Friday, 21 January 2011

What is this life if full of care?

On Monday I spoke at a conference organised by a coalition of community groups that is working to tackle climate change. There are three main reasons why I think their work is important.

Firstly, there is a growing body of evidence to show that one of the most important determinants of individual behaviour is the behaviour of others. Humans are social animals and, whether consciously or not, we are powerfully impelled to ‘fit in’ with those around us. The rules of how to fit in – the ‘social norms’ – are co-determined, co-evolving phenomena, shaped and affected by a variety of influences. If active and enthusiast people ‘set the tone’ by galvanising community groups to raise awareness about climate change, to show what can be done to tackle it, this has the potential to play a powerful role in shaping social norms. As social norms change, the ‘rules’ of belonging, of what it means to be a citizen, to be a member of a community, inevitably and subtly influence everyone. Once upon a time it was completely normal to drive a car whilst drunk; in the future, those responsible for carbon-reckless behaviour will be an ostracised minority.

The second reason they’re important is because of their potential to collaborate. In ‘The Economics of Enough’ I talk at some length about the evolution of institutions, and how the interaction between different institutions, and the way they co-evolve with respect to one another, is conducted on a ‘fitness landscape’. I also spend quite a bit of time discussing how this ‘fitness landscape’ is disproportionately shaped by some institutions rather than others: in short, more powerful entities are able to shape the landscape to suit their own ends, frequently at the expense of other, smaller, less powerful entities.

For too long, an ‘organised citizenry’ has been in retreat, seduced by the shiny trinkets of capitalism into a world of solipsistic individualism. Bigger beasts – big governments, big corporations – have been in charge, and have shaped the landscape to suit their own objectives. Mass movements – trade unions, political parties – have been shrinking remorselessly, and their replacements have been single-issue entities (dealing with birds or trees or whales or whatever) that seem not to engage with ‘the bigger picture’ and/or are unwilling to promote ‘mobilisation’ among their supporters.

A coalition of community groups, joining across the country, sharing practice, building capacity, making things happen, is not merely positive in and of itself (because it will mean improved efforts to tackle climate change in each and every community); it has the potential to constitute a rebalancing of power relations in a bigger sense. At present, atomised, each community can in effect be ‘picked off’, whether by an energy company or a local authority or a big corporate entity. (Even the allocation of grants by governments or charitable trusts can, indirectly, have this effect, by endorsing this ‘winner’ and marginalising or excluding that ‘loser’.) If part of a wider group, if able to act in concert with others, the ability to challenge established power, to shape the overall fitness landscape, is dramatically enhanced.

And the third reason I think it’s important is because I am less and less persuaded that the established machinery – of European institutions, of UK government, even of parliamentary democracy – is going to be able to drive the kinds of changes that we’ll need either to mitigate or adapt to climate change. The failure of global climate talks, the flimsy impacts of the Emissions Trading Scheme and the limp talk of ‘transforming to a low carbon economy’ illustrate the problem. The UK may have the world’s first ‘legally enforceable’ climate change legislation, but our politicians are simply unable or unwilling to talk to us about what it might really mean, or what we’re really going to have to change.

It’s a bit tricky for them, I acknowledge: tell people that you’re hoping will vote for you that, once in power, you’ll increase the price of energy, petrol, waste disposal, food, in fact more or less everything so as to save the planet in a hundred years’ time; or explain to them that they’ll have to fly less, drive less, earn less, buy less; either way, they’re unlikely to vote for you. (Turkeys, Christmas, you get the gist.) Or even invert it, and try to tell the positive story – a low carbon lifestyle could mean less work, longer holidays, less stress, a healthier planet, a slower pace of life – and they’d be treated as naïve romantics and similarly unworthy of your vote.

Bluntly, the short term nature of the democratic cycle is at odds, in a world of myopic animals, with the long run nature of the problem. (The collective failure, in all the world’s developed economies, to tackle the developing pensions crisis, is another illustration of the same defect.)

So we can’t leave it to the politicians, which means we’re just going to have to get on with it ourselves. And that means collective action, mass mobilisation and effective and committed coalitions.

So when invited to speak on ‘Trust, engagement and behaviour change’ I was delighted to accept.

During the workshop that followed my talk, there was some discussion around a challenge I’d issued to the audience, reflecting the arguments I’ve just set out. I wondered:

Would it be better to try to increase the number of members of each of the ‘climate change’ groups that the individuals in the room represented? Or would it be better to attempt to persuade other – potentially larger and/or more influential groups – to incorporate climate change into their existing raison d’être?

For each individual community climate change group, obviously, the answer is: recruit more members to our group. (It’s the same with all organisations – they all want to persist into the future. It’s very hard, and very rare, for an organisation to one day say to itself: that’s it, our work is done, we should stop now; and even harder, and even rarer, for an organisation to say – d’you know what, we’re the wrong organisation, this kind of thing should be done by someone else, it’s time for us to disband.)

But from the bigger perspective, at the aggregate level, that might not be right.

One audience member expressed the view that attempting to recruit people to the ‘climate change’ cause was, in the end, just not the right thing. There is too much ‘denialism’, too much passive resistance; there are too many handy reasons why perfectly ordinary, nice people, who almost certainly don’t want their children’s children to have to live on an overcooked planet, can find a way to postpone or prevaricate or otherwise avoid doing anything dramatic about climate change. (For a brilliant insight into this phenomenon, see the October 2010 essay from Clive Hamilton, ‘Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change: A paper to the Climate Controversies: Science and politics conference’.) Instead, my interlocutor argued, we need to find a different way to engage people in a ‘movement’, we need to find a new kind of argument to bring people on board, an argument, or a concept, or a word that enables people to get to the climate change implications, but which works and appeals on a broader or deeper level.

She suggested ‘love’.

From up on the panel I had the opportunity to respond to this suggestion; and – in principle – I think she’s right, so I said so. I think that we do indeed need a ‘bigger’ concept than climate change, a concept that enables people to consider their own lives, their family, their community, their job, their world, as well as the rest of humanity and the planet and all the really big stuff. If tackling climate change can be shown to be a perfectly reasonable and ordinary part of living by this bigger concept, it becomes altogether easier. Rather than being a shock, a block, a threat, a low-carbon life becomes an organic expression of some other idea.

But I think that idea is not ‘love’ (which I just think is too difficult a word to use in this kind of discourse). I think that the word should be ‘care’. I think that ‘care’ is a word with overwhelmingly positive connotations, applicable in virtually every setting: to care for one’s family, to care for one’s self, to care about the job you do, to care about an issue, to care about and to care for the planet.

Do you care? Of course you do. What are the things you care about? Well, this, and this, and this. That’s great. Look, the way you care about those things is the same as the way I care about this, and this, and this. How about stretching a little – you already care about this, why not care about this, too? It’s a natural extension of something you already do, something that you know is good: you already know – everyone already knows – how much better it feels to do something you care about than to do something you don’t care about. It might take a little time, but on the basis of a ‘care ethic’ saving the planet is no different from stuff you already do.

If we had to, we could even reverse engineer it into an acronym: how about Community Action to Reach Enough?