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Wasting away

Allow me to introduce you to the greenest people I have ever known. They are paragons. If the world had only followed their example we might not now be facing the threat of either drowning in the floodwaters created by global warming or watching fertile land turn into desert. To what extent we’d be enjoying our lives is for you to judge.

They do not own a car and never have. They have never been on an aeroplane. To get where they need to go they use either bus or train. Very occasionally — if they have a particularly heavy suitcase — they might use a taxi, but no more than once or twice a year.

They do not shop in out-of-town supermarkets or buy fancy fruit out of season. They have never tasted a strawberry in January or a kiwi fruit or mange tout at any time of the year. Most of their vegetables are grown in the back garden or their allotment and the food they have to buy comes from local shops.

They have no need for recycling bins because there is virtually nothing to put in them. Indeed, the very notion of recycling is alien to them. The woman uses a shopping bag, so there are no plastic bags to get rid of and she buys her milk in bottles that are washed and returned. Every scrap of potato peeling or old cabbage leaf ends up in the compost heap and there is no kitchen waste because, quite simply, there is no waste. Stale bread is turned into delicious bread pudding and leftover vegetables into a fry-up.

They buy only what they need because they have no fridge. The larder stays cool enough year round and nothing goes rotten. Ever.

They turn off the light if they are not in the room and if they had central heating they would turn that down too. But they don’t. They have a fire in one room and the rest of the house is as cold as charity.

You may be starting to smell a rat by now and, yes, I am cheating a little. This virtuous couple with an ecological footprint smaller than a dormouse’s paw happens to be my mother and father. It is an accurate picture of how they (and I) lived until I was in my teens. You may very well recognise them if, like me, you were born into a relatively poor working class family 50 or 60 years ago. They were probably your parents too.

Sir Nicholas Stern might well have had them in mind as he worked on his review of climate change and its economic consequences, released by the government last week. The question is not whether we can return to such a simple lifestyle. We won’t and we can’t. The question is what sort of changes we can reasonably be expected to make — and, of course, whether there’s much point in worrying about it anyway, given that this nation [the U.K.] produces only 2% of the world’s CO2 emissions.

...So let’s take another look at my parents and see if there is anything we can learn from them. At first sight the answer is: probably not. They did it because they had no choice. They were poor.

They didn’t choose to wear a hair shirt, any more than a great-aunt of mine who lived in rural Somerset chose to have her chest covered in goose fat in the autumn when she was a little girl and to be sewn into a liberty bodice until the weather warmed up again in the spring. Environmentally friendly, maybe, but very smelly.

As soon as the price of washing machines reached a level my father could (just about) afford he bought one for my mother. I don’t recall her feeling even a hint of nostalgia for all those Monday mornings, up to her elbows in green soap suds, trying to dry wet clothes in lashing rain. And as soon as we could afford a fridge we had one of those too.

What did not change was their attitude to waste. And that strikes me as key to this new green debate. My parents regarded waste as a moral issue, one of the seven deadly sins. It was partly a hangover from the war and the rigours of rationing, but only partly. The hardworking “deserving” poor survived by wasting nothing. Then we became consumers.

More at the original article.

Editorial Notes: A fascinating tribute by BBC journalist and broadcaster John Humphrys. One can sense his pride in his parents and his despair at modern consumerism. I'm not sure why Humphrys feels the need to deprecate his own green efforts, or why he poses the issue as a choice between hairshirts and sybaritic wastefulness. With a little common sense, one can lead a satisfying and meaningful life without getting caught up in consumerism. It's healthier, more interesting, less stressed. A lot cheaper too. Does anybody else have accounts of parents or grandparents - and how they somehow survived without an SUV, an entertainment center and shopping trips to Paris? Recommended by Norman Church, who reports similar memories from his childhood. -BA

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