Diseases of Modern Life

Prof Sally Shuttleworth of St Anne’s College University of Oxford discusses diseases of modern life – what we can learn from Victorian responses to change. She talks of astonishing rates of change – just look at journey times – that created bewildering changes to society, and brought forth both optimism and anxiety.

We discuss how a Victorian sense of duty came with a strong desire to improve things, with a sense of legacy for a future ourselves unknown. Also how technological development emboldened a imperial mentality. The Victorians were deeply aware of the tensions of industrialisation and fought for the survival of health and the environment – including through sanitary organisations. There is much we can learn from the responses to these “Diseases of Modern Life“.

People at all levels in Victorian society followed (and contributed) through books and periodicals – the latter being notable for what we would now describe as eclectic mix of subject areas – from engineering to arts to life sciences. The mill workers had a breadth of understanding that might surprise us now, including taking active roles in constructing scientific communities.

Prof Shuttleworth was in Dunedin as the William Evans Fellow in the Department of English and Linguistics at the University of Otago. Her work “Speed of Modern Life” involved a multimedia projection onto the side of the Richardson building (a collaboration with The Projection Studio). This piece tracks the transformation from rural communities to industrial production with an increasing pace and sense of pressure.


Social movements to change the world

Andrew Szasz

It will take major generational shifts rather than individual consumer choice.

Prof Andrew Szasz is a thought leader in environmental sociology. Professor and Chair in Sociology at UC Santa Cruz, he has written Shopping Our Way to Safety and EcoPopulism: Toxic Waste and the Movement for Environmental Justice.

We begin this conversation with his coming to America after starting his life in Hungary. Whether the streets were paved with gold, it wasn’t long before he was engaged in student social activism…

Talking points

I went to very first earth day…my vision of what to fight for in terms of improving American society, changed from anti-war and social poverty, justice issues to encompass a more environmental focus as well.

I didn’t grow up with nature – my parents were much more comfortable in a coffee house than the great outdoors…I didn’t connect the environment with the troubles in society until that (first Earth) day

Later, I travelled to the spectacular National Parks and really fell in love with the outdoors, that really cemented my interest – I became a sociologist and discovered a group of people, environmental sociologists.

I read an article that became the foundation document of environmental sociology, that said sociologists had neglected nature and were reproducing an exceptionalism that exists in the general culture that separates us from nature.

There was a general discussion (amongst my classmates) about what is the relationship between all this political activity, anti-war and so on, and how we are being prepared to work on individual psychological issues? A time of much broader questioning…so it wasn’t a great leap to what is this other dimension that we haven’t really considered yet?

I was drawn to sociology as one of the few places in academia where one could have a radical critique of society

I don’t think I ever wanted to become just an ecologist, a biological scientist, it was always about social change.

It was revelation to me, the race issues that were going on.

Moment where federal government was vastly expanding the regulatory state…the Clear Air Act, the Clean Water Act…the Environmental Protection Agency…a rapid expansion of regulatory apparatus putting controls on the private economy for the sake of worker’s health and for the general environment, for the sake of the population not being exposed to dirty air, dirty water. (But is was a) two directional movement, formation of regulation, and the mounting of counter attack, a backlash.

I’ve been interested in the role of non-social movement institutions, or entities who are not into climate denial but are quite powerful – who could then be the foundation of a climate change coalition – the insurance industry, the churches, and the military.

There’s a part of the national political elite that is in deep denial, and militantly so, and these are the same people who really like the whole military apparatus and are hawks in terms of foreign policy. But they don’t listen when the army, and the navy and the CIA come to them and say “hey, this is trouble and we’ve got to do something about it now”.

Climate change is a threat multiplier. Places in the world that are already having trouble feeding themselves, getting enough potable water – that’s going to get worse. There are going to be failed states, civil wars, potentially hundreds of millions of climate refugees. That’s a national security issue.

(you can’t build a wall against climate change) You can’t build a wall against anything.

