The Earth is a fine place and worth fighting for.Ernest Hemingway
It’s been a sobering week. We’ve had an all too clear view of a savage forest fire, burning just a couple of miles from home as the crow flies. On the day it started, two helicopters, supported by ground crew bomberos, flew relentless shuttles with water bombs for more than eight hours.
They returned again and again through the week but five days later, the fire was still burning. It is a terrible thing to witness and I can only begin to imagine how horrific the larger fires raging around the world – and especially in the Amazon rainforest – must be.
With climate and environmental issues prominent in the news this week, it seems like a good time to stop once more and reflect on our behaviour and how much more we personally could be doing to reduce our carbon footprint and our impact on the planet. I know there are those who deny climate change or, at least, the contribution of human activity to it, and I don’t intend to become embroiled in a political or scientific discussion here – partly because that’s not what my blog is about, mostly because it’s being done so well in other places by people with far more expertise than myself. For me, it’s not just about climate change, anyway: what about the destruction of habitat, extinction of species, plastic in the oceans, loss of topsoil, air pollution, gross consumerism and the appalling amount of waste that goes with it, to name just a few things? Anything I can do – no matter how small – to try and mitigate against these disasters is, in my book, well worth doing. I don’t agree that individual efforts are a waste of time or subscribe to the view that it’s too late, so why bother? I have children and grandchildren and a deep respect and reverence for the natural world: they are all extremely precious to me and all definitely worth fighting for.
I’m not in a position to go on strike, and driving somewhere to join a protest would, in my opinion, be the greatest irony so what am I planning to do instead? Well, I have decided to spend a day next week totally committed to all things ‘eco’ whether through physical activities at home, researching or studying new things to try or lobbying the powers that be online. By the end of the day I’m hoping to have deepened my awareness of our own approach and attitude, put some new strategies in place, made plans for the future, shared ideas with other people and added my voice once again to the global concern.
In order to make sure I use the day wisely and meaningfully, I’ve been looking at several lists of key ways to reduce our carbon footprint and choosing what to focus on. I’m pleased to say that we already do most of the things suggested (switching off lights and electrical devices, line drying clothes, buying less stuff, not buying fast fashion, planting a garden, composting, reducing food waste, using reusable bags, avoiding excess packaging, etc, etc) but that doesn’t mean it’s alright to become complacent: there’s always room for improvement! In a recent discussion with my lovely daughters about how we can do our bit and encourage others to join in, the consensus was to keep reading, sharing, trying things then normalising them – and the latter, I think, is the key. It’s amazing just how quickly small changes become the norm; things we weren’t doing this time last year, such as reaching for bee wraps and cloth food bags or using homemade toiletries and cotton hankies are now second nature.
So as not to get too bogged down, I’ve come up with some general headings to help organise my ideas for the day.
- Travelling. I will commit to going nowhere other than by bike or on foot. This in itself isn’t too difficult as we use the car as little as possible anyway, always combining errands and often going nowhere for ten days or more at a time. If we don’t use the tractor or strimmer either, then no petrol or diesel will be burnt. We have booked flights to the UK in November and I have to admit this does grieve me; it’s the second time I’ve flown since moving here in May 2016 and only the third time in thirteen years but all the same, it would be better not to be doing it at all. I need to address the carbon offset and we are currently having some very serious discussions about our travel in the future; some difficult decisions loom, but then this isn’t a lightweight subject, is it?
2. Shopping. I will commit to buying nothing. Like travelling, this isn’t a huge challenge as we only ever shop when we need to (as in a depleted food cupboard or fridge, mostly!). I actually don’t like going shopping at all, even when it’s necessary, and as the only option would be to cycle several miles to the local Farmers’ Co-op, I think this one’s a safe bet. I rarely shop online these days, either; in fact, only really to send celebration gifts to family as it seems the most sensible option from here. I would like to do more research into ethical shops and I think this would be time well spent. We are avid readers, buying all our books from charity shops then returning them for resale; I have also occasionally used https://www.worldofbooks.com/en-gb for buying secondhand books online. For new gift books, though, I’ve recently started to use https://www.hive.co.uk as an ethical alternative to shops like Amazon and I think this is a worthy area to develop.
Something I have had to buy in recent weeks is a new pair of running shoes. As a pastime, running is fairly low impact, certainly in my case where I run from home, have no gadgets whatsoever and wear the same kit I’ve had for years. Shoes, though, do need replacing after several hundred miles of pounding the ground; I then relegate them to walking footwear in summer as they are lighter than boots and finally to gardening shoes if they are still in one piece. I’ve been doing some reading lately about how manufacturers are moving towards more eco-friendly designs and materials and also ways in which worn out shoes can be reused or recycled in socially and environmentally acceptable ways. This is definitely another area for further research as well as considering just how long we can go without buying anything new, clothes or otherwise. Where running is concerned, what can we do to try and make races more environmentally friendly events? They don’t tend to hand out pointless participation medals here and more and more races are giving us the option of turning down a commemorative t-shirt; it’s also great to see Roger coming down off a podium with a box of local foods rather than a trophy. It would be good to be able to hand timing chips back for re-use or proper recycling and as for all those plastic water bottles . . . there must be an alternative, surely?
