Wednesday 20 April 2011

Embracing our own hypocrisies

Yesterday Ed Gillespie wrote a Guardian column on the hypocrisy of 'green' celebrities. Debate raged in the comment reel, I can't imagine Ed got a lot of work done as he typed up defense after defense of his own behaviour, which according to the accusations chucked at him meant he was no less a hypocrite than Sting, Bono and chums. Ed has responded again this morning on the safer territory of the Futerra blog. I started to comment on it there, but got carried away, so am giving my response here instead.

I find that being honest with people from the beginning that I don't always 'walk my talk' helps temper accusations that I'm giving it the old hypocritical: 'do as I say not as I do'. I do environmentally damaging things all the time, it's not because I HATE the environment, but because I like other things too. I enjoy experiencing what the wonders of the human mind has been able to create and make possible: eg: Reading festival, aeroplanes, wine, iPhones, go carting, etc, etc, etc. As Robert Tressell in 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists' described it, I like to enjoy the 'benefits of civilisation' a little bit. To deny ourselves the 'benefits of civilisation' is to deny ourselves what it is to be human. Robert Tressell's painters and decorators, his ragged trousered philanthropists, were being denied this because of the low wages paid to them by those they worked for. Their bosses were milking the profits and enjoying the finer things in life, while keeping their employees in poverty. It is why the central character, Frank Owen, saw himself as a philanthropist. He, his fellow workers and their families were being forced to sacrifice their own basic wellbeing and enjoyment of life by the controlling elite, corrupt forces of business and local government. We all need to enjoy what it is to be human, when people deny us the benefits of civilisation we quite rightly rebel.

Thanks to my ongoing sustainability education, I'm learning how to ensure I meet my basic material needs (food, clothing, shelter) in as low impact a way as possible and am discovering how to enjoy music, travel, drinking, communication, speed etc, etc, in lower impact ways too. I've questioned whether Reading Festival is really that enjoyable compared to writing and playing my own music with friends, whether I need to travel by plane to Morocco, or whether an overland journey might be more fun and whether the satisfaction of ripping downhill at 50mph on my racing bike after a long climb up is more fun than go-carting. This doesn't mean I don't sometimes want to go to a big music festival and still do; or don't enjoy go-carting when I do it, I truly do; or don't use an iPhone (I'm a slave to it). I do do all these things, but a bit less now and it is because I have learned that what it is I get out of them can be found in other, more fulfilling ways. And with some sustainability literacy I'm able to do them in an environmentally more sensitive way.

But, hey, I flew back from Morocco. I want to talk to you about that, not to justify it to you, just to dig deeper into this common dilemma. Exploring why, despite all the physical and emotional discomfort it caused me, it still made the most sense and was therefore ultimately what I wanted to do. In the list of my life's priorities, my environmental concerns are sometimes trumped by my other concerns - I want to talk to you about those other concerns and how they came to be. Exploring with people our own environmentally destructive behaviours and what drives them takes you to a position where your audience feels they can walk alongside you, rather than wanting to square up to you and punch in your hypocritical nosey nose.

Monday 18 April 2011

Chandran Nair at The RSA

Emma and I attended 'Constraining Consumption' at the RSA this evening. It was nice to hear someone telling it like it is. Here, very briefly, is one part of the argument as I understood it!

From the end of the second world war onwards Government's in the Western world had to work out how to deal with the fact that they had a production system that produced far more goods and services than people actually wanted. Too many resources and too few consumers. The business of public relations was ushered in and set about convincing people they did need more stuff. In the process they ensured that demand matched supply and that a lot of producers got rich. This story is told most succintly in Adam Curtis' Century of the Self. The result was rapid and spectacular economic growth. Today in Asia the problem faced by the governments in Beijing, Delhi, Manilla and so on is the exact opposite. Too few resources, too many people. In Consumptionomics Chandran Nair argues that they are apparently blind to this reality and instead obssesively follow the consumer capitalist model of the West. It is an absolutely insane thing to do. At exactly the time when governments should be working out how to constrain consumption they are out there, all over the world, actively encouraging us to buy, buy, buy.

