It’s Climate Week! It’s described as “a supercharged national occasion that offers an annual renewal of our ambition and confidence to combat climate change”. Sounds like something you can’t argue with. It’s also particularly significant for us, as the Social Brain Centre is in the early stages of an exciting programme of work investigating behaviour change for climate change.
Nationally, there are over 3,000 events taking place throughout the week, ranging from launch events for hydrogen partnerships to vegetarian punjabi cooking courses. It’s more than likely that there’s something happening near you and it’s easy to find out what.
Exploring the Climate Week website, I was most interested to see what suggestions were included under the ‘Green your home‘ tab. One of the themes we intend to explore in our own project is that of ‘home’ so I was naturally curious to see how the Climate Week team had dealt with the topic.
The list of suggestions appears as follows:
- Green your bathroom
- Green your Cuisine
- Switch to green energy
- Sustainable DIY
- Kick out the Can
- Saving Water
- Love your Laundry
- Keep Warm
- Shower Power
- Kitchen Care
The initial shock for me was that the first of these categories consisted entirely of an advertisement for a brand of ‘eco’ toilet paper. Fair enough, sponsorship is a fact of life these days, and securing it was no doubt essential for Climate Week to proceed with its good work. But the fact that its ‘Green your bathroom’ category consisted only of promotion for one brand of loo roll was disappointing to me.
There are plenty of more effective ways in which we could genuinely take steps to ‘green our bathrooms’. Ironically, one of the best things we could do is take a lead from the majority of the developing world and do away with toilet paper all together, but such a step lacks universal appeal not to mention sponsorship potential.
Moving on, the next category is ‘Green your cuisine’. I was expecting to find all sort of useful tips on how to reduce my carbon emissions by changing my cooking habits, as well as a strong message about reducing meat consumption. The meat industry creates more Co2 than the car industry. One of the single most important actions we could all take to make a difference is to reduce the amount of meat we eat.
Do the Green Thing have, in my opinion, done a good job of finding the right marketing message for this, with their slogan ‘Make Meat a Treat.’ If we can move from considering meat as something that is necessary for a ‘proper’ meal to seeing it as a treat to be enjoyed on special occasions, we could see dramatic drops in carbon consumption per capita. This poster gets this across beautifully, parodying the ‘enjoy responsibly’ campaign that has accompanied advertising for alcohol.
But, no, Climate Week’s thoughts on ‘Green your cuisine’ make no mention of meat, and instead consists of a single, rather vague point about making meals from leftovers. Disappointing indeed.
Next, another advertisement/ plug for a specific company, this time in the form of a ‘green’ energy supplier. Again, this is the only suggestion that is made under the ‘energy’ category, and no attempt is made to suggest ways in which we might actually reduce the amount of energy we consume at home.
I was especially curious to see what was included under the heading of ‘Sustainable DIY’ – I genuinely couldn’t imagine what sorts of suggestions might be made here. Using a hand drill instead of an electric one? How naive of me. Yes, you’ve guessed it, the category appears to have been included purely as a promotion opportunity, this time for a paint company that measures the carbon footprint of the products it manufactures. Measuring the carbon footprint is all well and good, but are they actually doing anything to reduce it, or encourage us to do our bit?
Of the eleven categories in the list above, there are only four that do not contain links to specific companies selling particular products. The four that are not linked to adverts are pretty limp, not really saying anything new and appear at the end of the list, all of which makes me think that this entire section of the website was created entirely for the purpose of giving a platform to advertise the products of companies that have given support to climate week.
I’m disappointed and I think it is a shame – even if the organisers of Climate Week had to include a page to list their corporate supporters, they could have used it as a real platform to share best practice and suggestions that we could engage with rather than the tokenistic disappointment that it is.
However, I don’t want to be so critical as to detract from the important messages that Climate Week is trying to convey. I very much hope that the week of events will go a long way towards renewing national ambition and confidence to combat climate change, far more deeply than simply persuading us to change our brand of toilet roll.
Climate change has moved from being predominantly a physical phenomenon to being simultaneously a social phenomenon. And these two phenomenon are very different…It is a story about the meeting of Nature and Culture. - Mike Hulme.
Ever had the feeling that we will never agree about what to do about climate change? Me too. But can we at least agree about what we disagree about? That would represent massive progress, but is easier said than done.
To make sense of this challenge, I have been enjoying Mike Hulme’s book: Why we Disagree about Climate Change:
“Our recognition of climate change as a threat to the ways of life to which we are accustomed and which we value depends on our views of Nature, our judgements about scientific analysis, our perceptions of risk, and our ideas about what is at stake- economic growth, national sovereignty, species extinction, or the lives of poor people in marginal environments of developing countries- and whether it is ethically, politically or economically justifiable to make trade-offs between these….”
The core point is that “Even when scientists, politicians and publics agree on the basic principles and most robust findings of climate science, there is still plenty of room for disagreement about what the implications of that science are for action.”
General disagreement is one thing, but what follows are the thoughts prompted by beginning to think like Hulme, and a first draft of a list of wedge issues on climate change; major issues that shape our perception of what the problem is and how we should act- issues that are therefore likely to divide us, even when we recognise the problem represents a shared threat.
I expect this list will grow and change, and I imagine there are other categories that should be included (e.g. sociology, anthropology, epistemology, perhaps more about different kinds of energy). It also feels like the right length of major wedge issues is probably about 50 and I’m already noticing questions I missed out.
I hope readers will help me make the next draft a much better one- so do let me know what you think. I have only briefly annotated here, and given a few links, but I plan to explain each of the wedge issues, and why they matter, in the next instalment, either here or in a more formal report. Enjoy!
1. Do we really understand how the climate works?
(If it’s so much more complex than the financial system, and we got that badly wrong…)
2. Is climate change happening?
(Yes, demonstrably so, but some say ‘climate change’ is not – i.e. it’s nothing out of the ordinary if we had access to records that went far enough back. They are almost certainly wrong)
3. Is climate change anthropogenic (man-made)?
(Almost certainly, but there are enough sceptics to allow people to imagine there is a position to be taken here- we are often asked “Do you believe in climate change”)
4. Is ‘runaway global warming’ likely or not?
(How valid/important is the idea of ‘tipping points’)
5. How many degrees of planetary warming are ‘safe’?
(Is the 2 degree limit a political or scientific judgement?)
6. Are there any likely scientific breakthroughs that will solve ‘the problem’?
7. Do current intellectual property laws help or hinder the development of carbon abatement technologies?
8. Will anticipated technological change happen quickly enough to prevent avoidable harm, or not?
9. Could an ‘energy internet’ meet our energy needs?
(Some, e.g. Jeremy Rifkind argue the key is to make households produce and share energy, not just share it)
10. Is it viable to stop seeking economic growth in the developed world?
(Some say economic growth is economically imperative, but ecologically impossible)
11. Do we have to assume indefinite economic growth in climate models?
(Most climate models, e.g. The Stern Review, assume 1.2% growth in perpetuity- this matters because it implies future generations will be richer, and better able to deal with the worst effects of climate change)
12. What should the price of carbon be?
13. Is ‘absolute decoupling’ possible?
14. Does/could ‘cap and trade’ work?
15. Can we design a viable carbon market that is ‘functional and fair’?
(The magazine Ephemera recently devoted an issue to this question)
16. Do natural systems and species have intrinsic value or not?
17. Can we place a quantitative or comparative value on a life?
18. Should/can we value the quality of life of future generations as much as our own?
(This question, the so-called ‘discount value’ appears to be a critical wedge issue because it can only be a value judgement, with no objective way of settling the question, but most economic models discount future generations considerably in their models).
19. Is ‘climate change’ the best expression to work with?
21. Is Climate change best framed as a public health issue?
22. Are relatively short democractic electoral cycles part of the problem, or not?
23. Does the developed world have an obligation to allow the developing world to pollute relatively more to correct for historic exploitation, or not?
24. Do we need more regulation or less?
25. Is nothing sacred?
(Are there things that don’t have a price, or that if they were given a price, would be valued even less?)
