The Guardian: Comment is Free

The letter from the managing agent was the last straw – although straw is probably not such a bad thing, as I suspect its carbon footprint is as slight as that of a newborn. Indeed, straw might even be carbon neutral, in which case it shares a newborn’s innocence in contributing to environmental disaster.

Anyway, the letter in question proposed modifications to the lights in common areas of our block of flats. In fact, the plan was uncontroversial; it was the rationale that struck me. Apparently, there are more of these lights than “is acceptable either for our planet or for our electricity bills”. Note the order here: in my mother’s day, it was indecent to throw away money. Now it’s the earth first, and we are mere footsoldiers in the cause of preventing her imminent destruction. If we care about our children, we’re told, we will switch off the lights and huddle under the duvet with only a pair of woolly socks for warmth. If not, well, don’t even ask. Basking in the glow of an incandescent bulb has become the lifestyle equivalent of soaking in a tub of 99 Bollinger. The writer Lionel Shriver says she is considering stockpiling them. If so, let’s hope she’s got blackout blinds to hide her dirty little secret from whistle-blowing neighbours.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ve got nothing against environmentalism as an activity. Why shouldn’t we take our stewardship of the planet seriously? Since the first “blue boxes” arrived on our doorsteps at least 25 years ago in Ottawa, Canada, recycling has become a habit. And I’ll be forever grateful to my ex-boyfriend’s mother, who grew up very poor in Italy’s South Tyrol region. Anna was horrified when I would leave a room without switching off the lights, or go to chuck out old bread. As far as she was concerned, if the crumbs were still clinging together for dear life, it was edible. And while I haven’t lost my lust for hot sourdough, watching Anna happily gnaw on a dry old crust did underscore my own embarrassing profligacy.

Furthermore, I’m astonished by the arrogant scorn of the climate change sceptics. Mostly unencumbered by scientific qualifications, these professional contrarians don’t share my reticence about dismissing reasonably compelling evidence that infinite amounts of pollution probably have an impact on the planet. But even if the sceptics have got it right, so what? I’m unconvinced that the call to think about how we use shared and finite resources deserves the derision meted out by this shrill cabal.

They’ve met their match in the environmentalists, though. Driven by a smug moralism, the green crusaders demand that we behave like Catholics and live like Protestants, first confessing our sins of consumption, and then spending the rest of our days groping our way through the semi-darkness to sit shivering and joyless in a tub of recycled bathwater. If ever there was an excuse for self-righteous table thumping, this is it. Even the estate agents are in on it, for God’s sake. Soon enough we’ll be wrapping up a lump of coal in crumpled newspaper and calling it a Christmas gift. Ho-ho-ho.

Equally questionable are the motives of the green movement’s celebrity endorsers. There’s certainly a debate to be had about whether we should care less what a movie star thinks about anything. But if we presume that celebrity should be good for something other than accumulating wealth and admirers, we must ask; “Why this?” Because for an A-lister who wants to show they’ve still got the common touch or a D-lister desperate for headlines, it’s a lot easier than taking a public position on a thornier issue. After all, you might be “for” the environment but what are you really against? Pollution? Who isn’t? You won’t offend a movie producer or alienate a fan by sipping a fair trade latte behind the wheel of your Prius.

Finally, there’s the simple fact that this orgy of finger wagging is largely misdirected. We all know that big business is the biggest polluter around; the difficult question is how to balance economic imperatives with environmental ones. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has expended considerable political capital defending the right of her country’s auto makers to produce gas-guzzling luxury cars with appalling emissions because she is worried about German jobs – yes, I know: a job won’t help when the apocalypse comes. And the Chinese are demanding the right to live as recklessly as we do – but why can’t they learn from our mistakes? In the meantime, we’re busy squinting at the sides of tins in search of disposal instructions while the government waits at the kerb for the recycling, relieving business of the imperative to reduce packaging. As always, the paradigm thickens.

30 January 2008


If Gordon Brown has his way I’ll soon be forced to choose between my husband and my liberty. As a Canadian resident in the UK, beginning this year I’m required to carry an ID card under the Labour government’s national identity cards scheme. As Brown put it in last week’s prime minister’s questions: “I suggest the whole of the country supports ID cards for foreign nationals.” According to the ID cards website, this means that when I fork out another 500 quid to extend the “temporary leave to remain” I was granted when I married an Englishman, I’ll be “eligible” to apply for an ID card, which I will be compelled to acquire. (Fans of Orwell will find more gobbledygook on the website.)

Of course, I shouldn’t mind carrying an ID card since I’ve got nothing to hide. Or at least, I don’t think I do. I did attend a protest march a while back that became rather raucous outside the US Embassy. Lots of cameras, I seem to recall. Hmm. Perhaps I shouldn’t have gone after all. And there was a lively debate about Iraq at a dinner party recently. A private affair, but “careless talk costs lives”, so who knows?

There’s a certain etiquette to being an expat. You fake gratitude when locals “correct” your accent, you don’t insult your host country and you endure smug comments about your native land from people who’ve never been there. For instance, since moving to the UK, I’ve learned that Canadians are polite, dull and chippy. With no values of our own, apparently we operate in simple, kneejerk reaction to our American neighbours. Thank God somebody told me.

To be fair, a British organisation supplied a truly interesting fact about Canada just 10 days ago. London-based Privacy International reported that Canada boasts some of the strongest privacy protections in the world. By contrast, with CCTV cameras on virtually every lamppost, the UK operates a surveillance culture, offering the weakest privacy protections in the EU. As for the land of the free, the US government intrudes into its own citizens’ private affairs more than that of any other nation in the democratic world.

Since 9/11 and 7/7 there’s been endless commentary about attacks on western values instigated by fanatical mullahs and perpetrated by angry young men. Even when terrorists are locally born, their demonstrated contempt for “our values” makes them “other” by definition. In response, a steady stream of public intellectuals such as Martin Amis have publicly renounced their former liberalism, zealously trumpeting their newfound view that multiculturalism is a mug’s game promulgated by well-meaning but deluded numbskulls. According to Amis et al, the binary truth revealed by the terror attacks is that “we” are actually better than “them”.

The Privacy International findings put a new spin on the values argument, though. They expose Mr Brown’s double-speak in the pages of the Washington Post last July when he called on Americans to join the UK in defending “the ideal of freedom against the terrorist threat.” They also contextualise the way British-born detainees who languished for years without charge in the legal no-man’s land of Guantánamo Bay, were handed off to British authorities feverishly drafting applications for control orders faster than you can say “due process”.

Suddenly, it seems that I and my fellow dull and chippy Canadians are the ones with demonstrably different values. I guess that’s what it feels like to be one of “them”, and if Brown gets his way, soon enough I’ll have the ID card to prove it.

13 January 2008