Thursday 14 April 2011

Paul Gilding at The RSA - Where are 'we' in The Great Disruption?

Paul Gilding is talking tonight at The Hub Kings Cross on his new book The Great Disruption. Its free, but you need to sign up and is chaired by Ed Gillespie from Futerra. My wife and I went to his RSA talk last night; he's great to listen to!

I agree with a lot of Gilding's analysis, we are coming towards the end of global economic growth, it is a scientific fact. The world's capability to produce enough for the 7 billion of us currently on Earth is diminishing rapidly, I'm in total agreement. The world's economy is going to contract, it is going to be disrupting! I've not read the book yet, but the most interesting thing to me at last night's event was the use of the word 'we' by Gilding and the chair, Martin Wright. They seemed to be talking about the global 'we'; 'we' as a species, and argued that this 'we' will eventually, collectively, act to cope with the great disruption. I admire the optimism.

At the end of the Q&A, Wright asked the audience to put their hand up if they agreed with the following statement: 'We're going to go through a serious shit storm and then we'll eventually emerge, slightly weather beaten, but basically in tact in about 70 years time.' (I'm paraphrasing!) I didn't put my hand up, because I assumed he was talking about the global 'we'. My hand would have (regretfully) shot up if he'd been referring to 'we' the rich 1 billion.

Why? Well I was left wondering if anyone really cares about GLOBAL economic growth; I mean is there anyone out there activitely on a mission to sustain global economic growth? Or, is it just the cumulative result of lots of people autonomously caring about personal, national and corporate economic growth? Surely it is and always will be. The upshot of this is that as the global economy retracts people/politicians/CEOs will do everything they can to delay the death of their most immediate economies, in fact they already do this daily. As these more immediate economies are under threat from increasing oil prices, impacts of Climate Change, new regulations, redundancy or whatever other crisis they face (which many already are) the instinct is to act selfishly to cope with or diminish the emerging threats. There is little incentive to care about the detriment your actions will have on others(1). The rich 1 billion, in its various overlapping guises as nations, corporations and wealthy individuals, has been doing this for decades, most noticeably for us, here in the UK, through the government's ongoing foreign policies. The result of all this is the growth of between country and within country inequality. More threat (and more perception of threat) intensifies this process; fear breeds protectionism, resource grabbing and self preservation. This is one of my concerns about creating a 'fear' of climate change.

But, will individual economies/nations/people/businesses acting in their own self interest between now and 2050 add up to a global collective movement capable of navigating the great disruption with all the estimated 9 billion people in tact? It seems to be a hope some are clinging to right now. But, the consumer culture fuelled demise of our ecosystem services and natural resources suggests it won't. What will probably happen is that the current weakest economies will collapse and the stronger more powerful economies will swoop down to mop up their scraps to keep their economies going as long as possible. It is a frankly terrifying future prospect and one that makes me feel quite ill.

Is there any hope? Yes, I strongly believe, like Gilding that the Earth has the carrying capacity to feed and shelter 9 billion people, in a more equal, less consumerist, world it would be possible. We might even be able to still enjoy some of Robert Tressell's 'benefits of civilisation' too. Part way through his talk last night Gilding said that for this to be possible 'we simply need to change the way we think'. He was of course talking about the need for us all to appreciate that the true ways to wellbeing are found not through shopping, hedonism, celebrity and power, but through giving, caring, connecting and playing. The 'simply' part was an enormous understatement, but I totally agree and it's why I passionately work to do this everyday with Global Footsteps, Becoming Green and most recently Common Cause. It is a far from 'simple' task, but its not impossible and Gilding cites some precedents for this happening. If the global 'we' is successful in doing this I'll be a delighted 80-year-old come 2050, if not I will be able to sleep at night knowing I was one of the those who was trying to make it happen. Paul Gilding, Martin Wright and Ed Gillespie are three others amongst a growing crowd who will also be able to look themselves in the mirror and say 'I tried'.

1. Other than pissing them off so much that they rise up against you and even then you can avert that threat by owning weapons of mass destruction

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Action for Happiness

Action for Happiness launched today. So far I like it.