26. Are we likely to be reborn?
(A funny one, and I’ll probably delete this later, but it occurs to me that if a key question is the discount rate, and our attitude to future generations, our sense of whether ‘we’ will be there in future might be relevant)
27. Do attitudes drive behaviour, or is it the other way round?
(A biggie, but I was impressed by this resource as giving some ammunition for an answer)
28. Is the rebound effect serious or not?
29. Should we appeal to economic incentives, or not?
30. Should we work directly with values, or not?
They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but today 5,000 people, including me, have had exactly that. The event in Trafalgar Square was the brainchild of Tristram Stuart, author of Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal. The aim of the event is to draw attention to the astonishing amount of food that gets thrown away every year.
Partly, the idea is to encourage consumers not to overbuy and to use up food at home before it goes off and also, to draw attention to the shocking quantities of food that get wasted higher up the food chain. UK supermarkets have much more stringent cosmetic standards than our European counterparts, meaning that tonnes of perfectly good fruit and vegetables are sent to landfill simply because they are the wrong shape.
A delicious vegetable curry was prepared by Hare Krishna volunteers, made entirely from ingredients that would have otherwise ended up in landfill. In addition to the main meal, punters could help themselves to freshly pressed apple juice made from misshapen apples deemed unfit for our supermarket shelves. Fruit, including uneven bananas and pineapples were being given away and you could help bag up wonky carrots which will later be distributed to food charities. As well as the vegan curry, there were also tongue sandwiches, and seared ox cheek on offer. The queue for these was considerably shorter than for the veggie option, and, to my amusement a volunteer was checking with people that they knew what they were queuing for.
The whole thing was impressively well organised, with fast moving queues and plenty of volunteers making sure everyone got the message as well as the free food. I spoke to a couple of staff from FareShare, who explained to me how they manage to feed over 35,000 people daily through redistributing food waste. The examples of food thrown away by the industry were very surprising – even rice and pasta with more than a year left before the use-by date get chucked simply because of misprints on the packaging. FoodCycle volunteers handed me recipe cards for great meals you can make with vegetables which are past their best, and a woman from Love Food Hate Waste told me that the average family throws away £50 worth of perfectly good food every month.
Everyone attending was asked to sign the Feed the 5,000 pledge, committing to buying only the food they need, and eating the food they buy. For me, the most striking statistic of the day was that if we all stopped throwing away food that could have been eaten it would have the same carbon impact as taking 20% of cars off the road. I don’t know why this was the figure that had most salience for me – maybe because the carbon impact of car use seems more obvious to me than that of wasted food.
Not wasting food seems like such a simple and obvious thing we can all do, and really shouldn’t be that difficult. I guess like many of these sorts of challenges, it’s about subtle shifts and changes of habit, maybe a bit more in the way of planning before we go shopping, and more flexibility to use up what we’ve got once we’ve bought it. So, before the end of the day, I’d better eat the apple that’s been sitting in my desk drawer all week…
Just back from RSA Thursday with Anthony Giddens speaking about a new edition of his book, The Politics of Climate Change. You’ll be able to listen to the podcast of the event very soon, and possibly watch the video, though I suspect they will edit out the bits of the speaker and the chair – Matthew Taylor – doing a kind of intellectual Punch and Judy cameo- they clearly go back a long way…
Alas, there was nothing very new in the talk, but I liked the link to the two worlds in the Matrix. Giddens suggested that international climate negotiations are a bit like that- a virtual pleasant world where we assume things are happening and a real world where promises are broken and discussions continue indefinitely as the planet steadily cooks itself beyond a habitable state.
Giddens is not the first to argue that the scale of the climate challenge challenge requires, inter-alia, a complete rethinking of how we structure our way of life, a shift in values, technological success stories, concerted policy action, behaviour change, a few miracles etc.
In this sense I felt a bit deflated. We are already knew that we are failing badly, and I wanted him to explain what we might do about it. So here is how I would have cross-examined him, given the chance.
1) Rethinking democracy: You say that we need a return to planning, and a ‘politics of the long term’, but two things militate against that: Firstly we know that human beings discount the value of the long-term compared to the present, and secondly most advanced economies (the worst carbon culprits) have democratic systems with electoral cycles that are built to reward short-term promises. Given that climate change is not just another policy issue, but as you say, ‘an existential threat’, how would you restructure the relationship between state and citizen to make long-term thinking and planning possible and rewarding?
2)Immunity to change: In response to Matthew’s question to the audience- asking us to choose between 1)International policy agreements, 2) lifestyle and value change, and 3)incentivising technological innovation you said we obviously need all three. This claim chimes with the pervasive wisdom on climate change that we just need to throw everything we can at the problem and hope that it will all add up to enough. But what about how these solutions interact? For instance, the Common Cause report suggests that appealing to financial incentives when advocating lower fuel consumption perpetuates the problem by activating the ‘me-first’, consumerist frame, rather than helping people see climate change as a ‘bigger than self’ problem. What about such unintended consequences? Is it at least possible that some of our solutions, when taken together, actually compound the problem?
When Australian Philosopher Clive Hamilton spoke at the RSA he argued that our only hope for addressing the climate challenge was a kind of collective grief, an emotional acceptance of all the wonderful things that we will now (almost) inevitably lose. Only then, when we are past denial, can we really act with conviction.
3) Value Change: Your suggestion that we need value and lifestyle change is well taken, but feels facile unless it involves a strategy. Values are often incommensurate (e.g. how do you compare the relative value of freedom and security?) and the choice between them is agonistic, in the sense that we don’t always have a rational basis to choose. Moreover, experts in values surveys seem to argue that the idea of ‘changing values’ is in itself antithetical to many people’s values! What would a societal strategy to change values look like?
4) With respect… It is great that an eminent intellectual like yourself is devoting your energy to this problem, and your contribution in clarifying the nature of the challenge is helpful, important and appreciated. Yet you seem to approach the politics of climate change in a very conventional political way. What bothers me is this: given that you understand the problem so well, why does your contribution look so much like the kinds of contribution that don’t appear to really change anything? You write books, give speeches, and the content is a mixture of statistics, fear and informed imagination. David Attenborough does something similar, as do many leading thinkers. What if the medium is the message? Is it not incumbent on leaders like you to do something different? (I don’t know exactly what but I think I have a point here…)
5) Grief. As anybody who has grieved for a loved one will know, there is a huge difference between accepting something intellectually and accepting it emotionally- how do we get to that point? When Australian Philosopher Clive Hamilton spoke at the RSA he argued that our only hope for addressing the climate challenge was a kind of collective grief, an emotional acceptance of all the wonderful things that we will now (almost) inevitably lose. Only then, when we are past denial, can we really act with conviction. Personally I think this is the most profound insight into climate change I have heard and, with respect, gets much closer to the core of the problem than anything you said today. What do you think?
This is about a radical model of enterprise in Stoke where the “cradle-to-cradle” zero-waste business model has been taken one step further. On Saturday I heard at Stoke Stories how a former cattle and tropical agriculture specialist came to be involved in an organisation tackling pressing environmental and social problems through computers.
Hugh Irvine is one of a number of people who are functionally “directors” of The Ethical Computer Company (TECC), based near Stoke. He gave us an honest and insightful account of how it refurbishes and recycles computing equipment that has stopped being used or is damaged. For the last 12 years it has sold computers at low-cost whilst providing paid employment for long-term unemployed and training for young people and marginalised individuals to get them ready for employment. Unemployment is generally recognised as Stoke’s greatest problem, in particular, the unemployment of skilled artisans who once worked in the pottery industry.
This is borne out in the murmurs of approval 51 seconds into Hugh’s talk…
… or if you prefer more quantitative evidence, almost a third more people in Stoke‐on‐Trent are unemployed compared to the national average (1).
Desso aims for all the material resources in their products to be recycled or reused to ensure that a “new” product needs no additional raw materials
I wanted to write about TECC in relation to the “cradle-to-cradle” approach discussed in last week’s RSA lecture, which included Dame Ellen MacArthur and Stef Kranendijk, CEO of the carpeting company Desso. Desso (like TECC) aims for all the material resources in its products to be recycled or reused to ensure that a “new” product needs no additional raw materials (though renewable energy and human resources are undoubtedly needed to undertake this recycling and reusing).
