Monday 31 January 2011

A great quote

If you don't share your stability and your economic success with the poor, the poor will share their instability and poverty with you.
(Omaru Sisay, 2010)

My wife, Emma, and I scribbled down this quote while watching the BBC Storyville documentary 'The Trouble with Pirates' that was broadcast in September and then again in December last year. One of the interviewees on that show was a specialist African analyst called Omaru Sisay who works for intelligence experts Exclusive Analysis in London. I thought we'd lost the quote, but it has just turned up at the bottom of a pile of papers. In a world which, by October this year, could have a population of 7 billion, the majority of whom live in 'less developed world' conditions, this quote is an intelligent warning.

Sunday 30 January 2011

Russell Brand on Consumerism

Just in case you've missed this. Follow this link to see an interview by Jeremy Paxman with Russell Brand. Some very interesting insights into celebrity status, consumerism and happiness. A documentary directed by Oliver Stone is apparently imminent too in which Brand goes to India to ask the big questions about happiness. Could be interesting stuff.

I've got a lot of time for Russell Brand, he's thoughtful, intelligent and not afraid to shake things up a bit; he looks set to change the direction of his career in quite a significant way.

Pam Warhurst - One to watch

As DEFRA try to force through their proposals to change the way our Forests are managed here in the UK, it is worth keeping an eye on Pam Warhurst, who has just been made Chair of the Forestry Commission. Her background suggests that she is not going to be a keen supporter of Caroline Spelman's plans. Here is Warhurst's statement from DEFRA's news article on Thursday:

Ministers have set out a new vision for forestry in England that will require a fundamental shift in our thinking and how we work. The proposals provide an opportunity to think about forest ownership and sustainable land management in a new way and to engage a wider cross-section of society. The consultation will allow people to have their say and we encourage everyone with an interest to give us their views.

It is not exactly a resounding statement of support is it? But, already you can see that she is having to use politically sensitive language. In the quote above, she says 'provide an opportunity' when she might well be thinking 'force us to' and when she says 'encourage everyone with an interest' she may well have preferred 'urge everyone with an interest'. Linguistics are very important here, I hope she and others in authority start using stronger language soon.

A bit about Pam Warhurst's background. She is also the chair of a Yorkshire based company, Pennie Prospects. It is heavily dependent on public funding and is a strong advocate of public access to the South Pennines and Britain's wild places in general. In her 'message from the chair' Warhurst says this:

What we have [in the South Pennines] is so special but it is under threat. Threat from development that is inappropriate, threat from unsustainable land management practices, threat from climate change and from human apathy, perhaps the greatest threat of all.

She is also a former board member of Natural England, the Government's advisor on the natural environment. It is a very important organisation, it works on behalf of the environment and strives to balance the human-environment relationship for mutual benefit. It answers to no shareholders, economic concerns are secondary. Important jobs are under threat at Natural England, many of its scientists will lose their jobs because of the looming cuts. These are the scientists who have worked in the natural environment for many years and help us understand its current and future states. Their impartial advice is crucial to policy making, it will hollow out at great cost. Losing the forests might lessen the blow to Natural England, but it is a desperate situation, we can't afford to lose either. Pam Warhurst is in a very difficult, but very important position.

Friday 28 January 2011

Underground Advertising Jan 2011

Three tube posters that have caught my eye today
*Sorry, you'll need to zoom in on these images to read the copy!:

Mad Men moves from BBC to Sky, Draper meets Murdoch. But, its one show that might actually benefit from having ad breaks. Don't make tea, spend the break analysing the clever techniques used to sell us stuff.

I didn't realise that Action Aid's charitable purpose was as much about improving the emotional wellbeing of the middle-aged sufferers of existential crisis. It's a nice spin off I guess, but are they volunteering for the right reasons?

Finally, Jack Daniel, a 19th Century role model for the 21st Century man. Mature, loyal relationships? Pah, there is only one thing I'm committed to, the booze!

Happy Friday, I'm off to celebrate 10 year of award winning graphic and web design with my amazing pals at Ten 4 Design, I won't be drinking Jack Daniels, probably a couple of glasses of Jameson's, that's OK right?

‘How to encourage people to be sustainable’

Below is a rough transcript of what I talked about at the LEEF event last night in London, which was really excellent. Includes links to the images I didn't manage to show. There were 5 speakers in all, all of them gave great answers to questions that had been sent to us by Anna Portch, hopefully some of the other talks will appear online too. The question I volunteered to talk about was:

‘How to encourage people to be sustainable’

– crikey why did I pick this topic?! Maybe I was having one of those supremely arrogant ‘Eureka’ moments that us Environmentalists have occasionally, where we suddenly think ‘Yes that’s it, this is how the world works, this is how people think and behave, this is what we need to tell them – take me to the lectern, I’m going to save the world!!’ Hmmm. These moments of self confidence are short lived, quickly I revert to despondency and self-doubt.... why am I doing this? I can’t change the world, I have enough trouble changing my energy supplier.

