(apologies to regular readersâ€¦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 When it ran out again last Thursday week, the usual bewilderment and outrage was quickly superseded by panic: the suppliers said they couldn’t refill until Monday.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 â€” 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 â‚¬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 â€” 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 dictionary.com thought, feckit, sure the subs will pick it up if it’s wrong. My fault so for being wrong and lazy. Sigh.)