Friday, May 18, 2007

A lighter shade of green

Eighteen months ago I knew little about the environment. Sure, I’d heard about global warming but to me it was a global problem. My life was lived at a local level in a South Cumbrian village with three young children providing the challenges of daily life. But my husband had begun to read books on climate change and pay more attention to the news. He talked about the state of the planet as much as he talked about his kids, he got frustrated, he got angry, and then he got to work. Action begins in the home and that’s where he started his campaign to make us a greener family. From being a carbon guzzler like the rest of us, he slowly became Carbonlite, and began to change our household habits in small, at first almost imperceptible ways. Water butts and compost bins started appearing on the patio, he would weigh and catalogue our rubbish, measure gas and electricity on a spreadsheet, log every car mile and question any unnecessary journeys. I put all this down to being one of his Projects. Just as I had been the shed widow, the cycling widow, and the DIY widow at various points of our married life, I was now the green widow. It wouldn’t last.

But it did, and through his efforts and obsessions, I was dragged kicking and screaming into the reality of what it means to be on this planet at this time in history.

He transformed our children into Carboncopies of himself; eco worrying Carbonlite miniatures who hassle me as relentlessly as their Dad continues to do. Around here, you don’t necessarily need to leave the room to have the light or computer switched off, and putting on the heating requires a family conference.

Making our lives and our home more environmentally sound has been a long, and at times difficult process. We live in an old and draughty former village post office, with thick walls and thin, crumbling windows. We don’t have a garden to house all the necessary compost heaps, recycling crates and water butts that being environmentally conscious requires. We are both self employed and money is often tight. At first I offered endless resistance to my husbands plans, clinging onto the notion that I should prioritise the needs of my own family above those of our ailing planet. Even now I stumble at some of the major hurdles. Where Carbonlite would happily do without a car, I argue that we live in a village five miles from the nearest town and our children need to be shepherded to swimming lessons, football practice, cubs and nursery. Where Carbonlite would do away with the boiler and central heating for eleven months of the year, I hate to be cold in my own home, and love to relax in a bath. Where Carbonlite would live on left over scraps and home grown tomatoes, I worry about my children having a balanced diet. All this provides the same tensions and conflicts in our house as it must do in many homes around the UK.

Some things have changed. I now call myself a cyclist, enjoy using human powered transport, and despair of those who drive the school run. We eat organic and local. We wear extra jumpers around the house. I’ve even managed to tackle my addiction to the washing basket, wearing the same clothes for more than one day, and using the washing line instead of the tumble dryer….most of the time. On the bigger issues like the car, the house, and wasting energy and resources, we still bicker and fight, and try to convince each other of our arguments. But then that’s all part of bringing the global down to a local level isn’t it? We aren’t environmentalists, just a Cumbrian family trying to be more aware, and paint ourselves a deeper shade of green. The blog entries here and now on the Westmorland Gazette site are part of a blogging project we’ve been working intermittently on for 18 months, part of our attempt to understand each other, to grapple with the everyday demands of juggling family and an environmental conscience, and to wade through the barrage of information that’s published every day about our changing world. And while it won’t save the planet, it might help save our marriage when faced with some of the tough decisions we’re all going to have to make as our climate hurtles towards chaos.

Less is more

To my mind going green is very simple; it's all about less. Consume less, travel less, waste less, use less. Trouble is achieving this always seems to involve more; more hassle, more time and often more money. The more you look at it, the more you realise becoming anything more than the palest shade of green touches all aspects of household life - food, waste, shopping, water, travel, work, leisure, holidays. Beyond making simple changes (like your lightbulbs) becoming a darker shade of green means changing habits, changing routines you just don’t think about day to day, routines that have served you well for years, unconscious routines that are hard to change. While I find the idea of greening simple, it's still a challenge personally. And then there's the Washingqueen.

To make a change in any household you not only need to change your own habits, you need to nudge, cajole and persuade your housemates to change theirs too. And if they don't believe in the same things you do, have the same fervour, enthusiasm, sense of urgency or aptitude for change then things get harder still. Let's just say the Washingqueen and I have different interests in this, move in different ways and at a different pace. I try to think of it as a healthy tension, especially when I'm completely exasperated by her lack of buy-in to my latest green scheme.

