Gardening #3 (why it can be ‘green’, sometimes)

In my previous post I pointed out that gardening is not necessarily a ‘green’ activity. It can be just as much a shopping opportunity as anything else, it can leave a wider footprint than you might expect.

A quick digression

For example, in my own efforts with the TSRB (tiny snail-ridden backyard), I’ve got to the point where I feel like I could just about imagine taking on an allotment (especially if I shared it). There are plenty of very local allotments – but with gigantic waiting lists. There are also plenty of immediately available allotments – but on the other side of the city. That makes a big difference: I could take on an allotment next season but it would have to be on an easy bus or cycle route and I’d need a regular, firm, block of time which would have to be reserved purely for work on it – no nipping out in the odd spare hour when I fancy it, no copping out when I don’t fancy it.

At this point all normal, right-thinking people will say “well silly you, just get a car, like everyone else! If it hurts your self-respect so much to buy one, then use a car club”. After all, my few years of driving, back in the last century, occurred because I was playing a lot of gigs, so I have in the past owned a car in order to facilitate engagement with a serious and noble activity and surely growing food is just as serious as music? Ah but the difference is that this time you are suggesting that in order to increase my personal sustainability in one area I should reduce it in another.

A not uncommon dilemma, btw. I’ve talked about another example in one of my interminable posts about flying (especially this one, from about halfway down and footnote 4).

(a digression from the digression

Not everyone even recognizes that extra car use reduces overall sustainability or is problematic. I once heard Lynn Sloman, author of car sick, make the comment that their car use is almost invisible to many greenies – almost as if it doesn’t count because it is the noble steed from which they conduct their activism (that last bit was not Lynn’s way of putting it btw). I was rather surprised to hear this, but this was probably because I didn’t know many enviros personally at that point. I’ve been watching carefully since, and you know, I think she’s right. Outside the specialised world of sustainable transport campaigners, it often doesn’t seem to register as a problem – well of course you need a car to facilitate your engagement with nature. Or rather, you need a car because you are special and ethical. But I’m not special and ethical so I’m not going to start driving in order to access an allotment and so, no, I probably won’t be getting one (well, ok, there are a few other reasons as well, but I am starting to wish I had a bit more garden to muck around with, and this is a real discussion I’m having with myself).

End of digressions!

Don’t give ”gardening”, without qualification, a free pass. But obviously, low-cost, thoughtful gardening is indeed a pretty “eco” thing to do and I’m glad that I’ve finally got to grips with it, even in a small way, even as a mere “garden-themed science project”. Here’s why I consider it worthwhile.

Any practical skill is worth having, for purely functional reasons.

You never know when it might come in handy. Self-sufficiency is completely out of the question, however you define it. It won’t save you money, at least not to begin with, and probably not much even once established. But … can I be entirely sure that the current situation, where there is food of any kind, at any season, from anywhere in the world, easily obtainable and affordable, will continue throughout the rest of my lifetime? This situation might well continue – I’m certainly not expecting the sky to fall in tomorrow, or next year, or ever, because that’s a silly image anyway. But I do think that the argument that we (and “we” means the whole world, with us anglophones in the lead) are well embarked on a gradual downward slide is not a foolish one and could well be, broadly, true . That discussion will eventually be the topic of a whole post to itself.

Any practical skill is worth having, for purely psychological reasons.

It makes you feel good to be able to do things. Real things – involving your body and mind (gardening involves not just digging, clipping and lugging but also considerable amounts of planning, deduction, and imagination), and, to get completely pompous about it, we are the kind of creature that needs to use both. This connects with the previous point. Sure, maybe there never will be any sort of food crisis in my lifetime or beyond, but knowing that if there were to be, I’m set to be a teeny part of the answer is a good feeling. If one feels helpless, then one is helpless.

Any practical skill is worth having, for purely social reasons.

You have something else to talk about. You have surplus to give people, which creates goodwill, and maybe they give you some of their surplus too, but it feels like more than mere exchange. Though it wasn’t quite how Ivan Illich meant the phrase, gardening is a tool for conviviality.

Those all sound pretty ‘green’ to me.

And then of course, there is what you actually learn from the attempt to grow edible stuff. Next time.

Gardening #2 (is it “green”?)

Is gardening a “green behaviour” anyway? Not necessarily!

I regard it as a recycling and repurposing opportunity (all sorts of throwaway items turn out to have potential garden uses, that’s part of the satisfaction) but buying a few things is unavoidable. So I’ve trotted along to my local garden centre and my local Wilkos. From this it is very clear that gardening can also function as a shopping opportunity.

For example it turns out you can buy specially made little plastic nubkins to pop on top of your canes so that you don’t accidentally poke your eye out when bending down to look at your plants. The principle is a good one but it takes no ingenuity whatsoever to make your canes safe with corks, or plastic bottle tops, or chunkettes of expanded polystyrene, or old drinks bottles or whatever. Plastic whatsits are also available to join canes (also available in plastic) together when constructing wigwams for climbing beans – but but but, you know … string for goodness sake. But not only are these gizmoids sold, but someone somewhere must have designed them, someone whose employer was trying to expand the number of things that could be sold to people.

