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 www.becominggreen.co.uk!)

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.