Flying (part 3)

This is the third post in which I push around some thoughts about what we are to make of the sustainability of flying.

previous posts:

Flying (part 1) – some people don’t fly, some don’t fly much.
Flying (part 2) – ‘flying less’ is impossible (we’re told).

In a sustainable world, flying could only be a niche market rather than a mass market. A treat not a habit. Would that really be so terrible?

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Will it genuinely make people miserable if they fly less?

It can be surprisingly difficult to envisage the world being any different from the way it is now. What tends to happen, when invited to imagine a change in the world, such as less flying1 is that one imagines things exactly as they are now, except for oneself 2. So when some naive enviro says “flying as currently practised is unsustainable”, you wince because you tend to see yourself with reduced mobility, while in other respects the world is the same as it is now. How am I going to visit my brother in Australia? I’m not bloody spending my precious fortnight’s holiday camping in Wales! And what about my job3 ?

But this is misleading because changes never occur in isolation; they trigger other changes, they evoke responses, they get adapted to. The world would have become different in all sorts of other ways – many of them unpredictable – and in a different world some of our thoughts and feelings would be different. The brother might not have emigrated if he’d known what a big goodbye it really was, holidays in the UK would have become the norm4, flying for important work still exists but it’s not routine and expected.

In this supposedly unbearable world with less flying we’d all be in it together, and that would lower the baseline because of hedonic adaptation: the principle that on the whole you get used to things, both pleasant and unpleasant, and after a while they don’t have the same effect5. This is an important and common psychological mechanism but it doesn’t apply to everything and the exceptions are important. Some aspects of a world-with-less-flying might even be better. Flying might already be causing negatives that we will never get used to. I am fond of this quote from Daniel Nettle’s Happiness. 6

“As I write, the British Government is planning a major expansion of airports all over the country. However, hedonics predicts that people will soon adapt to the availability of cheap regional flights in Europe and find them just as tiresome as the longer train journeys they replace. On the other hand, we will never adapt to the increased noise.”

 

The symbolic functions of flying

The question “Does [activity x] really make you happier” is not as easy to answer as you might think. Because, if the answer is “yes”, is it the thing itself which is the source of happiness, or is it the feeling of being normal (because people around you do the same thing and they say it makes them happy, so obviously it must make you happy too)? Or if not “normal” then perhaps some other quality is being signalled?

Flying for business can signal that one is important (the flying-to-Edinburgh example in my previous post – I’m too important to waste time on a train!). Flying for leisure can signal that one is adventurous (although, perhaps, true adventurousness is a rather rare quality and cannot be merely purchased). The most obvious signal is affluence – is it the fact of the holiday being in New Zealand rather than Scotland that is significant? 5

All of this is relative. If flying lost the status of normal and returned to that of exceptional (which is well within the living memory of many people), then the tide, as it were, would drop. Adventurousness, affluence, social normality can all be clearly signalled in other ways, with other purchases and activities. Less flying will not, after the idea becomes common and unremarkable, make most people miserable.

What about the few people who really would be made miserable, who really were adventurous and loved to travel in an adventurous sort of way? Well, it could still be done – good for them. But there would be choices and prioritisations and saving-ups for them to make. The sustainable world is not the having-it-all world.

Will it be difficult to persuade people to fly less?

Not difficult, impossible. All the psychological mechanisms mentioned above serve to keep the current situation in place. Mere verbal persuasion is a weak tool and I see no prospect of there being any top-down actions to limit the amount of flying.

As I’ve stated before, my first reason for “doing green things” is simply to buy myself the right to talk about them – I don’t really expect my actions to make any difference or have any influence. And yet … hmmm ….

Behaviour can change, yet the causality is unclear; we cannot will that change with any certainty (ask anyone interested in public health!). Why do we do what we do? In one very real sense we do things because we choose to do them – nothing that I say is intended as some grand philosophical denial of free will – but where do our choices spring from? One very important factor is the surrounding society: what other people do, what is culturally normal for us. But then, where do other peoples choices come from? Surely ‘culture’ just is the aggregate of individual choices? So if enough people can be persuaded to do something different won’t that change the culture? Yet if everything in the surrounding society say “do this” then only the most exceptional individuals can decide to anything else. Culture and society do change of course, but there’s a bit of a mystery as to how it happens – some interventions work, there are hints from experimental psychology as to what kind of thing might work (blown up into “nudge theory”) but no real certainty – other than the certainty of unintended consequences and unexpected by-products.

There isn’t a natural conclusion to this train of thought so I shall force an unnatural one. It’s possible that our current level of aviation will collapse under its own, limits-to-growth, weight. The problem is, as with many of these things, even though human profligacy is going to be ultimately self-limiting, if no attempt to put the breaks on before that point, an awful lot of damage could be done. Ultimately, this is why doing something is probably going to be better than doing nothing.

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I haven’t quite finished with this one yet, but I hope I’ve only got one final post on this subject.

Footnotes

1. or driving. Just try suggesting that to someone

2. This line of argument is borrowed from the influential paper Can technology save us? by geographer John Adams. I’ve summarised his arguments here.

3. and I include my job in this instance. I currently work in a university and the UK Higher education sector is pretty much kept afloat by overseas students, all flying back and forth several times a year, plus the year-round marketing trips.

4. “We were constantly amazed at the number of Brits we met in far-flung outposts of the world who had not been to Scotland. … it is a little strange to hear your fellow countrymen waxing lyrical about the magnificent mountains of New Zealand when they’ve never even seen the Cairngorms” Ed Gillespie (the thinktank founder, mentioned in part 1, who did a world trip sans airflights).

5. Coincidentally, while writing this, a nice Oliver Burkeman article appeared on this very topic

6. Nettle, Daniel (2005) Happiness. OUP. This short, well-written book suffered the misfortune to come out at the same time as Richard Layard’s book of the same name. Unfortunately as Layard was an economist, (bow down, bow down, economics is a science doncha know) his book rather eclipsed the more quiet and thoughtful work of psychologist Nettle. Worth nabbing if spotted in a secondhand bookshop.

Framing and the Euro debate

I’m interested in communication, rhetoric and debate.

I’m trying to keep away from the depressing euro referendum gubblebleugh, but as I still haven’t broken my today habit and still watch the daily politics once or twice a week, I still keep hearing it. Last Monday, I caught the tail end of Eddie Izzard being interviewed on the today programme. (Still available here – he’s 1 hour 40 mins in) He was talking about running multi-marathons, but right at the end he managed to toss in a quick comment about the EU referendum.

He’s in favour of staying in (he’s well known for his view on this), which he characterised in an off-the-cuff way as “the people for leaving are for running and hiding – we’re British, we stay and fight!”. I thought this was rather splendid because it is first “stay” comment I’ve heard which works on the general rather than the particular level.

All the discussion about the EU is pretty handwavy (it could hardly be otherwise because there are so many unknowables), but there is still a distinction to be made between assertions about actual things (trade, markets, economy, place in the world, environment) and appeals to generalised emotions. So far, it has only been the “leaves” who have come out with the more emotional calls. There are the trumpet-blasts about “freedom” and “democracy”. And “sovereignty”. That one causes me to start shouting at iPlayer when some MP I haven’t heard of gets interviewed. What the hell is “sovereignty” to me? And what, really, is it to you, you backbench nonentity? Puffing up your chest to make up for your own humiliation as lobby-fodder? Fancying yourself as having any real power? Bleah!

Anyway, (cough). My point here is about framing. The implied metaphor for leaving the EU is of a person or group of people walking away from another person or group of people. So far, the “leaves” have framed this as “we should walk away because … you’re cramping our style … we’re just too big for you …”. Izzard’s comment reframed this as “we should stay because … we‘re big enough for anything … we’re not delicate and weak, so why walk away?”

The “stays” really should get moving with the general emotional arguments because I suspect that is where most of the action is going to be, the ground on which many people are going to be motivated, swayed and persuaded – so don’t try to be too “logical” or “sensible”, and don’t let them get away with all that blah about “freedom”.

The other nice thing about Izzard’s remark was that it was jokey – and in a quite subtle way – which did not detract from there being a real point in there. By contrast, and with the right approach, the “freedom and democracy” shtick could be made to look both pompous and naive.

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Seeing as I’ve brought the subject up, I suppose I’d better state my position on the referendum. I shall be voting to “stay” and this is why. In the long term (thirty years plus), and quite possibly in the medium term (ten years plus), the EU will not survive – that is just not the way the world is going. However, in the short term, the EU will still be here. If we leave, an awful lot of environmental damage can be done in those next ten years, as things get chucked on the bonfire to “create growth”.

From the Green perspective, the EU is a very mixed bag, but on balance, things would have been a lot worse if we had not been in (there’s some chapter and verse on Jonathon Porritt’s blog, and many other places,  if you’re interested). If we leave, there will be precious few checks on the government desire to rip the place up and return us to a state of spoiled grubbiness – redefined as “vigorous and entrepreneurial” – and anything that stands in the way will be sneered at as “red tape” and “a burden on business” (and a labour government will be almost as bad, whatever they say).

Deep in the soup

When I comment on environmental matters, I start from the assumption that we are (and in this case, “we” really does mean everyone), so to speak, deep in the ecological soup (or some other four letter word starting with “s”). Not just climate change either, the whole limits to growth scenario appears to be panning out. I see no reason to pile up the evidence for this – that has been done and is being done in a zillion other places (and anyway, who on earth is going to be reading my words, or take any notice of me?). So what I’m interested in is: what can and cannot be done about this, what is and is not likely to be done about this, and most of all, what I, me, personally, can and cannot do about it.

That said, from time to time it is worth reminding myself quite how bad things are, and how nothing, pretty much, is being done about it on the larger scale. I’ve just read a recent recent piece by Kevin Anderson. His words are addressed to the “climate modelling community” rather than the general public, and accuses them of self-censoring their findings so as to be more politically palatable. (I’m inclined to wonder if they would be listened to at all if they actually told it like it is. A dilemma that faces all bringers of unwelcome news perhaps). What is of interest to me, not being a member of the intended audience, is the re-iteration that the scientific findings are not compatible with business-as-usual, and that, if the necessary steps were taken, life would radically change. Here are some excerpts from Anderson’s piece, all the emphases are mine.

[I wish to draw attention to] the endemic bias prevalent amongst many of those developing emission scenarios to severely underplay the scale of the 2°C mitigation challenge. In several important respects the modelling community is self-censoring its research to conform to the dominant political and economic paradigm. […] With specific reference to energy, this analysis concludes that even a slim chance of “keeping below” a 2°C rise, now demands a revolution in how we both consume and produce energy. Such a rapid and deep transition will have profound implications for the framing of contemporary society and is far removed from the rhetoric of green growth that increasingly dominates the climate change agenda.

[…] it is easy to be left with the impression that the shift away from fossil fuels needs to be much more an evolutionary transition than an immediate revolution in how we use and produce energy.

[…] The carbon budgets aligned with international commitments to stay below the 2°C characterization of dangerous climate change demand profound and immediate changes to how energy is both used and produced.

[…] it would be inappropriate to sacrifice improvements in the welfare of the global poor, including those within wealthier nations, for the sake of reducing carbon emissions. But this only puts greater pressure still on the relatively small proportion of the globe’s population with higher emissions. The strains that such 2°C mitigation puts on the framing of our lifestyles cannot be massaged away through incremental escapism.

[…] there remains an almost global-scale cognitive dissonance with regards to acknowledging the quantitative implications of the analysis, including by many of those contributing to its development. We simply are not prepared to accept the revolutionary implications of our own findings, and even when we do we are reluctant to voice such thoughts openly.

The message I take from this is: “the so-called extremists are actually right about the seriousness of the situation and the changes needed are radical”. The challenge might be directed to the “climate modelling community” but the last eight words in my final excerpt apply to me also. More on this in future posts, I hope.

 

What is the point of the Green Party?

I’d like to explain why I think it worthwhile to support the Green Party. (I’m not in any way suggesting that you do so as well, simply explaining why I do).

I’m really not a political beast (not even a small, cute and furry one), but I seem to have acquired the habit of watching BBC2’s The daily politics. This started when I was following the Scottish independence referendum, but I continue to find it amusing. Anyway, there was the Lib Dem conference, and someone (Tim Farron, I think) made some big defence of the Lib Dem involvement in a Conservative coalition by saying that he was in politics to change things and therefore there was no point in not being in power.

