NEF’s bigger picture event: little write up

The New Economics Foundation held a ‘Bigger Picture‘ Festival on Saturday 24th October. It was a good gig. Just like salesmen who like being sold to, as an event designer, I love going to a good gig. My name is Ed, I do the web stuff for Transition Montpelier.

The range of workshops, debates, discussions, talks was excellent; it was solid with attendees full of interesting ideas in a cool building. It was a bit noisy for me at some moments, and you couldn’t get any food without going outside and therefore re-joining the enormous queue, but there you go. I could only be there for the morning, but the highlights for me were:

Why magic bullets don’t work – with David Boyle (NEF fellow), Fred Pearce (New Scientist), Vikki Johnson (NEF).


Fred discussed the myth of population explosion. He says it’s not rising exponentially and that this is one of the great green bogey men, where we assume that it is the exploding populations around the world which need to be curbed in order to keep C02 emissions under control (I was at a different lecture by Ronald Oxburgh in Bristol since where he regularly referred to the population explosion around the world and offered technical solutions to handle it). For starters, Fred indicated that women are having less babies than ever before, of their own accord.

As well as this, the populations of Europe and the USA are generating far more emissions than anyone else per capita, so we and our addiction to consumption, are a vital part of the problem. This reminded me of a recent George Monbiot article ‘Stop blaming the poor, it’s the wally yachters who are burning the planet‘ and a more recent piece from Fred on the hogwash greenwash about corporate jets and their carbon footprints.

Balloon at NEF event
Balloon at NEF event

Then David Boyle spoke about target myths – where we obsess over targets at the cost of ‘un-measure-able’ stuff (my words). He used the examples of the NHS in the UK, who referred to trolleys in hospitals as ‘mobile beds’ in order to meet their delivery targets which were set by the politicians. Has setting the target worked? David Miliband was so keen on removing the target culture, that when he came into power, he set a target of 25% less targets. This is interesting stuff; fixating over quantitative goals for social systems is risky as it smells strongly of ‘efficiency’ instead of ‘redundancy’ (as in a resilient system).

I asked what the speakers thought of the target oriented 10:10 and 350 campaigns in the context of target myths – he felt that given these are clear quantitative targets, and it is the language of the mainstream now, that it was suitable to use them. We also had a very interesting discussion about systems and their multiple tipping points – whereby the quantitative goal may be only one of the many points which mean change is happening.

Another attendee raised the point that it is hard to target problems to do with consumerism as the ‘enemy’ is within ourselves; we are addicted to stuff, so we are fighting ourselves, which I couldn’t agree more with. On a recent visit to Bristol, Rev Billy pointed out that the problem with consumerism is that it is so bizarrely and surreally pervasive and insipid; it’s inside us and outside us, a scarey combatant for the mental environment, that the only way to battle it is to go surreal on its ass.

Tales of how it turned out right – climate change changes everything: Ruth Potts, Joe Smith, Muzamal Hussein and Lucy Neal.

In the 1970s all of the environmental activist campaigning used fear as a motivator; is that now suitable? Probably not – back then they had to shake people into a new state of awareness – right now we need to encourage people to become active – by subscribing to campaigns, lobbying their MPs, reducing their footprint and consumption, joining up with local transition groups, planting food, and more. Empowering them, basically. Encouraging them to take some pride in their lives and communities by sharing and building community resilience.

There is little debate (apart from with some of our friends among them the right wing climate change questioners) about climate change any more – only how and if we can pull together to resolve it. As we have to resolve it together – we won’t make it alone.

So the activist message has changed from scarey to encouraging (and fun, and beneficial to your life); therefore so must the narrative structure of our stories change.

As well as this, at a higher level, some reference was made to power structures and how advertising is an explicit representation of the power structures in society – adbusters and many others have been onto this for some time so it’s not at all new, but we see thousands of consumerist messages every day; these do not empower us, in fact they weaken us, separate us, fill the gaps in our lives with marketable product, all for the benefit of shareholders in private corporations.

Every now and then in Bristol a neighbourhood community group wins a long hard fought battle with the council to remove one illegal billboard that the advertising companies regularly put up without permission – this happens all over – and takes a lot of our energy. And when we get rid of one billboard we feel something of a empty victory; so how can we change that?

So the big stories being told, that define our lives and related actions, are from people looking to encourage us to believe that happiness comes from purchase. And we are fighting it, but it’s a long uphill battle and we’re not the ones with all the powerful contracts…

Traditionally – local councils seem happy to have thousands of billboards through nation-wide advertising campaigns, so we can feel insignificant to stop this, but a growing number of local councils are keen to work with Transition initiatives, so that may well change; there is even a book on it coming out soon.

So given the change in activism and its messages, and the growing disatisfaction with the all powerful corporate messages, how do we re-calibrate to something more akin to what we want? How can we disrupt this established power imbalance as a step towards bringing people together to combat climate change and re-gain their mental environment?

By experimenting, trying new stuff, meeting our neighbours, doing projects, learning from our projects and other people’s projects, telling and re-telling stories of our experiences. Gradually, Story can help us build our own culture which in itself is something to believe in beyond the adverts; we know from narrative studies that story can carry the messages; we just need to develop the body of knowledge from which stories spring by doing.

And with positive and negative visioning we produce visions of how it could be, giving us something to work on instead of the terrifying unknown, and therefore how to work towards the what and the how. So we become more confident in ourselves, seek less product-based ego boost, more resilient in our communities, and therefore more powerful when it comes to demanding change in society.

Well that was a good rant, but probably a rather poor and waffly event report. But I’ve found myself telling people about the great event so many times that I thought I better write it down.

Also much loved were ecolabs beautiful scenarios work, and the ministry of trying to do something about it‘s ration book, as well as the nef Great Transition book which has sparked some good discussions around and about.

Well done all!

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