Ten years ago, eco-friendly living would have been talked about in the same context as hippies, sandals and lentils; considered slightly unconventional and on the edges of society; a minority choice not a way of life for the majority.
Nowadays, almost everyone I meet is contemplating some form of environmentally friendly home improvement while most of us can claim some knowledge of solar panels, composting and even geo-thermal heating.
Eco-living has become more than just a trendy buzz word – it is something that all of us are adopting to a greater or lesser extent and, like it or not, I think we all know this has to be the way of the future.
There are obviously varying degrees of ‘eco-living’, ranging from insulating the loft and eating seasonal produce to a complete change of lifestyle, becoming self-sufficient and living completely off-grid. Here in the Ariège and Haute Garonne (Midi-Pyrénées), eco-living mainly means that local people are, in practice, continuing to do what they have been doing forever; living in tune with nature and the seasons and making the most of what the natural world around them has to offer but without destroying it in the process.
The French government has been particularly good at providing grants for people wanting to make their homes more environmentally friendly, including being able to claim back up to 50% of the investment in wood burners and solar panels, which combined with the increasingly prohibitive price of gas, oil and electricity has certainly encouraged many people here to convert to renewable energy. Grants are also available for people wanting to build eco-homes from scratch.
One reason why people from around the world are starting to discover this region is because it has not been spoiled by modernisation. It is easier to live more naturally here and when surrounded by natural beauty, one is more inclined to do so. There is woodland, springs and rivers, a near perfect climate for growing fruit and vegetables, a huge variety of wildlife and spectacular scenery.
This is all something that estate agents can’t put a price on which is why, in my opinion, property is currently under-valued here. Moreover this is a region with mountains and numerous rivers, a perfect recipe for producing hydro-electricity and winters as well as summers are very sunny, thus perfect for solar power.
As far as individual properties are concerned, I have certainly noticed increasing numbers of eco-renovations; in other words, lovely old stone houses that have been beautifully restored using natural materials combined with environmentally friendly products and technology with an emphasis on making them as energy efficient as possible.
Thus, what from the outside may look like a traditional French stone house or barn is in fact, inside, a super efficient, up-to-date and warm home, as comfortable or luxurious as any modern house but with next to no running costs and an almost zero carbon footprint – as well as the added bonus of being full of character and traditional features.
In my opinion, this is key to the success of eco-living. The reason that not everyone can see the benefits is that so many of us are too far removed from the natural environment and there is still the implication that eco = hippy = roughing it, though nowadays there is no reason why an environmentally friendly lifestyle shouldn’t be as comfortable as any other way of living – cheaper too!
Increasing numbers in the valleys and hills of the Ariège are attempting to live entirely off-grid thanks to the mountain springs which provide drinking water, an abundance of land fit for cultivation, woodland and improved technology (more efficient solar panels, cheaper air source heat pumps etc).
These, along with the availability of sheep’s wool for insulation, local timber for construction and communities that encourage smallholding and barter systems, means that the good life really is achievable here, both for those with holiday homes and those making this their permanent home. Eco-living is here to stay and I can think of no better place in the world to do it.