“Remember our duty to nature before it is too late…That duty is constant. It is never completed. It lives on as we breathe.” Margaret Thatcher
Thatcher at the UN in 1990 (Image via www.Grist.org)
Whatever else you think of Margaret Thatcher, remember this. She ‘got it’ on Climate change in a way that few political leaders have before or since. Today’s press will rightly focus on the impact of her economic policy and the memory of her singular political personality. In both cases we will read about how she enforced her will. However, there is one issue on which she didn’t manage to carry the Cabinet, or the country with her: climate change.
I am grateful for James West at Grist for developing this case: Her 1990 speech to the UN laid out a simple Conservative argument for taking environmental action: “It may be cheaper or more cost-effective to take action now,” she said, “than to wait and find we have to pay much more later.” Global warming was, she argued, “real enough for us to make changes and sacrifices, so that we do not live at the expense of future generations.”
Thatcher’s climate conviction appears to have been based on the mixture of personal dispositions that made her such a distinct leader; scientific understanding – she apparently rebuffed the counter-argument that climactic variation was caused by solar radiation rather than C02 emissions based on her own personal understanding – and domestic housekeeping- planning ahead to minimise future costs and the burden to future generations.
I am grateful to
@adamjlent for mentioning that Thatcher’s speech to The Royal Society in 1988 was one of the main reasons for the massive increase in support for the Green Party in the 1989 European Elections. If you had to guess which political leader said the following three paragraphs, extracted from that speech, it is unlikely Margaret Thatcher would come to mind:
“Engineering and scientific advance have given us transport by land and air, the capacity and need to exploit fossil fuels which had lain unused for millions of years. One result is a vast increase in carbon dioxide. And this has happened just when great tracts of forests which help to absorb it have been cut down.
For generations, we have assumed that the efforts of mankind would leave the fundamental equilibrium of the world’s systems and atmosphere stable. But it is possible that with all these enormous changes (population, agricultural, use of fossil fuels) concentrated into such a short period of time, we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself.
Recently three changes in atmospheric chemistry have become familiar subjects of concern. The first is the increase in the greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide, methane, and chlorofluorocarbons—which has led some to fear that we are creating a global heat trap which could lead to climatic instability. We are told that a warming effect of 1°C per decade would greatly exceed the capacity of our natural habitat to cope. Such warming could cause accelerated melting of glacial ice and a consequent increase in the sea level of several feet over the next century. This was brought home to me at the Commonwealth Conference in Vancouver last year when the President of the Maldive Islands reminded us that the highest part of the Maldives is only six feet above sea level. The population is 177,000. It is noteworthy that the five warmest years in a century of records have all been in the 1980s—though we may not have seen much evidence in Britain!”
I grew up in a domestic atmosphere in Aberdeen where Margaret Thatcher was perceived to be the villain, and I vividly remember the intense anger against her during the marches against the introduction of the poll tax in Scotland, so praising her does not come naturally. However, it is important to find the best in people, and on the issue that I care most deeply about at the moment, it feels good to reflect on this little known part of her legacy.
As part of our research for ‘The Power of Curiosity’ report I came upon a particularly arresting turn of phrase that encapsulates one of the major policy issues of our time: ‘the energy trilemma.’
“There’s what we call the energy trilemma; three great forces for change, but pulling in different directions. First of all you’ve got our commitment from the government around climate change, so we must reduce fossil fuel generation but this will need more investment in renewable and possibly nuclear generation. The second one is that we’ve got to keep the lights on which becomes more complex and costly with renewables as it’s less predictable and controllable. The third part of the trilemma is trying to manage the bills that you and I are faced with, in the context of the first two parts of the trilemma, in recent years we’ve seen bills rise higher than the rate of inflation and bills are hurting people.” - Daniel Taylor, Head of Innovation, British Gas
Trilemmas are every bit as real and pervasive as dilemmas, just not as widely discussed because they are significantly more complicated, and debates surrounding them are more difficult to follow. In this case, the issue at hand doesn’t just apply to energy companies, so let’s make it a bit clearer:
- We have to reduce the impact of anthropogenic Climate change which means we have to significantly reduce and perhaps gradually eliminate fossil fuels from our energy supply.
- And yet we also have to retain a secure and stable energy supply with renewable forms of energy that are often thought to be less reliable (‘the sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow’)
- At the same time, while considering those trade offs and the costs incurred due to the fact(albeit an increasingly contentious one, and related to government subsidies for fossil fuels) that renewables tend to be more expensive, we have to recognise the existence of cost of living pressures on families throughout the country, especially those facing acute fuel poverty who sometimes literally freeze to death because putting the heating on has become too expensive.
