater in a couple of hours and that's just the run off from our back roof. It's one thing to read about rainwater harvesting but when you see how much you can collect and watch your kids splashing and crawling around in it, it really makes you wonder why systems like this aren't designed into houses.

So now we have to figure out what to do with it. With just a small yard there's not much garden to water, so I figure there must be ways to use it for flushing toilets, baths, washing clothes or something useful around the house. But I'll have to resolve the overflow issue before I discuss further developments with the Washingqueen. I don't think she'll mind waiting.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Beating the carbon clock

A dark October morning. I switched on the kettle and began to prepare Carbonbaby’s Weetabix. ‘Beep, beep, beep,’ an alarm went off. A new digital clock on the worksurface read ‘1.87.’ “That can’t be right, unless Carbonlite’s reinvented time to make the planet last longer,” I told Carbonbaby as I slammed her milk into the microwave. The digital alarm went off again. I took the milk back out and inspected the clock. The red digital numbers said ‘1.87 kilowatts.’ I pressed a button and the figures changed to ‘1.872 kg an hour of greenhouse gas.’ I realised this was no clock but a device to monitor the destruction our household was inflicting on the climate. It then informed me I was paying 30 cents an hour for the privilege of warming up the globe.

“Do you two know about this?” I asked the Carboncopies as they ran into the kitchen for breakfast. Of course they did; Carbonlite had them all trained up. Within minutes they were racing around the house, turning everything off and watching the digital numbers rewind. I packed them off to school, then put on the washing machine and dryer, and as an afterthought re-boiled the kettle to see what that did to the scores on the doors. My reprimand from the carbon monitor was swift and shrill; and its’ greenhouse gas figure shot up to 2.200 kg/hr. I had no idea what that meant but feared it was massive. The price had increased too, to 38 cents an hour. I scooped up Carbonbaby, turned off the washing machine and grabbed some plastic bags. I’d have to go out for the day, staying in was way too expensive.

A trip to the supermarket would fill the morning. I’d been putting it off ever since we food audited the house, relying on the organic vegetable box deliveries, and picking up bits and pieces locally. But we were right out of Ecover and the cupboards were bare after the weekend guests had departed. However as soon as I walked through the supermarket doors I realised it was going to be an eco stress-fest, each aisle throwing up a new ethical dilemma as I tried to stick to the strict rules I’d agreed with Carbonlite. The fruit and vegetable section was the first hurdle and I took it at a dash, Carbonbaby trying to grab the brightly coloured fruit flown directly from Barbados. First I ruled out the organic fruit and veg department because of supermarket requirements to package the life out of it. Tomatoes were selected then put back after I noticed the air miles they’d clocked up, as were avocados. The South African sugar snap peas stayed on the shelf along with the long thin beans (from Peru), the 2 for 1 chantenay carrots (double packaging) and the ready to use salad (in a plastic bag, un-local and washed in twenty varieties of pesticide.) I gave Carbonbaby a banana, telling myself unless global warming ramped up significantly there was no way we were going to start growing these locally. I rejected fresh fish, (backed with plastic packaging) the entire convenience and frozen food sections (processed fast food in a box, with a plastic tray and lid, cooked twice over using double energy) and my favourite coffee (to avoid doing battle with the kettle and Carbonlite’s new clock) Organic biscuits and cereal were ruled out because of their unorganic packaging, and as I stalled in the bread section, I noted with alarm that the entire contents of my trolley was a banana skin covered in dribble, and a bottle of Anthony Worrall Thompson’s refillable Fresh and Green bathroom cleaner, ‘derived from natural plant extracts’ with a contribution of the proceeds going to the World Wildlife Fund. Carbonlite would be proud of the amount of boxes that product ticked, but as I approached the checkout after two hours in the supermarket, I had no lunch or dinner in the trolley. I cursed my husband’s rigid eco- rules, before dashing back and grabbing a bag of apples. What could be wrong with apples?

The cashier ripped plastic bags from the stand and handed them to me. “No thanks, I’ve brought my own,” I told her. Unfortunately I’d selected two black bin bags from the cupboard, previously used for the transportation of plastics to the tip. They smelt of sour milk and we both winced. I didn’t bother asking for green points.

At home, Carbonlite was reading about how farmers could change their cows’ diet to produce less toxic emissions. “I bought some lovely apples if you’re hungry,” I told him, “and if we have a raw food lunch it’ll cut down on emissions.” “But those apples are from South Africa,” said Carbonlite pointing at the bag. “Have you any idea how many air miles they’ve travelled, at a time of year when British apples are hanging from every tree?” I put the kettle on in exasperation. ‘Beep beep beep,’ went the carbon monitor, to remind me once more of my greenhouse gas profligacy. I stormed off to check my e-mails and found a leaflet on my desk for a kettle that only boils one cup of water at a time. The literature informed me ‘It’s estimated we boil twice the volume of water needed every time we put the kettle on. Which means twice as much energy, twice as much time, and with a 3kW kettle that’s the same as wasting the energy of around 50 light bulbs.’

I put the leaflet back where I found it. Carbonlite had obviously been internet shopping, and my birthday was just around the corner. Well at least I’d be able to consume birthday tea and cake without the carbon clock beginning its bleeping countdown to doom.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Emitting doing nothing

I woke up in the middle of the night, sweating profusely, desperately thirsty and feeling black. I'd been reading George Monbiot's new book, Heat, and in my dreams the planet and I were already burning. Feeling anxious and wide awake I went downstairs to get a drink and came face to face with the Electrisave meter. I introduced the washingqueen to it recently and left it by the sink to remind her how many kilogrammes of CO2 she was emitting each time she boiled the kettle. Not that it made any difference. The meter blinked at me in the moonlight; 0.22kg per hour. That's 1.76kg of CO2 during a night's sleep, well over half a tonne a year. And for what? I looked around to try and figure out what was responsible. The only obvious thing was a 15W CFL bulb on the landing but that could only account for a small fraction of the emissions.

