Ever heard of a stand-up economist? I hadn’t either, until I was invited to see Yoram Bauman’s gig here in London last Friday night. Dubbed “the world’s first and only stand up economist”, he began the night with delightful puns to tickle the hidden economist within anyone (think along the lines of “my father said I was crazy and there is no demand for it, but that’s ok because I’m a supply-side performer”).
laughing audience image by hebedesign
As if a stand-up economist isn’t a surprise enough in itself, there were more surprises throughout the night. Around mid-gig, the tone got rather more serious and Bauman, who is also an environmental economist, began speaking about climate change.
I’ve been to quite a few (non-economics) comedy gigs in my time, and there is always a level of nervous laughter. In fact, that’s one reason why comedians engage with the audience in the beginning of a show, to create the nervous energy with people who are afraid of being put on display, as nerves and laughter go hand in hand. But when Bauman started talking about climate change it was a different type of nervousness that seemed to quietly fill the room.
Although he presented some optimistic graphs, for example showing that while using a ‘revenue-neutral carbon tax’ approach British Columbia’s GDP per capita had a better growth rate than the rest of Canada (good news for those who don’t want climate change mitigation to be at the expense of economic growth, but this deserves a whole different discussion), most of the facts presented were decidedly depressing. We have a real problem to face up to.
In the Social Brain Centre’s recent report A new agenda on climate change: Facing up to stealth denial and winding down on fossil fuels, one of the findings is that people don’t talk much about climate change. In fact, only 60% of a representative sample of Britons has ever had a conversation about the issue, and of those who do talk about it the majority (71%) spend less than 10 minutes on it.
Perhaps sneaking climate change into a comedy routine is one approach to starting a longer discussion. After all, Bauman had a captive audience, and with the promise of more jokes after the climate change part was done, had an incentive to stay and listen. Worryingly, Bauman admitted that after one particular gig, someone from the audience remarked that “the climate change part was the funniest bit”. Not suggesting that the rest of the material was unfunny, but illustrating that perhaps the concept of climate change is so uncomfortable that we dismiss it or disavow it, preferring instead to think that the catastrophe is being overblown to comedic proportions.
So while climate change is no laughing matter, balancing the gravity of the issue with a certain levity – just enough to make the concept a little less uncomfortable – may help to prevent disavowal and encourage longer conversations about the topic. The stand-up economist might just be on to something.
Adam Lent’s rallying cry for creativity met with strong tacit approval from the echo-chamber, and rightly so. What’s not to like? Creativity is a feel-good concept, tapping into to the value of human freedom, with pleasant undertones of productivity, individuality, and style.
No sane person would therefore come out against creativity consciously and explicitly, which is why Adam suggests many vested interests in big business and government are clearly anti-creative in practice, but won’t admit to it in those terms. But what if the fact that creativity is inherently unobjectionable poses a deeper problem for the RSA’s emerging world view?
Creativity is hollow and needs filling out:
I am reminded of Voltaire’s famous reply to the complaint that “Life is hard” – “Compared to what?”. Creativity doesn’t really make sense as a stand alone concept, and Voltaire’s response would be almost as stinging as a response to “Creativity is good”. Compared to being uncreative might is the obvious answer, but that just kicks the can further down the road.
Sooner or later you have to hook up a particular idea of creativity to some broader patterns of values, ideology and human nature which are much more open to dispute, and any inspiring organisational strategy will be explicit about those links.
Adam has begun to do that in terms of the concentrations of power and vested interests that we believe need to be challenged, but I think it’s important to keep in mind from the outset that we need to do more of that because ‘creativity’, as such, is hollow.
To make sense of this claim, consider the related point that sometimes you can have too much of a good thing(chocolate, wine, holidays…). You can sense the hollow nature of creativity when you ask whether there are optimal levels of creativity, and what the personal and social maturation of creativity would look like.
Adam is right that a lack of creativity can be stifling, but it is no less true that too much creativity could be chaotic, manic, even mad. The point is that the question about where you draw that line does not lend itself to a creative answer, but to an inherently political one, which is why we need to be clearer and more open about what promoting ‘the power to create’ entails.
Before we promote the growth of creativity let’s reflect on the fact that most forms of growth have natural limits.
Most forms of growth have natural limits. To give a related example, the most impressive critique of indefinite economic growth for its own sake is not that it is ecologically hazardous to a self-defeating extent(which it is) nor that it brings sharply diminishing if not vanishing or negative returns to wellbeing (the jury is out on which of those is closest to the truth) but that it’s simply absurd – measuring societal progress through indefinite economic growth makes no sense and has no meaning at a human scale, as the Skidelskies argue in their wonderful book: “How Much is Enough?”.
Just as we need to qualify the need for economic growth with a conception of economic maturity (a concept I picked up from Andrew Simms) we also need some idea of how much creativity is good for us and society. Otherwise this idea of everybody, everywhere, all the time, being as creative as possible, sounds absurd (not to mention exhausting) and will begin to feel like a panacea that is literally incredible.
Moreover, if we don’t clarify the scope and texture of creativity at the outset, RSA calls to ‘unleash’ the power to create will have a cheerleading groupthink quality to them, which are in danger of sounding ever so slightly creepy, and that is definitely not what Adam is advocating, nor what the RSA is or should be about.
(As a provocative comparison, consider Susan Cain’s celebrated TED talk on the value of introversion, where she recalls, with bemused horror, being at a summer camp where all the kids were forced to be more extroverted by being brought together to sing/chant: “Let’s all be rowdy!”).
Creativity: means, end, or a bit of both?
So when Adam says (in jest, I know!) “expect us all to be taking to the barricades yelling “Liberté! Fraternité! Egalité! Créativité!” I see an instructive category mistake.
Liberty, equality and fraternity (for which we should probably read ‘solidarity’ in the early 21st century) are all contested ideas, but most forms of these concepts are typically viewed as ends in themselves(often somewhat incommensurate with each other) while creativity is surely more like a means towards the ends we care about, in which case the question remains: which ends?
As a non-partisan charity, does the RSA say we are passionate about being creative but ambivalent, indifferent or non-aligned on what the creativity leads to? Surely not.
However fuzzy, we do care about some form of the social good. Adam is right that creativity is in our DNA, but so is our focus on ‘undertakings for the publick good’ (wonderful spelling from our original eighteenth century enlightenment mission).
But here’s the thing: computer hackers, unscrupulous marketeers, dodgy accountants and genocidal war criminals are notoriously creative, and we don’t want to be complicit in all those forms of creative activity. So if we are for creativity, what kinds of creativity are we against? Are there limits to how creative we should want people or society to be?
What are the nature of those limits in terms of human rights, ecological limits, levels of inequality and so forth – how does supporting ‘the power to create’ help us to draw those lines?
(There’s a separate argument to be made on how the emerging worldview links with cultural theory – at present it reads like a largely individualist view that is vulnerable to solidaristic and authoritarian critiques, i.e. it’s not ‘clumsy’ enough..).
computer hackers, unscrupulous marketeers, dodgy accountants and genocidal war criminals are notoriously creative, and we don’t want to be complicit in all those forms of creative activity.
The pragmatic response is to say the RSA focus is on creativity and we will lead the way by showing how it can be used for the social good. That’s fine, but it makes us sound more like the honest broker rather than the campaigning organising we are striving to be. To get to that transformative change, we need not so much to define creativity as to give it more definition.
Creativity: Individualism by stealth?
Adam refers to creativity in terms of “an act that is unique to an individual’s own capacities or vision (and…) the unique, pro-active and self-determined nature of the activity”. The argument is on relatively strong terrain when he argues, with Mill, that the quintessence of what it is to be a ‘free’ human being is to be ‘creative’, and it is useful to juxtapose that emancipating vision with the spread of mindless and passive consumption under late(st) capitalism. I also like the general idea of people being less passive and reactive and more pro-active and creative.
At the same time, at present ‘the power to create’ has an implicit individualist and libertarian emphasis, and I would like to see that made more explicit, if only because there are other readings of recent world events that don’t chime with this view.
I am not at all sure modern history appears to be unfolding towards creative economies full of self-generated value, because I think that is only one of many current trends, and by no means obviously the dominant one.
More generally, there are many counter-trends to the rise of the creative individual: Where is the occupy movement? Where is nationalism? Where is the Arab spring? There are also plenty of examples of Governments overreaching – what does the power to create tell us about whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor?
What if social media is not just used to enhance creativity but also to support Government oppression, as Mozorov and others have argued it does? There are also many (majority of the British public) who want to see more Government, not less, for instance in their support for rail and energy nationalisation.
while some forms of creativity may be good for us, the key driver of wellbeing is the quality of our relationships
Finally, while some forms of creativity may be good for us, the key driver of wellbeing is the quality of our relationships, and for the last four years we have been arguing that the model of the self-directed individual is partial at best. If humans are, as I believe them to be, fundamentally social (see Transforming Behaviour Change, part one) there is still a place for individual initiative but the power in ‘power to create’ has to be grounded in relationships, and the purpose of creativity has to be about enhancing the range of quality of those relationships.
The call for more creativity is good, sound, and timely. But before that becomes our defining rallying cry, let’s clarify what kinds of creativity we want, and how much creativity we need, for the deeper and more political ends that we really care about.
If there are two things I know, they’re that a) time goes by too quickly and b) everyone loves a list. So with this in mind and with 2013 drawing to a close, we thought it would be a good time to reflect on the work that we’ve done in the Social Brain Centre here at the RSA. Below we offer you the top 10 “best of” the Social Brain blogs, in chronological order. Enjoy!
In The Key to Eternal Happiness, Nathalie discusses the difficulty of sticking to goals and offers a way to reposition the want/should conflict (what I should do isn’t always what I want to do now) to understand how we can help ourselves to be both happy now and happy later.
Divided Brain, Divided World introduces a publication of the same name, which is a Q&A between Jonathan and Dr Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary, and a series of reflections from other parties. McGilchrist’s work is the subject of one of our much-loved RSAAnimates.
In What older people want: Sex, Skydiving and Tattoos, our late colleague Emma announced the launch of a report in association with Hanover Housing Association, provides key findings, and offers some quotes illustrating the divergent views of ageing.
We argue in Two types of climate radicalism that to live with climate change we must either accept radical change or we must radically ignore or deny the concept. This foreshadowed the in-depth report, A new Agenda on Climate Change, published this week.
The post When was the last time you went on a Saving Spree? describes some innovative new tools to help people save more money and improve their personal finances.
Taking Spirituality Seriously talks us through the ‘so what?’, and ‘why bother?’ questions of Spirituality to introduce our current programme of work, including a series of workshops and public events.
We describe one way that behavioural science might be used in schools to help boost performance in Starting with an A, giving a taste of a forthcoming report which will be published in both English and German.
The Guardian’s sustainable business hub section features Jonathan’s Changing Behaviour: How Deep Do You Want to go?
Recently, again in anticipation of the climate change report, the Can we save the planet, keep the lights on, and avoid freezing to death? post explains the ‘energy trilemma’ and what it means for our strategies to mitigate climate change.
Given all the blogs we’ve written this year, it was difficult to pare down the list. These are not necessarily the most-viewed posts, but together they give a glimpse into the range of projects we have been working on this year. Keep your eyes peeled for publication announcements in the near future.
Most importantly, thank you for all of your interest, (re)tweets, Facebook likes, and thoughtful comments throughout the year. We’re looking forward to continuing our blogging in 2014!
Many warm wishes for a happy holiday season to all of our readers,
From the Social Brain Centre
The RSA will be closed for the holidays from December 24rd 2013 to January 1st 2014, inclusive.
‘To know and not to act, is not to know.’ *
Today we are releasing our report: A New Agenda on Climate Change: Facing up to Stealth Denial and Winding down on Fossil Fuels.
The piece was covered in The Times earlier today and I have a piece distilling the report in the Guardian. We also experimented with conveying the report’s message through Buzzfeed, which will appear soon, and was a lot of fun to create.
The human response to climate change is unfolding as a political tragedy because scientific knowledge and economic power are pointing in different directions.
The website preamble is copied below, but the main thing I want to convey now is that researching and writing this report really opened my eyes. At the start of the process I thought of climate change as a problem of emissions, and that the purpose of behaviour change was about using behavioural insights to reducing personal carbon footprints. However, the more I looked into it, the more I felt the issue is unavoidably political, and that ‘behaviour change’, to be worth its salt, had to connect with the core issue of gradually substituting our energy supply. We can still play nicely, but if you care about climate change, you have to talk about the price of fossil fuels, and think hard about what it would take to keep them in the ground.
Facing Up to Stealth Denial and Winding Down on Fossil Fuels
The human response to climate change is unfolding as a political tragedy because scientific knowledge and economic power are pointing in different directions. The knowledge of the reality, causes and implications of anthropogenic climate change creates a moral imperative to act, but this imperative is diluted at every level by collective action problems that appear to be beyond our existing ability to resolve. This challenge is compounded by collectively mischaracterising the climate problem as an exclusively environmental issue, rather than a broader systemic threat to the global financial system, public health and national security.
This report makes a case for how Britain can take a leading role in addressing the global climate problem, based on a new agenda that faces up to pervasive ‘stealth denial’ and the need to focus on keeping fossil fuels in the ground. Our data indicates that about two thirds of the population intellectually accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change, but ‘deny’ some or all of the commensurate feelings, responsibility and agency that are necessary to deal with it. It is argued that this stealth denial may be what perpetuates the doublethink of trying to minimise carbon emissions while maximising fossil fuel production, and also what makes us expect far too much of energy efficiency gains in the face of a range of rebound effects that lead energy to be used elsewhere.
