A little can go a long way

Climate change has forced one English village to change its values and learn from the examples of the past to lower its carbon footprint. Jane Muir reports.

Slides, projected on to the stage of the village hall, show cows and horses grazing the arid desert that is Port Meadow, in Oxford, England. Citrus fruits replace apples and quinces in the community orchard, and a shanty town of refugees overshadows the genteel 1930s houses of Wolvercote village, which is flooded out and evacuated.

This is the projected weather forecast for the year 2049, given by Mark Lynas, Wolvercote’s local climate-change writer and activist, at the launch of the Low Carbon Wolvercote initiative. Turnout is unprecedented — the village hall is packed out and buzzing.

Wolvercote, where I live, has a strong community spirit, with a summer festival, musical talent evenings, art shows, drama groups, a good mix of new and older residents and an active dog-walking contingent. But until now, some older residents, who moved here in the 1940s with young families, have been a little cynical about the new arrivals and the ever-rising house prices.

The “newbies“, with their open-plan, Ikea-furnished, bigger-bathroomed, extra-bedroomed houses – not to mention two cars and frequent holidays abroad — have contrasted dramatically with the post-war style of living: allotment gardens, gas fires (small, domestic room heaters), washing lines, lace curtains and lean-to kitchens.

But with the threat of climate change, something else is happening in the village. Michael Buck, a local artist, springs on to the stage at the inaugural meeting brandishing an old wooden clothes peg. “Washer-driers are wasteful — use these!” he urges. “Turn off the clocks on your microwaves — they use as much power as if you were cooking something. Turn off all your standbys. Replace your light bulbs.”

Well known and popular in the village, he has spent the past year building cob houses, from local materials, which have been used for storytelling venues and meditation evenings. Other CO2-conscious characters are the local vicar, Mark Butcher, who manages to weave environmental issues into his sermon; Jane Carey, an artist who runs workshops creating useful objects from other people’s junk; Christopher Gower, who runs a “recycling surgery”, and Ian Curtis, founder of Climate Xchange Oxfordshire, who urges everyone to plant sunflower seeds in their front gardens to show their support. Meanwhile, the village school is raising money for solar panels, as is the village hall.

The newbies are increasingly looking to the older residents for advice — they want to know how to grow their own fruit and vegetables, how to compost and live with less gas and electricity. People in the village say they are starting to use the local bus service more, or cycling, and are setting up car shares, giving each other rides to town or the supermarket.

Someone at the meeting says it is a bit like the war effort — and it is, in that as well as generating ideas for living more resourcefully and less wastefully, we are all helping each other, having meetings and getting to know each other better.

A few weeks after the meeting, each road has volunteer “waste champions” who are organising rubbish swaps — people bring the stuff they don’t want anymore, take other people’s stuff if a use can be found for it, and the surplus gets taken down to the recycling dump by volunteers. So far, “junk” donated has been anything from a bread maker and a refrigerator, to the usual jumble of old books and clothes, and even a half-eaten jar of the “wrong” kind of peanut butter.

A low-energy light bulb library has been started, and information is being circulated about the “10 most effective ways to reduce CO2”, which includes home insulation, composting, solar panels, fewer trips to the supermarket and — most importantly for some and the hardest for others — cutting down on trips by plane.

Suddenly, that couple with the second home in Barbados is feeling guilty rather than envied, and middle-class life as we know it is changing its values. Scruffy and second-hand is seen as good; brand new and shiny, bad. The house with a light on in every window all the time is “noticed”, and a neighbour calling round and declaring: “Phew, it’s warm in here,” induces discomfort rather than pride.

Just the other day, a gardener friend came round and embarrassed me by pointing out that my pink flowers in a vase may have looked pretty, but had been flown in from Kenya. She went into my garden and created an equally pretty alternative display using only the few flowers and leaves that I had growing there.

The latest meeting in the pub has generated a plan to design and make cloth bags embroidered, or perhaps silk-screened, with a big letter “W” for Wolvercote, to give out free and to donate to local shops as a plastic-bag alternative.

Around the corner from my home, Pat and Alf have lived in the village since they were evacuated here during the Second World War. Their house is one of the few unconverted in the village — even the furniture is 1940s. They have no central heating, an 11-inch TV, an old twin-tub washing machine and a bath-sized bathroom. Not only is the garden given over to vegetable growing but they also have an allotment. They live on a pension and make every possible saving and economy. They are quiet and modest people, with no pretensions, and it is people like these that we now have to approach for advice.

We ask them for advice on how to live simply. How can we change our wasteful behaviour? How can we reverse the selfish, consumerist habits of a lifetime?

In Wolvercote today, there is a kind of community commitment that may sound idealist and naive but that defies cynicism; people are talking to each other and changing their lifestyles — and they are doing it together.

Wolvercote’s carbon footprint might only be a speck relative to the foot-trodden mess of the whole world, and the effect of one village in middle England changing its habits is fairly minuscule, but it is something — and it is something that is generating other good things.

(Some names have been changed.)

Jane Muir is a freelance writer.

Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2007

Homepage photo by Danie VDM

Article photos: Climate-X-Change Oxfordshire