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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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