Open Thinkering


Tag: climate emergency

I’m not flying any more

Update: a lot has happened in the world since I wrote this post. I’m still committed to reducing my environmental impact, but a blanket ban on flying just places too many of the world’s problems on my own shoulders.

Flight departures board with all flights cancelled

I have decided that I’m not going to fly on aeroplanes any more. We’re in a climate emergency, and this feels like an appropriate and proportionate decision to make in response.

The last time I flew was in March 2020, coming back from Belgium. In the three months prior I’d also been to Kuwait City, Barcelona, Reykjavik, and NYC. Given the glamour traditionally associated with international flights, it’s difficult to talk about this in a way that doesn’t sound like humblebragging. But I don’t particularly like flying: I don’t like airports, I don’t like not being able to stand up and move around regularly, I don’t like the recycled air, and I don’t like the food. What I do like is travelling to new places and meeting people face-to-face. From now on, with no planes, that’s only going to happen via train or automobile.

There are, of course, people who have flown a lot more than me, but if we look at the big picture I was definitely in the top 10% of flight-takers, and some years (like the one I spent 24 hours in Florida) I would probably be in the top 1%.

Prior to the pandemic, if I wanted to be paid for speaking at an event, I had to be there in person; remote keynotes were not very common, and where they did happen, they often commanded a lower rate. These days, especially as people realise the environmental impact of travel, I suspect that might have changed forever. At least I hope so.

This decision, of course, not only affects me professionally but personally as well. Team Belshaw enjoyed holidays in New England and Iceland in 2019 — two places it’s very difficult to get to from the UK other than by air. We’re also quite fond of Gozo, a little island just off Malta that we’ve visited six times in the last decade. Regardless, we’re going to have to find new places to holiday. At least, if I’m tagging along.

It’s important to note that while this decision may constrain the decisions other members of my family can make, I am not making decisions on their behalf. When I stopped eating meat in 2017, the rest of my family continued until my son came to his own decision to stop in early 2020. It was his prompting that got us both to stop eating fish in February of this year.

There is one exception to this decision: health emergencies. If a friend or family member is seriously ill, I will take the fastest form of transport to go and see them. Likewise, if I am seriously ill and need help in a specific place, I will consider flying for treatment.

Other than that, I’m done. I’m writing this mainly to point to for those who may ask me in future to attend an event that would have only really been feasible for me to fly to. But I’m also writing it as a public declaration to keep me honest when I see cheap flights advertised. (How can the UK government seriously be cutting air passenger duty after declaring a climate emergency?!)

So if I’ve sent you a link to this post because you’ve invited me to an event or gathering, thank you. I’m not declining to come because I don’t want to attend, but because, as Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”

The End of Vigilance

Prison watchtower

A few months before the pandemic came to obliterate what previously counted as ‘normal life’, a friend of mine died. He passed away peacefully and unexpectedly in his sleep and so never knew the ferment of the last 18 months.

For those of us left behind, life continues as something between a simmer and a rolling boil, with us uncertain as to when and how we should ever relax. We remain eternally vigilant, but without the spoons to do anything with our hyper-awareness.

In a recent newsletter Stowe Boyd includes an article quoting a doctor describing the condition in which many of us find ourselves:

“When people are under a long period of chronic, unpredictable stress, they develop behavioral anhedonia,” Dr. Wehrenberg said, meaning the loss of the ability to take pleasure in their activities. “And so they get lethargic, and they show a lack of interest — and obviously that plays a huge role in productivity.”

Earlier this week, feeling like I needed to do something with my life, I took some time to complete the Get Off Autopilot worksheet provided by The Fioneers. Of the six areas covered, my satisfaction levels were lowest for ‘fun and play’. If I’m suffering along with others from behaviour anhedonia it would certainly explain why I’m filling my free time with video games and not, say, learning a new language or instrument.

It’s doubly-difficult at the moment for parents. We’re exhausted. In early September, despite Covid cases being 26 times higher than this time last year, we’ll be waving our kids off to school each morning. At 14 and 10, respectively, they’re unvaccinated. The chances of them catching Covid isn’t 100% but it isn’t far off, especially as the viral load of the Delta variant is 300 times that of the original strain. I try to comfort myself with studies tentatively showing that catching and recovering from Covid gives 13 times more immunity than vaccination. But in my heart of hearts, I don’t want our sporty-but-mildly-asthamtic kids to catch it. Of course I don’t.

Writing in The Atlantic, Dan Sinker, who I had the pleasure of working with for a time at Mozilla, comments on being a US-based parent sending their kid back to school:

It’s a real monkey’s-paw situation, because, as a parent, all I’ve wanted for a year and a half is for my kids to go back to school—for their sake and for mine—but not like this. Now I’m stuck wishing that the thing that barely worked last year was still an option, because what’s looming is way worse.

He goes on to say something that I’ve felt for a while but haven’t dared to express: that parents are past breaking point. When you don’t feel like you can adequately prevent harm for your offspring but merely deal with its consequences, this has a devastating effect on your mental health:

All this and parents are somehow expected to be okay. We are expected to send our kids off into God knows what, to work our jobs and live our lives like nothing’s wrong, and to hold it all together for months and maybe now for years without ever seeing a way out. This is not okay. Nothing is okay. No parent is okay, and I’m not sure how we come back from this.