3. Using energy. I commit to using the bare minimum. This one promises to be quite a challenge! Roughly a third of our electricity comes from renewable resources; it’s more expensive than in the UK but I don’t think that’s a bad thing if it means the energy companies are making long-term investments in clean energy and we are encouraged to keep an eye on our meter. Where our electricity consumption is concerned we are a bit of an anomaly as our usage is much higher in summer than winter. During the cooler months, our woodburning range heats the entire house, provides hot water for drinks, washing the dishes, hand and face washing, hand laundry and house cleaning as well as an oven and hob for all our cooking. At other times, we rely far more heavily on electricity so my intention is to reduce consumption drastically for a day by using only essential appliances.
The fridge and freezer are non-negotiable for obvious reasons but beyond that, what can I manage without? Instead of boiling the kettle for tea and coffee, I’ll drink cold water – this will score some food mile points, too. I will need no persuading to leave the washing machine, iron and vacuum cleaner alone; to be honest, we don’t use them much anyway. We don’t have a television, we can manage without listening to music and appliances like my hairdryer and sewing machine are only used once in a blue moon. The laptop and internet are a lifeline, though, and we need both for online banking and organising our business and financial matters; they are also our first port of call in keeping in touch with friends and family. If I’m going to spend some time on proper research, I will need to use them but other things like blogging and my daily language study will be put aside.
September evenings are very beautiful here so we tend to stay outside until the sun has set and then go to bed early; this means our use of electric light is very small but in the spirit of my challenge, I can always light a candle or two.
I can’t turn the water heater off as we will need to wash dishes but I can do something about the shower. When we renovated the house, we chose not to install a bath; it would have been a very tight squeeze in a small space and we didn’t want to replace a perfectly modern and efficient 50-litre water heater with a bigger one. A shower is more eco-friendly anyway . . . as long as we don’t linger. Having read about someone’s ‘eleven minute shower routine’ recently, I was left with two thoughts: how have I lived so long without realising I needed a routine in the shower and what on earth could anyone be doing in there for eleven minutes? Astonishingly, a quick internet search informed me the average shower time in the UK is eight minutes, during which time 62 litres of hot water have gone down the drain – not much better than a bath, then. I have to admit we are very speedy shower dwellers but even so, heating the water tank is a big use of electricity. My plan is to spread a full hosepipe across the yard with a couple of clean buckets of water; it is still very much summer here, so by evening the sun will have warmed the water enough for me to have an outdoor shower!
The other big electricity guzzler, of course, is the cooker. We bake bread several times a week and always organise the timings so the oven can be used to cook dinner at the same time; on other days, we use the hob, barbecue or eat simply eat cold foods (we don’t have a microwave).
Not using the cooker at all for a day is perfectly possible but obviously needs some careful meal planning beforehand – there’s no point in deciding to have, say, a barbecue with homemade hummus if we then remember we need to cook some beans and chickpeas! Generally speaking, though, a barbecue needn’t cramp our style and we can still make plenty of good use of vegetables from the garden: aubergines, courgettes, peppers and tomatoes brushed with a little olive oil and cooked directly on the grill are heaven sent.
4. Eating. I commit to eating foods with the lowest food miles and least packaging. Basing our meals around what comes out of the garden is a way of life here and at this time of the year, we have enough fresh produce to feed the entire village so this shouldn’t feel like much of a challenge at all: no food miles, no packaging. Job done.
Mmm . . . but we can’t just live on fruit and vegetables so for anything we buy from elsewhere, food miles and packaging become a consideration. Since finishing the house renovation and no longer needing to trek off to distant places in search of building materials, we have been shopping very locally and paying far more attention to food provenance. I know that becoming vegetarian or even vegan is cited as a major way to reduce carbon footprints; we aren’t vegetarians but we eat far less meat than we used to – in fact, most of our meals and several days a week are completely meat-free. There is, of course, a huge debate around this issue – and I don’t want to open a can of worms here – but I would argue that there is a world of difference between the animals extensively raised on small, local, family farms and those that are raised intensively on feed lots and in factory farms around the globe. We buy high quality local meat from animals that have been reared slowly outdoors on natural foods without any antibiotics, growth hormones or other nasties pumped into their systems; yes, it’s several times more expensive than the ‘other’ stuff but as we don’t buy it often, that’s not a problem and I would prefer to support farmers in continuing with this sort of meat production where animal welfare and care of the environment are of the highest concern.
