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Interview: Chris Goodall, economist and author

01 September 2010

‘Perhaps we should maintain the churches but worship elsewhere’

I’ve spent much of the last five years writing books. But that doesn’t pay the bills; so I also work as a financial and market analyst, particularly on media — telecommunications, television, press — and also on com­petition economics. I’m an econom­ist by training. I work as a freelance for various companies.

I do numbers, yes. So How to Live a Low-carbon Life was aiming at an audience that doesn’t believe any­thing, and will not support an assertion, until it’s seen the numbers. Awful to say it, but they’re usually male and of a certain age.

Essentially, the book is an en­gineer’s perception of our personal respons­ibility for our carbon footprint, written for people who have a sense that a lot of the little tips that get pushed in magazines or the media don’t really get to the heart of the matter. It’s an attempt to give people the facts about what impact buying a new iPod or solar panels would have.

I’m always happiest when I’m working with numbers. There’s no scope for numbers to lie to you. You can rely on numbers rather than soft words. . . If you’re comfortable with numbers, they are your friends.

The environmental movement in general is too woolly, and some in­dividuals are not prepared to quantify things in order to sort out the highest priorities. In order to make decisions, we do have to use numbers.

The first edition sold unexpectedly well, but then it’s the only book that gives you a complete set of numbers. It’s highly specific to the UK, which is very different to most other coun­tries, but it’s sold very widely overseas because it gives people a framework to think about the issues in their own countries.

The Church of England has thousands of old buildings — it’s all terribly difficult. I’ve done carbon audits for some churches, but I think in general people don’t sense the issues.

The Church of England really needs to think about whether it can main­tain all these 14th-century churches and heat them for two or three hours a week. I talked to a diocesan architect, and he told me that fabric problems are greatly ex­acer­bated by the short cycles of heating, followed by cooling. Per­haps we should main­tain the churches but worship elsewhere.

I was asked by one very successful parish to do an audit, and I said at the end: “There are two things that matter — the church’s heating bill and the annual parish skiing trip to Switzerland.” They could get their electricity sorted out, but the conver-sa­tion ceased when I men­tioned the skiing. I could have talked about saving a bit of money by pulling the plug out when the organ is just on standby, but the trip was responsible for a very large number of tonnes of emissions.

Not flying is the single most im­portant thing people can do. The decision not to fly is also a strong statement about willingness to make other changes. Getting your heating sorted out to use the minimum of gas and electricity is important, too, though it can also be quite difficult.

We like to feel that the Government will manage to sort it out. A few cold winters give us the sense that we can make the changes slowly and pain­lessly, but there’s no avoiding the prob­lem.

We do need to take a personal moral stand. The Government needs pushing by individuals. And we have a responsibility not to be hypocritical — demanding that the Government will do things for us when we are not prepared to do them for ourselves.

Buying less stuff is effective. When you go out to buy something, ask yourself: “Is it necessary?” “How can I buy something which will last me twice as long next time?”

And then diet — changing from meat and dairy-based diets to a more vegetarian and vegan one. Some changes are very small, like avoiding food which is flown here: prawns from Thailand, cherries in March from South Africa. Whole­foods are designed to last a long time and can be shipped here slowly. Bananas — they grow where they’re designed to grow; so they don’t re­quire fertilisers and can be shipped here. Boats are pretty insignificant in terms of carbon emissions.

The UK is making some progress, but nowhere near fast enough. The curve is certainly beginning to go down and in the last two years of the Labour Government, there were some significant changes. The mood of the country is very sympathetic to the idea. There are lots of people who have made a significant difference — they do understand the issues and are perfectly happy with their lifestyle changes.

Although we have the highest number of climate sceptics in the EU — perhaps because of the recent cold winters and the Univer­sity of East Anglia affair — we also have the high­est number of people taking active steps to reduce their carbon emis­sions in the EU. We’re not entirely consistent.

Ed Miliband was the first Secretary of State to really understand the complexity of the issues, and some of that intellectual enthusiasm did get through. Personal self-restraint is not a very comfortable thing, but that’s important, as well as carrots and sticks and new technology — a whole spectrum of things. Chris Huhne is very well versed and knows what the issues are, but the evidence suggests that there are not many MPs in the new Conservative Govern­ment who are hard-line on the need to do anything.

We don’t fly; we don’t have a car any more; we don’t buy very much. My family are very supportive, though it’s been a pain never to go away on holidays together. That’s caused a bit of tension. We have booked a holiday in the south of France this year, but discovered that the train fare will be very expensive, because we didn’t book early enough. My three daugh­ters are all teenagers; so perhaps travelling and buying stuff is still something they need to do.

One of my daughters is training herself to live simply, because she wants to be a theatre director and she knows that, unless she’s very success­ful, she probably won’t be very wealthy. Her decision is highly com­patible with trying to live a Christian lifestyle.

I think we have to be good and do good for its own sake. It sounds very pi, but I worry about people who run their lives in order to create reputa­tions by which they will be re­membered.

I regret not being a scientist. I’ve just finished a book on neuroscience, and wish I had known when I was younger what I know now, aged 54. I would have loved to be in­volved in that in my professional life.

I’ve recently been very impressed by Mark Lynas, who wrote Six Degrees, and who has become a friend. He’s wonderfully rational but very open. It’s very unusual to find an environ­mentalist who is willing to look and relook at things. The ecosystem is so complicated. . .

I did work in the City. It was hor­rible. I had a reasonable career for 15 years, but then I started doing other things. I ran an organic whole­food shop for a while.

I think that British society has been heading in the wrong direction for much of the last quarter of a cen­tury. There’s an excessive emphasis on the material and personal satis­faction as opposed to the wider com­munity interest.

I went to business school and did my MBA in the United States, and there I started going to Quaker Meeting. Gradually, that philosophy began to take over. Most of my mother’s family were Quakers (she isn’t), and I suppose it stayed in the genes. I’m not a good Quaker, but the funda­mental Quaker philosophy is how I would like to run my life. I go to my local parish church occasion­ally, too.

I read non-fiction for pleasure. I find it very difficult to read fiction: I was reading in a “what’s in it for me?” type of way.

Quaker Faith and Practice isn’t a sermon, but it’s an absolutely won­der­­ful commentary proving a won­derful guide to life.

Favourite place apart from home: my allotment. According to my wife, I spend far too much time there, but this year has been making up for a decade of neglect. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than growing better lettuces and having people come up and say: “Gosh, can I have one of these?”

I like the Sermon on the Mount. I would get rid of much of the Old Testament, which portrays God often in unattractive, warlike ways.

I think there’s a lot of cruelty in everyday life — the abuse of the powerless by the powerful.

I don’t pray in the conventional sense any more, but try to replace my lack of prayer with a sense of awe in God and that Spirit all around us, try­ing to be receptive to God in every­thing.

Despair is warranted: inaction is never justified. On balance, I’m probably not hopeful. The effects of climate change come decades after what causes it, and human psycho­logy is incapable of dealing with the delay in that cause and effect. We’re inherently selfish and self-absorbed. You’d have to believe in the possibility of a wholesale change in society and people, and I don’t see that.

If locked in a church, I’d love to spend time with Professor Stanislas Dehaene, professor of experimental cognitive psychology at the Collège de France.

Chris Goodall was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

How to Live a Low-carbon Life is published by Earthscan.

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