Step by step

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The house we’re living in at the moment is very different from our previous one in three key ways. Firstly, it’s a Victorian terrace with a backyard rather than a 1930s semi with a garden. Secondly it’s rented so we can’t make any changes without our landlord’s permission. Thirdly, it’s not got much by way of green improvements.

No garden so no compost bins or chickens, no double glazing, no cavity wall insulation, little roof insulation, no water meter and one large fridge freezer. And although it’s lovely being back, there’s no organic butcher’s shop here.

What to do? Here’s our list:

  • Find an organic veggie box delivery. We’ve gone for these guys.
  • Buy meat carefully. The lovely people who supply us with local organic veggies also do organic pork. And on a recent stay to the fantastic Beechenhill Farm, in the Peak District, we bought some of their organic lamb. We’re putting the carbon-guzzling freezer to work…. Beef is coming from a farm about 9 miles away, although that might be limited to summer when we fancy the bike ride! Offal and game will also feature; offal because it would otherwise be wasted and game because there’s a surplus of things like wild venison.
  • Put a ‘no junk mail’ sticker on the door, hoping someone will pay attention to it!
  • Find a paper recycling box to put near the computer.
  • Record meter readings. We’ve done this for years, and it works! N has a clever spreadsheet which produces graphs showing average usage and inspires us on to greater savings.
  • Turn the CD player off at the wall. The socket isn’t so handy, and sometimes it gets left on standby….
  • Insulate the roof above the bathroom. There’s some insulation there, but it won’t be any trouble to add a bit more. This is the only roof space we can access, but better than nothing. Off-shot bathrooms on Victorian houses are often cold, so this should make a welcome difference.
  • Fix cold tap in bathroom, which has an occassional drip. Not worth calling the Letting Agency about, but will save water in the long term.
  • Talk to the Letting Agency about the possibility of having a water meter fitted.
  • Think about how to fit a curtain to the back door.
  • Adjust the timer on the boiler to go off earlier in the morning.
  • Make sure to only buy organic eggs.
  • Ask about lift sharing at work.
  • Ask about turning off some of the lights at work.
  • Buy recycled envelopes only.
  • Change the last of the non-eco light bulbs.
  • Get a wormery to process kitchen waste.

More on progress, and wriggly worms, next time!

A timely reminder

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Did you see the article in the Guardian at the weekend about the dramatic loss of sea ice at the Arctic? If not, it’s on their website here.

It was a good reminder to me to redouble my efforts to reduce my contribution to climate change. I don’t do too badly in reducing my carbon footprint, but small things such as turning equipment off at the wall or checking lights are off have slipped since we moved house. And it’s worrying how quickly N and I have got used to having no kitchen compost bin. What the article did was bring me up short.  And it reminded me how little environmental coverage there has been in the press in recent months. The problem hasn’t gone away, but the news cycle sometimes forgets about it.

There’s always the difficulty of whether articles like this, or indeed the first part of Alastair McIntosh’s Hell and High Water which I blogged about earlier, really have the desired effect. They can easily scare people into the very understandable response of putting your hands over your ears and trying to think nice thoughts. A world which could be on average 6C warmer when I’m an old person, where unpredictable weather patterns destroy crops, flood homes and lead to the vulnerable dying of extreme temperatures and where key species have died out, is not a nice thing to dwell on. However, sometimes we have to face that possibility if we’re to have the resolve to do something to avoid it. The things we need to do can themselves be fun, but the scale of the problem means that we need to take it seriously.

Here’s the key bit from the Guardian article…

Sea ice in the Arctic shrank a dramatic 18% this year on the previous record set in 2007 to a record low of 3.41m sq km, according to the official US monitoring organisation the National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Boulder, Colorado.

Sea ice in the Arctic is seen as a key indicator of global climate change because of its sensitivity to warming and its role in amplifying climate change. According to Nsidc, the warming of Arctic areas is now increasing at around 10% a decade.

Along with the extent of the sea ice, its thickness, or volume, has also significantly decreased in the last two decades. While this is harder to measure accurately, it is believed to have decreased around 40% since 1979.

