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Well-being and a Moderate Climate Movement

This post summarises the second session of the Wiser Policy Forum, a space to bring together leading experts from across the spheres of policy and civil society to explore new perspectives on traditional policy issues. We were delighted to be joined by Rupert Read, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of East Anglia and former spokesperson of both Extinction Rebellion and the Green Party of England and Wales, to discuss the role of well-being in fostering a moderate flank of the climate movement. Our key learnings from the discussion are outlined below.

The need for a moderate flank of the climate movement 

Rupert opened his talk by gesturing to the ‘radical flank effect’ discussed in the social movement literature, where it can be possible for the more radical flank of a movement to legitimise existing mainstream organisations and advance their goals, even if the radical flank doesn’t itself get what it wants. A prime example of this phenomenon was Martin Luther King’s leveraging the threat of Malcolm X to secure his own, more moderate civil rights demands. 

Extinction Rebellion (XR) has been quite successful in moving the Overton Window with regards to climate response, but it appears to have a ceiling on its support. Over the last two years it has become less popular and smaller in no small part because it is simply too radical for most people to get involved in. The way to build on this success in shifting discourse, and secure enough actual support to bring about social and political change, is a moderate flank of the climate movement. 

What might such a movement look like? One of the crucial elements to broader attraction is inclusivity. XR has tried to position itself as beyond party politics, however has ended up falling back into more predictable forms of left wing ideological exclusivity. A truly mass climate movement needs to include people that think differently, including those who do not hold traditionally progressive views. If it does not, then not only does the movement risk not growing, but also seeing these potential members being siphoned off into more extreme and damaging groups.

It is notable that the appetite among less politically progressive actors for a climate movement they can relate to appears to be strong. The recent uptick in discussion of climate change in the UK’s right wing press, for example, can only be taken as a positive sign. Whether progressives like it or not there are lots of people across the political spectrum waking up to the issue of climate change, and they must be given a way to take action that does not rely on them renouncing all of their other beliefs.

A further vital component of any successful, moderate flank of the climate movement is a focus on more positive messaging. While subjective reports show membership of groups like XR is often a highly positive experience, their messaging itself is often seen as anything but. To garner mass support, climate action must be framed as a way to a better life and towards well specified visions of a more positive future, rather than simply as hardship and deprivation necessary to avert catastrophe. There are splinter groups, such as the transformative adaptation movement, which are working to create these more positive visions through focuses on activities such as allotments and community agriculture. Interestingly, these movements often accuse XR of being too optimistic about the possibility of its demands being met; they are arguably more realistic about what they can accomplish, but nonetheless more positive about the means for doing so. This positivity must be extended to garner the support required for large scale climate action.

The role of views and values

The Wiser Policy Forum seeks to hone in on the ontological issues at the heart of policy and social change. To this end, we have been particularly interested in exploring the role of views and values in determining the relationship between sustainability and well-being. Increasingly ‘soft denialism’, where people acknowledge the issue of climate change but simply don’t see it as enough of an issue for them personally to take action, is identified by activists as a huge blocker to progress. A large part of this is that much climate discourse simply does not appeal to the values of many people. 

Relating to the above point around offering a better life through climate action, positive visions of the future must relate to the values that people hold dear. It is no good simply telling people that they are wrong to care about the things they do. Instead we must find those values which are held broadly across the population, and can be tapped into to support climate action. A potential example of just such a set of values are security and control, which hold high levels of appeal even outside of traditionally ‘green’ demographics. Couching climate action as a way to secure security from climate disaster for oneself, one’s children and grandchildren seems like it could be a promising method of engagement. This is the core premise of Rupert’s new book ‘Parents to the Future’, which approaches the issue of climate activism through an appeal to people’s identities as parents, rather than across other lines. Similarly, much of the local level climate action also discussed prior, along with the more directly democratic forms of decision making pushed for by XR and others, can be framed as a matter of bringing decisions and economies closer to home and back under the control of ordinary people. As Brexit has shown in the UK this narrative is a highly powerful one, and may be able to be leveraged effectively to engage with people otherwise uninterested in climate action.

Views and values are highly complex, however, and it is not only the terms in which messages are phrased which are important. The fact that climate messages of all kinds are so regularly extolled by individuals who fit into a single, narrow cultural and ethnic demographic (the white middle class) reduces the impact of these messages outside of this demographic. For climate messages to land, their messengers must be relatable.

Along another line, even the most effective messaging will likely have to be combined with significant material redistribution. Not only is there simply less and less room for luxury emission, the reduction of which requires at least some redistribution away from the best off, but such redistribution also appears necessary to secure support for action on the part of the worst off. Even if climate change is identified as a threat to important values such as security and control, poverty also impacts one’s ability to enact these values, and presents arguably as a more pressing and immediate threat to them for many. This competition over values must be removed before climate action becomes the best route to securing them, providing another case for redistribution. Similarly, redistribution seems necessary to foster a sense of collective solidarity; equalisation of impacts was one of the major reasons for broad based support for severely restrictive measures during World War Two, and it seems that something similar is required during the climate crisis.

