Save the world in three minutes a day
Juliette Jowit, environment editor
Sunday October 17, 2004
The Observer
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It will come as a relief to the millions of Britons who worry about the environment but aren’t quite sure what to do about it – it is time take off the hair shirt and stop fretting that it’s all a little overwhelming.

A new book offers a hopeful ‘three minute-a-day action plan to save the world’. Aimed at busy people, or the simply lazy, The Armchair Environmentalist is based on the theory ‘if we all do a little, it adds up to a lot’.

As a mother who runs her own publishing company in America, the author, Karen Christensen, admits even she is not virtuous all the time. But she wants to encourage more people to realise they don’t have to live in wigwams and eat organic mung beans to make a difference.

Christensen’s approach is more about changing light bulbs, buying in bulk and swapping the oven for a microwave to save energy.

A few statistics back up the cumulative effect theory. If every home in the UK put in two low-energy light bulbs the electricity saved would power all the street lights in the country. And if everyone pumped up their car tyres properly it would save bil lions of litres of fuel and millions of tyres from the scrap heap every year.

‘Everybody knows that there are changes we can make at home to help protect the earth, but many of them seem too complicated or daunting – or plain trivial,’ writes Christensen. ‘Like you, I want maximum impact for the time I put in and wanted to be able to do a little here and there.’

The idea is backed by Jonathon Porritt, the government’s chief environmental adviser. He argues that as dire warnings about the future appear every week – last week there were warnings of another ‘unprecedented and unexplained’ rise in carbon dioxide – a ‘can do’ attitude is becoming more important.

‘The necessary has to be made desirable before any kind of transformation becomes possible,’ he says in a forward to the report.
The book, published on 28 October, offers ideas from the minuscule – put down doormats to reduce the need to clean your house – to the more sacrificial – set the thermostat at no more than 16C.
Some claim to save money, such as low-energy bulbs which last eight times longer than standard bulbs, and greener cars, which save fuel. Others are more expensive, such as buying certified organic produce, including corn, bananas and apples.

Even the most entrenched couch potatoes will find something to celebrate here: smoothing out washed clothes or buying fabrics that don’t crease saves electricity ironing, while washing-up uses more water than a fully loaded dishwasher on an economy cycle.

And the book itself? Well, it is one of the first in Britain printed on 100 per cent recycled paper.

Some environmentalists believe the ‘sackcloth and ashes’ asceticism of the early 1990s turned off a lot of potential supporters and diverted attention from more effective ways of helping the planet.
‘The green movement was delayed by politicians dumping responsibility on individuals, that distracted people from collective political action,’ said Spencer Fitz-Gibbon, the Green party spokesman on climate change.

In the late Nineties the debate changed to one which majored on the financial benefits of using less energy and making less waste. Now the idea has been repackaged more completely for a fast-moving consumer society.

It is an evolution applauded by Kathy Sykes, professor of public engagement in science at Bristol University. ‘There isn’t much evidence that if people just understand the issue and know about the issue then they’ll change their behaviour,’ said Sykes. ‘Actually getting people to do the actions and change behaviour: that makes people care a bit more.’

There are some who fear that ‘environmentalism-lite’ risks creating complacency by underplaying the severity of climate change, toxic pollution and waste mountains.

To this end the book does contain suggestions far beyond the three-minute comfort zone, including turning your garden organic or moving to a smaller house. ‘There is a time to get out of our armchairs,’ said Christensen.

And if none of the above appeals, number seven in Christensen’s top 10 from the book is: ‘Have more sex. It’s a natural, free, low-tech form of recreation and a good form of exercise.’

A word of warning though: ‘If you use a condom make sure you put it in the dustbin, not down the loo.’

How to do your bit

karen christensen's corona typewriter on t s eliot's desk

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