It took half an hour to identify the culprits: a battery charger; a child's night light; a radio, two computers, monitors and speakers on standby; the microwave and oven clocks; two phone handsets; the fridge and freezer; the washing machine at the end of its cycle; the burglar alarm and central heating controller. All sitting doing nothing really, slowly and silently killing us, generate unecessary emissions in the dead of the night.

Apparently it's something of a British habit to waste energy like this; the UK tops the European Energy Waster's League with people in the North West some of the worst offenders. According to recent research by the Energy Saving Trust, Northerners overfill their kettles twice as often as the national average and have more bad energy wasting habits than almost anywhere else in Britain. In the UK 86% of us feel guilty about this kind of energy wastage but 42% are too lazy to change their habits. How depressing. But I guess it helps justify the washingqueen's kettle boiling antics as normal, at least for around here.

But while she may want to carry on being 'normal', I want to see us change our bad habits. Trouble is while I can do my bit, it's not so easy to change other people's habits and I'm getting tired of the endless domestics that begin with me switching something off only to find it switched back on again a little while later. And as the first cool nights of autumn finally arrive and I get my extra jumpers ready, I know the central heating wars are coming; a month of arguments about whether or not it's cold enough to put the heating on, weeks of surreptitious programming, counterprogramming and overriding on the heating controls and then a big argument about the winter gas bill. I'm so not looking forward to winter.

I finished my drink, turned off the chargers, nightlight and computers and watched Electrisave blink a new reduced estimate of our emissions at me, 0.15kg. I guess every little helps. On my way back to bed I noticed the radiators were warm, my thirst perhaps the result of an overheated bedroom rather than my nightmare about an overheated planet. Sometimes, the future feels as black as carbon.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Political activist

I found an entry in my diary in Carbonlite’s handwriting. ‘Fri 4pm. Meet Tim Farron, Sedbergh.’ I tracked down Carbonlite to the utilities room, labelling the new recycling crates he had begged from the County Council. The room was starting to look like Booths Car Park; at any moment I suspected the Salvation Army to turn up with a skip for clothes.
“Who’s Tim Farron?” I asked.
“Your MP,” he answered, putting the top back on his felt tip.
“I knew the name was familiar. I seem to be spending Friday afternoon with him. Any idea what that’s about?”
Carbonlite put down his pen, grabbed my shoulders and grinned, “Saving the planet of course.”

“I’m not doing it.” The idea of me lobbying an MP about anything was ridiculous. “I can’t. I don’t know anything about the climate. Anyway I’m already doing my bit. I’m recycling everything, look at all these crates for heavens sake.” Carbonlite logged on to a Friends of the Earth website and showed me the screen.
“You don’t need to know anything. It’s all in there,” he said. I sat down, defeated, to read about the biggest campaign Friends of the Earth have ever run. As part of The Big Ask, Friends of the Earth are requesting constituents to visit their MP in person to lobby for a Climate Change Bill. This would commit the government to making year on year cuts in carbon dioxide emissions. According to the website instructions, I was to ask Tim Farron to write a letter to Tony Blair and David Miliband, asking for the bill to be included in the Queens speech for the next parliament-“We need to take this message to where MP’s hear it the loudest- in their own constituencies,” it said. The campaign included full instructions on how to contact an MP, briefing notes, and a pep talk for the nervous, “Don’t be intimidated by your MP, they meet with constituents all the time and they’re keen to meet with you. After all, they want to make sure you’ll vote for them at the next election, so they will be nice to you.”
“Ok, I’ll go,” I told Carbonlite, switching off the computer. “But you’re coming too.”

Tim Farron stood in the doorway of his advice surgery, smiled, and gestured for me to come in. I was the last in a long queue.
“I’ll just bring the rest of the gang,” I told him, scooping up a biscuit covered Carbonbaby off the floor, and calling Carbonlite and the Carboncopies to action. We crowded into the office where our MP apologised that he was running late and could only give us a few minutes as he had an evening engagement with the WI he daren’t be late for. He asked what he could do for us.
“Oh just the small issue of climate change.” I replied, as the eldest Carboncopy took his brother’s neck in a head lock. I embarked on my speech, forgetting the name of the Environment Secretary, and fumbling the name of the bill I was asking to be included in the next parliament. Tim Farron sat opposite, listening intently, and stopped me as I got to the bit about the Queen.
“Actually, I think I’m ahead of you there. I’ve already written the letter,” he said. I stopped mid sentence. What was I supposed to do now? The on-line briefing had taught me how to tackle being fobbed off, how to put my case simply and how to launch in. It hadn’t mentioned how to retreat from his office gracefully. But thankfully he’d done this kind of thing before. He promised to send us a copy of the letter, agreed with the importance of acting now to curb growing emissions, and said he was optimistic the bill would be included in the next parliament. He thanked us for coming to see him personally and putting our case. At this moment the Carbonbaby made some unpleasant emissions of her own, and let out a wail as she smelt the result. It was time to leave.

I emerged into the afternoon sunlight feeling rather pleased with myself. I was now a lobbyist, an environmental activist, the kind of mother who sits in trees to save the countryside instead of sitting in a coffee shop to save on washing up. And if the Queen’s Speech includes a Climate Change Bill I’ll have achieved something bigger than my family; beyond my experience, beyond my own back gate. For a moment I thought of all the new appointments that Carbonlite might add to my diary. What if he tried to send me on climate camp, or to power station protests? What if he made me sit in trees on a regular basis? The CarbonBaby let out another cry. Her nappy was now the most pressing environmental hazard on my radar. Saving the Planet would have to wait.