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!

Monday 23 August 2010

Open Minds and Dropping Conventional Environmentalism

Here is my response to Christine Ottery's excellent recent article 'How to be Less Maladaptive' over on 'Open Minds and Parachutes'

Hi Christine,

If we do as you suggest and keep all bases covered in our 'green' communications, are we not just perpetuating the status quo? It took me a while to find it, but I am now fixed on the 'Don't mention the Environment' approach.

We, as environmentalists, are locked in a battle (that we are losing horrendously) with consumer psychologists employed to keep people believing that material wealth = well-being. Belief in this myth is caused by what John K Galbraith in 'The Affluent Society' called 'The Paramount Position of Production' in the pursuit of economic growth and security. This creates 'The imperative of [maintaining] consumer demand' and, ultimately, our social and environmental problems.

Environmentalists are locked in a paradigm that has been proven over decades to be a fruitless and we need to wake up to it. The influence of long term, short term, immediate and distant environmental problems on people's behaviour are very small. We live in a world in which the majority are unable to properly identify and pursue the things that do and do not bring them well-being. We live in a world of 'pseudo-satisfiers', if we didn't the economy would collapse.

Making people aware of environmental problems is pointless unless it is mixed in with a much heavier dose of deeper soul searching. Rather than point people toward The Ecologist, Guardian Environment, 10:10 and The Age of Stupid; point them toward Alain De Botton, Vance Packard, Neil Boorman, Mihaly Csikzentmihayli, Mohammed Yunus, Tobias Jones, Peter Senge, Peter Singer and Oliver James. Or the albums: '12 Crass Songs' by Jeff Lewis and 'Cold Fact' by Rodriguez. Or films like Garbage Warrior, Into the Wild and Shooting Dogs.

These are the sources that have changed my way of thinking about the world and what the hell I should be doing within it. Stories of environmental despair add to my general despair about the human condition in modern Western life. But it is my concerns about my well-being and the well-being of my friends and family from the developed and developing world that drive me. It is the embedded 'Conventional Wisdom' (Galbraith, 1969, Chapter 2) of our current material consumption driven economic system that needs to change. If we want continued economic growth we have to de-materialise it, to do this we as environmentalists need to help people let go of what Tim Kasser calls our High Materialistic Value Orientations.

Key Reference:

Galbraith, J,K. (1969) The Affluent Society, Pelican, UK