The Power of Carbon Abstinence

THE 10:10 campaign is asking us to reduce our CO2 emissions by 10 per cent in 2010. Can voluntary carbon abstinence make a difference?

airline-carbon-footprintTHE 10:10 campaign is asking us to reduce our CO2 emissions by 10 per cent in 2010. Can voluntary carbon abstinence make a difference?

For the last couple of years it has become fashionable to do one’s bit to tackle climate change. Individuals have voluntarily decided to abstain from certain activities such as flying, using the car or eating meat in order to reduce their carbon footprint.

In September 2009 the 10:10 campaign was launched as an ambitious project to unite every sector of British society behind the simple idea: that by working together as a nation we can achieve a 10% cut in the UK’s carbon emissions in 2010.

The motivation for the campaign was that politicians have so far failed to do what needs to be done. The campaign believes it is time for ordinary people to show that they are ready to defend our children’s futures.

The 10:10 campaign follows similar campaigns to reduce personal carbon emissions such as Earth Hour, Act on CO2 and Stop Climate Chaos. It builds upon a recent history of collective action and awareness raising such has the 1985 Live Aid concert, 2005 Make Poverty History campaign and more recently the 2007 Live Earth event.

These events create a critical mass of public support and awareness. People join in herds to be part of something that is big and trendy and often backed by key celebrities.

There is no doubt that such big events create a tsunami of awareness that galvanises the public to take action. However, once the razzmatazz is over and the publicity has faded away does such events leave any lasting impression? More importantly will the change in behaviour or pledged action such as carbon abstinence continue?Logo-for-1010-campaign-001

There is a public willingness to be greener, individuals are often waiting for an enabling and supportive structural framework to collectively facilitate desired behaviour. They often look to others such as the government and business to take the lead, i.e. the notion of “I will if you will”.

While regulation and enforcement are key elements in reducing carbon emissions, they have yet to deliver the fundamental shift required in our level of consumption. Structural and psychological issues can limit and influence our lifestyle choices and behaviour.

Voluntary carbon abstinence can be effective approach to achieving sustained greener beahviour. However, the messsage has to be communicatd in the right way and a supportive institutional/ social, infrastructural and fiscal framework needs to be available.

A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) suggests that an approach based on saving public money, and giving the public greater control over energy bills and independence from suppliers would be more effective to engage people in adopting a low carbon lifestyle.

The report suggests that a reduction in carbons emission requires convincing consumers that in adopting lower-carbon lifestyles they can save money and have control in a chaotic world, and they can do the right thing and look good without being an environmentalist.

carbon-footprint-leavesIndividuals who participate in voluntary initiatives are acting as environmental citizens and voluntarily internalise externalities of their current lifestyle for the sake of the common good, i.e. averting the global climate crisis.

Reducing our carbon footprint requires moving from environmental awareness and concerns to collective action. Voluntary carbon abstinence is one way of empowering, educating and achieving attitudinal change in individuals.

Campaigns such as 10:10 provide the vehicle to do this. However, maintaining the mometum once the campaign is over is essential. This requires campaigning groups to keep the issue alive in the public consciousness.

Morely importantly, it will require government and business to provide the incentives and infrastructure to make a low carbon lifestyle the easy, affordable and enjoyable and natural option for everyone.

© Gary Haq 2009

Understanding Our EcoPsychology

THE root of the Global Environmental Crisis lies in our relationship with nature. If we are to avoid ecological suicide then we need to rediscover our ecological unconscious.

garyhaqTHE root of the Global Environmental Crisis lies in our relationship with nature. If we are to avoid ecological suicide then we need to rediscover our ecological unconscious.

We have become increasingly disconnected from the natural world on which we are dependent for our survival. Our capitalistic economic model based on continual growth has not only created the ecological crisis but has actively molded consumer demand. As consumers we are no longer in control as tastes and demands are determined by industry and shaped by advertising, which generate false needs.