Which is fine, I suppose, because that’s how the world now works – flogging stuff to people – and heaven forbid that anyone should call me “anti-business” (whatever that’s supposed to mean – like “luddite” and “anti-car” it’s just another meaningless boo-word), but these plastic fubbles do not add any real functionality above corks and string. Presumably some people do buy them, but why?

More money than time? So you think “I’ll get into gardening!” which is at root a wholly positive, wonderful, and green urge, and, as one does at the start of projects, one gathers together materials. The gathering together of equipment and materials feels like a part of project itself, feels like an active sort of doing something, making a start. But this can be deceptive because what can happen is that one’s enthusiasm becomes displaced onto shopping – especially as shopping is not a new activity but a wholly familiar one, and one which takes place in a familiar and predictable environment. And shopping is fun, yes I know that: it can create quite a gratifying sense of directedness and autonomy. Kind of: “Ok, got my list, got my shopping trolley, all set to go, I need these and these and better get more of these … and oh, look – those will be useful, and ooh, I like the look of that, and ummm maybe instead of bamboo canes I’ll get those plastic ones because they won’t splinter, and …”

So you feel like you’ve done something. But in fact, so far, you haven’t done anything at all except fulfil your social role as ‘consumer’. You have not moved one inch closer to the benefits that you can expect from a bit of gardening: no closer to perfectly fresh food, no time spent outside, no physical exertion, no social capital from being able to talk about gardening with other gardeners, and certainly no true feelings of greater connection with the natural world.

And when (or possibly if) you actually do get going, there will arise a further set of consumer opportunities in the purchase of overspecc’d tools and equipment (power tools make sense for professional gardeners, and so – perhaps – do heavyweight pesticides for farmers, but it doesn’t make you a better gardener to use the tools used by professionals because there are questions of appropriateness, of understanding).

Oh dear, this is going to be like the flying thing isn’t it? I start out with a plan of a couple of posts and it just drags on and on and on … and I also appear to be a darker shade of green than I wish. So anyway, why can “growing a few veg” be counted as “green behaviour”? I’ll do that one next time.

Thoughts on communication #6 (escalation)

Online communication* tends to foster certain, ahem, negative behaviour which make it often a rather bruising experience. My current online hangout is the members’ forum of the Green Party and even that bunch of mild-mannered people has given rise to a couple of barroom brawls in the short time I’ve been watching it (one of the brawls prompted this post).

I know only too well why people behave the way they do online – in Jaron Lanier’s phrase, I have met my Inner Troll. Therefore I’m mainly interested in the question: what can I personally do about the things I’m complaining about? One thing I can do is the be aware of the inbuilt tendency towards unintentional escalation and try to make allowances for it.

Escalation

Online disputation in which there are two clear “sides” can result in both sides claiming that the other side is bullying them – and both sides seeming to be right in that claim.  There’s a very interesting article by the social psychologist Daniel Gilbert about this – basically that we try to give an equally-weighted response to any perceived ‘attack’ but that we are rubbish at judging this accurately and end up responding with an escalated attack, to which our opponent tries to respond equally, but in fact misjudges and escalates … it’s worth reading (despite the bad formatting) because it refers to actual experiments.

 

*and I’ve been watching it for longer than most: first e-mail lists, then webpages, then blog comments, then forums and now, from a distance, through binoculars, the sheer ghastliness that is twitter.

Thoughts on communication #5 (“tone policing”)

I recently came across the term “tone policing”. I try to read beyond the bare words, and I often talk about the “tone” of a piece of writing or speaking (not a million miles from the sort of thing you do in studying english literature). I also sometimes say that getting all shouty is (usually) a very poor persuasive strategy (are you really trying to persuade or are are you just performing for your supporters? Or even merely relishing the sensation of being ‘in the right’?); I think this is a reasonable point of commonsense psychology. I was therefore slightly concerned that I will sooner or later be “called out” (yuck!) for “tone policing”. The meaning wasn’t entirely self-evident to me so I looked it up.

“Tone policing” it turns out, is not an unreasonable thing to object to. It seems to refer to replying to a forcefully-expressed argument by saying something along the lines of “you know you’d really make your case better if you didn’t come across as so angry”, which of course is infuriatingly patronising because it ignores the substantive point that is being made and it presumes to teach you a basic lesson about how to conduct yourself in public. So, it’s a useful term, especially as “microagressions” might be getting a bit stale and we all love novelty. However, it does grate a tiny bit.

Language can be thought of as a weapon (Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors we live by uses ‘argument is war’ as one of its main examples). The “Tone policing” charge was devised as a defence against an unfair rhetorical device (and it works by drawing attention to the fact that such a device has been used), yet it does seem to have some pre-emptive attack potential.

