You are not stuck in traffic. You are traffic

This is such a great, simple message. It looks like it comes from a marketing team (hey, they know their craft) but it shows how powerful a few words can be in communicating a message that challenges the way people see themselves and their behaviour.

We have a tendency to not see ourselves as part of systems, to analyse our or others’ behaviour as isolated rather than symptomatic of a larger social, economic or political structures, particularly when it comes to collectively undesirable or unsustainable behaviours. A message like this puts our behaviour in context, perhaps in a new light, prompting us to question it.

It reminds me of this great illustration on how unsustainable our addiction to cars over public transport or cycling is.


Interestingly recent research suggests that, for some, our attachment to cars is largely about a sense of privacy, autonomy and personal space. This is interesting because governments tend to make public transport “competitive” with private transport in terms of cost and convenience yet these are not always the main considerations for people’s the preference for driving. As the researcher Jennifer Kent of Sydney University put it in the Sydney Morning Herald:

“It is an attachment to notions such as privacy, autonomy and predictability, as well as comfort provided by things like air-conditioning, private sound systems.”

Which suggests that if we want to cut down on private car use we need more than just neat slogans to cut through and challenge people to think about their behaviour. We also need systems level thinking. As Kent suggests, we need governments to conduct “a full-scale evaluation of transport and land use to see which policies might be inadvertently, or quite obviously, perpetuating car reliance and car appreciation.” Systems level change and design while bringing people along with that change and the reasons for it.

A breakthrough

Australia’s been a little short on good news stories concerning renewable energy over the last few years. But this week’s announcement from the South Australian government that Australia’s first solar thermal plant will be built in Port Augusta is a welcome ray of light.

Solar thermal plants capture solar energy and store it using molten salt so it can be released, as electricity, when needed. This one, to be called Aurora, will provide all of the state government’s energy needs. Not only is the Port Augusta plant an Australian first but, when completed, it will be the largest in the world! And it comes hot on the heels of the South Australian government’s July announcement that Tesla will build the world’s largest lithium ion battery in the state.

These world leading innovations in renewable energy generation and storage show that with ambition, policy certainty and support Australia can help lead the global transition to clean energy. They will help spur Australia’s technological and economic transition to a low-carbon energy system. And they will be tangible examples for the wider public of clean energy solutions in their own backyard. They represent exciting steps and long awaited signs of better things to come.

Climate action for a fairer, better world

Last month David Wallace-Wells penned a now much-discussed article in New York Magazine on a potential worst case scenario of a world riven by runaway climate change. I don’t want to comment on the article, per se, as much has already been written on it both critical (here and here) and supportive.

What I want to focus on is how we inspire people to take and support the kind of climate action that is needed to realise the huge cuts in greenhouse gas emissions that are required to avoid dangerous climate change. People need to understand the severity of the threat climate change poses but also to be galvanised by a vision of the better world that can be created by tackling climate change and decarbonising.

Writer Kate Aronoff, in response (below) to the Wallace-Wells article, suggests the need to frame climate action as a means of creating a fairer, not just more sustainable, world.

Kate Aronoff

The causes of climate change are deeply intertwined with global and national inequalities and power structures. Those of us who live wealthy lifestyles create a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gas emissions while those who will suffer the impacts of climate change most strongly are the poor and minority groups. Indeed, according to Oxfam, “the poorest half of the global population are responsible for only around 10% of global emissions” while 50% of emissions come from the richest 10% in the world.

As Aronoff suggests, tackling climate change presents a powerful opportunity for us to address these systemic issues and create a fairer world, one where more of us have access to affordable and clean energy enabling us to lead healthy, happy and prosperous lives. One where energy production is democratised and localised through new domestic or community owned renewable energy and energy storage technologies. One where air pollution is reduced in cities through widespread electric vehicle usage and cycling leading to better health. One where businesses, from multinational corporations to local corner restaurants, aren’t just held accountable for their social and environmental impacts but actively engage in minimising them as part of their responsibility to the society and environment they operate within. One where developing countries have access to clean energy technologies that allow them to prosper. And one where developed countries take responsibility for their legacy of greenhouse gas emissions by greatly reducing their emissions and aiding developing countries to grow in as clean a way as possible.