So, don’t expect that at the end of my fifteen minutes you will have been given the definitive answer to the question of how to encourage people to be sustainable, it ain’t going to happen, sorry!

What I am going to do is this. I’m going to explore a dilemma that currently exists between two different approaches to encouraging people to be sustainable.

John F. Kennedy famously said in his inauguration speech:

Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

We can paraphrase this by saying:

Ask not what sustainability can do for you; ask what you can do for sustainability.

This advice highlights two very different mindsets: those with an interest in enhancing themselves versus those more concerned with solving problems that are bigger than themselves.

The reality is that most of us sit somewhere between these two extremes of selfishness and altruism. But asking what you can do for sustainability rather than what sustainability can do for you is what I want to discuss. Part of us of course thinks argh, climate change is a really bad thing, what can I do about it? But somewhere within us we are also thinking what are the costs and benefits of adopting new behaviours? Will it impact positively or negatively on our pursuit of our other life goals?

So we’re interested here in the ways we go about encouraging people to be sustainable. By sustainable I also mean green, eco or environmentally friendly. I am also talking about how to encourage people to give time, money and effort to causes that deal with other ‘bigger-than-self’ issues like: global poverty, child cruelty, homelessness, illiteracy, racial prejudice, HIV/AIDS, animal cruelty, care for the elderly, care for those with mental and physical disabilities and so on.

In the UK today the major trend seems to be that people look at ‘sustainable’ or ‘green’ behaviours and ask themselves what the benefits to themselves will be, if they engage in these behaviours. It is the ‘what’s in it for me?’ mindset. This mindset has come to be embedded in our society. And the campaigns of charities and approaches of environmental educators have adapted to it, they work within this culture. Increasingly, as educators, we focus on highlighting the benefits you will get from being green, from volunteering, from giving and so on. This reinforces that self enhancing mindset.

This is true not just for individuals; it is true for other social actors as well. Businesses, governments, charities, clubs, institutions, political parties as well as individuals, assess the costs and benefits of adopting a ‘green’ behaviour (or of giving to a cause) based largely on the impact it will have on them. Their concerns are with their image, their status, their brand and their nice warm feeling inside.

So new behaviours and products are promoted to us and it is usually quite obvious what we need to give; exactly what we get back is often far less clear cut. So let’s look at the new Toyota Auris Hybrid Car. This is what their website says about it:

The world's most advanced, innovative, compact family car brings low emissions, £0 road tax and stunning fuel economy with over 700 miles on one tank of petrol. Introducing the New Auris Hybrid - a car that defies convention at every turn - the first Toyota hybrid built in Britain, more environmentally friendly than ever before and the latest member of a forward-thinking family.

So, you buy this car, what do you get? You get monetary savings on your fuel consumption (that presumably you can spend on something else), you get a flashy new status symbol, you get an approving, maybe jealous, look from your eco-conscious neighbour, you spot flashing glimpses of the envious eyes of cyclists and pedestrians as they see you glide by. You might even get approving glances from potential future spouses on the lookout for someone mature and caring, maybe someone who wants to start a family. Or if you are already in a relationship, you are saying to your partner that you are ready to leave behind the hedonism of your Golf GTi, you now need a family car and you care about the future, your children’s future and Britain!

So, by buying this car, you are ever so slightly changing your identity and the way other people see you. You're a bit unconventional, you're intelligent, you're a proper grown up!

And it is not just eco-cars. You might have seen the latest campaign by the charity Action Aid. It stars ‘Silvia’ who also appears on their website exclaiming this: I didn’t just change the world, I changed myself. And what a feeling!’ Action Aid are going really heavy on this approach, their homepage shouts ‘What a feeling! Get yours today!’

In pushing the Big Society, the government are advocating this approach really strongly, this theme runs right through this ‘Giving Green Paper’ where they have picked out evidence of how by appealing to people’s self-enhancing values – their desires for power, image, status, happy feelings, career enhancement etc you can get them to ‘give’ time and money to charity.

In this way, green products and behaviours, as well as the giving of time or money, are sold to us just like any other product or service. Be green, it can save you money, it can make you look cool, it can make you look wealthy and so on. Volunteer, it will make you feel better about yourself, it’ll look good on your CV. Obviously they dont just say that, they do tell you about the problems you're helping to solve. But the emphasis is on you and what you will get out of it. This is quite a big problem.

But, why is it such a big problem? If the result is giving and volunteering, or is sustainable behaviour, don’t the ends justify the means? The responses needed to some of the world’s biggest current problems appear so enormous and so urgent that many in the sustainability movement say we can’t be fussy about how we change behaviour, the need to change behaviour is so pressing, we should use any means necessary! Right now! And, just get on with it!

And it works, well at least in the short term it does, it brings in donations and volunteers and creates observable green behaviour. By focusing mostly on the benefit to the giver with only a passing mention of the benefit to the environment or society the charity or environmental educator or green business can achieve some success.

But what it is not very good at doing is changing the really damaging behaviours associated with high consumption of disposable goods and services. And it is these behaviours that are causing and perpetuating most of the worlds environmental and social problems. If we look at the issues that most major environmental NGOs are dealing with, the problems are getting worse not better.

And there is a long-term danger, which is pointed out in Common Cause, a report published last year by WWF in association with Friends of the Earth, Oxfam, COIN and CPRE. This report argues that if charities, green businesses and environmental educators use the same techniques as the multinational corporations who are trying to flog their products and services, they are ultimately, in the long run, contributing to a process that thrives on creating and sustaining a population of individualistic, infantilised, anxiety ridden, status and image obsessed, selfish consumers.

Charities, environmental educators and truly green businesses should be doing the exact opposite; encouraging people to lead fulfilling and meaningful lives, characterised by generosity, benevolence, community spirit, stable levels of self esteem and a natural instinct to care for and then act on issues that are ‘bigger than themselves’.

But, it is very hard for charities to make that switch, even those who contributed to the Common Cause report like WWF, Oxfam and Friends of the Earth recognise that appealing to people’s self interest works, it brings in the money, their fundraisers ask if it ain’t broken why fix it? And you can certainly see their point, as organisations they are in a highly competitive marketplace and they need to survive, this is why Common Cause argues that they all need to move together on this. But the fundraisers and the sustainability comms people argue that the appealing to people's selflessness, generosity, kindness and universalism just does not work. Are people just too selfish now?

To finish I just want to tell you about a man called Greg Mortenson, some of you may have read his book ‘Three Cups of Tea’. This guy is incredible. He was a mountaineer who after climbing some amazingly high mountain in the Himalayas above one of the remotest parts of Pakistan lost his way hiking back down to civilisation, he was separated from his team and his guide and on the verge of starvation and exhaustion stumbled into a small mountain village. Over the course of a few weeks those villagers nursed him back to health. While he recovered he spent time with some of the children who had no school, a teacher who visited them just once a week, no books, pencils, nothing, they were teaching themselves basic numeracy and literacy by scratching lines in the dirt. It transformed him from being a self-obsessed mountaineer to the man he now is. On leaving that village he vowed to return one day with enough money to build a school for the children and to employ a full time teacher.

He returned to America, to his job as a hospital porter, decided to save as much money of his own as he could and to try to raise the rest from others. He moved his most essential possessions into a storage box and lived in his car, spending all his spare time telling people his story and persuading them to donate money to his cause. He worked incredibly hard and eventually raised enough to go back to Pakistan to fulfil his promise.

But he didn’t stop there, he recognised that the people in those remote parts of Pakistan needed so much more, more schools, hospitals, bridges, roads etc, etc. He has dedicated his life to raising the funds needed to make this happen, he has even crossed the border into Afghanistan where he is building secular schools for boys and girls. He is an incredibly selfless man.

The book ‘Three Cups of Tea’ has been in the top 50 of the bestsellers list in the USA for over 5 years, he now regularly talks about his work to audiences in arenas to up to 30,000 people all paying $20 per ticket. His generosity, courage and selflessness is massively inspiring, his story inspires these values in others and his charity is incredibly successful at raising money.

OK, we can’t all be like Greg Mortenson, but we can all tell stories like his. Who here knows the story of how Oxfam started, or Friends of the Earth, or WWF, or Greenpeace, or the NSPCC? Who started them and why, what were their stories? I bet they are powerful stories too and I bet there are people still working for those organisations who are generous, selfless and concerned almost entirely with 'bigger than self' issues (if there aren't we're in big trouble). We need to be telling these stories, they inspire people and create much need role models.

So in encouraging people to be sustainable can we get them to follow that advice?

Ask not what sustainability can do for you; ask what you can do for sustainability.

Friday 14 January 2011


Yesterday's Thursday Essay by Sean O'Grady in The Independent argued if we were bankers 'we would take the bonuses' too so we shouldn't get on their backs so much. He argued that we would take such highly inflated wages if we were bankers, just as we would if we were footballers or the CEO of an Oil company. We wouldn't turn down the money because we didn't think it was fair for us to earn so much. It seemed to me to be a poorly veiled attempt to say 'you're all just jealous, stop whining'.

But what about others measurements of wealth? Financial wealth is no guarantee of wealth in other areas, but we generally understand it to be desirable. The more money we have the better our lives will be. But what if, in earning that money, we exploit others or the environment around us? Does that not diminish our emotional wealth a bit? Does that not force us to lower our self-respect? I wonder how many bankers walk north out of their Liverpool St offices and up London's Curtain Road towards the headquarters of the NSPCC reflecting on true wealth. Do they see the warm faces of people who leave those offices and ponder to themselves: 'its not fair, I earn loads of money, but they seem to be so much more fulfilled by their work. I earn loads more than them, but I am not as happy, my work is just not as meaningful or socially useful - its not FAIR!'