Still, the Washingqueen has come a long way in her greening, so much so she wants to change her name to Ecoworrier. It's a change I support and reflects a change in her and the progress we've made in 18 months of trying to keep being green high on our household agenda while bringing up three kids, trying to keep food on the table, empty the washing basket, earn a living and share a little of the experience through our blog. She's campaigned hard to persuade me that we should publish our blog more widely through the Westmorland Gazette, to encourage others to think greener, act greener, be greener. Well, put that way it's a project I can only support. I hope that something of what we share here, despite being one more thing for me to do will help us all with the greatest problem of all, how to live with less.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Inconvenient truths

I’ve heard on the greenvine that Al Gore has been in the UK recently, training businessmen and eco enthusiasts to deliver his environmental lecture and slideshow ‘An Inconvenient Truth.’ As the official Eco Worrier of Burton I am wounded that Al hasn’t selected me to be one of his disciples to spread the message about global warming.
“Can you believe he asked Richard Branson and not me?” I grumble to Carbonlite as we swat fruit flies in the kitchen on an unseasonably hot day. “Richard Branson. What’s he ever done for the environment except pollute it with his stupid planes?”
“Well,” says Carbonlite, ever the voice of reason, “he’s promised to invest £1.6billion pounds over the next 10 years into to lowering our dependency on fossil fuels.”
I glare at him momentarily before replying, “Ok, fair enough. But what -apart from chucking 1.6 billion pounds at it - has Richard Branson ever done for the environment?”
Carbonlite charges at the flies with a sweeping brush, pushing crowds of them out of the velux window. “He’s joined the steering board of the Energy Future Coalition and has set up a good few of bio-fuel refineries in US.” Unworried by Carbonlite’s broom, the flies zoom straight out of one window and back in through the other.
“Ok, apart from promising 1.6 billion pounds, being on an energy coalition, and building a heap of oil refineries, what has Richard Branson ever done for….”
“Well he’s related to the guy who founded the World Wildlife Fund,” Carbonlite interrupts, “…and apparently he’s planning to turn the British Virgin Islands into the first entirely renewable energy powered Caribbean island.”
“All right, all right, Richard Branson is an international environmental hero, and I’m just a nobody,” I say irritably.
He grins at me and pushes gently on my arm with the brush. “Look, put it this way, if Richard Branson just gives that lecture once to his senior managers, that’s thousands of people educated about global warming in one stroke. How many people are likely to turn up to your Inconvenient Truth lecture in the memorial hall on a wet Tuesday night?”
“Every green convert counts,” I sniff, before quickly formulating a new plan. “You know what? I’m going to write to Al Gore to see if I can get on the next round of his training courses.” I reach for my laptop as Carbonlite puts down his broom, defeated by the fruit flies. Clouds of them are now storming the living room. “Cheer up, even Al Gore would say it’s not easy being green…unless you’re Kermit the Frog,” I reassure him, already wondering if Mr Gore will be listed in the Yellow Pages under Environmental Winners or Presidential Losers.

Before very long I have a raft of addresses for Al, but where to send my request? To his publishers, his campaign officers, his film company, his home, his UK or US office? The White House? All activity has now stopped in the kitchen but there’s a cacophony of banging outside. On the patio Carbonlite seems to be building a big wooden box with a lid.
“This is where all the flies are coming from. The compost bin. I’m going to box ‘em in,” he tells me. Typical. While I’m faffing around trying to contact Al Gore, Carbonlite does something environmentally practical. I’m never going to get the hang of being green.

Two days later, the sun is still shining and the fruit flies are in heaven. They’ve now got a beautiful wooden villa, with free buffet 24/7, plus if they get too hot, they can have a quick dip in the water butt, then retire into our house for a quick joust with Carbonlite and his broom. There are now thousands of them swarming into the kitchen, probably looking for directions to the compost holiday resort. Carbonlite is permanently installed on the kitchen worktop with a broom in one hand, a pan lid in the other, and a tea towel wrapped around his face; our very own domestic gladiator.
“What have I done?” he cries. “They’re so happy with their new home they’ve invited all their friends and relatives from the city to join them.”
“Come on Russell Crowe, we need to empty the peelings into the compost bin.” I tell him, grabbing the green mini bin from under his feet. What was once a quick chore of dropping potato peel into the bin is now a two man job requiring nerves of steel as the flies wage war against the humans trying to invade their new sauna. I make a mental note to ask Al about compost heaps and fruit flies, and add his reply to my future lecture on Inconvenient Truths.