This kind of vision of climate action as a vehicle for creating a better, fairer world for all of us but is sorely lacking in contemporary political and media discourses. It may not have the headline grabbing appeal of doomsday articles but it just might help us avoid the kind of scenarios they envision.

Social. Connected. Visible.


Climate change is a wickedly complex problem, no small part of which is due to its causes being invisible in our everyday lives. This video from Vox and University of California is a great explainer of how particular types of messaging can make the causes of climate change visible and deliver nudges that help us change our behaviour to tackle them.

Give it a watch! To help lodge the message in your brain these are my key takeaways:

  • Make behaviour change activities social and competitive (eg. comparing energy savings with neighbours)
  • Connect the behaviour change to a wider problem, ideally one that people can relate to personally (eg. air pollution affecting kids’ health, particularly impactful for parents with kids)
  • Make the problem or impact of changes visible (eg. show people their home energy use by device, put data in their hands).

System check

Is capitalism the system that’s best suited to build our future society?

I love how simply and innocuously this question frames capitalism. It’s taken from an article by Jason Hickel and Martin Kirk.

Since the end of the Cold War capitalism has appeared unassailable, aided by increasing living standards and decreasing poverty, the growth of international finance and multinational corporations the narrative of global dominance. But with growing inequality, corporate influence, climate change and environmental degradation more people are questioning the merits and, indeed, inevitability of capitalism.

Hickel & Kirk’s question not only neatly captures this growing discomfort in a straightforward, non-ideological way but prompts us to think about how capitalism can be changed to address these growing failures and even what better alternatives might replace it. Most importantly, it inspires us to think about what we want a future society to look like and how we can reach it. Will the continuing pursuit of ever greater profit help us get there or do we need a fairer, more environmentally sustainable economic model? What new ideas, communities and business models are being explored right now that can help us create the future we want?

Read the article here, it’s a good’un.

It’s Great To See Some Countries Going Against The Flow

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

In the space of a week, three rivers in different countries have been recognised as people under the law. New Zealand became the first country in the world to take this step by granting legal personhood to the Whanganui River this month. A few days later the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand did the same for the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers.

Under the changes, all three rivers are considered to have the legal rights of a human being and can be represented in court. The intention is to provide greater protection to the health of the rivers as well as address historic grievances in the case of the Whanganui River and the local Māori communities.

These world firsts represent important legal advances because they provide a promising means of protecting the environment. But their significance is greater than this — they represent a growing challenge to the anthropocentric nature of our societies.

Our political, economic and legal systems have largely been built around placing human rights and interests first. This has led to considerable environmental problems, from climate change and resource exploitation to species extinction and mass pollution. Reversing this damage (and preventing new problems from arising in the future) requires balancing human interests with those of the natural world which sustains us. The decisions of New Zealand and India are the the most recent examples of this growing awareness.

In 2008, Ecuador recognised the legal rights of nature in its constitution, as did Bolivia a few years later in 2011. These decisions did not emerge from nowhere. As with New Zealand recently, they were the result of extensive campaigning by Indigenous people to recognise the long-held spiritual and cultural importance of the environment to them. The changes incorporated a different way of valuing the environment, which is less about its use value and more about its inherent value.

Underpinning the New Zealand law, in fact, is the more holistic view of nature held by the local Māori community. Te Awa Tupua is protected not just as a waterway but as ‘an indivisible and living whole’ and comprises the Whanganui River from the mountains to the sea, incorporating all its physical and metaphysical elements.”

But it’s not just Indigenous knowledge that is changing our valuation of the environment. Scientific and technological advances are increasing our appreciation for the complexity and value of non-human life as well as our own relationship with nature. Research is giving us new insight into the cognitive abilities of animals as diverse as apes, crows, dolphins and octopuses suggesting they’re capable of metacognition, counting, play and, in the case of dolphins, ‘naming’ each other.