(Green consumption isn’t going to get us there) Does green consuming have a politicising effect? Are your lightbulbs and your Prius materially decreasing the collective trouble. And then there’s the ideological or political effect, if you start thinking about your life in that way, is it radicalising? Do you broadly become an environmental activist? My argument is that it does the opposite (you’ve ticked that box), right, and there’s so many other things you have to worry about – your health, your family, ageing parents…and if you think you’ve protected your family by creating this green bubble, why do anything more? Other people have argued that it’s a first step, you go and make those changes and it sensitises you, next you’re going to the local farmers market and so on..

Consuming green has to do with consumer choice, you go to the market and there are pesticide apples and non-pesticide apples, but so much of our consumption is constrained. When you buy a house, you don’t design your own house, you go onto the housing market. The social geography is already in place and in many places in America this requires you to own your own car because public transportation is really weak and cities have sprawled out…so you can buy a car with higher mileage (but the big decisions are already taken). It will take major generational shifts rather than individual consumer choice.

There’s something going on in the younger generation that Bernie has revealed. We always knew that the younger generation was socially more progressive…we hadn’t realised that they may be also economically progressive.

(will it take a revolution?) I see some positive movements…(but) I think it will take a series of major catastrophes to focus the world’s attention, I hate to say that.

America’s a growth of irrational weird culture. Bizarre developments

(Superpower) Transition to non-polluting energy. We have to respect the desire of millions of poor people around the world for a stable society and lifestyle, and if you’re not going to kill off most humanity, seven billion people, then they’ve got feel secure and they’ve got to eat and you have to do that in a way that doesn’t cook the planet

(Success): Books I’ve written, and planning to write, try to foster a reassessment of climate change

(Activist) I do, First of all, I’m a teacher.

Every environmental sociology class I teach is divided half and half between making the students upset and depressed by telling them how awful their world is about to become and then spending the second half teaching them about the history of the environmental, worker and community based movements

I want my students to feel knowledgable but not hopeless.

People have in the past been able to clean up the cities, win the ten hour day, win the eight hour day, achieve safer workplaces…social movements really have had successes.

I want to leave my students feeling hopeful that collectively they can do something.

(Motivation) Understanding how things work and a sense of empathy for the rest of creation…and a sense of fighting for justice.

(Challenges) trying to change Sociology 1. Changing the textbooks, that’s the challenge we’re working on.

(Miracle): The disappearance of climate denial

Fair Trade food marketing

Fostering positive change

Will Watterson

With every dollar we spend, we vote for a certain kind of world.

Will Watterson works in advocacy and public engagement for Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand. Will was in Dunedin accompanying Fair Trade coffee grower Daniel Kinne. We discuss the role of Fairtrade, and explore the role of the story in fostering change, especially in ethical consumerism. We ask what is fair? and how to engage people in this process? (notably though campaigns such as the Great Kiwi Fairness Debate).

Talking points

Passion for social change and environmental change

I got involved in volunteering at the beginning of high school, I thinks that’s where I got my first taste of how it made me feel good to give to others and see other people’s lives improve and transform – and I’ve chasing that feeling ever since in the work that I do.

The idea of taking information and transforming that information into a story…to understand that human beings are story people. Our lives, and those of others around us inform our story.

Being able to take information…to distil it and shape it into story form, so that it is more easily digestible, and people are more easily able to connect it to their own lives and their own value systems, that’s what I learned in my undergrad (English Literature and Theatre).

The industrial revolution was very helpful in many ways – to mechanise as many things as possible, to remove us from the sources and human side of the things that we wear, touch and eat…what attracted me to Fairtrade…was not only the Fairtrade premium…but that I could pick up the coffee packet and read about Daniel and his cooperative in Papua New Guinea…and feel a little bit more connected to the human beings who are doing an incredible amount of work to grow and harvest the coffee.

