Last Saturday the northwest branch of Spanish Researchers UK network held a well-executed and interesting seminar on ‘Climate Change and Sustainability’ in central Manchester.
Between 30 and 40 people were present at the Cervantes Institute (which kindly provided a room for free) to hear four talks, each of which was followed by Q and As, with a free and eat delicious vegetarian lunch provided by Veg Box people. These talks were followed by an hour-long discussion on the thorny ‘what is to be done?’ question.
The four academics presenting were Dr Ana Payo Payo, Dr Rachel Freeman, Dr Sherilyn Macgregor and Joe Blakey (a PhD student). Dr Payo spoke , and used ‘Game of Thrones’ metaphors to great effect. Dr Freeman explained the causes of anthropogenic climate change and outlined some of the technological options available. Joe Blakey explained how the superficially straightforward idea of ‘carbon accounting’ is actually far more complicated and riven with political assumptions than first glance would suggest. Finally, Dr McGregor outlined the concepts of climate justice and highlighted non-Western viewpoints on where responsibility for action lies.
After each of the talks there was an opportunity for the people listening to confer with the people sat near them in order to them. This helped generate a broader set of questions from a wide range of people. come up with short and relevant questions
The final session of the day was structured around getting to meet more people and then thinking through examples from our own experience of attempting to reduce carbon footprints. This started on food, then moved on to flying. The final portion of the session was around advice/reflections on engaging in activism aimed at policy and political change.
The suggestions that came out of that session (many thanks to Joe Blakey for agreeing to be volunteered as scribe, and for typing them up so promptly) are at the end of this post, and if you’re not interested in the burblings of the facilitator for the session (me) then scroll down.
Reflections on the final session
What went well
- There was a platform upon which the four presenters and me could have sat. That would have been disastrous. But, in my opinion, keeping it in rows, with us at the front sitting on the platform would have been really bad as well. So we were able to pull the seating into a circle (okay, hexagon) and dot the panellists around that, so they weren’t ‘en bloc’.
- I then got people to stand up, walk across to sit next to someone they didn’t know and introduce themselves and to come up with any questions of clarification or disagreement.
- We then went round the room. There were a few questions of clarification, which the panellists replied to with admirable concision. There were fewer ‘fundamental disagreement’ comments, and the panellists responded to those concisely as well.
- We then had people work in pairs/threes thinking about things that people had done/wanted to do around reducing their carbon footprint.
- That led to interesting discussions about meat-reducing and how to be ‘vegetarian’ when there are significant social pressures to eat meat.
- We then had a brief conversation about flying (a lot of hands went up when I asked how many people had flown in the last 12 months) and how to reduce the frequency of that (it’s not easy, either for family reasons or business). There was a discussion of how taking the train, even if physically possible, might be the preserve of higher status people who can convince their employer to pay the extra, and who can ‘afford’ to be largely off-line/unavailable for extended periods.
- The final section tried to move from individual consumption to the bigger picture. People were asked to work in pairs or threes and offer positive advice about how do be citizens more effectively. We went round the room one by one, with people told that they could simply say ‘pass’ if they wanted (some did).
What could have gone better (and what didn’t go well was MY FAULT, not the organisers)
The trouble of being the solo facilitator, and quite ‘prescriptive’ (overtly guiding the topic of conversation) is that rather than talking to the room in general it becomes a series of dialogues between one individual and the facilitator. No matter how supportive you are (and I was okay-ish, but not great) it puts individuals “on the spot” .
Things you could try to do differently to ameliorate this
Encourage people to address the whole room, not just talk the facilitator: Simple, will probably work, but puts onus on individual person, unfairly?
Two facilitators, who are not same gender, and don’t sit next to each other: Probably a better option, but then you need two facilitators who work well and have had time to prepare together…
Finally, those suggestions
SRUK Seminar Series on Global Challenges:
Climate Change and Sustainability
Discussion: What Can We Do Better?
- When speaking with (or lobbying) politicians who seem to be on your side, always exercise a degree of caution. It’s in their interest to get you on their side. Will they actually follow through with the things they appear to care about? Will they use you as a fig leaf? It’s important to be critical and to hold them accountable.
- Write to your local MP. If lots of people do this they are more likely to do something as they know the environment matters to voters.
- There are plenty of ‘low hanging fruit’ by which you can improve your environmental credentials, from cutting back on plastic or meat to walking more. There are simply changes that are easy to make and all make a difference.
- Get creative with the space in your community and draw upon the skills of your community. Incredible Edible is a great example where food is grown in unused bits of greenspace that all the community can pick.
- Don’t disregard your local elections, both as an opportunity to use your vote towards your environmental concerns and to ask candidates: ‘what do you mean when you say want to improve environmental conditions’ or ‘what are the environmental consequences of a given policy?’
- Practice the art of argumentation, of powerful rhetoric – this is what gives you a voice. Don’t be afraid to engage in debate.
- Solidarity matters. Politics is not just an individual thing – neoliberalism wants us to be individually minded. Public skills and public spaces are valuable – use them.
- The environment and low-carbon practices intersect with other things – such as clean air or caring about local food. Moreover, activities such as litter picking can improve the sense of community and bring people together.
- It’s often simply to not use a car or to avoid certain travels – make use of Skype or conference calls where possible.
- Long commutes are a source of carbon emissions. Is there an alternative job closer to home?
- We live in a disposable society. We need to value things like clothes more. Can we reuse, repurpose or simply not buy as much as frequently?
- Be an activist at every opportunity.
- Take up cycling.
- Consider what you buy as you make a purchase.
- Avoid plastic.
- Spread the word – start with your family.
- Consider how best we can convey information. Children are often able to tell the brutal truth that adults are able to tell.
- Global environmental change is tied to other processes, from the patriarchy to pro-growth capitalism. Tackle things not in a potted sense, in isolation, but instead consider how we can tackle multiple problems ‘intersectionally’ – as one and considering their overlaps.