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Individual and collective

As individual action, and why it’s worth doing, seems to be one of the themes of this blog, here are some apposite words from Kevin Anderson:

“I do not see the individual and collective (formal and informal institutions) as separate. They are unavoidably and intimately entwined, only drawn apart as a convenient reductionist tool of analysis to help make sense of complicated and complex issues. But we have to repeatedly remind ourselves that the separation is nothing but an epistemological construct – it is not ‘real’.[…]

When I focus on the individual, I’m seeing them, typically, as a symbolic but essential catalyst for collective (system) change.[…]

So individuals are solely an ignition source for the flames from which a Phoenix may arise – but only if others and ultimately institutions are mobilised.”

Flying (part 1)

I mentioned in a previous post that I haven’t flown since 1996. I am not going to spell out the environmental impacts of aviation because there is plenty of that discussion elsewhere. Rather, I am starting from the assumption that it is a problem (and not just for climate change reasons either), and am going to share a few thoughts about individual behaviour in relation to it. The aviation question touches on so many interesting social and psychological issues so I shall split this into two posts. As one of the themes of this blog is personal behaviour, and in an attempt to demonstrate good faith, I shall start with my own experience.

I was never a frequent flyer. I can easily count up the number of air trips I’ve made I in my life and, counting there-and-back as two journeys, it comes to just 13. These were mostly long distance but that total does include two short light-aircraft tripettes, one to make a parachute jump and the other a tow for a glider I was in. I tell you about these two in order to forestall any suspicion that this not-flying business is merely a positive spin on what is in reality fear. If anything the reverse – it’s well possible that I will never get in a long-distance aeroplane ever again but I must admit the offer of a short trip in a helicopter would probably be accepted (and I still might make it onto a hang-glider or microlight one day). On the other hand, I will admit that though I consider the off-the-ground part of an air trip to be fun and exciting, I loathe with a passion the surrounding stuff. I am reduced to a puddle of anxiety by the whole administrative palaver of getting to the airport on time, waiting around, all the security hoo-hah (which presumably is now even worse since 9-11) and the bloody jet-lag. The only thing that could tempt me to do this again was if I was actually going to live somewhere else in the world for a proper length of time (minimum 6 months). And if I really was going away for that length of time, I would presumably have enough time to take some mixture of train, bus and boat instead. (Before you say it, yes I know. Boats aren’t entirely blameless either, nor trains for that matter. We really are in the soup).

If it were possible to distribute all resources fairly (it isn’t possible of course) then there will be a theoretical amount of sustainable air-mileage-per-person and I kind of suspect I’ve already had my fair ration, so I’m pretty happy with my decision not to fly again. Except that it was more of an accident than a decision. During the period when really cheap flights first started there was no question of me taking lots of exotic holidays because even if you’d given me the plane tickets I still couldn’t have afforded to go – transport is not the only cost of holidays and travel. My financial situation did improve though, because some time in the early noughties, I found myself with a few unexpected days holiday from my then job. “Ooh” said one of my colleagues “you could take a cheap flight somewhere” and I replied brightly “oh yes, so I could” but I realised as I was saying it, that no actually, I couldn’t. Because in the six or seven years since I’d last flown, I’d acquired a whole bunch of environmental awarenesses. Basically, my conscience wouldn’t let me fly. I didn’t say anything though.

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There are two important psychological points buried in the above anecdote. The first is that my decision was not “I will not fly anymore” because I was already not-flying. My decision was “I will not start flying, even though I can now afford it” and that is a much easier decision to make. ‘Loss-aversion‘ is a very well established principle of human behaviour: broadly, it’s harder to give something up than to acquire it in the first place, hence not-starting is easier than stopping. This has implications for green behaviour that go well beyond aviation and is something we really need to take into account.

The second psychological point relates to my reluctance to speak up. Why couldn’t I have just said, in a cheerful and non-accusatory tone of voice: “well, a mini-break to europe certainly looks a tempting idea, but unfortunately I worry a bit about carbon emissions …”? Alas, I couldn’t think of such a polite thing to say on the spur of the moment. Why was that difficult, I wonder? Perhaps because writing about pro-environmental behaviour is quite a different proposition from talking to a physically present person. I felt challenged or threatened on quite a deep level – they’ll think I’m a crank, they’ll jeer at me, they’ll look at me oddly from now on, they’ll think I’ve fallen for some silly nonsense, they’ll think that I feel superior to them, it’s somehow against the rules to mention this … as I keep on saying, we are such deeply, deeply, social beasts.

It has taken me many years to work out the principles of responding in a way which does not appear rude and hence which has any chance of being truly heard. There are plenty of other instances, even apart from flying, where I have failed to say something and I used to think I was a bad person for not doing so. Well maybe I am … but on the other hand, my failure to deliver an unsolicited environmental sermon in response to the friendly remarks of an innocent work colleague might merely indicate that my social awareness is intact and switched on. So a task for me is to find a way to talk about this on casual basis that does not come over as aggressive or preachy and hence which leaves space for the other person to re-jig their world a little.

But isn’t it interesting how we don’t talk about flying and other environmental issues on an everyday basis? Sure there’s plenty of stuff in the media; everyone knows that some people believe there is a serious problem. Yet the day-to-day social silence around flying is astonishing – we just do it, it’s just assumed – no normal person takes the train to Edinburgh from London do they? (I was once asked in a temp job to check flight times for this and so – of course – I presented my boss with train times, to her – of course – blank incomprehension. Silly me. Why did I imagine that UNICEF would know anything about joined-up thinking? Even Greenpeace can’t always manage it).

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I argued in my previous post that the major reason for changing one’s own behaviour is that acting in a way that is noticeably different from the surrounding culture functions both as a form of communication (why am I doing this odd thing?) and a sort of pilot study (could everyone do this?) and together these make change easier for others. My own “not-flying behaviour” is too low key to have any effect at all really, but there are better examples.

Such as the gal in Wales who went overland to her mate’s wedding in Australia. Then there was the thinktank founder who went round the world sans aeroplane. Or the postgrad student who took a ship from his home in San Francisco to university in the UK. I would suggest that these adventures should be regarded as a variety of performance art – with the advantage of drawing a wider audience than anything which is explicitly labelled as “art”. (Btw, I’m certainly not dissing art-art, far from it).

There are also less flamboyant examples, such as Kevin Anderson and Mayer Hillman. Anderson in particular does not mince his words and although I think that I personally, in my own circumstances, will communicate most effectively by being low-key, non-confrontational and cool, there really is an important place for hot words and accusations – from the right people, in the right media, to the appropriate audience. That also goes for people who communicate in an even more direct way. Apart from anything else, such people give heart to the more mild-mannered such as myself, because, as I have hinted, I find that even a modest environmental consciousness can make me feel a bit stuck out on a limb.

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In my next post I’ll kick around a few thoughts about the symbolic nature of flying, whether people would really be miserable if they travelled less, and why it doesn’t bother me at all that Jonathan Porritt flies.

“The environment – are you doing your bit?”

That was the central slogan of a worthy government marketing campaign, urging personal behaviour change, which ran from 1999 to 2000. The campaign itself was a flop. I have some rather dim memories of tv ads urging me to turn off dripping taps, the message unexplained and contextless, and my main purpose in mentioning are you doing your bit? is to introduce the following important question: what should an environmentally-concerned person actually do? What on earth is my/your/their “bit”?

This turns out to be a pretty vexed question about which there is a great deal to say – certainly too much for a single post, so I shall start today with the preliminary question: what actually is the point of any single individual doing anything at all? The answers I shall give are ones which are rarely stated explicitly.

In order to discuss “green behaviour” it would be useful to give a few examples and a handy way to do that is to give a listing of some of the items in my own portfolio of “green” actions. This is not intended as bragging (look how eco I am!), nor as backhand bragging (see how little I do – so look how normal I am!). I need some sort of list as a starting point and I might as well start with my own situation. So please try to read this in a spirit of neutral curiosity, and wait till you’ve read the whole post before you say either “gah! what an insufferably smug prick” or “lightweight! Doesn’t even have a ground source heat pump or super-insulation”.

Anyway here’s the list (it’s not totally comprehensive), grouped into three categories. The first contains actions that are well-established in my life – energy and transport were my entry-points when I started learning about environmental issues and I decided to leave the complexities of food and other consumption on the sidelines for the time being.

  • I don’t own a car
  • I haven’t flown anywhere since 1996
  • I use public transport less than once a month (on average, over the last fifteen years)
  • I don’t own a fridge
  • I don’t own various other “essential” appliances (smartphone, washing machine, TV)
  • I only light and heat the room I’m occupying (when I’m at home) and I do use jumpers

The second set contains more recent introductions, behaviours which are, for me, more experimental (I can no longer avoid thinking about food), and in general harder to quantify.

  • I get a veg box, in which most of the contents are grown locally,
  • I try to eat everything in said veg box (yes, even the brussels sprouts)
  • I’ve started growing a few veg myself
  • I rarely buy new clothes (though what is “rarely”?)
  • I’m trying to “pre-cycle”. That’s to say, on contemplating the purchase of a new item, I ask myself what will happen to it eventually – if it will go to landfill, should I really buy it?

The final set of items are the more remote actions. You could argue that these are in fact the most important ones because they are, in a broad sense, political and therefore in principal might lead to effects which spread far beyond my immediate sphere of influence. On the other hand you could also say that these are the easiest actions – because the actual physical behaviour is merely that of clicking a keyboard or writing a cheque.

  • I’m a member of the green party
  • I buy my electricity from a “green supplier” (good energy)
  • I give (a small amount of) money to Friends of the Earth
  • I give occasional money to The Centre for Alternative Technology
  • I used to belong to my local cycling campaign (must renew)

So, to return to the question I set out to answer: given that one person’s absolute contribution can only ever be negligible, and anyway, there’s always plenty of people who have a bigger footprint than little ol’ you, what actually is the point of any single individual doing anything at all?

The point is that it buys you the right to talk about sustainability. It shows you actually mean what you say. (People respect the alignment of words and actions, aka “integrity”). It demonstrates that you have thought about limits seriously. You’re not merely making suggestions about how things should be organised in some ideal world that might come to pass if the right policy decisions are made, but that you personally have volunteered to go first, to see what it’s like.

Those last five words lead on to a second reason for taking some personal actions. Changing the way you do something, abandoning an activity or introducing a new one, all amount to small, informal experiments. Have you made things easier or harder than expected? How do other people react? Did anything unexpected happen? How did it feel? You will learn things, and that is (almost) always a good thing.

Other people might learn things too. The third reason for personal behaviour change is that doing things that seem a bit odd to other people, can, in the right circumstances, create mental infrastructure. I first used this term (maybe I even coined it?) in the context of transport:

“Physical infrastructure assists you in going to physical places. Mental infrastructure assists you in thinking particular thoughts. Not using the car is, for many people, literally unthinkable. Anything which makes it thinkable could be described as mental infrastructure”.

And, because we are such deeply social and suggestible creatures, a good way to make things thinkable to other people is to actually do them yourself (“hmmm, well she does x, and she seems otherwise normal …”).

More on the personal behaviour thing to come, though probably not in the next post.