As a climate campaigner, I have to live sustainably – here's how I did in 2019

The climate column: Being semi-vegan saved me 1.5 tons of carbon for the year, but I still have not managed to produce many of my own vegetables

Emergency warnings issued over raging bushfires in Australia

With the dawn of 2020 – a crunch year for whether or not humanity starts cutting carbon emissions with the ruthlessness necessary to avoid yet more devastating climatic destruction – I would suggest looking to Mahatma Gandhi for our new year’s resolutions. Never was his exhortation for us to “live simply, so that others may simply live” so pertinent.

As an environmental campaigner, Gandhi inspired me in two major ways. My support for the Occupy, anti-fracking and Extinction Rebellion movements has been dependent on their commitment to Gandhi’s principles of non-violent civil disobedience. Gandhi coined the term “satyagraha” to describe this non-violence. He defined satyagraha as, “holding on to truth, hence truth-force. I have also called it love-force or soul-force. In the application of satyagraha, I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion.” It is a value system that is complex and challenging to follow faithfully, which even Gandhi himself failed to live up to frequently and sought atonement for.

But also important to me is Gandhi’s exhortation to campaigners to change our own lives, to be in line with what we wish to see change in the world. While challenging, it is crucial, as it adds moral and spiritual power to the actions that we take on behalf of our causes.

An important foundation for my campaigning is that I seek to be as ecologically responsible as practical in my own life, recognising that perfection is not possible when living in a 21st century consumerist city such as London. To help me remain faithful to this resolution, every year on Gandhi’s birthday (2 October) I measure my ecological and carbon impacts over the previous year. This means I go around the house taking the readings from my electric, gas and water meters and tot up the notes I have kept of the wood I have used, the amount of food I have grown or foraged, the number of flights taken, and so on.

So, how am I getting on?

Overall, 2019 was a good year: my home energy consumption was modestly carbon negative, at minus 0.3 tons, as the excess electricity exported from the solar panels on my roof exceeded the small amount of fossil gas imported for cooking. My fossil gas consumption was a tiny £12 for the year, as I now only use it for cooking. I made progress in using more solar powered heating, with a reduction of locally collected waste wood burned. I used just nine small wheelie-bins of wood – down from 85 bins a decade ago.

But I was a bit gutted that, despite using no mains water for the garden or toilet for the year (I have a rain harvester and composting toilet), my water consumption soared from 26 litres a day last year to 132 litres. The cause was a faulty tap. It is stiff, and visitors accidentally leave it running. I had a plumber in to fix it but they did not do a proper job, and I had not realised that I was still losing so much water through it.

My transport emissions continued to be almost zero. I have never owned a car and I took no flights. I used my fold-up bike instead of taxis to complete my journeys when I took trips by train. The only cab trip I took was to get me home after a hernia operation, which I will forgive myself for.

It was a good year on minimising waste also. I produced just half of a wheelie bin of non-recyclable waste and 1.5 wheelie bins of recyclable waste for the year. Shopping at my farmers market and a local organic cooperative allows me to bring my own bags for most products, so I produce very little packaging waste too.

Being semi-vegan saved me about 1.5 tons of carbon for the year, when compared to meat eating. But while I managed to grow, or forage, about eight months’ worth of fruit and salad leaves, I still have not managed to produce much of my own vegetables, other than a handful of potatoes and tomatoes.

I bought only pre-used clothes and almost no new items for the house. If I do need something, I always look to see if I can get it secondhand. The embedded carbon in the consumer goods that we buy, including cars, usually dwarfs the carbon emitted by our household electricity usage. For example, a new electric or diesel car can cost over 16 tons of carbon to make it, before it is driven even one kilometre – equal to about 21 years of the average household’s electricity emissions.

It may sound difficult, but I have shown it is possible. In 2020, we need to get everybody to adopt similar lifestyles, as far as practical, and as quickly as possible. To get government and society to wake up out of their complacency and do this will take mass non-violent direct action.

By adopting the dual Gandhi resolutions of being the change and non-violent direct actions, we actually have a chance of succeeding. As the devastating Australian bushfires demonstrate, the time for prevarication is long gone. We need action now. It starts with you and me.

Donnachadh McCarthy is an environmental campaigner, writer and eco-auditor. He is the author of ‘The Prostitute State – How Britain’s Democracy has Been Bought

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