As Britain’s first Green MP with the backing of the UK’s first Green-led city council in Brighton & Hove, Caroline Lucas is a happy lady. She talks freely about taking local action, the Brighton Peace & Environment Centre and her love of Brighton’s art scene.
Information leads to action
Caroline believes that change needed for sustainability stems from taking action, not just taking a political stand point. Action begins with information and education.
“Information is the first step to change things,” Caroline says, adding that most global issues can usually be connected to the actions we take every day. Yet it’s not always easy to see the end results.
“Some issues seem remote, like the arms trade in the Middle East, but they might be supported by local business. Writing a letter to the head of a pension fund for example, may reveal that our money is propping up arms sales elsewhere,” she says.
Action in the community
Brighton Peace & Environment Centre (BPEC) is one of a number of organisations housed in the Brighton Eco-Centre which engages with residents on issues of sustainability, “Brighton heads the list of eco-aware cities, and I think it’s partly due to its vibrant third sector,” says Caroline, adding that the Community Base is also pertinent to the city’s eco status.
“Societies and community groups encourage individuals to act alongside other people so it’s more fun and more sustainable in the long-term. People feel more engaged.”
Before entering politics in her mid twenties, Caroline was an avid anti-nuclear demonstrator and has abiding memories of those days. “I was the membership secretary of Exeter C.N.D. and remember boarding a bus at 5.30 on Saturday mornings to travel to Greenham Common or Molesworth to protest and hang things on fences.”
“Greenham Common was exciting then in the same way that climate camps are now. Any issue that unites people with a cause to fight is bonding, she says while shuddering with the recollection of cold mornings with strangers on buses. “Funny thing is, twelve hours later, on the journey home, you all share your passion and it feels like you’ve known each other all your life. It’s a special, powerful feeling.
Cost of sustainable living
Cost is often proposed as the barrier to making sustainable living choices. The price difference between fair trade and organic versus bargain foods can be great, but in reality it’s the psychological barriers that prevent people making small changes. “People used to say environmentally friendly products were more expensive than their toxic counterparts, so being green became a middle class issue. While there was a bit of truth in that, the more it was spoken about, the more it was believed. But it is no longer the case.”
Competition in the green market is rife so prices are dropping, but as we are recovering from the economic downturn, the cost of sustainable choices is still a factor. Add to this the misinformation and ‘green washing’ – a phrase coined to describe the deceptive use of marketing and PR to promote companies and products as sustainable, when they are not – and we encounter more obstacles to making informed choices.
“Again this stems from getting accurate information and having access to the daily products and services we need. For a family living on an estate, without access to a car, buying their veg from a local delivery service may prove better value than supermarket lost leaders when you factor in the cost of public transport. Informed small steps like this allow each of us to take manageable, direct action,” Caroline says.
But how does local action influence the rest of the world?
Can action carried out in Brighton make any difference to people living with direct affects of climate change? It’s easy to opt out of action claiming that recycling, reusing bags or growing your own has no consequence to the world outside Sussex, but Caroline thinks otherwise.
“The intangible effects of knowing that people share your agenda and are joining you in your concerns cannot be underestimated. I worked with Oxfam for ten years and visited countries affected by poverty and climate change, I met lots of people who felt they’d been forgotten. I saw first hand what a psychological boost it was for them to know that individuals were taking action on their behalf.”
“Climate change is an abstract concept but when we put faces to phenomena and learn how real lives are affected, we create a relationship with people, not intangible arguments,” Caroline says adding that doorstep action does influence central government policy.
“Politicians generally don’t do more than what they think their electorate will stand for. So when individuals take action, such as weaning themselves off oil through ‘Transition Towns’ for example, it sends a message to government and changes politicians’ sense of what’s acceptable or is expected.”
As the populace are usually ahead of politicians, the more individuals demonstrate they care about interconnected issues – oil, climate, nuclear, education etc. – the more likely it is to be scaled up on the agenda. So if residents push to grow their own food, Caroline suggests that government can develop ‘policy enabling frameworks’ that require and enable local councils and business developers to assist this. “It creates tools for locals,” she said.
As a mum, Caroline understands the importance of getting global debates into children’s education. “Even without extra teaching resources, parents can take small active steps. If someone has done a VSO, it’d be good to bring that experience into school, or share their experience of working abroad or in a recycling plant for example.”
BPEC has a wealth of educational resources, most notably the lending library and teachers’ resource library with around 1000 specialist titles on issues such as climate change, global citizenship, fair trade, renewable energy, human rights and development.
Additionally The Green Pages is a comprehensive directory of local and ethical businesses while Climate Connections, a project delivered in partnership with BPEC, Brighton & Hove City Council and Oxfam, brings global issues to locals, connecting residents with their global counterparts.
A recent Ofsted report, ‘What parents want: the role of schools in teaching about the wider world’, commissioned by Think Global and conducted by YouGov, shows that almost three-quarters of parents think it vital that schools help young people to think globally. But cuts within the Department for International Development (DFID) have directly impacted the work of charities such as BPEC who specialise in this invaluable education and training.
“It bothers me that the school curriculum is constantly closed down rather than widened out. Schools are a microcosm of life experience and work such as BPEC’s help schools go beyond the minimum curriculum. The challenge is to ensure global learning is properly integrated, it needs to be implemented from an early stage otherwise it sits outside the agenda, as a luxury.”
As a working MP, Caroline visits many eco-schools such as Westdene Primary and Varndean School, where being informed and taking action are key components of the curriculum. “I’m so proud of them. The kids are excited that they are separating rubbish, recycling and making proposals to teachers. The responsibility helps them feel they are making a difference.”
Making links between the wider world and school excites and motivates students and teachers alike, and BPEC provides training and resources for schools to develop innovative ideas in their schools. Some schools grow food on a little patch of land, other teachers borrow artefacts to help teach French while learning about Morocco, or undertake training on developing connections with schools around the world.
Like the rest of us, Caroline needs to balance work and family with a bit of R&R, so she unwinds with sea air and walks in the downs, but she’s also a secret art lover. “I just love the overall art scene and that any day of the week there’s something on. And I love that Aug San Suu Kyi was honorary director of the Brighton Festival. For a city that sees itself as tolerant, open and free to link to a country where those values have been so hard-fought is fantastic and wholly appropriate.”
Linking Brighton with Burma, the ensuing support for the festival artists and performers, and the boost to the city’s economy, provides tangible evidence that concern about global issues does impact the way local people think, feel and act.
‘Do One Thing’
If circumstances prohibit you making sweeping change and you don’t have a pension fund to investigate, you can still ‘do one thing’ which for Caroline is swapping to a renewable electricity supplier, “It’s almost a no-brainer,” she says adding that it’s often cheaper and the paperwork is done for you. And you don’t need to install photovoltaic solar panels just use a ‘green’ energy supplier. Although with the government feed-in tariffs, if you do want to produce your own energy, homeowners can make good money on renewable energy.
The Brighton Energy Co-op promotes community-owned energy, which for Caroline is “about as green as it gets.” And Brightonians wishing to invest in green energy are lucky as the Co-op is looking for more roof space to install photovoltaic panels, and welcomes residents to help produce, and use, locally generated electricity.
So however you want to go about it, Brighton is a hot bed of resources and community groups designed to help each of us learn and take informed action. Being green is becoming remarkably easier in Brighton.