Green Reflections – Clare James

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Greetings, fellow homebodies. Our locked-down lives may sometimes seem bleak, but let’s focus on the chiaro, rather than the oscuro. For ways to beat the winter blues, see the BMJ. My favourite tip? ‘Embrace the . . . green.’ Thanks to a recent gift, the east-facing window side of my kitchen is now a verdant array of potted plants that welcome me in and lift my spirits every morning.

Environmentally, the pandemic hasn’t been all bad, after all. Going out less has made us eco-friendlier, willy-nilly (usually nilly). We’ve hardly travelled, eaten out or visited public venues. We’ve also (despite Amazonian temptations) spent less. Most meetings and learning sessions now take place online. Much of the ‘new normal’ and its beneficial impact should outlive the lockdowns and restrictions, and some changes for the better may turn out to be permanent.

Meanwhile, climate-change deniers seem thinner on the ground and less vociferous than a few years ago. Eco-thinking and green issues are becoming mainstream among media purveyors and legislators, schoolchildren and the twitterati. Across the board, we’re becoming more eco-savvy (‘eco-savvier’?). Advice in profusion (such as Good Energy’s 20 tips) is available to anyone who can go online.

Researching and recognising problems are key. If we use reliable sources — rather than social-media bubbles that propagate fake news and conspiracy theories — we can access true facts at lightning speed. Reputable media, with their high-quality articles and documentary films, report on experts’ findings and supply us with a constant, copious flow of statistics and scientific evidence. TV networks and (especially) David Attenborough and his team are doing their stunning best.

In the UK and worldwide, perhaps the most encouraging news on the environmental front is about renewable sources’ fast-growing share of the energy we generate and use. The UK is among the world’s largest producers of offshore wind power and a leader in the sector, where investments surged in 2020. We may not quite fulfil Boris Johnson’s October 2020 pledge that this country will generate enough electricity from offshore wind to power every UK home within a decade, but we seem to be well on the way.

Piecemeal progress is evident. Consumption of red and processed meats is declining; veganism, vegetarianism and variants of the same are on the rise. Many of us take fewer baths and/or spend less time in the shower, and some of us have turned our central-heating thermostats down a degree or two. With fewer vehicles on the road during the lockdowns, air pollution has at least temporarily decreased. Plastic bags are on the way out, and we’re becoming more aware of environmental hazards from microplastics to greenhouse gases.

Language is evolving to reflect these and other positive trends. ‘Carbon footprint’ is now a familiar concept to many, and online tips on how to reduce our own (such as these 50) abound. Everyday products — tea bags included — are increasingly ‘eco-embedded’ (with improved environmental features, such as biodegradability, that consumers are no longer free to reject). ‘Secondhand’ always sounded . . . well, a bit shabby and inferior; now, charmingly, our charity-shop finds are ‘preloved’ and ‘vintage’ instead. And thrift is less often thought of as being stingy (or ‘cheap’ in the American sense).

Much advice hardly needs repeating. But there are some good ideas we may never have considered. Have you dusted and cleaned the coils at the back of your fridge, or vacuumed your ventilation vents, recently? They’ll run more energy-efficiently if you do. Do you ever use facial wipes? Mine — the contents of the last packet I bought, at least ten years ago — are reused twice daily, over and over again. Freshly laundered and fluffy, they’re perfect for applying lotion and cleaning my dry old face.

We all (or nearly all; certainly me) still have a long way to go. Multiple, ever more alarming environmental crises loom around us. How can we sort and reduce our waste more (much more) and achieve all the other massive changes required for humankind to stop ravaging the planet and reverse at least some of the many harmful trends? Can nature recover from our depredations? Sadly, innumerable animal and plant species have already been lost for ever in the past few decades, and the extinction rate is accelerating.

Let’s try. Finding out what to do is a good start. No one has all the answers, but the ‘Rs’ are guidelines that usefully sum up many of them, We need to reflect on and rethink our habits, lifestyles and consumption; reduceour purchases of non-essentials and food imported from distant lands, and the waste we generate, where possible; refuse to waste natural resources, and reject over-packaged consumer goods; and repair, reuse and repurpose (recycle) as much as we can, from clothing to furniture.

How can we lessen our destructive impact on the natural world, and the climate change we’re causing? Can we learn to live cleaner, greener lives, in harmony with nature, before it is too late? Can we, as individuals, make a difference? Are we capable of creating a ripple effect among our families, friends, neighbours, colleagues and others, by example and spreading the word?

Much more can be done if the local and national politicians we elect make it happen. They too should try harder to get clued up about the environment, what can and must be done, and what other, more successful countries (such as Sweden) are doing. They must impose laws and regulations to ensure recovery and appropriate processing of reusable waste components (such as the metals, plastic and so forth in our vehicles, white goods, electrical appliances and electronic devices) on a much larger scale. They need to provide better and more comprehensive incentives for better home insulation.

Rotting (composting) all waste of organic origin — and using the compost to replenish soils and grow more food, as well as other plants and trees — are other key actions for local and national governments not only to encourage but themselves to take. And by restoring natural habitats for disappearing animals and plants — rewilding areas, however small (including parts of our gardens and parks) — we can at least help to slow down the rate of species extinction.  

Together, all these ‘Rs’ can be summed up in another: admitting responsibility for current damaging trends and tackling the task of doing everything we can — as individuals, as communities of all kinds and sizes, and as nations — to reverse them. Science is on our side, and much hope-inspiring innovation is under way. We might be in the 59th minute of the 12th hour, but if humankind can fill the final unforgiving minute with ‘sixty seconds’ worth of distance run’, we have a last, precious, sporting chance.


 Editor’s note: This is the first of a regular column , ‘Embracing the Green’,from Clare James. Former EFL teacher, now translator and editor, Clare is a voracious reader, traveller and lifelong learner with a keen interest in nature, conservation, biodiversity and green issues generally. She has had the privilege of living in places as diverse as North London and New Delhi, Lahore and Karachi, Serengeti National Park and Nairobi, the Camargue and Stockholm. Now happily settled and enjoying life in Dorset, she is looking forward to travelling again (Sweden at its most glorious, in late May or June?), and socialising more (with fellow Lib Dems, among others).