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The Village Green

Sarah Goodyear investigates a small English town that has become a model of sustainable one-upsmanship.


Everyone knows about keeping up with the Joneses, but Ashton Hayes, a commuter village in western England, may be the first place where keeping up with the Joneses can mean saving money instead of spending it-by keeping down energy costs and consumption.Until recently, Ashton- as the locals call it-was an affluent, sleepy community of just 1,000 people. But last year the village was unexpectedly transformed into a model for grassroots efforts to fight climate change.Aiming to become the first carbon-neutral village in the United Kingdom, Ashton residents have mounted an aggressive campaign that is equal parts competition and collaboration, replacing incandescent bulbs, installing solar panels, planting trees, and boosting their recycling. Given the huge number of variables, it's unlikely that anyone will ever know when (or if) the village will fully attain its goal. But it is already setting an example with a well-stocked website, a promotional video, and even a rap song performed by the local kids.The man responsible for Ashton Hayes's unusual initiative is Garry Charnock, a 53-year-old who has lived there for 25 years. After attending a debate on global warming in 2005, Charnock decided he had to take some kind of action.\n\n\n
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Kids began turning off not just the lights but their Xboxes as well.
This being an English village, he went down to the local pub, the Golden Lion, to conduct an informal focus group."I asked my friends if I was crazy," he says. "They said no." That was all the incentive Charnock needed. And wittingly or not, his ideas on how to mobilize his neighbors drew on principles of mass psychology and marketing.On a January evening in 2006, posters advertising a free glass of English sparkling wine and apple pie attracted some 75 percent of the adult population to a meeting at the village school to launch the "Going Carbon Neutral" campaign. (The recent ability to grow grapes in England is one of the few positive side effects of a warming climate.)But while wine and pie got villagers in the door, what kept them was Charnock's message that their personal conservation efforts could amount to something meaningful.Within a few weeks, village residents had begun to engage in a kind of positive peer pressure, drawing the already close-knit little town even closer as people compared energy-saving techniques over their garden gates. To their parents' surprise, kids began turning off not just the lights but their Xboxes as well. Individual motives may vary-some are more interested in saving money than in saving the world-but clearly the initiative has given Ashton a growing sense of purpose and pride."Working as a community, you don't feel like a crank or an oddball," says Charnock. "The message to government is: People are willing to do things." The government seems to be listening. In April, Ashton Hayes used a $51,000 grant from the British government to hold a conference to teach other communities what it had learned. Space at the event filled up two months in advance.Kate Harrison, a DJ who lives with her partner and grown daughter in a terrace house in Ashton, estimates that her family has cut consumption of electricity by 50 percent and of gas by 15 percent.Transportation remains a big stumbling block: Ashton has no public transit; the nearest grocery store is five miles down the road; and many of the residents commute to jobs in Liverpool and Manchester, some 30 miles away.But many locals have been using bikes for trips around town where they would have used cars before. Some have changed vacation plans, traveling by train to closer destinations rather than popping over to Spain by air."Even if everyone does just one thing it is better than nothing," wrote Harrison in an email. "But you will soon find you want to do more."That's been the case with Barry Cooney, the proprietor of the Golden Lion. "When Garry came to me, he said: ‘Do you want to get on board?'" says Cooney. "Tell the truth, I couldn't really be bothered." But after researchers from the nearby University of Chester showed him how easily his energy bills could be cut, Cooney was hooked, going as far as to turn off the pub's beer coolers at night (once he made sure the quality of the brew would not be affected). "It's pretty easy," he says. "Last month, we saved $600."The once skeptical tavern-keeper is now giving energy-saving tips to others. "Six months down the line, where before it never clicked into your brain, now it does," Cooney says. One day, after watching the local soccer team pull up to the pub in 15 separate cars, he took the coach aside. Now the Ashton Lions carpool.Cooney admits some holdouts come to lift a glass at the bar and grumble. "You still get comments from people saying it's a religion," he says. "But it's not a religion. At the end of the day, someone's got to do something. It's for our grandkids, isn't it?"
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