It is hard to argue with the general validity of each of these imperatives, but we can, I think, question whether they deserve to be treated with equal strength and importance, and question some of the assumptions underpinning them.
Personally, I don’t think we need to debate the first point at all, and I find myself motivated to challenge the validity of the second two imperatives. But before doing that it’s important to keep perspectives and biases in mind. If you work for an energy company that relies on the supply of fossil fuels or if your responsibility is to keep the energy supply stable across the country(especially hard when people return from work apparently, when there is a huge surge in demand caused by heating and lights going on and meals being prepared); or if you struggle to pay your energy bills, or are a politician aware of the growing political importance of energy bills as an electoral issue you might be more inclined to problematise or interrogate the rather abstract and remote sounding first point, regardless of scientific opinion.
Those attacking the first horn of the trilemma might not question the reality of anthropogenic climate change, but they could question, for instance, the validity of the 2 degree global target, or question whether this country should take any kind of leadership on the issue when other similar or more culpable countries are doing less.
Those attacking the second horn of the trilemma could ask: Surely we can significantly reduce our energy demand? Or ask: How secure and stable do you need the energy supply to be? Isn’t it ok if the power goes off every so often? Couldn’t we live with back-up generators maybe, as many in India do? Or perhaps that argument is too weak, and you accept the need for reliability and predictability, but you don’t accept the contention that renewables alone can’t provide that stability. In a previous post on ‘The Third Industrial Revolution’, the idea of an energy internet was suggested to deal with precisely this challenge.
Those attacking the third point might begin with the old suggestion to wear jumpers rather than turn the heating on, but that’s a bit facile. The tougher question to pose, surely, is: Aren’t the energy companies simply charging too much? In light of the importance of climate change and the security and stability of the energy supply, could a case be made that profiting out of energy provision is somehow morally wrong? If so, should there be some sort of cap on profits, or make it mandatory that profits are reinvested in renewable energy, or could there even a case for renationalising control of our energy?
You will notice, in each case, that none of the arguments or suggestions sound completely convincing, and even where they feel necessary, they sound politically implausible. That’s why it appears to be a genuine trilemma. Something has to give.
“If the biosphere is wrecked, it will be done by nice, well-meaning, cosmopolitan people who accept the case for cutting emissions, but who won’t change by one iota the way they live.” (G Monbiot, Heat, 2007, xvii)
I recently gave a 15 minute presentation on the Social Brain Centre‘s emerging ideas relating to behaviour change in the context of Climate Change. The title was: “What kind of behaviour change do we need?” The details will soon be unpacked in a report, grounded in evidence from a national survey, but the idea in outline is as follows:
- Begin with those people who fully accept the reality of climate challenge, want to do more to deal with it in their own lives, but somehow don’t manage to (‘climate ignorers‘)
- Focus on practices that have strategic value (changing behaviour in a way that promotes attitudes or values that reinforce rather than undermine related behaviours)
- Help people change certain social practices (often called ‘habits’) that are formative of their relationship to climate change.
- Design this change in a a way that promotes social diffusion to shift social norms and shape political will at a local level.
- Through a shift in civil society, local government and businesses, change political will at national and international levels.
On reflection, I realised there is a subtle but important difference between behaviour change for climate change as a social and cultural phenomenon, and behaviour change for energy-related behaviours.
Now I know that pattern of change sounds a bit too good, platonic and partial to be true, but it’s a relatively coherent roadmap, and it helps to frame the role, relevance of nature of the behaviour change interventions that we want to work on. I’m really excited about this work programme, which feels very promising, and I am therefore very grateful to our funders for giving us a chance to give some practical definition to this theory of change.
And yet, when I gave the talk, I didn’t feel quite right afterwards, and sensed that I hadn’t connected with the audience as well as I might usually hope to. What was going on?
I gradually realised that the room was full of people who are working actively to reduce emissions in the UK. Everyone present had some form of connection with The Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts Climate Change Collaboration and many, perhaps most, have some practical experience of attempts to implement The Green Deal.
On reflection, I realised there is a subtle but important difference between behaviour change for climate change as a social and cultural phenomenon, and behaviour change for energy-related behaviours. I suspect most people in the room were focussed on the latter issue, while I spoke mostly to the former.
