I haven't been watching much scheduled TV recently, but I wasn't going to miss the Wastemen documentary on the BBC last night. Not just because it was an insight into the sharp end of sustainability, or that it was set in my town; rather it's because (with my political hat on) I was part of the team who set up Newcastle's two bin waste collections, opened the Sita Materials Recycling Facility at Byker which featured and gave the mixed recyclables contract to O'Brien's. I have skin in this game!
It was a very entertaining programme with the various crews and operatives clearly enjoying having the cameras on them. Of course I was grumbling a bit about some of the impressions it gave, particularly about the level of public recycling (sampling has shown that 64% of recyclable material is recovered in Newcastle – good but with room for improvement.) Green pressure groups berated us when we introduced the semi-mixed recyclate bin, but participation shot up afterwards because we made recycling easy – which was a big lesson for me.
But the overall impression was the incredulity of the bin crews of how much decent resource goes to waste. Unlike us individuals chucking a bin bag in the wheelie bin every day or two, these guys see the big picture – both in sheer quantity of waste and also what does get chucked – day in day out. Unused electrical items, bikes with one flat tyre, wide screen TVs left the waste men scratching their heads.
You can get told these statistics and examples time after time, but to understand it properly, you have to experience it. I don't have the depth of experience of the bin crews, but I've been around enough recycling/incineration and disposal sites to get a real feel for what we do throw away.
If you want to engage people in sustainability, giving them first hand experience is often the best way to drive the message home. That could be a visit to a landfill, or it could be a drive in an electric car. But experience always trumps advice.
There's a tendency in indie music geeks to seek out obscure bands, just in case they hit the big time, and then you can claim you saw them bottom of the bill at Reading in 1994 or whatever, declare them passé and move onto the next. I often think this about Sustainability – us practitioners like to constantly champion the next big concept and then move on as soon as it starts emerging blinking into the sunlight.
While this is fun, it neglects the real job – the unglamorous, difficult task of converting that high falutin' concept into something which will work in the mundane, everyday mainstream. Something which is affordable, scaleable, practical, effective, reliable and, often, unnoticeable.
So, while you may find it depressing seeing your old heroes' early indie classics reduced to wedding reception fare, in sustainability that's actually where we want to be!
It was EarthDay on Wednesday – I'm not going to start another of my rants about the pointlessness of awareness hours/days/weeks, but how did it go for you?
One Earth Day headline that caught my eye was the BBC's report that the Paris climate change talks in December were "THE LAST CHANCE" to save the planet from catastrophe, according to the Earth League. Now, I know why it's tempting to hype up such a gathering in order to try and put pressure on politicians to make an historic deal, but there's a huge chance of this tactic back-firing.
There was similar hype around Copenhagen 6 years ago but only incremental progress was made on a deal. Guess what? The world didn't end there and then. Individual countries and organisations kept beavering away and last year the rise in carbon emissions stalled, while investment in green technology soared.
A comprehensive international deal would undoubtedly help, but I think NGOs and green leaning journos put too much faith on it (and my friend the green journalist Fiona Harvey blamed the Copenhagen failure squarely on NGOs for asking for the impossible). Action is what is required rather than pieces of paper. The paper may lead to action, or it may not, or the action may continue regardless - the two aren't inextricably linked as we have seen.
My wider point is that predictions of doom are counterproductive. The green movement has been predicting catastrophe for decades – mostly correctly, but sometimes hyperbole gets the better of them. If doom switches people off, then inaccurate predictions of doom destroys any trust people have in what they have been told. And if the Paris talks fail, are we simply to give up and burn that fossil fuel while we still can?
Let's present the world with a scintillating image of a low carbon future – and deliver on it!
I'm a sucker for chocolate cake. You put a piece in my view and I want it. What's more, I'll probably eat it. I'm one of those Dads who will hide behind a cupboard door to stop the kids seeing me snarfle a chocolate biscuit. The temptation is always too strong. I am weak.
Many 'greens' act like food fascists, sneering at the contents of the shopping baskets of those ahead of them in the supermarket queues. It might make them feel better, but it won't do anything to stop obesity.
You can blame politicians, but frankly, it takes a brave soul to stand up and say to the country we must sacrifice short-term gain for the sake of our grandchildren. Actually, it's very easy to say, many do now say it, and many will support the words. The brave bit comes from putting words into action – and we must support them when they do, not the usual fusillades of 'nowhere near good enough' from those who have never had to make a big public decision in their lives.
The answer? I find I can drop the sugar hit if I get it out of my routine. Likewise we've got to get fossil fuels out of the routine of Joe and Josephine Public. We've got to make sustainability the new normal: easy, intuitive, reflexive, unthinking, desirable. Only then will we wean ourselves off fossil fuels.
The philosophical side is about whether any action we take is truly altruistic. This is a matter of much debate in the philosophical sphere – when I pick up a piece of litter in the street, or help the old lady across the road replace a recessed lightbulb, I get a little dose of endorphin that sets up my day. Does that good feeling undermine the altruism of my act?
