Sunday, 27 June 2010

How we talk about climate change and the environment

Have you ever found yourself talking with someone about environmental issues in general, or about climate change in particular, and you have the feeling that the conversation is somehow just not connecting? That you're speaking somehow 'past' each other without really communicating? One of the reasons for this is that we start from our own deeply held assumptions about how everything fits together, and the ways we speak will - probably unconsciously - mirror that. And ditto for the other person. If we have fundamentally different starting points, or metaphors for thinking about the earth, then our ways of speaking just won't connect.

The study of this kind of thing is called 'discourse analysis', and there's a very useful little book about it, applied specifically to environmental issues:

John S Dryzek
The Politics of the Earth: environmental discourses
(Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 2005)

In a way, this is a textbook - but don't let that put you off! It's well laid-out, accessible and very helpful in understanding those dead-end conversations, and working out how to handle them differently.

Dryzek explains the discourse approach, and then starts with a simple classification of environmental discourses: on one axis, they might be 'prosaic' or 'imaginative'; on the other axis they could be 'reformist' or 'radical'. This gives us four basic positions (p.15):

                                reformist                       radical

prosaic                    problem solving (ii)       survivalism (i)

imaginative            sustainability (iii)           green radicalism (iv)

He then gives us the elements that he will look at within any of these positions (p.19):
- what are the basic entities recognised (or constructed)?
- what are the assumptions about natural relationships?
- what/who are the agents and their motives?
- what are the key metaphors and rhetorical devices?

As examples of 'metaphors and rhetorical devices' he offers:
- spaceships (as in 'spaceship earth')
- the grazing of common lands (as in 'the tragedy of the commons')
- machines (nature is like a machine that we can tinker with)
- organisms (nature is a complex organism that grows and develops)
- war (as in war against nature)
- goddesses (treating nature as a benign mother)
. . . and so on.

Dryzek then offers us a checklist for assessing the effects of any particular discourse (p.21):
- what are the politics associated with this discourse?
- what are the effects on policies of governments?
- what are the effects on institutions?
- what are the social andcultural impacts?
- what arguments do critics of the discourse use?
- what are the flaws revealed by evidence and argument?

These two checklists of basic categories will be used to examine each of the 4 positions above.

In the next chapter, he discusses the position he has called 'survivalism' (i) and summarises it (p.41) using the categories he has already set out:
1. Basic entities
- finite stocks of resources
- carrying capacity of ecosystems
- population
- elites
2. Assumptions about natural relationships
- conflict
- hierarchy and control
3. Agents and their motives
- elites; motivation is up for grabs
4. Key metaphors and other rhetorical devices
- overshoot and collapse
- commons
- spaceship earth
- lily pond (see below!)
- virus
- computers
- images of doom/redemption

NB: The Lily Pond Metaphor
This is often used as a mtaphor for population issues:
* If a pond lily doubles everyday and it takes 30 days to completely cover a pond, on what day will the pond be 1/2 covered? [answer: day 29!]
* What will begin to happen at one minute past the 30th day?

Next, Dryzek looks at what he names the Promethean discourse - growth forever (a version of survivalism) - and summarises it under the same categories (p.61):
1. Basic entities
- nature as only brute matter
- markets
- prices
- energy
- technology
- people
2. Assumptions about natural relationships
- hierarchy of humans over everything else
- competition
3. Agents and their motives
- everyone, motivated by material self-interest [remember: this is the assumption made by people who take this position]
4. Key metaphors and other rhetorical devices
- mechanistic
- following trends

Dryzek next examines attitudes to solving environmental problems (ii), and looks at three in detail: 'leave it to the experts', 'leave it to the people', 'leave it to the markets'.

