• Respect people, not just the earth

    This is my weekly newspaper column in The National (UAE) published today, in a special Green Issue of the paper.

    The concept of being green is like the concept of being religious: nobody is quite sure exactly what the definition is, but you are either a believer or you’re not.

    from istockphoto

    Once, everything was couched in religious terms; today everything is green. We’ve had religious buildings for centuries; fashionable religious gear has been around for years, and Malaysia’s Proton automaker has an “Islamic” car. Now we have green buildings, green fashion, green cars.

    Like religion, the green movement has its own jargon, one that is part of our day-to-day lexicon. Green vocabulary trips off our tongues with words like renewable, recycling, carbon offsetting, pollution, eco-friendly, organic.

    Being a believer in green doesn’t necessarily mean you will actually do anything about it. Like lazy religionists, it could mean you are apathetic or even agnostic, you think it’s too hard, or you’re a procrastinator. You think you’ll eventually get around to it – when it becomes really urgent. Mainly, you hope you won’t be dying before you actually do something.

    Then there’s guilt. We’re familiar with cultural notions like “Catholic guilt”, but green guilt is rife, too; if you’re not recycling properly, or if you drive a gas-guzzling car, then you probably feel constant twinges of guilt. I admit that I’m a sufferer of this ailment.

    But unlike religion, green belief focuses on material things. It’s about stuff: how much we use, where it comes from, what happens to it afterwards, and what the effect of our consumption and output on the physical world around us is.

    But what if “being green” and being concerned about what we take from the world and what we return to it was a concept that also included the relationships we have with people? What if it encompassed emotions, spirits and feelings?

    After all, if being green is a mindset that is respectful of the environment, then we should be respectful of the people in the environment. No point generating friendships and then throwing them away. Why not build them to be sustainable? No point allowing bad feelings to fester and spiral out of control. Why pollute the human environment with recriminations?

    We could extend “greenness” to be a more holistic concept so that we treat the people around us in ways that are respectful and sustainable. For eco-friendly, read “good tempered”; for carbon offsetting, read “forgiving”; for organic, read “sharing”.

    Of course “green” does have an ethos, a concern for something other than self. In this case the concern is for the environment. And one of its persuasive arguments is to be worried for the legacy we leave our children.

    It also hints at related ideas about other people: that workers should be paid fairly, that their resources should not be abused, that countries should not be exploited, that wars should not be fought nor people killed for oil. These need to be made more explicit, and embody the ideas of sustaining the human environment, not just the physical one. We need to elevate the importance of the human atmosphere as something to be improved, protected and maintained.

    image from triplenetmarcus

    Going green, we normally ask ourselves: how hard is this going to be and how much is it going to cost me?

    To be green in a human environment costs nothing financially. All it takes is a ready supply of smiles, a reserve of tolerance and an abundance of faith in the ultimate goodness of humanity.

    continue reading
  • Environmentalist tries to rise from her armchair

    I’m belatedly publishing this weekly column from The National UAE.

    It is a terrible thing to admit, but I’m going to come clean: although I aspire to be “eco-friendly”, and “green”, I don’t think I’m doing enough about it. And I have a suspicion that I’m not the only one.

    image from

    We are constantly told how important it is to reverse the tide towards climate change, to reduce our carbon footprint and to ensure we don’t ignore inconvenient truths. Aside from the climate change sceptics, everybody worthily agrees that it’s the right thing to do, but how many of us actually do anything about it?

    According to Suzanne Shelton of the Shelton Group, who conducts annual surveys of consumer attitudes towards environmental issues, consumers like me are “armchair environmentalists”. We can see lots of things other people should do, but don’t want to do much ourselves, unless it’s easy and saves money.

    More pertinently for those committed to the cause, people like me who exhibit good intent don’t actually know what the right things to do are, and have little real knowledge – just enough to blag our way through a party.

    Please don’t demonise me: I do make small attempts such as using energy-efficient light bulbs, or reducing the amount of water I heat in the kettle to the amount I need. And I’m not alone in my little efforts. According to Current Cost, a UK company manufacturing real-time displays for monitoring domestic electricity usage: 67 per cent of people in the UK claim to always switch off lights when leaving a room, and 80 per cent always wait for a full load before switching on the dishwasher.

    But, if I dare to admit it, my efforts are less inspired by climate change, and more by the simple straightforward idea of resource efficiency. It seems sensible to avoid wasting electricity by switching off lights, fully loading dishwashers or combining road trips to reduce overall mileage.

    I am also the last of a generation who grew up with the ethos of re-use and repair rather than today’s practice of dispose-and-repurchase. But I’ve been trained out of reuse and repair by the fact that it is often cheaper and much less effort to buy new, along with the fact that having more and newer stuff keeps me “on trend”. Extra disposable income and the need to show off status along with shops bursting with new products are particular culprits of this change in lifestyle.

    I think this is especially sad in places such as the Gulf where until 50 years ago people were exceptionally adept at living in harmony with their environment and were efficient in their use of resources. That sensitivity to surroundings has been lost. It’s understandable that with greater wealth people want to escape from their hard, austere life.

    But how far in the opposite direction has the pendulum swung? Too far, it seems. In October, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) found that the UAE had the world’s highest per-capita environmental footprint for the third year in a row. Perhaps the environmental wisdom that still resides with elders needs to be urgently harnessed before it is gone forever.

    I wonder also if the financial crisis will actually help the climate crisis. It might give us a greater focus on resource efficiency – to save money and repair goods rather than replace them with newer more expensive ones. And in doing so it might catapult us into doing all the right things to maintain better stewardship of our planet. These may not be the reasons climate change activists want to motivate us, but if it achieves the same goals, does it really matter?

    continue reading
  • Is this an eco-epiphany?

    I will be the first to admit that I have much improvement to show in making my living habits more environmentally friendly. Whilst there is a lot of chatter around us about how we all ought to be ‘green’, I have a sneaking suspicion that there is a lot more talk than there is action. I don’t believe I’m the only one who talks green but doesn’t go all out to act it.
    This week we’ve had the plumbers in, and the water feed into the cistern in the loo has been disconnected, so we have to fill it up manually in order to flush. The first few times I tried filling it up from water bottles (running backwards and forwards to the temporary mains in the front garden to fill them up). Ten minutes later, (not to be too graphic about it), the cistern was ready for action. It was a lot of effort to answer nature’s call. Later, we requisitioned a massive watering can for the job, and I could be seen teetering from front garden to bathroom with the filled vessel weighing about a third of my body mass.

    I realised this very obvious fact: it takes a lot of water – clean water – to flush, and if you have to carry it yourself, it’s a helluva lot of effort. What a waste of clean water! For the first time – and I’m being completely honest here – it occurred to me that perhaps those composting, old fashioned kind of loos are something we ought to seriously consider. The effort required really hit home.

    I have been thinking about all this for a while, but this experience made me think a bit harder and may have created a tipping point. As a Muslim, it has occurred to me that the way we live is rather extravagant resource-wise and I ought to be more prudent and sensitive in my relationship with nature. Having recently moved from a city-centre flat to a house with a garden also seems to be helping with this earth-connection. I’ll be asking for gardening tips soon.

    Now, being an urban chick I think it will take me a while to make eco-adjustments, so I’m looking for simple straightforward suggestions for incremental changes that I can make. Any proposals?
    continue reading