How low can you go? (final page)


In other words, just by setting things to work in the middle of the night – the washing machine, or the oven when I’m baking bread – I can significantly reduce my contribution to national energy use.

“We can do a lot with simple behaviour change,” says Vince. “Like turning off lights and shutting doors when you leave a room. Some people still don’t do that.”

But is behavioural change really simple?

In my experience that is the hard bit.

If I tell Harriet that she has left the lights on, or used too much hot water to wash up, or left doors open, she reacts as if I have poked her in the eye.

It might help if people knew how much they could benefit from change.

This year the average domestic fuel bill reached £1,000 a year for the first time. By reducing consumption to 2,000W per person households could save more than £600 a year.

How does that sound?

But the Swiss inventors of the 2,000W Society say this is not only about reducing consumption.

It’s also imperative that we move towards generating three-quarters of our energy renewably.

Many groups have looked to set up their own renewable installation – and had problems getting permission for, eg, wind turbines that are well documented to need spelling out here.

What else can we do? A community group nearer to me is Transition Belsize, part of the nationwide Transition Town movement preparing for life after cheap oil and amid climate chaos.

One of the members is David Fleming, architect of the Tradeable Energy Quota, an idea which enables the sparing to sell their allocation to people who are more prodigal.

Without a fair system, Fleming believes energy problems will be resolved as they were in the US in the 70s, with shootings in petrol stations.

So until TEQs become official, the best I can do to prepare is to reduce my energy needs to the bare minimum.

Another member of Transition Belsize is Alexis Rowell, eco champion on Camden Council.

Rowell tells me that 890 people looked around a local show house, the Camden Eco Home, in a single weekend in September.

“Proof, if proof were needed, that people want to see how a Victorian property can be refurbished to reduce carbon emissions and energy bills by 80%.”

A former BBC journalist turned full time Lib Dem councillor, Rowell believes that insulation of roof, floor and external walls is key.

“Add in decent double glazing and hey presto, you have an energy efficient cocoon. The lesson is that we have to do the boring stuff, not the eco bling – wind turbines, photovoltaic panels, grey water recycling and ground source heat pumps.

“None of these makes much sense for the individual household, though they may for big organisations.”

I went to see the Camden Eco Home for myself.

On every external wall, builders had put thick insulation on the inside – because the house is in a conservation area, and the appearance can’t be changed.

I couldn’t really see Harriet agreeing to that.

We would have to move the mouldings on the ceiling and several book cases, and we’d lose a hefty chunk of floor space.

What to do? On the way home, I dropped into a hardware shop and bought several yards of insulation for around the doors and windows.

I also bought a brush to fit below the front door, to reduce draughts.

I’m happy to report that the effect was immediately perceptible, and without any high tech measuring device.

After that, I went to a dinner party in a part of London where it seems that everybody drives a 4×4.

I sat next to a woman who listened politely as I described the steps I’d taken towards the 2,000W life.

She wondered if I’d hit the target.

Honestly, I had no idea: the online tool for assessing this is as yet available only in German.

Regardless, she said there was “no point” doing whatever I was doing. I would be better off lobbying the UN, she said, or the government.

Then she changed tack, admitting that climate change and energy issues leave her feeling hopeless.

This was demoralising. For some time now people had received no replies to the emails they sent me, and found my phone was usually turned off to save energy.

Had I lost friends – and for nothing?

No, her point was easy enough to refute. If we do nothing we are really in trouble, whereas we might just make a difference by taking action.

If your car is heading for a cliff and the prospect of falling alarms you, you don’t for that reason say there’s no point applying the break. Far less lobby the government to tell you to apply it.

Like many people, this woman was paralysed by the scale of the problem combined with the urgency.

But we can’t do everything at once.

And the good news is that we don’t need to. The Swiss founders of the 2,000W Society point out that infrastructure needs replacing at a rate of 2% a year anyway, so we can make a great deal of change incrementally.

As for India and China – we don’t need to go round the world to find people who make our task more difficult.

In many cases, they can be found in our own homes.

The person who does most to hold me up in my mission to save the world is my wife, with her crazy hair dryer habit.

But as I looked away from my miserable, paralysed neighbour, I glimpsed my wife talking animatedly, her hair immaculately straight and shiny.

I remembered that, though she may not like the idea of insulating interior walls, or sticking polythene sheets over the windows as a low budget alternative to double glazing, she has to put up with me talking about composting loos, turning the heating down and wagging my finger at her about the lights she leaves on, and sitting in the garden making tea out of rain water, using a pair of damp sticks.

She’s my wife, she uses far too many kilowatts, but I love her and we are in this together.

Anyway, I rather like the way she does her hair.