How to sustain sustainability support projects? Ideas from Sustainable Harborough

For some time I’ve been interested in what it is about a community that helps or hinders initiatives to promote sustainable living. What I mean here isn’t how our context can help us to live a greener life, such as how doorstep orange bag collections make it easier to recycle household waste in Leicester. I mean how the organisations and initiatives that create an enabling environment to help us make greener lifestyle choices are set up and sustained. You could call these organisations and initiatives “enablers”. These “enablers” might be local authorities funding cycle lanes or setting up compostable waste collections, charities running events or workshops that bring people together to learn and share knowledge, and much more. So, how can these enabling initiatives be set up and sustained?

Our event on Thursday April 6th 2017 explored this question, with Gavin Fletcher (pictured) sharing the experience of Sustainable Harborough. Sustainable Harborough is a voluntary sector organisation employing four staff over five years to support the development of projects to make Market Harborough a more resilient town in terms of energy, food, water and wildlife.

Everyone present at the event lived or worked in Leicester, so our goal was to reflect on the extent to which Leicester is an enabling environment for sustainability initiatives, and what we could do or change if not.

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Does “theory” help to change behaviour? Ideas from Les Robinson’s Changeology

Les Robinson, author of “Changeology” joined us at DMU via the web on Monday 20th April, as part of the Spring 2017 Green Bridge events programme, to share his insights on designing projects and programmes to change behaviour to promote sustainability.

I’m a big fan of Les’s approach – it draws on academic research evidence, but is equally based upon what Les and others have found working in practice in a range of real-world projects.

Les’s slides and a recording of his talk can be accessed below – there’s an excellent mix of ideas to help understand behaviour, and practical ideas on how to influence it.

What I’ll mention here is one of the main ideas that he raised that people took away – how to work well with “theory”.

We talk a lot about theory in a university setting. In the social sciences, a theory is our way of offering an explanation or account of what seems to be going on in a situation. Les is with Kurt Lewin in thinking that “there’s nothing as practical as a good theory” – and a key part of the Changeology approach to designing initiatives is coming up with an understanding of what’s going on (by talking to and involving the people who the project affects/involves) and articulating a theory of change – that is, how the initiative will actually lead to the desired behavioural changes (see quote).

This sounds obvious and useful, yet it’s surprising how often these two steps don’t take place – I’ve certainly been guilty of it in the past, and many projects or research studies skip this step of clearly developing a theory.

“Theories of change are useful. How we think matters a lot. Failed projects usually fail because their thinking was wrong, not because their execution had mistakes. It’s good to be exposed to a lot of concepts and theories, so we have alternative ways of seeing and thinking. p.s. All theories are wrong.”

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Talking Climate at “Be the Change”

On May 3rd 2017, DMU held a 24-hour event, linking our staff’s knowledge with issues at stake in the general election through short talks and discussion. I like the ethos behind it. I’m with Flyvbjerg in wanting to take part in “social science that matters” – that is, as an academic, I have a role to play (as does my university) in shining a light on public debates, highlighting the values, power structures and facts in play.

I was invited to contribute in a one-hour slot along with several colleagues from IESD (Dr Richard Bull, Dr Andy Wright, Dr Janet Riley) and DMU’s sustainability co-ordinator Karl Letten. The topic, of being the change in relation to sustainability, is close to my heart and the focus of the Masters course I teach at DMU. Below I share some reflections on my own input and what happened at the event.

First up, for the hour focussed on sustainability and climate change, we had a very low turnout! The group of us who were either speaking or supporting the event were mostly talking to each other. I noted that this turnout mirrored the point that Richard Bull made in his introduction – the relative absence of climate change and wider sustainability concerns on the 2017 election agenda.

In my short talk, I linked this issue to one of the points highlighted in Corner and Clarke’s new book “Talking Climate”, which links up the research and practice of climate change public engagement. One of the ideas they talk about is “Climate Silence” – in a nutshell, that climate change is normally off the agenda of acceptable conversation amongst friends, family and colleagues. Some of the reasons for this are fascinating – I touched upon the unnecessary left-right politicisation that has emerged around the issue, and a psychological reluctance to engage with climate change due to the parallels with engaging with loss and death (see Crompton and Kasser’s “Meeting Environmental challenges – the role of human identity).

Corner and Clarke’s advice as a way out of this impasse is to get talking about climate change, and to start the conversation with our values, finding (some) common ground, and exploring how climate change affects the things that we hold important.

So, to put this into practice, I invited people present to share with a partner something about a place they care about, and how it might change because of climate change (maybe through climate-related impacts, or efforts made to adapt to or mitigate against climate changes). This offered an engaging way in to the topic for many people.

What emerged from the discussion included some changes unfolding now, such as villages at risk of flooding and how landscapes might change to support a low-carbon UK (for example, George Monbiot has argued for reforesting the lake district which would transform how it looks today).

Of course, these visions and options for the future are up for debate, but by starting our conversations with things that we can all either care about or relate to, such as a beautiful landscape, or homes secure from flooding, we can have mutually respectful conversations about shaping the future and empathise much more.

This latter point is the core argument of Corner and Clarke – climate change will be a contextual issue shaping decision making about everything for decades, if not centuries and millennia to come, so we’d do well to find ways to break the silience and include it in our deliberations.