Diary

Prue Leith’s diary: I want to be green, but I’ve got some flights to take first...

And my new eco-home costs more to heat than my old one

18 October 2014

9:00 AM

18 October 2014

9:00 AM

‘Please God, make me good, but not yet.’ I know the feeling. As I get older and more deeply retired, I globe-trot more and my carbon footprint is horrendous. And guilt does not result in abstinence. The brain is persuaded but the flesh is weak. Years ago I chaired Jonathon Porritt’s sustainability organisation, Forum for the Future, and I remember holding a fund-raising dinner for rich Cotswolders and hoping no one would notice my gas-guzzling old car, toasty warm house, and melon with more air-miles than flavour. I’ve tried harder since then, but it’s not easy. A couple of years ago I converted my ancient barn into an eco-friendly house with heat-exchange pump, grey water collection, massive insulation, the lot. The installer promised reduced bills amounting to a payback in 20 years. I’ll be dead by then, I thought, but better do the right thing, and went ahead. First of all it didn’t work and the house was icy as the grave; now it does and it costs more to heat than my old and decidedly un-green one did.

Needing to be reinspired, I went on a visit to Highgrove with Patrick Holden, formerly of the Soil Associaton and now running the Sustainable Food Trust. We walked round the farm with David Wilson, Prince Charles’s trusty farm manager, and I learnt a few unsettling facts: Most factory-farmed day-old chicks have already been dosed with three different antibiotics, and they’ll get several more in their short lives. Three times more antibiotics go into farm animals than into the human race, much of them into healthy animals. Admittedly some of the antibiotics are so toxic they are not used on humans, so perhaps any resistance to them built up in animals can’t affect us, but still… Intensively farmed dairy cows who live on concrete, munching high-energy feed — like children eating junk on a sofa — can produce up to 12 gallons of milk a day. Most only give milk for two or three years, and then it’s goodbye. HRH’s organically fed, kindly treated, grass-grazing cows only give six gallons, but keep going for ten, sometimes 15 years. What cheered me is the news that pasture-fed meat is good for you. Yes, it costs a bit more than that pale, tasteless, tough stuff, but according to recent research it is higher in beneficial fats and antioxidants than factory farmed meat. Besides, if we are ever to give up chemical fertilisers, we’ll need animals to fertilise the land: no animals = more artificial fertiliser. And if we want milk, butter and cream, we need to eat the unproductive bull calves. Thank God: veal chops are my best thing and I want to stop feeling bad about that.


And then, ignoring an online offer to calculate the damage I am personally doing to the planet, we set off to Inle Lake in Myanmar. The lake is still beautiful, the hotels consisting of cabins lost in the greenery, tourists going around in traditional canoes, the temples crumbling gracefully. Once, the lake was full of fishermen because the lake was full of fish. Pollution and overfishing changed that, so now the locals grow tomatoes on picturesque floating islands instead. And the chemical companies send leaflets to the ex-fishermen-turned-smallholders on how to spray their crops with fungicide, pesticide and fertiliser, which all ends up in the lake along with ever more sewage.

Next stop Sicily, which is poor, muddled and often dirty. But we never smelt a drain, the buildings are beautiful, and the people, in contrast to their mainland cousins, are oddly unexcitable and very hospitable. Even more than other Italians, they are obsessed with food, some of which is so good I salivate at the memory: fresh anchovies sauteed with olive oil, garlic and parsley in a backstreet restaurant; oysters the size of my open hand washed down with prosecco from a plastic cup while standing in Syracuse street market (€10 for four oysters and two glasses); and black coffee granita and hot brioche for breakfast at the Villa Sant’Andrea in Taormina Mare, currently my favourite hotel in the world.

Am I the only one whose heart sinks at the words ‘World Heritage Site’? I know it means restoration money, car parks, clean loos and what have you. But sometimes it means the death of what we want to see. Noto’s astonishingly beautiful baroque heart is now scrubbed, restored, sparklingly clean — and dead. Unless you count tourist stalls as life. It is like an opera set without the opera.

Home to autumn, and turning trees. I’m longing for the last flowers to give up the ghost so we can get going in the garden, hacking things back, playing musical chairs with plants, composting and mulching. It liberates the control freak in me.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Prue Leith’s books include Leith’s Cookery Bible, the memoir Relish, and five novels.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
  • beenzrgud

    There’s a lot of chalatans in the renewable/sustainable energy business. It’s actually quite a complicated subject and so is best performed by technical experts rather than those out to make a quick buck.

    • Bonkim

      The renewable businesses are run by failed window salesmen.

      • Terry Field

        Sadly true, and Water Filter sales types.

      • Shenandoah

        And by Leftists or people that want to exploit the people’s ignorance.

        • Bonkim

          Rightists will ruin the earth.

  • BoiledCabbage

    All that sustainable stuff and along comes Ebola….

