Only old-fashioned thrift can now save our planet

By | April 2, 2006

(apologies to regular readers…I expanded this column from a recent post)

My sister is notoriously thrifty. The subject of her economy is a matter of frequent amusement around the dinner table. A militant attitude towards the repeated boiling of kettles is just one example of her frugal nature. When visiting our house, her lips purse as she notices the careless illumination of temporarily unoccupied rooms.We smile wryly and congratulate ourselves on our generous indulgence of her eccentricities. Hypocritically, we also complain loudly every time the oil runs out. Which it does every six to eight weeks. We thought at one stage that someone was stealing the stuff. Don’t most people order three, maybe four times a year? When it ran out again last Thursday week, the usual bewilderment and outrage was quickly superseded by panic: the suppliers said they couldn’t refill until Monday. A whole weekend without heat? We’d have to move out.Once I’d collected myself, I adopted a wartime bearing. Coping cheerfully in a crisis is a characteristic one likes to imagine one possesses. I put on a jumper — a surprisingly effective move. Extra blankets were rooted out for the children’s cots and they were tightly tucked in rather than casually draped across them. Then I headed up to the local garage and armed myself with smokeless coal, kindling sticks, and a bail of briquettes. For the first time since we moved into the new house a year ago, we lit the fire in the antique cast-iron fireplace I had proudly sourced.

It was so lovely that we snuggled up on the couch and watched telly together. Without the usual passive-aggressive war over the thermostat (I turn it down, he turns it up), it made for an extremely pleasant evening. True, he had to clean up the ashes the next day, but otherwise it was a very positive experience. Which made me think: why hadn’t we been doing this all winter?

The Damascene conversion deepened over the next few days. Coincidentally the Green party conference was taking place in Kilkenny, and it helped lift the veil from my eyes. Recently the government announced the establishment of a national carbon fund. As Trevor Sargent observed, this is simply buying our way out of our Kyoto commitments to the tune of €20m in 2006 alone. Our personal attitudes and that of our governments is: do anything to meet the demand for more energy. The concept of using less energy barely registers. When it does, it is impatiently dismissed.

I laughed at my sister’s tactics, but now I see she’s right to go around switching off lights. The once-admirable quality of thrift has gone the way of polio and outside lavatories. Conservation is something to sneer at now. If I started saving the grease from the frying pan and smearing it on newspapers for use as a firelighter, as my mother did, most people would think I was cracked.

I don’t know how much oil we used in the past 12 months. I have no idea how much we paid per litre, or how much we paid in total. Instead, I’ve been swanning around in T-shirts and complaining that President George Bush won’t do something about the environment. I was complaining about wars for oil, but made no connection between Iraq and the tropical climate in my own house.

People talk a lot about why we got lucky with the Celtic tiger, how long it’ll last and why we need immigrants and tax incentives to keep it going. One thing about the economy is certain: without energy, it’s going nowhere. The unbelievable miracle that geology presented to us in the form of black gold must be the most significant foundation of our advancement. We have plenty of oil, for now, and the likes of BP and Shell spend billions in the hope of extracting more from increasingly inaccessible wells in some pretty hostile locations from the Gulf of Mexico to Siberia.

It’s easy to sit around at dinner parties agreeing that American Republicans are nasty types who want to drill in Alaska. The truth is that none of us is ready to accept the consequences of the “peak oil” theory. The flood of cheap oil is going to top out, then dwindle. Nobody knows exactly when it will happen, but it will certainly be within our lifetimes.

In June 2004, National Geographic explored some of the methods oil companies employ to keep up production. Their inescapable conclusion was that “at least some of the ingenuity and toil that goes into getting oil needs to go toward limiting our thirst for it”. As Alfred Cavallo, an energy consultant in Princeton, New Jersey, observed: “People should be doing something now to reduce oil dependence and not waiting for Mother Nature to slap them in the face.” The bottom line is that instead of looking for more oil, we should be trying to use less.

Whatever the policies of governments may be, it is obvious that nothing will happen until we make the required shift in our mindsets. The odd low-energy light bulb isn’t going to do the trick.

When I gave up full-time employment, I also gave up my car and we began to plan our movements a bit more carefully. The logistical challenges were one thing, but the attitude of our peers was another. We often use public transport — and that’s considered slightly daft. Buses are for use by marginal people such as the elderly and students, not middle-class consumers.

Those same consumers complain bitterly about travel times to Cork by car. Suggest that they take the train, and they’ll just look irritated. But when the wells run dry, they’re going to have to get used to the grubby world of travelling with the proles.

Those same consumers elect politicians who consistently invest billions on roads instead of railways. Victorian is usually a term of abuse when referring to infrastructure, but when it comes to our rail network, Victorian is wishful thinking.

Our rapid economic success has created a sense of entitlement that’s incredibly blind. Conservation is too closely linked in our heads with poverty for us to embrace it positively. Our memories of having little are so recent, we actually think it’s unfair if we have to think about making cutbacks. We can’t seem to make the leap between our entitlement to a constant 21C in all rooms at all times, and the sustainability of that lifestyle. Because we can still remember having to walk or cycle everywhere, we are eager to exercise our right to drive. Is it a coincidence that eating organic fruit is one of the few Green policies that is piously adopted by the well-off? Let’s face it, buying expensive fruit and veg has status. Getting the bus and having one telly in the house has none.