This report argues that we should focus less on those who question the scientific consensus as if they were the principle barrier to meaningful action. Those who deny the reality of anthropogenic climate change are not at all helpful, but at least they are consistent. One corollary of facing up to stealth denial is that we should turn more of our attention instead to mobilising those who, like the author of this report, fully accept the moral imperative to act, but continue to live as though it were not there.
*- Wang Yang-ming (Neo-Confucian philosopher 1472–1529)
On Friday, an adapted version of my speech from our first public event in our Spirituality series: ‘Taking Spirituality Seriously’ was published at the website of New Humanist magazine. Some initial positive reactions from Twitter can be found here.
It felt good to publish this piece at the site of the Rationalist Association, a 125-year-old charity dedicated to reason, science & secularism. Choosing to do so does not mean that we are exclusively interested in forms of spirituality that are atheistic or secular, but it helps to fulfill one of the objectives of our extended inquiry into ‘Spirituality, Tools of the Mind and the Social Brain’, which is to defactionalise discussions on such matters.
Most people sense that spirituality is about much more than beliefs in unseen forces and attachment to tribal identities. However, to develop a constructive alternative account we need to draw the discussion away from competing clusters of perspectives on the nature and meaning of the universe (theistic, atheistic, spiritual but not religious, agnostic etc) and back towards human practices and experiences that ground spirituality in our lives, where we can see its universal relevance and political importance.
In the New Humanist essay, I attempt to draw out the link between a particular understanding of spirituality and the pervasive human struggle to close the gap between our ideals and our actions, or how to (as Gandhi apparently didn’t say..) be the change we want to see the world.
Spirituality is not so much a unitary concept as a signpost for a range of touchstones; our search for meaning, our sense of the sacred, the value of compassion, the experience of transcendence, the hunger for transformation
A couple of extracts:
Taking Spirituality Seriously:
“For me the solution has to be primarily spiritual and secondarily political…” – Russell Brand.
Russell Brand’s iconoclastic call for a ‘revolution in consciousness’ was refreshing, half-baked, and overblown. It was refreshing because modern political debates have become too tactical and technocratic to inspire political hope, and the idea that politics has lost touch with deeper foundations rings true. But it was half-baked because there was no clarity about the nature of the link between the spiritual and the political, nor what it would mean to develop it in practice. And it was overblown because as anybody who takes spiritual progress seriously knows, a shift in consciousness may place your work in perspective, but it never does the work for you. To paraphrase an old Zen saying: before enlightenment – use your vote, after enlightenment – use your vote.
‘Spirituality’ may be awkward, embarrassing even, but it’s extremely interesting. The capacious term lacks clarity because it is not so much a unitary concept as a signpost for a range of touchstones; our search for meaning, our sense of the sacred, the value of compassion, the experience of transcendence, the hunger for transformation (….)
Our Ground and our Place
For me, there is nothing more spiritual than the impact of death on our lives, which has a particularly powerful humanising and levelling quality. Our shared recognition of a brute existential reality brings us back to our common humanity. Life as such is precious to all of us, but our experience of it becomes more visceral, shared, and tangible when it is threatened, as witnessed for instance in the solidarity and kinship widely experienced in the aftermath of terrorist attacks or natural disasters.
Such moments illustrate a useful and generative distinction. Common to the three main manifestations of the spiritual highlighted above, and therefore fundamental to the concept, spirituality is about our ground, rather than our place. This contrast stems from Buddhism, but it can also be inferred in Heiddeger’s emphasis on the philosophical primacy of the lived experience of being human, or as he puts it, ‘Being-there’.
By our ground I mean the most basic facts of our existence: that we are here at all, that we exist in and through this body that somehow breathes, that we build selves through and for others, that we’re a highly improbable part of an unfathomable whole, and of course, that we will inevitably die. Another way to characterise the relevance of our ground comes from the psychotherapist Mark Epstein who refers to the spiritual as ‘anything that takes us beyond the personality.’
The psychotherapist Mark Epstein refers to the spiritual as ‘anything that takes us beyond the personality.’
As anybody who has faced a life threatening illness will know, reflecting on our ground heightens the importance of not postponing our lives, of using the time we have for what really matters to us. And yet, research on the main regrets of the dying indicates the sad fact that we rarely actually do this – most of us do in fact postpone our lives.
And why? Because the world perpetuates our attachment to our place, by which I mean our constructed identities, our fragile reputations, our insatiable desires. We get lost in our identification with our place, and all the cultural signifiers of status that come with it: our dwellings, our salaries, our clothes, our Twitter followers. As T.S. Eliot put it: “We are distracted from distraction by distraction, filled with fancies and empty of meaning.”