A: Leave it to the experts - administrative rationalism
1. Basic entities
- liberal capitalism
- administrative state
- experts
- managers
2. Assumptions about natural relationships
- nature subordinate to human probem solving
- people subordinate to state
- experts and managers to control state
3. Agents and their motives
- experts and managers; motivated by public interest, defined as a single, unified thing
4. Key metaphors and other rhetorical devices
- mixture of concern and reassurance
- the 'administrative mind'

B: Leave it to the people - democratic pragmatism
1. Basic entities
- liberal capitalism
- citizens
2. Assumptions about natural relationships
- equality among citizens
- interactive political relationships, mixing competition and co-operation
3. Agents and their motives
- many different agents
- motivation a mix of material self-interest and multiple conceptions of public interest.
4. Key metaphors and other rhetorical devices
- public policy as an outcome of forces acting
- policy is like scientific experimentation
- thermostats
- networks

C: Leave it to the markets - economic rationalism
1. Basic entities
- 'homo economicus'
- markets
- prices
- property
- governments (not citizens)
2. Assumptions about natural relationships
- competition
- hierarchy based on expertise
- subordination of nature
3. Agents and their motives
- 'homo economicus': self-interested
- some government officials must be motivated by public interest
4. Key metaphors and other rhetorical devices
- mechanistic
- stigmatise regulation as 'command and control' [NB: or, in Britain, as 'the nanny state']
- talk about 'freedom'
- horror stories

Now moving on to 'sustainability' (iii), Dryzek focuses on two versions of this position: 'environmentally benign growth' and 'industrial society and beyond'.

A: Environmentally benign growth - sustainable development
1. Basic entities
- nested and networked social and ecological systems
- capitalist economy
- ambiguity concerning the existence (or not) of limits
2. Assumptions about natural relationships
- co-operation
- nature is subordinate
- economic growth, environmental protection, distributive justice, and long-term sustainability all belong together
3. Agents and their motives
- many agents at different levels, transnational and local as well as the state; motivated by the public good
4. Key metaphors and other rhetorical devices
- organic growth
- nature as natural capital
- connection to progress
- reassurance

B: Industrial society and beyond - ecological modernisation
1. Basic entities
- complex systems
- nature as waste treatment plant
- capitalist economy
- the state
2. Assumptions about natural relationships
- partnerships encompassing government, business, environmentalists, scientists
- subordination of nature
- environmental protection and economic prosperity go together
3. Agents and their motives
- partners; motivated by public good
4. Key metaphors and other rhetorical devices
- tidy household
- connection to progress
- reassurance

And finally, Dryzek turns to 'green radicalism' (iv) and considers two dimensions of this: 'changing people' and 'changing society'.

'Changing people - green consciousness' encompasses: 'deep ecology', 'ecofeminism', 'ecological citizenship', 'lifestyle greens' and 'eco-theology'. While there are obviously differencces between these positions, he identifies certain common characteristics:
1. Basic entities
- global limits
- nature
- unnatural practices (eg: core sensibilities of industrial society)
- ideas (eg: idealism, change of consciousness)
2. Assumptions about natural relationships
- natural relationships between humans and nature that have been violated
- equality across people and nature
3. Agents and their motives
- human subjects, some more ecologically aware than others
- agency can exist in nature, too
4. Key metaphors and other rhetorical devices
- wide range of biological and organic metaphors
- passion
- appeals to emotions, intuitions

'Changing society - green politics' encompasses: 'green parties', 'social ecology', 'red and green' (green socialism), 'environmental justice', 'environmentalism of the global poor', 'anti-globalisation and global justice' and 'animal liberation'. Again, there are differences but also commonalities:
1. Basic entities
- global limits
- nature as complex ecosystems
- humans with broad capacities
- social, economic, and political structures
2. Assumptions about natural relationships
- equality among people
- complex interconnections between humans and nature
3. Agents and their motives
- many individual and collective actors, multidimensional motivation
- agency in nature downplayed though not necessarily denied
4. Key metaphors and other rhetorical devices
- organic metaphors
- appeals to social learning
- link to progress

What, asks Dryzek, would count as a 'conclusion' to this examination? He writes (p.232):
Any intelligent approach to environmental issues demands two things. The first is a dynamic, structural-level analysis of the liberal capitalist political economy, where it might be headed, and what realistically can be done to alter this trajectory to more ecologically benign ends . . . The second quality is the capacity to facilitate and engage in social learning in an ecological context. Environmental issues feature high degrees of uncertainty and complexity, which are magnifeid as ecological systems interact with social, economic, and political systems. Thus we need institutions and discourses which are capable of learning - not least about their own shortcomings.
One final thought from me: anyone reading this who is familiar with Spiral Dynamics might like to try mapping those categories onto Dryzek's - it's quite illuminating.

