Christmas prawns? No thanks

Tips for surviving the festive season with your Christmas spirit and green credentials intact

It’s far too early to start talking about Christmas, but I’m afraid I have no choice. Improbably snow-bound English villages, 'seasonal' recipes for prawns and this year’s must-have gadgets, are cluttering up every advert break. So, as I too have already been out recording ‘Green Christmas’ specials for the TV, and have been doing my research, I thought I would strike back early too.

Christmas, like the average wedding, is becoming more elaborate each year. What started out as a simple trip to church and a big meal now lasts about nine weeks and involves buying more and more every year.

It’s impossible to avoid taking part, because everything to do with the Christmas season, no matter how newly invented, becomes instantly ‘traditional’. Secret santas, Harry Potter films, East Enders, chocolate fountains. All suddenly compulsory as if they had been around forever. And yes, what about those king prawns? Since when were tropical crustaceans a staple part of midwinter cuisine?

Believe it or not, I do love Christmas. It’s the only time of the year where my voicemail and inbox calm down and I can spend a few days eating, drinking and playing board games with my sisters and family without a bulging ‘to do’ list nagging at the back of my mind. At its simplest as a family get-together, Christmas is a joy, but it’s so easy to let things get out of hand during the run-in and be swept away in a consumer frenzy that – needless to say – can have a terrible effect on the planet.

It’s not energy use that soars at Christmas (in fact with us all staying in and drinking egg-nog, the roads are unusually quiet, and sharing the cooking has its energy plus points too) but the quantity of stuff that gets bought, wrapped, cooked and then simply wasted. Each of us receives around £90 worth of unwanted presents each year, and over a third of the food we buy is thrown away uneaten by twelfth night.

So, with my bah-humbug detector turned up to maximum, here are my green ideas for a better Christmas, with more fun, less stress and less waste.

An easy one to start off with: buy nothing this Saturday. Yes, for twenty-four hours take a break from shopping, put that Christmas list aside, take your life back and buy nothing at all in a celebration of non-consumerism.

An ideal day to spend in front of the TV, scorning adverts featuring Jamie Oliver or the Spice Girls, or at the pub with your mates talking rubbish. (I haven’t checked the small print, but I think the rules of Buy Nothing Day may exempt purchases at the bar.)

Next, food. A typical Christmas dinner these days can contain ingredients that have been transported over 30,000 miles, but it’s really easy to cut this down simply by picking local products off the shelf instead of far-flung alternatives: hazels rather than brazil nuts, English beer rather than Australian wine, local ham instead of Indonesian prawns.

The original midwinter festival involved a feast of seasonal produce, embellished with preserved items from earlier in the year, so root vegetables, cabbages, sprouts, dried fruit, nuts, local cheeses and chutneys are all real traditional low-carbon fare.

Don’t get hormone-stuffed, frightened food for your roast, invest in an organic, free-range bird from nearby, and ‘offset’ the extra cost by getting a smaller one. It’ll taste so much better and, with fewer grotty bits, you won’t have to worry about forcing leftovers down your relatives.

Visit your local market for a real bargain on the rest of the meal, compared with overpriced supermarket vegetables. You’ll be supporting your local economy, plus, if it’s unpackaged, you can buy just the amount you need and won’t end up throwing half of it away.

Moving on to presents, as we must. Let’s start by ruling out pointless gadgets that will simply end up in the cupboard after a couple of weeks. No golf ball polishers, no coffee machines that need an endless supply of little plastic cartridges, no choppers, heaters or mixers that can only do one thing - no attic fodder at all.

Instead, get non-material gifts: something useful like tickets to an event, vouchers for meals, downloads or books, or membership of an organisation such as the National Trust or the RSPB.

If you feel obliged to get something that won’t fit in an envelope, use gift-giving as an excuse to introduce your friends and family to green stuff. Basics that everyone needs are best. Get bamboo t-shirts, hemp socks, quality recycled notebooks, local organic foodstuffs or non-polluting shower gel, and make sure they know where to buy replacements when they find they love them and want more.

At the end of the season, make sure everything is recycled. We create three million tonnes of extra waste over the Christmas period and use over 250,000 trees’ worth of wrapping paper, so buying recycled and putting everything from the Christmas tree to your sprout peelings in the recycling box or the compost bin is essential.

So, there’s my very brief seasonal tips and the bah-humbug detector has hardly flinched. I hope this shows that having a ‘perfect’ Christmas doesn’t involve going crazy and consuming everything in sight, and that having a ‘green’ Christmas doesn’t involve shivering around a candle in fingerless gloves for a fortnight. Just don’t forget to shun those prawns!

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage