Wednesday 22 December 2010

“In light of the current economic climate, what is the future of sustainable development and what role does government policy have to play?”

I applied for a job a couple of weeks ago. As part of the application I had to write an essay on this: “In light of the current economic climate, what is the future of sustainable development and what role does government policy have to play?” in 400 words, here's my effort:

People, Planet, Profit; Win, Win, Win?

During hard economic times it is easy to assume that action on Sustainable Development will be delayed; ‘if you are in a fight to save your business, you might forget to save the environment’1. However, a recent study2, highlights the rise in corporate action on Sustainability. The drivers for such a trend are not easy to detect but are worth exploring. The study reports that: ‘demonstrating a visible and authentic commitment to sustainability is especially important to CEOs... Strengthening brand, trust and reputation is the strongest motivator for taking action on sustainability issues, identified by 72 percent of the CEOs’3. It is easy to be cynical, but we must not be too quick to judge.

Wighton4 makes an interesting observation: ‘Many [CEOs] privately believe that being environmentally responsible is a good thing in itself. But they feel that they must adopt utilitarian ethics, justifying everything on the basis that it leads ultimately to the greatest happiness of the greatest number of shareholders.’ Are CEOs therefore acting on their environmental concerns but having to justify their sustainability activities on financial grounds to their investors (what’s good for the brand is good for profit)? This suggests a difficult balancing act in communications. At present, those concerned with People and Planet are sceptical that they can win while Profit wins. Those concerned with Profit alone worry that prioritisation of People and Planet will lessen the wins for shareholders and investors. The result is that authentic commitment is often masked and difficult to detect (whether it is there or not).

But, the future of sustainable development is bright if Government seizes the apparent enthusiasm in industry for sustainability and ‘steers the conditions’5 for sustainability in three key ways.

Following the Dutch example Government policy could:

  1. Nurture a business led ‘Cradle to Cradle’6 revolution by regulating in favour of environmentally positive practices, to create a level playing field and encourage innovation.
  2. Promote collaboration and sharing of best practice by those already leading on Cradle to Cradle;
  3. Transform the education system to improve creativity, systems thinking and ecological intelligence7,8,9.

Such Government leadership may help push those superficially engaged along with those who are already authentically committed. Although, this assumes that Government itself is authentically committed. If it is, it must proceed with caution. People do not like to be told what to do by politicians and ‘do-gooders’; this impacts on their role as promoters of sustainable development. Lively debate10 ensues over the correct approach for politicians and civil society organisations to take in communicating sustainability.

‘Cradle to Cradle’ may not be the answer, but it frames a sustainable future positively; a future where People, Planet and Profit all improve; it ‘sizzles’11. This is an insight to be built on and a reason for hope.


1. Wighton, D. (2010) What’s good for the planet is good for business, Opinon, The Times, December 1st, p. 29

2. United Nations Global Compact - Accenture (2010) A New Era of Sustainability [Online], p. 1, Available from: Accessed: December 4th, 2010.

3. UNGC-Accenture (2010), p. 10.

4. Wighton, D. (2010), p. 29

5. Jan Joustre, D. (2010) Cradle to Cradle Government, Presentation to Ten+One Conference, Bradford, UK.

6. Braungart, M. & McDonough, W. (2002) Cradle to Cradle, Remaking the way we make things, North Point Press, New York, USA.

7. Robinson, K. (2010) Changing Paradigms, RSA Edge Lecture [online], Available from: Accessed: December 4th, 2010.

8. Webster, K. & Johnson, C. (2009) Sense and Sustainability [online], Available from: Accessed: December 4th, 2010.

9. Sterling, S. (2009) Ecological Intelligence, [in] Stibbe, A. (ed) (2010) The Handbook of Sustainability Literacy, Green Books, UK.

10. Phillips, M. (2010) WWF’s Common Cause –The debate [online], Available from: Accessed: December 4th, 2010.

11. Futerra (2010) Sizzle: The New Climate Message [online], Available from: Accessed: December 4th, 2010.

Sunday 12 December 2010

Bill Shankley and Benevolence

Saw this in The Independent yesterday. Liverpool are (were?) a club of with commendable values.

Former manager, Bill Shankley, is revered, not just because of the success he brought, but because of the man he was; his values. This quote exemplifies it. 'I would like to be remembered as a man who was selfless, who strove and worried so that other could share the glory...' Stirring stuff, what's it got to do with Sustainability? Well, it reinforces self-transcendent values, a commitment to things 'bigger-than-self'. In a world in which much messaging (not least from Premiership football) reinforces 'self-enhancing', self centred values, it is nice to reminded of great men like Shankley. He lived and breathed for his beloved club, he put it before himself at all times.

This quote highlights Shankley's Benevolence values, he was concerned with 'preserving and enhancing the welfare of those with whom who [he was] in frequent personal contact (the 'in group') (Crompton, 2010, p. 31). In Common Cause, Tom Crompton draws on Tim Kasser. Kasser's empirical studies have produced data showing how those with benevolence values are more likely to be concerned with 'bigger-than-self' issues than those who value personal achievement, status and power. I listened in on a conversation between Kasser and Andrew Darnton last week at the Common Cause workshop last week. They were discussing the potential for 'bleed over' between benevolence and universalism. Universalism: 'Understanding, appreciation, tolerance, and protection for the welfare of all people and for nature.' (Crompton, 2010, p. 31) Those who value universalism are even more likely to be concerned with 'bigger-than-self' issues. But, universalism (where concern is with abstract 'out groups') is probably less common in most people than benevolence (where concern is with those closest to us, our 'in groups') . The 'bleed over' suggests that benevolence can provide a step up to universalism and that they are mutually reinforcing. Common Cause argues for stronger reinforcement of benevolence and universalism. The sort of benevolence displayed by people like Bill Shankley and more recently by current Liverpool heroes like Steven Gerrard, and Jamie Carragher is good to see, but rare. Benevolence does not necessarily predict universalism, but it is a better value to champion that 'achievement, power and hedonism'. Sustainability educators can search out and amplify cultural examples benevolence, they don't need to mention the environment.