Find out more via their website.
Follow them on Twitter

If you're not the sort of person who does all the things listed below, you probably don't read this blog. But, just in case, try one or two. I'm off out now and will try to do number 10.

Monday 11 April 2011

T-Shirt for sale: 'I'm Cameron's Big Society'

This soggy dog was photographed in 2008 by the pond in Springfield Park, Hackney. He probably made a mess; someone probably had to clear it up.

Springfield Park overlooks the River Lee and Walthamstow Marshes in East London and is becoming increasingly popular as the people of Hackney seek a refuge from the overcrowded fashion show that Clissold Park in nearby Stoke Newington has become. My wife and I took my parents to the Springfield Park Cafe yesterday on our way home from Sutton House in Homerton. As Dad and I queued up for the men's toilet, the resident Park Ranger lamented to us the difficulty he and his colleagues are having in keeping Hackney's parks litter free and well stocked with loo paper. With a wry smile he complained, 'I was here at 8am this morning waiting for Cameron's Big Society to turn up and help me clear up yesterday's litter. They didn't come; its 3pm now, I don't think they are coming are they?' I was quite moved to want to help this guy, but the thing is I really, really don't want to be one of 'Cameron's'Big Society'. He is not a leader I am drawn to follow, I'd hate to wear the 'I'm Cameron's Big Society' t-shirt. I don't want to vindicate him, he's a hypocrite. If Caroline Lucas MP asked me to grab my litter picker and pooper scooper, I'd be there, she's not a hypocrite. It's not that I don't want to help others, I continue to volunteer on projects I've been involved in for several years, but to take on any new volunteering, especially something as conspicuous as litter picking, stinks of Cameronism. I won't volunteer to help Cameron's re-election campaign.

The selflessness that should be at the core of the Big Society is a value I certainly hold, but it is not a value I easily associate with Mr Cameron and Conservative party members. There is a carefully veiled hypocrisy here and it surfaces in the Government's 'Giving' Green paper. The paper condescendingly explains to the NGO sector that to encourage selflessness you need to highlight the self-enhancing benefits of donating time and money. OK, this approach can mobilise people in the short term, but it's oxymoronic and doesn't address the root of the problem. Boiled down the message is this: Be selfless for the sake of yourself; it will reflect well on you in your social circles, it will make you feel good and make your life better and safer. 'Selfish people have been dropping litter in your park, be selfless for selfish reasons and pick it up won't you?' This, according to the the Green Giving paper, is what NGOs should be communicating to the public to create the Big Society.

Such advice is grounded in our current culture and is therefore an insufficient challenge to it. We live in hyper-individualist times where self interest is championed by the business and political elite almost everywhere we look. From adverts selling us status symbols to the recent revelation that David Miliband MP has set up a company to change and lower his personal tax burden (Labour are certainly not immune here). From this base, it is very difficult to encourage generosity, kindness, community spirit and genuine altruism. When the Big Society fails, as it surely will, Cameron and colleagues dare not accuse the public of selfishness; they reinforce it in them on a daily basis.

To lead a selflessness revolution, Mr Cameron, as the 'Prime' version, should look up the definition of the word 'minister' ('to attend to the wants and needs of others') and so should his parliamentary colleagues. They should all be exemplars of this ministering. Currently they only seem to be attending to the wants and needs of a few at the expense of the all the 'others' they have been elected to attend to. This should surely be the other way around (I do recognize the need for trade-off and compromise in Politics!) Until selflessness becomes observable in the deeds as well as words of our political leaders, they will remain difficult leaders to follow.

Monday 4 April 2011

Adam Curtis documentaries

This is just a link to a website containing most of Adam Curtis' documentaries.

Possible streams of effort to carry Common Cause forward within the education sector

Please feedback by commenting below or by emailing

Morgan Phillips:

It is my strong personal belief that the sustainability sector1 is too small and too powerless to create a mainstream shift towards sustainable lifestyles on its own. Such a shift would require a dramatic modification of the values of the entire population and the sustainability movement is only a very tiny shaper of those values. The forces that drive and embed self-interest and therefore consumerism in our society are numerous, complexly interrelated and self reinforcing. This is not to say they can't be challenged, they are and can be; I'll discuss how a little later.

