Carbon Conversations – Part 5 – Food

We kicked off by sharing our food plans. Lots of useful ideas here: avoiding aluminium cans; getting a single, reusable water bottle rather than buying new bottles all the time (much more economical as well as better for the environment); cutting down on cheese, milk and other dairy (whose carbon footprint can be enormous).

Then the heart of the evening’s conversation was about consumption: what we buy and why. We shared thoughts on things that meant a lot to us: sentimental, emotional and practical value seemed to come up again and again. We competed to see who had the most out-of-date phone. We also reflected on the connections between wealth and attitudes towards materialism (some people felt that somehow, perversely, it’s easier to be frugal when you’re better off). We also had a fascinating discussion over how far we see the money we earn as ‘ours’ – is it ours to do whatever we want with? Or should we see ourselves as ‘stewards’ of money, with a social responsibility to spend it wisely and in socially constructive ways?

Finally we touched upon the difficulties of communicating climate change to other people. We felt schools ought to offer much more coverage in their curriculum. But that’s just a starting point. This issue will be discussed more in session six….

Carbon Conversations – Part 4 – Food

The theme for session four was food, always a favourite topic in these meetings.

We began by sharing some personal stories about food and what it means to us. Interestingly, many of our fondest memories came from experiences eating simple, local food, from home-made pizza using ingredients in the garden, to eating kimchi in Korea. It was a reminder that food is about so much more than what we put in our mouths – it’s something that connects us with our local environment and the people around us.

This led nicely into our next activity where we reflected on the wider meaning of food. Our conversation showed how food is connected with so many other aspects of our lives, from family relationships (sometimes tense, sometimes harmonious) to the vicissitudes of our emotional lives, to how our kitchens are designed. It really is something that shapes, and is shaped by, so many aspects of our lives.

Then we did the main activity of the evening: a game where we had to figure out the carbon footprint of all sorts of different foods, according to the different stages in their life-cycle (production, processing, packaging and transportation). The task of thinking about all the complicated elements that go into food production was fascinating in itself and highlighted how energy-intensive our food system is.

So what did we take away from the evening? Well, the obvious choice to keep our carbon emissions down is to eat fresh and eat local. But also to be vigilent! As one person pointed out, it’s all well and good going to a locally-owned restaurant. But if you order New Zealand lamb with Peruvian asparagus that somewhat defeats the point! Although it might seem difficult, we need to think about making smart decisions about our food choices everywhere we go The good news however, is that with practice, it soon becomes second nature.

Carbon Conversations – Part 3 – Travel and Transport

Meeting three: slightly depleted numbers, but no shortage of energy and ideas in the room…

We began with a quick whip round to talk about positive steps we had taken to address climate change that week. They ranged from making a pledge to grow enough tomatoes to serve all winter ketchup and chutney requirements, to the building of bike sheds, to clever strategies to save money while driving (keep the tank half full), to harnessing solar energy to make jam, to aquaponics (and hydroponics too!).

But the main theme of the evening was travel. We brainstormed strategies for reducing our travel-related carbon emissions. One of the simplest but potentially most useful ideas to emerge was reducing one’s driving speed to 60 mph – people were surprised to hear what a big difference it makes to fuel consumption.

We then played a game which simulated some of the dilemmas that a typical family might go through when trying to reduce their travel-related footprint. Several members of the group commented that it had been very helpful in getting them to appreciate the complicated practical and ethical dilemmas people face when trying to take action on these issues.

We finished off with a discussion about how we can all personally reduce our travel footprints. Some people commented on their commitment to not flying and how they had imagined it might be difficult in our age of high-speed, long-distance travel. But contrary to their expectations, it had actually been a liberating decision, not a constraining one, and choosing to travel locally had made them appreciate and enjoy their holidays more. It made me reflect on whether the idea that people go ‘stir-crazy’ after spending too much time in one place is a myth promoted by the media to encourage us to travel more (and further). There are simple alternatives to hopping on planes for European city breaks – we could all learn to rediscover the joy of walking, and use to it connect more with a our local environment (as writers like Alain de Botton, and psychogeographers such as Will Self and Iain Sinclair, have shown).

Next session will be on food – perhaps the most fascinating issue of all!

Carbon Conversations – Part 2 – Home Energy

For our second Cabon Conversations session we looked at home energy.

Before the meeting group members had monitored their domestic energy usage. Some had experienced interesting surprises. One member, having closely scrutinised her gas and electricity meters, became aware of exactly how much energy different appliances use. She was able to see how much energy was consumed by a light left on overnight, or a wifi router, or a computer. She said it has made her much more conscientious about turning things off!

We also shared ideas about how to modify our homes to make them consume less energy. Air source heat pumps and replacing open fires with bio ethanol heaters were both mentioned as effective ways to reduce energy consumption. One important point that came up was about the tension between wanting to make changes to your home, but not wanting to undertake too much in case you moved house in the near future. It made me wonder whether people move house more often nowadays and whether this makes domestic carbon reduction plans harder to undertake. It would be interesting to know whether our more mobile society has made people less inclined to plan into the future and therefore less inclined to make their homes more energy efficient.

The main activity of the evening was a game about domestic energy where we had to simulate being a family/group of tenants trying to reduce their energy use over a five year period. I think it made everyone aware of the many things one can do to reduce domestic energy consumption, but also the importance of long-term planning to make sure all your actions are well co-ordinated.

Like last time, everyone left in an upbeat mood – ‘fun and thought-provoking’ was how one member described the evening, and another said it had been invaluable sharing ideas with people.

Carbon Conversations – Part 1

Our Carbon Conversations group met for the first time on Friday April 17th. Ben, one of the two facilitators, thought it would be a good idea if we blog about our meetings. Below is his report on our first session.

Ten of us gathered for the first session at PECT. After tea and flapjacks we settled down for two hours of deep and rigorous conversation!

The introductions session raised some important issues, and, it must be said, a general feeling of despondency. How can we tackle this problem, when even we (who are trying to take action) cannot stick to the CO2 reductions we have set ourselves? And why does this burden have to fall on us, our generation, here on planet earth? Why do we have to shoulder the burden of all this?

But from this point on the mood definitely picked up.

We discussed who should take responsibility for tackling climate change. The verdict here seemed to be that as individuals we should do all we can, and then, when our options are exhausted, take it to the next level.

We discussed why we bother to take action on the issue. Most people expressed a concern for the environment and for future generations. Others were turned on by the sheer challenge of it all.

Finally we did a mix and match game, learning about the carbon footprints of everyday things, from a text message to a new Land Rover. This was nothing short of revelatory for certain participants!

Looking ahead, we discussed the latest literature on climate change, and our next session on domestic energy.

The good news was that as we left the door, our spirits were decidedly higher than when we arrived. We may be facing a daunting task, but there’s nothing to beat standing up and facing it head on.

Speaking for myself, while I was pleased, though not entirely surprised, to discover that (according to Ben’s calculations based on a questionnaire the group members filled in before the first session) my carbon footprint is well below the UK average, it is still much higher than what is sustainable. A substantial proportion of my footprint is my share of the footprint of the UK’s infrastructure. So while I still need to take further action myself, it’s also important to do what I can to encourage government and businesses to take action.