  • rtj1211

    First principle of design for warmth: if it’s good enough for a Scandinavian winter, it’ll be good enough here. Second principle: if it can cool a house in a Mediterranean summer, it’ll work here.

    Clearly it’s possible to design houses to be energy positive, since vastly differing designs have been showcased on ‘Grand Designs’ which have all earned feed-in tariffs from the grid.

    Third principle: the seller of the ‘eco-heating system’ only gets paid if it works. Contract includes clauses for 50% up front, 50% after 12 months of success, with money back if it doesn’t work. In addition, system guarantee for as many years as it takes to achieve payback plus 20%. If the system working earns the seller a good profit, all parties gain.

    • Tom M

      ……feed-in tarrif……ah yes. Nice name, subsidy is what I call it.

      • Rifleman1853

        Yes, and paid for by people like me who live in rented flats, with no possibility of solar panels, windmills, heat exchange pumps, grey water collection, etc, etc . . .

        • goatmince

          You point at the fact that you do not own your home – still there is much that can be done in that scenario:

          – reduction of electricity bills by using modern lighting technology,
          – fitting a water meter,
          – getting rid of other expensive pre-paid energy meters,
          – sinking a simple brick into your wc-cistern and instantly reducing the biggest waste of water in a domestic environment.
          – making best use of existing grants available to the old-aged to increase energy efficiency of the building envelope and boilers in the homes they occupy.

          This will require no to little effort from your side which is how life works in general. Effort is rewarded, moaning is not.

    • Bonkim

      You are living in a dreamland. Most installers will not be there in five years.

  • artemis in france

    Ms. Leith, aren’t you a bit long in the tooth to still believe in anthropogenic climate change? The world hasn’t warmed at all in the last couple of décades so we need to reexamine all the tosh we’ve been fed by the likes of Gore and other people, so-called scientists, who should know better. Many of them have joined the green gravy-train but there are other ethical scientists, some very brilliant people, who dispute everything the eco-loons say. What you write about farming methods and intensive fish farming is all true. So, eat free-range chickens and eggs, eat lamb, most of which is produced more naturally (especially if it’s from New Zealand) and choose Aberdeen Angus beef in Britain. In France we have the “Label Rouge” products which, while not organic, are produced to a far higher standard, reducing antibiotic use and giving the animals a more natural lifestyle. There are solutions and if you’re not poor – plainly you aren’t – you can live more sustainably without becoming preachy and boring about it.

    • Terry Field

      Your first sentences are simple, unadulterated lies.

      • Shenandoah

        No they’re not. She’s entirely correct. Sorry to burst your bubble, but why are you so invested in it?
        On supposed ‘global warming’ (names are short forms for institutions/universities, and monitoring methods):

        For RSS the warming is NOT significantfor 24 years.
        For RSS: +0.130 +/-0.136 C/decade at the two sigma level from 1990

        For UAH, the warming is NOT significant for 20 years.
        For UAH: 0.143 +/- 0.173 C/decade at the two sigma level from 1994

        For Hadcrut3, the warming is NOT significant for 20 years.
        For Hadcrut3: 0.098 +/- 0.113 C/decade at the two sigma level from 1994

        For Hadcrut4, the warming is NOT significant for 19 years.
        For Hadcrut4: 0.098 +/- 0.111 C/decade at the two sigma level from 1995

        For GISS, the warming is NOT significant for 18 years.
        For GISS: 0.113 +/- 0.122 C/decade at the two sigma level from 1996

        Global warming is a political, scientific and financial scam.

        • dalai guevara

          No, you are wasting too much energy.

          Your ill-conceived attitude towards points scoring in semantics clouds your view as to what is required here.

          You and the US are no Scandinavia. You and the US are wasteful with resources, be it with regards to energy or food. Incidentally that is what this article is about and you still fail to grasp it, in a typical bigoted ‘Denialingpole is my God’ kinda way.

          • Shenandoah

            Look, I’ve had my run-ins with you and you’re a fanatical Leftist, which is about as sensible as being a Santa Claus that doesn’t like snow. You’re probably well over 40 and they’re the worst. You are unteachable and proud of it. Have a nice life and try not to ruin other people’s while you’re at it (as a Leftist, this will be a hard task).

          • dalai guevara

            Energy efficiency isn’t about Leftism, you deluded fool.
            It’s about what remains in your wallet after the fossil fuel man has taken his share. Read Naomi Klein and learn.

          • Shenandoah

            Oh good lord. I am ALL FOR efficiency, which is why I’m ALL FOR nuclear power! And that’s an efficiency that doesn’t vandalize the countryside, ruin the view, kill the bats birds and bees. And that doesn’t cost the Earth. I am now going to read about plastics. Goodnight.

          • dalai guevara

            Now you prove that you are also financially illiterate. This discourse just keeps on giving.

          • Shenandoah

            Fail.

          • dalai guevara

            You mean you fail to comprehend the argument – that’s right, you haven’t got a clue what I just posted there. Nuclear power, hahaha!

