All Shapes and Sizes
Many years ago while at college, I took a course in ‘Catastrophe Theory’ – the name may sound apocalyptic but bear with me, it’s not. It is a mathematical approach to describing a situation involving conflicting pressures.
Let's apply it to a situation close the hearts of many of us. Transition burn out. We could boil down the Pressures involved to just two (it is of course a gross simplification but then that's maths for you):
- Environmental worry/concern/guilt - an inner need to do something, and
- Pressures on our social/family life - a feeling that we are neglecting those close to us (which may include ourselves).
Finally, there is an Action resulting from these pressures - we can get involved or pull back, with lots of possible levels of commitment in between.
Now the elegant feature of this theory is that if there are just two such variables involved then the maths proves that they can be described by just one model, one surface, one shape. There are more complicated shapes for each increase in the number of variables, but let's keep it simple. So here is the shape, applied to our Transition example….
Danger - Long Drop!
The two horizontal axes indicate the two pressures (variables) imposed on our Transitioner. The vertical axis shows the possible level of action. At any point in time the person's predicament puts them somewhere on the curved surface - they cannot exist off it. So they will stay put provided none of the variables change or they will move on the surface if something does change. Let's look at what that could be:
One way to cope, or at least prepare for smooth personal transition, is to try to reduce your level of environmental worry (path 1). So you decide that you have seen enough apocalyptic films and read enough 'end of society' books. You have informed yourself, accepted the scale of the problem and now are just focused on doing something about it. Whatever you can. That's fine.
Easy Way Down (or Up)
If personal pressures build, for instance your friends or family say they never get to see you any more (path 2), then you can alter your level of involvement gradually because you no longer have the immediate level of worry that drives you to do ever more. The benefit of this is that you will not risk falling off the cliff (path 3) when the high level of conflicting pressures could drive you to just drop out - and feel guilty about everything in the process.
Note that it need not be a continuously changing process, if the levels of guilt and exhaustion (let's be positive and call them environmental commitment and relationship harmony) remain constant then you will find a state of equilibrium that allows you to cope, hopefully more or less happily. The green stars in the chart show a few of these.
So what is the point of all this? Two things. Firstly the model gives a structure to help explain how to avoid sudden change, which is 'a good thing' if you believe that such change causes turmoil, disruption and stress, with many of the most vulnerable losing out.
I say that the same shape applies to any system with two conflicting variables.
Here are a few more, using our Transitioner example as the guide, remembering that these are just one person's (my) interpretation of each situation:
|Subject||Cost of Action||Threat from Inaction||Sudden Change||Smooth Change|
• Family Alienation
• Feeling of hypocrisy
|• Drop out
• Join Initiative
|• Seek appropriate involvement/ concern/life balance|
|• Effort/Cost of Energy Saving Measures||• Rising Heating Costs||• Debt
• No heating
|• Comfort/ Manageable heating costs|
|Top Gear Watcher||• I don’t want to give up my car||• Rising motoring costs||• Can’t afford fuel prices/road tax
• Forced to sell car
|• Need I use it so much?|
|Politician||• Rising green taxes
• Unpopularity amongst unconvinced electorate
• Lack of political consensus
|• Environmental crises||• Drop green agenda to win election
• Impose food rationing
|• Planned strategy to combat climate change
• Public education of issues
Restricted Area - Off Limits
One additional point about the blue shaded surface. That is an area of instability, where we cannot stay for long, if at all, and will likely flip suddenly to the surface we were heading for. How do you interpret this? It could be a time of rising debt, or using up reserves. So the Transitioner eroding the goodwill of her/his close friends, the householder is not able to pay their energy supplier, or humans are filling the atmosphere with unsustainable levels of CO2. It cannot go on. But that's just my interpretation.
So you can see, I like such structures and analogies to help me explain a new situation. But I may have lost many of you by now. Which leads me to my second point: that to reach a wider audience we have to avoid being seen to be appealing to one audience, be it the maths geek role that I have assumed or just the ‘traditional environmentalisty types’. Our message or space must be broad enough to be shared with those off all types including those who “enjoy ‘Top Gear’, who work in industry, or who drive trucks for a living”. I am not saying that they will be persuaded by this particular message but we should find ones that can, and perhaps challenge our own personal preferences or prejudices in the process.
Carbon Watched is Carbon Avoided
In fact we already do this to some extent. We have lots of facts and numbers for those who like them. Our Transition energy groups talk about sustainable energy, how to make informed decisions and the return on investment from energy savings measures.
I am not advocating compromising our beliefs but rather finding more ways that they can be shared. Is it unreasonable to say that Top Gear is in fact one of the most environmentally beneficial programmes on television? Why? Because it meets the speed/power cravings of millions of people every week without them having to burn any carbon except to power their televisions.
Does it lead to them buying a fuel guzzling car? I doubt it. They probably get back on their bike, on the bus or into their fuel efficient family car on Monday and go off to work. For many currently outside the Transition camp are not so different from us. Some just prefer Top Gear to ceilidhs. And where they do so or are persuaded by different approaches we must find ways to bridge the gap. By having messages that embrace, not alienate. And communicate in more diverse ways.