If the relationship between language and ecology is of interest to you, you might like to explore the Language and Ecology Research Forum.
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Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Woodbrooke gardens and grounds - the walled garden

My first post about the Woodbrooke grounds and gardens looked at the ornamental areas of the gardens and some of the wildlife and conservation areas. This time, I want to look at the walled garden; and in another post later on, I'll look at the other 'edibles', outside the walled garden.

Woodbrooke now calls itself a 'study centre', indicating its varied uses for adult education courses, retreats, conferences, meetings and other events. Formerly it was known as a 'college', and at its inception in 1903 it was, for a short time, called a 'settlement'.

If you double-click on any of the photos
you will get an enlarged version,
enabling you to see more detail.

Woodbrooke - the building
Built in 1830,Woodbrooke was the home of Josiah Mason (founder of Birmingham University) and his family. The present site was then farm and woodland just south of Birmingham - at that time a town, much smaller than the city is now. The original building is within the part rendered and painted cream.

This protective covering was probably added because the brick was not of the highest quality. The custom at the time was to quarry the materials for bricks nearby and to produce one’s own bricks on-site.

The likelihood is that the quarry was then landscaped to form the lake in the woodland area. The building was later used by George Cadbury to house his family and a considerable number of servants until some time after his second marriage.

When George Cadbury took over the house he added a walled kitchen garden. The head gardener and team of gardeners worked to supply fresh fruit and vegetables to feed the household, as well as cut flowers to decorate the house. The reliance on walled gardens faded after World War 1 - so many young men failed to return from the war, and this was a very labour-intensive way of supplying food. Many such gardens fell into disuse and ruin. In recent years there has been renewed interest in them, and many projects exist to rebuild and restore them. Restored and functioning kitchen gardens can now be found in some National Trust properties, and other stately homes open to the public. But there are also smaller and more modest schemes, and the Walled Kitchen Gardens Network provides expertise, support and encouragement.
At Woodbrooke, recent gardeners have been bringing Woodbrooke's own walled garden back into production.

At the far left back of this picture you can just see a gateway in the south wall of the garden. It's a wrought iron gate and was put in just a few years ago - to let the cold air out! The walled garden slopes downwards slightly from north to south - this is good for being angled to the sun, but it also means that cold air pools at the south end of the garden. This makes a frost pocket in the winter, and in the spring, when nights are still chilly, a puddle of cold air lingers well through the day - so nothing would grow there. So the iron gate creates a gap in the solid wall, so the cold air can continue to flow downhill and out of the garden, instead of collecting at the south wall.

The top (north) end of the garden has the greenhouse and cold frames, as well as the gardener's workshop and the compost bins.

view along the cold frames -
the covers are off as it's a warm,
sunny day - salad seedlings growing

Compost bins

The central area is laid out as a herb garden.

Plan of the herb garden

Also at the north end (thus on a south-facing wall) is a fig tree, trained against the wall for the warmth it provides.

 . . . and it bears figs!

The south end of the garden is a grid of shallow raised vegetable beds.

The eastern (west-facing) side is the soft fruit area

and the western (east-facing) side is a cutting garden, growing plants that provide cut flowers for the public areas of the buildings.


Also on the western side is a solar-powered water feature and pond - when the sun is shining, the water flows, and when it isn't, it doesn't!

The greenhouse has tomatoes gowing well, in sacks filled with Woodbrooke's home-made compost.

And is also used to raise young plants, some for later planting ouside, some (less suited to our climate) are grown wholly inside.

Basil plants and aubergines grow well in the protected environment.

Basil plants

Young aubergine plants getting maximum light at the top of the greenhouse.


Runner bean seedlings being raised in the greenhouse for later planting out - they will grow tall, climbing up rows of canes. 

Just in the corner of this picture, you can see some netting stretched over hoop made out of left-over hose, remaining after a plumbing job elsewhere in the building.

The netting is to protect the cabbages, both from pigeons and from cabbage white butterflies which will try to lay their eggs on the leaves, and the caterpillars will then destroy the crop. To the sides are small plants of kohlrabi - these will grow quickly and be harvested before the cabbages grow big and shade them. This is known as a catch crop.

