Friday, 29 October 2010

flight spike

Last month we broke a four-year pledge not to fly, and took a 90-minute plane across Turkey. The two-night train sleepers were full and we had a stomach bug, so couldn’t go by toiletless bus. And we ‘had to’ head home.

In retrospect I think we should have waited a week for the next sleeper compartment, for when I returned home and filled in my weekly direct fossil fuel emissions on Carbon Account, I found that our carbon budget, carefully tended and pruned, was well and truly busted. We’d managed to get our household emissions really low, through a careful regime of draughtproofing, turning off appliances and lights, using big machines when the sun shone to use electricity generated by the sun, and wearing jumpers and using our woodburning stove as our sole heat source for most of the winter.

That one flight now sits, a massive orange spike towering over the steady thin line of frugality. Damn! 685 miles of flying means 70% of this year’s direct emissions to date, or nearly half a ton of CO2 each. And no matter how much we try to remain frugal, that spike will haunt us for the rest of the year.
I’m not one for guilt, generally, nor smugness. I just take this as a sobering reminder: there’s absolutely no point in making small changes like recycling and walking to the shops, if we don’t reduce our flying. In terms of making a difference to our carbon footprint, that’s the Big One.
So, I’ll just renew my Gold flight pledge here and encourage others to do so – there’s a Silver Pledge for those starting out on the learning curve.

Monday, 25 October 2010


Listening to the press coverage of The Cuts today, you’d think we were on the brink of deep poverty. When that idea was put to Marguerite Patten, the War Food writer and home economist, at a talk in Lewes recently, she laughed derisively. As travelling outside Europe recently reminded me, we are extraordinarily well off in this country and few of us are likely to starve. Yet whatever the cause - bankers’ greed or government over-ambition, or simply because resource depletion equals economic decline - we are going to have to learn to live more frugally. It doesn’t help that our leaders and the press all express their great desire to get the economic machine back on track. Or that the collective dream of consumption continues unabated. The inconvenient truth is that small is inevitable. And like the proverbial ants, the ones preparing now will be more resilient and more relaxed.

Our family is still muddling towards frugality. This is the title of a book given to me by my friend Jim. The author, writing 30 years ago, tell us that the roots of the word frugality in Latin are frugalior meaning useful or worthy, and frux, meaning fruitful or productive. Unfortunately over the years the words have come to mean thriftiness and abstention, whereas their full meaning reflects a full and ‘fruitful’ use of all resources.

At this time of year, everything feels fruitful, and with my allotment is giving us fruit and veg for most of our meals. We’ve got a whole lot of greens planted up in the polytunnel which I hope will mean we can eat a salad most days of the year. Best of all, through the winter we’ll continue to harvest solar energy through our solar photovoltaic panels, carefully saved for and installed after a long and challenging planning process. Since they were installed in July, we’ve generated about ¾ of our household needs.We have wood for our burner and are still obsessively draightproofing.

I wonder, though, if frugality will take off. It doesn’t sell stuff. So the media wont sell it, nor will the shops. And it takes a little more time and effort for those too busy to bother and used to a convenience culture.

Yet, a frugal life is not something to be derided as hair-shirt abnegation. With less need to work and more time to play, it’s bloody brilliant! Let’s reclaim this frugality as a very juicy idea.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

whiff only

We’ve recently returned from a long train journey  through Europe, Turkey and the Caucasus. A month to celebrate being alive, together after 20 years. A cross-reflective journey in search of the exotic after four years of not flying. We’re still having travelling dreams, where the smell of sewage mingles with the call to prayer and the beautiful, dilapidated, ancient and chaotic has its own cohesion. It’s hard and unrealistic to try to make sense of such rich exposure. As difficult as interpreting the curly script of Armenian or the professional fleecing techniques of the Georgian taxi drivers. It’s enough just to wonder.

As a food lover I was struck by the inverse relationship between the wealth of a country and its interconnected, employment-intense food infrastructure. As soon as we crossed the Bosphorous in Istanbul, that marks the divide between Europe and the East, we saw people growing and selling food all along the roads, from women knocking walnuts out of the trees growing along the main roads, to horsedrawn carts piled with produce. Outside our homestay in Tblisi, Georgia, a man and his wife sold freshly-made khachapuri – cheese-filled pastries – from their front window, an old lady sold tomatoes and grapes from a little shelf outside a shop to supplement her tiny pension, and the next-door shop employed five women attending five counters, each selling different goods: fresh, preserves, alcohol, toys and household goods, cooked fast food: a whole department store in one little shop the size of Bill’s. And yes, it smelled very good, a mixture of fish, pastries, tobacco smoke, bodies and fruit, with a whiff of sewage.

Returning home, through Austria and Germany, I became chilled by the cult of efficiency – acres of clean pavement; supermarkets with minimum employment: materialism gone too far. Back in Lewes, I have mixed feelings; we’ve definitely lost our food resilience, being 98% dependent on Tesco and Waitrose. But we have a weekly market. And we’ve created a kind of token ritual in the Octoberfeast. Maybe, tentatively, we’re coming back to our senses.