Let’s start this month’s essay with a musical philosophy question.
In the 1960s, the Who sang “The kids are alright”. In 1998, The Offspring sang “The kids aren’t alright”. Which group had the more prescient song?
Protest and climate change
Last Friday, February 15th, many thousands of UK children took the day off school to protest about the glacial progress made in combatting climate change. They were adding their voices and hand-painted placards to that of 16-year old Swede, Greta Thunberg, who spoke lucidly and convincingly at WEF Davos, see https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=greta+thunberg+speech&view=detail&mid=5B201E3A508072AE14D95B201E3A508072AE14D9&FORM=VIRE.
I find it difficult to dispute the logic of Greta’s comment, “I think it is insane that people are gathered here to talk about the climate, and they arrive here in private jet.” Greta arrived from Sweden by train accompanied by her supportive father. Those arriving by jet argued about time efficiency and their personal safety. What are they doing that causes them to feel threatened?
The reaction in the UK to the youngsters’ protests was strong and generally unsupportive. The UK PM’s office criticised them saying they were disrupting carefully planned lessons. Thunberg reacted saying, “… politicians have wasted 30 years doing nothing”. M&C Saatchi, in a report entitled “Risk, Realism and Ritalin” published in 2017, stated that post-millennials no longer found education fun, see http://mcsaatchitransform.com/src/assets/pdfs/MCTRANSFORM_RRR.pdf . So, finding an excuse to extend the February half-term holiday by a day probably seemed fun to them.
Sunday Times columnist Rod Liddle wrote that his 13-year old daughter protested, then went away skiing to Norway with her mother on Saturday, see https://www.thetimes.co.uk/past-six-days/2019-02-17/comment/what-do-kids-want-climate-action-when-do-they-want-it-during-double-maths-w9rskbk3j. Liddle asks, “Is there a more environmentally ruinous pastime than skiing?” In his usual sardonic manner, Liddle concluded, “Better still, they’d have told Mummy not to pick them up in the 4×4 once the march had ended and they’d enjoyed a cheeky Nando’s; we’ll walk home, or take the bus.”
Consumerism, diet and climate change
Personally, I accept the science of climate change. I recognise the difference between it and the daily weather, unlike Donald Trump, see https://www.foxnews.com/politics/trump-pokes-fun-klobuchar-climate-change-stance-as-she-announces-candidacy-in-snow. I’ve had the privilege of meeting David Wasdell, Director of the Apollo-Gaia Programme, http://www.meridian.org.uk/About/Director/Pro-About_the_Director1.htm, whose work on the subject is sound, valid and respected.
Considering the planet as a holistic organism called Gaia aligns with the spiritual beliefs of many indigenous tribes. Yet today, what is the West’s spiritualism; unbridled consumerism? A report about UK clothing purchases seems to affirm this, see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-47282136.
Less than 1% of material used to produce clothing is recycled into new garments at the end of its life. 300,000 tons of clothing is incinerated or sent to landfill, much of which isn’t natural fibres that will degrade. Sarah-Jane Mee, the Sky News Sunrise presenter (@skysarahjane on Twitter), said on Tuesday morning (February 19th) that most people wore the same item of clothing only four times. Conversely, I frequently get asked by my daughters, “How long have you had that, Dad?”
The question of our diet is being pulled to the centre stage of the climate change debate, i.e. eat less meat because its production generates vast clouds of climate harming gas, namely the farts of cows, pigs and chickens. Other articles in last weekend’s Sunday Times suggest toasting bread and roasting the Christmas dinner are climatically harmful activities. What climatically can we safely eat?
Protest now compared to half-a-century ago
Generally, I applaud the youngsters trying the follow in Greta’s footsteps, apart from those in London who were reported to chant “F*** May”, which struck me as unduly aggressive as well as verbally offensive.
Currently, the subject of aggression, especially its antonym of non-violence, is very much at the front of my mind due to my reading an incredible book called, “Walking with the Wind”. It’s author is John Lewis who was deeply involved in the US civil rights movement alongside Martin Luther King. Lewis now sits as a Congressman for Atlanta in the House of Representatives. The book describes vividly his preparedness and that of his contemporaries to apply the principles of Gandhian non-aggression against the extraordinarily violent reaction of those who wanted to maintain racial segregation across the southern states.
Is such bravery no longer evident in today’s protests? Are the vituperative slanging matches and insults on social media in any way comparable to being pistol whipped, coshed, blasted by water cannon or being shot, and in some instances, lynched?
In the book, I am just past the point of the 1963’s March on Washington. At this event Martin Luther King gave his unforgettable and unsurpassed “I have a dream” speech. John Lewis also spoke, here is his speech, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFs1eTsokJg, which was toned down to appease various senior political and religious luminaries. Note his use of the word “revolution”.
The preceding campaigns of sit-ins (segregated restaurants in shops in Nashville), stand-ins (in theatres and cinemas), Freedom Rides (bus journeys across the south to test a Supreme Court ruling, Browder vs. Gayle, that vetoed segregated seating on buses and in bus terminals) had succeeded in raising attention to the plight of African Americans in the southern states. Televised news stories showing incidents in Birmingham, Alabama, in which young black children where knocked over and swept down streets by fire hoses, assaults by whites on blacks including that of a pregnant woman (mentioned by Lewis in his speech) had won support from across the country. Prior to the Washington march, JFK committed to introduce the Civil Rights Act but wanted the protests to stop. They continued. Ultimately, they won the Voting Rights Act, signed in by Lyndon Johnson during his presidency. I recommend watching the movie, Selma.
What John Lewis and his fellow protesters overcame was a steep escarpment of cognitive dissonance. People started to change their behaviour and, in so doing, chipped away at generations of embedded bigoted attitude. Not all the cliff crumbled, however. Consider the ongoing #blacklivesmatter protests and, here in the UK, the recent incident in Manchester in which racist graffiti was sprayed onto a black family’s flat’s front door, which was ignored by police until a post on social media went viral.
Climate change represents another huge escarpment of dissonance to be scaled. Reflecting upon the protests of the 1960s, are those of today too passive; are our schoolchildren’s protests with their twee, hand-painted placards inadequate “kit” to make this steep ascent – is stronger equipment required? Did the youngsters last Friday simply make a noise and a nuisance of themselves? As with Lewis, “stronger” does not and must not mean resorting to violence.
What are today’s equivalents of sit-ins and bus rides that will make people sit up and take notice, break the dissonance and “nudge” changes in behaviour? The Economist’s editorial of February 9th stated, “73% of Americans polled by Yale Uni late last year said that climate change is real.” It continued, “Demand for oil is rising and the energy industry, in America and globally, is planning multi-trillion-dollar investments to satisfy it. No firm embodies this strategy better than ExxonMobil, the giant that rivals admire and green activists love to hate. As our briefing explains, it plans to pump 25% more oil and gas in 2025 than in 2017. If the rest of the industry pursues even modest growth, the consequence for the climate could be disastrous.”
This Economist editorial and an accompanying article map out the geography of the escarpment at a detailed scale. What needs to be done and how?
How might an alternative form of activist shareholding to that spurring on organisations to borrow to fund share buy-backs play out? Last year’s Barclays AGM was disrupted by climate protesters, see https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/may/01/climate-change-protesters-disrupt-barclays-agm.
Change your diet, travel less or by different means
Reverting to Liddle’s comment about being conveyed around in a large 4×4, consider this comment from the Independent in 2013, “A study from the University of Westminster has this week shown that only 25 per cent of primary school pupils now travel home alone as opposed to 86 per cent in 1971 and 76 per cent today in Germany”, see https://road.cc/content/news/73654-childrens-independence-outside-home-has-dramatically-dropped-over-last-40-years.
I recall walking a mile-and-quarter to and from school when I was very young. Alone. Why does that not happen now? What needs to change to make it happen again? Can it become the norm again?
Regarding longer-distance travel than that to school, consider this article about Maya Bay, Thailand, the setting for Leonardo di Caprio’s film, The Beach, see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/the_beach_nobody_can_touch. Here in Britain, do we constrain our physical travels to “staycations” and reach places like Maya Bay through virtual reality simulations? The growth in staycations produces the consequence of coastal towns like Aldeburgh and Southwold in Suffolk having a third or more of their properties bought as second homes. Locals are priced out the market.
Considering the issue of food, can we expect to see a revival of the independent butcher, baker, grocer, greengrocer, fishmonger selling local produce at affordable prices? Such outlets now seem restricted to the posher neighbourhoods. Will we re-accept English strawberries are only available in June or turn a blind eye to their production under massive “poly-tunnels” (the fields around my Suffolk village are draped in swathes of plastic sheeting to support year round crop production)? If food was priced to reflect its carbon footprint, how much more would it cost?
The share of income spent on food has changed considerably in the last 60 years, see diagram below from BBC News article, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-42735294.
If we do keep meat on the menu, will we see the restoration of small, local abattoirs that conduct their grim task humanely? I recall reading stories of meat sold in Somerset supermarkets labelled as local having been taken all the way to Scotland for slaughter. There is a growing voice to swap the rib-eye steak for edible insects (entomorphagy), see https://blog.humanos.me/eating-insects-an-important-source-of-dietary-protein-in-years-to-come).
Is reverse gear the only option?
To stop climate change in its tracks, do we need to reverse the last half-century of progressive change in our lifestyles; to eat less exotic diets, to travel less, to consume less, to make things last, to reject the idea of “built-in obsolescence”? Are we prepared to make this “back to the future” change?
Is there much point in a few thousand children in the UK children trying to invoke change in the UK’s wider population when there are millions rising out of poverty across Asia, Africa and South America who want what we’ve enjoyed for many decades? Or can their verve, imagination, innovation and inclusive attitude conceive fresh approaches that will enable the new, emerging affluent millions to mirror our five decades’ lifestyle progress without adding impetus to climate change and so render as misguided ExxonMobil’s strategic ambition?
There is precedent. Consider telephony; in many African countries analogue systems were bypassed, they went straight to digital, mobile networks. Using your phone as a token of money transmission, e.g. “tapping in” on London’s Tube, occurred first in Kenya as part of the country’s micro-finance initiative.
John Lewis concluded his speech by saying African Americans were no longer prepared to wait for “revolution”. Is there equivalent impatience about climate change? Will the youngsters who protested last Friday succeed, as did Lewis, in fomenting non-violent revolution? Or, because we live far more privileged lives than that in which he grew up, will our resistance to change fail to be exceeded by the multiple of our dissatisfaction with the current situation, the vitality of a new vision and the first steps being taken to realise that vision (see Beckhard’s change formula at http://www.valuebasedmanagement.net/methods_beckhard_change_model.html)?
Concluding as I started with music, are these youngsters merely bringing to life Edwyn Collin’s line, “Too many protest singers, not enough protest songs”? In terms of leadership, is Greta Thunberg, like John Lewis, someone who doesn’t conform to the line from the mighty Who’s anthem, Won’t Get Fooled Again, “Meet the old boss, same as the new boss”? And, as for Revolution, as Lennon and McCartney wrote, “But if you want money for people with minds that hate / All I can tell is brother you have to wait.”
Listen / watch the songs:
The Who: https://youtu.be/afam2nIae4o
The Offspring: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7iNbnineUCI#action=share
Edwyn Collins: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ah5iepUs_t0
The Who: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m7hvZjjsO28 (a 15 minute blast from Glastonbury, 2015)
The Beatles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BGLGzRXY5Bw