20 Letters


[ Video : George Marshall of the Climate Outreach Information Network launching his new book "Don’t Even Think About It" on the communication of climate change at the Harvard Book Store, whereto he had to fly, thereby causing significant personal carbon dioxide emissions. This YouTube does not feature Ian Christie, but is not entirely unrelated to his address, which is documented in the text below. ]

Ian Christie of the Sustainable Lifestyles Research Group (SLRG) at the University of Surrey came to speak to the Green Christian Annual Members Meeting today under the heading “Sustainable Living : Why we struggle and how we can change”, and presided over three facilitated workshops on Church, Community and Campaigning. He was introduced as working with the Centre for Environmental Strategy at the University of Surrey, and having helped to pull together “Church and Earth”, the Seven Year Plan for the Church of England, as a response to the Alliance of Religions and Conservation initiative which culminated in the “Many Heavens, One Earth” Windsor Conference in November 2009. Ian Christie has also done project work with the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development and the think tank Theos. He has been environmental advisor to the Bishop of Kingston.

Ian Christie joked that his colleague Tim Jackson, who has written a best-selling book “Prosperity Without Growth”, sometimes feels he is on a permanent global tour, given the huge impact his work has had worldwide. The “paradox” is that his carbon footprint is enormous. Yet clearly there is great benefit from travel to present the messages from Tim’s research. This illustrates the clash of goods and values that is always present in our attempts to reduce our impacts and change lifestyles. Ian said that we shouldn’t beat ourselves up too much about our carbon emissions-filled lifestyles – many of us are doing reasonably well in not very promising circumstances. It’s not surprising that we haven’t made much progress in sustainable living – this is perhaps the biggest challenge humanity has set itself.

Ian said, “Between 5% and 10% of the population (and this figure hasn’t changed over the last several years) are consistently trying to live as sustainably as they can in all areas of their lives. Meanwhile, another small segment – maybe 10% – 15% don’t care at all. The other two-thirds or more, including myself, are in the middle ground. We get confused. We sometimes give up on making particular changes. We might feel that taking the trouble on environmental issues is a bit of an effort – because other signals are not there, because other people are not doing it. Anyone who thinks we can bring about environmental “conversion”, person by person – it’s too difficult.”

He went on to say, “As advocates of change, we don’t tell positive stories very well. We environmentalists have been much better at telling the alarming or apocalyptic event, rather than explaining the diagnosis of unsustainability. There’s a lack of supporting infrastructure for doing the sustainable things in everyday life. People get locked-in to high-carbon behaviours. We might want to do the green, sustainable thing but we can’t. The idea that “joy in less” is possible can seem unbelievable.” He went on to explain that, “consumption can make us feel good. More can be more. I get a thrill going into John Lewis sometimes, all those bright and shiny things. It’s amazing they’re available for sale and that I can afford them. Consumerism can feel like it is bringing real benefits. It can be fun.”

Ian Christie remarked about the RESOLVE research at Surrey on the sense of “threatened identities”, a feeling that can arise when we’re asked to change our lifestyles – an important part of our identity can seem to be at stake. There is a lack of positive incentives and collective success stories. He gave an example – one where people cooking for their families want to recreate the cosy, nourishing food of their childhoods, or feel that they are giving a ‘proper meal’ to their loved ones, and they do that by using meat. These people find it hard to be told that they need to give up eating meat to save the planet. Another example, when people are told to cut down on car driving – there is a feeling of a loss of freedom, an assault on the idea that I can go where I like and do what I want to do. “Climate change is perhaps too big, distant or complicated for us. It is certainly too much for any one person to deal with”.

Ian Christie spoke about the clash of desires and values – and that St Paul got there first (Romans 7:15-17) (and St Augustine, but paraphrased). He joked that he has discovered that many people had a dirty secret, which he calls “Top Gear Syndrome” – “you’d be surprised how many environmentalists like watching Top Gear”. He also mentioned what he termed “Copenhagen Syndrome” – where environmentalists feel that they need to attend every meeting on climate change – and so they fly there. People like to go to exotic places – many Greens included.

Ian Christie emphasised that we can’t get to sustainable living one person at a time. He said that this amounted to a “Collective Action Problem” or (CAP). He showed us an image of what is commonly called a Mexican Stand-Off – where a group of three people have their weapons at each other’s throats and nobody will back down – each of the three major groups in society thinks that the other two should take the lead. So governments think that businesses and citizens should act. And citizens think that government and businesses should act. And businesses think that their consumers and governments should act.

Ian said that there is a clear finding from social research that people feel safety in numbers – we like to feel that we fit in with our peers and neighbours – for example, in some cultures like America, people would rather make everyone feel comfortable than break out of normative behaviour or views. Individual households have a low perception of “agency” – feeling that they can make any significant change – that they don’t have sufficient capacity to act – “no clout”, as one member of the audience commented.

Ian gave some examples of attitudes of people’s attitudes on environmental lifestyles : “I will even though you won’t – even though no one else steps forward”; “I will – but it’s never enough”; “I might if you will” or even, “I know you won’t, so don’t ask me”. He said that Collective Action Problems need to be addressed by all actors needing to be engaged. He said that there would be “no single ‘best buy’ policy” and that action will tend to be in the form of “clumsy solutions”. He said that people need “loud, long and legal” signals from government, consistent messages and incentives for change.