TECC delivers a zero material-resource-waste and a zero human-resource-waste business model… helping local people develop transferable skills that they can reuse in future employment
What TECC showed me – and this is why I called it a radical model – is another way of looking at the cradle-to-cradle business model. Firstly, TECC also recycles and reuses the products of other computer sellers (its competitors of sorts), as well as making its own products recyclable and reusable. Secondly, and what I will explore in a bit more detail, TECC also focuses on human or social sustainability. Desso might employ whoever in the labour market wants the job (to deliver a zero material-resource-waste business model). TECC, on the other hand, delivers a zero material-resource-waste and a zero human-resource-waste business model. It employs local people who face difficulties in getting employment because of a culture of unemployment, physical disabilities or a criminal record. Desso wants to prevent its product materials from ending up on the environmental scrapheap. This compares with TECC which also works to prevent people from ending up on the ‘economic scrapheap’, instead helping people to develop transferable skills that they can reuse in future employment.
This model of operating a business will be familiar to a number of social entrepreneurs. Indeed eight of the 25 enterprises that won the prestigious social enterprise programme the Big Venture Challenge are applying a similar method; employing people who would otherwise face major difficulties in getting employment.
With this in mind, you could argue that this (expanded) interpretation of cradle-to-cradle then also has relevance for those few sectors that don’t dispose of their products quickly for recycling to be important. At the Desso lecture, Paul King, CEO of the UK Green Building Council, laid down the challenge of retrofitting Britain’s housing stock – 80% of which he said will still be here in 2050. Could retrofitting be delivered by training up the long-term unemployed? The Green New Deal described this as a ‘carbon army,’ Boris Johnson proposed something similar, but RE:FIT, set to retrofit 55,000 London homes before March 2012 (2), show no signs of training long-term unemployed people. Birmingham council has embarked on something along these lines. With the retrofitting industry worth £500bn over the next three decades (3), with the likelihood of public investment diminishing and with people so far unenthusaistic about letting big energy companies sell them energy efficiency services, is there not a space for a social enterprise? I’d love to know if one exists.
we don’t have a hierarchy, we are a bunch of people that want to make things happen
Lastly, I wanted to raise some of challenges TECC faces in increasing its impact that Hugh talked so passionately about, which I will soon put to the RSA Fellows’ Social Entrepreneurs’ Network.
- In a majority public sector economy, there was some scepticism among previously state-funded voluntary groups who had been told by local authorities to become social enterprises. But the story of the Ethical Computer Company showed that it was possible to build a social enterprise in Stoke, with a lot of hard work and no little skill, without funding from the public authorities. That said, TECC has been frustrated about the lack of collaboration from the public authorities. It is based exactly opposite a partially-empty Council-owned building which could provide a springboard for growth, and Hugh knows of a closed-down school that has a great deal of IT equipment just sitting there unused
- Established in 1999 before the Community Interest Company legal form was created, TECC is a charity and company hybrid. This makes some charitable foundations suspicious and less ready to fund the enterprise
- Hugh describes TECC as follows “we don’t have a hierarchy, we are a bunch of people that want to make things happen.” Decisions are made in a weekly meeting, open to all team members, each of who provide leadership according to their own particular strengths. This is philosophically important to the team but is a challenging way to organise an enterprise and also thoroughly confuses some people. Suggestions of how to scale up governance arrangements that are neither a fully-fledged collective nor a traditional company are welcome.
Please get in touch via the comments below.
What a wonderful surprise!
I arrived into work this morning to find a mysterious parcel containing…a pair of black thinsulate gloves.
I hadn’t ordered them, and I am unlikely to need them for a while, but they nevertheless filled me with joy.
Here is why:
1) They were a token of gratitude from dothegreenthing.com for whom I wrote a blog a few weeks ago in my capacity as a chess grandmaster. I had forgotten all about it. They say swift gratitude is the sweetest, but sometimes belated gratitude is better, because it makes you feel that the value of whatever you are being thanked for is enduring.
2) The gift was part of dothegreenthing’s ‘glove love‘ campaign which encourages people to send in single gloves wherever they are found. So many are received that they quickly find pairs. Then they are washed, and sent back out into the world. In my case, one was ‘rescued from’ Victoria park and the other from London Eye. They were washed and matched by Lebinh, to whom I am grateful.
3) This cycle of action was a series of gift exchanges, and began when Katee Hui of Dothegreenthing.com came to give a short lunchtime talk to the RSA. She heard about my chess background and asked me to write a blog about chess being a pleasurable and environmentally friendly activity. After a reminder of two, I gladly did so, and latched on to Earth Hour as the narrative hook.
