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?