The collapse of the ice cap was last night interpreted by environment groups as a signal of long-term climate warming caused by man.

“I hope that future generations will mark this day as a turning point, when a new spirit of global cooperation emerged to tackle the huge challenges we face. We must work together to protect the Arctic from the effects of climate change and unchecked corporate greed. This is now the defining environmental battle of our era,” said Kumi Naidoo, director of Greenpeace International.

To fly or not to fly?

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Actually, this isn’t a question I struggle with. I know my answer. Since 2006 it’s been a firm ‘no’. I accept that this might change in the future, but the huge emissions from flying, generated at an altitude such that they are even more damaging, means that to my mind flying somewhere should be the last resort. Even more of a last resort than not going.

So Oliver Roberston’s article in the Friend on 5 July, entitled ‘Getting to No’ seemed pretty straightforward to me. In it, he discusses making the decision not to fly to a friend’s wedding in Israel, in light of the commitments Britain Yearly Meeting made in 2011.

But the letters page was soon buzzing with Friends defending the need to fly to see loved ones – under the heading ‘to fly or not to fly?’  Two examples: “I would like to respond…and say ‘what does love require of you?’ I say it jolly well requires visits to our families, wherever they are and however we go.” and then “those are “Love Miles” which are surely allowed”.

I started composing letters to the Friend in my head, all of which were too stern. But this, from Harriet Martin of Cotteridge Meeting, in the 24 August issue, said it all.

When good friends offer me cake I rather think ‘This cake was baked and offered in love. It cannot have any calories…’ My scales seem to disagree. Body chemistry seems to overrule love.

One difference between ‘love calories’ and ‘love miles’ is that a few days dieting may take my weight back down, but the atmospheric pollution from the 6,000 ‘love miles’ that I flew going on a round-trip to New York to see family five years ago is still hanging around, warming the atmosphere year on year (CO2 takes centuries to break down.) In that year my flight did more damage than my, rather average, car mileage and home heating combined.

I am immensely gtrateful that my seventeenth century ancestors, who emigrated to New England, had no love miles for visiting home. Our beloved, fruitful, earth teems with abundant and beautiful life. It would now be a very different place had planes been spewing six to seven billion tonnes CO2 (CO2 emissions from flights in 2006) annually for the last 400 years.

For the love of my sister, my nieces, my nephew, my cousins in the US, but even more for the love of my grandchildren and theirs to come, I’m Skyping, not flying, this year and as many as possible into the future.

That’s what I think about flying to visit family. Please don’t even ask what I think about flying for more frivolous reasons.

Thank you Harriet. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Shopping locally

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We moved house last month. We’re still in sunny Yorkshire but now near N’s new job. Being in a smaller city often means that there are fewer local shops. Not so here. These are a some of our local shops, which are all on the same street.

We’re lucky enough to have two greengrocers. Here’s my favourite:

They sell organic eggs, local jams and pickles and various wholefood goodies too. The fruit and veg isn’t organic, but if you pick and choose, there’s a lot of local produce.

There’s a butchers too, again not organic, but mostly selling meat from local suppliers. Their chicken, from Loose Birds in Harome, is particularly good. (And what a great name for a poultry producer – conjurers up images of over made-up chickens of the night….)

On our first night here, after a long day watching the removel men do all the work, we had Fish and Chips. Well, when the chip shops has these credentials, you have to treat yourself.

Then there’s my favourite bike shop in the whole world.

They’ve got some truly lovely new bikes, and all the cycling accessories you could wish for. I’ve got a front basket on order at the moment. I’m cycling much more now we’re living somewhere flatter. My type of cycling has changed too. It’s now less of a ‘cycle because it’s the only reliable way to get to the train station on time and face the consequences of the hill climb home later’ and more of ‘going somewhere? easiest to cycle.’ As a consequence, there are sometimes when I don’t want to take a huge panier with me, but need instead a handy wicker basket to drop my purse in.

I’m usually a very focussed shopper, the sort who has a planned route and a list in hand. My weakness is hardware shops, the more old fashioned the better.  And they absolutely have to be willing to  sell you a single screw, or enter into a prolonged discussion on the best way to fix something, preferably something obscure that no-one manufactures any more. This place meets the criteria.