Our behaviour is continuously encouraged and perpetuated by “perverse” economic incentive structures, media images, institutional barriers, inequalities in access, where status and wealth is reflected in how much we can consume. Our consumption of goods such as the fastest car, latest fashion, the newest gadget is one of the main ways of expressing our identify in the modern world

ad2Human nature has become more consumerist and individualistic decreasing our understanding of the links between social and natural systems. This has lead to the development of a new form of narcissistic self. Psychoanalytical theory suggests that narcissism is an extreme form of individualism. It is a phenomenon from childhood, which means that the world will provide everything we need if we make enough commotion. Things that are out of sight such as food production, waste and environmental degradation are firmly out of the mind.

As we have developed we have becoming increasingly disconnected from nature. The majority of the people living in the developed world have become disengaged from the immediate materials provided by nature that are needed for survival. An increasing amount of the food and raw materials we consume is transported from around the world rather than made and used locally. This disconnection from the natural environment has resulted in a lack of understanding of the environment and ecological systems of which we are a part.

images-6We no longer have a direct understanding of economic activity, consumption and the byproducts of our activities. The waste we generate is an intangible byproduct and has an impact far away from the point of consumption. This detachment has been facilitated by technology. Fridgeration techniques and intensive farming have replaced our understanding of the way things grow and the seasons. This separation leads to a lack of understanding of nature (e.g. our knowledge of food now comes form reading labels on packets and making uniformed judgements) about alternatives and can lead to fear (e.g. food scares). Knowledge based on direct experience has been replaced by knowledge produced by scientists (abstract systems) in laboratories. This has in some cases led to mistrust of science due to vested interest and changes based on new developments.

bundle2A wide variety of ancient and modern cultures have histories of embracing nature such as aboriginal, pagan and Hindu cultures, and shamanism. Where self-identity becomes entwined with nature, so much that loss of sacred places is devastating to indigenous people. In contrast, industrial society has repressed what Theodore Roszak has called our “ecological unconscious”.

If we are to reconnect with nature and restore environmental harmony then we need to rediscover our ecological unconscious that lies at the core of our psyche. This requires healing the fundamental gap between the recently created industrial psyche and the age-old natural environment. This involves re-evaluating character traits which have driven us to dominate nature as if it were an alien and rightless realm as well as questioning the sanity of the size and extent of urban-industrial culture.

images-4Reconnecting with nature via decentralised food production and community nature projects and projects that promote personal empowerment are likely to nourish our “ecological ego”. In contrast, large-scale projects that dominate suppress the individual undermines the ecological ego. Roszak claims as our ecological ego matures towards a sense of ethical responsibility to the planet that is as vividly experienced as our ethical responsibility to other people, it will weave this responsibility into the fabric of social relations and political decisions.

When the needs of the planet have become the needs of the person, the rights of the person have become the rights of the planet then we will have finally rediscovered our ecological unconscious and understood our ecopsychology.

The Voice of the Earth

© Gary Haq 2009

Every Hour is Earth Hour

N Saturday 28 March at 8.30 pm an estimated one billion people in 1,858 cities and towns in 81 countries will voluntarily switch of their lights for sixty minutes as part of WWF’s Earth Hour. This mass collective action is seen as sending a signal to politicians to take action on climate change. While such events create mass public awareness the message can quickly fade in the public consciousness.

earth-hourON Saturday 28 March at 8.30 pm an estimated one billion people in 1,858 cities and towns in 81 countries will voluntarily switch off their lights for sixty minutes as part of the Worldwide Fund for Nature’s (WWF) Earth Hour.

This mass collective action is seen as sending a signal to politicians to take action on climate change. While such events create mass public awareness the message can quickly fade in the public consciousness once the event has passed.

The 1985 Live Aid organized by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to raise funds for famine relief in Ethiopia was the first event that galvanised the global public to take action. Since then we have seen Live 8 in 2006 held to raise awareness as part of the Make Poverty History Campaign. In 2007 we saw the Live Earth event which brought together a global audience to combat the climate crisis. We have also seen events organised by Nelson Mandela’s charity to raise awareness about AIDS. All these events do some good in raising awareness but whether awareness results in sustained action is a different story.

When it comes to the environment many individuals are green is some way whether motivated by saving money, reducing waste or saving the planet. The UK Department for Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has developed a model that divides the public in the seven distinct groups based on a set of attitudes and beliefs towards the environment.

