In the spirit of Cranleigh Thinking, Head’s blogs are meant to provoke conversation around issues as it is through dialogue that we begin to make progress in understanding and this blog will be the first in a short series on climate change, conservation and the environment.
I was rightly asked earlier last term why Cranleigh did not publish what it was doing to prevent climate change, perhaps the central challenge facing the world and the children we are educating. My short answer was that I was not yet proud enough of what we are doing to promote it as a virtue. I have been reflecting hard on my own response to this challenge as it is difficult to preach or protest if I am not practising.
We are all hypocrites when it comes to action to prevent further climate change and we all have to carry responsibility for it. For climate change finds its source in the human heart. Until we begin to understand this – we are never going to make any lasting change, either personally or globally.
Every now and again there is someone who introduces an idea that changes the way we think. I have never forgotten a conversation with a school friend in my Upper Sixth Economics class. The first lesson of A level Economics is that ‘wants exceed resources’. Pritch and I were once discussing our ambitions and I freely confess his were more lofty than mine: he wanted to make the allocation of resources work for all by focusing on changing people’s attitudes to their wants.
It seems to me Pritch’s insight hits the target and its personal application is neither pleasant nor easy. As soon as we start to apply it to the choices of how we spend the money we have earned on using the world’s resources for our own benefit, the dilemmas mount.
Moreover, as I start to rehearse my own (cars, foreign holidays, tech, size of house, home energy use, love of yoghurt for breakfast- it comes in plastic containers), I am acutely aware that I have everything I need and they are a reflection of my income and privilege. These are choices that are denied to millions of people around the world and very many in the community I lead. First-world problems they may be but cumulatively they have an effect on all.
I am a trustee of a national conservation charity and know full well the impact of climate change on species, yet I have pursued my love of the natural world through eco tourism abroad, adding to my carbon footprint. Only last summer I ticked off a long-held wish to witness the wildebeest migration in Kenya. If I am honest, a want intensified by the desire in my heart transformed itself into a need. Hypocrisy is a reasonable charge.
However, I also know that the money I spent helped to fund the conservation activities of the Maasai Mara and contributed to the livelihood of the rangers, those working in the lodge, our guide and their families, the schools outreach work of Elsamere Conservation Trust and so on.
Although there is some truth in this, I am not sure whether my conscience is completely clear even with such justification. There is also something distasteful – and colonial when applied to ‘foreign’ countries – about those with income potentially patting themselves on the back for providing for someone else’s ‘needs’ but being so worried about the threats of industrial or agricultural development on climate change that they deny people the ability to have a greater share of what they want as we do and have done – each country’s economy deserves to thrive for the benefits of those who live within it. I put ‘foreign’ in inverted commas to demonstrate a perception of otherness when climate change is a shared global problem.
I shared the dismay at the Brazilian government’s blind-eye turning to the burning of the Amazon rainforest, apparently 200,000 acres per day. That is the equivalent of 714 times the acreage of Cranleigh School every day. Yet I can fully understand why the offer from the G7 countries of 20 million Euros, just over half Cranleigh’s annual income, was met with derision. How does this satisfy the desire of Brazilian farmers to satisfy their families needs and wants? Isn’t economic betterment what we all expect of our governments?
A choice to pursue our wants differently will also cause harm if not managed well. There will always be a conflict. The school’s Eco Committee has proposed meat-free Monday’s from this term. There are strong environmental reasons for reducing our meat consumption and aside from a few grumbles about choice and the need for muscle-building protein, the leadership of an England U18 number 8 who likes his meat telling pupils ‘to take one for the team’, quietened them. At my previous school, with so many in the school and local community dependent on dairy, beef, sheep and pig farming, whose businesses suffered through foot and mouth, blue tongue, recession and devastating floods, such a standpoint would have been more difficult.
Although the focus of Professor Stephen Redpath’s excellent collection of reviews, Conflicts in Conservation: Navigating Towards Solutions (Ecological Reviews) Cambridge 2015, is on conservation, its lessons are applicable to the broader issue of climate change. Essentially, successful conservation, and by extension action to reduce climate change, results from the management of conflicts between people and their environments. People need to live and whether we like it or not they want more of a share of the world’s resources. These issues have to be solved people to people, nation to nation and radically.
The untethered pursuit of our wants will have and is having a devastating effect on climate change harming most the poorest economies and most sensitive environments in the short term. In the long term, as Mark Carney warned at the close of 2019, the effects of climate change will wipe away the value of many more of our global assets.
The uncomfortable truth is that the human heart wherever it lives wants more than it needs and wants it in the here and now. If we really want to tackle climate change, we have to accept that those who live with wealth will have to have less so those less wealthy can have more or the total impact on climate will not be reduced.
Our heart change as taxpayers is that we will need to accept that there must be meaningful, environmentally friendly investment in economies distant from our shores, providing others with a livelihood or the pace of climate change will continue. The consequences of such globalisation on the previous manufacturing heartlands of our country has already been witnessed so there will need again to be further reallocation of resources internally – and at a time when there needs to be greater expenditure on public services such as health and education.
The demands citizens place on their governments to give them more will prevent politicians from acting radically against climate change but it just cannot be that the wealthy continue to enjoy what they have without deeper sacrifice. The acceptance of that reality needs to be reflected in our voices or governments will not hear and act.
So where does this leave me as a school leader and perhaps you as a reader – a pupil, prefect or parent? I return to a favourite quotation from Thomas Carlyle’s Signs of the Times: ‘To reform a world, to reform a nation, no wise man will undertake and all but foolish men know, that the only solid, though a far slower reformation, is that which each begins and perfects on himself.’
At the moment I cannot claim to lead with the total integrity that I would like. Yet I cannot make this an excuse for inaction. I will be signing the pledge the School’s Eco Group have put forward for January 2020 and work with them to begin the slow reformation of my heart.