Why we Disagree about Climate Change:
The climate change challenge is compounded by the fact that people think about it in very different ways. Many see it fundamentally as a technical problem. On this view, Climate Scientists tell us about the extent of the risk to the stability and predictability of natural systems in probabilistic language, the political class, advised mostly by economists, make a collective judgement about how serious the problem is, and then they decide on what a credible and achievable solution looks like. In theory, businesses, civil servants, consumers and citizens then rally to that judgement.
On this framing of ’climate change’ it’s a clear problem lending itself to a solution. The corollary is that behaviour change is principally about working to make efficient energy use easier and more rewarding, and then measuring the impact of those interventions against national targets. If you can get people to retrofit their homes in the right way, switch to green energy providers, and improve the fuel efficiency of their cars and their driving behaviours, then you are taking huge strides towards solving ‘the problem’.
Climate Change: Technical Problem or Adaptive Challenge?
But many don’t see it as that kind of ‘problem’ and are sceptical that such ‘solutions’ could ever really work. At the risk of sounding (Bill) Clintonesque, there is a difference between Climate Change as a natural phenomenon and ‘Climate change’ as a social and political issue, and even when you accept the reality of the former, there is huge scope for dispute about the latter. Indeed, in a previous post I suggested there are at least 30 wedge issues on climate change.
Perhaps the most important wedge in these wedge issues is one we make in Transforming Behaviour Change (see part two, p17), namely the distinction between technical problems and adaptive challenges. In this respect it is noteworthy that Harvard Professor Ron Heifetz suggests that most failures of leadership stem from the tendency to treat adaptive challenges as technical problems. Could this be happening to Climate Change?
While you can and should deal with some energy-related inefficiencies as technical problems, climate change as a whole is a more complex adaptive challenge requiring a wider set of responses. I will develop this point in our forthcoming report, but for now consider the following simple example that shows the huge difference between measuring impact through emissions(national, in aggregate) verses measuring it through carbon footprints(personal, international).
Although not generally consonant with our approach, a review article in The Economist gave a good example of a technical solution that fails to grapple with the underlying challenge. Simply stated, Government emissions targets do not reflect the carbon cost of imports, and this (in my view!) is at least partly because factoring in the carbon costs of imports calls into question the whole nature and purpose of the global economy.
Since Chinese and Indian manufacturing is usually dirtier than Europe’s, the real upshot of Europe’s choices has been an increase in global emissions.
“By concentrating on their own carbon production, and how to reduce it, Europeans have ignored the impact of their continued demand for goods made using carbon- intensive processes. Since Chinese and Indian manufacturing is usually dirtier than Europe’s, the real upshot of Europe’s choices has been an increase in global emissions. The regulatory approach, argues Mr Helm, has got the worst of all worlds. It is expensive, it has not cut emissions and its treaties are unworkable. No wonder the public is growing sceptical.”
As always with climate change, there is a lot going on in that paragraph, but the key point is that the ‘demand for goods made using carbon intensive processes’ is an adaptive challenge, not a technical problem.
Dealing with that challenge requires forms of behaviour change that go way beyond our immediate relationship to energy in our homes. Indeed, viewing climate change as an adaptive challenge means engaging with attitudes and values relating to consumption more broadly, and even our perceived need for economic growth.
In other words, coming back to George Monbiot’s quote, to make a meaningful contribution to addressing climate change, the form of behaviour change we work on has to go beyond improving energy efficiency, and at least raise the question of how we might successfully change our lifestyles.
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.
Do you care about climate change? Do you think you have a role to play in helping to reduce carbon emissions? Would you make small changes if you knew they would make a difference? What’s stopping you?
I’ve been thinking a lot about these sorts of questions recently, not least because I’m now working on an exciting and important piece of work looking at behaviour change for climate change. In doing so, my imagination has been particularly captured by the work of Elizabeth Shove (rhymes with cove not love). Professor Shove’s work has looked particularly at changing social practices and the implications of these for energy demand and climate change.
Her seminal paper on conventions of Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience had quite an effect on me. In the paper, Shove talks about the changing dynamics of social practices and conventions in relation to, amongst other things, personal cleanliness. It has become normal – expected, even – in the Western world, to shower (or bathe) on a daily basis.
This is a relatively new development – Shove notes that it was less than a century ago that a weekly bath was the norm. But the social practice has very much taken hold, and the idea of showering any less than every day is largely unpalatable.
I recently discovered the extent to which people are repelled by the idea of less-than-daily-showering when I told some friends about my decision to halve the number of showers I take. My decision to do this was a direct response to reading Shove’s work, which made me see that I have succumbed, almost blindly, to participating in a social practice, for no good reason other than convention.
