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.