Alain de Botton and Accidental Environmentalism
7th September 2011
A couple of years back I interviewed a few people on the subject of 'accidental environmentalism' exploring with them whether, in educating FOR sustainability, we actually need to talk about environmental issues at all. Sustainable lifestyles are made up of a vast collection of sustainable behaviours. They are all underpinned by a set of values such as kindness, empathy and respect. The argument is that to build sustainable lifestyles we need to work from values. The sustainability movement in general seems to be waking up to this. Please get in touch for advice on how to apply this thinking to your work.
Here is a transcript from a conversation I had with the philosopher and School of Life founder: Alain de Botton.
Alain De Botton (London, 21/08/09)
I started off by asking him how engaged he is in sustainability issues.
I think it seems to me to be part of a broader thing that no thinking being can be unconcerned about, which is really the position of man in a very advanced technological age in relation to nature and natural forces and the balance between the human man-made world and nature, which includes things like nuclear weapons as much as it includes global warming. I think it is part of a broader thing; it encompasses lots of different things and is perhaps over and above everything else. So, it almost encompasses war as well. It is about human beings as agents of destruction, rather than as respecters of life, or givers of life. Yes, it is hard to be human and not to have come across those issues in some form.
I explained the traditional structure of education about and through the environment and their overall aim of being for, and that there is a limit to this in terms of changing people’s behaviour.
Well the point is that if you talked to them about kindness; that might have as much of an impact on their attitude to the environment, because I think a lot of it is about aggression in its broadest form and the opposite to aggression is kindness.
I wondered if people are consciously aggressive towards the environment?
Well they could be consciously aggressive, or they could just be heedlessly destructive of it, like we are with people.
I explained to him how I view his work as being education for sustainability despite it not talking too much about the environment at all. I asked him if he sees his work in any way as a sort of education for sustainability.
You are right in that people can care about certain values that do not immediately seem connected, or not directly connected to a particular issue, but values don’t have to be. So if you are interested in a value like tolerance, let’s say, tolerance is an application to how you discuss a recipe with a friend to how you run your immigration policy as a country to whatever. In other words one can say that a book or a theory can be discussing something, or be relevant to something without discussing it. It’s like if you read a Jane Austen novel, you come away looking at your world through Jane Austen’s eyes and so it weirdly seems as though Jane Austen is telling you about office politics in the 21st century. Even though that’s not what she was writing about. It has a relevance that stretches beyond. So you know you could find that Greek tragedy is about environmentalism or whatever and it’s not implausible to say that. So yes I think the amount of people who may be relevant to the discussion might be much larger than traditionally understood by people who are trying to define an ‘eco’ literature or eco-philosophy, or whatever.
I explained that that is where I am coming from and that there is a lot of accidental environmentalism going on. My argument is that if this ‘accidental’ education can be aligned with understanding’s of why (from a purely environmental perspective) it is important to use low energy light bulbs, recycle, compost and save water, then we might start to get somewhere. Rather than telling people to ‘stop doing this...’ and ‘give up that....’ and so on. Especially when there is so much education againstsustainability going on around us all the time.
I think you are right, but I think one might need to make that connection explicit sometimes and to say ‘you know about this... and you know in theory that you should do that, well there is a bridge between the two.’ You might need to make that bridge explicit, that would be invaluable, maybe.
I said that this is what I am trying to dig out and whether we can integrate other forms of education. I went on to ask him about The School of Life (TSOL) and how he thinks that might fit into Education FOR sustainability.
[Chuckles] I don’t know. Again, perhaps not directly, immediately. I guess it’s one of those things that if you really took the message of many of the things that TSOL does, you would be unlikely to end up as a sort of ‘eco-destroyer’ as a destroyer of the environment. It is not that there is a direct course in how to save the environment, but if you take it seriously, if you engage with almost anything that it does, there would be a serious incompatibility if you then emerged as a logger of the Amazon rainforest. So again, it is not that it is explicit, but it is implicit. You know, ‘if you take ‘x’ seriously, you are almost by definition going to be quite sympathetic towards ‘y’.’