It’s run by some friends of ours, who’ve just taken over from people who now run a kitchen and homeware shop a few doors up.

I find shopping locally quicker than doing a supermarket run ever was. It’s not taken long to work out who sells what and the shop keepers are all friendly. There’s good parking too(!) Here’s my bike, all laden and ready to cycle home, with a panier full of goodies.

Rhubarb Jam

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1kg Rhubarb, roughly chopped
750ml water
700g sugar

Bring the rhubarb to boil in the water, and simmer until soft. Be generous with the time – 30 mins should do it. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved. Heat the rhubarb to the setting point – 221F. If you’ve not got a jam thermometer (thank you Grannie) then test whether the setting point has been reached by putting a little jam on a cold plate and leaving it to one side for a few minutes. If the jam ‘wrinkles’ when you pull a spoon through it, then it’s set. Allow to cool a little (not too much or it will set in the pan!) and then pour into preheated jam jars. Cover with jam papers, but don’t screw the lids on too tightly until the jam has cooled.

The observant reader will spot the kitchen has changed! More of that soon…

Some good, some bad

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Time is flying, it’s three months since Yearly Meeting Gathering, and I haven’t even found chance to blog since 23 October (really, that long?). Inevitably, that means I’ve not been thinking about being part of a sustainable low carbon community as much as I’d hoped.

I have, however, pretty much finished the mending pile I mentioned last time, bar one skirt that needs professional help. And I even found a good home for a cycling jacket that might mean my sister in law cycles more!

What I haven’t done (and I’m just noting it here, not beating myself up) is keep up with my reading. I get to read quite a bit on environmental matters for my job, but that tends to be more scientific than spiritual. Here’s what’s on my bedside table. Plain Living is an old favourite, a gift from when I became a member of Quakers, and good to dip into for a few moments. I started reading Alastair McIntosh’s Hell and High Water a couple of months ago. It’s utterly brilliant and totally fascinating, but in a really rich-chocolate-cake-with-chestnuts sort of way. It’s best in small doses as part of a balanced diet.  Part one draws together all the science, to remind us why it’s urgent that we act. It’s just the right side of frightening. Part two, which I’m currently reading, aims to show that it is the perilous state of our inner lives, too often numb to violence and manipulated by marketting, that  needs addressing if we are to  mend a broken planet.  I rather struggle with the idea of a broken planet, but I do accept that our motivation for action to slow/mitigate against climate change has to come from deep within. The book is a dense read, though and borrows from all sorts of schools of thought. The chapter I read most recently swoops majestically from Plato writing about Socrates to Shakespeare, James I/VI, witch hunts and a Hebridean poet called Ian Crichton Smith. And that’s where I got stuck. I need time to sit down to read a bit, pause to digest, and carry on in a leisurely fashion. I’ve not managed to find that time, but I will do at some point so the book is staying out on my bedside table rather than going back on the shelf.

The other thing I’m struggling with a bit is community. I know this is really key, but again it takes TIME. And some patience. And some prioritising. I did go to a morning at the meeting house with Sunniva Taylor from Quaker Peace and Social Witness to look what the Quaker commitment to being a low carbon, sustainable community might mean. I was disappointed more people weren’t there, which was hypocritical of me because I left after lunch to catch up on much duller household tasks that are falling behind now I’m working full time again. And that’s my problem – community takes time and commitment to build. On the (very big) plus side, the morning did remind me what great people go to meeting, and what kind of community I’d like it to be.

Some changes to bed in. It now feels entirely normal to have a few minutes of silence before eating dinner. It’s just a  small spiritual discipline, but it provides a firm hand hold in a busy day. For a few minutes, a sink back into my core and breath a bit more deeply. It amazes me how quickly I can get back into a worship-filled space.

As a result of YMG part 2

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This is my mending pile. It’s smaller than it was (by one shirt and one pair of now-darned socks) but there’s still some work to do. YMG made me think about the use of the resources I’ve got. I’ve resolved to get the best use out the stuff we have, and if we can’t use something, to pass it on. My logic is that if my unwanted item starts to circulate again, it saves using new resources to produce something similar for someone else.

