Living the green life

The Mail on Sunday, September 3 1989

It was not until the notorious Night of Bliss and Organic Excitement was about to run its controversial course that the real truth finally dawned.

Until then, it had all seemed so simple. We would retreat to the rolling hills of North Devon, take refuge in an isolated farmhouse and there, for seven days, we would live like an ecologist’s dream. Our every move would be friendly to the environment. Eating, heating, cleaning, preening, drinking, dressing – none of it would involve anything that could possibly harm the planet or us or anyone else. For a week we were to be the Greenest Family in Britain.

We invited companies who claim to be concerned about the environment to send us their best. A green avalanche hit the farmhouse.

In the kitchen, Sheridan and I had organic green food with pure green herbs, with a green fridge to store it in and green cleaning fluids to clean up afterwards. In the bathroom, we had green toilet rolls made of recycled paper, green soap made of mud dredged from the bottom of the Dead Sea and green shampoo tested without blinding defenceless animals. In the sitting room, the low-radiation television was green. The anti-asthma vacuum cleaner was green. The long-lasting light bulbs were green. The low-energy washing machine was green. The all-natural bed was green. Outside, even the wretched grass was green.

Peggy, who is only ten months old, had bio-degradable, non-disposable, non-chlorine-bleached, green nappies. She also had talc-free green baby powder and green baby oil crushed out of olives, almonds and peanuts. Her four-year-old sister, Robin, had green sweets made with corn malt syrup. When she tripped and grazed her eye, she used an up-dated version of an old folk remedy, soothing the bruise with camomile contained in a green herbal tea-bag. To cheer herself up, she had a green drink – of pink lemonade. Which was confusing, but effective.

In the mornings, we cleaned our teeth with green toothpaste containing a blend of 18 different Indian herbs. It looked like wet clay and smelled like the stuff that footballers rub on their muscles, but it had none of the ammonia, ethanol, formaldahyde, saccharin, sugar, cancer-producing plastics, artificial colouriser or chemical flavouring that inhabit many of the more environmentally-hostile alternatives.

In the afternoons, we went recycling. Shredding old paper to make new green stationery. Laying out the solar charger in the sun to restore the green batteries for Robin’s tape recorder. Pulping old newspapers to turn them into slow-burning green fuel for the fire. Some of the nastier tabloids make particularly fine flames.

In the evenings, we came under attack from mosquitoes. For a moment, we were vulnerable, unable to use conventional insect repellants containing DEET, which leaks through its users’ skin with the risk of blisters, fits, psychosis, coma and even death. Scenting a feast, the mosquitoes massed. But then we opened up with our green insect repellant, made of health-giving vegetable oils. It made us smell like old fruit salad, which was confusing for the mosquitoes, and, therefore, effective.

A green and pleasant lifestyle. It was all so simple. But the truth is that even before the revelations of the long-anticipated Night of Bliss and Organic Excitement, we were beginning to wonder.

Sometimes, it was just a question of whether Green was really any good. Like Peggy’s green nappies, for example. The idea is fine. Disposable nappies are an ecological nightmare: the padding uses up timber at such a rate that Peggy alone can kill off a tree every three months; the padding is also bleached with chlorine which spills dioxin and other vile chemicals into rivers; the plastic wrappings cannot be recycled and are now causing such disposal problems in the United States that some states want to ban them.

The green alternative is a “bio-bottom”: an unbleached pad, produced without pollution, which is slipped inside wool baby pants which are washable and, therefore, cause no disposal problems. The idea is fine, but in practice it does not hold water. At least, it never held Peggy’s for more than half an hour, causing a series of environmental disasters around the farmhouse.

Or there were the green Be-Nice-To-Mice mouse traps, little six-inch tunnels, open at one end and closed at the other, with a kind of trip wire in the middle. You have to put bait at the closed end, then the mouse is supposed to creep in and trip the wire which brings a little door down across the open end, sealing him into the tunnel so that you can take him away and liberate him somewhere far away.

The first problem was that this was really only recycling our rodent. The most we could hope for was that he would go off and infest our neighbour’s house, but more likely he would simply make his way back to his old nest and infest ours again. The second problem occurred when we set up a rodent green consumer test in our farmhouse.

We took two traps, baited one with stone-ground organic whole wheat muesli and the other with ordinary processed cheese. Then we waited. Would the mice join our green lifestyle, or would they remain addicted to additives and preservatives? After seven days, the result was clear. The mice ignored both. End of test. The mice stayed free and unthreatened, except by the farmhouse cats who remained addicted to their daily orgy of violence.

