New Internationalist

The real route to a sustainable society

There 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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  1. #1 J Brown 11 Nov 12

    While this article and the author must be commended for their efforts, the position taken on aviation vs rail needs a little re-examination. It is actually a question of mathematics. If we assume that neither the aircraft is powered by sustainable biofuels nor the train powered solely by renewably generated electricity (as is currently the case in most countries) then there is a point where it can actually be more 'carbon efficient' to fly! Basically, it takes 'x' amount of energy to move a 75 ton short haul aircraft for the 2.5 hours from London, say, to Stockholm, whilst it takes 'y' to move a 150 ton train for the 2 day period. Clearly there is a break-even point where less total carbon is emitted by flying vs trains, but I do not confess to know where that point is. One would need to factor in how efficient the respective engines are at releasing the potential energy from their fuel source as well. Obviously a train running on 100% renewable energy would win hands down, but one powered by a coal-fired power station, or a diesel train, are more common now. Something to consider, at least.

  2. #2 Tim Gee 12 Nov 12

    You are absolutely right that there is a line - i'm told that ultimately it comes down to the number of people on the vehicle. Obviously 1 person on a 2 day train journey would emit more CO2 than a plane full to the rafters.

    However i'm also told that the fastest growing souce of CO2 emissions in the UK is aviation, and the biggest source of Greenhouse gas emissions overall is animals reared for food.

    But this links to exactly the point i'm trying to make - that the route to making the transformational economic and societal changes we need is not by getting our heads around impossible carbon calculations. It's living a life as we would wish the world to be and then campaigning to make it happen.

  3. #3 jane 15 Nov 12

    At least Tim accepts that there are different life styles. We also need to figure what is sustainable and livable. I had to get the teenage daughter of a Danish friend from Essex to the Scottish border, friends were prepared to collect from Newcastle, without spending too much. Car would have taken a long time, especially as I would have to do return and fuel was expensive. Bus was cheapest but the single journey would take even longer than car and involved a number of changes. Train was by far most expensive, was quicker than car but involved changes. Flying at a middle price was much quicker and involved no changes. The teenage girl, with English as her second language, could be put onto the flight at Stansted and met at Newcastle. Flying was the best and safest choice. However I do try to grow at least some of my fruit and veg thus cutting out transport costs in that area!

  4. #4 James Connelly 15 Nov 12

    Excellent observations and very helpful. I am currently working and writing on environmental citizenship - and the key point is the one you identify, which is that individual action has to be considered as part of a wider political and structural struggle.

  5. #5 PGCan 04 Dec 12

    The title that came with the email ’why the green lifestyle won't cut it’ seemed a bit shocking at first, but after reading the article I was in love with the generous spirit so at odds with the ’score a point off someone’ competitive culture which has smothered us. Thank you for a rare glimpse of what we all can be when we treat each other with dignity and respect and what that could portend for our planet.

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About the author

Tim Gee a New Internationalist contributor

Tim Gee is the author of Counterpower: Making Change Happen, shortlisted for the Bread and Roses Prize for radical nonfiction. He has campaigned with Occupy, Climate Camp, the Traveller Solidarity Network and the National Union of Students amongst others. He works as a grassroots trainer and has an MA in politics from Edinburgh University.

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