Over the summer I have been turning the pages of Richard Sennett's The Craftsman (2008) and Brian Morris' Pioneers of Ecological Humanism (2012). Each has an insightful take on the impact of industrialisation, capitalism and mass culture on human creativity, and on individual and collective agency. And together they set me thinking about a couple of contrasting events staged this summer. The first of these was convened by the United Nations to save our world. The second, sponsored by a number of global brands, was a protracted world sports day.
Morris reports how one of the subjects of his attention, the twentieth century thinker Lewis Mumford, interpreted mass sporting events as spectacles designed to emphasise 'competition, chance .. record-breaking, the cult of personality and high drama' [Morris, 2012: 31/32], and to 'make people indifferent to the values of life, and [that] are thus functional to the interests of the exploiting class.' [Morris, 2012: 47]
Whether or not you buy the intent, media coverage of and public interest in the London Olympics certainly far outweighed anything to do with Rio +20 Earth Summit. And where the Olympics have been almost universally lauded as a triumph of planning and human endeavour, Rio +20 has been largely written off as the damp squib it was fully expected to be. Numerous commentators have pinned this failure on the absence of political will to challenge business as usual and unfettered growth. In the aftermath of the summit, the WWF's executive director for conservation Lasse Gustavsson, observed, "sustainable development will have to happen without the blessing of world leaders."
Might sustainable development itself shoulder some responsibility for this reluctance of governments to tell it like it is and to take the difficult decisions? It's not so long since greens used activism and campaigning to raise awareness and apply pressure in response to the role of Western-style consumerism in wrecking our planet.
But a creeping concern that knowledge, even of impending disaster, does not necessarily yield behaviour change began to propel some prominent movers in sustainability to switch their efforts to converting knowledge into action. Often this meant employing the methods of social marketing, which typically entails talking up the immediate benefits of any desired change and pulling the punches on the bad news.
In the UK a rash of publications counselled against telling the hard truth. These included Warm Words, How are we telling the climate story and can we tell it better? [IPPR, 2006], Painting the Town Green: How to Persuade People to be Environmentally Friendly [Green-Engage, 2006], Climate Fear v Climate Hope: Are the UK's national newspapers helping tackle climate change? [Futura, 2006].
It's not easy to disconnect this approach from that lamented post Rio+20 by poet and environmental activist Paul Kingsnorth: "The neo-environmentalists are growing in numbers at present not because their ideas are new, but because they offer a business-friendly worldview which, unlike the tiresome old green message, is designed to make people feel comfortable about their plane flights and their iPads. Science and business will provide. Nature will adapt. Optimism is permitted again. Indeed, it is almost mandatory."
Sennett is as wary as Kingsnorth and Mumford of anything that distracts us from the hard truths:
'Sustainable suggests living more at one with nature .... establishing an equilibrium between ourselves and the resources of the earth - an image of balance and reconciliation. In my view, this is an inadequate, insufficient view of environmental craft; to change both productive procedures and rituals of use requires a more radical self-critique. A stronger jolt to changing how we have used resources would come in imagining ourselves to be like immigrants thrust by chance or fate onto a territory not our own, foreigners in a place we cannot command as our own... So great are the changes required to alter humankind's dealings with the physical world that only this sense of self-displacement and estrangement can drive the actual practices of change and reduce our consuming desires.' [Sennett, 2008: 12/13]
Each Olympic competitor dedicated thousands of hours to training, pushing themselves to new places in the bid to discover their absolute limits. I'm with Sennett, I think, in believing that we are unlikely to solve our current global crises without similarly strenuous application. As leading environmental educator David Orr put it:
'Winston Churchill, in saying, "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat", certainly was not being optimistic, but neither was he being pessimistic. He was, in that sense, being hopeful but honestly so. Odds are long. And there's going to be a lot of suffering before we get through this.'
Educators have a moral responsibility to not shy away from hard truths. Orr knows very well that this poses tough challenges in relation to motivation and engagement, but the alternatives are untenable. Olympic 5000m and 10000m champion Mo Farah has adopted the slogan "Go Hard or Go Home". We have no other home than Earth.