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.


Unknown said...

You should definetly go to NY!

First, WFM is a truly revolusionary organisation. A supranational body of some sort is paramount importance if we are ever to achieve the collective action necessary to overcome the challenges of environmental degradation. Furthermore, WFM has consultative status at the UN and thus is among the NGOs with some hope of making a difference. Therefore, alone, the trip is justified.

In addition, you must not underestimate the value of your own precence, in terms of demographics. The council is predominantly consisting of old, white men. When I attended last years council in Haague the few younger participants made all the difference in making me want to come back. In Norway we face the challenge of a literary dying membership, and I believe this to be the situation in other parts of the world.

You will attende this meeting, and I dont care if this means I personally will have to row you over the atlantic in my unlce's 12 fot long boat!



Joe Schwartzberg said...

Apart from my supporting what Magnus has said, I'd like to point out that most trans-Atlantic flights have some -- often many -- empty seats. The carbon footprint of the flight that Rebecca would be on would be the same whether she was aboard or not. If she didn't go, that would only slightly increase the average carbon footprint of all the passengers who did go. So, Rebecca, do come to New York and try while you are there to make the trip do double or triple duty by scheduling some time for other worthy activities in addition to attending the WFM meeting. Joe Schwartzberg

Unknown said...

Becky, I could have made a tremendous amount of arguments on why you should attend this meeting being who you are and WFM being what it is. I won’t – you know them all (and Magnus and Joe has skillfully repeated them for you – I’ll join you in Magnus’ boat).

Because if I dare to analyze your hesitation, it’s because it’s difficult to draw the line on where “behaviourial change” should start or stop. Obviously, none of us live in caves, so we have come to accept some impact of our lives on the environment.

The question is, up to what point? Airtravel is definitely not in the first layer of Dr. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but by boycotting it you are going to miss a lot of the world.

I must admit I have noticed that you’ve signed a petition promising not to fly between two domestic points linked by rail. That’s a constructive change. Add “or bus” and you’re approximately where I’m at. But you’re never going to get to New York by rail or bus.

I work for a political party who has climate change and environmental matters as one of our top 3 priorities – and have had for the last 30 years. In the early 90s, though, as we stood without national representation, we had to rethink some of our strategies from being warnings about doomsday to being technological optimism. The essence was the same – we need change if we are to continue living ordinary lives. But we changed from saying that “the problem is that you own and drive a car” to saying that “there need to be alternatives for car drivers who want to travel environmentally friendly”.

The point is: I don’t think any of us – you, me, WFM, or Gaia herself, is going to benefit from us making the airplane the enemy. I don’t think it is the enemy. Au contraire, the airplane has made this world a better place. It has made us able to visit places we would never know and never understand, and live to tell. It has made us able to spread culture and exchange knowledge through first-hand experiences like no generation before us. It has made it possible for many people to seek happiness in other places than that of their birth.

True, we need to find better ways for the airplane to get its energy. I’m more than willing to join a consumer campaign in order to put pressure on the airplane industry to find solution, and perhaps even expand my no-fly zone. But as citizens of this planet, we should be able to get around on it.

Until now, I’ve bought climate quotas (or indulgences, as they are) for my airtravels, compensating my emissions by paying for reduction elsewhere. Perhaps it’s na├»ve. Perhaps it’s just a distraction from what really matters. You tell me. I’m not sure where to start, except I’m quite confident it’s not by denying myself (or morally: also others) experience.

I think we primarily need to change behaviour where behaviourial change actually can and should be made. In this case, it can be made by not ever visiting New York. It should not be made that way. So I hope to see you there.

…And Becky? Skype? Come on. You might as well just read the minutes after the meeting…

The Audacity of Boats said...

I took a boat to the states which was amazing (if expensive) and, as a freighter, relatively guilt free in terms of i) lower emissions and ii) the boat was going anyway.

As someone outside WFM I'm not sure I can comment on its importance. But I think if I were in your position I wouldn't go. I gave up flying in 2003 and like your friend can no longer conceive of taking a plane. Nothing quite seems worth it anymore.