And every major religion teaches that those who are faithful/do good works will be rewarded after death – does that mean that every good deed by a religious person is done out of pure selfishness? Likewise I don't think any financial reward from CSR undermines the satisfaction from having done the right thing.
On the practical side, I'm not sure that any sensible CSR action will have a negative benefit to the company. Marks & Spencer's Living Wall won't save them any money, but it is a fantastic advert for the company's Plan A sustainability programme – whether to consumers or the next generation of recruits. Study after study has shown that businesses with good sustainability programmes outperform those that don't in financial terms.
Lastly, the sustainability of sustainability. If CSR is shown to add value to the business, then it won't get squeezed out if the going gets rough. If the business purpose is aligned to sustainability then we get a win-win. What's the problem?
In summary 'doing well by doing good' is a strong driver. 'Doing badly by doing good' isn't going to inspire many. I'd rather win-win than lose-lose.
So, the UK election rumbles on and this week we had the Party manifestos. So what do the parties offer on sustainability? Trying to be as objective as I can*, here's my quick and dirty review of the five national parties, in order of current number of seats in Parliament:
Big Headlines (ie mentions in key pledges):
Reaffirmation to meet international commitments on climate change.
Investment in renewables but with an emphasis on 'cost effectiveness'. Halting 'spread of onshore wind farms'.
Every vehicle to be zero emissions by 2050, double cycling, investment in railways.
'Blue Belt' of marine reserves.
My verdict: Token effort – and a mixed bag at that.
I'm down in our capital city with the family for a short break. The two bigger boys were very keen to come because of various school projects, and the little one – well as usual he just has to lump it!
As usual, on holiday, I have my eyes peeled for anything sustainability-related.
I remember musing on my way back from Bruges back to Newcastle by train in 2009 that in Belgium you saw at least one solar array in every village or suburb, but virtually nothing on the English side of the Channel. Oh, how that has changed. Not only is there a huge amount of roof-mounted solar along the East Coast Mainline, but we passed at least 3 field-sized solar farms and plenty of wind turbines dotted here and there. It is no surprise to me now that UK solar installed capacity doubled in 2014 – you can see it.
We're staying at a genuine Airbnb house – a real family home as opposed to a regular rental – and our first proper use of the new sharing economy. The house is lovely, but you do have to put up with your host's tastes – there is no cafetiere, garlic press or, believe it or not, wine glasses. We can improvise on the former two, but bought them 4 cheap wine glasses (I hope that isn't taken as an insult as we can't take them with us). The other problem is trying to stop 3 rather excited and rambunctious boys from trashing the place...
Another thing I've noticed is you can now use a contactless debit/credit card in lieu of an Oyster card for London transport. This opens up the flexibility of London public transport for the casual visitor. Anything to remove barriers to the greener option wins in my book and, when my Oyster card runs out/gets lost again, I think I might give up on it.
As well as the tourist traps, yesterday we went to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust London in Barnes, not that far from the heart of the City - amazing to see what you can achieve if you leave a little space for nature in our urban sprawl.
I know I'm an irrepressible optimist, but going on a holiday allows you to see things afresh in a way you don't on a business trip. I am utterly convinced that, no matter what the doomsters claim, we are moving in the right direction.
Last week we had another fantastic turnout for our annual Green Academy on employee engagement for sustainability. There were some really big names taking part – including some who are seen as sustainability exemplars.
The two points I really try to hammer home on these sessions are:
People's feelings are a much stronger driver for their behaviour rather than rational thought;
You can't bludgeon people into changing their feelings.
You can see this in the climate debate where a significant chunk of the population still 'feels' that climate change can't be real despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that it is and manmade. It just doesn't feel right to them. Instead they cling to some very flimsy straws which appear, superficially, to reassure this position – an extreme form of 'confirmation bias'.
My response, Green Jujitsu, is to start at any point where the sustainability agenda and the feelings of the audience overlap. So if you are talking to a climate sceptic, it may be that energy security, local air quality or job creation through the low carbon economy are better starting points than statistical analysis. For engineers, getting them to solve sustainability problems will produce positive feelings about the agenda as they love to solve problems. For health care professionals, finding solutions which save carbon and improve patient care will hit the right button.
So the first principle of employee engagement must be to respect people's feelings. Not just because it is right to do so in a moral sense, but also because it's right to do so in a practical sense.
It made me think, though, about the process of people becoming eco-aware.
For most people, it is a gradual process of ramping awareness until one event tips them over the edge. My own 'Road to Damascus' moment – seeing massive ecological damage from a nickel smelter in arctic Russia – was less about awareness of the problem and more about the realisation that, as an engineer, I could and should do something practical about such damage. But it often requires an immersive experience to do this – reading a plaintive article in the press is rarely enough.
In my experience, true Damascene conversions should be treated with care. I have met too many snake oil salesmen and obnoxious self-righteous gits who claim to have undergone such a zero to 100% overnight. And just imagine being preached at by Jeremy Clarkson. Shiver.