Friday 3 December 2010

Keep Cup

'Keep Cup' are an Australian company responding to the disaster of 400bn disposable non-recyclable coffee (and tea) cups being discarded around the world each year. The Keep Cup is re-usable, the right size for coffee vendors but is getting cradle to cradle wrong.

Pret a Manger in London Bridge held a trial at the end of last month, selling their specially branded Keep Cups for £6.50 a go. 'Dan' commented on the Keep Cup blog: 'At £6.50 - not worth it. And the staff at London Bridge certainly were not pushing them this morning.' I can certainly understand this reaction. You'd have to be some sort of crazy eco-geek to want to pay that sort of money to get your coffee, drink it, wash it up and then remember to take it back to Pret the next day to get it re-filled. Even if you habitually buy coffee from the same company, it is still some ask to pay for the privilege of a cup that you can probably only re-use at Pret outlets and have to wash up yourself. Not to mention having to pay a company for your services as a moveable advert for them.

So, what's the solution? First what are the problems?

1. Problem: A thirst for coffee / tea / hot choc while on the move. Solution: Takeaway 'fast food' hot drinks outlets. (Let's hold the discussion on manufactured supply and demand for a minute!)
2. Problem: Mountain of packaging waste. Solution: well......

For retailers number 2 is only a problem if it is hindering sales, damaging their product brand, or so horrendous that customers have to wade through discarded coffee cups to get to the counter. Right now, it doesn't appear to me that this is perceived as a problem by retailers or their customers. The waste mountain is too abstract and too 'normal'. We are so used to the linear model of production and consumption, that the inevitable wastes are not surprising or alarming, it is just a fact of life when understand the world in this way. Pretty much all of our food is packaged in materials that will eventually end up in landfill or an incinerator, that's just the way of the world right?!

The opposite to the linear 'cradle to grave' model of production is the cyclical 'cradle to cradle' model where waste = food. Cradle to Cradle is based on the continual cycling of technical and biological resources in two discrete closed loops (see my previous post for a diagram). Keep Cup is attempting to create a cycling of a technical resource (plastic cup) but I can't see it working. It is very hard for retailers to re-capture plastic take-away cups for re-fill on any grand scale, because our behaviour as consumers is too chaotic. Would Starbucks fill a Pret cup or vice-versa? If when I came across a Starbucks and fancied a coffee, had a clean Pret 'keep cup' in my bag, but could not see a Pret anywhere, I'd probably just go into Starbucks and get a coffee. I'd be pretty unlikely to fork out again for a Starbucks 'Keep Cup' so would probably quietly take a disposable one. If I was feeling particularly rebellious and wanted to protect my identity as an 'ethical consumer' I might even pour my Starbucks coffee into my Pret 'Keep Cup' and discretely dispose of the Starbucks cup!

Maybe Keep Cup could persuade the large coffee chains to club together on this and agree to re-fill any 'Keep Cup' regardless of the branding. Maybe they'd go for this, I'm not sure they would and they'd probably want to continually make small technical upgrades to their 'keep cups' to make their competitor's one's look outdated, un-fashionable, 'Have you seen Cafe Nero's new Keep Cup? It is way better than the 'Pret' one I used to have' etc, etc.

Now, I like being able to get a hot drink on the move, it is handy. But, being environmentally aware, I also have a guilty conscience every time I chuck an empty cup in the nearest bin. 'Keep Cup' are trying to cycle a technical resource, when the solution might be the cycling of a biological resource. Coffee Cups can quite easily be produced to bio-degrade a day or two after use into nice juicy compost which could then become food for a new coffee plant, or any other plant for that matter. This makes life a lot easier for the retailers and consumers.

Of course, infrastructure is needed for this, compost bins need to be as widespread as other bins in public spaces (a job for government?); the waste food needs to be turned into compost efficiently and taken back to growers (a job for the market?). Both of these things seem more possible to me than expecting consumers to re-use 'Keep Cups'. We have to remember that the cradle to cradle model is still in its embryonic stages, amazing things are possible and as conditions become more favourable, things like this will take off.

Thursday 2 December 2010

It doesn't have to be one line for the shareholders and another for the environmentalists

I got back from the Ten+One conference in Bradford last night. My understanding of the sustainability and business was satisfactorily advanced, thanks largely to the conference, but also unexpectedly by an article I gleaned from The Times over breakfast at the independently run and very hospitable Ivy Guest House!

Many environmentalists feared that the economic crisis would delay corporate action on Sustainability, as David Wighton put it in The Times yesterday (December 1st, 2010, Opinion, p. 29 [paywall]): ‘If you are in a fight to save your business, you might forget to save the environment.’ Wighton points out however that the opposite appears to be true; the economic crisis seems to have had a galvanising effect:

[S]ome of the increased focus on green issues is a direct result of the economic crisis. Companies are faced with slow growth in mature markets, but rising and volatile prices for many commodities driven by the insatiable appetite of China. It makes sense for businesses to be more careful about how they use such resources, particularly energy.

Wighton speculates further that investing in sustainability is also a very good public relations exercise:

Business leaders have also been alarmed by the slump in the public’s trust in big companies... Some chief executives talk about trust as “the scarcest resource of all.”

Bosses fear that their businesses could pay dearly for this loss of trust and believe that demonstrating a commitment to the environment could help to rebuild it. A survey of global chief executives, conducted by Accenture with the UN this year showed that boosting trust in their brands was by far the most important motivation for taking action on the environment.

It is of course easy to cynical about this, I must point out that Wighton is not presenting these findings in a cynical way at all, he is just exploring a business trend, taking his cue from this year’s UNGC/Accenture CEO Study ‘A New Era of Sustainability’. That study surveyed 766 CEOs from around the world and interviewed a further 50 CEOs and 50 business and civil society and business leaders; ‘the largest such study of CEOs ever conducted on the topic of sustainability’ (UNGC & Accenture, 2010, p. 10). The study says this: ‘Demonstrating a visible and authentic commitment to sustainability is especially important to CEOs... Strengthening brand, trust and reputation is the strongest motivator for taking action on sustainability issues, identified by 72 percent of the CEOs’ (UNGC & Accenture, 2010, p. 10). So what is an authentic commitment to sustainability, do CEO's even know? And what about the shareholders? I’ll deal with that last question first.

Wighton argues that because a commitment to sustainability is good for a company’s brand, employee retention and running costs it is good for the company full stop. It follows therefore that it must also be good for its shareholders. But, Wighton throws up another interesting observation: ‘Many [CEOs] privately believe that being environmentally responsible is a good thing in itself. But they feel that they must adopt utilitarian ethics, justifying everything on the basis that it leads ultimately to the greatest happiness of the greatest number of shareholders.’ Are CEOs therefore acting on their environmental concerns (a la ‘Social Business’ as practised by Professor Yunus) but having to justify their sustainability activities on financial grounds to their investors and shareholders? This creates a difficult balancing act in communications around the win, win, win; People, Planet and Profit triumvirate. The result is that authentic commitment is often masked and difficult to detect (whether it is there or not).

At the Ellen MacArthur Foundation ‘Ten plus One conference’ this week, Douwe Jan Joustra of the NL Agency (the Netherlands governmental agency for innovation, energy and sustainable development) explained how the Netherlands government is trying to nurture a business led Cradle to Cradle revolution. He made three key recommendations for policy makers: Firstly, using the slightly lost in translation phrase ‘steering on conditions’, he argued that Government’s need to provide the right conditions for innovation (basically don’t intervene; let creativity flourish). Secondly he advises policy makers to make use of ‘coalitions of the willing’, start with the businesses, like Desso, who already ‘get’ the C2C model and are living and breathing it; the rest will eventually follow. He thirdly stressed the need to ‘educate, educate, educate’ specifically on systems thinking and Biomimicry.

A Cradle to Cradle revolution has a huge potential to realise the sustainable development dream; the holy trinity of a balance between People, Planet and Profit. This is why it is so powerful and it makes the communications balancing act possible. At present those concerned with People and Planet are sceptical that they can win while Profit wins. Those concerned with Profit alone worry that prioritisation of People and Planet will lessen the wins for shareholders and investors. This is why CEOs are caught in the difficult position of trying to convince shareholders that sustainability is good for business, while also trying to convince environmentalists that their commitments to sustainability are authentic. Either by accident or design the Ten+One conference was priced such that it attracted Corporate Businesses as well as independent business, academics and one or two scruffy environmentalists like me. Because of this mix, the speakers from Desso, Aveda and B&Q were thrown into the communications dilemma, they had to convince environmentalists and business simultaneously. Although wild enthusiasm never quite broke out, I detected very few raised eyebrows or deep sighs. Why? Because of a recognition that Cradle-to-Cradle is not about limiting the impacts of business on the natural world, it is about creating positive impacts on the environment. Cradle to Cradle, when thoughtfully applied, enhances the natural world; companies can say ‘we are in the business of enhancing the natural environment’ and can show the tangible results to prove it. It is a natural ally of the Social Business concept championed by Muhammed Yunus.

Ten+One was framed around Cradle to Cradle, Systems thinking and the Circular Economy. Looking at the world from these perspectives is transformative, it is game-changing. We often think of the world in a reductionist, mechanical way in which we are separate from nature and seek to control and tame it. We think of natural resources being infinite and send them linearly from cradle to grave in a take, make, transport, use (re-use and recycle a bit) and dump progression. These linear models are embedded in business practice and environmentalists have been trying to limit the negative impacts of businesses that use this model for decades. Instead of focusing on greening that model to make it ‘less bad’, we should be focusing on the promotion of an entirely new model (one, as Bucky Fuller said, that makes the old one obsolete). This is where the Cradle to Cradle model comes in. In this model resources don’t travel along a linear path they cycle. Technical resources and biological resources cycle in two discrete closed loops powered by renewable energy sources. If that can be achieved the environment no longer gradually declines, it gradually improves. Michael Braungart describes this as the difference between eco-efficiency and eco-effectiveness. This model is incredibly positive, it ‘sells the sizzle’, it is inspiring and transformative. At the moment it is in an early embryonic form, but as a concept it allows us to dream of true balance of People, Planet and Profit and a better future.