Discussing the way people express themselves can be legitimate. Forceful expression can itself be a rhetorical device – “look how incredibly passionate I am!” and a charge of tone policing could be an attempt to assert the primacy and authenticity of one’s passionate assertions over any attempt to suggest that there is a rhetorical device being used (“I feel so strongly how dare you say anything that I could possibly interpret as being against me personally!”).

All part of the rhetorical arms race.

Thoughts on communication #4 (“calling out”)

Words I never use: “Calling out”

Well obviously I am using them in order to say that I don’t use them, but you know what I mean – I won’t say or write “calling out” without holding such a smelly and disgusting object at a distance with a nice clean pair of quotation marks.

It is equally obvious that I’m quite happy to call out to my friends across the street, or answer a shout which is calling out for help. No, I’m objecting to the relatively recent usage of the term – heard in contexts such as:

“I have to call you out for that statement” or “this behaviour should be called out at every opportunity”

As to “relatively recent”, my subjective observation is that it only started a few years ago – certainly the meaning I grew up with had no hint of morality about it. All of a sudden the air is thick with people being “called out”. Google has an entertaining tool which will generate a usage frequency graph from a large collection of books. Here’s one for american english:
and here’s one for british english:Looking at the british graph – get a load of that gradient starting around maybe 2002 or so. (Which would be compatible with the steep rise in internet usage in the Uk in the early noughties). Anyway, that was just idle curiosity, let’s get to the the real point:

What is wrong with “calling out”?

In one sense nothing at all. Language changes, new words and meanings come in all the time. People use neologisms because they find them useful. I ain’t no language pedant. I make up new words all the time – it demonstrates robustitude of thought.

Anyway, “calling out” rubs me up the wrong way and I want to explain why. I wince slightly when I hear or read the term (no-one has actually used it at me, so far), because it sounds off-puttingly self-righteous1. Note that I’m not accusing people of being self-righteous, I’m saying that (to me) it sounds so. I wonder why? Why these words – what images are they suggesting?

The metaphor I pick up is of literally calling someone out – asking them to step aside from whatever they are doing in order to be told off for an infringement of some sort (the images that come to my mind are of a child being called out of class, or someone in the military being called out to receive a disciplinary ‘chat’). What is squirmy for me about “I need to call you out on that!” is that some sort of superiority has been asserted – the caller is assuming that their right to “call out” is unquestioned. Furthermore the superiority that is being assumed is moral superiority. Now obviously, ethical discussion is not out-of-bounds, not by any means, and some stances really are morally superior, but “calling out” is so un-nuanced that it doesn’t look like discussion, it looks like a crude “I have the high ground here and you’re stuck in the mud, all decent people think the same, don’t even think of trying to defend yourself”.

“Calling out” is one of those rhetorical manoeuvres that internet discussion seems to breed. I have a dark suspicion that – and here I really must stress that this suspicion is based on myself, on attempting to introspect the dubious machinations of my own inner world, I am not accusing anyone else of anything (‘anyone else’ must examine their own conscience) – I have a dark suspicion that some people, sometimes, actually enjoy being angry. I’m probably quite enjoying being angry about this in fact. Ahem.

*****

Some words and phrases that I find useful when refusing to “call you out”:

“I think you’re wrong (because)” “ I protest about that (because)” “I can’t let you get away with that (because)”, “you have omitted some important points (which are)”, “you are only looking at one side of the question”, “that has dangerous implications (which are)”, “you are ignoring (whatever)”, object to, complain about, demur, attempt to rebut, naive, unconsidered, over-simplified, “I’m not sure you understand all the implications of what you’ve just said”, “do you really mean that?”.

Footnote

1. I’ve just discovered that there is now something called “tone policing” which is felt to be oppressive. Having read a few books on socio-linguistics I’d prefer to say that my opinions on this are not “tone policing” but rather “discourse analysis”. Actually, they’re neither, I’m just explaining why I wince slightly when someone says it.

Europe yet again – a passing thought

It has just occurred to me that part of my gut feeling about ‘remain’ was, I think, probably the same gut feeling as many of the ‘leavers’.

That feeling was distrust.

I don’t actually trust the typical UK government to have any sort of care for the natural environment and am pleased that there is some recourse elsewhere over such things as sewage-laden beaches and dangerous air. There is also a strange feeling of relief almost in having a supra-national court of human rights (why is it hated so much?). I don’t really trust UK central governments to get anything right – so much so that Brussels, for all its faults, seems like a safety net. This isn’t ‘hating my country’, it’s not being too keen on what our country has become.

I think some of the gut feeling behind some of the leavers was also distrust, which was why ‘take back control’ was a powerful slogan (and why it is unfair to assume it was nothing but a dog-whistle for latent racism – in fact I’d suggest that racism is the epiphenomenon of deeper feelings of disempowerment). The difference is that “Europe”, being more distant and ‘faceless’ (not to mention that a swathe of our press has never accepted our membership anyway and has been lieing about it since we joined) is a much more obvious target for that distrust, for that feeling that things always seem to be going wrong and we can’t seem to put them right.

Previous posts on this:

poor communication in the referendum#1

poor communication in the referendum#2

reasons to be (not un-)cheerful

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).