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.


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


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.


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).


Hah, at least politics has become interesting.


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)


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.


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.


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.


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?



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.

“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.

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.