4) Gratitude is a very powerful emotion. We feel good when we are thanked, but we feel even better when we take time to feel grateful. Of all the meditative practices I have tried, a guided gratitude meditation made the biggest impact…going back from the present moment to thank parents, the widwives who helped bring you in to the world, the people who cared for you when you were helpless, your first teachers, your friends, your doctors…if you keep going on like this you soon find yourself welling up with gratitude…which is a wonderfully affirming experience.
So the next time you see a single glove…think of all the gratitude you have the power to create.
What is your favourite hour of the year? If you don’t know, make it 8.30-9.30pm, just after dinner tomorrow and do something worthwhile to justify your choice. Most of the British population will be watching television, but you can buck this languorous trend by observing ‘earth hour’. The idea is to switch off the lights, use as little electricity as possible, and use your own energy in a more creative and satisfying way. Katee Hui at the charming site dothegreenthing.com recently asked me in my capacity as a chess Grandmaster to write a blog for them on why a game of chess was a good way to spend the hour, but there may be even better ways, including cuddling or indeed similar movements of that nature.
The genesis of earth hour was Sydney 2007, where 2000 businesses and over 2.2 million individuals turned their lights off to make a stand against climate change. Far from being a forgettable token gesture, in just one year earth hour went global, with 50 million people across 35 countries taking part. In 2011 it’s even bigger, and this year earthhour.org are asking people to use the hour of engagement to think about the one thing we all have in common- our planet- and what we are going to do to protect it from ourselves. Our Prime Minister David Cameron gave his backing to the importance of the hour and the wider purpose it represents.
There is plenty more to say about this hour, including curmudgeonly critiques outlined on the wikipedia page about candles not being very eco-friendly and large scale turning off and on of electricity possibly increasing carbon emissions. One feels they are rather missing the point, which is of course about reminding ourselves that on the issue of climate change, unlike defecit reductions, we really are ‘in this together’. Indeed, I would be curious to know if the researchers of the Global Consciousness Project pick up any interesting statistical noise during this hour when several million across the planet are focussed on the same thing.
Above all, earth hour made me think of one my favourite scenes from the third Lord of the Rings film. At a tense moment, shortly after Denathor, Steward of Gondor, has refused to call for aid, Gandalf hatches a plan. In the days before internet or telephones, there were still ways to communicate across long distances, and it doesn’t do any harm that this scene was filmed over spectacular scenery in New Zealand. Earth hour is about turning lights off across the globe rather than lighting the beacons of Minas Tirith. Nonetheless, this scene represents the same goal as earth hour- to use our relationship to light to shed light on ourselves, to wake us up to our shared predicament, and to help each other to protect our only home.
Youtube have removed the code that would allow me to show the video on this blog, but if you want to be reminded of this evocative scene, please click here.
The RSA is an optimistic Fellowship. The word “encouragement” is in our organisation’s name. We hold to the idea of a new enlightenment, with the emphasis on the symbolism of “light” syllable. We instinctively gravitate to the assumption that, when it comes to change, people will more readily move towards a positive idea of the future than a negative one.
But what if we’re wrong? A lot of great work on climate and behaviour has been done using this positive model of change. It’s worth mentioning the achievements of a couple of Fellows. Tracey Todhunter was one of the founders of the successful Low Carbon Network, which allows communities to envisage the plusses of living in a low carbon society. Ed Gillespie‘s ground-breaking Futerra agency takes it as read that dour messages of doom are a turn-off – a strategy that appears to be endorsed by IPPR reports that show how discouraged people are by negative discussion of the environment.
But on the grand scale, we have also to admit that this approach isn’t working either. Governments still don’t feel able to make the changes that will lead to significant emissions reduction. In the UK, especially climate is slipping down the public agenda. COP15 achieved little. If, as the already outdated IPCC Fourth Assessment report showed, global emissions need to peak around 2020 and then start to decline if we are to stand a chance of missing the 2 degrees rise, we are, we must now admit, way, way, way off target. As climate experts at the Oxford conference 4degrees and beyond argued, we are now realistically looking towards trying to avoid or mitigate a four degree global temperature rise.