A recent study by Stanford University found that people felt a greater connection to nature and greater awareness of the potential impacts of their consumption habits after using a virtual reality headset to experience the perspective of a cow heading to slaughter or coral being eroded due to ocean acidification.

In economics, the services that ecosystems provide, for instance water filtration by wetlands, are increasingly receiving a monetary value so that greater weight is given to protecting them. The value of the pollination of farm crops provided by honey bees in the US in 2010 was estimated at $29 billion by Cornell University while the Great Barrier Reef in Australia has been estimated to provide between $5.7 billion and $7 billion annually in economic benefits.

None of these are silver bullets for our problems and many have their shortcomings. But to find the myriad solutions we require to greatly reduce our impact on the natural world, we must embrace new and old forms of knowledge which help us more wholly and accurately value the environment.

This will inevitably involve reassessing ourselves and our place in nature in meaningful and concrete ways. The Declaration on Human Rights and Climate Change provides promising direction to help us do just that.

The declaration has been designed by the Global Network for the Study of Human Rights and the Environment to stand alongside the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It holds that to adequately tackle climate change we need to properly recognise and protect human rights, and this means protecting the environment. After all, by damaging the ecosystems we depend upon, climate change threatens our security and prosperity. The declaration would compel governments and businesses to take action on climate change in order to avoid harming people and denying their human rights.

The declaration, like the decisions in New Zealand and India this past fortnight, reflects a growing appreciation of the dependence of our long-term wellbeing on the health of the environment. They suggest that we’re beginning to recognise the inherent value of the natural world and the creatures that inhabit it. It’s this awareness that will help us properly clean up our act and take the action we need to safeguard our future.


(Photo at top: “Whanganui River – Whanganui Journey” by Department of Conservation is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

The Private is Public

The mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, recently announced her council’s intention to reduce the city’s use of private cars in order to cut air pollution and carbon emissions. As a means of cities taking action on climate change it’s promising but what I found particularly interesting was the way Colau framed the action as an issue of social justice.

To quote Colau in the article, air pollution is “a social issue because it affects the most vulnerable people – children, those who are ill – so it is a problem of the city, not just an issue that abstractly affects the sustainability of the planet”.

Now given that my previous post discussed recent research suggesting that framing climate issues in terms of justice was polarising (generally finding support from the left-leaning and not the right-leaning) this may not be the most effective communications message.

What is interesting though is that the environmental and health impacts of private car use are being treated here explicitly by a political leader as a public concern. That is to say, the externalities (ie. the costs borne by others) of private car use are not being simply ignored as an unfortunate side effect of private choices to drive a car. They are being clearly identified as an issue of public and collective concern, particularly for the most vulnerable amongst us who bear the costs often without gaining the benefits.

This is significant because in a pro-market view many individual choices are seen as simply private decisions. Indeed, in many developed countries, particularly geographically large ones like Australia, the US and Canada where urban sprawl is a common feature of cities, private car use is often seen as a personal right. Colau is calling that right, that personal choice, into question as a public issue. She is asking us to recognise and act on the social cost of excessive private car use.

This reminds me of the seminal feminist argument of the 1960s and 1970s that the personal is political. Issues that were often dismissed as private or personal, such as division of household labour, reproductive rights and childcare, were challenged by feminists as inherently political. By bringing these concerns out into the open and making them subject to public debate and even state intervention fairer arrangements could be reached that achieved greater gender equality and addressed negative personal and social impacts.

By addressing excessive private car use as an issue of social justice Colau is issuing a similar statement: to paraphrase the feminist argument, that the private is public. This is important because the environmental and social impacts of private activities will increasingly have to be recognised and acted upon as public problems if we are to address issues of the scale of climate change and environmental degradation. When it comes to the environment the private needs to become public.

This should not mean of course only targeting individuals and their choices that have negative environmental impacts. It means also targeting, challenging and changing the political, economic and social/cultural structures that enable and promote such choices and the broadly held assumptions that protect them. The environmental impacts of private business activity also need to be increasingly made a public concern. This is why Colau’s words and actions are exciting, because they represent just such a challenge.