Wednesday, January 28, 2009

57 letters

Emma Thompson writes to me. My inbox isn’t generally stuffed with correspondence from Hollywood names, so I read it. 62,000 eco minded people have now signed up to own a piece of airplot land, and as one of them, I'm being urged to petition the 57 labour MP’s that have so far opposed Heathrow's extra runway, in the hope they’ll take the same action in Wednesday's Commons vote about the airport expansion.
I sigh inwardly. While Emma may have nannies and cleaners and all the accessories of a glamorous filmstar life that give her time to write to 57 MP’s, I don’t. And how will I know which ones to approach? What are their addresses? Is a personal letter necessary for each one or will the same one do?

I fill Carbonlite in on my dilemma. He tells me a personal letter is much more effective,
“You’ll get a reply from all of them whether it’s a standard letter or one you’ve taken the trouble to compose yourself. But in my experience they engage more if it’s written directly to them,” he lectures.
Great. Now I have to write 57 different letters. I’ve only just managed to get all the Christmas thank you’s off to the right people, and that’s only because I bribed the Carboncopies to do it for 2p a letter. I wonder if their rate is any different for MP’s?

Then I notice a link. Of course, Greenpeace have made it easy; they’re not going to expect all those thousands of people to sit at their desks for a lifetime, writing to unfamiliar politicians. I follow the link to another website that tracks the movements of MP’s. There’s a mechanism for finding my own MP, and details of current and former bills, votes and speeches, on every subject known to political man. I scan for the word Heathrow and find it under ‘recent searches.’ Emma’s other friends have been here before me.

Unfortunately the link doesn’t bring up the names and addresses of 57 MP’s. Instead it brings up a query in the House of Commons by the MP for North West Leicestershire David Taylor. He complains that within a two hour window on Sunday he received 6,000 e mails from Greenpeace members, most of them living in the South East and none of them from his own constituency. He asks if the house can do anything to legislate against this mail bombing? Jokingly the Speaker tells him to treat Sunday as a day of rest and not read his e mails at all. But then he goes on to reassure the MP that the house will look into the issue.

So now I have the name of one of the 57 MPs. I click on his details, and make it 6001.

56 more still to do. So little time. But the carbontoddler needs collecting from playgroup, so I leave the computer and walk to the hall. After lunch we have a children's party to go to. And the vote is tomorrow. A library run follows, then beavers, then work committments when the kids are in bed.

I start to really feel bad about the other 56 MP's, when I read in the papers that some of them have already been 'won round' by the government. But, in a miserable attempt to deflect the guilt and clear the way for some late night TV watching instead of letter writing, I ask myself whether we should be virtual bombing the MP's that didn't oppose the action last time around rather than the ones who did? Aren't they more of a problem? Is Emma really on top of all this?

I go back to my in-box. In the mailbox, below Emma’s request, is a message from the South Lakeland Action for Climate Change group, inviting me to a talk about what I can do before the Copenhagan talks on November 30th. They’re my local group and I’ve considered getting involved before but never done anything about it. The meeting is in a hall in Kendal. It isn’t going to be full of the great or the glamorous, and I doubt Emma Thompson has been invited. But it’s still national action at a local level. I put it in the diary. And feel a little more able to sleep.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

walking the talk

On whim I decide to buy into the Airplot group’s purchase of land near Heathrow to stop the planned new runway from going ahead. It turns out to be surprisingly easy. Much easier than buying a piece of land near Heathrow 20 years ago when we moved to London and couldn’t afford much in the way of property. That purchase, in a run down part of run down Hillingdon cost me £80,000 and took months for solicitors to argue about shared drains and parking. This time I log onto a website, add my details and bingo, I own a few millimetres of West Drayton or Sutton or some other godforsaken village that can’t hear itself think because of increased flights to Heathrow’s other terminals.
Apparently I’m in good company. Environmentalist thesps, members of the mighty Greenpeace, and also quite a few people like me have already signed up, led by Emma Thompson, who, in her own version of Shakespearean prose told Geoff Hoon to “get a grip, Geoff.” Quite right.

While I’m online, I take a peek at the other offerings, and find a campaign to tell Gordon Brown to ‘give coal the boot.’ Well obviously I sign up to that, saying “Get a grip Gordon,” as I click on the button. Perhaps this could become a nifty environmentalist catchphrase that the world could share, a sort of global putdown? If the new American president fails to act on the environment as he has promised, can we all collectively shout at him “Get a grip Barack,” only to find that he springs into eco action?

I enter my details into the boxes designed to help me help Gordon to give coal the boot, but find it isn’t as straightforward as buying Heathrow. It presents me with a map, and asks me to add my footprint to the map. But before that I must choose my shoe. Now choosing shoes is something I’m good at. I come from a long line of women who thrive on choosing shoes. But this isn’t about choosing a fashion statement, a cheap Far East made accessory to be thrown away after a few wears. This is about declaring who I am. My personal shoe identity, with my first name and postcode attached, to be left for all time on the footprint map of the Greenpeace website. The choices are stark. I can be a sandal. Or a cowboy boot. A cowboy boot? Or an army boot. Or a kitten heel. Or a loafer. Or a flip flop. Oh God. What am I?
I should be a welly boot but I don’t want to be. I’d like to be a kitten heel, but if I’m honest I’m not. I can’t even walk in them, let alone stamp out global warming with them. I toy with being a cowboy boot as an ironic feminist statement, but in the end go barefoot. Probably a classic cop out on the Greenpeace shoe labelling front, but at least it doesn’t tie me into in any particular decade, gender or fashion. And if Carbonlite reads it, he might feel guilty about not buying me those M and S slippers for Christmas. I take a look at what everyone else from Cumbria has put in. There’s a few wellies, a couple of sandals and some very uninspiring loafers. And quite a few have opted for the barefoot option. Thankfully there’s no cowboy boots in my neighbourhood. A cowboy boot-wearing environmental activist on your doorstep would frankly be quite scary.

