10 ways to make a difference

You don't need to be religious to embrace the concept of self-denial. As Lent begins, forget chucking the chocolate or bottling the booze - this year, give something up for all of us. Ed Caesar presents an alternative guide to going without
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The Independent Online


Polythene plastic bags are dangerous to make, take centuries to decompose, and clog drainage systems. Even so, Britons use 8 million plastic carrier bags every year, equivalent to 133 per person. For a little over a month, you need not be one of them.

It's pretty easy to ditch the plastic. Bags-for-life are available from many large chains, but it's just as simple to bring your own bag to the shop. If supermarkets see there is demand for a more responsible attitude to plastic bags, they will be more inclined to take permanent action.

"Landfill sights are now practically full in this country, and plastic has to be shipped all round the world to be dealt with," says The Independent's Green Goddess, Julia Stephenson. "If you use a reusable bag like we used to - everyone used to use string bags - the problem could be alleviated."

"I carry a string bag everywhere and it folds up to nothing. You just have to remember it along with your mobile phone and wallet. Bags-for-life are a good idea, but only if you reuse them. People seem to be taking their bags-for-life, but not bringing them back. They've become another thing that we consume."


In Britain in 2006, you are never more than a few yards away from a set of white earphones and an otherworldly stare. IPods are everywhere. We listen to them on trains, in the gym, and at home. But while we have been giving the world our very own soundtrack, we have forgotten that the world plays a mean tune itself.

"IPods are another distraction," says Tom Hodgkinson, editor of the Idler magazine. "They blot out our misery, but the misery is still there. If you are bored on the tube, bus or commuter train, I would recommend carrying around a copy of Blake's collected poetry."

"When you're listening to an iPod," says the philosopher AC Grayling, "what you're trying to do is shut out the outside world. In big cities like London, you're doing it because it's a very abrasive environment. On commuter trains in Tokyo, everyone falls asleep the moment they get on. It's their only defence against the crowded space.

"But by doing that, you're missing an awful amount. You can be focused on the barrage of noise around you and feel very distracted by it. But if you can look beyond the noise and confusion, you see and hear things that are valuable. You make contact with people around you. If you take your earphones out you can hear that there is wind in the trees and birds in those trees still."


Televisions, computers, and pretty much any electrical appliance can be left on standby. But, while it takes more time and thought to turn the monsters off at the socket, you can benefit your energy bills and the environment, by doing a little light bending. Televisions left on standby waste £88m worth of energy and cause 480,000 tonnes of CO2 to be emitted in Britain every year.

"People are talking about renewable energy sources, or increasing reliance on nuclear energy," says Julia Stephenson. "But we probably wouldn't need all that energy if we were more responsible with everyday appliances. We could probably cut home energy use by 60 per cent without inconvenience. So much energy we use is wasted."

"Leaving your television or mobile phone charger on standby uses up practically as much as having the appliances on. You just have to remember to turn those things off at the socket - once you get into the routine of doing it, it becomes very easy."


This is a Lent promise that will prove tricky for those who live in the countryside. But, if, like the majority of Britons, you're a townie, then try leaving your pride and joy in the garage for a few weeks. The environment would benefit. More importantly, you will gain a different perspective on how you travel to and from work.

"It would," says Julia Stephenson, "be a fantastic thing to do for Lent. Most importantly, someone who had given up using the car wouldn't be using petrol, which is one of the most damaging of resources in use. One just has to think of how much it costs, in every sense, to transport it, of the fact that it is a dwindling resource, and that it produces dangerous carbon emissions.

"This would also be great because doing it for 40 days would mean that someone would get out of the mindset of using the car, and think about other ways of getting around. I gave up the car recently and bought a bike, and it's been fantastic - I haven't missed the car at all. If you're in the country, then maybe instead of giving up the car, you can think of changing the type of fuel you use."


Ubiquitous din-merchants though they are, most of us could not live without our mobiles. But that is not to say we should not try. Why not try to cut down your phone use for Lent, in particular, on conversations you really don't need to make. Instead, save your conversational prowess for those who are physically present. A C Grayling says you'll feel better.

"There are two injuries being done when you take a phone call in the presence of someone else. The first is obvious - you are saying the telephone call is more important than the person you are with. But also, you lose an opportunity to make a real connection with someone. Quite often, the important transactions don't come until after a while, when our conversational modes have aligned. People open up, or relax, or become more confidential.

"If you keep interrupting a conversation with someone who is in your physical space, by talking with someone who isn't, then every time you get off the phone, you've gone back to square one. The possibility of a certain type of warmth and intimacy is lost."


