Thoughts on communication #2

Nobody is stupid, nobody is deluded. (Or at least, nobody should be called these words in any conversation which is intended to persuade). However, this is not quite as nicey-nicey as it sounds because …

… some people are misinformed, misled, over-confident, mis-educated, or find themselves in miscellaneous other circumstances which cause them to be wrong in specific circumstances or on specific topics.

But nobody is stupid or foolish and it is counterproductive to say that they are (even if it makes you feel ever so clever to do so).

Are those who describe other people, in public fora, as “deluded”, “confused” or some other variation on “stupid” really interested in being heard by such people, in persuading them to consider alternatives?

Or, for that matter are they really interested in anyone listening in on the conversation being persuaded? An audience to this sort of shouty “you iz stooooopid” talk can go one of two ways. They can think “how rude, the person they’re shouting at must have upset them in some deep way, so perhaps the person being yelled at is right”. Or they can feel “hey! This guy is calling someone stupid, so it’s ok to be agressive in the service of certain opinions – in fact to ally myself with those opinions shows how smart I am – yippee I can be obnoxious with a good conscience”.

*****

Side observation: robust language and hyperbole can be much less offensive in real life, and in printed media, than the same words used on the net. At least I can imagine situations where someone could say to me “sheesh – you’re talking complete crap” and I’d reply, fairly unconcernedly “oh Yeah? So come on then – what’s crap about it?”. But that sort of language really stings on the net – it’s enough to put me off entirely a lot of the time. Which suggests that there are people it puts off all of the time.

On not owning a fridge

… nor a freezer, before you ask.

In a previous post I listed this as one of my ‘green behaviours’ – please don’t forget that I’m not telling other people what they should do, I’m describing some things that I do, and why I consider them to be ‘green’. So what on earth is ‘green’ about not owning a fridge?

Well it was never intended to have any particular implications or meaning. About – oh I don’t know, maybe fifteen years ago – I noticed that I never seemed to have anything in the fridge apart from a bottle of milk, which seemed ridiculous. It was winter, so I thought I might as well turn the fridge off and do the studenty thing and keep the milk on the windowledge. To my surprise, when the next electricity bill came it was noticeably lower than expected. I had noticed the same thing, and felt equally surprised, when I’d changed the incandescents lightbulbs for compact fluorescents – I really hadn’t anticipated much of a difference.

These two little ‘experiments’ were, I think, what got me interested in the topic of energy – which is a very useful lens through which to view environmental issues. When I moved home, I sent my fridge to be disposed of and since 2007 haven’t even owned a switched-off one.

***

There are two strands which make up the argument as to why not owning a fridge is ‘green’.

1. Negawatts are cheaper than megawatts.

The delightful coinage ‘negawatts’ is a way of capturing the idea that “using x amount less electricity” is the equivalent of  “x amount we don’t need to generate”. Generating less is good because – oh, you know, emissions, security, expense. Using less electricity tends to be less expensive (of resources as well as money) than generating it. So given this, using less electricity (and other types of energy as well) should be a prime policy goal.

As I have argued previously, if you think something should be a policy goal then it demonstrates good faith to implement that policy in your own life, if possible.

2. The rise in the number single person households

This means a rise in the total number of appliances (and hence electricity usage), because of duplication. This is a key point – I’m not some sort of weird anti-refrigeration nut, it’s just that as a healthy single person, living alone, in a temperate climate, who doesn’t count cooking as a hobby, I don’t feel I need a fridge all to myself. Of course I do benefit enormously from refrigeration (shops, medicine), and if I lived with other people (which I would prefer to do) then of course we’d have a fridge. In fact I often have use of a shared fridge at work in my various temp jobs (note that I said “own” not “use”), but I tend not to use it very much – just the occasional lettuce.

Aside from the question of embodied energy, you might think that the energy difference between two separate people each with a single-size fridge, and two cohabiting people with a double-size fridge would be non-existent or trivial. Not quite: larger fridges are more efficient than smaller ones because of the ratio of surface area to volume. When you get to the difference between a single commercial cold store and the equivalent chilled volume in domestic fridges the difference really starts to count.

