All year we’ve been told that the current climate emergency means that we need to say goodbye to business as usual, that we cannot keep living as we currently do if we want the planet to still be habitable beyond the next 10-15 years. In a lot of ways, Christmas is the exact opposite of sustainable living. Christmas is about eating too much, giving presents, sparkly things, buying stuff, spending too much money and general rampant consumerism. It’s also about tradition. It’s a festival dedicated to doing things because that’s how we’ve always done them. This can mean everything from hanging the 20-year old Christmas decorations that your parents bought the first Christmas they were married to boiling up a big pot of Brussel sprouts even though nobody will eat them. Obviously some traditions are more ecologically sound than others. But this Christmas, for the sake of the planet, let’s embrace change and do things differently.
It felt like January would never end but it’s finally drawing to a close and on Friday it will be February. Soon, there will be more light in the sky and green buds appearing everywhere. It’s a new beginning, and there is still time for new year’s resolutions. The resolutions you made in the final days of December might be cracked and broken but you can still make fresh, bright new ones! Resolutions that aren’t about punishing yourself for the excesses of Christmas. Resolutions that don’t involve giving things up.
Here are six resolutions that are designed to add something to your life and make it better. They are all a bit earnest and do-gooder-y but they are definitely better than a juice cleanse.
The Theatre Forum-TheatreNI conference starts today in the beautiful Lyric Theatre in Belfast. The title of the conference is Intersections and there will be discussions on borders, gender equality and arts policy. There’s also a Fun Palaces workshop with Stella Duffy for community groups, after the conference ends on Thursday. I’m a big fan of Fun Palaces – I wrote about it here – and would love to see one in Dublin. You can find the full Conference Programme here.
There’s also a session on climate change, another topic close to my heart. In order to walk the walk, as well as talk the talk the organisers are working to reduce the waste produced by the conference. This means less conference materials, proper dishes used for the catering and instead of a conference bag and printed material, each delegate will get a reusable take-away glass Keep Cup. I love this idea. Waste reduction is so important, particularly plastic which does not decompose for thousands of years. The way we use plastic now – bags, take-away cups, straws, fruit in plastic trays – is learned behaviour, which means that we can unlearn it and start doing things differently. There has been a shift in attitude towards plastic waste this year with things like the Shop & Drop event in April when shoppers were encouraged to leave all their waste behind at the supermarket and the recent EU’s proposal to ban single-use plastic.
It’s not going to be easy – once you start looking, you realise plastic is everywhere – but it’s not impossible. Here are some of the things I’ve been doing to use less plastic this year.
1. I don’t have a Keep Cup because I don’t drink much takeaway coffee, but I do have a fancy glass water bottle. It’s a bit heavier than plastic but I don’t have to worry that chemicals are leaching out of the plastic and into my water! Emboldened by the Refill Project, I’ve often asked staff in bars and restaurants to refill it for me and they’ve always obliged. (These weren’t places on the Refill map, the project just made me feel more comfortable about asking for free water.)
The only place I don’t take it is the airport because I don’t think they’d let me bring glass on the plane. However I have learnt that you are allowed bring empty bottle through security and fill them up at the water fountains on the other side.
2. I switched from hand-wash to solid soap. It instantly cuts down on the amount of plastic coming into the house and ending up in the sea. Bí Urban on Manor Street in Stonybatter do a nice soap which they make using oils discarded in local food production, which is just a little bit Fight Club. It’s a real feel good soap because it’s zero waste and it’s locally made.
3. I started using a bamboo toothbrush. This will make you feel like a bit of a hippy but it’s also a very easy way to reduce plastic and you stop noticing the difference after a few days. (It does feel a bit weird at first!) I got mine in Bí Urban but they are available online as well.
4. I’ve been using more Lush products in their reuseable plastic pots. Some people are very anti-Lush. The strong smell, the bright colours and the overly enthusiastic staff are all too much for them. I have never bought a bath-bomb in my life but I love Lush for their reusable pots. For that it’s worth letting them bombard my senses for a few minutes. They take the pots back off you and reuse them again and again. If you bring back five, you can swap them for a free face mask.
5. I originally started buying stuff from Lush because you can take their solid face-wash and shampoo bars in your hand-luggage when you fly. They also have zero packaging. I love their Angels on Bare Skin face wash and I’ve used Godiva shampoo as well; the jasmine smell is really lovely. I also restarted started using a solid deodorant, I’m not sure how effective it is but it does involve zero plastic!
6. Away from the personal hygiene plastics, there’s the food plastic. I think supermarkets are slowly coming around to the idea that everything doesn’t need to be wrapped in plastic and you can get loose fruit and veg in most shops now. Just because they little plastic bags there, doesn’t mean you have to use them. You can just put six oranges and four apples and a couple of potatoes into your basket! There are also some places like Small Changes in Drumcondra and the Dublin Co-op in The Liberties that are cutting out the plastic used for things like raisins and lentils and pasta. They ask you to bring your own containers and just fill ’em up.