What is the future that we are wishing to create? What is our utopia, where are we heading as a society? And we know that if everyone in the world lived the way Americans do, or New Zealanders, and consume the way that we consume, we’d need 4 or 5 planets to do that. It’s about acknowledging the fact that we do consume – we do take things from the planet, so if we can reduce the amount we consume, and the energy we use, fantastic..

It’s about acknowledging that every day we spend money, and every dollar we spend is like a vote. We’re voting for a certain kind of world with every dollar that we spend.
When you spend a dollar, are you spending on things that empower the people who produce that product? Are you spending your dollar on things that are supporting sustainable practices rather than unsustainable practices? It’s about becoming aware about where the things that we consume come from, and what kinds of practices and mentalities that we want to support with out consumer dollar.

I like to take a simple approach. I like it but do I really need it? Will it really make my life more fulfilling? Not necessarily – so we can reduce the amount of things we consume.

The things we do buy, need or want – do I need coffee? I love coffee, I’m going to keep buying it – so I’d like to know that the coffee I buy is grown sustainably and is empowering for the people who grow it.

It’s about creating platforms.

(Live below the line) A way of being to put ourselves in the shoes, however inadequate the metaphor is, for a few days, a week, of our brothers and sisters living in extreme poverty – I find that really powerful.

We are indebted to half the world.

The genesis of Fairtrade was the injustices, imbalances and inequities in global trade practices. Fairtrade has developed alternatives, but we want to move back into a space where we are protesting again. Still proposing the Fairtrade alternative, but working with the other players in the Fairtrade movement to protest those injustices that are still occurring in the global trading system.

In an ideal world, Fairtrade does itself out of a job as consumers demand transparency right through the supply chain system.

By buying the Fairtrade mark, you are supporting the infrastructure of being able to audit the transparency of the supply chain.

(Great Kiwi Fairness Debate) Exploring the notion of fairness…stealing people’s parks when they are about to turn in, or taking the last chocolate biscuit…then segway from everyday fairness to interacting with our global neighbours.

A lot of things we consume are made far away, but why should our ethical attitude be any different?

There’s no reason why Fairtrade should be more expensive if you accept that more of the value is going to the growers than to the other players in the supply chain.

The consumer has the ultimate say

As a consumer, I just want to know, is what I’m buying sustainable and ethical? And that’s what is great about the Fairtrade mark.

(Activist?) Change agent. People think of activist as an angry person who is walking down the street throwing things or carrying a big sign. I think there is a time and a place for getting angry. But at the end of the day, being an advocate for change, I’m an advocate for change there all kinds of levers you can pull on for making change, I’m a big fan of working alongside people, and working within to change policies.

It’s important to get messages out there, to continually have conversations at multiple levels of society about what is and isn’t working, and what needs to change and how we can do that.

People aren’t necessarily interested in the run of the mill, the average product any more, people are interested in the remarkable – things that have a story, that are special.

Being special, remarkable is the way of the future, and that doesn’t preclude have sustainable practices.

(Motivation?) Fairtrade coffee in the morning. Little things…inspired by impacts of stories.

(Challenge?) If you spend enough time, it’s easy for your friends, society to put you in a box “you’re that guy”. My challenge is to avoid being stereotyped. Constantly reconnect as mainstream kiwi whole just happens to be concerned about social and environmental issues.

I love New Zealand and our culture and the way we do things so much, I can’t not leave it alone. I can’t not be part of the group of people who are always looking at ways to improve it.

(Miracle?) If I was to wake up tomorrow morning and know that as I potter around my house, everything I am wearing and touching and interacting with, was produced with love, by someone who loved what they were doing and was living a happy thriving life wherever they were.

(Advice?) Look out for the Fairtade mark. Whenever you encounter these kinds of things, just take it one step at a time. Just change one little thing. I like my coffee, so I change that. Just take those little steps, because as you take one step and that becomes regular, it becomes a habit – and habits don’t take effort to maintain. As we build up those habits, suddenly we’ve transformed the way that we live and we’re far more sustainable and happy.

