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February 2018 - Terra Infirma


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19 February 2018

What does emotional engagement really mean?

Photo by Justin Hofman - used under 'fair use'

Last week I had a long Twitter discussion with a friend and colleague about why people are getting so worked up about ocean plastic while still paying lip service to climate change. We got on to discussing the difference between the massive impact that this now iconic picture of a seahorse holding a cotton bud has had, compared to the corresponding image of a walrus struggling to lift its calf onto a melting piece of ice.

The difference is that we all know instantly where that cotton bud came from (somebody's bathroom), so the connection is immediate. To make the link between, say, turning up your domestic heating and the plight of the mother walrus requires a working knowledge of climate change science i.e. a complex mechanism which you cannot see. We can analyse data all we like, but the emotional connection is elusive.  Read the rest of this entry »

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16 February 2018

Thoughts on the Oxfam scandal

Years ago at a wedding, I found myself making small talk with a friend's boyfriend who worked in famine relief in Africa. I'd recently been involved in a campaign to relieve unfair third world debt, so in an attempt to keep our rather stilted conversation going, I asked him what he thought of that campaign. His answer shocked me:

"You'd lose control over them." he said shaking his head.

"Them" It was like he was talking about infants, not one of the most vibrant continents on earth. And the whiff of colonialism was unmistakeable.

If we look at all the big sexual abuse scandals: Weinstein, sports coaches, paedophile priests, it has always been a case of the powerful exploiting the powerless and the Oxfam scandal fits right into this mould. Those Oxfam officials in Haiti clearly saw themselves as colonial overlords with droit de seigneur over 'the natives'.

As Lord Acton famously put it "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

But, how do so many get away with so much for so long? Why does nobody say anything?

One of my great frustrations in life is the way gang mentality rules in large organisations. If you ever try to make a complaint about an injustice you will find your point slowly sandpapered down to something which can be 'resolved' by 'lessons have been learnt' or some such rot. I once received a rather convoluted argument explaining how someone libelling me (which wasn't disputed) didn't breach the organisation's code of conduct re 'respecting other people'. Because nothing says 'respect' quite like defamation.

At present, whistleblowing is rarely a good career move: you'll be made to feel uncomfortable in the post and, if you look for a new job,  others may worry they're taking on a liability.

So what can we do?

I take some comfort in the new breed of whistleblowing policies which make it a duty to report wrongdoing. Perhaps if enough people get disciplined alongside perpetrators for not reporting corrupt practice, it could start to shift the paradigm. I live in hope!

 

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12 February 2018

Small is Sustainable?

Interesting report from advertising agency 18 Feet & Rising this week. They polled 100 CEOs of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) about attitudes to Sustainability. 88% said they valued Sustainability, but 70% were struggling to do so.

I found the former statistic encouraging but the latter baffling. Having worked with a couple of hundred SMEs over the years, I've found their agility often makes it easier for them to adopt Sustainability principles than their larger competitors. Of the 18 interviews in my book The Green Executive, I quote the SMEs examples more than the others. Instant decision-making, short levers of control and relatively few assets mean change can happen very quickly indeed.

In my experience, the difference between those doing so and those who aren't is almost always the attitude of the boss. Leadership is the critical factor as usual.

So perhaps many of those 88% aren't being entirely honest with themselves – or the interviewers.

 

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9 February 2018

I have no intention of going plastic-free, and nor should you

I cannot recall a single television programme in my lifetime which has had a bigger impact on public discourse than Blue Planet II (Cathy Come Home was 5 years before I was born). As I've commented before, we have a wonderful opportunity to engage with the public and business to make a big leap forward in Sustainability.

The only problem is that the War on Plastic is tending towards a 'plastic is evil' meme. As Julia Hailes, author of the groundbreaking Green Consumer Guide wrote last month, we're risking throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Plastic is a fabulous material – light, durable, flexible – provided it is in the right place, i.e. not our oceans, hedgerows or landfills.

Shifting to loose vegetables, for example, could cause more waste problems than it solves. Plastic packaging fulfils an important role in minimising food waste – never mind the carbon impact of that waste, we'd need much more farmland to feed us which means impacting on natural habitats.

Likewise, when my client Interface were looking for sustainable raw materials for carpet tiles to replace virgin nylon, they could not find a source of 'natural' material that they could exploit sustainably at the scale required. Instead, they concluded the best raw material for new carpet was... drumroll... old carpet.

The impacts of going plastic-free would be enormous. So the big post-Blue Planet II message must be promoting the circular economy. Not eradicating plastic, but designing products and systems to capture it post-use and use it over and over again.

 

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5 February 2018

Habit-changing is hard

Photo © stock.com/Jacob Ammentorp Lund (and no, it's not me!)

Regular readers can't have helped notice my big personal goal for the year is to do a triathlon. As I mentioned last month my swimming came on leaps and bounds - my distance going from 250m to 600m in a couple of weeks. But I knew there was a problem with my stroke as my legs were too low in the water. "I know," I thought, brightly "I'll check out YouTube for some tips."

Oh dear.

It turned out I wasn't really doing front crawl at all, more of an overarm doggy-paddle. No problem I thought, I just need to adjust my timing to stretch out before each pull. So I tried it and could hardly do 50m without gasping for breath.

My problem is that doing the stroke properly engages the large back muscles. In theory this should give me much more power, but of course those muscles have been sitting idle for years (ever?) while I've trained up my shoulders, so I'm pretty much starting over again. Plus, my breathing rhythm needs to change and that hasn't proven easy.

Mrs K tells me my swimming looks 1000% better than before, but I feel awkward, clumsy and slow. Towards the end of each length I find myself heading back into old bad habits and have to correct myself again.

This is exactly why change management in organisations is so difficult. We're all creatures of habit and breaking that habit not only requires 'awareness' but building the new routine into normal behaviour while staying away from the temptation of the old habits. A Sustainability awareness presentation is like the YouTube videos I watched – the hard work comes afterwards to make the new routine stick.

Six weeks of discipline to change a habit is the rule of thumb according to some behavioural experts. Does your Sustainability engagement take this into consideration? I don't find many that do.

In the meantime, I'm going to keep reaching out - literally and metaphorically!

 

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2 February 2018

The first step to culture change for Sustainability...

Yesterday was one for my other job - City Councillor and Opposition Spokesman on Sustainability. There were two big set-piece events: the launch of the Newcastle Waste Commission Report and a public meeting on Air Quality. The emerging theme was the same – culture change is everything.

The problem the Council always has had is its assumption that culture change will come from sending residents letters or hosting consultation events. Clear communications are important, but not enough.

As I said in the AQ meeting, the desired option must be the easy one to take. There's no point in having a wonderful cycle route if it just comes to an abrupt end at a busy road junction – I won't take my kids that way. Likewise the big surge in Newcastle's recycling rate a decade ago (when I was 2nd in command 😉) came because we made recycling really easy. About the same time, we put a (hybrid) bus service through the Quayside part of my Ward and for years endured jokes about them being empty. 10 years later they're busy – it took time for people to adjust their lifestyle to the new opportunity.

There's much more to culture change than this, but your first task is to minimise every barrier to the behaviour you want to promote.

 

 

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