Around 7 million people are described as “Positive Greens” who are willing to do as much as they can to reduce their impact. Unfortunately, there is a similar number who are not bothered about the future of the planet as they are engrossed in their own lives. While there are about 5.7 million people who are concerned but cannot voluntarily move to greener behaviours with some help or incentive. The different types of individuals and their attitudes are described below:

Positive Greens (18%: 7.1 million)
I think it is important that I do as much as I can to limit my impact on the environment

Honestly disengaged (18%: 7.4 million)
May be there’ll be an environmental disaster, maybe not. Makes no difference to me, I’m just living life the way I want to.

Concerned Consumers (14%: 5.7 million)
I think I do more than a lot of people. Still going away is important; I’d find that that hard to give up. Well I wouldn’t, so carbon offsetting would make me feel better.

Cautious Participants (14%: 5.6 million)
I do a couple of things to help the environment. I’d really like to do more, well as long I saw others were.

Sideline Supporters (14%: 56 million)
I think climate change is a big problem for us. I know I don’t do much about how much water or electricity I use, and I forget to turn things off. I’d like to do a bit more.

Stalled Starters (10%: 4.1 million)
I don’t know much about climate change. I can’t afford a car so I use public transport. I’d like a car though.

Waste Watchers (12%: 5.2 million)
Waste not, want not, that’s important, you should live life thinking about what you are doing and using.

Time and money are issues they often come up when discussing greener lifestyles. If we did not have to work so much then perhaps we could devote more time to reducing our impact on the planet such as having an allotment, composting and doing more cycling and walking. Unfortunately many of us have to work to pay the bills.

The biggest outgoing is the rent or mortgage. If we had free accommodation or our mortgages were paid off then perhaps we could then work less and have more time to be greener. However, some would see these reasons as excuses. The DEFRA model shows the complexity of human behaviour and the different things which motivate us and which decide whether we are willing to be green or not.

Earth Hour is a major step in creating a blanket public awareness of the urgency and importance of the issue. However, once the razzmatazz is over then the real work begins. We need to communicate the message to individuals with different mindsets in a way convinces them to take action. That is why every hour is Earth hour.

Green Campaigns – Dangerous Propaganda?

The Northern Ireland’s Minister of Environment, Sammy Wilson, has taken the decision to block the government’s “Act on CO2” advertisement campaign on climate change to be shown in Northern Ireland claiming it to be “insidious propaganda”. Do green campaigns cause more damage than good? Do they go far enough in commuincating the message to the public about the scale of the real challenges ahead?

Act on CO2ARE public campaigns aimed at raising awareness of our impact on the environment dangerous propaganda?

Northern Ireland’s Minister of Environment, Sammy Wilson, thinks so. He has blocked the government’s “Act on CO2” advertisement campaign on climate change from being shown in Northern Ireland. Mr Wilson is reported to have described the campaign has “insidious propaganda” claiming that the campaign adverts were: “giving the people the impression that by turning off the standby light on their TV they could save the world from melting glaciers and being submerged under 40ft of water

It is not surprising that Mr Wilson is a climate change denier and does not believe man-made greenhouse gas emissions are the main cause of climate change. However, it is surprising that such a view is held by someone who holds the office of Minister of Environment.


Mr Wilson’s view not only questions whether climate change is man-made but also the role of environmental campaigns to persuade people to change their behaviour. National information campaigns have been used for many years to raise environmental awareness. These have included the 1970s “Save It” energy campaign, 1990s “Are You Doing Your Bit?” and more recently “Act on CO2” (2007). Many regional and local government authorities have their own campaigns to address particular environmental issues. Such campaigns tend to provide the public with information to allow them to make informed choices and to persuade them that collectively they can make a difference.

In particularly Mr Wilson’s view challenges the green mantra of: “Think Globally, Act Locally”. When faced with such an overwhelming global phenomenon such as climate change we may feel that the individual actions we take are insignificant. If the cause of the problem is the collective impact of individual actions then surely working collectively is the solution?

Some environmentalists would agree with Mr Wilson that encouraging people to take small painless steps such as switching of lights gives a wrong impression. lightsThey would argue that this leads to a false sense of security that current lifestyles can continue with only small changes while in fact more radical changes are necessary. There is a need to confront the problem of our high consuming lifestyles head-on and tackle the underlying motivations of consumerism. Campaigns such as the Government’s “Act on CO2” are seen by some hard-line environmentalists as a deflection and waste of precious campaign and communication resources.

