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Bookmark and ShareAndy Wimbush is nef‘s Communications Assistant and blogmaster.


The world's data servers are having an increasingly large carbon footprint | Image via TreeHugger

After my last post, there was a bit of confusion about the number of carbon ration coupons you’d need to set aside for using a computer at work. Admittedly, the ration book isn’t entirely clear about this – there’s only a certain amount of text that you can squeeze into one of those tiny squares – so I’ll clarify.

On the Energy page of the ration book, there are ten coupons, each labelled “PC use 1/2hr /day”. The “/day” means “per day”, so you need to start by working out your average daily computer use. I sit in front of a screen for at least seven hours a day when I’m in the office, but at the weekends I try to have digital detox. So my average use per day, is about five hours. Which means I need between three and four coupons over the course of a month.

If your computer use doesn’t extend beyond spreadsheets and word processors, you can stop there. But if, like me, your work involves the internet, you’ll need yet more coupons. Why? Because the internet doesn’t just rely on your computer, but also on the huge data servers that fling videos, images and text around the world. In 2006, US data centres used the same amount of power as the whole of the UK does in two months.

Since I run nef‘s blog and manage our website, I probably use the internet for maybe five out of my seven hours at work. So let’s say that’s about four hours a day average. Which means four more coupons.

All in all then, to run my computer and use the internet, I need about seven coupons a month, out of my forty allotted carbon rations.

Perhaps that seems like a lot. It’s certainly a hefty chunk out of my overall ration. Perhaps in a low-carbon economy, where we’re all working a little bit less and operating a bit more locally – so that we wouldn’t necessarily need to be in constant communication with the rest of the world – I could use fewer coupons.

But then again, why should high-tech energy usage be the first to be cut? The beauty of the carbon ration book is that it shows us that sometimes, it’s the more mundane or seemingly low-tech activities that are real climate offenders.

Take flushing the toilet. If you’ve looked at the ration book, you’ll see that water usage gets a full two pages of coupons. Why? Because the whole process of treating water – and especially sewage – emits a lot of carbon dioxide. According to Rob Hopkins at Transition Culture, it’s about  177g of CO2 for every 1,000 litres for normal water usage, with and another 322 g per 1,000 litres for sewage processing.

I rent an old and creaky flat in a probably-Georgian house in South London. We definitely don’t have an eco loo of any description. If I estimate about six flushes a day, that’s a total of 186 flushes a month. With a non-efficient loo, that means I need nine coupons.

We don’t need to dwell too much on the specifics to realise just how ridiculous this is. That’s two more rations than I need to power a computer and use the internet. If it came to the crunch and I had to decide between an elaborate system to dispose of human waste on the one hand, and Borgesian library of information, books, images, films and music, which also doubles as a communications system, on the other, I know which one I’d rather lose.

Staff at Wimpole Hall try out straw bale urinals | Photo via National Trust

The fact is that toilets don’t really need flushes. There, I’ve said it. I’m not a Luddite or a back-to-nature obsessive (I’m defending the internet!), it’s just that I’ve seen systems which work perfectly well with no water, and a tiny fraction of the carbon emissions: compost loos.

Unlike the portaloo toilets you get at festivals and outdoor events, compost loos don’t smell, they’re completely hygienic and you can recycle the waste afterwards as fertiliser. Left for a couple of years in a contained place, human waste becomes completely safe, to be used just like normal manure. All the details on how to build and maintain compost toilets can be found in the brilliant and amusingly written Humanure Handbook, by Joseph Jenkins, which has recently been made available to download as a free PDF.

For the more liquid kind of waste, the process is even simpler. Urine is full of nutrients that plants love, and, if your kidneys are healthy, it’s virtually sterile. The Centre for Alternative Technology actually advises diluting it a bit before pouring it on your veg patch, using one parts urine to ten parts water. And if this is starting to sound a bit too radical for you, you might take comfort in the knowledge that the National Trust – surely a beacon of English respectability and etiquette – has just started providing straw bales for its male gardeners to use as urinals. The bales are then added to the compost heap, which increases its efficiency. In your own garden, you can cut out the middle man and pee right onto the heap. Once again, some enterprising soul has written a book about this. Check out Liquid Gold by Carol Stenfield.

All this should completely eliminate the need for flushing the loo, saving you nine wonderful carbon rations for more interesting things. And your garden (even if it’s just plants on a balcony, like mine) will flourish as a result!

Of course, I can’t rip out my landlord’s loo and stick a compost toilet in there instead. But, I will install a Hippo, a very simple water-saving device that works in any toilet. Stick it in your cistern and save three litres of water per flush. It’ll pay for itself in less than four months. Best of all, it’ll mean I can use the “efficient” water coupons in my ration book, shrinking the number of rations needed from nine to four.

Which leaves all the more rations to spend on the internet…



Bookmark and ShareAndy Wimbush is nef‘s Communications Assistant and blogmaster.

Someone fairly prolific in the radical green movement – I forget who exactly – once said that the refrigerator was the sign of a truly decadent society.