          • Terry Field

            Qualifications please?
            Educational standard?
            Where achieved?
            What do you do for work?
            Have you a history of mental illness – yes or no????

          • you_kid

            The first Code 6 Sustainable Home in Britain was delivered by Partner Alan Shingler and Project Architect Martin Rose, in partnership with Kingspan Insulation products to boost both their envirowhacko credentials for show. The ‘Monarch’ loved that and got them in (via Stanhope) to overhaul Regent Street before selling the lot to Norway at a favourable price to the British taxpayer.

        • Terry Field

          Cod science from an ill person. Energy goes into plants, the atmosphere, and the oceans – many very great scientists, institutes and agencies continuously build a picture to clearly show this. The seas have massive heat carrying capacity when compared to the land.
          You are no scientist; you are a mentally ill amateur – a bananahead; no serious person takes notice of this infantile nonsense. You are the one ‘invested’ (stupid inappropriate and clunky use of language) in absurd anti-science nonsens.
          You know nothing.
          You are, quite simply, a fool.
          The last sentence is diagnostic of a psychotic mind.

          • you_kid

            well said!

  • dalai guevara

    The author makes a great point: quality demands effort and in today’s world of effortless profits, it often demands considerable expense.

    But not everywhere – Sicily is listed as one example, of course there are plenty of others. Are there such examples closer to home and if there are not, why not?

    That is precisely what we have lost here: Britain as the hub of industrialisation, post-industrialisation and post-post-industrialisation today never regained the qualities of pre-industrialisation. Food is ‘fabricated’, foodstuffs take over our fridge, not ingredients. This nonsense must end.

    PS: if you have difficulties getting your home up to standard, perhaps it is time to employ a trained professional?

    • Shenandoah

      What a patronizing git! ‘Trained professional’: as if she would employ anyone else!

      It would never occur to your dull mind that perhaps eco looniness doesn’t work because it’s loony and divorced from reality.

      • dalai guevara

        Unadulterated rubbish – I have designed and built more Code 6 Sustainable Homes than you have hats in your cupboard, you swanky poseur.

        • Shenandoah

          With all the flatulent hot air you huff and puff, I’m amazed they haven’t fallen down.

          • dalai guevara

            Hot air rises – it’s the nature of the chimney effect which is a key feature in any Code 6 Sustainable Home. Smokin.

          • Shenandoah

            I bet that Code 6 is Grade A crap. Designed and written by people like you. Not worth the paper it’s written on.

          • dalai guevara

            Place your bets, babe. You are an amateur.

          • Shenandoah

            I am a knower. Something you may aspire to but will never be. : )

          • dalai guevara

            Bored housewives with neither tangible assets nor education are no clients of mine.

          • Shenandoah

            Great. Cut off your own money supply: what do *I* care?

          • dalai guevara

            Get yourself down to the two by four timber merchants to sell you imported Italian Travertine bathrooms and gold-plated taps. Hardly progressive that and rightly so.

          • Shenandoah

            Eh? I would never do anything as gauche as gold-plated taps. You really do move among the slithe and slimery, don’t you?

  • Bonkim

    Despite de-industrialisation decades back Britain is projected to use 50% more energy in the coming decades. Multiply the consumption of energy, water, land and minerals of the 2% population of Britain by the rest of the world’s 7billion + and unless you are really thick can’t fail to come to the conclusion that green or not mankind’s tenure on earth is only a century or two more if not decades. Some of the green technologies such as ground source heating, heat recovery, etc, involve electricity a premium energy form – don’t be conned these give out more carbon emissions overall apart from costing an arm and a leg to install and operate. Many green technologies are pushed by con-artists tapping into government subsidies. 20 years payback is pretty poor in business terms assuming the calculations are correct and that the equipment does not require huge maintenance and repair costs during the period.

  • Terry Field

    I love the way the self satisfied turn a serious subject like climate change and resource depletion into a sort of faux-guilt after dinner chat identifying the tiresome hopelessness of it all
    She opened her garden to the public once and we went along to look-see.
    Oh dear, frosty or what.
    As us miserable outsiders crept around the rather sad garden, a bunch of her chums sipped champagne in her flash kitchen and really did not hide their sneers as we all crept by. Next to her house, a small bed of flowers beckoned so I went over, inadvertently standing next to the Great Woman’s study window. She was at her desk, and looking up, did I receive a smile as she offered recognition of my acceptance of her invitation to visit?
    Did I hell.
    Daggers and flashing eyes.
    Once was more than enough.

  • Feroze Dada

    Prue- we too were travelling on this magical Inle Lake in Burma but what we saw changed our lives. …………The monks at the monastery there are now purifying mineral spring water ( you should taste it! ) bottling and selling it branded as Ko Yin (novice monk) mineral water to make money to feed the 1000 orphaned and abandoned children at the monastery- one bottle feeds one child one meal.
    This true and inspiring story is published in the book “Children of the Revolution” http://www.inletrust.org.uk

Close