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.

****

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).

Flying (part 2)

I finished my previous post with: “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”.

***

I probably need to re-iterate that my discussions of green issues in this blog start from the basic assumptions (which I will not argue in detail because that is done so much better elsewhere) that:

1. there is a real and pressing resources and sustainability problem, and that

2. we cannot rely solely on technical solutions which are untested, unscaleable or, in many cases, uninvented.

Therefore in this particular post I am ignoring the conventional economic arguments about the need for growth because these do not, as it were, fly.

I probably also need to repeat that when I am discussing “personal behaviour”, I am in fact discussion my personal behaviour. I am not preaching at other people to do anything. My limited aim, when I talk about behaviour is to explain why I take certain actions and to use this as a starting point for discussion. I don’t expect any pat solutions. There aren’t any.

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The reason I chose to talk about flying early on in this blog, even though it is not that big a deal for me personally, is that it does seem to be a big deal for many people. During a short volunteer stint at FoE in 2006 I mentioned to someone that I hadn’t flown for the best part of a decade and his jaw dropped open. I was bemused, as this was not the reaction I expected from someone in that organisation.

There are two questions of concern here, given my interest in the psychological aspects of sustainability. The first is “will it genuinely make people miserable if they fly less?” and the second “will it be difficult to persuade people to fly less?”. To save you the trouble of reading the rest of this post and the next one and the one after that (I seem to have pulled at a thread that has turned out to be longer than expected), I’ll tell you that the answer to the first question is “probably not” and to the second “definitely yes” (in fact I think “persuasion”, as normally understood, can be a bit of a fools errand, but that’s yet another issue). But first …

“Less flying” as a Very Big Deal

Note first of all, that it is “less” rather than “none”. Thinking is difficult and the world is complicated. One way we make it easier for ourselves (and that “we” certainly includes myself) is to turn everything into an either/or. There are blueprints or thought-experiments or policy documents in which the numbers have been crunched to produce a theoretically possible sustainable world, and in all of them there is still some flying – just less than there is now.

The response to the proposal of a world with less flying can be surprisingly strident, or merely bemused. Either way there is a response, and a firm one, that this is simply not possible. The following arguments are used, in ascending order with the most lightweight first:

1. You patronising middle class git!

Much is made of hard working peoples well-deserved breaks in spain or whatnot. There are two responses to this. The first is that the proposal that there be less flying is not in principal inequitable because it is the very well-off who fly several times a year 1they are actually the people to whom the suggestion is addressed.

Note that we haven’t remotely got to the stage of anything being forbidden or banned or even increased in price, we’re still at the trying-to-start-a-discussion stage, yet off we go with accusations of smug greenery and what not. Which is why my second response is to doubt the sincerity of people who make this argument – it tends to be made on behalf of this fantasy family of ‘umble working class folk, by well-off smartypants contrarians 2. Accusations of being patronising, are often themselves, somewhat patronising.

2. Travel broadens the mind (didn’t you know that?)

It is generally assumed – not even explicitly stated – that the benefits of travel well outweigh any negatives. 3 Everyone knows that travel broadens the mind. But if we drag this out into the daylight as an explicit argument it looks odd . Is all or even most travel, as currently practised, inevitably mind-broadening? Hmmm. A skiing holiday may be a good thing in itself, but a ski trip on the other side of the world surely doesn’t broaden the mind any more than one in the Cairngorms. To put it the other way round, is everyone who hasn’t flown abroad necessarily narrow-minded? Ridiculous. Would you suggest that it is simply impossible to go anywhere else in the world for a fortnight and fully retain all one’s prejudices and stupidities? Hardly.

I’m caricaturing the argument am I? Well, yes, certain kinds of travel, undertaken by certain kinds of people, or in certain circumstances, can be wonderfully beneficial, to themselves and the rest of us, oh I’m sure of that. And yes, 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 this is very far from the universal free pass that air travel is given. Mass casual travel, as we know it, is over-rated as a self-development tool.

But but but but but…

3. “I would never have become an environmentalist if I hadn’t travelled to the amazon/the himalyas/the rift valley/wherever”

This is a variation on the previous argument, but has the merit of being specific rather than hand-wavy and deserves a short supplementary post to itself. The short answer is that I do think it might sometimes have some truth to it, but that it is by no means as strong an argument as it looks and, as with the other arguments it is compatible with less flying and doesn’t support the weight of maintaining the status quo. (I do tend to blow up in flames when I hear this particular argument though, and the reason I do that is quite interesting too. I snapped at someone recently in the comments of a blog and am feeling rather sheepish and ashamed of myself. So a separate, penitential, post it has to be)

4. But the good I do when I’ve flown justifies my tiny contribution to aviation emissions.

This might be true (that’s the reason it doesn’t bother me that Jonathan Porritt uses air travel). Who am I to make the fine calculations of what outweighs what? But that’s the thing – these are fine and difficult calculations and I’m not Jonathan Porritt. What if someone asked me to attend a conference on the other side of the world, to talk on some greenish topic? That would be so flattering – think how much good it would do, I mean they wouldn’t have asked me if that wasn’t the case. Well isn’t that what everyone thinks? 4 But if everyone was right, wouldn’t things be better than they are? If someone did offer to fly me off to an international conference I hope I’d be able to get over myself enough to see that it’d make not a jot of difference, apart from making me look like a swingeingly hypocritical idiot. (Oh and let me remind you of what Kevin Anderson – someone who plausibly could play the “but my work is important” card – has to say about this).

The thing is, none of these arguments is anywhere near strong enough to justify the situation as it is now – let alone an increase in flights. In a world with less flying you could still have some mind broadening opportunities, you could still have occasional treats, you could still have some love-miles. What you couldn’t have is the assumption of a foreign beach holiday every year, the knowledge that if you moved to the south of France your family could visit you as often as if you’d moved to Devon, an annual Christmas shopping in New York when you live in London. Travel would, I’m afraid, reveal its etymological relationship with travail.

Or, (one more time, fortissimo), 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?

Next: Will it genuinely make people miserable if they fly less?

Footnotes

1. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/458413/how-people-travel-air.pdf

2. You know the sort. Think-tanker or media professional with an inflated idea of their own smarts (Claire Fox is a prime example). Obviously, I’m just jealous that they get paid for delivering their half-baked opinions and even more jealous that they get to preen themselves as thinkers for goodness sake. In a parallel universe there go I …

3. For an explicit example of this (and of another smartypants contrarian) see: Brendan May’s 2013 article.

4. At the moment I’m reading (UK-based) Kate Rawles’ the carbon cycle, an account of cycle trip the length of the US and Canada in which she chatted to the random people she encountered about climate change. It seems the same thought occurred to her:

“I’d been assuming my own flight was somehow different, special, more important. But wasn’t that precisely the problem?”

 

 

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.

*****

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).

****

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.

****

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.

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?

*****

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.