I recently discovered the extent to which people are repelled by the idea of less-than-daily-showering when I told some friends about my decision to halve the number of showers I take.
Like many people, I’m someone who is, in general terms, quite concerned about the climate change problem. I recognise that my actions contribute to over-consumption and that my behaviour results in a carbon footprint. I’d like to do more than I currently do to make a positive difference, but it isn’t always clear to me what I should do.
Showering less frequently appealed to me because it is such an obvious way to reduce the energy I use in heating water, as well as the amount of water I consume, without having a terribly negative impact on my life. So, for the past three months, I’ve been having a shower roughly every other day.
It was remarkably easy to make the change, and I haven’t felt uncomfortable, unclean or self-conscious. No one has said anything to me about me looking or smelling any worse than usual, so all in all I’d say the experiment has been a success, and I’ve (possibly) permanently shifted my habit.
Great, I thought, this is an easy thing that everyone could do: I’d better tell people about it. I did not expect my friends to react in the way they did. Comments included, “Don’t you feel disgusting?” “I can’t believe you went out for a meal without having had a shower – that’s so disrespectful to your friend.” “There’s no way I could do that, I’d be so embarrassed.” “Isn’t that a bit extreme?” Other reactions were more supportive, but, to my surprise, no one I spoke to was keen to give it a try. Even a friend who works as the sustainability manager for a higher education institution couldn’t imagine “feeling right” without having a shower in the morning.
I really was surprised by this – although I knew the social practices associated with cleanliness are embedded in our society, I somehow didn’t expect to find such deep attachment to them. Am I an extremist for showering less-than-daily? Is it really disrespectful to socialise without having showered? And more importantly, if social practices can become so widespread and so deeply ingrained within a generation, surely they can also be moderated or even reversed. What do you think – would you shower less to save the planet?
This morning, the Department for Transport are announcing a £62m investment in cycling infrastructure. Sounds like good news – investment in cycling is badly needed in the UK (although before we get too excited, £62 million is roughly what it would cost to build two miles of motorway, so falls short of whole-hearted commitment to change the way we travel). We lag way behind the rest of Europe, with only just over 2% of Brits using bikes as their main mode of transport. Compare this to the Netherlands (75%), or Germany (30%), and we look pretty pitiable.
We lag way behind the rest of Europe, with only just over 2% of Brits using bikes as their main mode of transport.
But is investment in infrastructure going to be enough to encourage more of us to take to two wheels? Much of the money will be spent on improving road access for cyclists, and increasing the number of bike parking spaces at railway stations and in cities. These infrastructural improvements are certainly much needed, and I fully support investment to facilitate them. But I think it’s also important to consider other barriers, including attitudinal ones, which prevent people from cycling.
One of these barriers is almost certainly perception of danger. In their report on Climate Change and Transport Choices for the Department of Transport in 2011, Alex Thornton and colleagues found that nearly two thirds of Britons think that it is too dangerous to cycle on roads, with around half saying that they simply will not cycle on roads, under any circumstances. Roads are dangerous places, but government statistics show that fewer cyclists are killed on the roads than either car users or pedestrians. So, if the reality is that it is far more dangerous to travel on the road by car than by bike, then why have we convinced ourselves that it is so perilous?
Despite the fact that they are more dangerous, cars offer a kind of cocoon, which I suspect makes us feel protected from danger. On a bike, there is a sense of exposure, which feels hazardous and that feeling is very difficult to override by overlaying it with facts. For the significant majority of British people who feel that cycling is unsafe, no amount of bike parking spaces is going to change things.
There are also unhelpful stereotypes which suggest cycling requires specialist equipment, clothing and paraphernalia, as this blog post points out. Hi-visibility tabards, helmets, gloves, panniers – none of these things are actually essential, and in a way, they only serve to make cyclists appear like a sort of out-group clique. For cycling to genuinely be for everybody, it needs to be normal to cycle around cities wearing whatever clothes you happen to wearing, and without any special preparation.
Other barriers include things like status – the car as status symbol isn’t really rivalled by bicycles. For women, concerns about the impact on appearance (helmet hair!), personal dignity and vulnerability have also been cited as reasons not to cycle.