I spoke about realigning our value systems and working out how to meet our emotional needs in authentic, non-material ways and how The School Of Life can help us to do that.
I suppose it raises the question of what a concerned citizen should do... In modest ways TSOL is trying to change the mindset, but it is a very tiny thing next to ‘The Sun’ (the newspaper, the Sun). It is an incredibly tiny thing. I do think in our society opinions are shaped by the media, it is a cliché, but it is true. The reason why people start to worry about things, or know about things, or think about things it is because disseminated through organs. Which explains why there are people like PR companies etc. The problem is that it is incredibly difficult to get some of the more complicated or awkward[m1] messages through for any length of time and TSOL can try, but on a bad day, in terms of a global problem, you could say that it is just appealing to the converted. It is appealing to people who are basically pretty nice anyway and they need to get together and that would be very nice for them, but its lacking power in a serious sense, in the way that The Sun has power.
I said that it has the potential to be a leading example, or a prototype of this sort of approach and people are already starting to copy it, people are recognising the need for this sort of thing and this approach can build.
For me, one of the questions is what do you do if you care about things? Traditionally for me the response is you write a book and that helps things. But I also recognise that a ‘pilot project’ can in a way can be a good thing and that is why I see TSOL as a pilot project in the sense that it’s a model for how one might do things that could then spread out. We haven’t got the resources or energy to do that, but it is a small thing that could grow. So in that sense it is the equivalent of the single issue campaigner: ‘I’m not going to change the whole mentality, but if I manage to stop this sewerage works from being built, or I manage to stop thatfactory polluting.’ Maybe that’s as good as writing 100 editorials saying ‘shouldn’t we all... whatever’. So it’s trying to get ‘local’ and do one thing.
I then discussed my time at TSOL and how I wanted to get involved because I could see the FOR sustainability potential. I said that I felt that they didn’t want to engage with sustainability, or have that tag and I asked him whether he thought that was a conscience decision.
Personally speaking I think one has to find one’s own way to an issue and the thing about environmentalism and sustainability etc is that these are things which are words often made up by others to describe a problem, which sometimes you have to find your own way to before it actually becomes something you feel and understand deep inside. I think there is a real distinction between an academic intellectual understanding and a sort of emotional understanding. I’ve seen this with lots of topics you know, I remember sort of ten years ago or something when I was writing much more about the personal. Someone said to me ‘have you ever thought about writing about the workplace, or politics or whatever?’ I would say that of course these are things I have thought about, but I have not found a way of writing about it in a way that would feel personal, in a way that would be my own, rather than just a newspaper editorial or something. And for me it is slightly the same with the environment and I think that I am on the edge of finding my way towards a more authentic way of speaking about these things, but I’m not quite there yet, but I can feel it, I can feel it’s coming because I think you just need a topic to sit with you. [m2] I think that teaches me that if I’m feeling that, then probably lots of people are feeling that. You know, we are told by the media to worry and be concerned about a lot of things and a lot of time we are not actually concerned, because we don’t have the experience and we’re not at the right life stage. I know, as a man who has children, before I had children, I didn’t really understand.... For example I’d read in the newspaper headlines that a childs been run over and I’d think ‘oh dear’, you know... I didn’t really understand it, you know now I understand what that means, in a way that a media account would never prepare me for. Likewise there are many people in the environment movement who feel at a very deeper sense what this means and I think that is something that one has to realise takes some time. It’s like, racism, we live in a world where to be racist is considered immediately to be absolutely terrible and that’s it! So you don’t even allow anyone one second of thought that they might have a racist view or racist feeling and not be the antichrist. So for many people it takes actually quite a while for people to discover what it might actually really mean not to be racist, rather than to bullied into not being racist. It might take a trip abroad and it might take contact with people from different races until actually really they think ‘OK, I am going to stop faking that not-racist thing and I actually live it now, I actually believe it fully, I sense it with all my being.’ I think the same thing is true of environmentalism, I think it is unacceptable not be concerned about the environment and because of that strong pressure many people are simply too sort of scared to talk about it.
I asked him if he thought that it leads people to do ‘green’ things, to be seen to be doing green things, to be ‘conspicuously green’. I asked whether before a person has that deeper understanding and realise that it is not just about climate change, it’s not just about turning your taps off and that it is about re-evaluating all of your value systems and all of your decisions, being green just becomes another status symbol.
Well obviously there are horrifying sort of fake versions, just like there are fake versions of everything good. Like people who fake that they are interested in art. That can happen with anything that is good, anything good is open to fakery. So I don’t think it is unique. But I think you are right there is always a heart felt way of doing things that is better. If I was an advertising agency and was thinking ‘how can we sell concern for the environment?’ ‘What would be the best way into this topic?’ You could do a lot of research, perhaps you have done already... into... ‘When’s the moment when somebody feels an issue personally?’ As opposed to feeling it intellectually. I mean intellectually it is simple enough, you tell someone the ice sheet is melting and they go ‘ooh gosh!’ What moment might they... it might be a way of connecting, I mean this is normally this is the way it is done, you connect something that does happen to everyone and you try and show how that thing is connected to a bigger more abstract picture, so you say ‘that playing field that used to be near your house is now being concreted over, it is being concreted over by all sorts of forces and these are the forces blah, blah, blah.’ Then you zoom out from a particular and you hold on to people’s emotional connection.
I agreed that there is strength to that sort of approach of putting it in people’s back yard. I then discussed how it is possible to engage people in conversations about climate change when extreme things have happened, for example the floods in Cheltenham. I went on to pose whether it is more important to talk about things in people’s every day lives, like why did they go to Primark, why did they buy three shirts instead of one, what forces brought them there and what is the impact of that? I then said, this is why I felt that maybe we don’t need to talk about the environmental issues.
Yes it is a more general conversation about thoughtfulness, empathy, kindness and so on. I think there are some people that I’ve met from within the environmental movement, who in a previous age would have been saving people’s souls, I don’t mean that in a bad way... They are more broadly interested in kindness and a certain kind of redemption, salvation and so on, all these kinds of things, which obviously, they sit on religious topics but that is not to say environmentalism is the new religion as though that is immediately a bad thing, or a crazy thing. I think there is a very strong impulse in human beings to, obviously to kill, but also to nurture and it is part of that nurturing instinct which, at some points in history, has led one way and at some points it has led towards Buddhism and at others to other things... It is a way of worrying about human selfishness and greed which has always been a concern for a certain percentage... you know 15% of the population [m3] has always been acutely troubled by our impulses towards greed and thoughtlessness and have tried, in whatever way the age offered them, to channel those energies.
I wondered whether the survival of the fittest thing, could be modified with intelligence, in that we need to work together if we are going to help the species survive.
So it is the co-operative versus the individualistic drives in human nature battling it out[m4]
Next, I brought the conversation onto travel and explained how it is probably the hardest thing for environmentalists to talk about... I discussed the NEF five ways to wellbeing and how most of them can be done and coincidentally done well in environmentally responsible ways. But, travel is a harder one because it can be so valuable to people. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to talk to him about so I talked about escapism and how travel can be so much about escaping physical surroundings, certain people and so on, but it is harder to escape emotions.
There is one view that we never need to change our locations because we can do everything through our minds, so there is a disembodied view of human nature that everything you do, you can do in your mind. Then there is another view which is to say that we are embodied beings and we live through our senses, all of us not just our reason and that we are influenced by such things as the weather, the texture of the carpet and how high the ceiling is. And these are all awkward thoughts, because it signals a loss of control. It’s worse to think that your life might depend on the height of the ceiling, you ‘ooh how awkward, I might have to buy a new ceiling and that’s a major investment, or I might be dependent on the weather and it is only nice 3 months of the year.’ There is an incentive to deny that I think. I juggle with this, but I think that on the whole we remain awkwardly dependent on the external environment for our moods, happiness etc, state of mind and we may sometimes need to travel. I think one of the deepest reasons to travel is in order to cement an inner change, to somehow mark a change and help that change. If you think about how pilgrimages used to work. The whole idea of a pilgrimage was that it was an unpleasant long journey which provides a demonstration or commitment to some idea. And in a way the more unpleasant and long it is the better, because that will lend solidity to the idea. So you know you will walk to Jerusalem, you don’t need to walk there, you could take a boat, but you say ‘let’s walk it!’ you know. I think that is still bubbling away in us. For example, you might get a couple saying, we need a holiday, to get away from it, to mark a step or to re-charge our batteries. Or someone might say ‘I’m looking forward to the flight because when I’m on the plane I can look at my life in a different way.’ We need distance and perspective, etc, etc. I think that that will never go away. If there is a hopeful thing for environmentalism in relation to air travel for example, it’s that I think that that pilgrimage point plays right into an argument for making air travel more limited and more of a treat as it used to be you know 30 years ago, we might do it, but not that often, you’re not going to fly to Paris kind of thing.
I then discussed the concept or habit of ‘throwaway travel’ using a £30 trip to Berlin as an example and saying that one might not put as much effort into it.
Imagine if it cost £3000 people wouldn’t enjoy it any less, they might enjoy it more. If you were only allowed two trips to New York in your life time, ‘that’s it two trips!’ When are you going to take them and how are you going to think about it? Boy oh boy would people think about it. And if they cost 18 times as much the airline would still make money. The argument would then be that only the rich people would keep flying. Ok, but, it only goes some of the way... other people could fly as well, they would just have to save up for it more. You could tax it, according to income tax, or whatever. Anyway, there would be other ways of structuring it.
I discussed the travel experiences of people like James Cracknell and Ben Fogle and how they can inspire people to do similar things and to put themselves into a situation of forced reflection on their lives and priorities. I also discussed ‘slow travel’, but finished by saying not all flying is bad.
No, no, it just has to be limited to a certain level.
I told him I thought of him as a commentator on ‘life’ and asked whether he has ambitions greater than just commentary and whether his involvement in TSOL is an attempt to change things.
Yes I think that [TSOL] is an attempt to change the world rather than comment on it! I’ve always been troubled by this and the role of a commentator. That is why I have always had a vulgar interest, vulgar as in a desire to popularise and vulgarise ideas, which has got me into trouble with people who don’t like that, people who are professionally invested in things being as they are, but I think that, yes, I’d rather a bit of vulgarity I guess at the end of the day. I do think we live in a world where the idea of the artist, thinker, and philosopher is associated with irrelevance, you sit and you knit while bigger things are happening. Again to come back to religion, I’m always attracted to people like the Jesuits who understood the need to engage with power and to engage with the real world; if they wanted to do stuff they might have to sit down to dinner with someone they didn’t particularly like and butter them up and try and get some money off them, you know, whatever it was and that is actually part of life, it’s not some horrendous thing, it’s part of life. I’ve always understood that and felt open to that and a need for that, so TSOL is a first step in a way.
I asked him if one year on it is going the way he expected it to be.
Yes, I mean it is incredibly fiddly, we are now just doing an audit into how the money will work etc etc. I was speaking to a friend the other day who said ‘what you are doing is really original and on a normal business plan it should be like that [uses hands to express growth] or there is something terribly wrong.’ And they were saying that it might just take a bit more time for it to really catch on. You know, things are building up really well for the Autumn, courses are building up well. There are signs that things are getting incrementally better but it shows me new respect for the practical world, you know just to get anything, to organise a payroll for four people is a major operation. It is very very difficult and it is not surprising that the people who have been able to do the thinking and the commentating, on the whole, have not been the ones who’ve been able to organise the other stuff because it is almost another side of the brain, it requires such patience. But, at least unlike some writer colleagues, I’m at least sympathetic to that discipline even if I do tire in front of the Excel spreadsheet. At least I deeply respect its role in trying to get to things that are valuable.
I suggested that his last book [on work] made him appreciate the mundane things people have to go through every day.
Yes, but also that the mundane can be in service of the not mundane and that if you can get the two aligned then you’ve got something to build from.
I asked him whether he ever considers the impact that his work and other things like it might have on people in terms of leading them into an existential crisis.
I suppose because I live it myself, these are journeys that I go through and they involve disruption but also growth, I don’t know, it never occurs to me. My feeling is that people pick up things and read things and get disturbed by things when they are ready to be. It may not always be a comfortable experience, but basically they are ready for it and they want to do it. No one is forcing them, you just shut the book if you don’t like it, or you don’t even pick it up. So by the time someone’s picked up a book or engaged with a film or something it is because they were ready to do so. So even if there is disturbance it is something they are inviting in.
I suggested that a lot of people are not willing to listen to it.
‘I get this all the time, I talk to my friends about these kind of things and they are like ‘oh shut up, can we not just talk about football?!’ and I reply ‘[sigh] well I guess we can!
And it is very frustrating because people are ready at different points.
‘You kind of feel like shaking them’
It is one of the great tragedies of friendship that, you know.... Of course these people might in twenty years time go: ‘oh my god I’m so concerned, I’d like to have a conversation with you.’ But, by this time you’re living in a different country, they’re doing something else and that moment’s not aligned. It is very hard to get people in a room who feel the same way, who want to, at that moment, talk about the same thing. I suppose that is why people read books, to make sure that they can find somebody, at that time, be it a writer who died a hundred years ago, who feels the same way.
How about the internet?
Well the internet can connect you, at that moment I guess.
I told him what I was up to with Global Footsteps, EcoActive, doing these interviews and so on...
Well, I feel for you. We’ve all got a limited lifespan and the whole problem is, if one cares about these things, what is one to do? How is one to attack the problem? Do you go into here, or do you go into there, this is something I ask myself every day, every day! Am I attacking the right area you know? I am perennially troubled by this I don’t know?
I told him I thought he was doing some good!
Yes, some good, but you just think... I always think the powerful forces in this world can feel so powerful. For example at the moment I am writing this book about Heathrow, I don’t know if you read about it, but anyway.... it’s a nice idea for me and it has enabled me to get all sorts of ideas across, so I have slightly gone to bed with the devil a little bit, but it is interesting. But I’m aware that to get certain ideas across you can get on the Today programme like that [clicks fingers] and to get other ideas across that actually feel totally important and valuable they would say ‘oh goodbye, that’s not for us.’ It is censorship basically and there is censorship in our society and you cannot get certain messages across.
Well some of the more: how are we living? So I was on the Today programme the other day talking about this Heathrow baggage system and it is totally computerised and automated and everyone is terribly excited about it and I said to the presenter: ‘you do wonder why it is automated, we have coming up to 3 million people unemployed, why have we automated it? What is so good about automating it? Why do we always want to do this, to put machines everywhere, chuck people out of work then pay them unemployment benefit, so that they can sit at home?’ We’ve got too little work on for people and yet we are obsessed by automation. Anyway, it is a big point about the role of machines and the role of humans, of course it has got completely cut for reasons that it was not quite ‘on the message’. We don’t live in a Stalinist dictatorship, it is a self censorship, people kind of know what is acceptable and what is not and you can’t really question the economic system. There is a moment at which it gets... you know, people will kind of say ‘oh that’s a bit too strident’ or something, they don’t see themselves as censors, but that is exactly what they are. People sometimes say things like ‘I wonder what it would be like live under communism, everyone would be whispering and so on’. And I think ‘you don’t have to imagine so hard you know, look at your own society and look at the way people naturally censor themselves!’ In work, when they are talking to the media etc, people naturally do it and they don’t even notice it and that is exactly how it would have been in communist society. People wouldn’t have gone ‘ooh I can’t say this’ they would have done it exactly how we do it. But we play up this enormous difference, ‘oh it was so un-free then!’
Thanks very much!
[m1]Interesting choice of word
[m2]Maybe this is the stage we are at collectively? This topic is currently sitting with people... they are thinking about it and maybe they will soon ‘get it’.
[m3]This is a big point, we are never going to make everyone concerened, maybe the 15% need to stop trying to make others concerned and ‘like them’ they need to change the behaviour of others, in other ways?
[m4]Is this all it is, is it like he says, the environment, just a vehicle for those who rally against individualism to sit in?