Sunday 21 December 2008

How about this for a Christmas present?!

I bought The Independent today because its front page sub-heading was:

'President-elect signals determination to fight recession with unprecendented eco-revolution'

Obama is putting together an administration that is overtly green. Amongst others he will make John Holdren his Energy Secretary and Jane Lubchenco his administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Professor Holdren is a nobel prize winning physicist and forceful advocate of carbon-free energy, while Professor Lubchenco is an oceanographer who specialises in the impact of global warming on the oceans. Is the USA becoming green?! It looks like there will be some action on Climate Change, only time will tell us what this action is, how deep Obama plans to go, how quickly a green-collar employment sector grows, what it will look like and how it will be funded.

From a British perspective, it would be interesting, right now, to ask Gordon Brown.... 'so Gordie what do you think about this new green administration of Obama's, are you going to follow suit, are you going to swap the purple tie for a green one?' I don't think the PM is a regular reader of this blog, but if I bump into him when I'm last minute Christmas shopping tomorrow I'll ask him and give him a copy of NEF's Green New Deal!

Since going out into the big bad real world, I have been amazed at the lack of funding available to help companies, schools, charities and so on develop environmental and sustainability policies. Schools, Charities and struggling businesses just can't afford an 'expert' to help them become green. Being 'green' is not as simple as it seems, it takes time, careful (and not always intuitive) planning, commitment, and a willingness to make sustainability a key principle underlying a companies operations and aspirations. The responsibility for doing something about 'the environment' usually falls to someone who shows an interest in it (someone who has watched An Inconvinient Truth and read a bit of George Monbiot). Given the low levels of Sustainability literacy that exist within the current workforce, it is not often that the someone has had an education that allows them to develop a well-thought out and approproiate response to the challenges. Often that someone has a passion (much needed) but no clear idea of what to do and how to do it! The result: poorly planned, marginal, low impact, conspicuosly green actions that might look the part but don't really cut the organic mustard. Every organisation is unique and must design and develop its response to sustainability based around this sort of question: what can we do to limit our environmental impact, and what can we do to help others limit thiers? Well informed, well intentioned and sustainably literate people need to brought in to help organisations, the problem is it is difficult to expect high calibre people to do this for free, they need to be funded. Either the government can fund this work, or the organisation can recognise the long term need for them to plan effectively now to ensure that their organisation actually has a future and invest appropriately.

It will be very interesting to see the reaction around the world to Obama's environmental intentions, and, in the longer term, his actions. Will people start thinking 'Well if the President of the USA thinks this is important, it must be bloody important!' and get on board? In Britain we have been pretty good at following America's lead over the last few years, the results have been pretty catastrophic. When I went to the launch of The Green New Deal, the Guardian journalist and green new deal contributor, Larry Elliot, said that the current economic crisis is a huge opportunity to instigate a progression to a greener society. Given the political and corporate will many jobs in the green sector can be created, the need is clear!

Thursday 11 December 2008

Being Immaterially Green

I am now The School of Life expert on green living, see my profile page here: I have written for the The School of Life blog on the problem of being conspicuously green.

The main premise is that if being green is sold to us as a way of creating our identities, it embodies rather than challenges consumerism. Being green, becoming green, is about letting go of consumerist values. Read more here:

Friday 5 December 2008

Mark vernon - Wellbeing

By reading this book I was hoping to add to my understanding of what makes me 'well'. Like Vernon, I would rather not use the word 'happy', because happiness has come to mean the 'feeling' of happiness, rather than the overall underlying contentment which is better described by the word 'wellbeing'.

The problem with searching for happiness as good feelings is that life takes on a hedonistic chase for highs, which are usually extrinsically sought. Lows inevitably follow highs when normal life is not satisfying and lacking in meaning. Vernon describes how emotional wellbeing results from well doing. He talks, in depth, about spirituality and transcendence and how they contribute to wellbeing. I have to confess that I sometimes found it hard to follow all of his explorations of Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Neitzsche and so on and this is my point.

It is only relatively recently that I have really questioned what I ned to feel emotional wellbeing. It is a question that I never really explored in school, at university or with friends and family.

Experience as well as learning has led me to understand that my emotional well being derives from well doing. I like to enjoy my life and I want others to enjoy it too. This is why I have become an Environmentalist and a liver of a materially simple life. I try to enjoy my life without compromising the ability of others to enjoy theirs. In fact I love helping others discover how to enjoy theirs.

An exploration of what brings physical and emotional wellbeing should be at the heart of, not just education for sustainability, but also education in general. We need to think moe about what we want our children to grow up to be. Do we want them to be ultra competitive, materialist, hedonistic consumers, or do we want them to feel that their lives have real meaning, contributing to the common good and so on?

The designers of curriculum should put these questions at the heart of what they do. Books like Mark Vernon's are useful places to start.

Dr Phillips to the rescue

Here I am in my robes at Cheltenham racecourse on Wednesday just before the ceremony in The Centaur! It was a lovely family day and the graduation ceremony was really well run, if a little expensive for guests, photos, robe hire and so on!! I was graduating alongside everyone from the education department, the most noticeable thing was how few men were graduating... nearly every graduate of the PGCE (Primary education) was female. There were also considerably fewer men compared to women going into secondary education... just an observation!

Thanks to everyone who made sure I handed the thing in, it was a long but very rewarding journey that I couldn't have finished without you! The real work starts here!

Friday 28 November 2008

Bonfire of the Brands

Neil Boorman's book 'Bonfire of the Brands' is an inspiration. The book tells the story of Neil giving up all of his branded goods. He does this, very much for his own emotional well-being. Notably the environmental benefits of consuming less are a secondary influencer and give him some resolve and belief that he is doing the right thing. The reasons why he changes his behaviour are, however, largely personal ones... he was fed up of being 'owned' by brands. 'The problem is not that people own things, the problem is that things own people!' (De Graff et al., 2002). Below is a Bonfire of the Brands video, it is a nice bit of Aldous Huxley themed Environmental Education.