Following on from discussions on March 11th, 19th, 20th and 21st that I’ve been having in various ‘Common Cause’ meetings I want to suggest two streams of effort that those interested might want to join together to pursue. They are related and mutually reinforcing but need not be pursued in any particular order, I am therefore naming them the RED and BLUE streams.

RED stream - Getting our own house in order

As a sector1, and as Common Cause points out, what we absolutely must not do is be complicit in reinforcing damaging self-enhancing values. Heaven knows they are reinforced enough elsewhere! So, no longer, for example, should we encourage environmental behaviours by preying on cost and time saving motivators, however tempting such short-cuts can be. There is a very real need for us to get our own houses in order. No matter how difficult and challenging it might be, this must be the path we set out on. We must do this for several reasons, one not least of which being that if we are playing on self-interest to further our agendas, we are in effect - as respected ‘universalists’ - further legitimizing hyper-individualism2.

The first task in getting our houses in order is to communicate to the sector as a whole the necessity of actually doing this. Waste Watch’s collaborative Sustainable Lifestyles framework and its initial discussion paper 'Working from values'3 provides a very useful starting point for us. The 'next steps' of that project will explore the issues in more depth and contribute further advice, through research and best practice case studies, to help the sector as a whole to modify its approach. Tim has called for others to come forward to help him develop these next steps; it is up to us to respond to that call.

However, dissemination, I feel, must not be restricted to PDF files and online forums. Face-to-face contact in the form of one-to-one conversations, workshops, action research and ‘work experience’4 need to happen as budgets allow. Several networks5 exist to make dissemination possible, we should use as many as possible to ensure we reach all corners of the sector.

The shift in practice called for will not happen overnight, there are many obstacles6 to overcome. As advocates and consultants7 we can catalyse a change in practice - the shift is already in motion, we need to help it gather speed until it snowballs.

Getting our own house in order is crucial not only to improving the efficacy and long term impacts of our own work, but will also allow us to carry out the BLUE stream more effectively.

BLUE streamEngaging the wider education sector

Formal education in the UK is beset with many difficulties8; many argue that it is not fit for purpose. Schools are filled with disengaged students, frustrated teachers and worried parents. The formal education system is ripe for transformation and we need to get along side those calling for change, find common ground and combine with them to become a powerful and irresistible voice.

I may be a bit naive here, but I believe that if you ask teachers and parents what they want their children to grow up to be, they don’t say: image and celebrity obsessed, infantalised, hyper-hedonistic, dependent, conformist, selfish capitalist consumers. They are probably more likely to want them to be: creative, kind, independent, community spirited, mature, intelligent, caring and selfless young citizens. If they do want them to be the latter they have an enormous role to play in nurturing them and making it possible9.

As we know children and adults are surrounded by self-enhancing values. Adam Curtis called the 20th Century the Century of the Self 10; the 21st Century shows no sign of being any different. We are taught to look out for number one, to buy large houses and fast cars, expensive holidays and designer clothes. We have status anxiety, debt and boring jobs. Consumerism, for many, is an escape, a temporary relief and a way of life. Self-enhancing values are reinforced constantly, by celebrities, public figures, script writers, musicians, academics, teachers, parents, brothers, sisters and friends. Often it is done inadvertently, it is so embedded in our culture that our ‘natural’ behaviour unwittingly reinforces self-enhancing values.

But, every time we hold a door open for someone, lend an ear to a friend in need, give our family members a lift to the shops or organise a birthday party for someone close to us we reinforce self-transcendent values, all is not lost! Our learning institutions have a very important role to play in helping children and young people to decipher the world around them. Teachers can help children to celebrate the joy of giving and caring for others. Teachers can help children to understand their emotions and basic material and non-material needs. They can help them to think critically about the things that influence their values. They can marvel at the wonders of nature, science and art with them. They can nurture their creativity and bring stories of self-transcendence, rather than self-enhancement to life. They can do all this through books, films, poetry, photography, field trips, music, art, sport and history. The point is they can do it within their chosen subject, it really is not that hard and it is probably what the majority of them would actually like to do11.