We have become so locked-in to a highly energy intensive, polluting, wasteful and inequitable way of life that materialistic values will not be able to deliver the systematic changes necessary in human behaviour. For example, not owing or using a car may not result in net environmental benefits if the money saved is used to fly to a far-flung holiday destination.

flightEnvironmental campaigns are guilty of failing to communicate the fundamental changes that are required in the way we live. Unfortunately, the public are not receptive to extreme messages such as banning car use and flying. A survey of British attitudes to flying by the National Centre for Social Research found that there were high levels of public concern about the environmental impact of air travel and a growing agreement that the cost of flying should reflect environmental damage. Despite this view the majority of the public still believe that people should be able to fly as much as they want. However, the size of this majority is falling.

Although public awareness campaigns have limitations they are a vital tool in tackling the environmental challenges ahead. It would be “dangerous” not to use all available means to engage and encourage the public to take action collectively. In the words of Gandhi “We must be the change we wish to see in the world” and that means each and everyone one of us doing our bit.

© Gary Haq 2009

No Time to Waste – Returning to the Good Life

earth-clock-01AS a child the school summer holidays seemed an eternity. Time seemed to pass very slowly. These days as an adult its hard to keep up with all the things one has to do. How many times have you heard people complain we “just don’t have the time”?

Psychologist William James’ explanation is that children experience everything for the first time and that all experiences are new. Their intense perception of the world around them means that times goes slowly. As adults we have fewer new experiences, life is more familiar and less information is taken in and time is less stretched. While there are obvious cognitive psycholgoical explanations to our perception of time there are also other factors at play.

As a child growing up in the 1970s there was only three TV channels which only ran for a limited number of hours. We did not have a computer, mobile phone, video player or DVD to distract us. Most of the time was enjoyed playing out in the streets with other friends. On TV there was a popular sitcom called The Good Life which described the experiences of Tom and Barbara who have had enough of the rat race and decide to become self-sufficient. They convert their garden into a farm, keep pigs and chickens and grow their own crops.the-good-life1

Life seemed a lot simpler back then but perhaps I am looking back through rose-tinted spectacles?. Afterall, I did not have to worry about paying bills, going to work or doing house work. Despite all this, I do feel that life has speeded up.

streetsThis is evident in our breakdown in our sense of community. In the cobbled streets of inner city Salford (UK) where I grew up we knew or had a good idea who lived in the 40-plus houses there. These days I only know three of my neighbours. This is partly due to people being more mobile and not staying in one place too long and partly due to being more private individuals. No longer do we have the time for idle chit chat. Like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland we are rushing around saying we are late.

In his Novel Momo Michael Ende wrote about a mysterious young orphaned girl, who arrives in a small town and notices that the inhabitants are starting to change, becoming obsessed with time and money. Momo discovers that the culprits are the “Grauen Herren”, sinister, ghost-like men who are stealing time. The effects were dramatic. The village barber found that:

he was becoming increasingly restless and irritable. The odd thing was that, no matter how much time he saved, he never had any to spare; in some mysterious way, it simply vanished. Imperceptibly at first, but then quite unmistakably, his days grew shorter and shorter. Almost be­fore he knew it, another week had gone by, another month, and another year, and another and another.”

In his article entitled Time Pollution, Prof. John Whitelegg attempts to explain the paradox that the more people try to save time, the less they seem to have? Whitelegg argues:

Time is central to notions of sustainability. A sustainable city or a sustainable transport policy or a sustainable economy cannot be founded on economic principles which, through their monetarisation of time, orientate society towards higher levels of motorisation, faster speeds and greater consumption of space. The fact that these characteristics produce energy-intensive societies and pollution is only part of the problem. They also distort value systems, elevate mobility above accessibility, associate higher speeds and greater distances with progress, and dislocate communities and social life.”

There is no doubt that our lack of time has contributed to the community disintegration that has been occuring across Europe and other western countries in the last few decades. Perhaps we need to change our perception of time and spend more time being rather than doing. A global recession may provide that window of opportunity to reassess our values and lifestyles and perhaps like Tom and Barbara we can return to the “Good Life” that many of us remember.

© Gary Haq 2009