The Good Consumer

Wednesday 26 November 2008

Professor Sir David King deserves a bigger audience!

In a week when Malcolm Gladwell had them queueing round the corner to listen to him talk about the merits of american and australian pilots over columbian ones, I sat in a row on my own in a lecture thearte at UCL listening to a deeply moving and expertly delivered exploration of the challenges of the 21st century by Professor Sir David King wishing he had Gladwell's PR machine behind him. There were about 40 people there, most of them UCL academics, the rest a handful of students. I wish more people could have heard (or wanted to hear) what this man had to say.

Sir David King has a calmness that gives you confidence. The content of what he said about the security of energy, water, food and peace, as well as what he said about the two biggies: Biodiversity and Climate Change was no less frightening than what everyone else says. But, unlike someone like George Monbiot the tone was far less hysterical and the mood was far less 'RIGHT ON MAN, LET'S GET OUT THERE AND SHOUT AND SCREAM AT OUR POLITICIANS AND THE GENERAL STUPID PUBLIC!' Sir David has been there, he has advised world leaders, he is a realist, he has his frustrations for sure, but he is incredibly sensible and rational about what can be done, especially about climate change.

Global population is predicted to rise to 9 billion by 2050 and that population will have increased aspirations about their standard of living, meaning that our average consumption per person will also increase - more people consuming more stuff. Given this (likely) scenario King argued that a paradigm shift is needed, we need a new way of thinking about how we live. The challenge for the 21st century is clear we are going to have to deal with more people consuming more stuff. At the end of his lecture King stated the following four cultural challenges that need to be overcome to allow a paradigm shift:

1. National perceptions versus global priorities (the Bush administration is the best example of this. King described how Bush had said that his priority was looking after the USA and their economy, energy security and so on. As far as he was concerned the rest of the world could deal with Climate Change)
2. Economism; unfettered consumerism as the instrument for economic growth (he pointed out the economic and environmental unsustainability of this strategy, I would have been deeply disapointed if he hadn't!)
3. Nostalgic romanticism; or the 'angst of affluence' (Paul Collier)
4. Re-gearing science and technology to meet the global challenge. (The appropriateness of scientific work should be re-thought - 'do we really need another Hadron Collider if this one doesn't work?' quipped King.)

These are huge challenges. King pointed out that there is a lot that can and should be done in the short term that does not require huge cultural shifts. For example ensuring our highly wastesful building infrastructure is made energy efficient should be a number one priority and global investment into renewable energy is a must. I had two questions for Sir David King scribbled in my note pad, unfortunatley I didn't get a chance to ask them... I handed them to him on a note, they were (and still are):

1. How can we stimulate a letting go of the materialist, individualist and hedonistic value systems that underlie consumerism?
2. Can I have a job at your new 'Smith School of Enterprise and The Environment' to help you answer my first question and all the difficult questions that surround it?!

I really do hope he has some thoughts on the 'big question.' If you ever see an advert for a David King lecture, please, please go along and ask him!

He does have a book (which is in the post to me right now) that might have some answers!

(This report is a good summary of a similar talk by Sir David, some figures have probably changed. There is also a link to a video there)

Sunday 23 November 2008

If not a consumer economy then what?

I’ve had a busy week. On Tuesday (the 18th) I was the speaker at CafĂ© Scientifique in Cheltenham where I managed to instigate a lively debate around the relationships between sustainability, consumerism and well being. It was so encouraging to hear so many people grappling with the question of ‘what do we need for a ‘well’ life?’ I posed the question ‘what lies beyond a consumer economy?’ I don’t know the answer to that one, I’m not sure any one does, but if you think about sustainability for long enough it is the one question you will always reach, as painful as it is for some, it is hard to ignore. My only hope is the more people we can get to the point where they understand why we have to ask that question, the more chance we will get of finding an answer to it. From Cheltenham I headed to Bath to give a presentation to the Centre for Research in Environmental Education (CREE) at the University of Bath. That was the presentation that I have been preparing to give since I started my PhD studies. I was, I think, received well and ended up by questioning and suggesting how EfS can contribute to the asking and answering of the same big question: ‘If not a consumer economy then what?’

This ‘big’ question is in focus now more than ever. As I travelled round, staying with friends, conversing with acquaintances and keeping an eye on the papers, the inescapable reality of redundancies, the economic downturn and the ‘end of shopping’ was everywhere I went. I have friends worrying about how they are going to tell colleagues that they need to clear their desks as well as friends who are suffering huge anxieties over how long it is until they get called into the bosses’ office for some bad news. The most obvious impact of the downturn (and driver of unemployment) is the drop off in the great British leisure activity of shopping; I wonder what people are doing for fun instead? Maybe they are finding other things to do with their time, something, dare I say it, less glamorous and shiny but ultimately more fulfilling perhaps? Or, maybe they are just wandering aimslessly, window shopping wistfully?

The economic downturn and the exodus from the high street seems to prove that shopping is a luxury activity, something indulged in during good times. Individuals can, it seems, live without it, but can society? Given the obvious links between shopping and employment, I wonder if there is a guilt attached to shopping less? Do people feel a duty to shop, is it in fact selfish not to shop? I don’t feel too guilty about it, it is good for me to see through the material wealth = happiness myth, but then again I don’t like seeing my friends losing their jobs. It might be painful in the short term but in the long term, this downturn could be the opportunity we need to re-think our cultural foundations. Maybe we can re-build our economy around something else, something more stable, something less tied up in a spurious belief that identity, happiness, fulfilment, love, friendship and respect can and should be bought and sold in the marketplace. Should we be trying to work out how to get people back to their consumerist ways (for example by implementing emergency VAT cuts) or should we be trying to find a more sustainable way of running the economy. But, if not a consumer economy then what?!

Soundings in Sustainability

I am on the train back to London from Cheltenham as I write this, I’ve been at a conference at the University of Gloucestershire. Arran Stibbe was appointed as my tutor for the last 2 years of my PhD research, he was an excellent tutor and I wouldn’t have got it done without him. He is now editing a new handbook for educators interested (or not!) in sustainability. Today those of us hoping to contribute a 2000 word chapter to either the online or print version of this book gathered to explore what needed to said in this book. During two open space sessions, groups of around 10 discussed subjects ranging from Permaculture, Systems thinking, Complexity and Self reflection to place-based learning, institutional transformation, employability and sustainability, technology, energy literacy, cultural literacy and Cradle to Cradle principles. I went to employability and sustainability in the morning and Systems thinking in the afternoon.

In the morning I managed to get the group to explore deeper questions of what we want students to ‘be’ when they leave university. I also pointed out the dangers of greenwash at a personal level as well as an organisational level, do we really want people to want to be green just so they are more employable? In the group discussions we also discussed the extent to which lecturers/ educators asked questions like: how does this impact on well-being, what are the political implications of this subject matter, what are the environmental impacts of teaching students these things and is this morally sound? All these questions, it was suggested, should come in the design of curricula and before each and every lecture/seminar. I contributed nothing to the afternoon session I attended: Systems thinking. As I have little experience of teaching in University I could not really grapple with the questions of how to improve students systems thinking, all I could do was quietly nod in agreement that ‘yes it would be a good idea if we had the skills to systems think’. My research shows how few environmental educators understand the complex workings of the global environmental system. No one will ever have a full understanding, but some understanding is possible and necessary. Even more necessary when an educator is involved in trying to change behaviour is an understanding of the complex social systems that every individual’s behaviour derives from and contributes to. We could all do with understanding that better!

I’m looking forward to writing my chapter; I think I might call it: ‘Don’t mention the environment.’

Barack Obama: The new saviour of Planet Earth?

Barack Obama has said this week that he is going to lead the way on Climate Change. Early next year in Copenhagen world leaders will meet to thrash out an updated version of the Kyoto protocol. There is no doubt this is exciting news after the eight years of obstructionist activity by Bush. On The Independent website someone had commented that Obama had only Geopolitical reasons for wanting to lessen the dependence on Oil.

Does Obama have to have one sole reason for seeking an alternative to a reliance on Oil to run the American economy? There are very good geopolitical and environmental reasons to invest in cleaner sources of energy. The alternative, as I counter-commented on The Independent page, is to march on down the unsustainable road, a road that cuts straight through the middle of a war field.

Will the American public come kicking and screaming into a brave new world of lower energy use and lowering rates of material consumption, ‘for the sake of the planet’? Or, will Obama set up the huge education programme that is needed to bring the public along with him, a public that might one day let go of their over-consumptive ways in an entirely voluntary way, a public that meets its basic material needs in a sustainable way and its non-material needs in real and authentic ways?

Thursday 30 October 2008

Wow you drink a lot!

Now I always say to my friends 'Recycling is not THE answer' it is just a small part of the answer. I would never, however, discourage anyone from recycling, it is always going to be better than chucking your bottles and cans in a black bin liner! While travelling round recently you might have noticed posters saying: 'I see you like to recycle... (wow, you drink a lot)'.

These posters are from a campaign by Drink Aware. Now I'm not sayin it is a bad thing to get people to think about their alcohol consumption, but I don't think this is a great way to do it. It could have the effect of people deciding to hide their bottles and cans in a black bin liner! This leads to two negative consequences: Less recycling and covering up of the evidence of a boozy night in!

On the other hand maybe people will drink less and create less work for the recycling people, maybe!

Wednesday 29 October 2008

Cathedral of Consumerism

Tomorrow morning Westfield London shopping mall opens in Shepard's Bush... on joy of joys!

India Knight has been losing her religion in the aisles of this new cathedral of consumerism she wrote about it a couple of weeks back, read it here:

Here is my favourite quote from that article:

Feeling down? Reinvent yourself through clothing and accessories. Feeling up? Buy techy gadgets to mark the occasion. Feel there’s a weird sort of hole at the centre of your being? Fill it with goods and the unpleasant feeling will be gone for, ooh, a week or so, which is fine because then it’ll be the weekend again and time for further communion. And so on.

Book review - Crap at the Environment

It is painfully obvious that it is difficult to be ‘Good at the Environment’ when you are a stand-up comedian in the English speaking world. Poor old Mark Watson is crap at the environment because he has to fly back and forth from the UK to Australia to make people laugh. I am struggling to find anything positive to say about this book as a piece of education for sustainability. The one thing I can say that his self pitying honesty does at least highlight something that needs to be better understood by environmentalists. His story basically explains that he has plural rationalities. This is what is meant by plural rationalities: From an environmental perspective, Mark recognises that it is not rational for him to fly to Australia. However, from a career perspective, it is completely rational for Mark to fly to Australia. Mark therefore has two competing rationalities. He then has to make a decision, should he stay at home and not be crap at the environment, or fly, further his career and be crap? On a smaller scale, he faces these sorts of competing rationalities in many other areas of his life, take a one mile taxi ride or walk through the rain, use the lift or walk to the 20th floor of his hotel, eat delicious red meat or eat vegetables.

We all face these decisions; they are basically choices between taking the easy or more desirable option, or taking the harder or chore-like one. We all have plural rationalities. The result of this is that we are willing to make sacrifices for the sake of the environment when it does not feel like too much like a sacrifice or chore. Environmental education can make us more motivated to take the environment into consideration when we make decisions. For Mark, the main sources of his environmental education were Al Gore’s ‘Inconvenient Truth’, George Monbiot’s ‘Heat’ and Mark Lynas’ ‘Six Degrees’. These three sources are pretty sensational in their findings and delivery, with a real ‘act now’ message. The pleas to the ordinary citizen are framed as sacrifices for the sake of the planet. The questions of why we travel, why we shop, why we eat red meat are not really asked. The reaction is to carry on doing the 'crap' things but in a slightly less environmentally damaging way. I wish Mark Watson had been a little less self-pitying and a bit more analytical about why he and his followers are crap at the environment. The book wasn’t very funny anyway, so he may as well have gone a bit deeper. If you haven’t read this book read Tom Hodgkinson’s ‘How to be Free’ first.

Sunday 26 October 2008

Tom Hodgkinson - Love your neighbour

I am not normally prone to getting out of bed at 8am on a Sunday morning to catch the 55 bus to central London, but today was an exception. I have been to a Sermon at the Old horse hospital (behind Russell Sq tube station) put on by The School of Life and starring the author, journalist and champion Idler, Tom Hodgkinson. I've been holding back on writing about Tom for a while, I read his second book 'How to be free' a while back and thoroughly enjoyed it and have always enjoyed his monthly column in The Ecologist.

Today he was talking about the importance of loving your neighbours, which he suggests is something that we, thanks to our cultural and political upbringing, are not doing enough of. As a resident of a block of flats on Hackney Road, I know only too well how having estranged neighbours fuels our individualism, breeds discontent and does little to deter careless door banging. In his talk, Tom began by explaining the formerly sinful activity of usury. I remember reading about this at length in his book. Up to about 500 years ago lending money and expecting repayment with interest was frowned upon heavily, it was seen as a callous, lazy (perhaps idle) way of profiteering from the financial misfortune of others. Given recent events in the mystical world of finance, the modern position of lenders as heroes who let us fulfil our material dreams has been slightly lost. But in general, usury is no longer portrayed as a sin, just a tiresome and tolerated fact of life. It is also probably true that many people would howl with cries of unfair play if all of a sudden this practice was to end.

The idea of having these secular sermons on a Sunday morning does not need to be spelled out. What I found interesting is that Hodgkinson returned often to the morals of Christianity, pointing out how many of the values sorely lacking in modern society, were prevalent in more Christian times; loving your neighbours being just one of these. There are things in the Bible that are a bit hard to swallow in modern times, but a lot of the values taught by it are sound ones and ones we could probably very much do with reminding ourselves of now. There may be no scientific evidence for God and a Heaven and Hell, but should we really throw the baby out with the bath water?

In my thesis I wrote this about Tom Hodgkinson:

Hodgkinson regularly points out the anxieties and stresses created by modern consumer culture and goes as far as saying that the environmental movement, with its emphasis on technological development creates even more stress and should therefore be handled with caution. His articles also point out the importance of finding meaning in one’s life and living in the present and not worrying too much about money. His philosophy can be summed up by the following quote: ‘When you stop working and stop spending you start living’ (Hodgkinson, 2008).

Simms and Smith (2007), in the 'Do Good Lives Have to cost the Earth' book that they edited, introduce Hodgkinson’s chapter and sum up his recommendations as follows:

His main advice for us is that to tackle climate change, possibly the best thing we could do is nothing at all. But he means it literally, not in the sense of just keep on doing what you are doing. He wants us all to stop and take it easy. No more shopping, no more upgrading consumer durables. The answer he says is to ‘decommodify our fun.’

Maybe environmentalists are trying too hard and just complicating things. Tom Hodgkinson is an excellent environmental educator, whether he likes it or not (I’ve not asked him if he considers himself one). He understands that rather than trying to lessen the environmental impact of our current consumer obsessed culture we actually need to shift that culture out of way and let a new one in. As an environmental educator, he is in a minority.

Email me for references....

Tuesday 14 October 2008

Towards a whole school approach... please!

I attended the London Sustainable Schools Forum yesterday at the Resource centre on Holloway road. The event intended to advise those teachers who are enthusiastic about sustainable schools on how to instigate a whole school approach. The LSSF take a case study approach and we were told about the latest buzz word ‘care’ by a primary school from Wimbledon. In the first break out session I attended, the ‘E-Squad’ from a school in Barnet told us about the student led changes they had made to their school campus. The interesting thing about the sixth formers from Barnet is that they were very keen to point out the benefits they’d felt from being involved with the E-squad. They are now more confident, they have learned to do presentations, write letters, plan and run projects and so on. They were also very proud of the recognition they had received from local government right up to 10 Downing street (they had been to meet Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to discuss their sustainability work). At the centre of the E-Squad was fun, if they didn't enjoy doing it, they wouldn't have done it, that was clear.

The second break out session I attended was run by Helen Adams, the chair of LSSF and a teacher at a highly diverse and urbanised primary school in Kings Cross. Her story impressed me as her school had realised that the curriculum, rather than the campus or the community was the place to start on sustainability. A condition needed for this to happen was a freedom to change the curriculum. There were some in the session who felt they had absolutely no freedom to change their schools curriculum, whereas some (happier) teachers had a lot more freedom. Helen described that changing the curriculum was a lengthy process that can’t be rushed. To begin the change they asked the question: What will children need to know, do and be in order to meet the challenges and opportunities of the twenty first century? The answers to this question shaped the curriculum of their school. She was keen to highlight that although the process was a good blueprint, other schools wishing to go down this route need to tailor make their curriculum to reflect the demographic and geographic conditions of their school. This was most explicitly exemplified by a call to help children love their local environment (whatever it is).

By taking a curriculum changing approach to becoming a sustainable school the chances for deep change are far greater. In my view there is little point making superficial, conspicuous changes to the school fabric while the curriculum of the school continues to educate students to ‘compete and consume’ rather than ‘care and conserve’ as Stephen Sterling states. Sterling calls for a transformative education rather than a transmissive education. He points out that a paradigm shift towards Sustainable Education is needed. Sustainability must not be an add on that is contradictory to the underlying values generated by the school system and wider society. The values that we need the adults of the future need to be fostered in sustainable schools, curriculum change is therefore fundamental. Given the existence of the National Curriculum and the needs of external exams, curriculum change in secondary schools is much harder to produce than in Primary schools, primary schools need to take the lead. If, as Jake Reynolds argued, in the plenary session yesterday, OFSTED start taking sustainability more seriously we could make progress in secondary schools. I just hope OFSTED don’t settle for superficial sustainability to tick their boxes!

The big question that teachers need to ask in my view is what do we want children to be? What values do we want them to have? In my view it might be valuable to ask what we don’t want them to be... in terms of sustainability we don’t want them to be image obsessed, status obsessed, infantilised, individualistic and materialistic. Schools must help children navigate the cultural bombardment of these values, it is not enough to tell them to be caring and environmentally friendly if they grow up to aspire to exotic travel, celebrity lifestyles, big houses, big cars and so on. We do want our children to enjoy their lives without compromising the ability of others to enjoy theirs.

Thursday 2 October 2008

Sustainability 2.0 @ The RSA

Emma and I attended this EarthScan sponsored event at the Royal Society of arts on Tuesday night. Earthscan publishers are celebrating 20 years of publishing and put this event on to instigate a debate into what we think sustainability is now.

Caroline Lucas, leader of the Green Party chaired the debate and started off the discussion with a nice loose, possibly street, definition of sustainability which she and her fellow panellists had come up with in the Green room (nice pun that)! She suggested that sustainability was just about ‘sharing it around and not buggering it up.’ That is a fair summation I suppose, to throw my opinion on it I would say that sustainability is about enjoying one’s own life without compromising the enjoyment of others.

The panel were: Bill Adams, Tim Lang, Brenda Boardman, Nick Robbins and Paul Elkins. All except Robbins (Head of the climate change centre of excellence, HSBC) are prominent academic from the universities of Cambridge, City, Oxford and Kings College respectively.

The plus points of the evening for me was that there was some recognition of the need to move beyond the consumer led economy. Tim Lang, a leading professor food policy, for instance stated ‘consumerism can’t go on.’ Bill Adams posed the question of what the alternative is to our crumbling neo-liberal capitalism and Paul Elkins, at the end of his speech asked is Environmental sustainability consistent with conspicuous consumption?’

On the negative side, Brenda Boardman spent much of her talk optimistically painting a picture of a utopian sustainable society in the year 2050. She did not really offer any great strategy on how we are going to get there, apart from her championing of carbon credit cards (much to the delight of Mayer Hillman in the audience). She opened with the statement ‘because we caused it we can solve it.’ I admire her optimism but remain a bit sceptical. I am not going to talk here about my feelings on carbon credit cards, I’ll just say this – they will be made of plastic (which comes from Oil) and we will need about 60 million of them.

I waited patiently until the last round of questions (I was one of about 7 in this final round) to ask: If as Tim Lang stated ‘consumerism can’t go on’ how are we going to get the population of the world to let go of the consumerist mindset? I was pleased that 4 out of the 6 responded to this question, unfortunately they could only agree that it would be beneficial if this happened, they could not offer any ideas about how to make this happen. I continue to search for an answer to this question!

Tuesday 23 September 2008

A Green New Deal

Last Friday (19th Sept) I attended a debate at The Guardian titled: 'Triple Crunch: Can we solve the credit crunch, climate change and energy shocks with a Green New Deal?' The New Economics Foundation (NEF) have just launched the first report of The Green New Deal Group, you can find out more about it here:

It is a radical policy proposal that takes F.D. Roosevelt’s response to the great crash of 1929 as its inspiration. That ‘New Deal’ responded to the great depression through a wave of economic, fiscal and financial reforms that sought to re-build the economy and provide employment for the masses who had been forced into unemployment by the crash. Larry Elliot, the Guardian’s economics editor and member of the Green New Deal group, was first to speak at the debate and was adamant in saying that the week that had just passed would go down in history as the week when the failings of Neo-liberalism were most dramatically exposed. Last week saw huge financial catastrophe’s that signified that last summer’s Northern Rock disaster and the credit crunch were not a fluke or one off. We are on the brink of recession. The timing of this debate, which was already timely, was now suddenly too timely! All the talk was of the future of the economy and the events of the last week. I can’t pretend to be an expert on financial matters, so have desperately been swotting up over the weekend to try and understand the financial sector. I have to admit I am still as confused as ever about how it all works, short-selling, hedge funds, credit crunches…. I have also been reading the Green New Deal, its details were hardly touched upon during the debate. The debate focused on the problems, the document offers some solutions.

The Green New Deal is something that I have been hoping for, for a while; it is a discussion of the big question. The question is one that John Naish brings up in his book ‘Enough.’ It is a question that environmentalists and economists need to ask, together. Naish (2008) is optimistic that the present consumerist, hedonist culture can shift towards one that is emotionally and environmentally sustainable. He is, however, troubled by one big question; he puts it like this:
What would happen to our exclusively growth-based economy if we suddenly did all start to embrace enoughism? Would the world’s finances collapse? This question turns out to be the fiscal elephant in the eco-living room.

I’m troubled by this question too, but it is in my opinion the only question worth asking and I am very greatful to the Green New Deal group for their efforts to answer it.

So, what does the Green New Deal propose? It basically says we, in the UK, need to prepare ourselves for the energy crisis that is sure to evolve from the imminence of Peak Oil. Climate scientists have long been telling us that climate change is happening and is caused by the burning of fossil fuels, which gives us another reason to change the way we produce energy. Investment in a widespread renewable energy infrastructure is according to the Green New Deal the answer. Not only will it make the UK less dependent on the imports of fossil fuels, it will provide an alternative to re-opening the coal mines, it will provide jobs during a time of recession and it will, importantly, provide an example to the rest of the developed and developing world. All sorts of clever financial regulations, including tightening up on tax havens, accountancy and the availability of credit would need to happen. A second huge step would be to decrease interest rates to 2% to encourage investment in long-term renewable energy projects. The third requirement is the will of the Government to invest heavily in renewable energy. I really do hope the Government sit up and take notice of this report and other policy recommendations made by NEF. To an environmentalist it goes without saying that radical reforms in the way our economy and society works are needed. Hopefully, we in the UK can be brave enough to take a real stand on climate change, the credit crunch and the energy crisis. We don’t really have a choice.

(Please email me for references).

Friday 19 September 2008

Jeffrey Lewis

Went to see Jeffrey Lewis and the Jackals at the Scala last night. He is a folk singer from New York. I could quote lyrics from many of his amazing songs, but I thought I’d post some lyrics from the Crass song he covered: Systematic Death. Jeffrey has an album called 12 Crass songs, each one of them has brilliant lyrics!

Here is ‘Systematic Death’:
(This reads better over on!)

System, system, system.Death in life.System, system, system.The surgeons knife.System, system, system.Hacking at the cord.System, system, system.A child is born.Poor little fucker, poor little kid,Never asked for life, no she never did.Poor little baby, poor little mite,Crying out for food as her parents fight.Crying out for food as her parents fight.System, system, system.Send him to school.System, system, system.Force him to crawl.System, system, system.Teach him how to cheat.System, system, system.Kick him off his feet.Poor little schoolboy, poor little lad,They'll pat him if he's good and they'll beat him if he's bad.Poor little kiddy, poor little chap,They'll force feed his mind with their useless crap.They'll force feed his mind with their useless crap.System, system, system.They'll teach her how to cook.System, system, system.Teach her how to look.System, system, system.They'll teach her all the tricks,System, system, system.Create another victim for their greasy pricks.Poor little girly, poor little wench,Another little object to prod and pinch.Poor little sweety, poor little filly,They'll fuck her mind so they can fuck her silly.They'll fuck her mind so they can fuck her silly.System, system, system.He's grown to be a man.System, system, system.Taugh to fit the plan.System, system, system.Forty years of jobs.System, system, system.Pushing little buttons, pulling little knobs.Poor fucking worker, poor little serf,Working like a mule for half of what he's worth.Poor fucking grafter, poor little gent,Working for the cash that he's already spent.Working for the cash that he's already spent.He's selling his life,She's his loyal wife,Timid as a mouse,She's got her litlle house,He's got his little car,And they share the cocktail barShe likes to cook his meals,You know, something that appeals.Sometimes he works til lateSo his supper has to wait,But she doesn't really mindCos he's getting overtime.He likes to put a bit awayJust for that rainy day,Cos every little countsAs the cost of living mounts.They do the pools each weekHoping for that lucky break.Then they'd take a trip abroad,Do all the things they can't afford.She'd really like to have a fur,He's like a bigger car.They could buy a bungalow,With a Georgian door for show.He might think of leaving work,But no, he wouldn't like a shirk.He'd much prefer to stayAnd get his honest days pay.He's got a life of work ahead,There's no rest for the dead.She's tried to make it nice,He's said thankyou once or twice.System, system, system.Deprived of any hope.System, system, system.Taught they couldn't cope.System, system, system.Slaves right from the start.System, system, system.Til death do them part.Poor little fuckers, what a sorry pair,Had their lives stolen, but they didn't really care.Poor little darlings, just your ordinary folks,Victims of the system and it's cruel jokes.Victims of the system and it's cruel jokes.The couple views the wreckageAnd dreams of home sweet home,They'd almost paid the mortgage,Then the system dropped its bomb.
Is this not Education for Sustainability?!

Check out more Jeffrey Lewis, he is a brilliant songwriter, musician and comic book maker!

Wednesday 17 September 2008

Is the party over? Sustainable hopes

Last night a friend and I went to a FREE lecture at Gresham College in Holborn Circus, London. If you’ve not been to Gresham, you should, it is wonderful. They give free at least 3 lectures on all sorts of different subjects every week all year round! The college has existed for 400 years and judging by the bursting beyond capacity turn out last night is very popular!

The lecture we were attending was delivered by a Gresham regular, Michael Mainelli and served as a useful exploration of what the sustainability dream means for economists and those interested in commerce. For a hardened environmental student like me, the lecture was pretty basic, but from an environmental education perspective it was interesting to see how the issues were being presented to an intelligent lay audience. The lecture focused on Ehrlich and Commoner’s I-PAT equation. The terms of the I-PAT are: I (environmental impact), P (Population), A (affluence) and T (technology). It looks like this: I = P x A x T and is wonderfully simple. It asserts that as population and affluence grow the environment will degrade.
Mainelli argued that many environmentalists do not give adequate consideration to the first factor, population. Population growth is a big white elephant that we can not afford to ignore. The UN currently estimate that the world population will be 9.2 billion by 2075. Population growth, however, is dependent on fertility rates. At present the average number of children a woman gives birth to is 2.3. Fertility rates are gradually falling in affluent countries, if they were to fall to around 1.8, the global population would fall to around 2.3 billion by the far off year of 2300. However, if the rate rose slightly to 2.4, we would be looking at population in 2300 of 36.4 billion!

As environmentalists, we can’t ignore population growth, but I would argue given the consumerist, materialist, waste producing example being set by affluent countries, it is far more important to consider how the population behaves. If the growing population, or even a stable population, all aim to behave like us Brits or our trans-Atlantic cousins we will be environmentally doomed. Anyone who has compared the ecological footprint of an affluent nation like ours with a developing nation can understand why this is! If the affluent countries gradually ceased to export materialist values, the environmental damage resulting from excessive conspicuous consumption would lessen in those countries and the example set to developing countries would lessen their materialist desires and therefore environmental impact. Well possibly! This of course is a dramatically difficult thing to do and depends hugely on the answering of the question that John Naish, in his book ‘Enough’ describes as the other white elephant in the eco living room:

If not a consumer economy then what?!