Other resources:
Global Focus Aoteoroa

Global Poverty Project

business design systems

Strategic sustainable products

Sophie Hallstedt

The trick is to make a business out of being more sustainable.

Dr Sophie Hallstedt is a researcher and lecturer at in the Department of Strategic Sustainable Development at
Blekinge Institute of Technology. Her research interest is sustainable product development and the question of how a strategic sustainability perspective can be integrated and implemented into product innovation process with focus on the early phases.

This conversation is one of a series of four recorded at Blekinge Institute of Technology Department of Strategic Sustainable Development in September 2014.

Talking points

Strategic sustainable development means you you take a strategic approach to the success ladder.

Supporting companies to consider sustainability as part of everything they do.

If you talk to individuals in an organisation, many are concerned about the unsustainable society that we live in, and they want to contribute…but as part of a bigger organisation it’s not always so easy to do that – to put that on the agenda when there are other issues that are putting pressure on the company.

You need to have a long term perspective. If you only look at today, you might have one choice, but if you look 10-15 years ahead, what would be the best alternative if you could then choose for today. It may be best to invest in the thing that is more expensive today but will in the long term be more beneficial.

We are developing support for including the long term in decision making. This is tricky because you don’t know what is going to happen. So we use scenarios.

We have a tool for visualising scenarios.

There’s a danger of reducing to economic terms if you do it too soon. You need to keep it as transparent as possible and also have a qualitative assessment. You need a dialogue around the results. This can be supported by the visualisation of the quantitative results.

It is harder for engineers to accept qualitative results…it helps to visualise it…but the qualitative story is needed.

(Can human rights, human suffering – less tangibles – be represented in a format that makes them equivalent to the numerical values in a decision support system?) You can’t. You can’t put a figure on some sustainability aspects.

But if you are going to support product developers, to support them in their decisions, their designs, then it may be important to help them go from the larger picture to something they can translate and compare.

To make a more sustainable product it is important to collaborate with your partners in its value chain.

Can a product be sustainable?) It depends on how you manage it for the whole lifecycle. It is very difficult to say something is sustainable. You might be able to say more, or less sustainable.

What is strategic sustainable development? What is a sustainable society?

(Role of ecology in engineering degree?) I would think it very useful, to see how everything is connected.

Everything is connected. Even a small change can have catastrophic consequences.

(Consumers). A big impact is to use with care so it lasts longer.

(Decision to buy, are we getting better at supporting through product design the decision not to buy) You have to take responsibility as a consumer, but yes, you will see more of that.

(Is there a sweetspot as a consumer?) A mix. There is a need for companies to make products that enable consumers to choose between alternatives.

To some extent we (as consumers) need to trust the producers that they have taken their responsibility seriously to make their product more sustainable, or as sustainable as it can be at the moment and have a road map.

(but we have to wade through a swamp of greenwash). yes, as consumer, your responsibility is to be aware of that. It’s quite hard, that’s why we have labeling schemes. These aren’t perfect, but they are better than nothing.

You should be aware of the labelling schemes, but you still have to take your own responsibility when you chose your product.

Issues such as ecological issues, production issues and so on are harder for the consumer to see, so these values have to be in the company – what is good for society is also good for us.

(On planned obsolescence) I hope and think there is another way to do products design, so they have a value for lasting a long time, maybe a modular system where you replace parts of the system.

3D printing may cause a new sustainability problem itself if overused.

(Activist?) I wouldn’t call myself an activist – I’m trying to inspire. I want to try to inspire and grow and have a seed to take a direct responsibility to continue to work.

(Challenges) Having companies taking a more active role in bringing in a sustainability perspective in business strategies. I working on describing more good examples so they can see it does have a value.

(Motivation) Trying to contribute, To inspire other people to work with it.

(Miracle) My wishlist would be to have more resources in companies to prioritise this area.

(Advice) Everyone can contribute in their field to a more sustainable society and you should do that – both as a person and in your profession