Monday, December 31, 2007

Community Powerdown session 10

For once I'm not writing this the evening of the session, because we went out for drinks to celebrate the end of the course. Which was definitely an important part of fostering the community spirit, and also a good opportunity to talk in more depth with some of my classmates. But it did delay writing up this post.

This session focussed on Communication and Livelihoods. It was also another interesting session, looking how we communicate messages about peak oil and climate change, and the need for a community response, beyond our immediate circles.

The Futerra document New Rules New Game was interesting, it utilized a lot of approaches familiar from social psychology, which I've found in the past for some reason tend to be exploited with great success by marketers and advertisers, but not applied by others interested in knowing more about how groups work, how opinions change, and most importantly, how behaviour might change. The key messages of this document , which we also went through during the class were: target others than the 'usual suspects'; distinguish between active and unconscious or habitual actions in terms of when someone may be open to change and when they are doing things without consciously choosing them; 'refreeze the good' in terms of once a preferable or more sustainable behaviour has been initiated getting to become a new habit; forget the value-action gap as people don't reliably act in tune with their stated or consious values, and given a conflict will modify their values to support their behaviour; and finally change groups rather than indiviuals.

I agree with much of this, but I'm less convinced by 'refreeze the good' - I'd like people to live a little more consiously as a whole. However I do think it's crucial to change systems so that acting sustainably is automatic, rather than requiring a conscious effort each time, which it isn't possible to maintain - we need to make it easy, and easier than the alternative, so that we don't have to think about it all the time. People damage the planet without meaning to and can heal it without meaning to as well, paradoxical as that sounds. This really is essential - I think most people don't actually want to cause harm (although the few that do also need to be guarded against) but inadvertently, and through alienation, end up doing so. This can be changed because there is no willful desire to harm that must be tackled.

Another issue was the value-action gap, this gap between values or attitudes and actions has been demonstrated very strongly in social psychology - people will repeatedly state one thing, and seem genuinely to believe it, but do another. This article said that peole will change their attitudes if the conflict is brought to their attention, which isn't what you want, and this is part of cognitive dissonance - it's difficult to hold the contradictory thoughts or beliefs or cognitions that 'I care about the environment' and 'I'm harming or have harmed the environment through my actions' - you change to thinking 'I don't care about the environment' as that doesn't conflict with your actions. However I pointed out in the class that it's rarely looked at the other way though it does work in both directions - someone changes their actions, such as, say, buying fair trade or organic coffee because their usual coffee shop has started stocking it. They don't think of themselves as someone who cares about that, but gradually start to see themselves differently as someone who does care. I do think there needs to be more work done concerning this - actions that people are already taking that they don't see as important. For example being vegetarian is a large political statement in a culture with a strong emphasis on meat-eating, and it is also a big individual contribution to sustainable living, one of the biggest an individual can make, especially given the massive global ecological burden of feeding livestock and growing grain to feed animals that are eventually eaten. Yet some vegetarian friends don't see this as a major contribution that they are already making, because it wasn't the motivation for them no longer eating meat. Just for people to see they're already doing some things, and that this can change their attitudes, for example, I'm someone who does care, I'm someone who can and is making a difference, I am capable of taking action.

One thing that struck me with the Futerra document was that people do want to 'do good' - be useful, good and important. And that is important and not often said, as well as being something to work with. It doesn't all come out of fear and attacks.

We reflected that often there is only fear or negative stories told, when it's crucial to provide pathways to solutions. The facilitator felt that we should not dwell on the fear or the magnitude of the problem, but I think it is also important to ensure that people understand that there is a problem and that it's serious. That recognition is the first stage - you have to acknowledge you have a problem, as AA would tell you. From that definitely you have to provide some solutions and ways to finding solutions, not to just leave people scared and depressed. Fear alone creates apathy and avoidance. But solutions won't be of interest or used unless people are convinced this is something requiring solutions. And that consensus, that recognition of the problem is only starting to dawn on many people now, and by no means everyone. It's very recent, and has to be reiterated, and taught to more and more people. And the solutions brought out of that recognition of the problem. The problem alone certainly won't convince people to change, but neither will solutions or changes presented when people are not convinced of the seriousness of the problem.

The other article, written for the course as with most of the others, was What Kinds of Livelihoods will be Vital? by Larry Santoyo. It covered almost all possible livelihoods, such as politics, energy, food, water, land management, local business, big business, waste, shelter, transport, information, thus rendering it rather general, with very little written about particularly the latter livelihoods. Useful pointers for further thought but that's about it.

A point was made that 'global warming' is too cosy a term, people think, great, Ireland will have a mediterranean climate, perhaps the damn rain, cold and dark will stop, instead of realizing that we're actually talking about a strong possibility of global catastrophe. Climate change is a less cosy term but we do need another one that communicates the extreme seriousness of the problem.

In terms of solutions, I wondered about the 'human nature' debate - whether people are motivated by fear or by positive gains, whether when threatened people will turn on each other or will help each other. There's plenty of evidence of both although the negative view tends to dominate popular culture, rather than the many positives being recognised, irrespective of which is actually more present. I don't think the idea of whether people are 'naturally' good or bad, if those terms are meaningful, is useful or even answerable, but such beliefs do influence how people proceed to tackle a problem. If you think, given half a chance people will slaughter each other, or, given a chance people will help each other, you'll probably plan a campaign quite differently, given that it necessitates us working together and difficult choices for many people.

A few other points were raised in the Futerra article. One is people think it's global, when it's local and the effects are already being felt locally - this needs to be communicated. Associate it with things or people that people care about, although association with 'celebrities' can be brittle and may backfire. Interestingly parents are not more motivated by the potential impact on their children's future than non-parents, so this motivation cannot be relied on, nor can concern for our own future.

There is the issue of who is responsible - in some ways no-one can be pointed to, but it is all of us, and unlike campaigns against say a corporation or government to change its ways, this is indicting all of us and demanding we all change - hard to live with the responsibility. Simultaneously I believe it's important not to lay everything at the foot of the individual - we can each do our part and must, and have a lot of power, but there are systems in place that make it much harder if not impossible in many situations for individuals to change, and which make individual changes insignificant - these systems have to change. Also there are larger organisations and efforts which have a disproportionate effect - individuals in households can save all the water they want, but the vast majority of water is used by industry and business and never reaches households - to make a major impact on water usage industry has to change. Also focussing on the individual distracts attention from the big efforts that are required and must be demanded of larger entities - one person changing a lightbulb is not the same as a decision by say the Irish government to change all its lightbulbs in state buildings. Let alone massive changes to energy production by states and energy companies, to transport systems, to global good production.

Another interesting point is that the discourse tends to maximise the problem and minimize the solutions. Most attention is paid to the problem, with much less to the solutions, though this is starting to change.

A related point in the Futerra piece which I found interesting is that the problem is presented as colossal and epic, but the solutions are tiny and personal, like changing a lightbulb. These don't match up - there is a need for grand solutions and for people to feel part of that. Both able to personally contribute, and to feel that a solution consonant with the size of the problem is being presented. Otherwise, people either feel, the problem can't be that bad because it can be solved with these small efforts, or they feel, wait a second, these small actions can't possibly solve such a big problem, so why bother with them? Both responses need to be avoided. This is a huge project, and we need to engage with it as such.

The group work focussed on communicating either the course or the messages of the course to additional audiences. Last year from this grew a 10 part community TV series which is in production at the moment.

Our group identified a number of different audiences, and that a small group could be formed to shape the messages and course for that audience. These would include those trapped in poverty and disadvantage; the wealthy using a lot of energy; teachers and school students; university students; the construction industry and builders, all of whom are influential in different ways. A course or a communication strategy would need to be shaped for each of these, depending on their interests.

A lot of specific communication ideas came up. Using bluetooth and other mobile phone technology to communicate the messages, as Oxfam did with their Carbon Calculator at Glastonbury. Short films or a film festival in the Irish Film Institute. A radio show. Publicising Earth Day 22nd April or other international days focussing on the environment. Using beermats, pencils and other alternative media. I thought about using new and alternative media, for example downloading a short movie on to your mobile phone, such as the ones we've watched during the course, and showing it to mates in the pub.

Other groups suggested a TV show following a family or families implementing powerdown ideas over a few weeks. Using social networking internet sites like Facebook, creating applications like 'What kind of carbon user are you?' or using sites like YouTube. Have campaigns similar to recent ones against litter or for responsible drinking (though I question the effectiveness and even overall messages of some of these). Have Bord Bia run a 'food miles' campaign. Have 'carbon dating' similar to speed dating - success based on how ecologically friendly dates are, seen as an element of attractiveness. A multimedia game for download, with points for eco-friendly activities. Practical ideas included targetting those you can most influence - e.g. 10 closest family and friends. Buy them ecologically-motivated gifts, bicycles, books, membership of organisations, organic products. Start a book club by buying your 10 friends the same book on sustainability and reading it together. Have an organic or sustainable party. Have a family oriented game such as Sim City but with sustainable focus. Start a CRAG - carbon rationing group, where you agree targets for the group for say a year and work together to reduce your footprint or at least keep it under control.

So that was the end of the course and it was great. I came out of each class feeling motivated, energised, much more positive, like there were others who wanted to do something about these issues and most of all that together we can do something. It's important in what can seem like a hopeless time that we do join together and that we do see that change is possible, and in fact inevitable. It's up to us to shape what that change will be.



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