Martin Parkinson

Letters to the editor - green issues *


The Guardian 4th March 2006

What starry-eyed nonsense from the travel industry spokesmen in response to George Monbiot (Comment, 4 March). Yes, travel can be life-changing but much air travel is rather trivial. It is undertaken for subconcious status reasons or because it had become the default choice.


Green psychology at Christmas

The Independent 24th December 2005

Reports on the environmental impact of the Christmas period (Throwaway Christmas, 23 December), omit one crucial perspective. Any social anthropologist could tell you that the midwinter orgy of spending has deep symbolic roots, and they could cite you any number of examples from other cultures where apparent "wastefulness" has a vital cultural meaning.

However, our level of ostentatious consumption has, because of our species' technological brilliance, lately gone well beyond the easily sustainable tribal potlach, and become actively dangerous. But it hampers us if we talk exclusively in terms "waste" and "unsustainability" because no-one want to be thought ungenerous or poor. Environmental action has to be aware of psychological reality.



The Guardian 13th December 2005

Jackie Ashley (Comment, 12 December) realises that to get to grips with climate change we will have to travel less. She says this will make our lives 'slightly duller'. Perhaps, but a slightly duller life is not necessarily a less happy life.

Recent psychological work on happiness tells us that we adapt well to certain sorts of changes. After the initial euphoria or dismay has worn off, previous levels of happiness return. But there are types of change to which we can't adapt and it seems that environmental degradation is one of them - so less noise from aircraft and motorways could genuinely make us all feel better.


Road Pricing

The Independent 16th June 2005

There are many possible ways to discourage private car use. Naturally, the Government, with its proposals for road pricing, plumps for an over-technological scheme which will come to fruition reassuringly far in the future. So much for courageous "leadership". But at least an intention has been stated: not so long ago the very idea of curbing transport in any way was regarded as completely mad. In that sense things really are changing at last.


Wretched nukes

Guardian 31st May 2005

Like some other environmentalists, I have lately softened my opinion on nuclear power. (Comment, 30 May). But it is a temporary bandage for our energy ills, not a cure. We cannot build them ad infinitum to support an energy usage which also increases without end. Nuclear remains a dangerous, albeit genuinely impressive, technology and must be used with utmost caution.


Is more air travel inevitable?

The Observer 8th May 2005 (the weekend after the general election)

It’s good to see that ‘Rising number of greens ditch cheap air travel’ (News, last week). I’m not surprised – when people understand the real urgency of climate change they will act appropriately. So why have past governments assumed that the desire for more air travel is intractable – could it be that they secretly think of ordinary folks as stupid and selfish?


Climate change - don't despair (just) yet

The Independent 22nd April 2005

Michael Cullup (letters 19 April) despairs too easily about the environmental 'global crisis' because he has missed an essential point about human psychology. It's easy to overestimate the amount of real choice people have and to assume they know more about these matters than they do. In fact, as social scientist Mayer Hillman points out, if people are properly informed about the seriousness of the matter and fair (i.e. applies to everyone) legislation is introduced, changes in behaviour can happen, just as everyone understood the necessity for rationing in wartime. It really is that urgent - but how can people be expected to understand when there is almost complete silence from 'heavyweight' politicians?

Much of our unsustainable behaviour (much of our behaviour of any sort) is not particularly chosen, nor does it give us a huge amount of pleasure. We just do it because everyone else seems to be doing it, or because we seem to have no choice. This is why talk of individual choice is only valuable in that it brings up the issue for discussion - to really affect things we need legislation.


Green tourism? Pah!

The Independent 3rd January 2005

You seriously misled your readers in your article 'Guilt Free Guide to Holidays' (1st January). 'Green Tourism', however thoughtful, is an oxymoron when it involves air travel as this is a major contributor to CO2 emissions. True, there are parts of the world who rely on the money which tourism brings but do we really think we've done them a big favour by making them dependent on us?

Yours etc


Climate change and psychology

Philosophy Now August/September 2004

Stuart Greenstreet's article on why we will collectively fail to do anything adequate about anthropogenic climate change managed the impressive feat of making Philosophy Now sound even more pessimistic than The Ecologist. I'm not wildly optimistic myself but I do see the odd glimmer of hope.

Greenstreet's article boils down to an argument from authority: "Plato said people are like this...". Certain kinds of argument from authority can be legitimate (in fact we can't live without using them) and Greenstreet quite rightly accepts the scientific authority which asserts that global warning is taking place and is very dangerous. However, although Plato was wise and his analogies persuasive, they are not the last word on human behaviour. There are examples of the type of collective behaviour which we would need, for example the willingness to accept rationing in wartime.

Second, Greenstreet asserts without support that sustainable development would deprive people of "hard won comforts and convenience". This obscures a more complicated situation and I think his day job as a "business manager" may have prevented him noticing this.

Sitting in traffic jams (for example) is neither comfortable nor convenient, although the price of the 4x4 in which you sit was certainly hard-won. Much of our unsustainable behaviour (much of our behaviour of any sort) is not particularly chosen, nor does it give us a huge amount of pleasure. We just do it because everyone else seems to be doing it, or because we seem to have no choice, or because we've just kind of ended up doing it, or because we don't see a better way to achieve some acceptable aim (even though such a way does or could exist). So it is not a simple question of asking for virtuous renunciation: change might bring gain and that means there is some leverage for change to be chosen.

I also suspect Greenstreet implicitly assumes that sustainable lifestyles involve some sort of blanket renunciation of technology, but in fact a sustainable lifestyle presents the opportunity to be technologically smarter than ever.

In fact Greenstreet gives the impression that he has only just been alerted to the climate change issue and is unaware that people have been chewing on the problem for quite some time. He thus provides a nice extra illustration of Mike Alder's comments in the same issue about uninformed but overconfident philosophers.


Congestion charging

The Independent 5th June 2002

No transport minister is going to do any good whatever until it is recognised that transport policy is pursuing two contradictory aims. The first is the widely accepted need to reduce car use: the move to congestion charging (report, 3 June) acknowledges this. The second is the excellent principle that people shouldn't be punished for doing something that they don't have much choice about.

Most motorists aren't abstract denizens of a fantasy marketplace, actively choosing driving. They're stuck in a situation where they don't seem to have much of a choice, because we have evolved a wasteful and unhealthy car-dependent economic infrastructure.

I'm quite anti-car myself, so it hurts me to say this, but the carrot of improved public transport has to come before the stick of extra road charges. Anything else is unfair and probably won't work - there is no substitute for imaginative planning.

Yours etc


© copyright 2005 Martin Parkinson