A Good Community chatted with Dr Diana Ivanova, Research Fellow at the Sustainability Research Institute at the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds.
Her research focuses on the environmental impacts of our consumption, and the changes we need to make to save the planet. She was the lead author behind some recent research into the most effective ways we can reduce our carbon footprints.
Naturally we had to talk, and she had some great insights to share. We cover chocolate, how we can best take action and stay positive in the face of crisis, and why we should all work a four day week. Enjoy!
AGC: In your TED talk, you use an example of how eating a bar of chocolate is the equivalent to taking thirty showers. How do you stay positive now that chocolate is off the menu, so to speak?
Diana: I guess this is confession time, I do eat chocolate every now and again. The focus of that TED talk was making some of the supply chains and impacts happening in those supply chains more visible to the final consumer. Chocolate was a good example, as we rarely think about, let's say, the water that's embodied in chocolate consumption or the energy associated with it.
Going back to your question, I guess I have to break it down into several parts. How I stay positive in general, and how I can consider consumption in my life. When it comes to staying positive, I'm quite bad at it, actually. I have had moments when I feel really motivated, and I have other moments when I feel quite overwhelmed by the state of affairs, by the state of environmental and social affairs worldwide. And that usually fluctuates on a daily level.
“When we focus on the global level it's really hard to see where we make a difference, and it's really hard to see the ripples of our actions. But, on a more local level, that's much more clear.”
So I guess in some ways, I have developed things that help with that. But also, in some ways, it’s about accepting this. We live in very turbulent, unprecedented times. These are very challenging times for everyone who keeps themselves informed. So I think a part of it is to just accept, accept that it is that way, and that not everything is going to be positive and motivating.
When it comes to encouraging that motivation, things that work for me are staying active and engaging in different projects in the community or at home. Things where you could actively make a change so you can see the change resulting from your own actions. I find that to be quite helpful because when we focus on the global level, it's really hard to see where we make a difference, and it's really hard to see the ripples of our actions. But, on a more local level, that's much more clear. And really helps with motivation.
AGC: And the occasional bar of chocolate, maybe?
DI: The occasional bathtub glut. Consumption is important; it's definitely not something to be neglected. There's overwhelming overconsumption happening at the moment, and these levels cannot be sustained by the planet that we live on. So consumption is a very important element to tackle. But it's also important to see it from a systems perspective, to see how consumption is connected to production and to distribution, to the infrastructures in our cities and where we live, and to the different policies and the social norms.
“Once we see ourselves as change agents beyond consumers, the possibility for action opens up to other things that we could be doing.”
So, not only focusing on changing our consumption and how we think of ourselves as consumers, because that's a very limited perspective, in a way. We have some agency as consumers but, at the same time, we have agency beyond that. So it's important to not to stay limited in that way. Once we see ourselves as change agents beyond consumers, the possibility for action opens up to other things that we could be doing.
AGC: So you're talking about voting, for example, as another powerful, probably the most powerful, tool bringing about change in action?
DI: Voting is one and beyond that as well. We are change agents in our communities. We can influence the environment at our workplace, we can influence our family members, our friends, we can influence members of our communities. Those of us who work as policymakers, for example, have a larger capacity to influence that. Where I'm based in the UK, everyone could write to their MPs and give feedback about what kind of policy changes we want to see happen. We should open up the different perspectives and try not to limit ourselves in terms of how we change the world that we live in.
"It's also important to recognise that historically different agents have contributed more to the problem and benefitted from it."
AGC: There seems to be a passing of the baton when it comes to who’s responsible for the climate crisis, people blame businesses but then businesses say that they’re just serving consumers. Where do you feel the responsibility for combating the climate crisis lies?
DI: I think everyone carries responsibility for addressing and mitigating climate change. I find it unhelpful to pass blame or responsibility on other agents as this basically leads to inaction. But, at the same time, I think it's also important to recognise that historically different agents have contributed more to the problem and benefitted from it. If you think about cumulative carbon emissions, for example, there is work that connects a handful of companies (fossil fuel actors) to the majority of carbon cumulative carbon emissions, which is the driver of climate change, right. So then, obviously, a lot of responsibility lies there. Think about what we could do, but also give feedback to other actors and encourage them and support them to be more active in the pursuit of solutions to climate change.