We might be getting discussions of timescale wrong

Time is one of the most discussed elements of the present climate discourse. Warnings and rallying cries are often framed in terms of the time we have left to avert disaster (or, as the case may be, the lack thereof). Intuitively, using these deadlines as a way to foster a sense of urgency seems to make sense. But what if we shouldn’t be discussing time at all? One of Rupert’s provocations during our discussion was that in fact all discussions of time with regards to climate change, even when these times are very close by, encourages us to postpone action until a later date. Even hearing that we only have one year to act can nonetheless encourage us to postpone our actions until this deadline has almost been reached; given current social preferences, it is always rational to continue to pollute until the very last minute possible, leading to inevitable over-pollution as we fail to lay the groundwork for transition soon enough. 

A response to this dilemma is to focus on narratives which centre the present rather than the future, and therefore avoid steering us towards considering how to maximize our use of the ever diminishing planetary runway. The important thing is what we do now, and this involves undertaking all the changes that we can given our present capabilities. One interesting implication of this presentist approach is that it carves out a new place for many of the practices linked deeply to well-being, such as mindfulness, that can be all too often dismissed as not being fast acting enough to address climate change. One of the most powerful things we can do, both at the individual and social level, is to pause and slow down, engaging consciously in activities which are regenerative rather than extractive. In this way, we can have our cake and eat it: we can act with complete urgency and avoid postponing action until the future while still focusing on activities, such as mindfulness and regenerative culture change, which can support higher levels of social well-being alongside climate change mitigation.

Of course, simply shifting discourse away from a focus on timescale will not on its own be sufficient to cement more inner directed and culturally focused practices as vital climate responses in the public psyche. A further question remains about how to secure buy-in, particularly from the right wing press, around the necessity of these forms of response to climate change. Despite this, there are positive signs on the horizon, as we discuss below. 

Skate to where the puck is going

One insight arising from our discussion was that social change is like an avalanche. You can push and push while feeling you’re making very little progress, and then suddenly see a large shift in attitudes and demand for the changes you’ve been advocating. When this happens you’ve got to be ready, with well thought out ideas and policies in hand. This can often mean working on the basis of predicted trends, rather than responding to existing realities. Getting clearer on the specifics of what a more collectively focused, sustainable and weller society could look in practice will leave us better placed to act when this time does come, even if this currently seems a far cry from where we are now.

The Covid crisis has the potential to be a major catalyst for this change. It has given firsthand experiences to much of the world which have challenged many of the core assumptions underpinning our current social order. It has shown that radical, collective action is very much possible, and has reconnected many to a sense of fairness and security that is collective, rather than individual in nature. The nature of the pandemic has rendered our own security deeply intertwined with that of others, and discourse around fairness has been couched in terms of our obligations to and effects on others rather than simply the lot any given individual has ended up with. 

If we are to capitalise on the felt sense of collectivism we have seen during Covid, and channel it into well-being enhancing climate action, then policies must be framed so as to tap into this sense. Here the analogy with rationing during World War Two discussed prior is useful; despite at the raw level of economics being arguably less allocatively efficient than the price mechanism, rationing was a highly socially effective policy because it applied universally. That the same effects were felt across traditional social boundaries of wealth and class helped support the sense of fairness and solidarity required for the war effort. We might wish to ask then, what policies could emulate rationing in tapping into this collective sentiment?

Maybe the best way to secure well-being is to not talk about well-being

A further demonstration of the Covid crisis is that, initially at least, such events foster far greater emphasis on collective security than well-being. It is only once the basic conditions of security have been obtained that well-being becomes a focus, and it is perhaps therefore inappropriate to lead with a discussion of the latter while the former still presents as an issue.

Furthermore, the use of well-being in the current social and political establishment has given it certain connotations, evoking images of yoga mats and ‘wellness boosting’ smoothies. There is widespread misunderstanding around what well-being is, and the mechanisms supporting it, all of which have the potential to hurt the legitimacy of efforts which reference well-being as their goal.

These factors both imply that, in the context of climate sustainability, it might be better to avoid any talk of well-being at all at the broader, public facing level. If we want to foster societies which do in fact promote well-being, then these efforts are perhaps best framed in alternative language. Terms such as collective resilience, tapping into the desire to respond effectively to crises, provide a potential example of just such an alternative framing. 

Perhaps we should leave people’s holidays alone

In the context of climate sustainability flying, and the emissions it produces, is often a major topic of discussion. In climate conscious circles, it has become commonly accepted that holidays abroad must be sacrificed for the sake of the environment. However taking a well-being informed approach can lead to an interestingly different conclusion. 

A large amount of polluting consumption rests on mistaken assumptions around well-being. Many of the products we purchase, for example, are not necessary for us to live happy, flourishing existences. Holidays, on the other hand, do have genuine and marked impacts on how we feel. In our efforts to support sustainability we can make an evidence-based case for targeting emissions producing activities which don’t have as much impact on well-being as people may think, but this same case does not exist for holidays.

This disanalogy means that, particularly if we are targeting a more moderate climate movement with broad appeal, we should perhaps shift our crosshairs away from holidays abroad despite their climate impacts. This counterintuitive conclusion may help increase the much needed positivity of the climate movement, as well as reduce the arguments of injustice that are often levelled at measures to reduce flying (“making it more expensive will only stop the less well off affording cheap holidays, and leave the rich untouched”). 

The need for positive visions of a sustainable future can potentially work both ways in this regard, however. We could avoid talking about holiday flights but also talk more positively and proactively about holidays that don’t involve flying. Narratives that focus on greater consumption of time off, more time with family and on holiday in our own countries, could act as an important complement to this shift away from negatively targeting flying.