The examples of Cradle to Cradle presented during the Ten+One conference illustrated what could emerge when you ‘steer the conditions’ correctly. By their own admission Desso, Aveda and B&Q are far from perfect; they have a long way to go to be truly cradle to cradle. They are limited by ‘the conditions’ they exist in but, as leaders, and as part of a ‘coalition of the willing’, they have an opportunity to help ‘steer the conditions’ for others, like Unilever (?) to follow. Despite the positivity of the UNCG/Accenture study, it is notable that it only carries one reference to cradle to cradle on page 44 of 60. Apparently ‘the Timberland Company’s new range of “Earthkeepers 2.0” are conceived with “cradle-to-cradle” principles in mind, and designed to be disassembled for recycling at the end of their useful life’ (UNCG/Accenture, 2010, p. 44). This suggests that sustainability is not properly framed yet in the business world, the objective of being ‘less bad’ seems to remain.

Despite the phenomenal success of the Cradle to Cradle book, as a concept it still remains on the margins of both the business and sustainability worlds. It mustn’t stay there, it is a concept with a huge potential to unite these two worlds. For it to gather speed in the mainstream, an imperative must be placed on education. But, it is not enough to simply educate about Cradle-to-Cradle in isolation in the business world. Education based on a mechanistic worldview needs to move towards education based on a systems worldview and ecological intelligence. It is a paradigm shift called for by Sir Ken Robinson, Stephen Sterling and now the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Saturday 27 November 2010

Why we resist the truth about Climate Change

Clive Hamilton is the co-author of the best book about Affluenza and earlier this year published the brilliant and frightening Requiem for a Species with Earthscan. Christine Ottery interviewed him in the late summer on the subject of being 'maladaptive', his thinking seems to have developed again with his latest article

Presented to Climate Controversies Science and Politics Conference in Brussels, 'Why we resist the truth about Climate Change' explains why climate change denial really has very little to do with scientific evidence and reason. Hamilton argues that denial-ism, especially in the US, has its roots in culture war:

Those on the left are as predisposed [as the right] to sift evidence through ideological filters; but in the case of global warming it happens that the evidence overwhelmingly endorses the liberal beliefs that unrestrained capitalism is jeopardising future well-being, that comprehensive government intervention is needed, and that the environment movement was right all along. For neo-conservatives accepting these is intolerable, and it is easier emotionally and more convenient politically to reject climate science. (p. 2)

Hamilton then uses two examples from history and one from literature to illuminate the nature of climate change denial. I'll leave you to read about Einstein Relativity in Weimar Germany and Camus' The Plague. I found the comparison between today's climate change denial and the wishful thinking in the UK that played down the threat of war in the run up to WWII most useful. Throughout the 1930's Winston Churchill and a small handful of others spoke repeatedly about the evidence suggesting that Nazi Germany was re-arming and preparing for a major assault on its European neighbours. Churchill was accused of being a 'doom-sayer' an 'alarmist' and a 'fear monger'. Hamilton explains why and compares the public reaction to what seems to be happening today:

[P]acifist sentiment among the British public, still traumatized by the memory of the Great War, provided a white noise of wishful thinking that muffled the warnings. Behind the unwillingness to re-arm and resist aggression lay the gulf between the future Britons hoped for—one of peace—and the future the evidence indicated was approaching—war in Europe, just as today behind the unwillingness to cut emissions lies the gulf between the future we hope for—continued stability and prosperity—and the future the evidence tells us is approaching—one of danger and sacrifice. (p. 11)

Today's Climate scientists and activists face a steeper challenge than Churchill faced, Climate Change arrives gradually and for many will be un-perceptible. A bomb landing on your house is instant. That is a big, big difference. The other big difference is that there is no clear enemy to attack and no justification to attack them militarily. But the analogy is useful because it explains to us the power of wishful thinking. As George Lakoff in his brilliant 'The Political Mind' explains it is very difficult to get people to accept facts that they don't want to believe. This is also explored in the WWF Common Cause paper, understanding that emotion, more often than reason, shapes attitudes and behaviour is so important to those involved in education for sustainability and sustainability communications.

Thursday 18 November 2010

WWF's Common Cause - The Debate

Ever since I read 'Psychology and Consumer Culture' edited by Kanner and Kasser, Tim Kasser has been one of my hero's. 'Psychology and Consumer Culture' is dark, it literally made me weep as I read it. My Wife and I call it 'The Bad Book'. It is however incredibly important to read if you are serious about addressing the core problem at the heart of our unsustainable development; consumerism. Kasser also wrote The High Price of Materialism, less dark, equally compelling and has since teamed up with Tom Crompton of WWF UK to produce two very important pieces of work. 'Meeting Environmental Challenges: The role of Human Identity' which Kasser talks about in this video. Both serve as a great introduction to this year's 'Common Cause: The Case for working with our cultural values' published by WWF. 'Common Cause' has fuelled the debate around Identity Campaigning, with Futerra and Chris Rose both very much in the anti camp and George Monbiot and others in the pro camp. I'm in the pro camp and have recently critiqued this through the Unilever Case Study. I'm not going to write a review of Common Cause here; I just wanted to list a few resources and reactions around it:

It is also very worth reading George Lakoff's views on Environmental Communication: 3 pages (Blog) with 48 comments. Lakoff is a major inspiration behind the Common Cause paper as well as Webster and Johnson's 'Sense and Sustainability'

I've not read all of these yet (not sure I'll read all 480 comments left in response to Monbiot's article!), but when I have I am sure I will be adding to the debate! I would be really interested to read Jon Porritt's views on this; searches for Tom Crompton, Tim Kasser and Common Cause WWF all threw up 0 matches on his blog. Anyone want to speculate which side of the pro/ anti camp he would be in?