7. Most of these alternatives do cost a bit more than the plastic-wrapped version. I think costs will come down as it becomes more common to ditch plastic, but if you don’t have the extra cash there are still ways to cut down on your plastic just by being generally more aware of what you’re buy. Bring a bag with you, avoid straws and plastic cutlery if you can, avoid things with an excess of plastic like ready meals or salads in giant plastic bowls.
Climate change is a hard topic to get your head around. It’s depressing thing so we avoid thinking about it. It can make you feel powerless. I don’t know much about climate change but I know it’s happening and that we are causing it. And because it’s caused by us, we also have the power to fix it.
We are already seeing the effects of a changing climate in Ireland. Last month we had a major weather event that put the country under lock-down for two days. The Beast from the East was compared to the heavy snowfall of 1982 but just because this has happened before doesn’t mean climate change isn’t to blame. Climate change causes these once in a generation events to happen much more frequently. We’d already had a status red-warning in October 2017 for Storm Ophelia, which started off as a hurricane in the Pacific Ocean. We don’t generally get a lot of hurricane warnings in Ireland. These aren’t the first extreme weather effects in Ireland but they do seem to be becoming more frequent.
A week before Storm Ophelia the Citizen’s Assembly gathered in Malahide to discuss climate change. The topic they had to consider was “How the State Can Make Ireland a Leader in Tackling Climate Change.” This was an extremely ambitious proposition. According to the 2018 Climate Change Performance Index, a report of countries taking action against climate change, Ireland ranked 49 out of 59. It was the worst performing county in Europe, dropping 28 places from the previous year. We have a long way to go before we can hope to be considered a leader in tackling climate change.
All the presentations from the Citizens’ Assembly are available here and here. (Links to the agendas for the two weekends, the recommendations and the presentations slides are here.) It is a wonderful information resource if you want to learn more about climate change and it’s effects. If you are not sure if it’s real or that human activity is to blame, this presentation should convince you otherwise. It’s also demonstrates what the rising temperatures mean for the future.
I like the Citizens’ Assembly. I believe putting a group of non-politicians in a room, educating them on the topic at hand and asking them to consider it from all angles before making their recommendations is a good thing. I admire those who take the time to ask questions and interrogate the issues. I love that it’s all streamed online and available to watch in any part of the world. (Except in areas of rural Ireland where the internet probably wouldn’t cope with streaming video.) But it is a process set up with restrictions, so while I was very optimistic about the kind of ideas that might come out of a Assembly with such an ambitious title, I was disappointed that the recommendations the citizens were asked to vote on were all pretty small, sometimes vague measures.
The Assembly focused on three areas – Energy, Transport and Agriculture. Members voted to accept all the recommendations by a high margin. The lowest vote was the 80% of Members who said they would be willing to pay higher taxes on carbon intensive activities. One hundred percent of the Members recommended that the State should take a leadership role in addressing climate change. The full list of recommendations can be found here. They included things like increasing investment in public transport, reducing food waste and taxing greenhouse gas emissions. They are all small changes but they would be better than nothing. Of course, the government does not have to take on any of the recommendations just because the Citizens’ Assembly says they should.
The two most dangerous myths around climate change are that it’s something that’s going to happen years and years from now and that there’s nothing we can do to stop it. We have seen that it is already happening; we know that it’s a threat now. There are also a lot of things can we can do to stop it. All we need to do is reduce the carbon we are putting into the atmosphere and we can start doing that right now.
There were optimistic presentations at the Citizens’ Assembly about the changes to be made to tackle climate change. Brian Motherway’s presentation describes the low carbon home – a warm, well-insulated house with solar panels to heat the water and where the electricity bill is about €200 a year.
He describes how newly built homes, ones that adhere to building regulations, produce 30% less carbon on average than older homes. It doesn’t cost that much more to achieve this standard when building a home from scratch. However it costs more to add them later, so it’s really important that those regulations are not ignored as we struggle to keep up with the demand for new homes. The government needs to make sure that the regulations are met. The bad habit our politicians have of trying to keep the builders and property developers sweet could adversely affect the amount of carbon we produce in the future. There are lots of examples where playing politics could have a significant effect on our future climate.
We’re told that tackling climate change will mean giving up thing for the intangible, distant benefit of the not making the planet inhabitable. But having a warm, well-insulated house is a good thing. Creating renewable energy jobs in Ireland instead of getting all our carbon heavy fuel from overseas in a good thing. Better public transport is a good thing. Tackling climate change will have positive effects but it will mean making changes. Change is hard, we tend to resist it. However life of earth is going to change whether we like it or not and it’s better to make the change than have the change happen to you.
We can all do our bit to reduce our carbon emissions, but the big changes have to come from government policies and changes to transport and infrastructure. We need to tell the government that this is what we want and we are going to have to be willing to pay for it with our taxes. It has to be done. I want to believe in a kind, empathetic society that is capable of doing things for the greater good, even though it may be difficult and uncomfortable.
Tips for Taking Action from Brian Motherway’s presentation: