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!