I kind of take the first point – that a desire to “change things” attracts people to politics. (But even that is an oversimplification 1). But the point I want to take issue with here is that there is no point in not being “in power”, because I do not think that you have to be “in power” to help “change things”. Conversely being in “in power” actually gives you less real power than you might imagine.

We have this gleaming notion of “leadership”. Some of us, from outside the centres of power, seem to imagine that if we could only get inside that command room, all we would have to do is screw our “political will” to the sticking point, enact our enlightened laws (“forcing them through” if necessary) and we would have “made the world a better place”2. Naive to say the least. There are considerable constraints, both local and global on what can be done; nothing at all can be done without compromise, tradeoff, payoff and payback; laws have unintended consequences, people find ways to avoid obeying them, enforcement requires resources that can’t be spared, the police drag their feet; business and finance defend their vested interests with vigour; the rest of world has its own stake in what the UK does and will apply all sorts of nasty pressures; and nobody whatever has the slightest compunction to play fair. If politics were a game of rugby it would be mostly a series of very muddy scrums.

And then, less obviously, there are all the subtle social psychological effects that come into play. On gaining official “power” you will be surrounded by, and have to deal with, a new bunch of people with different ideas and assumptions. All normal human beings (even politicians – perhaps especially politicians, because they are, maybe, less than averagely self-aware) will modify their behaviour in response to those around them. “Behaviour” includes beliefs of course. It’s a bit mean to call it “selling out” because it’s just natural human behaviour – we are deeply, deeply, social beasts.

I’ll go further. There isn’t a single thing that causes change. It is difficult-to-impossible to enumerate all the causes of what happens. We cannot possibly predict all the consequences of political actions – they ripple out down the years, interacting with other actions which we haven’t seen coming. Whatever nice plan you have (“we could meet all the worlds energy needs if only we spent enough money on …”) you can be sure it won’t work out quite as you thought. On the other hand, silk purses do sometimes emerge from the sows ears of apparently disastrous decisions made by other people (a reason to not get too downhearted even with the 2015 election result).

What would happen if a miracle happened and a Green government was elected in 2020? Less than you’d hope. More skilled political operators (and politics is a skill, requiring both natural aptitude and practice) would run rings around our poor wee lambs. The first Green government would most likely disappoint the hell out of its core supporters and I’d give it less than a month before the first cry of “sellout!”.

What would happen if a slightly lesser miracle were to happen – in fact not a miracle at all really – and a couple more Green MPs were elected in 2020? More than you’d think – though it would not be spectacular. I shall now answer the question which forms the title of this post and say that the point of the Green Party – that is to say, a separate group with all the tedious administrative gubbins that political parties have, not just green-minded politicians affilated to the traditional groupings – the point of having a a Green Party is educational. Not in a teachery, giving-the-facts-and-explanations sort of way (we’ve had eco-education till its coming out of our ears and see how much good that has done), but in a much broader sense.

The point of the Green Party’s existence is to remind people of the wider environmental context of our actions. That context is certainly wider than the jolly politics and media game, and even wider than the national-pride and diplomacy context. The mere presence of a Green party in boring old mainstream politics – having councillors, MPs, MEPs MSPs, Assembly Members, Lords – has the effect of making it feel legitimate to take the environmental context seriously. It gives salience to the wider physical context in which all the fun of finance and politics and business and trade and art and shopping and human life in general takes place. Green ideas will sound louder because some of their proponents are willing to play the game of mainstream politics.

That might sound an insubstantial gain but I don’t think it is. A couple of paragraphs up, I talked about the difficulty of getting anything done in politics, about the multiple pressures and determinants on one’s actions. One of those pressures is the surrounding ‘talk’, the environment of ideas. More Green politicians around changes the air, makes certain actions more possible, others less, makes some things more sayable.

The thing that sparked my own interest in green issues was the so-called fuel crisis in 2000. This was surely a ‘teachable moment’ as regards fossil fuels yet the government made no mention of the connection between fossil fuels and climate change. None. Despite Kyoto and nice-sounding blah about the environment. They could still have given in to the hauliers, fine, all it would have taken is one line in a speech to draw modest attention to the fact that we can’t go on like this forever, something will change at some point. But no. not a sod. Unbelievable. If we’d had a Green MP then you can be sure it would have got some air time.

(That was fifteen years ago. I’m really not an optimist y’know).

The ‘official’ Greens are unlikely to get much credit for the good that they do in this way (there’s a suitable quote from the tao te ching that I’ll leave you to fill in for yourself) – but that hardly matters, does it?

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Added 2nd August 2016

I’m delighted to say that I’ve come across another, more substantial, reason why it’s worth having a green party. At the local council level, a green majority could actually enact real, green, things in the housing and transport areas.

Footnotes

(Oh I love footnotes – it’s like eating the crumbs after a slice of fruitcake)

1. “I’m in politics to change things” – you hear it said, and it sounds grand, but is it always true? First, you could quite legitimately be in politics to prevent things from changing. Second, it’s quite clear from the politicians I’ve actually met (admittedly this was mostly in their embryonic stage, when we were students together) that, whatever they say, they are attracted to politics because they just like the kinds of things you have to do to be in politics – they simply enjoy doing politics, playing the game, in it for the craic (doesn’t that explain Boris?). Whatever they might imagine, their opinions have a degree of negotiability (as is the case with all of us). Anyway, the point I want to take issue with here is that there is no point in not being “in power”, because I do not think that you have to be “in power” to help “change things”. Does this also apply to people involved in less conventional forms of politics? I rather suspect it does, at least to some of them.

2. I don’t really believe in “making the world a better place” – I think the thing to punt for is “making the world less bad than it otherwise would have been”. This is a serious point which I might expand on in a separate post.

The Green party is not “left-wing”

As I have recently re-joined the green party (after around fifteen years) I’d like to say a quick word. I was actually hoping to attend the conference but other things got in the way this year. I’m not really an activist type, and I’m still seeking to become the sort of person who is prepared to express their complicated political opinions to random strangers (which is mostly what practical politics seems to involve). I always imagine that random strangers will think I’m stupid and I’ll feel crushed. Pathetic, but there we are.

Anyway, a good part of the recent increase in green party membership is, I suspect, from disaffected labour supporters fed up with the fact that the labour party appears to have shed all its significant differences from the conservatives. The greens were the nearest thing they could find to what they wanted – a party which doesn’t believe that the market always knows best (it sometimes does – but not always), doesn’t believe that big-and-agressive is always better (it sometimes is, but not always) and so on.

Now that Jeremy Corbyn, who does hold significantly different opinions from the alleged neoliberal consensus (but he  is surely not “hard left”, c’mon), has been elected, I imagine that they’ll go back again. This is fine. Political parties are tribal and it must have hurt them to have left in the first place.

The green party is not a left-wing party.

The green party is the party of physical reality. That’s why it used to be called the ecology party. The natural world is its own thing, can’t be wished away, and ultimately we all depend on it. You can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet, we can’t meet “carbon targets” and expand fossil fuel production, etcetera etcetera etcetera. As such, the green party does not sit on the single left-right axis. ( “left” and “right” are not straightforward terms in any case).

At any given time, by a sort of psychological parallax effect, the green political stance can appear to be aligned with the left-right axis. Depending on the current political landscape it can appear to be a part of the either “the left” or “the right”.

At present, because of the way the “right” currently defines itself (sometimes called “neo-conservatism”), the green party looks like it is on the left. Amongst many other things, the green political stance reminds us that people are co-operative as well as competitive and that fairness is important – this modest observation of human behaviour and desire is currently pooh-poohed by the “right” which seems to hold that the only driving force in human affairs is competition, that might is by definition right, that being rich is an indicator of intrinsic virtue and so on.

But there are some definitions of “the right” which are compatible with green thinking. “Conservative” and “conservation” are closely related words. A wariness of utopian schemes (partly  because of the modest observation that people are competitive as well as cooperative) and a reluctance to change things too much, or too quickly (because you probably don’t fully understand what you’re doing),  both sit very well with green thinking. It is possible to imagine a different political landscape where a green party would look as if it belonged to the right.

The above two paragraphs suggest that not only are the greens the party of physical reality, they could also be the party of psychological reality.

So the green party is not “of the left”, even though at the present it looks as if it is. It is important that it doesn’t think of itself a natural “part of the left” because getting sucked too far into the crude “left-right” way of thinking will neutralise any good that having a green party might do.

And what exactly might that “good” be? Next time.