The amount of people asking this question within the environmental world, let alone the business and political world is staggeringly low, it is however the only question that is really worth asking! We can’t rely on technology to save us, because under a consumer capitalist framework technology as Mainelli pointed out is good and bad. Strides are being made with carbon capture and strorage, whether these strides are fast enough to prevent a climate catastrophe is very questionable. They won’t stop business people designing, marketing and manufacturing all the trappings of consumer society, in fact CCS may give them an excuse to carry on as normal. But where are all the raw materials going to come from, we can’t recycle forever, we need to deal with the waste problem by producing less waste!

I’m glad so many people turned up at Gresham college last night (my friend and I were in the overflow basement room watching on the big screen, by the start of the lecture had standing room only). The room was buzzing with intelligent folk on their way home from a busy day in the City. Mainelli didn’t overtly ask the big question of what lies beyond a consumer economy, but this is the question I hope a few of them went away musing over. The more people who ask this question, the more likely we are to find a solution to it, it is the question that lies at the heart of sustainability. As for the other white elephant, the planning of a new economic system would certainly be made easier if we had a stable or decreasing global population. Use a condom!
Email me for references!

Thursday 11 September 2008

SEEd workshop: Schools' role in promoting pupil's well-being

The Council for Environmental Education has rebranded itself as SEEd (Sustainability and Environmental Education). Yesterday SEEd held a free workshop to enable those involved in Environmental Education to explore the DCSF's draft guidance on Schools' role in promoting pupil's well-being. The general feeling surrounding the guidance was that it did not adequately promote the benefits of environmental education for pupil's well-being, particularly outdoor education. Of the seven speakers, who made up the morning session, at least four were there to sing the praises of outdoor education and provide anecdotal evidence of its well-being benefits. To me and too many of those in the room, these benefits were obvious. During the afternoon session, the 50 or so delegates split up into smaller groups and provided a wealth of anecdotal evidence from their own experiences as educators about the well-being benefits of outdoor education they had led or over seen. Bell and Dyment (2008) provide a useful review of the evidence supporting the need for good quality outdoor, green, space for school children and there are many other champions of outdoor education. Evidence of the benefits to well-being of outdoor education needs to be strengthened but you won't find many people who argue against its benefits!
For me, however, the issue goes deeper. I would argue that we need to consider well-being in two ways. Firstly school pupil's everyday well-being should be improved, by this I mean that facilities, outdoor space, indoor space and conditions must promote, not hinder pupil's academic life. I recently spoke to a teacher in Gloucestershire who is currently holed up in a small temporary classroom. She told me that in the winter she is glad that there is hardly any room for her classes of up to 35 pupils because their body heat warms the classroom. Even so, she is still not warm enough to take her coat off in there! In the summer her portakabin resembles an oven. When the class comes in her first words are 'ok take your shoes off, take your ties off, roll up your trousers!'
Secondly, and here is where we go a bit deeper, school should prepare pupil's for their future. Well-being and our defintions of it should be a theme underlying everything they do. These formative years are important in helping children not only develop the attributes to live a well-rounded, fulfilled adult life, but also in finding a meaningful and purposeful direction to their lives. School's should help children to find their calling in life. We have to accept that what children learn, outside as well as inside school, shapes their value system. In the current Western world the values young people develop are increasingly hedonistic ones, characterised by strong desires to be famous and popular, materially wealthy and dare I say it individualistic. The impact of this on the short and long term mental well-being of young people, not to mention social and environmental well-being, is worrying
Hallam et al. (2006) highlight the importance of recognising the difference between happiness as feeling and happiness as authenticity. The focus of their paper is on young people and they point out that ‘The need to be happy - and be seen to be so - is an insatiable drive of daily behaviours for most people’ (Hallam, et al., 2006). Their concern is with the philosophical hedonism that underlies modern western cultural values. They go on to explain their concerns:

Without an evolved framework of values, the search to feel good can lead to unhelpful ideas, for example, how the female body should look, what constitutes educational success, what it means to experience intimacy, the role of substance use in having fun, the importance of popularity for personal worth. Furthermore, when hedonic values determine what clothes to buy, what sex to provide, what aspirations to aspire to and what behaviour is appropriate, it can be extremely difficult for young people to know what it means to be true to oneself (Hallam, et al., 2006).

Hallam et al. (2006) argue that when hedonism shapes value systems, the result is a ‘relentless pursuit of good feelings’. They link this pursuit to materialism and the impact of highly materialistic values on well-being, ultimately questioning ‘whether the best values to model and offer to our youth are the competitive social values of hedonic self-interest’ (Hallam, et al., 2006). Usefully they proceed to uncover an alternative. They draw on the writings of Aristotle and state that:

He proposed happiness and well-being (eudaimonia) derive from well-doing, and that well-doing and well-being are inseparable. Aristotle's notion of a happy or meaningful life was an authentic life in which personally owned ethical values (such as generosity, courage, kindness and justice) under-girded and inspired daily behaviours. Aristotelian or eudaimonic ethical values express who one is, and wants to be, and how one wants to act rather than how one wants to feel (Hallam, et al., 2006).

Having critiqued materialism as a route to happiness in much the same way as James (2008) and Hallam et al. (2006), Durning (2008) argues that:

The main determinants of happiness in life are not related to consumption at all - prominent among them are satisfaction with family life, especially marriage, followed by satisfaction with work, leisure to develop talents, and friendships.

Hallam et al. (2006) describe the work of Erikson (1968) as regrettably forgotten, but draw on his conceptions of generative behaviour:

Erikson (1968) was more specific in proposing that human psychological growth was characterised by the development of identity and meaning. The development, through stages, of generative values (dispositions) - including love, care, willpower, purposefulness, fidelity - provided a basis for identity formation and offered an alternative motivational system to hedonic desires. In this way, generative behaviour was seen to foster meaning, maturity and well-being.

Echoing James’ (2008) critique of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Hallam et al. (2006) conclude by suggesting that ‘seeking to gain well-being through the pursuit of happiness may undermine the very happiness we seek.’ They then recommend that:

The challenge is to think of happiness in broader terms than simply feeling good. To be true to ourselves we may need to ensure that generative values supersede hedonic pursuits lest, as a culture, we remain immature, unwell and unhappy (Hallam, et al., 2006).

Environmentalists have begun taking note of the evidence emerging from psychology in regard to the relationship between consumerism, materialism and well-being. The cultural construction of needs and wants by consumerism, the spreading of hedonistic values and the apparent pursuit of the wrong sort of happiness appear to cause a reliance on material goods and services that causes not only environmental problems, but also emotional distress. Is it about time schoolchildren were encouraged to critique current defintions of well-being, happiness and the good life? I would argue that it is.

As mentioned above, we were asked during the afternoon session of the SEEd workshop to recall a time when education had had a positive contribution to ours or someone else’s well-being. The answer to me was simple; it was when I found a calling. I remember being a teenager, not entirely sure about what I wanted to be when I grew up, it was something that frustrated and nagged away at me, I was a worrier. Thanks to an inspirational Geography teacher I gradually realised some of the huge environmental problems facing the world. It may sound cheesy but it was during this time that I began to form ideas about how I should live my life and what I should try and do with my life. I was entirely certain the exact nature of the path that I set out on or where it would lead, but I had found a reason to walk down it and I am still walking down it now, with purpose and well being!

(Please email me for references)

Tuesday 9 September 2008

Two recent reads: The Tipping Point and Living it Up

The Tipping Point is by Malcolm Gladwell (2000), I've just finished reading it. It talks about Social epidemics, how they happen and what you need to make one happen. The book is really just a series of case studies, it starts with 'Hush Puppy' shoes, talks about Paul Revere's Ride and the American Revolution. He talks about Sesame Street, Broken Glass syndrome and teenage smoking. Each of the case studies are interesting in their own right and no doubt this book has helped shape the marketing strategies of many marketing men! I concluded that if you want to successfully start a social epidemic you need to create rapid word of mouth. The book also highlights the huge difficulties faced by those trying to get people to consume less. As businesses gain better understandings of how to market and sell their products thanks to the findings of psychologists and books like Gladwell's, highly consumerist social epidemics are going to appear over and over again! However, the environmental and voluntary simplicity movement could learn a lot from this book.
'Living in Up, America's Love Affair with Luxury' is written by James Twitchell (2002) an English Lecturer from the University of Florida. I bought it in Oxfam in Guildford a couple of months ago. It explores the evolution of the luxury phenomenon and how the marketing of luxury products now lies at the heart of consumerism. Twitchell observes life in the Luxury shopping streets and malls of New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. While the book derides the hollowness of conspicuous consumption he seems to argue throughout that the alternatives are worse. The following quote exemplifies this: 'Trusting pocket books over prayer books may make the world safer and even more humane. After all, the only things that separate us are... things. And you can buy things. You can't buy ancestry, religious affiliation, or the number of vowels in your name. Consuming status at the cash register is vulgar, to be sure, but the alternatives have often been worse.' The consumption of status symbols is undoubtedly democratic. Status, the respect of others and so on does not have to come through status symbols, in fact conspicuous consumption can often have the opposite effect!

The School of Life

I popped into The School of Life on Marchmont Street in London on Saturday morning. It is such a good idea, I really hope they have some success. I was lucky enough to meet Alain De Botton while I was there, he told me he is currently working on a book about work. He and a photographer are following six people through their working life. He didn't indicate when it would be out, but I expect it will be next year.
I really enjoyed De Botton's book on what it means to travel 'The Art of Travel', in it he explores the reasons why people travel, how travel is marketed and ties in how art has impacted on our travel experiences. Given the need for us to lessen the environmental impacts of our travel and holidays (two often very different things) we all need to understand why we travel and so on. However it is the book and the documentary in which he looked at Status Anxiety that I want to discuss here, both were highly influential in the early stages of my PhD.
Status anxiety is greater in some than others. I would propose that in the modern consumer culture it can be relieved in two ways. Firstly it can be relieved within an individual’s own cultural domain (their workplace/social circle etc) by building our identities and respect from others through what we do. Marmot, in his book 'Status Syndrome' (2005) analyses himself as an academic and observes how his happiness is affected by how one of his academic papers is received, whether or not he gets a research grant, whether he is invited to a meeting, elected to a professional body or simply whether his ideas are taken seriously. This is just one example; it is possible to think of many other cultural domains and how identity and respect is built within them. Outside of an individual’s chosen cultural domain it may be harder to construct identity and gain the respect of others. Marmot (2005) for example also observes how his salary acts as an opinion former amongst others. One would suspect that Marmot would be more interested in the respect and identity he receives as a result of his academic work, rather than his salary.
In a consumer culture, characterised as being a hugely diverse collection of dynamic cultural domains, respect is sought, and social status fought for, among a hugely diverse range of individuals with their own identities within their own cultural spheres. It would be almost impossible to understand the intricate details of all of these different cultural spheres. Because of this, it is hard for an individual to translate their identity within their chosen cultural sphere into an identity in a wider cultural setting. The result of this is that commodities are used as signs to communicate identity (a prime example being status symbols such as cars, clothes and organic food?!). Financial position and material wealth have become the ways in which individuals create their identities within a wider culture and put themselves up for social comparison. Marmot, perhaps, is fortunate to have the intellect and opportunity to form his identity and gain respect through his academic work. Others are not so lucky. Marmot (2005) points out, referring to Thomas Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Classes (1899, that it is our concern with our relative position in society (our social status), which leads to conspicuous consumption driven by the sign-commodity relationship. As the power of commodities as communicators has increased, so too has conspicuous consumption and a desire for material growth. Although it may not be true for all, in a consumer culture, individuals create their identity through their consumption.