In 1853 Matthew Arnold inveighed against "this sick disease of modern life; with its sick hurry, its divided aims, its head oe'rtaxed, its palsied hearts". A century and a half later, nothing much has changed. We are all, still, in a rush. But do we need to be?

"There are times when it's inevitable that you're going to rush, and that you might as well get a move on with things, because to drag them out seems pointless," says AC Grayling. "But there are times, too, when, if you slow down, it makes it possible for the world around you to make connection with you, as well as you with it.

"It's essentially the difference between walking through the countryside and driving through it. Walking through it, you're going to get much more texture, whereas if you rush through it, it becomes motorside - something entirely different. A great deal of possibility, of new ideas, is lost by rushing. You might rush past the person who might be your one special person."

"Rushing is another way of avoiding yourself and avoiding other people," adds Tom Hodgkinson. "Like missing lunch. Like staring at a screen all day. Think of the White Rabbit. When you deliberately and consciously slow down your walking pace, life suddenly becomes more enjoyable."


Nothing sullies a visit to your inbox so much as a group e-mail with a subject line reading "Hilarious - You've GOT to read this..." For one, you almost certainly don't have to read the derivative, half-baked gag lurking under rows and rows of forwarding. And secondly, the e-mail will have a file the size of the Bayeux Tapestry attached, which is destined to offend your eyeballs and crash your computer. All in all, the hilarious forward conspiracy needs to be stopped. From today, you can do your bit by shooting the buggers on sight.

"My Dad always forwards me those awful jokey e-mails," says Tom Hodgkinson. "I think he is trying to show me that despite being my dad he can still have a laugh. They are never funny, though. I would rather stare out of the window for three minutes than look at a jokey e-mail. By not forwarding them you will be doing your bit to cut down on digital mind-fill, removing cyber-crap."


Bottled water has a pure image that belies the environmental havoc it wreaks. Its plastic use is massive - worldwide, 2.7 million tonnes of plastic are used to bottle water every year - while its toll on landfill sites is becoming increasingly worrying. In the US, 30 million water bottles are thrown away each day. Although some are squeamish about tap water, switching to eau de robinet for Lent can only be a good thing.

Julia Stephenson says: "If you're worried about drinking tap water, you can get a reverse-osmosis filter to fit beneath your sink. It attaches to a tap, and you never have to worry about water again. It will take all the impurities out of the water, such as lead, chlorine, oestrogen, and all the nasties that are pumped into it now."

"The damage to the planet from water bottles is huge. You have things like Fiji Water now, which stylists in magazines are encouraging readers to buy because its supposed to be silicon rich, so its good for your nails and hair. But that bottle has come halfway around the world, in plastic, and that plastic leaches into the water anyway. It's an overall negative effect. Giving up bottled water will also save you money."


Supermarkets are big and getting bigger. Sixty to 70 per cent of all food in the UK passes through four companies - Asda, Sainsbury's, Tesco, and Safeway. Not only are they stifling local businesses, but they are the destination for items of food that have flown hundreds of miles to be on their shelves. Indeed, the average food item travels more than 1,000 miles to get to a supermarket. Give up supermarkets for Lent. It may be inconvenient, but it could change your life.

"It's all about helping little shops," says Julia Stephenson. "There are a dwindling number of small, local shops left, but it's important to try to use them when you can. People who run local shops are likely to give you much more time, as much as anything."

"If you have the choice between local and organic, you should go for local every time. Most organic food in supermarkets seems to have come from Kenya or Peru. It's really the big food miles that you would be giving up for Lent."


Britain's workforce is strangely loath to redeem its full 45 minutes or hour of allotted lunch break, preferring to hunker at the workstation with a sandwich. But are we missing a trick? Brits work the longest hours of any nation in Europe - surely we can afford a few extra minutes for a good meal in the middle of the day?

"An hour in the pub with convivial company is to be looked forward to in the morning and takes the edge off the dreary afternoon," says Tom Hodgkinson, a firm believer in the lunch hour. "Missing lunch is a sign of self-importance, the belief that your work is more important than eating, and self-importance leads to nervous breakdowns, so watch out."

AC Grayling is keen to point out the mental and physical benefits of a leisurely midday caesura. "Any health practitioner will tell you that if you rush to lunch and gobble your food you are doing yourself harm. Having time out is very refreshing, providing you don't drink and eat too much.

"We've forgotten what's meant by 'recreation'. If you have lunch with a friend for an hour, you re-create yourself. That's what recreation means. It means to reinvigorate yourself, to get your powers back up again, and to feed one's mind as well as one's body."