We remain to be convinced that a cheaper lifestyle is also a greener one. Cutting back on oil now means what we have will last longer, and stave off the inevitable crisis. It’s either that or nuclear power. And those of a certain age will remember the hysterical reaction in the 1970s when they tried to build a nuclear power station at Carnsore.

After the oilman left on Monday, I immediately flicked on the heat. Still, I’ve learnt a lesson: being mean is Green.

(note: Pedantic Paddy, who never praises my articles but prefers to identify very small errors in them, has already pointed out to me that “bail of briquettes” should of course be “bale”. When writing I did hesitate but before checking on thought, feckit, sure the subs will pick it up if it’s wrong. My fault so for being wrong and lazy. Sigh.)

14 thoughts on “Only old-fashioned thrift can now save our planet

  1. simon

    Let’s face it, buying expensive fruit and veg has status

    Been saying that all my life.

    Great piece by the way. Don’t mind Paddy as long as the message gets acrosss who cares.

  2. Eamon

    Careful Sarah you could be labelled a MCB on account of your family roots. Good article and fairly timely with all the talk of SUVs. Maybe you could do an article on geo-thermal heating for houses. I think one of the Sweeneys had it installed in a new house and it works really well I am told
    bye from Vietnam

  3. Pete

    You have to order oil every 6 to 8 weeks?????? That’s not normal. Either you keep the house far too warm, or it’s not well insulaated enough, or you have a particularly small oil tank, or the worlds least efficient boiler. Or too much money.

    Talking of boilers, in the UK all new boilers are now legally required to be “condensing”, meaning that they use the waste heat from the boiler flue to pre-heat the water flowing into the boiler. This gives a fuel (and greenhouse gas) saving of about 20%. The boilers are a bit more expensive that the non-condensing ones, but should pay for themselves in savings pretty quickly. When is Ireland going to catch up?

    To be fair to the Irish, we don’t waste energy at even close to the rate of people in some countries. In the US, half the private vehicles sold have engine sizes between 4 and 7 litres. And airconditioning costs more to run than heating.

  4. Sarah Post author

    Pete, you got it right on the first two…

    1. The house is far too warm. It’s quite ridiculous. We do play the thermostat war but I think that episode FINALLY convinced him that we don’t need every room so hot all the time.
    2. Insulation is a definite issue. I’ve got great double lined curtains in the TV room (which I suppose should be called sitting room) and the computer room (which I wanted to pretentiously call the library). The culprits are those fecken french doors in the kitchen/diner. So they are getting curtains. Also guilty are two windows up on the landing, no curtains there yet either.
    Also, there was also a door closing war which I think I have won. Trust me, this winter’s escapapdes will not be repeated.

    btw, in another effort at economy, I examined my mobile bill. I make very few calls now as I am at home. My last O2 bill was 40 euro, but most of this was made up of fixed charges (rental, and flat charges – you know €5 so I can make a hundred texts..but I only make about 20 each month. Anyway I am switching to pre-pay. I worked out that my average calls/text should only cost me €15 on pre-pay. The actual call charges are higher, but there are no fixed charges. I would urge everyone to make sure they are on the right plan.

  5. Pete

    While saving money on mobile bills is good, it’s not helping to save the planet. There’s a difference between economy (conserving money) and efficiency (conserving resources), although the two do often overlap, for example in heating your house.

  6. graham

    Great piece, but I must say that Irish people really are not pulling their weight as far as efficiencies are concerned. The government are partly to blame, because they should have tighter legislation on the energy ratings of new buildings. There are a number of alternative energy sources that are now a realistic option for home owners and many can be fitted to existing houses, not necessarily to completely supply your energy demands, but certainly to reduce your demands on traditional sources which are not renewable. Solar panels and wind generators are far more efficient and cost effective now.

  7. Sarah Post author

    Trust me Graham I am really reformed. (btw I know the mobile thing isn’t a green thing..its just part of general economy drive).
    I think the wind thing would work best for us, I’ve been listening to it howl all winter. Can you get mini-windmills for a house?

  8. Colman

    I don’t think there’s provision for feeding power into the grid from domestic sources here, which is essential for it to make economic sense. Give us a decade and I’m sure we’ll catch up on the civilised world.

  9. John of Dublin

    Great thoughts Sarah and everyone else. I looked at Sustainable Energy Ireland (SEI) website

    Unless I’m misunderstanding, it would seem you can get a grant of up to 3,600 Euros towards fitting of a 12 square metre solar panel system which gives a very high output. Very few strings attached from reading the info. Tempting to look into this more. Mmmmh.

  10. Patricia

    The Government has no creativity, imagination or even basic ideas about sustainable energy for Ireland. Actually, most of the parties don’t despite constant lip-service to the topic.

    It reeks of another case of ‘Ireland will be the eCommerce and IT hub of Europe” promises yada yada yada.
    Trevor Saergent put it very simply on Podge and Rodge the other day

  11. James Daly Kinsale Co Cork

    There as far i can see a lack of information on the exceptability in planning laws for domestic windmills .If the goverment had a all in plan for say four domestic sizes for a complet package for renewable energy with a complet finance (Loan ) which could be paid back over a specific period of time and if the homeowner sold the dwelling before the finance was paid back the outstanding amount could be reimbursed to any extra tax while the amount remained unpaid .We have a problem announcing a drive to insulate and no followup also .Good topic great comments

  12. Cassandra

    Since when was a boom in credit based equity ‘economic success?’

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