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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”