Monday 15 November 2010

Why we shouldn't get over-excited by Unilever.

Unilever have announced an ambitious 'Sustainable Living Plan' with plans to cut the environmental footprint of their products in half while doubling their profits. Sounds good hey?!

The first thing I'd like to say is who came up with that awfully uninspiring title? Yawn.

If Unilever had of stood up today and announced that they and all their subsidiaries were going to become a Social Businesses along the lines of Muhammed Yunus' Grameen then I would be on here congratulating them wholeheartedly for making a genuine paradigm shift away from Profit Maximising to Social Benefit Maximisation. They didn't, I hope one day they do.

The first disappointing thing about their plan is the virtual absence of any 'cradle to cradle' thinking. They have added it as one of their 'future challenges', which presumably they will take up after 2020. They say they 'are not in the waste handling business', but they are in waste creating business, so why don't they get into the waste=food business too and close the loop? Again, hopefully one day they will.

One of their stated ambitions is to halve the environmental footprint of all their products. This only really makes their products 'less bad', not 'better'. They have to reconcile this to win over the sceptics. If Unilever moves into new markets, which it has clearly intimated it wants to, then the world could end up consuming twice as much of their 'less bad' product, causing just the same amount of environmental footprint they do now. If waste equalled food, this problem would be less. The message here is don't enter new markets if you haven't worked out how to do it in an environmentally positive way.

There are clever linguistics at play too. To state that they'll halve the footprint of their products, is a dramatically different thing to saying that they'll halve the footprint of Unilever as a whole. They could simply stop selling some of the less useful of their vast array of products and decrease their footprint over night. How much 'Findus Crispy Pancake', 'I can't believe its not butter' and 'Lynx deodorant' do we actually need? And, what about the full life-cycle of these products? They helpfully (for them) point out that it is us the consumer who in fact is to blame for 95% of the CO2 emissions caused by showering. They promise to persuade their customers to take a minute off their shower each day to save 1 million metric tonnes of CO2 a year. They argue that they've been successful persuading their customers to clean their teeth and wash their hands in the past, so changing their showering habits should be a easy. Teeth and hand cleaning have instant personal benefit. 1 minute less in the shower has a totally abstract benefit to the climate some time in the future; it is a completely different thing. Oh yeah and 1 minute less in the shower sounds to me like one less minute to clean myself: 'I'll have to skip cleaning behind my ears today, I've only got 30 seconds left!'

Another 'commitment' they make is to: 'help more than a billion people to improve their health and wellbeing.' Which essentially translates to selling more of their products, to more people, under the guise that it will improve their lives. Selling soap to people so they can wash their hands is undoubtedly a good thing. But what about all those fatty foods and drinks that Unilever sell, will they improve health and wellbeing? They promise to improve the nutritional value of their food and drink, look at that list, they need to make some huge steps (or change the products they sell, out with the processed food in with the 100% sustainably sourced fresh vegetables?)

There are huge question marks on the subject of wellbeing too, especially if we get into emotional wellbeing, which they don't. We've all seen the Lynx adverts, sex sells right? 'Buy Lynx. Get Laid'. Lynx adverts create body image anxieties for men and women, while also advertising sex as THE goal to young teenagers. There are too many examples to list when considering the rest of their advertising. Mostly they appeal to our selfish interests of hedonism, image creation and social status. These values are the complete polar opposite of the sorts of community spirit and 'bigger-than-self' values that need to be encouraged and reinforced if sustainability is ever going to become a reality. It is not just the products that need to adhere to sustainability values, it is the marketing too.

I'll finish by saying this, if you believe that we need businesses to be more localised and connected to the real needs of the communities they are based in; or that supply chains should be shorter and free from fossil fuel use; or that diversity and local variation in products and high streets is a desirable thing, then you might have thought that a 'Sustainable Living Plan' would involve radical fragmentation of multinational companies like Unilever? Instead of acquiring more companies, they could gradually shed them trusting that smaller social businesses would emerge who exist not for financial success, but for success in alleviating a problem. Problems like dirty hands, malnutrition and sanitation.

I'm sorry Jonathon it is not 'the best Plan out there for big global companies'. I'm sorry Solitaire, it is not 'game-changing' it is 'game-perpetuating' and will be until Unilever, and all those who sit cosily beneath them, redefine what it means to be a success. Game changing would imply a change in philosophy, there hasn't been one; this question has not been asked: Do Unilever really need to double their financial revenue by 2020? They certainly could do with doubling their contribution to making the world a better place.

Unilever's 'Sustainable Living Plan'

....make them less bad.

Stripping the Natural World

You might have noticed these Artemis billboards about the place. It reads: 'If PROFITS are scarce in one territory.... ... our Strategic Assets Funds hunter is free to cross into another.'


'Strip an ecosystem of all of its resources then move on to the next one and mine that one dry too. All in the name of short term profits.'

Artemis are right; this is what happens thanks to deregulated free market economics. Until you run out of new territories
that is (look out Burma!), then what?

The metaphor of this imagery is all a bit too literal for me. The 'hunter' looks like he is living in some 1920s romance novel called 'Man tames Nature'. But, it is 2010 now and there is far far less Nature left for us to strip assets out of, this poster alludes that there is and that, for me, is irresponsible. Artemis seem to be forgetting that the economic system is a sub-system of a global ecological system, which ultimately it is dependent on. Unless we stop taking from nature and start living and learning from it, it'll disappear completely, we won't be able to grow any food if there isn't any soil! But, hey who cares, so long as I've made my millions before we're down to bare rocks and sand.