At first, this strikes me as remarkably unfair to the fridge. If anything, the poor old fridge seems like the most thrifty and considerate of kitchen appliances. It stretches out the lifetime of our food, thus cutting down our wastage and preventing us from taking daily trips to the shop. Freezing food is especially useful in this regard. I recently stumbled across a handy list of fifty tips for reducing food waste, and a good proportion of them suggest freezing bits of food that you might otherwise throw away. Day-old bread can be frozen for when you need breadcrumbs. Fresh herbs can be frozen in ice-cubes and then tossed into soups. Even the tops of carrots, peppers and onions can be frozen for creating vegetable stock later on.

But last week, I started using the Ration Me Up Carbon Ration Book, produced by the Ministry of Trying to Do Something About It for nef‘s event, The Bigger Picture: Festival of Interdependence. Running a fridge 24/7 takes up a greedy 15% of my monthly ration: 6 out of 39 coupons. That’s the same as travelling 200 miles on a train. The fridge no longer looks like such a sensible idea.

There is, apparently, a small contingent of very dedicated green activists who’ve cut out their fridge entirely. An alternative solution might be to only use the fridge in the summer, and simply store perishable food outside during the winter.

Zeer pot

A zeer pot in use: sand in the outer pot, food in the middle one. Photo via Practical Action.

More ingenious is the “zeer pot” clay fridge, a very simple technology increasingly being used by people in India and sub-Saharan Africa to preserve food. It consists of a two clay bowls, one inside the other. The gap between the bowls is filled sand and food is put into the inner bowl. The idea is that you then pour water over the sand, the water evapourates slowly and thus cools the food. According to development organisation Practical Action, a zeer pot can extend the shelf-life of vegetables from a matter of days to as much as three or four weeks. All without any electricity. They have an excellent guide to making your own zeer pot, if any of you decide you’d rather spend your carbon rations on watching TV or travelling around.

Of course, the simplest solution is to share the damned thing. A fridge which is empty uses more power than one which is full, so it makes sense to have your fridge stocked with other people’s food. (Apparently, you can even save energy by padding out your fridge with carrier bags full of newspaper!) By sharing my fridge usage with the three other people I live with, I only need to stick one and a half coupons onto my ration book.

The same principle goes for heating, lighting, cooking and buying new stuff. If we’re prepared to share, we can live within our carbon rations without having to sacrifice too many creature comforts.

Bookmark and ShareAndy Wimbush is nef‘s Communications Assistant and blogmaster.

Writer and filmmaker Ann Danylkiw was at The Bigger Picture: Festival of Interdependence on Saturday, camera in hand. In this video, Ann gets the low down about Ration Me Up and the Ministry of Trying to Do Something About It from artist Clare Patey.

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Remember, if you picked up a ration book at The Bigger Picture, you can join me in an attempt at one planet living next month, when I’ll be trying to stick to carbon budget.

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Bookmark and ShareAndy Wimbush is nef‘s Communications Assistant and blogmaster.

Clare Patey, at the Ministry of Trying to Do Something About It

Inside, it’s more or less an empty room. Bare brick walls. No curtains at the windows. A drab patterned rug has been placed in the middle of the floor. And the only furniture to speak of is a kind of desk knocked together from three old suitcases.

Behind the desk stands a woman wearing a vintage blue woollen suit. On her head, is a matching hat,  with the words “RATION ME UP” embroidered just above the brim. This is Clare Patey, an artist whose previous work has included Feast on the Bridge – a sit-down dinner for hundreds of people on London’s Southwark Bridge.

There’s a crowd of us standing in the room now. And Clare has started handing out little books, each one a different colour. I look down at the green one which is now in my hands: Ration Me Up. Carbon Ration Book. One Month.

Flicking through the book, I find coupons for almost every activity in my life: taking a bath, running a fridge, eating vegetables, boiling a kettle, taking a bus, even buying a pair of socks. On the back of the book is a grid of forty squares.

These forty squares, I’m told, represent my carbon ration for one month. That’s based on the knowledge that in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, each person in the world must limit their yearly output of greenhouse gases to 1.15 tonnes of CO₂e. For some people, such as those in developing countries, that will be more than they currently emit, allowing them to raise their material standard of living. But for someone like me in the UK, where the average annual emission is around 11 tonnes of CO₂e, that’s going to mean a fairly hefty carbon detox.

I’m already a vegetarian who doesn’t fly and who cycles to work, but apparently it’ll take even greater levels of dedication to the cause to get me down to one-planet living. Next month I’ll be trying to stay within my carbon ration. If you picked up a ration book at The Bigger Picture on Saturday, you can join me and my much obliging other half, Belinda, on a low carbon adventure here at the nef blog. Post your comments, share your photos and let us know how you get on.

Ed, engrossed in his ration book, while Andrew addresses the crowd.

We may or may not have a high-profile guest quietly joining in too, in bizarre twist of fate blurring one fake Ministry with another genuine one. At a rally last week, nef policy director Andrew Simms managed to press one of these little ration books into the hands of the Rt Hon Ed Miliband MP, otherwise known as the Minister for Energy and Climate Change. It turned out that Ed was so taken by the idea that he was busy mentally totting up his rations and paid precious little attention to Andrew’s speech. So, who knows, maybe Ed’s out there busy trying to work out how many pairs of underpants he can afford this month, just like the rest of us.

Ration Me Up is part of a series of new work around art and the new economics, commissioned by nef, supported by Platform and funded by Arts Council England.


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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.