Ian Christie said there is a community level of action possible – “communities of practice”. He recommended that we look up the CLASL research done by Defra/WWF. He mentioned “moments of change” – times of transition in life – and whether these might be appropriate times to offer support for alternative choices. He said that action by individuals cannot be guaranteed by giving messages to people as if they are only consumers, rather than citizens. If we say that something will save people money, they won’t necessarily act in ways that support a shift to sustainable lifestyles. We need to address people’s intrinsic values as well as material self-interest.

Ian talked about some of the results of the research from the DEFRA-funded SLRG project, which is coming to an end. He spoke about the evidence of “Rebound Effects”, where people make savings on their carbon dioxide emissions by energy efficiency gains or other measures, and then spend the saved money in ways that can increase greenhouse gas emissions, like taking holidays by aeroplane – he mentioned the Tesco offer to “turn lights into flights”, where people were being encouraged to buy energy efficient light bulbs in exchange for Air Miles – “it’s going to make things much worse”. He said that research showed that re-spending (reinvestment) is what matters and that we need to go to the source of the emissions, through a carbon tax, for example.

Ian Christie said that it is very limited what we can do as individual households. Lots of policymakers have thought to get through to people at moments of change – although there used to be no evidence. People’s habits and networks can be restructured for example when they move home, have a child or retire – a “habit discontinuity”. Research has now shown that there is a small but significant effect with house-movers – who are much more likely to act on information if they are given well-timed and designed information packages on green living – but only a small minority are truly motivated. He asked “how do we magnify this effect ?” The sheer act of moving house makes people amenable to change. Research has also shown that there might be a willingness amongst new parents – who would express more pro-environmental values as a result of having a new child – but are less capable of acting on these wishes. The reverse was found in those entering retirement – they wanted to live more frugally – but didn’t necessarily express this desire in terms of sustainable living.

Ian said that the “window of opportunity” for introducing lifestyle change might be quite limited, perhaps a few months – and so people would not sustain their new habits without “lifestyle support systems”. People might not want to hear from a green group, but could be open to hearing from a church, or their Health Visitor, or Mumsnet. Maybe even a hairdresser ? One project that he recommended was PECT, the Peterborough Environment City Trust, which is acting as a facilitator for encouraging changes. He said people get demotivated if they feel businesses and governments are not doing the same thing. He mentioned avenues and approaches for increasing the sense of agency : framing environmental issues in : moments of change, local food growing, community energy groups, frugality, health and well-being…

Ian Christie said that Church of England work on “Shrinking the Footprint” was poised to make fresh progress, with leadership from the new lead bishop on the environment, Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam.

Ian Christie suggested that positive activities could inspire : why could a church not turn an emergency feeding centre – a food bank – into a food hub – a place where people could come for tools, seeds and food growing group support ? What about Cathedral Innovation Centres as catalysts for sustainable living schemes ? Why not partner with the National Trust or the National Health Service over environmental issues ? He said the NHS has a Sustainable Development Strategy – “one of the best I’ve seen”. How about calling for a New Green Deal for Communities ? One reason why the Green Deal has been so poorly supported has been it has been promoted to individuals and it’s much harder to get individuals to commit and act on projects.

Ian pointed towards good intervention concepts : “safety in numbers” approaches, moments of change, congregation spaces, trusted peers in the community, consistent messages. He recommended Staying Positive : “look how far we’ve come”; we have two decisive decades ahead; Business As Usual is failing – CEOs are breaking ranks; cities are going green – and the churches are waking up to ecological challenges.

In questions, I asked Ian Christie why he only had three social groups rather than four. I said that I see businesses broken down into two categories – those that produce energy and those that consume energy to provide goods and services. I said there were some excellent sustainable development strategies coming out of the private enterprises consuming energy, such as Marks and Spencer. He said that yes, amongst the fossil energy producing companies, there is a massive challenge in responding to climate change. He pointed to Unilever, who are beginning to see themselves as pioneers in a new model of sustainable business. There is a clear divergence of interest between fossil fuel producers and companies whose core business is being put at risk by climate disruption.

When asked about whether we should try to set the economy on a “war footing” as regards climate change, Ian Christie said “we aren’t in a war like that. We ourselves, with our high-carbon consumption, are ‘the enemy’, if we want to put it like that. We are not in a process where people can be mobilised as in a war.” He said that the churches need to bring climate change into every talk, every sermon “this is how we do Christian witness”.

In discussion after the breakout workshops, Ian Christie said that we need to try to get to local opinion-formers. He said that a critical mass of communication to a Member of Parliament on one subject could be as few as 20 letters. He said that mass letter writing to MPs is one way in which others seeking to influence policy “play the game” in politics, so we must do it too. For example, we could write to our churches, our leaders, our democratic representatives, and demand a New Green Deal for Communities, and in letters to political candidates for the General Election we could say it would be a critical factor in deciding who we vote for. In the General Election in 2015, Ian said that it could be a five-way split, and that the “green issue” could be decisive, and so we should say that our vote will go to the greenest of candidates.

Ian said we should try to audit our church expertise, and that we should aim for our churches to give one clear overall narrative – not an “environmental narrative”, but one that urges us to be truly Christian. He said that it was important that church leaders talk the talk as well as walk the talk – making it normal to talk about these things – not keeping them partitioned. The weekly sermon or talk in church must tell this story. He said that people disagree for really good reasons, but that the issue was one of trying to create a setting in which disagreement can get somewhere. He mentioned the work of George Marshall and the Climate Outreach Information Network as being relevant to building narratives that work on climate change out of a silence or absence of dialogue.

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