INNOVATION | SUSTAINABILITY | HUMAN NATURE
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:
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