Sunday 14 November 2010

Teaching on Systems Thinking

It always seem so important to me that sustainability educators place an emphasis on systems thinking. I'm currently researching for some practical advice on how to actually go about doing this, so am going to plonk a load of URL's on here, mostly for my own benefit, to collate some good advice as I find it!

This article briefly discusses the importance of systems thinking to ecological thinking. Not much advice however on how to teach about it.
This power-point slide show by Dr. James J. Kay from University of Waterloo, CA, gives some very useful advice on teaching systems thinking, I include a few quote below:

'Students must be given explicit opportunities to apply systems tools and approaches to real-world situations. Experience has shown that students can only really appreciate systems thinking and the issues related to it after they have undertaken a system study. Accordingly it must be the first element of a systems education.'

'Educating about general systems behaviours involves teaching about such phenomena as:
  • non-linear behaviour,
  • attractors and flips between attractors,
  • feedbacks,
  • emergence,
  • self-organization,
  • chaos.
Generally these behaviours are not intuitive to students. They do not conform to the Newtonian linear causality mode of reasoning that is a cornerstone of our culture.'

'Chaos Theory: our ability to forecast and predict is always limited regardless of how sophisticated our computers are and how much information we have.'

'Whether dealing with soft or hard systems situations, instruction about systems approaches is best done in the form of case studies, both presented in class and undertaken as student projects. In this regard, we can not overstate the importance of students participating in project work. One cannot learn to drive a car or to ride a bicycle by attending lectures or watching others doing it. One must do it oneself under the guidance of an experienced practitioner. Learning about systems approaches is learning a craft and as such the apprenticeship model is the appropriate mode of instruction.

This is a 13 page article by Bob Cannell on the wrongness of systems theory as a HR tool.

Some very good insights here in relation to decisions made in the education system. Here is a list of reasons people make bad decisions in complex systems:
  • Acting on instinct
  • Failure to anticipate-delayed effects
  • Focus on one aspect of a complex system
  • Failure to understand non-linear effects
  • Less analytical & reflective thinking as a problem worsens
  • Accidental reinforcement of undesired behavior
  • Failure to recognize internal feedback mechanisms and change over time (Spector, 2010; Sterman, 1994)
This PDF titled 'Systems Thinking Basics' should be useful, it has several student activities at the end.

Some fantastic resources here for planning lessons on systems thinking from the Creative Learning Exchange.

Systems Wiki.

Sunday 31 October 2010

An Open Letter to Johann Hari

Hi Johann,

Over the last 18 months I have 'discovered' your writing in a big way and have got a lot from it. I am very thankful and grateful that you are out there researching and writing these things and that we have a press willing to publish your work.

You played no small part in me attending the protest against Vodafone on Wednesday, it was the first time I have ever taken to the streets in anger to protest against anything (apart from the odd Climate Change march, which I find wholly disillusioning). As you wrote about Obama the other day, good people must 'keep on' at good people, so I am here to ask you why you didn't come down to Oxford Street on Wednesday? Many of my fellow protesters were expecting you and were disappointed you hadn't showed. I am sure you had good reason for not being there, I'd never accuse you of being lazy! I couldn't take further action this Saturday as I am in Wales spending precious time with my family, if you missed Wednesday for similar reasons, I totally understand that. I'm not sure whether you were on the streets on Saturday? Were you?

My personal reason for protesting is a dissatisfaction with the system of governance we live under, for me it wouldn't have made a jot of difference whether we protested against Vodafone or O2 or Orange - I am protesting against the corporatisation of the state and the free market crusade. I hope Thom Costello and friends decide to attack multiple targets to show how this problem is a systemic problem, not the malpractice of one isolated organisation. There are legitimate reasons to protest against almost any multinational corporation, they all have skeletons in their closet from some point in their history. They have created or exacerbated many untold environmental, social and economic problems over the years, why not dig these skeletons out? It is almost irrelevant how recent or not their malpractices are. If you target only one company, it makes them look like the one 'bad egg' in an otherwise fair system - giving the impression to the public that if we route them out then things will be OK again. This won't create change, maximise the diversify the protest to highlight how many companies and people are implicated in this - this then tells the truth to the public about the systemic problems we face.

Keep up the Good Work!


Tuesday 26 October 2010

Re-thinking our approach to Climate Change

I've just responded to a blog post titled: 'Is it time for the Climate Change movement to completely re-think our approach?' on Be That In short, yes it is and it has been for a long time. In the blog Kieren Battles laments the lack of media coverage given to events on 10:10:10 and rightly suggests that: 'Surely we cannot continue to do the same thing and expect different outcomes. As we all know, that’s the definition of madness.' So here is the comment I posted, hopefully it is constructive:

It is nice to read someone honestly admitting that 'events' like 10:10:10 essentially fail to capture public and media attention, you are right they do. On top of this only 74,000 people out of a 60,000,000 population have signed up (and how many of them fulfill their pledge I wonder?) .. You are also right to say that a mass frisbee event (if, and probably only if, heavily sponsored and promoted by a multinational corporation) would have got more attention, it undoubtedly would have. The mainstream media sadly has a habit of ignoring anything that in any way suggests we consume less (of anything) for any reason. The mainstream media is, in the main, run/funded by people stuck in the neo-liberal consumer capitalist paradigm and they are hell-bent on prolonging it as long as they can. I'm not a huge fan of the 10:10 approach and although I think Bill McKibben's 'Deep Economy' is an excellent book,, is also not the best approach to take... they both use the wrong language, ask for a pathetic amount of change, are reductionist and strengthen the trend toward green consumerism, which in the end creates 'less bad' not 'better' behaviour. What always seems to be missing in the design of such initiatives is a realisation that people don't damage the environment because the HATE the environment, or HATE polar bears. They damage it because they care about other things as well, lots of other things - TV, films, music, clothes, playstations, holidays, toys, phones etc etc etc. It is hardly surprising given all the influences that surrounds them. Environmental concern, however strong, is only one of those influences and often it is a minor and easily forgotten one.

