6 Dec 2011

The changing face of the Sustainability movement

Inadvertently, the 'animate' video below might just represent the changing face of the sustainability movement. It highlights how much bigger it actually is if we take into consideration the more subtle contributions.

Tim Kasser (a psychologist and one of the architects of Common Cause) describes 'the high price of materialism' for: happiness, equality and the environment. He argues that as our materialism goes up, our emotional wellbeing and care for others and the environment goes down. This leads us to recognise that we should be reinforcing intrinsic values like empathy, altruism, kindness and selflessness, while inhibiting extrinsic values like greed, status, materialism and selfishness. As Kasser points out, the benefits of doing this cut across several areas. This is what has united apparently unrelated organisations behind the common cause all of whom, in different ways, are trying to foster a 'happier, more socially just, more ecologically sustainable world.'

In a previous blog post I labelled the philosopher Alain de Botton as an 'accidental environmentalist'. His books, documentaries and School of Life rarely mention the environment. However, by helping his audiences to question the wisdom of endlessly pursuing happiness through material wealth he is perhaps a more powerful educator for sustainability than someone who merely deliver's factual information on the environmental costs of materialistic behaviour. Alain de Botton is an unwitting participant in a sustainability movement that is bigger than that which currently meets the eye.

Kasser's short film, beautifully produced by the Center for a new American dream, neatly illustrates what the sustainability movement is beginning to look like. No longer is it just about highlighting environmental problems and positing lifestyle choices to address them. It is now burrowing deeper, recognising the benefits of exploring the underpinning value systems that shape (un)sustainable lifestyles. Tim Kasser does this wonderfully well:

If the sustainability movement is changing in this way, if it is taking a more systemic view of the forces that shape human behaviour (i.e. not assuming that people fly because they hate Polar Bears), what does this mean for environmentalists and environmental organisations? It could mean a painful identity crisis for established organisations, but does it have to?

Environmentalists have, for a long time been frustrated by the impotency of traditional approaches, there is a temptation to abandon old habits. But, can they adopt new more powerful approaches that focus on values and don't mention the environment without confusing their audiences and funders? Will they be stand accused of purporting to be concerned with wellbeing and equality when really their sole agenda is to save the environment? (As if you can only care about one thing at a time). Should they change tack, or should they expand and grow into new areas?

I suspect what is needed is evolution not revolution. Like a child maturing into an adult their identities should become more complex as they come to be characterised by a richer, broader set of attributes. It is still very important to talk about the environment, really important, it can reinforce intrinsic values in very powerful ways. They should definitely not stop talking about it, because if they do, who will take their place and will they be able to do it well? Living, breathing and experiencing the natural environment is a tremendous bringer of wellbeing and a powerful antidote to consumerism. It must not be abandoned or even reduced, it just needs to be incorporated into a wider, more complex definition of education for sustainability. It will sit more comfortably there too, for it will not be laden with over inflated goals and heavy expectations. Education about the environment should help us love and appreciate it, that's all it needs to do. Education for sustainability is broadening out, it comes in many different forms: read Tim Kasser, Alain De Botton and George Orwell; listen to Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and Scroobius Pip; watch Adam Curtis, Charlie Brooker and Into the Wild.

By Morgan Phillips (Waste Watch)

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