The Bad Environmentalist
If I want to change the world I ought to be setting
an example. Hmmm...
New Statesman, October 2005
I'm an environmentalist, and I'm alright. For over
a decade I have been working for what we all now call
'sustainability' on both a personal and political level.
It stands to reason, then, that my everyday life must
be energy-efficient; that I must be leaving a small
and barely noticeable footprint on the planet's resources.
I am, after all, supposed to be setting an example.
Of course, I recycle all my cans, bottles and bits of
paper. I don't drive a car. I get my milk delivered
in returnable glass bottles. I use energy-efficient
light bulbs. I grow my own vegetables and try to buy
organic food, when I can afford it. I try not to fly
too much, and feel suitably guilty when I do. I use
recycled paper. Etcetera.
But what does it all amount to? What difference am I
actually making? I've told myself for years that I must
be using less energy, and making less of an environmental
impact, than most people in Britain. But is that actually
true? If so, is it enough? And if not, what am I going
to do about it?
There's one way to find out; I decide to submit myself
to an energy audit. There are many ways of doing this,
some more time-consuming and effective than others.
If you want to do it really seriously there are companies
and individuals out there who you can employ to audit
every aspect of your life, and calculate your 'ecological
footprint' down to the last toenail.
But there are easier and quicker ways of doing it too.
For the purposes of this experiment, I decide to use
one of the many energy-audit tools found on the internet.
The Carbon Calculator, created by the environmental
magazine Resurgence (http://www.resurgence.org/carboncalculator/index.htm)
allows you, in a few minutes, to calculate roughly how
much energy you use every year, and how it compares
with sustainable targets. It's worryingly easy to use;
so much so that I can't help procrastinating for several
hours before I actually start. The consequences of getting
the wrong answer make me nervous.
But it has to be done: I take a deep breath, and plunge
First we come to home energy bills: in my case, electricity
and gas. This requires some digging around. Ferreting
out my last electricity bill and searching through the
bits I never read when I pay it, I discover that our
household, which consists of me and my partner, uses
about 286 kilowatt hours of electricity per month. Whatever
that means. Then there's the gas bill. How many therms
do I use a month? What the hell is a therm anyway? This
takes some working out, but I think it's probably about
40 a month. In it goes. Passing over oil, coal and wood,
and feeling pretty good about it, I move on to the next
and potentially more frightening category: personal
First, car use. As a non-car owner who cycles pretty
much everywhere on a daily basis I'm feeling pretty
smug about this one. Until I remember the camper van.
Last year, on a curious whim, I bought myself an ex-ambulance,
converted for use as a camper van. It runs on both petrol
and liquid petroleum gas (LPG), which is a less-polluting
(and less expensive) fuel. Or it did, until the LPG
conked out. Now it just runs on petrol, and a lot of
it: a twenty-year-old three ton van drinks a lot of
fuel. In my defence, I didn't know quite how much when
I bought it. I didn't think I drove it much either until
I counted up the mileage for this experiment: 1859 miles
in the last year. Oh dear. Buses and trains follow:
mostly journeys from my homes in Oxford to London. In
it all goes.
Then comes the big one: the one that could blow it all
out of the water: plane flights, the fastest-growing
contributor to climate change. Any environmentalist
worth their salt would keep away from planes altogether.
How many miles do I fly a year? I've deliberately never
thought about it, partly because I'm vaguely aware that,
in the past few years in particular, it has been far
too many. I set to work calculating the miles flown
over the last twelve months. The results are unpleasant.
September 2004: return flight to Australia, my girlfriend's
home country. Gulp. It's about 10,000 miles. Each way.
December 2004: Return flight to Cyprus, where my parents
now thoughtlessly live. Another 4500 miles. Great. This
year's total, then: 24,500 miles, using up between them
a breathtaking 21,315 kg of carbon. Oh boy. There go
my ecological credentials.
Next we have 'industry and commerce.' This is one of
those categories that we might not even think of unless
we had our attention drawn to them, and yet around half
of the UK's total carbon emissions come from industry
and commerce supporting our everyday lifestyles - the
energy used to grow and transport food, make clothes
and electrical goods, power the welfare state and all
the rest of it. Following the detailed instructions
I come out with a figure of about 2.5 tonnes of carbon
a year. And suddenly, that's it: a figure appears. My
personal carbon usage over the last year is
I can't look
Now, hang on: this can't be right. Average carbon usage
in the UK is about 9 tonnes per person; 11 if flights
are taken into account. Mine is more than twice as high.
And I'm an environmentalist! There must be some mistake.
I trawl back over the figures, desperately looking for
loopholes. It makes no real difference; the total remains
resolutely high. This is a disaster. I'm going to have
to pull out of writing this article. I can't possibly
publish this. No-one will ever take me seriously again.
So what's the problem? In a word: flights. Those two
trips, to Australia and Cyprus, produced just over 21
tonnes of carbon between them. Take them out of the
equation and my annual budget comes in at
tonnes. Less than half of the national average, and
the sort of target that a greenie could be reasonably
proud of. Assuming that I ever wanted to see my parents
again, and left one annual flight to Cyprus in the mix,
I would total about 9 tonnes: not nearly so good, but
just about average.
So that's it, then: no more flights to Australia, or
at least not for the next decade, and I'll be doing
OK. Except that this is not the whole picture. According
to George Marshall, of the Climate Outreach Information
Network, even an average of 9 tonnes per capita is likely
to be way above any long-term sustainable emissions
budget. While stressing that no firm figure can be arrived
upon until we know exactly what effects climate change
will have, Marshall suggests that a personal annual
carbon dioxide budget of around 2.5 tonnes each for
every one on Earth is likely to be closer to a truly
So what do I do? For a start, I never fly again: 21.3
tonnes of carbon less every year. I sell my camper van:
another third of a tonne gone. I'm down to 3.9 tonnes
a year. Still not enough. I sell my computer, buy only
second-hand clothes and only food produced within a
ten mile radius. I stop using trains
It's getting silly; but it's also getting scary. This
kind of exercise drives home tome just how over-dependent
we are on carbon-based energy, and how we are going
to have to change this dependency, fast. Ultimately,
we in the industrialised world are going to have to
make major changes to our lifestyles.
If there is a heartening side to this tale, though,
it is that people who are aware of what changes are
needed are beginning to experiment with them already.
In the past few years I've seen or even taken part in
a number of them myself.
There are initiatives to promote the local food economy,
from local farmers markets to calculations of 'food
miles': all aimed at reducing the vast amounts of energy
used transporting food all over the globe to your table.
There are community experiments, like Nottinghamshire's
Sherwood Energy Village; a project in which the site
of a former coal mine is being transformed into an emissions-free
community. There are the thousands of small renewable
energy companies springing up all over the country.
There are more radical experiments, too, like that of
Tinker's Bubble, a small-scale low-impact farming community
which has made a home for itself on a hillside in Somerset,
and is attempting to create a small farming economy
which uses no carbon fuel inputs at all, produces fresh
local produce and creates its housing and most of its
everyday needs from the products of the landscape. None
of these initiatives even comes close to tackling the
energy problems we will face in the future: they are
too small, to scattered, too underfunded and under-supported.
But they are a start.
Some of these ideas might seem terrifying, or absurd,
to many of us. But we are all going to have to face
some hard facts: the way we use energy is going to have
to change, radically and fast, and we're all going to
have to be part of it. And one thing is certain: if
every 'environmentalist' is as profligate as me, we've
got an even bigger problem than we thought we had.