‘I was green when it was whacky’ – Benjamin Zephaniah’s green dilemmas

How does Benjamin Zephaniah balance a love of his sports car with doing his bit? Caroline Rees investigates the poet’s sacrifices, indulgences and green dilemmas.

green dilemmas
Benjamin Zephaniah green dilemmas: ‘I was green before it became fashionable.’

Which activity gives you the warmest doing-my-bit glow?

I’ve got this little gadget for moving bugs that are bugging you. It’s a pyramid box with a door on the end of a stick. I’m always really pleased after I’ve used it and think, “Most people would have killed you”. Even bugs are part of the eco-system. I’ve just ordered three more for friends. But my biggest ethical, ecological statement is being a vegan.

When did you kick the meat habit? And why?

I was vegetarian at 11 and vegan at 13. First of all, it was just a love of animals. After that, it was a love of females, because I read why females of all species produce milk – for their babies, and to get it we have to take the baby away. I didn’t even know the word vegan at the time. As a kid, somebody offered me ice-cream and I said “No, it’s got animal products in it”. He went, “You’re a vegan!”. So I jumped on him – it sounded a really strange word, like he was calling me a nigger.

Has it ever proved awkward socially?

In Ethiopia, somebody wanted me to drink cow’s blood and eat an animal they’d killed for me. It’s seen as a big insult to refuse but I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t have it”. We had to sit and talk about culture – I explained about weird and wonderful things that people do around the world. In Britain, I went round to one famous TV person’s mansion – I told them to keep the food simple – and they gave me a plate of peanuts while they were eating all this other stuff, with servants waiting.

What has been your biggest sacrifice to the green god?

I used to love soaking in the bath. I know that a shower is much better because baths take up so much water but sometimes I just say, “No, I need to soak”. Maybe every two or three months.

What turned you green?

I just felt it naturally in me, you know? I was green before it became fashionable, when we were called wacky and loony. I wrote “Me Green Poem” in the 1980s about people jumping on the green bandwagon. We wanted people to be more aware, but I was wondering how many were really sincere. The poem ends saying “Blue [as in Tory blue] will turn green/When votes are seen/An yu will get lead-free gasoline”.

Which ‘sin’ would you hide from the eco-police?

Probably letting rip in my sports car. It’s a TR7 hybrid that I built myself. It’s so low to the ground, you appreciate that you’re in a motor. It’s an adrenaline rush when you get that roar. If I put my foot down in my Ford Fusion, my runaround car, you feel like you’re on the sofa. But I don’t drive the TR7 that much now because I’m too busy travelling. I remember meeting families in Switzerland and the car was a last resort for them. So if it’s nearby and I can do it by bike, I do. But shopping on the bike is so difficult.

What energy-saving devices have you installed at home?

My loft is insulated and I’ve got a couple of those green light bulbs. I’ve always wanted solar panels. I don’t want a system that only heats the water; I want one that does everything. I’ve heard about people who sell back electricity to the grid. That’s my ultimate.

What would persuade you to buy a greener car?

My friend has got a Toyota hybrid and it’s amazing. I would have got one but there’s only one place to service it this side of London.

How do you offset your carbon footprint?

I religiously put recyclable stuff in my yellow bin-bag. As a writer, you waste so much paper, so when I’ve used one side I use the other side – just for taking notes. If there’s a recycled version of anything, I’ll get it – unless it’s really rubbish. In Sainsbury’s, there’s a good line of stuff called Remarkable. I’ve got a pencil case and a mouse-mat made of recycled tyres.

What’s in your recycling sack in a typical week?

I don’t produce that much waste on my own, so it’s newspapers and lots of letters from my publishers. We have a bottle bank not far from where I live so I take those on my morning jog. I hate the crunch when they go in.

What do you do with old books and clothes?

Old clothes always go to charity shops, and books the same – or to someone who may be interested. I was trying on some trousers recently at home and realised that half my clothes didn’t fit me any more – and some were brand new. I had so many, I took them round to five different charity shops. I went back into one the other day and a label said, “As worn by Benjamin Zephaniah”. I’ll probably see somebody walking round and they’ll go, “I’ve got your pants on, man!”.

• Originally published in GreenerLiving magazine in February 2007



Peter a journalist with 30 years experience of freelance writing, UK national newspaper and magazine production roles, and business development. In 2007, he developed and launched a mainstream-style green consumer magazine in the UK, called GreenerLiving, as a means of promoting sustainable change ‘within the system’. GreenerLiving closed during the post-crash recession, but Peter went on to become managing editor of the international ethical business title, Ethical Performance. However, Peter felt that the CSR sector has not succeeded in changing corporate priorities anywhere near fast enough, and so I decided to leave the treadmill of corporate employment and debt accumulation to focus on my own projects. Now poorer but a billion million times happier, he writes on political, economic and social issues – usually seriously, but sometimes as satire. He's currently writing Psychopath Economics, a book about the logic of social and economic power, belief systems, and the rise and fall of societies. Peter is convinced that ordinary people must educate themselves and exercise their economic leverage if we are to avoid social and environmental destruction.

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