Personally, I’m a bit of an evangelist for cycling and most of these barriers seem pretty trivial. I firmly believe cycling is hard to beat when it comes to health, equality and sustainability. Rearranging a few details of your life in order to make it feasible to cycle to work, or to the train station if you have a longer commute makes such good sense on so many levels. Cycling is unquestionably one of the most equitable means of transport, having very low direct user costs and therefore being affordable by pretty much everyone.
cycling is hard to beat when it comes to health, equality and sustainability
Cycling causes basically no pollution and consumes very little in the way of non-renewable resources, especially compared to motorised forms of transport. The only energy needed to cycle is generated by the cyclist, and the very use of that energy gives the cyclist the opportunity for beneficial cardiovascular exercise. Sedentary office workers are chronically under-exercised, and wasting an hour a day sitting passively on a bus, tube or train, when you could spend the same amount of time doing good things for your body, the planet, not to mention your wallet seems plain crazy to me.
If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas. - George Bernard Shaw
Could our major problems have a discernible ‘form’ that is somehow more fundamental than their content? If there is some sort of pattern, wouldn’t it make sense to target the pattern as a whole, rather than individual issues piecemeal? Marxists might say that Capitalism as such is the underlying problem, but I don’t think we have to endorse that view to look for what Bateson once called “the pattern that connects“.
We will shortly be publishing a report examining Iain McGilchrist’s work that argues there is a discernible pattern relating to the distinctive phenomenologies of the two brain hemispheres. The claim is that many of our major problems relate to the fact that the ‘inferior’ (though definitely important) left hemisphere is slowly usurping the (wiser but more tentative) right hemisphere at a cultural level, with the consequence that we live increasingly virtual and instrumental lives, and may not even realise what we are losing. The details of that discussion are coming soon to a screen near you, but there are other ways to conceive the form of the problem.
Who controls information?
“Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves.” – Aaron Swartz.
When you start to think deeply about our major challenges – including climate change – you quickly run into various vested interests that get in the way of solutions, and many such vested interests are preserved through unequal access to information – academic, technological, legal, environmental, political, financial and so forth. Information should be a public good, and benefits larger numbers when it is shared, but perhaps the main way that vested interests perpetuate their power is through the control and protection of information. For instance what do Shell tell us about their research into drilling in the Arctic, and how can we know it represents full disclosure? What if a doctor prescribes you medicine and you can’t access the relevant primary research because you run into a pay wall? What if the most promising components needed for a technological breakthrough on clean energy are patented by a small group, and therefore thousands of scientists can’t follow that path of inquiry?
Information should be a public good, and benefits larger numbers when it is shared, but perhaps the main way that vested interests perpetuate their power is through the control and protection of information.
Such control of information is deeply related to financial dependency. Those who control information are supported in their control by law and lawyers. An excerpt from a talk by Harvard academic and activist Lawrence Lessig captures the centrality of this point.
“(American) politics is filled with easy cases that we get wrong. The scientific consensus on global warming is overwhelming, but we abandon the Kyoto Protocol. Nutritionists are clear that sugar is unhealthy, but the sugar lobby gets it into dietary recommendations. Retroactive copyright extensions do nothing for society, but Congress passes them over and over.
Similar errors are made in other fields that have the public trust. Studies of new drugs are biased towards the drug companies. Law professors and other scholars write papers biased towards the clients they consult for.
Why? Because the trusted people in each case are acting as dependants. The politicians are dependent on fundraising money. They are good people, but they need to spend a quarter of their time making fundraising calls. So most of the people they speak to our lobbyists and they never even hear from the other side. If they were freed from this dependence they would gladly do the right thing.
The scientists get paid to sign on to studies done by the drug companies. The law professors get paid to consult.
How do we solve it? We need to free people from dependency. But this is too hard. We should fight for it, but politicians will never endorse a system of public funding of campaigns when they have so much invested in the current system. Instead, we need norms of independence. People need to start saying that independence is important to them and that they won’t support respected figures who act as dependants. And we can use the Internet to figure out who’s acting as dependants.”
At the risk of simplification, the underlying problem is that the inequality in power is perpetuated by the unequal access to information, and this is a self-perpetuating problem because those with power based on information use it to create dependants, and these dependants thereby develop a vested interest in protecting the information that forms their livelihood.
Why did nobody tell me about Aaron Swartz?
I started to think about this when I realised, sadly, that I never knew the pioneering cyber activist Aaron Swartz while he was alive. He recently ended his own life at the age of 26 under enormous legal and political pressure, but is viewed by many as a hero of our times who was driven over the edge by an excessively zealous witch hunt. He was known for being prodigious and hyper-intelligent, but is perhaps best known and admired for the way he swiftly conjured enormous political capital to prevent the SOPA (Stop online piracy act) law in the US which he speaks about so clearly and compellingly here (highly recommended viewing). In essence he prevented the passing of a law that would have radically undermined people’s capacity to connect and share information online, and the way he did so is inspiring, because it looked like he was facing impossible odds.
A friend and former RSA colleague Jamie Young remarked that if I was going to write about Aaron Swartz, I should also mention the UK’s Chris Lightfoot who was a similar character fighting a similar kind of battle – a broadly political fight about who rightfully controls information- and also took his life at a young age. The RSA has raised similar questions before, for instance by hosting Evgeny Mozorov who’s talk on why Dictators love the internet was turned into an RSAnimate.
What all these thinkers share is a belief that the access to information has much wider implications that people typically realise.
What all these thinkers share is a belief that the access to information has much wider implications that people typically realise. As Professor Shamad Basheer puts it in the Spicy IP Blog We live in “a world where the powers that be conspire time and again to reassert hegemony and re-establish control in a digital world whose essential DNA is one of openness and sharing.”
The main take-home point for me lies in the gap between the social norms of sharing and openness online, with the economic and legal norms relating to the perpetuation of property rights and power that have been formed before the digital age. In Aaron Swartz’s case, this battle unfolded in his heart and mind to a tragic extent, but the more I think about it, the more it seems like an enormously important battle between the public good and private ownership that will be defined largely by the political will of the relevant institutions – which in turn is shaped by us (that’s what Lessig was getting at above about the need to shape social norms).
It may not make sense to ‘take sides’ as such, and there are certainly ways to protect intellectual property that are more canny and proportionate. (As an author of three books, all of which have been PDFed and sold cheaply by Xerox merchants online, I am also a kind of ‘dependant’ with a vested interest here).
Whatever you think, I would ask you to reflect on the opening quotation by George Bernard Shaw. Ideas need each other to flourish, but they can’t meet when they are help in captivity, and they will ultimately need some form of power to free them.
Over the last few days I have noticed several people daring to think about – and this really is rather daring – where all their stuff comes from.
It started with food in general, in the context of an appearance on the Today Programme. My basic argument was that our sense of what is wasteful depends on our perception of scarcity, and we don’t experience scarcity, mostly because we are so far removed from the provenance of the things we rely on: food, water and energy. I am beginning to think that the core problem is that such things are kept relatively cheap only because we don’t factor in their true environmental, social and health costs, and an excellent editorial in Sunday’s Observer: “There’s a price to be paid for our cheap food” seemed to share this view.
Image via www.gulawweekly.org
Then I noticed a tweet from Public Understanding of Science supremo Alice Bell this morning: “Those last two tweets posted from my phone. Which is amazing. But I want to know more about the materials, people & injustices that made it.” She probably already knows this story about phone materials, but it is pretty shocking. A line from the feature captures the core problem- there is a huge demand for tin due to our insatiable appetite for new phones, but the kinds of tin we need are not easy to extract, and cause a great deal of harm along the way: ”Tin mining is a lucrative but destructive trade that has scarred the island’s landscape, bulldozed its farms and forests, killed off its fish stocks and coral reefs, and dented tourism to its pretty palm-lined beaches.”
(Image via thehindu.com)
On the same Twitter stream there was a report about Tea plantations being threatened by Climate Change. My colleague Dr Emma Lindley has a charming biographical line “Manchester-based drinker of Yorkshire tea” and I’m partial to Yorkshire tea myself, but you don’t need to pause for long to realise that Yorkshire tea is not actually grown in, y’know, Yorkshire. It seems there is now a consortium of tea companies “Tea 2030″ supported by Forum for the Future who are realising that some of the places most likely to be impacted by climate disruption (by the way, I think that’s a much better term than ‘climate change’ HT Ian Christie). If the idea of Polar bears swimming in search of ice until they drown didn’t get your attention, perhaps waking up without access to a good and affordable cuppa might do it.
(Image via touristindia.org)
Finally(for now at least) I remembered the absolutely wonderful RSA event “Eating Animals” featuring Jonathan Safran Foer. I strongly urge you to listen to the full audio podcast which includes his considered answers to some tough audience questions. I loved this talk because I don’t think people should wear the term ‘vegetarian’ as some sort of self-righteous badge of honour, and then cross-examine people for their consitency of their practices (milk? eggs? leather?). I fully agree with Jonathan’s point that making it a moral binary, an either-or, just doesn’t help. People are attached to meat for lots of reasons, not just taste but various valued cultural and spiritual practices that involve it.
(Image via guardian.co.uk)
The key is first to recognise the harm involved in the process, and to take responsibility for your actions with as much awareness as you can. And that’s the reason the talk was so brilliant. The main take-home point for me was his simple observation that the meat industry relies on ignorance about food production and guards it very carefully. The corollary (note to self: at some point it’s worth digging out the exact quotation) is that Jonathan says something like “It only goes in one direction. The more you know about where it comes from, the less you want to eat it.”