The full article (3000+ words) can be read here:
“If you wanted to invent a problem to induce confusion, disbelief and the turning of blind eyes, it would be hard to come up with something better than climate change.” – Mike Berners-Lee & Duncan Clark, ‘The Burning Question’
Having recently attended Duncan Clark’s RSA event (based on his new book quoted above), and worked on the forthcoming climate change report by Dr Jonathan Rowson, I’ve been confronted with a host of different reasons for why we are collectively failing to respond to climate change, despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that it is the greatest single threat to our health, economy and security in the 21st century.
Whilst they are all interesting – from the orientation of our economy to the influence of powerful interest groups – most of these factors are external. But there is another element which is not about that or them, but about us. This blog highlights a small selection of the quirks in our psychological makeup that are causing us to ‘sleepwalk’ into so much danger.
Firstly, our brains are hardwired for optimism – we buy lottery tickets believing that the one in a million could be us, yet when confronted with the fact that almost one in two marriages end in divorce, we don’t see it as having any relevance to our own relationships. This optimism bias is great for protecting us from depression and inspiring us to be ambitious, but is really bad for dealing with looming problems like climate change.
Secondly, we stubbornly cling to our beliefs, only acknowledging evidence that supports our opinions. This confirmation bias is pretty familiar to us – we read the newspapers that share our world view, and dismiss as unreliable those which challenge us. Particularly stubborn is our self-image – so if we think of ourselves as funny, we remember all the times we made people laugh, and forget those quips that went down like a lead balloon. Facing up to the reality of climate change would force us to re-think not only our behaviour, but our view of ourselves as morally decent people, so we (consciously or unconsciously) choose not to face up to the uncomfortable truth that we have a role to play in all of this.
Added to these personal traits is the fact that we are essentially social creatures. We look first and foremost to our peers to determine our opinions and decision-making, not the facts. A perfect illustration is my own behaviour recently, when a fire alarm went off. If I was alone in the room at the time, I would have gotten up and left the building. But because there were other people present, I looked around and, seeing no-one else moving, decided it must be a false alarm and continued with what I was doing. In the case of climate change, our peers don’t seem alarmed, so we assume it can’t be that big a problem. This also creates ‘social inertia’ between political leaders and the public – we assume that if it was serious, governments would already be addressing it, yet governments aren’t compelled to take serious action because voters are not yet demanding it.
With climate change, all of these mental flaws are exacerbated by specific characteristics of the problem at hand, which is caused by particles we can’t see, has effects we can’t yet discern (although that is changing with all the recent instances of extreme weather events) and will impact firstly and most severely on people we will never meet. None of this changes the fact that there is a clear moral imperative to prevent the suffering that will be caused by inaction but, collectively, these factors give our minds all the ‘wiggle room’ they need to duck, dodge, and deny its relevance to us.
All this sounds pretty bleak, but the good news is that the social cycle mentioned above works both ways: if more of us start talking about the reality of climate change and how we can begin to address it, it loses the social taboo it currently has and encourages others to talk and act on it. And if we start demanding action from our governments, they will begin to see that addressing climate change is key to winning elections. And once they start taking it more seriously, that sends a signal to the rest of the population that climate change is the key issue of our time, and the vicious cycle of inaction can become a virtuous cycle of action very quickly.
the vicious cycle of inaction can become a virtuous cycle of action very quickly
A similar phenomenon happened with Western society’s attitude to slavery in the transition from the disinterest of the 18th century to the mass mobilization of opposition in the 19th. In that case, though, there was no deadline – no ‘tipping point’ at which more slavery would take the issue beyond human control and into a deadly, downward spiral. With climate change, there is.
So if you do one thing after reading this (and there are many you could do – from divesting from fossil fuels to supporting calls for fee and dividend policies), then make it a social act. Talk about this with the next person you see, or with your online connections, or with your family when you go home.
Because we are social brains, after all.
For more factors behind our ‘stealth denial’ of climate change, and possible solutions to break the deadlock, see Jonathan Rowson’s climate change report, coming out on Tuesday 17th December.
Conor Quinn is Communications Intern at the Action and Research Centre, RSA. You can follow him @conorquinn85
Filed under: Recovery, Social Brain, Social Economy, Uncategorized
In mid-summer I received a phone call from Lucy Stewart, a researcher working with Ossian Communications www.ossiancommunications.co.uk. Ossian is an Edinburgh based agency commissioned by the Substance Use Network Edinburgh (SUNE) to undertake research into UK-wide developments in cross-sector (public and third sector) partnerships developing new approaches to service design, partnership working and service user involvement within the field of substance misuse recovery. This initial conversation led to a longer and wide-ranging interview where I shared with Lucy, some of the experience I had gained as Lead Recovery Community Organiser within the Whole Person Recovery (WPR) project in west Kent. As some of you will already know, the RSA’s WPR project is part of a consortium that includes CRI and Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. Our project is a working example of the type of partnership that SUNE, was looking to draw learning and insight from in preparation for imminent reforms within the Scottish public and third sector social welfare communities.