A couple of weeks ago I chaired the philosopher and Australian Greens candidate Clive Hamilton’s talk here at the RSA, based on his recent book Requiem for a Species. In the discussion afterwards, towards the very end of the video posted below, Hamilton argues that it is hope, eternally teasing us with the idea of a technological or political fix, that is one of the major stumbling blocks to action. He argues the timescale is now too short for such solutions anyway. From a psychological viewpoint Hamilton says we need to go through a period of mourning for what we are about to lose so that we can move on to real action.
This is chimes with a recent essay by Rosemary Randall in the journal Ecopsychology. We are paralysed because pyschologically we can’t face up to the scale of the loss we are looking at:
While loss features strongly in predictions about the long-term effects of climate change, writes Randall, it is not fashionable to suggest that loss is inevitably a consequence of mitigation. This is not a message that the public wants to hear, nor is it a message that politicians are enthusiastic to promote. It is possible, however, that beneath the veneer of much public indifference or cynicism, there is an underlying perception of threatened, personal losses, possibly from climate change itself but certainly from attempts at mitigation.
If this is the case then the consequence is that change will be forestalled. When loss remains unspoken, neither grieved nor worked through, then change and adjustment cannot follow.
Do we need to go through an acceptance of loss in order to reorder our world in a positive way? Is such a “mourning” even possible? This weekend the writer Paul Kingsnorth and his associate Dougald Hine are running Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Festival in Llangollen. On the Sunday I’m chairing a discussion along these lines with Paul Kingnorth, the poet Melanie Challenger and the writer Gregory Norminton. What does culture that acknowledges this look actually look like?
A couple of weeks ago I overheard someone say to a friend “I used to believe in [climate change], but now I don’t. Not since reading Superfreakonomics. It’s my bible. Is that worrying?”, to which I silently screamed “yes”.
A lot of people are saying that we’re “losing” the battle of hearts and minds on climate change. Frustratingly silly mistakes from the IPCC that make a mockery of their reportedly rigorous process, the Climategate fracas from the University of East Anglia, the naff result that was Copenhagen and the failure of the government to find a compelling and aspirational story to explain climate change are all factors that spring to my mind. Coupled of course with the effect of the cold weather as a couple (that one’s great) of our representatives demonstrated.
This poll for the BBC, for example, shows a rise of 10% in agreement with the statement “Climate change is not happening” between November 2009 and December 2010. People’s views can rapidly change on issues (especially when polled on global warming during a cold snap), but it looks like the BBC’s poll is consistent with longer term views.
As part of their survey into public attitudes towards climate change, Defra poll people on their response to five questions which reflect different positions on the New Ecological Paradigm scale:
- “Climate change is beyond control – it’s too late to do anything about it”
- “If things continue on their current course, we will soon experience a major environmental disaster”
- “We are close to the limit of the number of people the earth can support”
- “The so-called ‘environmental crisis’ facing humanity has been greatly exaggerated”
- “The Earth has very limited room and resources”
Here’s what people said at the beginning and end of a two year period. The text is a bit small, but you can click for a bigger view. The columns are grouped in five pairs – the first of each pair shows people’s response in 2007 and the second in 2009.
The overall message of this research seems to be that people aren’t throwing a belief in climate change completely out of the window. There was a change of only 3% towards disagreeing with the statement “The so-called ‘environmental crisis’ facing humanity has been greatly exaggerated”.
Rather people are gradually moderating their views on climate change, with the biggest changes being a 9% shift away from the defeatist view “Climate change is beyond control – it’s too late to do anything about it” and 6% move away from the statement “If things continue on their current course, we will soon experience a major environmental disaster”.
So what would be the right response to this change towards more moderate attitudes towards climate change? I guess the obvious one is to resist the temptation to commission more apocalyptic campaigns and commercials that will increasingly become laughed at or complained about and fail to find a foothold in people’s views.
However there is a more fundamental point to be made. There’s a rapidly growing amount of theory in the public sector around social marketing (and behavioural economics etc.) – but (speaking from the outside) all this knowledge doesn’t seem to be breaking into the planning of communications. The UK’s government has been good at creative comms in the past (e.g. Lord Woolton’s knack for PR) but we don’t seem to be doing very well with climate change. It’s superfrustrating.