Taking the single issue, reductionist approach of only campaigning on Climate Change, is disingenuous when we need systemic change. Campaigns like 10:10 seem to ask only 'how can we go on living like this, but in a low-carbon way?' We need to inspire people, especially young people, to create new ways of doing just about everything: grow food, make clothes, entertain themselves and each other, build houses, travel, socialise, holiday, work, care, etc, etc. We need an education system that teaches science, maths, english, history, geography, languages, sport, economics, politics and philosophy through the language of sustainability... this way we create sustainably literate young adults, who can envisage different (and more commonsensical) ways of doing things and the skills, knowledge and creativity to do them. Sure you can educate about environmental problems, the end of oil, biodiversity loss and so on, the reality check is essential. But also educate in science about biomimicry and permaculture, in PE and drama about the joy of doing it, rather than watching it; in English about The Great Gatsby's painful experience of the material wealth = happiness myth; in philosophy about Aristotle's pursuit of wellbeing through welldoing and Plato's understandings of simplicity; in economics about the truth behind Milton Friedmann's Fundamental free market, The Spirit Level and the Green New Deal; in Art about the romantic's love of nature and fear for it, etc, etc.. The young people of today need to question everything, they need inspirational teachers who can guide them through this and point them towards ideas like Cradle to Cradle and The School of Life.

A lot of money was thrown behind 10:10, has it done anything more than create a load of convenient 'greenwash' for institutions, individuals, organisations and governments? Could the money have been spent better by campaigning for systemic change in formal education, which is clearly, at the moment, completely unfit for the 21st Century? The inconvenient question then of course is whether they would have got so much support? I'd argue they would have; there are a lot of teachers and parents and pupils out there who are deeply dissatisfied with our current education system. Let's stop pissing about at the margins of a broken system, pretending that it can work and, to paraphrase Buckminster Fuller, 'create a new system that makes the old one obsolete'. The Human Race has not evolved to anywhere near its potential yet, this is obvious by looking at the way we measure our wealth as individuals and countries. There are exciting times ahead, we need to create them, Ellen MacArthur recognises this, please check out her foundation.

Sunday 24 October 2010

Greenest Government Ever...

It was reported today in the Telegraph that DEFRA are being forced to sell off thousands of acres of woodland in the UK to cuts their costs.

These are sad times.

If you're better at graphic design for me, please make a better version of this!!

Tuesday 19 October 2010

Collaborative Consumption

Just read a P2P foundation article on 'Collaborative Consumption' and a book by Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers. It discusses how we are de-materialising the creation of our identities by using social media websites. They do of course concede that we do still use material things to communicate things about ourselves, comfort ourselves, or simply to make ourselves smile. Wedding rings, shoes, family heirlooms, etc, etc.

The process of de-materialisation must be a good thing for sustainability, but how will markets react to it in an economy based on material consumption? Will they encourage and cash in on the trend, or ignore and steamroller it by upping its sale of status symbols and convenience?

Here is a quote from the book that P2P posted:

Better Than Ownership

From pp. 97-98, chapter five:

The relationship between physical products, individual ownership, and self-identity is undergoing a profound evolution. We don’t want the CD, we want the music it plays; we don’t want the disc, we want the storage it holds; we don’t want the answering machine, we want the messages it saves; we don’t want the DVD, we want the movie it carries. In other words, we don’t want the stuff but the needs or experiences it fulfills. As our possessions “dematerialize” into the intangible, our preconceptions of ownership are changing, creating a dotted line between “what’s mine,” “what’s yours,” and “what’s ours.” This shift is fueling a world where usage trumps possessions, and as Kevin Kelly, a passionate conservationist and founder of Wired magazine, puts it, where “access is better than ownership.”

There are new channels emerging—channels that don’t require you to own anything other than a computer or even just an iPhone—to share what we are doing (Twitter), what we are reading (Shelfari), what we are interested in (Digg), the groups we belong to (LinkedIn), and of course who our friends are (Facebook). As our online “brands” define “who we are” and “what we like,” actual ownership becomes less important than demonstrating use or use by association. We can now show status, group affiliation, and belonging without necessarily having to buy physical objects. Self-expression through objects will, of course, not become obsolete. We will, for instance, always treasure possessions that have high sentimental value, such as our wedding rings, relics from travels, or family heirlooms. But our relationship to satisfying what we want and signaling who we are is far more immaterial than that of any previous generation.”

Read more extracts on P2P

Monday 4 October 2010

Read this... No Pressure.