Parents aren’t even at a breaking point anymore. We’re broken. And yet we’ll go on because that’s what we do: We sweep up all our pieces and put them back together as best we can. We carry on chipped and leaking and broken because we have no other choice. And we pray that if we can just keep going, our kids will survive too.

Given the ages of our kids, my wife and I can’t work and homeschool without remote learning being provided by schools. Now that’s off the table, we have no choice but to send them into the Covid swamp if we want to survive economically. We’ve tried to limit their screen time. We’ve tried to ensure they don’t gain too much weight. We’ve spent a small fortune on sending them to various sports camps over the summer.

Right now, I’m doing the mental equivalent of crossing my fingers and hoping for the best. Eighteen months into this pandemic, I’m burned out as a worker, as a parent, and as a functioning member of society. My concentration span is non-existent and my anxiety levels are through the roof.

In the early weeks and months of the pandemic, there was hope that a ‘new normal’ would emerge from this mess that would give workers stronger rights, reset our collective relationship with capitalism, and would help fix the climate emergency. I was optimistic about these back then; now, not so much.

Yesterday, I happened to revisit David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech. In it, he talks about one of the values of a liberal arts education being able to switch your attention from the self-centred universe we all inhabit towards providing some empathy for others:

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

What he describes is a Stoic ideal to which I aspire but feel I can no longer attain. The words on the page which I agree with in my head I find it harder and harder to feel in my heart.

I can see an empathy gap widening in our society: one which lets in demagogues who exploit our mushy pandemic mental states to promise a better world. This world will be one filled with borders, security, and a strict hierarchy. And we’ll accept it, just so someone else can be vigilant on our behalf.

Image from an original by Josué AS

It is a folly to expect men to do all they may reasonably be expected to do

I live in Northumberland, one of the most sparsely-populated counties in England. In fact, at a mere 64 people per square km, there’s only five places less populated. To put that into perspective, areas of London tend to have between 10,000 and 15,000 people per square km. Yet both Northumberland and London are aiming to achieve ‘net zero’ by 2030. One of these targets is ambitious.

You’ll forgive me for looking at Northumberland County Council’s (NCC) Climate Change Action Plan 2021-23 and raising my eyebrows at the list of the ‘progress’ made since the last report:

  • Decarbonising council fleet vehicles (without explaining what this actually means)
  • Installing 12 public EV points
  • Giving away 15,000 free trees

Fair enough, there has been the Covid-19 pandemic to deal with. And yes, there are a mere 322,000 people living in the county. But still, this is unambitious in the extreme. If you weren’t, like me, seeking out this information, you would be living your life oblivious that the council declared a climate emergency two years ago.

As I shared on earlier today, BBC News reports that many councils who have declared a climate emergency have policies inconsistent with their goals. Here in Morpeth, the county town of Northumberland where I live, a school was knocked down and replaced with a car park. All parking is free here, so parents drop their kids at school and go shopping. Rural buses are noisy, antiquated, polluting vehicles that people avoided even before the pandemic.

Perhaps I’ve missed the meaning of ’emergency’?

Last week, the IPCC report painted a stark picture for human survival on this planet. A few days later, an NCC climate change newsletter included this as its second paragraph:

According to the report the Earth is projected to hit 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming by 2030, a full decade sooner than previously thought. If we do everything right, we can go back down to 1.4°C by 2100.

I’m not sure how someone can read the IPCC report and have that as their main takeaway. The main suggestion in the newsletter is that Northumberland residents take a look at a dashboard that NCC has created in Tableau. For my postcode, it’s suggested that the average house would need to plant 34 trees. The trouble is, of course, that carbon offsetting doesn’t work. Also, the other proposal, that we replace our combi gas boiler with an air source heat pump, would not only cost us thousands, but would need a backup in cold weather.

So I’ve been in touch with the climate change programme manager at NCC expressing my dismay at the tone of this newsletter and the paucity of ambition. Counties like Northumberland should already be carbon negative and certainly need to be by 2030. To have the same goal as huge cities like London (to be net zero) by 2030 shows a real lack of leadership.

As a side note, I’ve tried to find other non-council bodies doing work in the North East of England. There’s Climate Action Network Northumberland which put pressure on NCC to declare a climate emergency. Sadly, they seem to only exist on Facebook and (from what I can see) talk about recycling and sharing news from elsewhere. Then there’s Climate Action North East which have zero upcoming events listed on their website — although they did get back to me via Twitter DM to explain how Covid has affected their organisation. Other than that, all I can find is Blyth Valley Climate Action via the Friends of the Earth website who merely have a contact form.

When I got in touch with NCC I made it clear that I’m willing, presumably along with plenty of other people, to invest time and energy to helping Northumberland get beyond net zero. In my case, a day per week. But without an architecture of participation, everything is down to ‘engagement’ with the council which is a codename for ‘controlled interactions’. Having a climate champions programme might sound useful, but in reality it acts as a bottleneck to action. As I sometimes ask new clients, especially charities and NGOs, “what would you do if a thousand volunteers showed up tomorrow?” The trouble is that too many organisations, NCC included, wouldn’t have a clue.

There’s an NCC climate event at the end of September which I’ve been asked to wait for so that I can be be told how I can get involved. I’m used to working with others at the kind of pace where, in five weeks time, we could have a whole new network up and running… 🤔

Dithered image based on an original by Karsten Würth. Quotation-as-title by Archbishop Whately.