RSA thursdays fill a gap in our popular imagination of the working week, sharing the honour with manic mondays, pancake tuesdays, ash wednesdays and crunchy -be-thankful fridays. One of the best things about working here is ambling into an RSA Thursday event at lunchtime and having your mind informed, amused and expanded.
I missed the event on October 1, but dutifully listened to the podcast chez london transport, and deliberately took a circuitous route home so that I could finish it uninterupted. The event, Saving Kyoto: Copenhagen and Beyond was chaired by Mark Lynas and featured the astoundingly impressive Professor Graciela Chichilnisky. The talk concerned the complex scientific, economic, and political issues around climate change, and the multi-faceted challenge of preventing planetary degradation.
I mention this event in the context of connected communities because a blunt question naturally arises: why bother trying to understand community regeneration, when faced with imminent global destruction?
Part of the answer was provided at yesterday’s RSA Thursday by Madeleine Bunting who answered a question about everybody belonging to Gaia. The author of The Plot suggested that while we may be intellectually attracted to the idea of one people, one planet, Gaia is not a natural human scale, and that environmental responsibility is grounded in attachment to a sense of place or places. She also remarked that the geographical conception of community is the most useful one.
Earlier this week, Anne Gutowski, senior fellowship support at the RSA, forwarded an email she had received from an RSA fellow, Charlene Collison, who had enclosed what she believes to be “the first community sustainability plan to be published in England” and that this was something she had been directly inspired by the RSA to do. Forest Row is a large village in the heart of Sussex that subscribes to transition culture and is one of many transition towns that is attempting to forge effective and inspiring local responses to global challenges.
In the email forwarded, Charlene Collison wrote:
“I decided the only way not to despair is to change what you can. So I started in my local community, coming together with others concerned about climate change, energy shortage, population growth, resource poverty and so on. We formed a group to create a vision for a sustainable village, under the banner of Transition Initiatives.
The future is certainly looking ominous. But I have experiences that when you join together with others to do something about it, something extraordinary starts to happen. You might start with something that seems small or insignificant in the face of the huge scale changes that are needed, with “ordinary” people, not experts, and no idea how to begin. But in the process, such groups can come up with really robust ideas and initatiatives that start things moving and create a momentum that gradually infects the wider community.”
Action is often the best antidote to despair, but no matter how inspiring and effective a local initiative in the UK manages to become, does it make a meaningful impact given that that the US and China between them emit roughly two thirds of the carbon in the global atmosphere?
I think so. First, as a moral and spiritual duty, we should do what we can, with what we have, where we are. Local transition initiatives are not merely rearranging the deckchairs on a global Titanic, they are more like a fleet of luminous lifeboats populated by those wise and brave enough to jump ship before colliding with the ice flow and giving those still on deck a way out (of course, less figuratively, it is the not the presence of ice but its absence that is the problem…).
Secondly, perhaps eco-inertia can only be shifted on a small and tangible scale where there is a clear relationship between actions and outcomes. The recent IPPR report suggested the British public were generally disinterested in climate change, and would be more likely to change their behaviour if it saved them money, rather than helping to save the planet, but it is not clear what follows from this finding. Joe public may not care about preventing the destruction of the Amazon, the ‘lungs of the earth’, but he might be interested in planting trees in a local public space, and giving his own lungs a workout in the process.
Or he might not, and perhaps we should despair, but findings about the essentially social nature of our brains tell us that we are prone to copy, imitate, and feel pressure to conform to what others around us are doing. Part of the problem is that becasue so many people who care about climate change do so little about it, the people who don’t care literally don’t see a reason to care. So you have to make your concern visible, and the best way to do that is often local, and on issues that people around you are also likely to care about.
Third, have you got anything better to do? We know that one of the consistent and reliable findings from happiness studies is not just that we are happier when we feel connected, but that one of the best ways to get connected is through volunteering, and one of things most worth volunteering for is to save the planet, one place and person at a time.
I feel there is more to say on this subject, but I am not the best person to say it. Will Shaw of the RSA Arts and Ecology team covers such issues in more depth on a near daily basis, and I am keen to hear from others, but the question remains: If the most urgent and important question of the day is climate change, what meaningful role, if any, do communities have to play?