When Carbonlite comes home, I tell him about my new purchase of terminal busting land.
“Good,” he says, picking up the paper.
“Just Good? This is a legal document, like a house purchase you know. I could be summonsed. To appear. At a big enquiry or something,“ I cry. He continues reading the paper. “And I’ may have to turn up barefoot,” I carry on, “Because that’s what I signed up to do on the “Get a grip Gordon carbon coal campaign. And as everyone else from round here will be there in their wellies and loafers, I’ll have to watch my toes.” My husband nods his approval, still reading the paper.
“You haven’t even asked what it cost,” I shout. “To buy Heathrow.”
He finally looks up, “Well? How much did it cost?”
“It was free,” I reply sheepishly.
He goes back to the paper. I stomp out of the room.
“But there may be some costs to follow,” I mutter, wondering if there is such a thing as an environmentally friendly brand new pair of kitten heels.”

Monday, January 19, 2009

carbon coffee

It’s dark outside. Dark and cold and uninviting. The Carbontoddler cries when I remove her from her Tigger sleepsuit and force her arm into as many layers of clothes as I can. With the usual bickering and chivvying, I walk the boys to school then return for my daughter. Today I intend to drop her off at nursery by car, drive to a village seven miles down the road, and work in a cafe, on my laptop. I avoid meeting Carbonlite’s eye as I grab car keys and run out of the door with my daughter and her lunchbox. The temperature outside isn’t very different to inside. Even though it’s the depths of winter, we’ve made a pact to keep the heating off during the day. Carbonlite deals with this by piling on layers of clothes; at the last count he had five. I deal with it by going out..

I order a coffee and try to shut out the guilt. Not only have I left Carbonlite at home to suffer in frosty silence with a massive workload, but I’ve used the car for a short journey again. Why? Because I’m a pathetic fair weather cyclist. I just can’t motivate myself to open the shed. I know it’s damaging; economically, environmentally and also physically; I'm putting on weight faster than the carbon mother in law gets through a litre of whisky.
Disgusted with myself, I pick up a magazine. “The lazy girls guide to going green” the cover shouts at me. I sigh, opening it to page 64. “If you’d like to save the planet, but think it all sounds like too much hassle, here are some easy tips that won’t turn your life upside down.” Why not turn your life upside down? It might be fun. It might save the future for your kids. Resistant as I can be to some of Carbonlite’s improvements, we at least both understand that life, post Al Gore can never be same again.

It's all the usual stuff about buying an eco kettle, sealing the gaps, washing clothes at a lower temperature, and turning off the tap mid teeth clean. I’m mildly interested in the fact that I’ll save more energy if my fridge is full. But the only time a car is mentioned is to inform me that driving is more efficient if I put more air in the tyres. But air never trashed a polar bear. What about emissions, petrol, unnecessary journeys? I leave my coffee to go cold; while it might be unleaded, it tastes too much of carbon.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The gift of gold?

A copy of National Geographic lies unread on the table. I tidy up around it. It’s been there for weeks; a reminder of Christmas past. Carbonlite wanders into the room and sprawles down on the sofa. I grab the magazine.
“I’ll just take this for recyling,” I say pointedly.
“But you haven’t read it yet,” he exclaims.
“It’s my magazine,” I tell him. My only Christmas present. I start to flick through it, grumbling under my breath how friends got expensive handbags and gold jewellery, while I got a magazine. Not even a year’s subscription, just a magazine. Even baby Jesus got gold for Christmas. A pair of M and S slippers would have been fine. Why does even my Christmas present have to be an education?

At the recycling bin, I pause. Something in this glossy magazine is glinting at me. It’s a global obsession that’s worth more than human life. A glittering industry that’s rotten to the core. In the world’s most remote places, whole families risk their lives so we can have cheap earrings. To extract a single ounce of gold, the amount in a typical wedding ring, 250 tons of rock and ore are taken from the ground, from vast open pit mines where accidents are commonplace, and chemical or mercury poisoning is a daily hazard. Villagers in the high altitudes of Peru work for 30 days a month for free; dirty, backbreaking work, without any pay. On the 31st day their reward is a single shift, of four hours or maybe a little more, where they are granted permission to haul out and take away as much rock as their shoulders can bear. With a bit of luck this sack may contain nuggets galore and make them instant millionaires. More commonly it contains nothing, or perhaps a few dollars of gold flecks which will barely feed their family, once miller and merchant have been paid.

All that human misery and exploitation. But what of the environment? Thanks to huge mining corporations, the gold now left in our world only exists as traces in remote and fragile corners. What was once untouched rainforest housing thousands of species is now razed and turned into pits that can be seen from space. Diggers carry out tons of earth each day in the search for the golden grail. The gold is processed with the help of mercury, and the chemical effluent is piped straight to the bottom of the sea.

I fiddle with my wedding ring. I take it off. I roll it around in my palm, examining its texture and shape for the first time in years. I look at how the light falls on it, and smile when I read the inscription. Sure, its precious. Sure it’s valuable. The question is, is this symbol of our union worth the human and environmental sacrifice that it took to make it? I put it on the table. I leave the room. My ring finger feels strange. I haven’t taken my wedding ring off in almost a decade. Ten years? Where did that go.
“I’m going for a bath. I’ve left something on the table for you,” I call to Carbonlite in the living room. He’ll either think I’ve read the feature and be pleased I’ve decided to do something about it, or he’ll think I’m leaving him, and might reassess what I’m worth.