Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Saving the Planet One Cuppa at a Time

The best jobs seem to be the ones we stumble into. I met a woman who saw something in me. She met me again because I was helping a friend and eager to fit in and be useful. We had lunch and by the time lunch was over we had mapped out a strategy for a project with me in it. I get to earn my living saving the planet one cup of coffee at a time.

Fuel poverty--the stark reality of having to choose between being warm and eating or paying other bills--is more common in the highlands than even in the rest of Scotland, and higher in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK. The original remit for my position was as social science researcher addressing the issue of fuel poverty in the Highlands. I am, technically, an employee of the local college, seconded to the Environmental Research Institute but physically located at a local community association. Because my degrees did not match the requirements for an MSc student position, I am a post graduate researcher. I will need to present a report at the end of the funding cycle along with the degree-seeking students but I have fewer constraints because I am not pursuing a degree.

I studied hard the strange words in a strange country. The only anthracite I had seen was an exhibit in the Museum of Science and Industry when I was a child. I did not know anyone really used it as a fuel. I swam upstream of the foreign words describing houses and tenancy and the workings of a gas-fired back boiler or the relative efficiency of open or closed anthracite heaters. Now I can cite chapter and verse of aging housing stock, increased distances, higher fuel prices, fewer suppliers to choose from, longer heating season, and lower incomes and less uptake of benefits that characterize this corner of the highlands.

All this was mixed with experience translating complex issues in simple terms, and, having discovered that behavioral changes can account for up to 20% reduction in fuel costs and that there are three legs to fuel poverty and the best way to approach them is one on one relationships in face to face relations, I am now part of a team travelling in pairs across the highlands like a Noah’s ark of energy efficiency talking with strangers about how to make their homes more comfortable and how to take on their fuel providers for lower cost, better service, and more comfortable homes.

Equally important as that knoweldge is the quiet listening in the living rooms we visit. Mrs. M has lost both her son and her anthracite fire and the light has gone out of her life. The framed photo of her deceased son and his dog stare out from above the cold hearth. Two China dogs stand guard on either side of the fireless hearth. We can’t bring back her son or his dog or her anthracite fire, but we can demystify her electric bill and show her how to set her storage heaters. Our armamentarium includes energy efficient light bulbs, a room thermometer, and hard won knowledge of the argot of the energy suppliers. Along the way to warming their houses, we hear the stories of lost sons or husbands or the stories of the quiet heroism of everyday people facing life’s basic challenges.

So my colleague and I sit in Mrs. M’s living room. I listen to Mrs. M’s story about why she has only one hearing aid while Louise calls Scottish Hydro. She starts with the toll free number. On a good day, we get someone on the other end of the line who can navigate the fragmented waters of the departments of the energy provider. One area handles priority services register. No one told her that she could get her bill in large type, she could get her meter moved to where she could read it, and that she would be given a priority for any repairs required.

In fairness to Scottish Hydro, they had included a booklet in the bill. If Mrs. M. could have read it, she might have known that she could get more than she was getting. She could not have known, however, that her financial situation entitled her to a social tariff—a special price for her electricity—with an automatic 20% reduction. That is an important part of the service we provide. We have been given the magic decoder ring with which to unlock the secrets of the electric bill.

Louise inserts the magic decoder ring, and the voice on the other end of the line has no choice but to respond. The first step of the quest is completed. Mrs. M. will get forms sent to her which she will not understand any better than the pamphlet enclosed in her bill (or her bill for that matter) and we’ll be back to work with her and her carer to fill out the forms and listen to her stories.

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11 Comments:

At 9:17 PM, Blogger scorrie said...

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At 9:17 PM, Blogger scorrie said...

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At 9:20 PM, Blogger scorrie said...

I read this with awe that you open doors so often tight shut, and do so with the kindness and consideration which is your hall mark // thanks // scorrie //

 
At 12:11 AM, Anonymous ampiggy said...

Remember Lily Tomlin being the switchboard operator and saying thru her nose, "We don't have to care--we're the phone company"?

 
At 12:14 AM, Anonymous ampiggy said...

This job really is right up your alley--fighting a giant, learning and remembering technical things, getting practical things done, helping regular people and outsiders in big ways, explaining complex things to people, seeing and honoring the stories of people's lives.

 
At 4:12 PM, Anonymous BoilerGirl said...

Sharon - this is an awesome thing for you to do! And it's definitely "you."

 
At 2:56 AM, Blogger Hayden said...

this is good stuff. I'm sure sometimes it wears away at your heart, but it must also be deeply satisfying to know you're helping.

 
At 9:13 AM, Blogger landgirl said...

Thx to AMpiggy, Hayden and boiler girl for your confidence in me. Yes, it sometimes, well, OK, often wears at my heart. But I have been at it long enough now that I have seen the positive results and that makes it easier.

 
At 3:10 PM, Blogger The Curmudgeon said...

The sin and the shame of it is that what you're doing is necessary: Having to 'decode' utility bills for people who are clinging to their independence.

But it sounds like good and useful work... even if it shouldn't be necessary....

 
At 9:39 AM, Blogger landgirl said...

Ah, Curmudgeon, you are the people's champion, aren't you. That is one of the things I like about you. Yup, they shouldn't need a decoder ring but one of the things I learned as a tech writer is that folks get so wrapped up in their own jargon that they lose sight of the fact that it is non-sense to the rest of the world. Now, arguably, they should not get so lost from the people they serve--that is the sad part, all the lostness.

 
At 9:41 AM, Blogger landgirl said...

Ampiggy, I love the reminder about Lily Tomlin and the phone operator. Even after they broke up the monopoly, they didn't get any nicer or more responsive, did they?

 

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