A Big Tent we’d all feel at home in
I had the pleasure to attend “The Big Tent” Festival at the weekend. The Big Tent is Scotland’s environmental festival, which attracted 10,000 people over the weekend. Despite having meant to go for the past couple of years it took an invitation to speak at an event to get me there. Those who know me will be well aware that the opportunity to talk is one I find difficult to give up.
I was talking at the “Head Zone” tent on the Climate Champions panel. It was a very interesting evening – and very well organised by Mike Small of The Fife Diet project. There were a range of speakers, mostly from Climate Challenge Fund-ed projects. Lesley Riddoch did a great job in the chair.
The diversity of the panel shows the excellent work that the Climate Challenge Fund (CCF) has generated. The projects represented included Heal the Earth – a therapeutic garden, Transition Edinburgh University, PEDAL – Portobello Transition Town (of which I’m a member) and PIPER – an organisation promoting climate action through schools’ councils.
The fascinating element to each of the speakers’ talks and the projects they work with is the strength of community engagement. Each of the contributors emphasised that the most important element of their project was their work with people.
This reflects a widespread acceptance of the problems with ‘behavioural’ approaches to tackling climate change. Ever since government started taking climate change seriously it has sought to encourage individuals to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The Scottish Government urging people to save the planet by driving five miles less every week is a classic example.
The seminal WWF publication “Weather Cock and Sign Posts” describes the flaws in this approach. It stretches people’s credulity if you tell them that there is apocalyptic climate change and they can deal with it by driving a little less or recycling a little more. The answer from CCF funded groups has been to engage in collective action at community level. This means that little actions can have large impacts.
When a man from Falkland asked why environmentalists were always telling him what to do, the response was telling. Instead of giving him short shrift every panellist explained that they wanted to work with people like him to find solutions to the environmental crisis.
His complaint was largely about proposals to increase council tax for people without insulation. This is the cloud that goes with the government’s silver lining of behaviour change. Once individuals fail to change (and behavioural approaches seem doomed to failure), there will be compulsion. Government is seeking to impose all the costs of dealing with climate change while denying people the opportunity to radically change their communities for the better. In fact the Big Tent, and Falkland more broadly look very much like the society we can have if we want it.
Dealing with climate change offers us the opportunity to deal with all sorts of other forms of social alienation. People live lives devoid of vital social interaction. Our communities have been stripped of much of their vitality by 30 years of government attack. The great social ills of our day – low-level crime, obesity, depression and inequality are all caused by the same thing that’s driving run-away climate change. And collective responses are those that best deal with the cause of those ills. We must re-localise our economy and society, and move away from the damaging obsession with consumption.
It’s a minor miracle (and a great credit to the Scottish Green Party) that the government has been willing to put money behind so many interesting and innovative projects. We must ensure that this funding is continued in the face of the coming cuts. The CCF experiment is too valuable to lose at this vital time. And The Big Tent gives us a picture of just how good life could be if we seize the chance.