Following the interview with Lucy, I was invited to attend the SUNE event, Getting Ready for Better Services: Learning Day. This whole day event in Edinburgh organised by SUNE, provided an opportunity for Edinburgh-based third sector organisations to participate in a knowledge exchange regarding cross-sector partnership working and service user involvement in service design and delivery. As a guest presenter / facilitator, I offered an overview of the genesis of the Whole Person Recovery model within the RSA’s work, which began in 2007 with the publication of the report Drugs – facing facts, The report of the RSA Commission on Illegal Drugs, Communities and Public Policy. I drew attention to the different contexts in which the WPR model has been developed, first in west Sussex during (2008-2010), as an independent project run with partners form across the public, third and voluntary sectors including GPs, criminal justice system and drug rehabilitation professionals, substance users and individuals in recovery from substance misuse. A further report: Whole Person Recovery: A user-centred systems approach to problem drug use was published offering an account of this work, to the current context of the WPR project. Presently (2012-2014), the WPR project is operating ‘within the system’ i.e. as part of a consortium working within the Payment by Results (PbR) mechanism. The WPR project is one of eight national pilot projects delivering social welfare programmes under the PbR model. In the PbR context there are rigorous governance and reporting frameworks that service delivery partnerships must comply with. These relate to the clinical elements of programme delivery where service users draw on the expertise of specialist nurses, doctors and psychiatrists as they move towards abstinence on their journeys of recovery, and to programme completion rates for service users under the care and supervision of service providers.
I made an effort to foreground the realities of the challenging dynamics and realpolitik expediencies that one has to exercise in partnership working, especially in the dual-contexts of working with relatively unstable user groups and rigorously prescribed reporting obligations. I also made a particular effort to open up our experience of working to engage service users in the co-design and co-production of the RSA elements of the WPR programme. These are challenging and iterative approaches to service provision and are not necessarily straightforward in their development or implementation. This kind of fluidity and the contingent nature of the work can sometimes be at odds with conventional organisational processes and cultures. The business of partnership working and service user involvement is sometimes gritty not pretty; it requires a particular resilience and steadfastness on the part of professional partners.
The event was deemed a success by the SUNE members and I had the opportunity to visit Edinburgh’s first Recovery café – The Serenity Café www.serenitycafe.co.uk, which is an initiative of community development charity COMAS www.comas.org.uk. I was given a tour of the space and a summary account of the genesis of the project from John Arthur, who chaired the SUNE event and is also the Recovery Coaching Development Manager at COMAS. It was interesting to see the way that the cafe was used as an ‘ordinary’ community resource by a range of people from the general public. It was inspiring to see the way that former service users make use of the cafe as community members seeking a social space and a creative and learning space for a range of activities that take place over the course of each week. The grassroots take-up of the recovery model as a real, achievable and desirable path back into the wider community is clearly alive and kicking. There is much that commissioners and others involved in policy level decision making could learn from these projects, particularly the ways in which service users are determining the speed and trajectories of their personal development and reintegration into society as proactive citizens with hard-won experience and inspiring stories to share.
Earlier this year I played a small part in helping Chess in Schools and communities raise almost £700,000 from the Educational Endowment foundation for a randomised control trial on the impact of chess on attainment in Maths and English (and a few other measures) in about 50 primary schools. The scheme is being evaluated by the Institute of Education in London and represents a big breakthrough for chess, and potentially for educational research too.
Those who played chess when they were younger tend to have little doubt about its educational value, but as with almost any educational initiative, finding hard evidence for that is difficult. There is a huge range of anecdotal, case study and qualitative evidence, but this study over 4 years will hopefully prove what we have long suspected.
At the current count, Chess in Schools and Communities now covers over 283 schools over 46 boroughs, mostly in deprived areas. They are hosting a conference this weekend at Kensington Olympia’s exhibition centre called Successes and Challenges: Improving School Chess Practice, Research and Strategy. There are still places available for those who want to attend!
I had very much hoped to play a part in the conference, but now urgently have to finish our climate change report and conserve some ‘wild card’ energy to compete with some of the best players in the world later next week.
The challenge with any educational intervention is not to show that it helps, or how much, but to say what makes you think it helps more than other interventions. Chess has potential to make this case, due to its rich history and cultural resonance, affordability and helpful association with intelligence.