The same point applies to ethical behaviour and sustainability more broadly- much of it is about who owns and protects information. More about that on Friday.
As part of a new project proposal I’ve been thinking again about the politics of climate change. I have a sneaking suspicion that the left-right spectrum is a heuristic that does more harm than good, especially on ecological questions, but it is still useful for highlighting why certain problems appear to be intractable.
On the right, you have some who deny(rather a lot in the US) many who accept but downplay(rather a lot in the UK), and some who accept the gravity and urgency of the problem and believe the solution lies in a combination of technology and market solutions, especially a functioning carbon market. One recent example of a coherent account of this position is given by Republican Bob Inglis. The McKinsey Global Institute report on ‘The carbon productivity challenge’ is also worth a read. Although not explicitly politically, it does seem to lean to the right, by making certain credible but questionable assumptions about the need for a certain amount of economic growth and the level of emissions that may be permissible.
On the left, you have many who get the problem and think ‘something must be done’, but are too busy or habituated to do it themselves, some proposing various kinds of government regulation on emissions, and also some ‘watermelons’ – green concealing red- who use climate change to smuggle in Marxist political ideology. In a recent interview, Naomi Klein give s a lucid account of this kind of challenge:
“If you have an egalitarian and communitarian worldview, and you tend toward a belief system of pooling resources and helping the less advantaged, then you believe in climate change…. Climate change confirms what people on the left already believe. But the Left must take this confirmation responsibly. It means that if you are on the left of the spectrum, you need to guard against exaggeration and your own tendency to unquestioningly accept the data because it confirms your worldview.”
Climate change confirms what people on the left already believe. But the Left must take this confirmation responsibly.
My own view, not shared by all parts of the RSA, is that Tim Jackson’s argument appears to stack up. He is not ‘anti-growth’ but I think he is right that ‘prosperity’ is a social and psychological issue as much as an economic one. In so far as we all share the goal of increasing our prosperity, we need to recognise that pursuing it exclusively through economic growth (in the developed world at least) appears to undermine the social and ecological conditions on which our wider prosperity depends. We can’t take economic decisions as if they were not social and environmental decisions too.
It may be politically naive to think it could ever be possible to have a capitalist economy without economic growth being the goal, but if it begins to look simply necessary, as I believe it is beginning to, then we may have to try. In this respect I am reminded of Aristotle’s line: “If at first you do what is necessary, and then do what is possible, soon you find you are achieving the impossible.”
We can’t take economic decisions as if they were not social and environmental decisions too.
In this context I believe the challenge for the right is that continuing to pursue economic growth in the developed world within ecological limits necessitates the impossible- namely a level of social and technological innovation several orders of magnitude higher than the industrial revolution. (Jeremy Rifkind is one of the few visionaries who has considered how this might work as ‘the third industrial revolution’) I think it is a fair rejoinder for people on the right to say- yes that sounds (almost) impossible, but no less so than trying to create a no-growth economy.
This balance of impossibilities and competing necessities is important to keep in mind- climate change is a truly wicked problem.
But here is what really worries me. The conventional wisdom on solving climate change is that we need to throw everything at it – a bit of behaviour, a bit of regulation, a bit of technology, a bit of design, a bit of economic incentivising and so forth. But what if we get in each others’ way? We have some arguing that we need green growth and investment in green technologies, and others saying no, we need to change the paradigm, stop seeking growth and reduce consumption. When the remaining time to act is so scarce that it is frustrating to be on tracks that don’t seem to support each other and if anything are somewhat contradictory. Collectively, in so far as this is an issue, it is one we should collectively accept is neither left nor right, but simply wrong.
It is in this context that I believe the Common Cause Report was profoundly right about the need to think of how different types of climate change intervention reinforce certain kinds of values. Let’s stop pretending that those who share an understanding of the problem are natural allies, and start thinking more deeply about the values we share and the values that separate us. We will continue to disagree, but it would be great if we could begin to understand the nature and depth of the disagreement well enough to help each other deal intelligently with the shared problem at hand.
(If you are just too curious to see the actual RSA report to read this blog, go here, now, and come back and tell us what you think…)
Curiosity is the very basis of education, and if you tell me that curiosity killed the cat, I say only the cat died nobly. - Arnold Edinborough
Tomorrow Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, will visit the Eco Technology Show in Brighton - a national showcase of the latest technologies designed to protect the environment and make our daily business and home lives more efficient. No doubt there will be lots of great gadgets on show, and most of them will have arisen from forms of innovation that we urgently need to address our future energy challenges.