AGC: And so how do you feel about the levels of information regarding climate change?
DI: There is evidence for the spread of misinformation and maybe lack of attention in the media. There could be much more attention in the media. But we should also look into why there isn't attention, because that didn't just happen, right. There is a lot of powerful interest behind this miscommunication behind the lack of attention on these issues. These are things that we should explore and talk about openly.
AGC: For those news outlets that do focus on climate change, or give it attention to some degree, what are your thoughts on their narrative around it, do you think they communicate it well? Do you think the way they communicate it is effective?
DI: I don't know if I can generalise, because there's quite a lot written on climate change issues and ways to address climate change. There's quite a lot of diversity. Something that could be explored more are alternatives such as degrowth, for example. What could that offer as an alternative vision for a good life within planetary boundaries? That is an interesting narrative that has not been explored in the media.
AGC: The work that you do is vitally important and you do a lot, but you only work four days a week. Do you really work four days a week?
DI: Yes. I started working four days a week about a year ago. It's been really great and has freed a lot of time for other activities. Democracy, for example, requires time. If you want to be more involved in change, you have to make time for that. After an eight hour working day, you're so drained you really don't have any capacity for anything but eat and sleep and watch a show.
AGC: Sure, I also read that working less will help combat the climate crisis because factories close for one day a week as well.
DI: Working less has been connected to a lot of social and environmental benefits. One is on emissions because when we work less, we also earn less, we have less income and that would translate into consumption. We could receive wellbeing from other activities, non-consumptive activities, and that would result in lower emissions overall. On a macro level, it can help to reduce unemployment and income inequality, and improve health and other aspects of wellbeing.
AGC: It must be nice to have a 4 day week. What do you do with the extra time?
DI: Depending on the week, I fill it with different things. But yeah, it could be it could be just different projects in the house or out of the house or going somewhere or just having a rest and slowing down.
"I find it very motivating when I see the power of kind of self organising, and I think historically, a lot of wins have been related to this community action and self organising."
AGC: What would you say has been the biggest win that you've seen for the environmental movement?
DI: I was very influenced by the climate protests that have been happening, mostly last year. I think the biggest one was several million people protesting in one day of all generations with very diverse backgrounds. So that was motivating to see people get organised and demanding a change in that way. I find it very motivating when I see the power of kind of self organising and, historically, a lot of wins have been related to this community action and self organising. If we want to go beyond kind of marginal changes, we really need that level of organising.
AGC: What would you like to see happen in the coming years?
DI: I would really like to see some drastic action on climate change, some really massive shifts. That's what I want to see. This year there's been a reduction in emissions, mostly due to the economic slowdowns associated with the COVID. But the only reductions in emissions have happened when there has been an economic crisis. To me shows the lack of ambitious, coordinated action. Nothing coordinated has made a dent in the emission trends.
"When you bridge the gap between the experts, the evidence, the climate evidence and people and you explain the issue, people are on board."
AGC: We spoke to someone a few weeks ago and they said that we’re not going to get people to change their behaviour, so we’re going to have to rely on technology, for example electric flights or hydrogen powered planes and ships and cars.
DI: Every now and then I also hear people say people don't want this and, to be honest, I really want to see that claim backed up. There is actually some evidence against that. There was the Leeds people's climate assembly, for example. When you gather people as a small representative sample of the city, from various backgrounds, and when you really explain to them the issue and how that's connected to the way we live, then people are very onboard with reducing energy demand in various domains, transport included, because transport is actually the biggest driver of emissions.
"If you don't have the structure factors in place, it's really difficult for people to adopt the change, to adopt the low carbon lifestyle."
People are really on board. One of the recommendations regarding flights was to reduce the airport capacity here locally. So when you actually communicate, and that goes back to the earlier questions about communication, when you bridge the gap between the experts, the evidence, the climate evidence and people and you explain the issue, people are on board.
Another piece of evidence, actually, was a survey after or during the first lockdown here in the UK. They showed that only 9% of people wanted to go back to normal. Most people appreciated the slowing down of life the most, the reduction in air pollution, the reduction in traffic, the reduction in noise and all of that. People appreciated that. But, if you don't have the structure factors in place, it's really difficult for people to adopt the change, to adopt the low carbon lifestyle.