The most exacting challenge with any educational intervention is not to show that it helps, or how much, but to say what makes you think it helps more than other interventions. Chess has potential to make this case, due to its rich history and cultural resonance, affordability and helpful association with intelligence. Many who otherwise struggle at school find they are good at chess, and realise that thinking and reasoning has a positive place in their lives.
My own ‘take’ on the value of chess in a nutshell, particularly in areas of educational disadvantage, is that it builds what Ron Ritchart calls ‘Intellectual Character‘ by providing a safe space with rules and feedback where you learn that you will inevitably make mistakes, but can still win. It also creates particularly valuable forms of what sociologists call ‘social capital’, in terms of community pooling of resources and time and inter-generational learning…but alas instead of developing that, I’m afraid I currently only have time to share a lightly edited version of a newspaper column I wrote on the subject two years ago! I hope some of you can make it to the conference.
Herald Chess Column for October 1st 2011:
Primary school feels like a long time ago, but it was instrumental to my chess development, as it is for most players who go on to become Grandmasters. Had it not been for supportive teachers and a team of players I liked most of the time, including my brother, there is no way I would have fallen in love with the game in the way I did.
I went to Skene Square primary school in Aberdeen where chess was always played in the library with the red carpet, on the corner of the second floor. We only tend to remember things that make an emotional imprint on our souls, and that room must have, because I remember little else of the inside of the school.
I went to Skene Square primary school in Aberdeen where chess was always played in the library with the red carpet, on the corner of the second floor. We only tend to remember things that make an emotional imprint on our souls, and that room must have, because I remember little else of the inside of the school.
Chess in primary school meant challenge, delicious tension like no other, structured competition where physical strength didn’t matter, and a constant experience of learning and growing. It was also a time of learning away from home, going to nearby schools to represent my own, and sometimes crying when the result didn’t go my way.
I think of this now because the charity, Chess in Schools and Communities, is campaigning hard to get chess into primary schools, at least in England and Wales, but no doubt North of the border in time. The charity was set up by the chess world’s most revered and respected Scouser, Malcolm Pein, and already teaches chess to primary school children in seventy schools.
The breakthrough was an appearance on BBC breakfast television, which led to Yasmin Qureshi, the MP for Bolton South East, tabling an Early Day Motion supporting the playing of chess in primary schools, which was co-signed by Rachel Reeves, the Labour MP for Leeds West:
“This House recognises the positive social and intellectual benefits for all children across the social spectrum of learning chess at a young age and the relatively low costs of teaching it in schools; notes that while chess currently receives no financial support from the Government, many European countries including Sweden and France financially support chess in schools; further notes that the European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth would welcome UK support for the Chess in Schools project being developed by the ECU and the Kasparov Chess Foundation; welcomes the work of the UK-based charity Chess in Schools and Communities which teaches chess to primary school children from less affluent backgrounds; and calls on the Government to ensure that all children are given the opportunity to learn chess at primary school within existing resources.”
References to ‘green crap’ miss the point. The key political fault line on climate change is not green versus non green, but how you order the priorities of the energy ‘trilemma’. The case for climate change action needs to be made at this level to gain political traction.
Michael Fallon is the minister whose thinking most closely mirrors Number 10′s stance on energy policy so if you want to know what number 10 thinks beyond disputed references to ‘green crap’, his words should be carefully observed.
The Energy Minister recently told The Spectator Conference on energy that the most important issues were ‘security of supply, affordability, and playing our part in combating climate change. And that for me is the order.’
This seemingly innocuous statement is hugely significant because it publicly acknowledges the key trade-offs at the heart of energy policy, and candidly takes a clear position on it. Fallon, like Cameron and Osborne are not denying the need for a rapid reduction in carbon emissions, they are saying you can’t get those reductions without compromising two other important priorities.
the three horns of the trilemma in question are climate change, energy security and fuel poverty
In this case, the three horns of the trilemma in question are climate change, energy security and fuel poverty. Such ‘trilemmas’ are every bit as real and pervasive as dilemmas, but they are not as widely discussed because they are significantly more complicated, and debates surrounding them are more difficult to follow.
There is wide political agreement that we have to try to reduce the impact of anthropogenic Climate change, which means significantly reducing and gradually eliminating fossil fuels from our energy supply, and improving energy efficiency at scale.
However, we also have to retain a secure and stable energy supply, which is harder with renewable forms of energy that are generally less reliable than the baseload power offered by fossil fuels (‘the sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow’) and complex if you are simultaneously interfering with the energy market to lower prices. This was the argument (strongly contested) recently used by British parliamentarians to justify extending the life of the country’s dirtiest power stations. - that it was necessary to ‘keep the lights on’.