The conversations I have been having with those with several years more experience of working in and around the formal education sector have led me to the following premise: Lasting change in education is more likely to happen from the bottom up. Education ministers come and go; schools and teachers stick around a lot longer (and believe or not do have some autonomy, creativity and pride in their work). Although the thinning out of the curriculum will present challenges12, it also presents opportunities. Teachers beyond the core subjects of English, Maths and Science will be freed up to express their self-direction and their creativity. They will have more freedom to decide what they teach and the resources they use. We need help them curate these and encourage them to facilitate and celebrate creativity in children. In doing so, we can hope they produce young people who are creative and caring, rather than creative and selfish! 13

If change does happen from the bottom up, we need to work out ways to engage teachers, parents and children (and perhaps civil servants). Can we go into schools and ask some fundamental questions? Why are you a teacher? Is the current education system fit for purpose? How can you change it? Are children leaving school with the skills, aptitudes and values that will help them flourish as adults in the 21st Century? What do we want our children to grow up to be?

The BLUE stream will require us to get alongside other groups who are also interested in asking these sorts of questions. Those in the arts and creative sector, those interested in children’s wellbeing, those interested in bringing New Economics into schools, those interested in introducing philosophy to children, those interested in reclaiming Sport as an environmentally benign and community building pastime. We need to identify these groups and link with them. There are workshops, weekend retreats for teachers and parents, discussion papers, books, documentaries and so on to be made. What will these look like? How can we modify existing approaches and create new ones?


I hope this is useful and helps focus efforts. I am keen to hear your feedback, tell me if I am being unrealistic or idealistic! The RED stream may well be the easiest one to navigate, but the BLUE stream is where the real opportunity for change seems to lie, I recommend doing both.

If you can think of a GREEN or indeed YELLOW stream to add to this, please offer it up! I look forward to hearing from you.


1. The sector I’m referring to here includes all those working in education for sustainable development, development education and environmental education. Most specifically those who engage with schools in the UK.

2. ‘Hyper-Individualism’ is a phrase I am borrowing here from Bill McKibben’s (2007) book ‘Deep Economy’.

3. ‘Working from values’ available from: I’m sure you can also contact Tim Burns directly to request a copy.

4. There is no better way to learn about a new approach than to witness it firsthand. I hope organisations pioneering this approach will open their doors to fellow practioners.

5. Networks: Sustainable Schools Alliance, SHED, PRISM, Compass Network, Common Cause, LEEF, HEEN, Project Dirt, Sustainable Lifestyles, IES, The Green Party, NEF etc, etc. [Please add to this list].

6. Obstacles to change within sector: Funding hoops to jump through, Culturally embedded practice, Audience expectations, Time, Resources, Ignorance of funders/educators(!), Heavy emphasis on actions, desperation and impatience.... (I researched this during my PhD studies)

7. As momentum for a shift begins to occur, there is likely to be a role for advocates and consultants who can help organisations and individuals to modify their work. Advocates and consultants will need to be trained and resourced to do this.

8. Problems with formal education sector. For a brief summary just watch Sir Ken Robinson’s RSA Animate: Please feedback to me with other good critiques.

9. I argue this more fully, but from a Higher Education perspective here:

10. Adam Curtis’ BBC Century of the Self documentary series details the rise of Public Relations and is well worth watching, you should be able to find it here and you can often get DVDs of it on EBay.

11. My personal website: is a collection of resources and ideas to be used by teachers of all subjects who wish to explore values, wellbeing and sustainability; it hopefully demonstrates how wide education for sustainability actually is / could be.

12. The core concern I heard raised at the recent launch of the Sustainable Schools Alliance is that schools will become preoccupied in achieving success in the small range of core subjects, therefore lessening the emphasis they put on more peripheral subjects, especially sustainability.

13. I have just written a piece titled: Creative and Caring, or Creative and Selfish: