The haunting tones of an excerpt from Neil Young’s latest album, Earth, heralded the start of the second RSA Watch Oxford. A dozen Fellows, from a representatively wide range of occupations, ages, and types of institution, met to explore climate change and leadership.
Climate change – that major alterations in the earth’s weather systems are happening as a result of human activity – is an incontrovertible fact as far as the scientists who have studied these things are concerned. Yet, politicians (and the electorate who give the power) seem reluctant to act in what seem like obvious ways to prevent these conditions from worsening, to restore them where possible, and to adopt resilience where they can. Equally, the public seem averse to making simple lifestyle choices that would, again incontrovertibly, have a major impact on the earth and its well-being. Why?
Have reason and logic taken us as far as we can go? What will it take to stir us into a new way of being?
Taking inspiration from the RSA’s report on climate change, and subsequent meetings held in 2015, the group began by considering the hopeful message for humanity, shared by Sir David Attenborough in conversation with Tim Flannery, just before COP21. They were less convinced by his analogy of the repeal of slavery, but the idea of a huge change in the moral perspective of humanity did gain some traction. As different Fellows observed, we’ve seen tipping points reached in the wearing of seat belts, and the use of mobile phones. What needs to happen to see a similar point being reached with the recycling of waste, adoption of low energy lighting, and universal adoption of retrospectively-fitted insulation in domestic properties?
It was the recited work by George the Poet, at the RSA event in June 2015, illustrated by Katie Halil as an RSA Short, that perhaps provided the most pointers to the nature of the problems we have in making in-roads into the public perception of climate change, and how ‘citizen-leaders’ need to respond. As he identified, there are experts, and we need to know enough and to have open but critical minds to accept what they say with intelligence, and to build on it with our own expertise. We need to trust them as we would have others trust us. Society has reached a point where we have convinced ourselves that there are no alternatives to an earning and banking mindset. Yet, that is exactly what we do need to see – that we need to be motivated less by the accumulation of wealth and more by doing things we can be proud to talk about – to thank ourselves for – and by that we mean things that create a better world. George’s challenge is for citizens to be the leadership – to take our politicians and policy-makers with us, through ground-level collaboration, rather than allowing them to shape our lives the way they wish.
Stimulated perhaps by a refill of their glasses, our Fellows seemed to embrace this well. The idea of being leaders in their communities, of using the guile of politics and local action, to inform, to challenge thinking at a personal level, preset alternatives where others choose to present none, appealed to them. Working in our small groups, the focus at this stage seems to have been on bringing together disparate parts of the society in which we live. Some were for making the message of science more engaging; others had ideas to work across generations; while creating shared platforms within communities appealed to others.
Neil Young has a long track record in environmental activism and raising awareness of issues that impact the Earth. In 2016, Matthew Taylor, the Chief Executive of the RSA, interviewed him after a performance in the UK. Unfortunately, this was a long interview, and there isn’t (yet) an edited version, so we settled for a shorter one with Cerys Matthews to inspire our conversation. Young’s latest album is a wide-sweeping, and highly creative, way of bringing many environmental themes to our attention; the relationship between large for-profit corporations and legislative processes, the impact of GMO and the vested interests of firms like Monsanto, the relationship between health, what we consume, and how we produce it, all feature in his music. In creating the album, he gave voice to social media, using ‘Android harmonies’ to provide a backing vocal. Music, itself, is not immune to degradation. As Young points out, in the 70s and 80s, when music went through a kind of renaissance, we were all used to hearing it in ‘high definition’. Today we listen to sampled versions, rarely experiencing the full audible range in an unadulterated form.
So, the Fellows, deepened their conversation; perhaps inspired by George’s ideas of citizen-action, perhaps by ways of embracing the large for-profits, perhaps by subliminal messaging within music. One left with an agenda to shape a conversation with Google executives around infra-red imaging. One with a range of local groups with whom, as Fellows, we might engage. Another stepped forward with a possible theme for our next RSA Watch Oxford, which is scheduled for April 24th.