Independent journalist Johann Hari who has written an article on just about every injustice in the world today. If you want to learn about anything from Pirates to the Pope search for 'Johann Hari, Pope' and you will be taken to somewhere in the archive of the wonderful

Hari has just responded to the now infamous Richard Curtis / 10:10 'No Pressure' short film. He does not mention 10:10 in the article but this was the tweet that led me to it:

@johannhari101 The 10:10 campaign is run by good people, but I never agreed with it - here's why: - and that advert is INSANE

He is far from being the only one to react to the 'green consumerism' approach to environmentalism, Rob Hopkins has also posted an informative blog article in which he defends 10:10 but distances himself from the No Pressure video. As he puts it 'not in my name'

I posted this on Johann Hari's Facebook, thought I'd share it here too:

Re: Independent article this morning
What about encouraging people to engage in deeper systemic change? Starting with education. Our children are taught in horribly reductionist ways, they learn about the world through a very narrow frame and are not encouraged to think holistically, creatively and ethically. If we succeed in lowering our dependence on fossil fuels (or are forced to by Peak oil) we will need a new generation of young designers and doers ready to change the way we do pretty much everything....grow food, keep homes warm, travel, entertain ourselves, keep the Internet alive, generate electricity, etc, etc... That's why 10:10 frustrates me massively, they could have spent thier time and money inspiring young people and celebrating human presence on Earth. They are wasting it in exactly the ways your article describes. In environmental action/campaigning terms it is a colossal waste of funds, energy and media exposure. Mind you 10:10 might not have been blessed with so much 'support' if thier 'supporters' / colluders (I'm looking at you Guardian editor, you Prime Minister, you faceless corporation in need of Green PR) actually thought that a meaningful challenge to the status quo was on its way. You are right Johann, time is too short to pussy foot around in the margins, deep systemic change driven by unprecedented levels of creativity and ecological intelligence is required, if the mainstream green movement does not recognise and call for this what chance the powerful will?

I have a lot of respect for all the energy and commitment of the people behind 10:10 and their hearts seem to be in the right place, I hope they can take on board all the constructive criticism and stay strong in the face of all the mindless vicious criticism that does the rounds on YouTube and the like!

Thursday 26 August 2010

Mummy, when I grow up I want to be Caroline Lucas

I was watching the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line again the other day and it threw up a question for me. The film starts by recalling Cash's childhood in rural Arkansas. His older brother Jack, who met an awful end thanks to a wood saw accident, was held in high esteem by his whole family. Jack Cash's ambition was to be a Preacher, he wanted to help people. At that time, of course, this was seen as an incredibly noble and honorable thing to do. If you wanted to help people in your community spiritually and emotionally this was THE way to do it. Given the demise of Christianity in this country what does the teenager who wants to help people aim for? If he chooses the cloth, he does so in the knowledge that fewer than half of his community will take his advice seriously and even fewer would come to him for it. Teacher? Doctor? Volunteer? Psychopherapist? Politician? Green Party politician? Mummy when I grow up I want to be Caroline Lucas.

Flying is brilliant - Restrain yourself

Whenever someone says to me 'I hate flying, planes are really bad [for the planet]' I always find myself thinking 'no, I like flying, it is a brilliant, liberating thing, its just a shame it is bad for the planet'.

It is incredible to think that if I really desperately wanted to and had enough time and money, I could book a flight, get a visa and get out to Pakistan by the weekend to help out in whichever I can with those suffering from the great flood at the moment. Pakistan that is, somewhere 4000 miles away! Somewhere like many other distant locations, that really need our help. Flying is a brilliant invention and is regularly used for a lot of good.

Just one example: I am reading 'Stones into Schools' at the moment. It is the follow up to 'Three Cups of Tea' by Greg Mortenson (photo). He has dedicated his life to humanitarian causes in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He promotes peace through 'books not bombs'. There is no way in this world he could achieve what he has achieved without the aeroplane. Thank-you aeroplane.

But, it has become environmentally (and by extension socially) irresponsible to fly, just as it is irresponsible to constantly upgrade one's gadgets or drive cars when the bus is a viable option. But I hate the approach of environmentalists who continue to try to demonise flying, telling people that everything about it is evil and bad, or they tell us that the 24 hour coach journey is always a better option, or that Leeds is just as nice to visit for a romantic weekend as Barcelona. It is not. It is just unfortunate that the side effects of flying are so damaging to the planet. But, for me, overall, flying is a means to enriching people's lives (and not just their own).

OK, sometimes the motivations for flying should be questioned, tied up as it is in escapism, status anxiety and runaway hedonism. A fall in the influence of these three on people's behaviour, would probably bring a natural fall in flying. Creating this fall is not going to be easy.

As environmentalists I don't think we should try to kid ourselves that aeroplanes are terrible, awful things, we should be honest and become exemplars and ambassadors of restraint. We must restrain ourselves from the temptations of flying, just like we try to restrain ourselves from alcohol, chocolate and cigarettes. True, it is often a lot of fun to travel overland and holiday more locally, but not always. If you need to go somewhere (like on holiday) cheaply and in a hurry, flying makes a lot of sense to a lot of people. To suggest otherwise makes you look slightly odd and very easy to ignore.

A shift to an age of restraint would require huge developments in maturity and selflessness throughout our population. At the moment we exist in a polar opposite age of infantalisation which breeds hyper-invidualism and countless environmental impacts. Cheap flights and a culture of 'live for today and let tomorrow worry about itself' is the embodiment of this, we should celebrate maturity and foster selflessness by helping people to grow up. Of course the cheap flight providers don't want this to happen. I flew back from a Global Footsteps conference on Saturday aboard an easyjet flight that offered to sell me as 'entertainment' the following choice of reading materials: Hello Magazine, Top Gear Magazine, or the Daily Mail. There is not going to be much critique of materialistic celebrity obsessed consumer culture in that lot!