Then there were the Kelp Crunchies, little green snacks made from sea vegetables and supposedly a big hit with various long lost Chinese Emperors. One packet was garlic-flavoured and tasted like dog breath. The other was prawn-flavoured and tasted even worse. Not even the visiting goat, Bandit, would eat them.

With other green goods, the question was not so much whether they worked as whether they were really green at all – or merely old goods recycled with new green labels.

Zanussi’s ‘ecology washing machine’, for example, was originally launched four years ago as a money-saving model because it used less water and, therefore, less electricity. Now, the new ecology label has been stuck on the old machine. But it still comes packaged in masses of unnecessary polystyrene, which is full of CFCs, and contains a free gift of environmentally hostile detergent, a curiously ungreen choice when there are now non-detergent alternatives.

Zanussi’s fridge, which they proudly present as one of their ‘ecology range of products’ is an equally pale green. The company boasts that it contains fewer CFCs, the man-made chemicals which are blamed for the hole in the ozone layer. But the truth is that its cooling system contains just as many CFCs as ever. It is only its insulating foam which has been produced with less.

In the same way, Nitor sent us their range of cleaning fluids, all admirably free of phosphates and formaledhyde, all produced without cruelty to animals. Then they spoilt their jolly green image by sending no less than 19 copies of their glossy colour promotional leaflet – the kind of conspicuous waste that drives environmentalists crazy. We recycled them and made rather blotchy writing paper out of them.

Yet all these little doubts were only so many straws in the wind before we embarked on the now famous Night of Bliss and Organic Excitement.

It was the companies who claim to care about the environment who started it all. They sent us all these curious green products whose sole purpose was to inflict pleasure on us – in an entirely natural, ozone-friendly, additive-free fashion. We had to try them, so we drew up a plan for one concentrated night of green consumption.

We would bathe in orange blossom bath crystals, scent our skin with oils of geranium and lemongrass, swallow a fistful of Guarana capsules (as used by health-seeking Amazonian Indians) and then move to the bedroom. There, we would plug in the ioniser to chase away air pollutants, light up a miniature urn of cedarwood scent to make the air more fragrant, and turn on our Music from Cloud Nine which promised to “renew optimism and stir pleasant positive feelings” in us with its “truly organic sounds”.

Then we would just lounge about for a while, perhaps resting in our Banana Chair, which is designed “to release stress and increase your awareness of your natural posture and balance”, or drinking traditional mead and New Zealand Kiwifruit wine, or massaging each other with our neural easer, which looks like half a coathanger with two wooden balls on the end of it, or simply contemplating the joys of saving the world.

Finally, we could go to bed – which, naturally, would involve insulating the bed with the green anti-electric radiation sheet to protect our brains from interference from electrical wiring in the farmhouse over night. And that was when the planning really had to stop. And the questions had to start.

Just what did any of this have to do with ecology? What kind of energy were we conserving? What precious raw materials were we protecting? How was any of this going to clean up the rivers or the forests? The real truth was that none of this blissful activity was saving anybody’s planet.

And our plans for the Night of Bliss had involved only a fraction of the ‘green’ toys and status symbols that were on offer. We had not even started on the solar-powered Sony walkman (£199); the ancient Chinese exercise balls (£19.50); the hand-painted silk ties (£45 each); the electrical massage tool (£269.90); the electric ‘acupower appliance’ which suggests you can give yourself acupuncture “without the need for needles or a trained specialist” (£99).

We were being offered all these new toys and status symbols as though they were the environment’s friends. But so far from conserving the world’s resources, we were being invited to waste them in hitherto unimagined ways. Instead of helping our fellow man, we were simply helping ourselves to armfuls of self-indulgence. It was all good fun, but it was not green. Just greed.

But that was not the end of our green week. Underneath the avalanche of green commerce, there still lay products which appeared to be genuine attempts to revive a dying planet: the foods produced without poisoning the soil or the consumer; the aids to recycling waste; the genuinely useful goods developed without exploiting animals or wasting rare resources or pumping the area full of plastics and CFCs.

Yet even with the best will in the world, those pure products did not allow our family to live a truly green lifestyle. We were travelling by car, for example. It was diesel-fuelled and, therefore, a little bit green but it would have been much better for the environment to travel by public transport, sharing our resources. However, there was no rural bus or train service to help us.

Our house was fuelled by electricity, produced in power stations which fill the clouds of Europe with acid rain. It would have been much better to use electricity generated by wind, water or solar power. With time and money, we could have adapted our farmhouse, but as it was, we relied on the Central Electricity Generating Board, which still uses no environmentally-friendly source of power.

The truth about the green life is that it is not simple at all, and there is only so much that one family can do.