Other fresh foods we buy, namely dairy and eggs, are all produced in Asturias, and with dry goods such as flour, we opt for local where possible. I’m not about to start buying green beans from Kenya or Brazilian prawns but the main problem is with ‘world foods’ like tea, coffee and rice which can’t be produced close to home (or even to Europe in some cases). Should we be reducing our consumption of these foods? On my eco day, I shall scrutinise the origin of everything in our food cupboards then keep a rough tally of food miles associated with what we eat that day, trying to keep them to a minimum. That should be an interesting and revealing activity.
At the same time, I will assess the packaging situation. We are lucky here in that pretty much all types of food packaging can be recycled including rigid plastics and Tetra Pak, but reducing is far better than recycling and I don’t think we’re anywhere near the mark with this one. Bags for life are common practice and it’s possible to buy all sorts of foodstuffs loose in some places but only plastic bags are provided to decant them into. I’ve tried to mitigate against this by re-using them and sticking a new label over the old one at the scales but it’s far from great; ideally, I’d like to use my own containers but so far I haven’t seen any evidence of anyone else doing the same. I don’t feel my Spanish is fluent enough to try and explain my intentions to shop assistants but that is something to work on. Buying meat and fish loose from counters means they come wrapped in paper rather than on polystyrene trays covered with clingwrap which is something, I suppose. We choose unwrapped foods like local waxed cheeses or chorizo on string, and jars and tins over plastic where possible; we never buy multi-wrapped goods – but still, there’s far too much of the stuff and we definitely need to move forward with this one.
5. Bits and pieces. There are many other areas of our life which I would like to give further thought to. It’s been an interesting year in the garden and I’ve learnt much from using green manure, selective (minimal) weeding, self-setting and seed saving. I think it would be worthwhile now to really focus sharply on growing fewer varieties of single vegetables – the ones we know are successful here – and creating a sustainable, ‘nothing new’ garden: if we can’t raise it ourselves from seed, cuttings, roots and the like, then we don’t have it. There’s no need to be buying new plants for the sake of it.
I’d also like to consider how far we make full use of what’s available, from the garden, orchard and further afield. What wild foods could we forage? We’ve just started collecting this year’s walnuts but every autumn we also have a tremendous crop of chestnuts and barely use them. It seems like a missed opportunity so what are the options there?
I’m picking chillies from the polytunnel and garden a couple of times a week at the moment and stringing them up to dry. What other ways of preserving our produce could we be exploring? Just how self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables could we be?
We gone a long way down the green household cleaning and toiletries route but I feel there’s still a lot more we could be doing. Research needed! It’s the same with our efforts to be plastic free and achieve zero waste; it’s easy to get so far along the path, then sink into some kind of complacent smugness and I think this is where other people’s ideas, experiences and encouragement are vital to help keep the ball rolling. It should be a community thing, surely? After all, we’re all in it together. As one of our neighbours so eloquently put it (in Spanish), ‘We are all sailing in one boat and if it tips over, we all go down.’
Expanding on that idea, I believe it’s important to be active beyond our own patch, too. I’ve committed to stopping and picking up any bits of litter I see when I’m running, even if that means adding a few seconds to a timed run; actually, I also deviated in both 10k races I’ve done here to put my water bottle in a recycling bin – no wonder I can’t crack that golden hour! No matter, as far as I’m concerned, caring for the environment will always be more important than how fast I can run a few kilometres. There isn’t a huge amount of litter here but I’m not prepared to pass plastic bottles, beer cans, chocolate wrappers, cigarette packets and other discarded junk lying in the verges if I can collect it, and either recycle it or put in a bin. I did draw the line at a plastic food wrapper full of dog turds but I hope I can be allowed that one.
I keep an eye on meaningful petitions to sign and email politicians about environmental issues when I can; it might seem like a minimal impact thing to be doing but it’s a case of tiny drops making an ocean. I’m sure there’s more I could be doing in this area, too; it’s not as exciting as making soap or planting seeds but now more than ever, I think, a very valuable way of spending time.
I realise that all this might sound a bit superficial, something of a game, in fact; in truth, it doesn’t look like I’m planning to do much that is different to a normal day and I am aware at how privileged I am to have so many blessings in my life and to be able to spend a day in this way. I’m very lucky to be able to choose to use less electricity or hot water or a range of foodstuffs when so many people don’t have those things . . . but that, to me, is precisely why this exercise is so important. There is no question that is totally serious and is about complete and unequivocal focus. From the moment I wake up and remember there is to be no morning mug of tea, I will be approaching every single activity with total concentration and reflection on the environmental impact it has . . . and if that leads to just one tiny improvement in helping the planet, then it will have been time very well spent. 🙂