12 June 2007
A bungling zealot’s guide to sustainable living. Part 1: “Reduce”
Reduce, re-use, recycle.
You’ve heard this before, I’m sure. It’s a principle, childlike in its simplicity, that many of us can be heard mumbling as we make decisions about our grocery shopping, our laundry or what to do with the junk we have just cleared out of our spare rooms. So far, so green – and I’m right there with you.
Close friends and family can testify that I’m annoyingly fanatical about minimizing the impact of my life on the world around me. I’ve been recycling, even in small ways, since I was at school. I’m evangelistic about composting; invite me round for dinner and I’ll ask to bring home your vegetable peelings then proceed to spout forth throughout the meal about the joys of decomposition (I’m probably not most people’s first choice of dinner guest).
I lived without a car and relied solely on public transport until 3 years ago when the reality of living and working in a sprawling city resulted in us finally becoming the proud, but slightly bewildered owners of a new Mini. In that time we are proud to have been careful about how much we use the thing and our car’s mileage has only slowly crept up over 9,000 miles. We use energy saving light bulbs, close the doors when the heating’s on, use an insulating additive in our paint and grow a lot of our own vegetables. I’d like to think we’re card-carrying, tree-hugging (but not socks with sandals-wearing) environmentalists. We have a wormery, for goodness’ sakes. Did I say fanatical? Smug might be a more accurate, but less pleasant word for it.
Truth is, our good intentions notwithstanding, what happens day-to-day in our attempts to reduce our carbon footprints is really not something to be proud of. For example, in my eagerness to learn more about how to be a better eco-citizen, I have accumulated a dizzying collection of books. I’m sorry, what is this ‘library’ thing you speak of?
While it is true that some of these green tomes are even printed on recycled paper, most were ordered online and delivered by post in copious cardboard wrapping. So, increased consumption of books (instead of borrowing them from the library or looking things up on the Internet), unnecessary delivery miles (I travel into the city pretty frequently so could pick items up from bookshops there if need be) and additional packaging.
Still, a book addiction is not the end of the world. I’m being a bit hard on myself, aren’t I?
Perhaps not – there are plenty more skeletons in our closet. We have taken more holidays in the last 3 years than in the previous 10 put together, and almost all of them have involved taking a flight. As well as all the usual electric paraphernalia associated with modern living, we have not one, not two, but three computers in our house, and often use all of them at once. We try hard to be careful about what food we buy, but often end up throwing away as much as a quarter of what’s in the fridge because it’s gone so far past its use by date that only someone with a death wish would open the packet, let alone eat it. Let’s not even mention my attempts to build a shoe collection that would make Imelda Marcos balk.
So much for the ‘reduce’ part of the green living mantra.
Having been brought up Catholic (kind of…long story) it’s fair to say that I’m something of an expert at feeling guilty. So although I try to consume less, when I inevitably stray from the path I feel sheepish at best, ashamed at worst. On these occasions, ‘Reduce, re-use, recycle’ has replaced the Hail Mary and become my penance. I’d get myself a hairshirt to atone for my sins of acquisition, except that buying the damn thing would seem to miss the point.
But feeling bad is not helpful to me or the planet, is it? Far better to do something about it. In this case, I think I’m going to keep on trying to do my best at minimizing the resources that I use. If I’m being fair to myself I realise that I am getting better all the time at doing this. But most importantly, for me at any rate, the most significant reduction I can make is on the amount of pressure I put myself under to try to save the planet single-handedly.
Trouble is, ‘Reduce, (guilt-free and accepting of your need for beautiful shoes), re-use and recycle’ just doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it?