And we also need to keep fuel prices affordable, especially for those facing acute fuel poverty who sometimes literally freeze to death because they can’t pay for their heating. Keeping costs low is not easy with a transition to renewables, which is costly in itself, and because renewable energy is currently more expensive. On current form, energy companies will inevitably pass on such costs to consumers.
It is hard to argue with the general validity of each of the three imperatives – energy security, fuel poverty and climate change – but we can question whether they deserve to be treated with equal strength and importance, and challenge some of the assumptions underpinning them. Indeed, how you do so represents the new political fault line on the energy debate.
As I argue in a forthcoming RSA report on climate change, I believe the moral priority of climate change takes precedence, and would challenge the validity of the second two imperatives. If pressed, I would probably say the order has to be climate change, energy security and fuel poverty, but making this case well requires keeping competing perspectives on ‘morality’ firmly in mind.
If your responsibility is to keep the energy supply stable across the country, you have to think about that moment every day when people return from work, when there is a huge spike in demand caused by heating and lights going on, people having hot showers, watching TV and preparing meals. Can you stomach the idea of power failure for millions in that context?
And if, like millions, you struggle to pay your energy bills, or are a politician aware of the growing political importance of energy as an electoral issue, would you not be more inclined to question the importance of our climate commitments, regardless of scientific opinion?
The main issue at stake here is whether the appropriate position on climate change is international leadership, with some potential national risks and costs, or the underwhelming pragmatism we currently see.
The main issue at stake here is whether the appropriate position on climate change is international leadership, with some potential national risks and costs, or the underwhelming pragmatism we currently see. Those like Fallon apparently accept that we should ‘do our bit’, but argue that we cannot unilaterally decide what ‘our bit’ should be – for that we look at the actions of comparable countries. This position is hardly heroic or inspiring, and makes my heart sink, but let’s accept that it is at least understandable.
Which doesn’t prevent us from saying it is wrong on a number of levels.
Those attacking the priority of energy security could ask why we can’t significantly reduce our energy demand through lifestyle changes. Or they might ask whether it’s ok if the power goes off every so often. Couldn’t we live with back-up generators maybe, as many in affluent parts of India do? If that sounds like political suicide, more powerful is to challenge the contention that renewables alone can’t provide that stability, as Marc Jacobsen and others are doing with increasing conviction, or(more controversially) that we need more nuclear power.
Those attacking the priority of fuel poverty might begin with the old suggestion to wear jumpers rather than turn the heating on, as David Cameron recently did, which chimes with social practice theory arguments about ‘energy need’ being socially constructed, but feels much too facile. The key challenge, surely, is to the billions of pounds offered in fossil fuel subsidies, without which renewable energy would not struggle to be seen as affordable. An even more fundamental question is whether profiting out of energy provision – now an essential human need – makes sense at all? Could there even a case for renationalising control of our energy, as 69% of the population seem to want?
You will notice, in each case, that few of the arguments or suggestions sound straightforward or completely convincing, and even where they feel necessary, they sound politically difficult if not implausible. That’s why we have a genuine energy trilemma. Something has to give.
Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA and the author of a forthcoming report on Climate Change ‘stealth denial’ in the British population. You can follow him on Twitter @jonathan_rowson
At the risk of being a bit corny, I’m going to use today – the holiday of Thanksgiving in the US – to write about what I am thankful for.
This isn’t to wave a flag and to offer even more insight into American culture than we already get on a daily basis, but rather, it’s to link the holiday to the act of paying attention, one of the key themes of the RSA’s Social Brain Centre.
As we’ve previously blogged, paying attention to the positive aspects in your life can help to build emotional resilience (for a great exercise, see our late colleague Emma’s post about poetry and attention), and Jonathan wrote about the power of gratitude. So with this in mind, I’d like to declare three things for which I am thankful.
I am thankful that I am lucky enough to work in a field about which I am passionate, trying to learn and understand more about human nature and behaviour, what makes us tick, and how these insights can be applied to some of the many challenges of our time, including climate change and the socioeconomic performance gap in education among others.
I am immensely thankful for my friends and family, both near and far, many of whom will be celebrating today with a roast turkey.
And I am thankful for the great card from Louise, Associate Director of Education, which elicited a laugh and which makes me smile each time I glance at it – see the photo above!
Creating your own gratitude list is easy enough, but if you’d like to share it with others, I’ve just come across the gratitude list website where it looks like you can read what celebrities are thankful for and share your own lists, too.
To those celebrating, wishing you a very happy thanksgiving!