Urgent seems to be the right word. A combination of high levels of economic growth in developing countries, the perceived imperative of economic growth in developed countries, and a rise in global population means that, short of a radical overhaul of the
entire world economic and political system, the world’s energy needs will continue to grow. And yet research at the Stockholm resilience centre suggests we have already harmed the planet beyond repair in certain ways (biodiversity loss and
disturbances to the nitrogen cycle) and, on our current trajectory, are likely to continue to do so to an increasingly damaging extent, particularly in relation to the effects of anthropogenic climate change.
Our working definition of curiosity is “a focussed or exploratory inquisitiveness that motivates us to connect what we don’t know to what we do know.”
We need more energy, but we are running out of planet. In this context, while political (e.g. meaningful emissions targets) economic (e.g. viable carbon markets) and technological (e.g. more productive renewable energy) solutions are important, any progress on these fronts need to be supported by reductions in energy demand and improved energy efficiency. Moreover, progress on these fronts should not be viewed as additive, but as inextricably linked. We need technology to enhance society, but technological design relies on human insight.
Unfortunately, the recent social attitudes survey, and various market surveys suggest that people are developing a kind of ‘green fatigue’, and part of the urgency has to be finding ways to reconnect people with the energy they rely on, but never think about when they boil four cups of water for one cup of tea or pre-heat the oven for twenty minutes instead of ten. Despite rising energy prices, we don’t seem to behave as if we understood that energy is scarce.
In fact we take many extraordinary things for granted. Clean running water, functional plug points, vanishing rubbish bags, warm white radiators, reliable car pedals, predictable light switches, safe gas hobs, and enormous metallic vehicles that somehow fly through the sky. We get used to such things, and learn how to live with them and through them. But is something lost when we cease to be curious about the things we rely on? In what ways might it help to be more curious, and what kinds of curiosity might currently be most needful?
In our report, launched today: The Power of Curiosity: How Linking Inquisitiveness to Innovation could help to address our energy challenges we explore these questions in detail.
we take many extraordinary things for granted. Clean running water, functional plug points, vanishing rubbish bags, warm white radiators, reliable car pedals, predictable light switches, safe gas hobs, and enormous metallic vehicles that somehow fly through the sky.
Our working definition of curiosity is “a focussed or exploratory inquisitiveness that motivates us to connect what we don’t know to what we do know.” However, the first chapter probes existing definitions, measures and dimensions of curiosity in more detail, and we attempt to create an empirical measure of curiosity based on six questions adapted from the existing psychometric literature. The survey was used to gauge existing levels of curiosity throughout the UK.
One result in need of further analysis is that Scotland appears to be the least curious part of the UK, and Wales the most curious. We don’t really know why yet, which has made my job rather difficult today because on regional and national radio stations the presenters all want a clear explanation for that result(in itself an example of the information gap theory of curiosity that we mention the report). “What’s wrong with Scotland?”, was in fact the opening question of my interview with BBC Radio Scotland this morning. “Nothing!” was my reflex response, being Scottish myself, but they kept digging- could it be about education? confidence? I’m not sure, though I managed to slip in one of my favourite questions as a way of suggesting it might be ‘contentment’ : “If ignorance is bliss, why do we seek knowledge?”
I hope you can read the report, but if you want the jist, here is an extract from our conclusion:
Understanding curiosity can help to create more effective feedback on home energy consumption, improve how we communicate environmental messages, and develop more sophisticated strategies to change behaviours that are habitual in nature.
Our research indicates that curiosity may play an important part in stimulating innovation in ways that we urgently need to meet energy challenges in Britain. Understanding curiosity can help to create more effective feedback on home energy consumption, improve how we communicate environmental messages, and develop more sophisticated strategies to change behaviours that are habitual in nature. We also explore several ways that we could try to build on the natural curiosity of young people in educational settings.
If there is an overarching impression worth ending on, it is that curiosity may have been hollowed out in some sense.
If there is an overarching impression worth ending on, it is that curiosity may have been hollowed out in some sense. Shallow curiosity can now be quickly satiated through Google or similar devices, but deep curiosity that arises from sustained focus and engagement is arguably not supported and protected in the culture at large as much as it could be. Creating a truly sustainable economy is an issue worthy of deep and sustained engagement from all of us, and it is hoped that a deeper appraisal of curiosity in all its forms may help to achieve this.