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21 June 2017

Neutralising anti-green attacks

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Between the horrific series of recent terrorist attacks and the shocking disaster that was the Grenfell Tower fire, the UK has been hit with some pretty grim news recently. For me, these horrors are exacerbated by the distasteful use of such events by commentators to further their tangential ideological aims – from people across the political spectrum, I have to say.

A sizeable chunk of this jumping to convenient conclusions is aimed squarely at the Sustainability agenda. Cycle lanes have been blamed in the Westminster Bridge attack for no better reason than they were there (a kerb is a kerb, after all) and the Daily Mail has pointed the finger at 'green targets' for the deaths at Grenfell.

As Carbon Brief has pointed out, the main reason for the suspect external cladding on the tower block was to tackle fuel poverty, with carbon reductions a subsidiary factor. The main aim of the public inquiry must be whether the cladding was responsible for the deaths (as it first appears), whether the material and its installation was compliant with fire regulations, if not, who was blame, and, if so, how those regulations need to be changed. Read the rest of this entry »

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17 May 2017

Are you curious?

questions

Yesterday I was interviewed by a geography student for his dissertation. He was asking about the reasons for my participation in a climate march in 2015. I had to tell him I am not a natural activist and, frankly, I'm not convinced that my marching amongst the tie-dyed ranks made any practical difference whatsoever to those we were marching past.

Why did I go? Well, I had my political hat on and felt that myself and colleagues had to turn up represent our party, particularly given the impressive Sustainability legacy of our seven years running the City. We needed to 'get the optics right' in political parlance, but, whichever hat I have on, my priority remains doing stuff rather than shouting slogans or waving placards.

I coined the phrase 'pragmatic environmentalist' to distinguish sustainability practitioners who live in the real world from those who see the environment as a kind of moral litmus test. In practice, pragmatic environmentalists try to lower the price of admission to the world of sustainability; dogmatic environmentalists keeping pushing the price up until a chosen few make the grade.

I gave the student the example of the blue recycling wheelie bins we could see from our coffee shop window. When we introduced these, the green movement denounced us as sell outs as most of the dry recyclates get mixed together in the bin, rather than separated out by the householder. But we were proven right as the recycling rate went up by 50% overnight because we made it easier for everybody to recycle, not just the green-minded few.

Another way to think of the difference is the comprehension gap between those who don't 'get it' and those who think that 'getting it' makes them better human beings. The pragmatic environmentalist builds sustainability in that gap, rather than clinging to the green comfort zone.

And one of the characteristics that sets the effective pragmatic environmentalists apart from their dogmatic cousins is curiosity. Curiosity about what makes people tick, how to find the right buttons to press to engage with them, why things are the way they are, how things could be made better. This is where the sweetspot of engagement and innovation lie, so we need to keep questioning ourselves, others and the status quo.

To paraphrase Steve Jobs, stay hungry, stay foolish, stay curious!

 

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24 April 2017

Oh to be back in the Bad Ol' Days

pollution

Nostalgia is natural. I love the nostalgia section in our local newspaper, even though I'm not a native of the city. And it is always tempting to hark back to the past – very rarely do you hear anybody say "well, it's much better these days." Personally, I think it comes from evolution – in a natural eco-system the creatures that fear unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells will live longer than those who don't.

C-FL6WuWsAAsK3SBut sometimes nostalgia can reach a level of self parody. While most of us marked last Friday's coal-free day in the UK as a remarkable achievement, the Telegraph published a bizarre lament for the days of smog, smut and "the tang of sulphur" (right).

In my view, coal is fast becoming the litmus test for progressive/conservative split in politics with Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and Tony Abbott backing coal. Prominent 'lukewarmer' Matt Ridley's inherited family fortune came from coal (and still does). Often 'clean coal' is invoked to deflect criticism, but coal is always a theme.

The far left dabble in this pool of fossilised nostalgia too, with the UK's Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn plugging clean coal to bring back mining jobs. One of my favourite bonkers conspiracy theories is that Margaret Thatcher 'invented' climate change to kill off the UK's coal industry. Yeah, right.

It is easy to sneer (as I just have), but we have to remember the power of nostalgia and the lure of 'it could be like our childhood again'. The renewables revolution may seem like a miracle to the readers of this blog, but change always threatens someone. And it is those people we need to engage with – on their terms – rather than preaching to the green choir.

 

 

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13 March 2017

Cutting Corners: Making Sustainability the easy option

paths

On Saturday I was at a workshop looking at improving the experience of pedestrians and cyclists in inner-city neighbourhoods in our city. One of the guest speakers brilliantly summed up why that horrible 1980s/90s street design style which corralled pedestrians into convoluted, fenced routes to guide them away from busy roads didn't work:

"We're natural Pythagoreans. We'll never walk around a right angle if we can see a hypotenuse."

One of my principles of embedding Sustainability into organisations is to make the sustainable option the easiest route. That means removing barriers to that hypotenuse and making the unsustainable option(s) the 'right angled' route(s).

This can be physical (like putting cycle parking by the front door) or it can be bureaucratic (making it more difficult to book flights than trains), but I have seen time and time again that it works.

 

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3 March 2017

Sustainability success has a hundred fathers...

race

Back in 2009/10 I was second in command of a small political team which steered my adopted hometown of Newcastle to be designated the UK's Most Sustainable City two years running, beating frontrunners such as Brighton and Bristol. It made a big splash in the press – "It's Green Up North" headlines etc.

The first time we got it, a strange thing happened. Individuals who had had to be bypassed because they were so intransigent suddenly started saying things like "we put Sustainability at the heart of everything we do", and whole organisations who had only had the most tenuous involvement started bragging about their contribution.

At first I bristled ("The cheeky b*******s!"), then I realised that this bandwagon-jumping was a sign of success. Our goal was not to bask in the glow of adulation of others, but to use the award to build momentum and move forward – which we did as the second year our winning margin had increased (the award wasn't given out after that). For someone with my ego, I found this magnanimity very difficult in practice!

I was reminded about this lesson recently when I saw a great environmental success get tainted by a squabble over who did what, which is a real shame. Much of it comes down to different perceptions and partial knowledge of who did what. It's sad to see the success get overshadowed and progress grind to a halt – a warning to us all.

 

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21 September 2016

Getting the sustainability message through

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What makes you stop in the street and stare?

Regular readers will know I'm (more than) a bit obsessive about road cycling. I will walk past the shiniest, most expensive motorbike without a glance, but if there's a carbon fibre road bike locked to a railing beside it, I will stop. Doesn't matter if I'm running late for something, I will pause and admire.

A motorbike fanatic would think I'm mad. They'd stop at the motorbike and admire the power, the transmission or the chrome before striding past the carbon fibre object of my desire without noticing it. An aero seat post or a Di2 derailleur would mean nothing to them, just as much as the latest supercharger (or whatever) would mean nothing to me.

This shows how the filters in our brain act so we ignore the vast majority of the world around us. The filters only draw our attention to what is important to each of us. This has critical implications for engaging people in Sustainability: if someone is already ambivalent to sustainability, then their mental filters will block out (almost) every sustainability message you throw at them.

Green Jujitsu is the art of finding the overlap between what turns your audience on and the Sustainability agenda – and starting engagement there. Because you are packaging Sustainability with their interests, the message will get past their filters – and you get engagement. So, if you want to engage an engineer in Sustainability, then challenge them to solve Sustainability problems. Engineers love solving problems, so the message gets through their filters. And, if you're really good at this, you'll find their filters start to open and let more and more sustainability stuff through.

 

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6 June 2016

The Day After World Environment Day

wed2012_final_en-01Yesterday was World Environment Day.

Did you do anything special for it?

And more importantly, if you did, will you do it again today?

Did you reach out to other people?

If so, what do you think they'll do differently today? And tomorrow?

Doing something environmentally friendly for one day is pointless – just a drop in the ocean to make us feel good. That's why I think all these multifarious green weeks, days and hours do more harm than good. We think we are 'raising awareness', we think we are achieving something, we feel good about it, but how much effort does it use up? How much of it speaks to those outside the green movement? How much difference does it make long term?

For sustainability, every day has to be World Environment Day, and not just consciously, but subconsciously too.

 

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26 November 2014

What do we need to solve climate change? A hashtag!

Yesterday the UK's Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) launched a tweetathon around the hashtag #BackClimateAction. The idea was that each hour between 9am and 7pm people would tweet on a different theme - everything from Cities & Homes to Sport.

Now, DECC's previous attempts at public engagement have included an unmitigated disaster - the infamous 'bedtime story' in 2009 (above) signed off by a certain Ed Miliband MP. So, despite the change in administration at DECC, I must admit I was more than a little sceptical before I started, but I dutifully chose Business Hour at 3pm and settled down in front of Tweetdeck with a cup of tea.

Reader, I tried my best. I tweeted resources, I asked questions, I answered others' questions.

The results?

I had a couple of brief interactions with people I already knew while a torrent of noise slid past on TweetDeck. After 30 minutes, I gave up and started writing this piece.

To be slightly more objective, I put out a question at the end of the hour asking whether anybody had found it of value. Three people got back to me to say they had picked up some good ideas.

That said, the numbers taking part were certainly impressive - DECC says they got 100 million 'impressions'. But the exam question is, did all this effort lead to ANY engagement of the disengaged?

I know this is non-scientific I couldn't see one person tweeting who didn't already have a strong vested interest in sustainability (apart from the ubiquitous semi-clad spam merchants who pick up on any trending hashtag). This effect is known as an 'echo chamber' - people who agree on something agreeing rather noisily and at length. They tend to assume that it attracts a wider audience, but this is debatable - witness all those exasperated #CameronMustGo tweeters complaining that the mainstream media is ignoring their protest against the British PM.

But in a way, this lack of wider engagement is inevitable. The whole point of a hashtag is to bring people of similar interests together, not to attract those on the sidelines. As a rallying call to the faithful, the tweetathon was obviously successful, but we need to go beyond that - and fast.

Engaging the disengaged is the biggest challenge in sustainability, but a hashtag probably isn't the way to go about it.

 

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