Other catch crops are sown alongside the potatoes - radishes and salad rocket will grow much faster than the slow-matturing potato crop.

Produce from the walled garden finds its way onto menus in the dining room. Bunches of mixed herbs are taken to the kitchen, reminiscent of the Victorian kitchen gardeners who would take trugs of produce to the cook. The menu will say that a dish is 'with Woodbrooke herbs'. Seasonal food from the garden reminds us that year-round imported produce is a recent phenomenon, and not necessarily beneficial.

Garden volunteers with freshly picked radishes.

Produce from the garden appears on the menu as 'Woodbrooke radishes' or 'Woodbrooke beans', etc.

At this time of year there is a wonderful glut of rhubarb!

Here you see visitors at last year's garden open day being shown around the walled garden. Woodbrooke gardens are open this year, as part of the National Gardens Scheme ('the 'yellow book'). Come and visit us on Sunday 20 June, 2.30-5.30pm. There will be lots of ecological extras, excellent tea and cakes, craft stalls, the gardener and garden volunteers on hand to guide you. Come and join us!

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Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Catching up with LIzz's eco-challenges

A couple of weeks ago I introduced Lizz's year of eco-challenges. Since then, the Faith and Climate Change blog has been updated with some more of Lizz's experiences.

Last time, Lizz's blog was only updated to February, but her March experiences have now been added.

Lizz's challenge for March was that everything she bought or ate should conform to LOAF criteria. LOAF is neither about bread nor about lounging around on the sofa! It refers to the Christian Ecology Link's food campaign.

It stands for: Local, Organically grown, Animal friendly, Fairly traded. You can find lots of further information on online for

LOAF as a campaign applies to food, but Lizz's challenge for March was to apply it to everything. It's really difficult to tick all four boxes at once - because most 'fair trade' goods are imported from developing countries so, by definition, they aren't local. And the 'fair trade' logo is rarely seen as applicable to locally produced goods. One of the issues identified immediately by Lizz was : 'what about books?'  Many books sold under the label of UK publishers are in fact printed and produced in China - so, not local, then!

Lizz looks back and sees that she was much more consistently conscientious about all this when she had less disposable income. However, some people claim the opposite: consistently ethical buying is a luxury only affordable by the relatively well-off.

In her report on her March challenge, Lizz discusses clothes (made where?), shoes (to wear leather, or not?) and the question of charity shops, second-hand, and items given to her as gifts.

Then there's the question of furnishing and equipping a home - buying new? getting from Freecycle or Freegle? searching in skips? fair trade shops?

At the start of the month, looking around the area where she lives, Lizz discovered that:
The Co-op has some organic and fairtrade stuff, and a few vegan things, the Spar has soya milk and sometimes has a shelf with things sourced locally, the Tesco Metro up the road has almost nothing vegan (apart from fruit and veg), or organic, or specifically local or fair trade – apart from some tea and coffee. The greengrocers has veg though hardly any of it is organic and the nearby deli which I can pass on the walk to/from work with a little detour has lots of excellent eco, organic, local, animal friendly, and fair trade stuff too, though it’s expensive.
So, some of the country-wide chains have suitable produce (the Co-op is probably the best), but local independent shops might be your best bet - but, as Lizz says, may be relatively expensive.

Lizz also touches on how you stick with your principles when you're abroad - in her case Amsterdam, for work - and you might not have all the local information.

At the end of her month, Lizz concludes
if you continue to pay attention LOAF living isn’t so hard! It does mean there are some things you can’t or wont do but that’s ok! No Primark cheapies, that’s obvious but if you go for local and animal friendly and don’t worry about organic then you can go for value ranges. Some fair trade foods are a good deal – the Co-op is an excellent source of fairtrade staplef oods like tea, chocolate and rice.
You can read the whole of Lizz's March post on her blog.

Related to all this, there's a book I've just been looking at (ordered for the Woodbrooke Library, and just arrived). It's by Prashant Vaze and it's called The Economical Environmentalist: my attempt to live a low-carbon life and what it cost - published last year by Earthscan. You can read a review of the book on the website of the Financial Times. Linked to the book is an interactive website to help you cut your own carbon emissions.
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If you want to post a comment, and are having technical difficulties, you can email your comment to me at and I can post it for you.

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