Objections:

3. Why not just get a state-of-the-art efficient fridge?

Actually, fridges are one of the few examples where replacing an old-but-working machine with a new-but-more-efficient one is a good idea in eco-terms – with many other machines the efficiency you gain is outweighed by the amount of embodied energy you chuck away with the scrapped gadget. But even asking the question is to be sucked into a certain type of thinking which assumes that ownership of machines is good in itself and that the answer to any problems they cause is always a better machine.

4. Isn’t it dangerous to keep food without a fridge?

Fridge ownership only became universal (in the UK at least) in the sixties. Before that many houses had some sort of room/cupboard built on a north facing wall – the ‘larder’ – which was therefore cooler than the rest of the house. I remember the larder in my grandfathers house in Preston, and can just about remember him showing off his first fridge, which was of course kept in that larder. That’s what you are supposed to do with fridges, for optimum efficiency, keep them somewhere cool, don’t run them empty, allow some space at the back so the heat can dissipate and clean the dust off the pipes now and again. But of course many people aren’t what you might call technology-literate – and it doesn’t seem to matter does it?

Anyway I am able to get along safely without a personal fridge by a combination of choice of food, and keeping it in the cooler downstairs part of my flat (and before you say it, no, I don’t eat out a great deal). I could finesse this by cobbling some sort of homemade evaporative cooling device, but I haven’t yet felt a pressing need to do so. The lack of a fridge even has some beneficial personal consequences which I will discuss in a future post about food.

****

Oh and I can’t resist linking to Tim Hunkin’s charming 1988 TV programme, the secret life of the refrigerator.

Thoughts on communication #1

[This is a very slightly tweaked version of a comment I left on the COIN blog a few weeks ago. The post itself was about the euro ‘remain’ campaign which the author described as:]

an object case in bad communications

It sure was. An interesting question which isn’t really asked though, is why on earth such bad mistakes are made – mistakes which, to anyone interested in communication issues, are pretty obvious. A possible answer which occurs to me is as follows.

In order to even start thinking about how other people might view matters requires a certain humility because there is some sense in which you have to start imagining what it’s like to not be me. Attempting to put oneself in someone else headspace first requires that one steps outside onself by temporarily suspending ones own assumptions, beliefs and ways of thinking. This is scary to do because, if done properly, (1) one has to accept the possibility that one might change one’s mind and (2) it also involves, in imagination, suspension of ones elite status.

I would also argue that even if one tries to avoid this worrisome ‘stepping outside oneself’ by relying entirely on research (and thereby fancying oneself entirely ‘objective’ and ‘scientific’) then one will not understand how to apply the research, or even understand what it is suggesting.

[counter-argument: sociopaths are supposedly excellent at manipulating people’s behaviour, but they, by definition, don’t go in for this method-acting-y thinking-yourself-into-someone-elses-head business. Still, most of us aren’t sociopaths and I think there might be something in my comment]

“Luddite”

Here’s a disclaimer which always annoys me: “I’m not a luddite but …”

This first came to my attention on one of the Open University’s internal forums. Typically, the phrase precedes a complaint about some aspect of computers: “I’m no luddite but I really dislike windows 10” or something. Funnily enough, just after I wrote the above words, I moseyed over to a quite different forum, (the internal Green Party discussion forum) only to find the latest reply starts with the words:

That is Luddite thinking,

It’s a cliché that grates with me because “luddite” is just a “boo” word. The only thing it contributes to the argument is a shot of emotion: “I really dislike this”. It is able to deliver this shot of emotion because it is generally accepted to be a Rude Word, yet it is pretty well meaningless as used in any context other than history. The Luddites were a particular historic group responding in to specific historic circumstances. (Perhaps even, you or I might have done the same in the their shoes? Or would you have willingly surrendered your livelihood?) In that trivial sense, no living person is a luddite.

If you insist that it is not meaningless at all, then the extended meaning of the term seems to be something like “hates all new technology and is therefore bad at thinking”. I do not believe there is anyone who “hates all new technology” – everybody welcomes some technological developments. So nobody is a luddite.

Equally, everyone dislikes technological developments which impact negatively on themselves (and, in realising what will truly impact on them, they might in fact be good at thinking). In that sense everyone is a luddite. By using the word as an accusation what you really mean is “you don’t like this particular innovation that I do like”. If you use the disclaimer that you are not a luddite, what you mean is “I don’t deserve to be called that horrible rude word”.

It’s quite interesting to ask what would be so bad about disliking new technology anyway – the answer is more subtle than you might think so that’s going to have to be another post. The counterpart “hooray” word to “luddite”, is of course “progress”. And that kettle of worms, or can of fish, will also have to wait to be opened.

***

See also: my comments from 2013 on the similar term “anti-car”.

The four meanings of the word “science”

Here’s something worth quoting. It’s from Sokal and Bricmont’s Intellectual impostures, (1998) (the numbers in square brackets are mine):

It is crucial to distinguish at least four different senses of the word ‘science’: [1] an intellectual endeavour aimed at a rational understanding of the world; [2] a collection of accepted theoretical and experimental ideas; [3] a social community with particular mores, institutions and links to the larger society; and, finally [4] applied science and technology (with which science is often confused). All too frequently, valid criticisms of ‘science’, understood in one of these senses, are taken to be arguments against science in a different sense.

Thus it is undeniable that science [3], a social institution, is linked to political, economic and military power, and that the social role played by scientists is often pernicious. It is also true that technology [4] has mixed results – sometimes disastrous ones – and that it rarely yields the miracle solutions that its most fervent advocates regularly promise. Finally, science considered as a body of knowledge [2], is always fallible, and scientists’ errors are sometimes due to all sorts of social, political, philosophical or religious prejudices.

Something of which I think we can all approve is meaning [1], “an intellectual endeavour aimed at a rational understanding of the world”, but what of the rest?

Intellectual impostures was a vigorous takedown some of of the writings of various cultural theorists roughly grouped as “postmodernists” who decorated their not-always-entirely-penetrable writing with impressive but meaningless references to difficult scientific concepts that were way outside their area of academic expertise. The book came after the “Sokal hoax” where Alan Sokal (a physicist) submitted a paper full of sciencey gibberish to a postmodern journal which then published it. The journal itself was not, it seems, peer reviewed, so fair do’s, sort of – but really you’d think the editor would have noticed something was amiss – that is, if the sciency gibberish in other writers actually meant something.

Anyway, there was a big fuss about Sokal’s paper. Egg on faces combined with insistence that faces did not need any cleaning at all (oh yeah, “it’s a metaphor”. The point of a metaphor is to use something that is already understood by one’s audience in order to illuminate something which they do not yet understand). But stop right there. It’s all well in the past now; cultural theorists don’t write like that any more – and most of them never wrote like that in the first place. The affair still gets cited in internet commentary of course, where intellectual impostures is widely misrepresented as a cudgel for beating all social scientists, ignoring the fact that S & B are quite clear, in the section I’ve quoted, that some of the things that come under senses [2], [3], and [4] of “science” do deserve analysis and criticism by non-scientists.

Why am I quoting this in a blog that is so far contains mostly wittering about the environment? Because of the rhetorical sliding between the four meanings, whereby meaning [1] is used to justify the imposition of damaging and inequitable technology or the bullying exercise of power, still goes on in environmental debate. Meaning [1] is what gives science its status – despite the fallibilities of individual scientists, the endeavour itself is a noble one. So the label “science”, correctly applied, is, rightly, prestigious. More to the point, the label “anti-science” stings nastily and, if it can be made to stick, carries persuasive weight.

(I have some previous on this. I once wrote a short review of a rather shoddy book called the march of unreason which paints “environmentalists” (what, all of them?) as a bunch of idiots and I’ve also taken resurgence magazine to task for ignoring meaning [1] by stating that the purpose of “science” is to control the world).

The obligatory euro referendum post

I voted remain. This is what I said in a previous post:

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 to 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).

Anyway, this post is a brief list of reasons not to get too glum about Friday’s result. It is mainly directed at myself (who has just snapped at someone online. This is inevitably what happens when one decides to describe oneself as “good at communication”. Rueful emoticon). I was surprised how deeply I reacted to the result – it seems I had started thinking of myself as “european” at least partly.

One

The key thing is that one can’t really predict the future; the actions we take in response to our predictions change the choices which other people make, which make those predictions much less likely. Before you say “well duh!”, yes, I know this is stunningly obvious, yet we always kind of forget it.