So, I had a big sort out of clothes. I do this reasonably often, but there were still things  lurking in drawers and wardrobes that don’t quite fit, or I hardly ever wear. My particular failing is buying and keeping things that are too short – I’m taller than average, but unlikely to shrink! So, there were two big bags that went to charity shops.

The sort-out also produced a heap (see above) of things that just need a bit of mending – a seam restitching, a button securing  – and could then be back in use. Some things are straightforward – one pair of trousers just needs a really good press. Other things are trickier. I’m quite pleased with my sock-repair. 

These were handknitted, and wearing very thin at the balls of the feet.  I’ve never learnt how to darn properly but I do have a sneaky, satisfying way of ‘re-knitting’.  These got caught just in time, before the yarn was worn completely through – the pair still in the mending heap have got proper big holes and are going to be much more challenging to fix.

Some of the things that went to charity shops went to Oxfam and because they originated from Marks and Spencers entitled me to a £5 off voucher. I shan’t be using it – the last thing I need is more clothes!

Instead, one dark evening soon I shall sit down with a cup of peppermint tea and deal with the resting of the mending pile. What an immensely satisfying prospect.

As a result of YMG Part 1

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As a result of Yearly Meeting Gathering, and the re-think it inspired, I’ve done various things to be more part of a low-carbon sustainable (Quaker) community. There wasn’t a huge amount of scope for easy changes – I thought I’d done most of those – but there was and is still room for improvement.

First up was thinking about water use. Pam Lunn’s Swathemore lecture listed a series of ‘peaks’ – vital resources that, like oil, may peak in supply terms in the next few years.  Water conservation wasn’t a new issue for us. In both this and our previous house, we’ve done various things, including moving the combi-boiler to reduce the distance hot water has to travel and the amount of cold water that has to run before you get warm stuff. But it’s still surprising how much lovely clean water just goes straight down the plug-hole. The answer (for us) is a jug. For a while I searched charity shops for something old and earthernware, but then I remembered we had this from a previous house where the water needed filtering before it tasted good.

It holds 1.5 litres, and is sometimes full before the water starts to run warm – even though it’s travelling only a very short distance and we have a super-duper new condensing combi-boiler. There’s no problem emptying the jug again – the water gets used to fill the kettle which it’s handily next to; to cook vegetables (the oven is just out of shot); to water the house plants, or even, since it’s by the back door, to top up the hen’s water container. The presence of a jug full of run-off water also reminds me – if I need to just rinse my hands, don’t use the hot tap – the water won’t be warm by the time I’ve finished, but the boiler will have fired up.

It will take a little while to know whether it makes any difference to how much water we use. We put a water meter in almost exactly 2 years ago, so measuring any change will be possible. Since the water meter went in, we have been more conscious of water-use. (That’s the point, isn’t it? Water companies reckon that meters reduce usage by 5-15%.) We use an average of 190 litres a day. That sound like a gob-smacking amount, doesn’t it? In fact, since that’s our household use, we’re actually doing far better than the UK average, which according to Ofwat is 153 litres per day per person. I worked out that our usage is 20 buckets a day.  I can’t imagine carrying that much home in a bucket on my head. If the tap was at the end of our street, I’d still be at it most of the day.

So, I’ve found myself asking N, as he waited for me to finish washing my face before going to bed, if he can spot ways I can get the soap off with less water. His answer was along the lines of ‘ No, not really. I think how you wash your face is fine.’ There was a pause. ‘But you don’t need to turn the tap on so much when you rinse your toothbrush’. He’s right. I rinse my toothbrush out, several times whilst I’m cleaning my teeth, by turning the tap on fully and waving the toothbrush under the very satisfying whoosh of water, then turning the tap off with a jolt.  And it’s wasteful. But boy, is it a hard habit to break!

Still room for improvement….


On the buses….

Back from a couple of weeks holiday cycling round Burgundy, and catching up with the post, a paragraph in The Friend caught my attention, so much so that I had to find N and read it out to him too. It’s from an article by a Quaker bus driver, Noel Staples:

Recently , on two 0525 to 1317 hours shifts, taking the number 24 bus (24road) from Pimlico to Hampstead Heath, I stopped the engine at red lights when possible. I achieved fifty-one minutes and fifty-three minutes of engine stopped time! At present, the engine management computer (EMC) takes five to six seconds re-booting from engine stopped to allowing the starter motor to operate. If the EMC’s algorithm were modified to allow quick restarts, longer engine stopped ties at red signals would be possible

Time to think about the buses! The Friend, 9 September

How cool is that?! I’m no bus-spotter, in fact taking the bus usually increases my carbon emissions since I mostly walk or cycle places, but seriously, isn’t that a fantastic paragraph? The whole article is great because it radiates with the passion of someone with a deep felt concern, linked to the necessary technical know-how. I love the precision of the timings of the shifts (like someone might want to replicate the experiment) and the detail in the rest of the article about Department for Transport fuel saving studies.  I had no idea that  London buses had engine management computers, or that with a bit of tinkering they could produce such great results. (“Tinkering”, to be as precise as Noel Staples, is “modifying the EMC’s algorithm, allowing the fuel cut-off solenoid to stop the engine without the EMC shutting down” – another great sentence). And who wouldn’t find it hugely exciting that something as simple as this could save nearly 3.2 tonnes of carbon emissions EVERY DAY.

Actually, as easily as I can picture Noel sat on his bus, stopwatch nearby, working out how to make London transport more sustainable, I can picture someone else, probably in a grey suit although that’s unfair of me, saying it can’t be done. But it can! And it’s great that someone has dreamed that it will be! And just imagine how many other simple taken-for-granted processes we can change to reduce emissions.

Thank you Noel. I hope you manage to persuade the right people to change the EMC’s algorithm, but thank you most of all for having such a passion about reducing CO2 emissions in your work and for writing such an inspiring article.

Jam today….

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I love making jelly. It roots me to generations of women in my family who at this time of year have stood over bubbling pans, wooden spoon in hand, mulling over whether the jam in question is setting enough or not. It’s an activity that connects me, in the middle of a city, to the changing seasons and the countryside that creeps in amongst the concrete and busy-ness. And somehow I’m never too busy to make jam.

Better still, the crab apples are free, ‘rescued’ from a tree planted on a grass verge and usually left to scatter its fruit on the road where they get squashed by car wheels. So, for a bit of patience, a pound or two of sugar (fairtrade please) and some reused jam jars, I get to capture the first signs of autumn and bottle them up to spread on toast through the winter.

In her Swarthmore lecture, Costing not less than everything: sustainability and spirituality in challenging times, Pam Lunn argued that people who are young now will need to learn new skills to survive in a world affected by climate change. I’ve been mulling over which skills she might have had in mind.

Whenever a society changes, the way that people are employed within it has to change too. We no longer have bottom knockers (from the pottery industry) or card nailers (from the woollen mills), both of whom were recorded in the 1891 census. Will we still have formula 1 car drivers and airline pilots when oil becomes an even scarcer resource? And should we be retraining to do bicycle repairs and manage woodlands for fuel? Or perhaps as renewable energy experts?

If we are to use less resources, then I think we’ll all need to get a bit better at making do and mending. And I don’t mean in a nostalgic ‘we won the war’ kind of way – let’s not send the women  back to the stoves and the men off to fight.  Rather, we need to re-learn some of the traditional skills from an age that used less carbon – preserving food for the winter without using an energy-hungry freezer is only one of them. Some of our fossil-fuel rich materials might become too expensive, so we’ll need to know how to work with wood and wool and stone again.

There’s a risk that this sounds like we’re going back to the stoneage. I don’t  think that’s the case at all. But we could look again at some of the things that we have inherited from previous generations and reassess what we learn from them today.  Humanity has an amazing ability to adapt, but a reckless tendancy to leave this to the last minute.

Jam making isn’t going to save the world. Making sure good food doesn’t go to waste is only one of our tasks. But it’s a nice place to start.

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