Thursday, 2 July 2009

So, I front a behaviourial change environmental organisation and I'm thinking of flying to New York...

That's my dilemma.

The other day, after a ChiC meeting, I went for a meal with two friends - an old school friend and a new activist friend. Over our noodles, we were discussing the difficulty of behavioural change and questioned whether or not flying would ever be justifiable.

My activist friend explained how, after only a year since she was flying regularly for 'travels', now how alien even the process of getting on a plane had become to her. She reasoned that if she was willing to get arrested for her beliefs, flying couldn't really be on the cards.

I then admitted somewhat sheepishly that I was planning to fly to New York in the autumn for a council meeting of an organisation I am involved in - the World Federalist Movement. This confession was followed by my much loved school friend revealing that he would 'genuinely think less of me' if I flew there just for a conference.

Now, I'm not writing this for sympathy (or accolade) for the 'plight of the do-gooder'. There's plenty of both around for all of us in the scene to gorge ourselves silly on. But I will admit I was disturbed. For the first time my actions and legitimacy were being called into account by someone I had deep-rooted respect for, and I realised I had to seriously consider whether I could actually make this flight.

It struck me that there were two issues. One was whether or not the benefits of going to the meeting could really be argued to outweigh the physical damage caused by the carbon required to take me there. The other was whether, by fronting ChiC, I had a further obligation not to go because I would be destroying the legitimacy of ChiC's work as a behavioural change focussed organisation.

The first issue is pretty hard to calculate. It is a four-day annual conference in which the members of the WFM Council come together from across the world to discuss the direction of the projects WFM is responsible for, as well as the furthering of world federalist ideas in the current global landscape. The projects are pretty amazing and include the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, and Responsibility to Protect. However, what difference will I actually make by being there?

In my corner is the fact that I am one of few women on the council and one of few under-30s (and the only one of both). In the stay-at-home corner is the power of Skype. It is now the case that conferences can be adequately recreated using the power of t'internet. As well as that, I never say that much during the meetings themselves - I feel most of my value is in listening and saying the few things I feel appropriate. So, in all honesty, my physical attendance probably wouldn't make that much difference to the outcomes of the meeting.

However, as anyone who's been to a conference knows, revolutionary ideas don't come out of the meetings themselves. They come three hours into a conversation (usually over a few glasses of wine) with animated people you rarely get to talk to. And, unfortunately, until we have Star Wars (Ep I-III) style Jedi Council gizmo, this just can't be recreated over Skype.

The second issue is even harder to calculate. It's less about weighing up pros and cons, and more about the symbolism and long-term significance placed on this one decision. My school friend made it clear that it was because I ran ChiC that it was indefensible for me to fly. He himself later confessed on the tube on the way home that he will be flying twice to Europe before Christmas, 'just for the hell of it' (and endured mild violence for intentionally making me feel bad).

Despite his brazen cheekiness, my hypocritical friend's point still stood. Well, sort of. Not exactly in the form that he put it, though. ChiC has never told people what they must or mustn't do. We aim to help people to make more informed decisions, not to say what those decisions must be. Therefore I don't believe that my bad decisions make me a hypocrite. I'm fully aware that I'm just as crap at the environment as many other not-so-earnest types.

So, it's not because I run ChiC that I deserve more censure for flying than anyone else. However it is true that people who consider their flights 'justified' are often the most likely to fall behind when it comes to making significant behavioural changes. And when it comes to 'justified' flights, NGOs and politicians top the list.

There's no doubt in my mind that once the tipping point of true realisation of the severity of climate change is reached, it may well be the private sector who are the first to significantly adapt, and not those who have been caught up in the fight to get this severity realised.

Add to this the worrying belief amongst some idealists that changing individual choices is irrelevant because it's all about changing the system. When actually, fundamentally, it's about both. Which is something we in the do-gooder trade need to realise just as much as those we demand change from.

So, my options:

Either, I stay home, find the best skype equivalent program and follow the meeting the best I can, in the knowledge that choosing to address the growing need to replace global travel with global communications (something that we in the NGO world demand from corporates and scattered loved ones) will be more significant than idealistic conversations about changing the world.

Alternatively, I go to New York, having identified exactly what I want to get out of it, ensure I make the most of it, and try and meet ChiC-minded New Yorkers while I have the chance. I discuss with the council my dilemma and ask their advice and opinion on what the future options for us could be.

Stay or go? You decide.*


*no guarantee can be made that the final decision will reflect any or all of the comments added. However, all responses are considered highly valuable and will be gratefully received.