Cooling Agents and Radical Affluence

Discovering Pat Kane's Radical Animal project has been very thought-provoking.  I've been prompted to put together a piece, that hopefully adds to the debate on innovation, sustainability and human nature. By trade, I'm a public health worker, not an environmental specialist.  But with a career focus on inequalities and the health needs of marginalised groups, my instinct is to look for the "powerful underdog" in every story.

I'm going to start with a crude "there are two types of people" analysis: the haves and the have-nots. From the point of view of sustainability, the challenges of engaging with affluent groups are fundamentally different to the challenges faced those who are poor, marginalised and socially excluded. Most of the discourse on sustainability and global warming in the western media focuses on lifestyles and aspirations of affluent people; half the story is missing.

First, the problem of affluence! Pat is onto something very important in his comments on eco-austerity: in the grip of a rampantly dominant global consumerist culture, an exhortation to hair-shirted self denial seems likely to fail.  In terms of paths for change, an embracing of the fundamental need for play, exploration, creativity and invention must be part of the answer.  As might new forms of relationship and social interaction. How do we make it satisfying, fulfilling and cool to be green?

A piece published last week on Green Futures website explored exactly this theme: Winning the Persuasion Game. It sets out some key findings: information campaigns are not sufficient, and have failed. Quoting Doug McKenzie-Mohr, "millions have been squandered on advertising campaigns, because the barriers [to more sustainable lifestyles] go far beyond a simple lack of awareness." The piece moves on to explore approaches that deal with the social context of change, including Hermione Taylor's The DoNation. This initiative encourages specific carbon-saving actions amongst groups of friends: "Together, [200 friends] saved over 16 tonnes of carbon: the equivalent of 83 flights from London to Morocco".  Allied work, like the WWF-UK's Strategies for Change Project is encouraging a focus on collective social values as a means of driving campaigns.

What though of the Have-Nots? In the words of Ted Trainer: "Our critique now has to have two main aspects. One is sustainability and the other is global justice. On one count we’ve got a society that is just outrageously unequal and unacceptable."

He adds that most of the affluent world gives little thought "to those who work in mines, sweatshops or plantations".  I'm going to focus on a different industry in my tale of the have-nots: waste and recycling. As one of the folk posting comments on Pat's Radical Animal Guardian article ("ThePlusOne") noted:

There is one word not used in this thoughtful article: waste. In my view, the 21st Century citizen's relationship with waste and consumption are two sides of the same coin.

Take the example of Chintan Environmental Research Action Group, in India. They are doing some remarkable work in the waste and recycling sector, with a critical focus on the work of Cooling Agents - the informal sector workers who recycle and repair on a massive scale.  Chintan looks to mobilise wider public support for environmental sustainability and green jobs for the urban poor. For the Copenhagen summit they collaborated with The Advocacy Project to create a major report on Cooling Agents. Summarising 50 pages into two sentences, Cooling Agents are major players in reducing greenhouse gases through their tireless efforts, equal to 962,133 tonnes of CO2 each year in Delhi alone, but operate in the margins of society in terms of legal status and recognition. Further, structural barriers prevent them benefiting from formal carbon credit schemes, and other fair remunerations.  As Chintan pointedly note on their website: "We believe that it is important for the middle classes to consciously consume less, not only to act in defence of the planet, but to make available resources for the poor."

How do we connect these two halves, to make progress on sustainability issues? Here are some suggested approaches for debate:

  • Continue to develop change approaches that focus on social values in forging sustainable futures - including need for creativity, exploration and human connection
  • Recognise though, that inexorably rising fuel costs and pressure on scarce resources will force most of us to change our lifestyles if we choose not to act ourselves in a timely enough fashion
  • Strengthen direct action movements that promote sustainability and social justice - like Fair Trade and consumer activism on damaging supply chains: great scope for creativity in this respect, like the current Greenpeace campaign highlighting Mattel's links to rainforest-destroying suppliers of pulp for packaging - Ken Dumps Barbie!
  • Support initiatives that amplify the voice of communities and marginalised groups and promote social justice - challenging pre-conceptions and stereotypes held by the powerful and affluent - for example See Africa Differently (did you know more films are produced in Nigeria each year than in Hollywood?) and the Namibian OYO project, showcased in the Scottish Parliament in January 2011 - supporting HIV positive people to become photojournalists, to share their stories
  • Give critical attention to the hidden structural and cultural barriers that inhibit the contributions of less affluent groups - the middle classes are highly skilled at tipping the scales in their favour, at quietly pulling up the ladder - how do we engineer a fairer distribution of opportunity - for example, like the Cooling Agents lobbying for access to benefits of carbon trading; how many of the 'green jobs' predicted for Scotland and the rest of the UK will go to the urban and rural poor?
  • But my key point would be that the affluent must not only focus on their own lifestyles, behaviours and cultures, but also be radical in reaching out to understand and connect with less advantaged groups, in order to learn, enable and participate in wider change for good.

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