Sometimes silk purses do emerge from sows ears. Dreadful politicians can accidentally do good things. Moods change in unexpected ways. Black swans and all that.  You really never know

Two

The tone of the ‘debate’ was, for the most part, and to put it politely, unedifying. There is now a load of daft oversimplification about what sort-of-people-voted-which-way flying around in comment sections. However, both sides contained all sorts of motivations and misunderstandings and more importantly there were noble impulses (in some people) on both sides.

Three

There was a respectable green ‘leave’ position which basically welcomed the potential for change which leaving would bring – such a radical step would surely shake up everything and make a change of direction possible. I think this was unrealistic (are we really going to vote in a whole lot of environmentally-enlightened new people? No, we’ll be stuck with the same old growthy, fossil-fuelly, bunch) but of course I could be wrong (see point one above).

Four

Hah, at least politics has become interesting.

Five

If things are going to get bad long term whatever happens, then perhaps it might be better (ultimately) if they get bad right now. One might have a personal preference for either outcome, but there’s no way of telling what will really happen (see point one again).

*****

Oh the internet. Why do I bother? In the unlikely event that anyone reads this, you’ve just wasted your time – your should have read Chris Smaje’s latest post instead.

Flying (part 4)

Recap:

This blog doesn’t have a theme, other than maybe “things that are on my mind, that I’ve thought about and that I want to say but don’t have any other venue for saying”.

One of those things is the environment. I start from one of the standard green viewpoints, which is that the evidence shows that we’re in the environmental soup and I am interested in the question of “what should any individual do about this?”. To demonstrate good faith, and as a starting point for discussion, I’ve given a list of my own, not terribly exotic or unusual , “green behaviours”.

One of those behaviours concerns transport, a fascinating and difficult area. Even though my real area of interest is land-based personal transport (which I’ve written a bit about elsewhere), here I seem to have got temporarily stuck writing about flying and travel – because one of my own “green behaviours” is that I haven’t flown for nearly twenty years. A few people would find this laudable, many more would find it astonishing, and others would take it as some sort of personal challenge. Anyway I’ve pulled at the thread and it has turned out to be longer than expected. This, I hope is the final post in this sub-theme. So far:

Part 1 – some people don’t fly, some don’t fly much

Part 2 – ‘flying less’ is impossible (we’re told)

Part 3 – would a world with ‘less flying’ really be so terrible?

I shall finish this theme by returning to something from part 2, where I listed some justifications for flying, including:

“I would never have become an environmentalist if I hadn’t travelled to the amazon/the himalyas/the rift valley/somewhere difficult and expensive to travel to”

This argument has a tendency to make me see red and I’ll start this post by explaining why.

***

Here is a recent example of the sort of thing I mean. It’s from December last year in the comments section of John Michael Greer’s Blog.

Out of all the technologies our society has access to, cheap and fast travel is the one that I think is the most valuable. This may seem counter-intuitive, but without that cheap travel, I probably wouldn’t care about the environment at all. …

At this point I stopped reading and fired off a harrumphing reply that started by pouring scorn on the idea that cheap travel is more valuable than, say, antibiotics and anaesthesia. One of the characteristics of internet communication is that it tends to produce this kind of blurting and although I don’t regret replying, I do regret (ahem) replying before I read the rest of the post (ahem).

The post quoted pressed my button and jolted me into replying before reading because I’d come across these sentiments before, in which the writer declares indignantly that they were inspired to protect the environment solely because of the natural wonders they viewed on another continent to which they had flown on holiday – how dare anyone suggest that there could be any sort of problem with their vacation habits?

This argument gets my goat because I find myself taking it as a status move. Only the very best for them! A peasant such as myself can be inspired by their garden, the trees in the street, a day trip to the coast, but their superior sensitivities will only respond to the mighty Amazon, the Himalaya, the Arctic. Surely my own commitment as an environmentalist cannot be as good, or real, as theirs because mine comes from humdrum sources? After all, I’ve only seen Madagascar on a BBC documentary, surely my feelings must be of an inferior quality?

(In fact, it turned out that this particular writer was talking about relatively infrequent travel within the North American continent – and the rest of his comment, when I calmed down and read it, was nuanced, thoughtful and I had no problem with it apart from considering the opening hyperbolic. An apology is in order and duly offered to the commenter. But the point still stands that other people do make this argument about flying, often with great indignation. I had previously come across a couple of other egregious examples from blog comments, and one in particular was almost foaming at the mouth. Inevitably when I tried to locate this particular example, I couldn’t find it, so I’m afraid this example will have to stand in for them. )

Ok then. Making a firm effort to get over myself and stop taking things personally (in other words, to stop behaving like the people I’m complaining about), I have three comments about this justification-for-flying.

The first is to ask whether it really is true that some people only care about the environment because they flew a large distance to see it – they think that was the cause-and-effect, but causality in human affairs can be a very opaque thing. In any case it’s a counterfactual, so we can’t really know for sure; how can we ever know what we would or would not have done if circumstances had been different? Let me posit an alternative suggestion.

It’s certainly possible that all (or most) of us have a latent love for the natural world that is just waiting for a trigger. It it hadn’t been triggered by Mount Kilimanjaro something else would have touched it off, perhaps something closer to home. That is an important point. “The environment”, “nature” isn’t some external thing you visit. It surrounds us, it’s what we swim in, we grew out of it and remain part of it. If the non-human parts of your local area are so impoverished that you cannot respond to them, then that is an argument for the key importance of the local, for making towns and cities more pleasant, for taking care over rural development. It is not an argument that everyone should have the facility for travelling increasing distances for a dose of officially certified awe to make up for the crappiness of where they live. (The importance of the local is one of the reasons I’m so exercised about the private car and so manically pro- walking, cycling, bus-ing and rail-ing; one of the major factors which makes so many places so unpleasant is motor traffic).

My second comment is to note the intensity of the indignation that can sometimes be aroused. Instead of just going “Pah! This guy’s an idiot. No need for me to take any notice of what they say”, they take the trouble to post a long comment defending their behaviour to a complete stranger who has no power over them whatsoever. And they sound hurt. Perhaps they feel their identity is bound up with being the sort of person who travels a lot, who is “adventurous”?

My third point returns to the question I touched on in my earlier posts in this sequence. I’m not talking about no flying, I’m talking about less, which raises the questions of tradeoffs – what is worth flying for? To repeat what I said in a previous post, “it is a bad thing to be confined to the same place all ones life and never see the sea or the mountains or the big city” but would it be even possible for everyone to match the ambitions of, say, this chap:

A very large part of the reason I’m an environmentalist is because I want to climb Mt Kilimanjaro and experience every single climate in the world on one mountain. Or because I want to visit Patagonia one day. Or the rainforest. Or the Darjeeling tea plantations. And I want those places to exist for other fellow travelers.

I also would love to visit all these places. Who would not? But what would be the impact if everyone who would “love to” did in fact visit? If everyone who had a fancy to visit such places did so, would they be worth visiting? Would they become less desirable, because less “distant”, less exotic? More concretely, would they actually become tourist-battered, less authentic, more developed? Would the genuine benefits of visiting diminish? Certain types of destination might actually be destroyed if over-visited. Wilderness is no longer wilderness if too many people go there. It is tempting to see oneself as one of the special people who deserves to visit the special places, who can truly appreciate them. We all like to think we are travellers rather than tourists, but that cannot be true of everyone. Therefore I am reluctantly prepared to accept that there are many wonderful things on our planet that I can never experience directly no matter how much they excite my imagination. You might say that such “reluctant acceptance” is simply unbearable, I would say that (for me) it is a necessary part of the acceptance of planetary limits.

There is a compensation though. Which is that at this point in history we have a substitute which was not available until the twentieth century: photography, cinema and television. It is only because of over-familiarity that we forget how amazing this is. For example, the work of the BBC’s Natural hisotry unit seems to me a very worthy use of flying, the lifetime work of David Attenborough offsets its environmental impact many times over. No, it’s not the same as a live experience, seeing with your own eyes, and it carries no bragging rights, but it is enormously better than nothing. (I would also argue that, in certain cases, a televisual ‘holiday’ is better than the trip that one could expect to make oneself, but that’s for another post).

I’m finally rumbling to a close on this topic. In a one-sentence summary of these four posts about flying: “if a sustainable world is going to involve less flying then I don’t think it would really be as bad as you might imagine”. Thankfully I can now move on to something else.

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?

****

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.

***

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.