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The real route to a sustainable society


Swedish trainThere are some conversations I dread having, yet seem to repeatedly find myself in. After making the decision to take a two-day train trip rather than a two-hour flight to Stockholm for a book talk last week I found myself in it again:

‘Are you afraid of flying then?’

‘No. It’s because of the environment...’

The effect is the same as when I order a vegetarian meal at a restaurant – a mixture of disbelief and defensiveness, usually followed by an attempt to catch me out – hardly an ideal starting point for building a relationship.

Whilst frustrating, the response is understandable. It is premised on a perception that the environmental movement hasn’t been effective enough at shedding – of greens as finger-wagging, carbon-counting lifestyle obsessives. This is not an image I associate with. Despite my lifetime vegetarianism, one of the few things I find more repellent than a dead animal on a plate is the idea of a movement that would isolate a working-class person for enjoying a bacon butty. Similarly, despite sustaining the point-of-principle not to fly if a rail route exists, I want no part in a movement that would be judgmental towards an immigrant who occasionally flies to visit their family. Besides, studies show that campaigns for individual behaviour change could be at best a drop-in-the-ocean and at worst a counterproductive distraction from the real issues.

Having said this, the truth remains that a sustainable society will necessarily be one where we travel more by land and less by air, and choose food grown locally over processed meat. But the route to that is not to isolate individuals by blaming them for the climate crisis. Instead we need to change economic and societal incentives, so that train travel is recognized by the majority as not only the cheaper but the more enjoyable option – obviously including an employment policy that allows enough time off to make such journeys. Similarly, another foundation of a sustainable society is the enjoyment of growing, preparing and eating food in the community where we live.

But how can we get to such a point without connecting with this world we are trying to change? In travelling by land we can build a respect for the way that geography, culture and language change far more subtly than artificially imposed borders would imply. Similarly, growing, preparing and eating food with others is a quiet way of countering the alienation that permeates everyday life under capitalism. Most of all, by engaging in either activity we show that the alternatives to pollution and environmental degradation are not based on self-sacrifice but self-discovery and connection with the world around us.

One of the watchwords of the New Left of the 1960s (out of which the green movement grew) was prefigurative politics – best reflected in the maxim ‘building the new society in the shell of the old’. In a way it is a continuation of Gandhi’s earlier call upon Indians to act as if they lived an independent nation. Perhaps today we might adapt that with a call to act as if we live in a sustainable world, beginning with the way we eat and travel.

But trying to live in an environmentally friendly manner can’t be a replacement for struggle. As the US reels from the effects of Hurricane Sandy and climate change makes its way on the the election agenda we have to avoid the trap of blaming individuals for the growing crisis. Instead, we can take inspiration from the campaigners who have just occupied a gas chimney for a week and collectively turn our fire on the polluting culprits in government and Big Business who are at the source.

In the recently reissued book Toward a Living Revolution, nonviolence strategist George Lakey suggests that the final stages of a struggle for transformational change are mass nonco-operation followed by the establishment of alternative institutions. We aren’t there yet, but by both living how we’d like to live in the future and intervening in the institutions we don’t want to see, we’re making progress. That we way we can move beyond simply being the change, and can come closer to winning the change we wish to see as well.

Photo: Tomas Jonsson under a CC Licence
Slideshow photo: andrechinn under a CC Licence.

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