Sprats and mackerels

Are poverty alleviation and human rights work worth the carbon cost?

Just back from a return visit to Sierra Leone. I was working once again with MAPCO, the indigenous organisation engaged in poverty alleviation and human rights work that I spent time with in March. This time, I was helping them develop efficient monitoring and evaluation systems, to better enable them to track the impact of their work.

This feels like good and valuable work. And yet, how does this kind of activity sit with the whole carbon crisis? I pondered this on the flight out, while pouring over Mark Lynas’ excellent piece on the protest camp at Heathrow (In fact, when I had first seen the dates of my trip to Sierra Leone, I had been excited at the prospect of spending time at the camp. However, the more I read about the camp, the more difficult I realised it could be to move freely in and out – so, having signed a contract for the work, I prioritised the trip).

I have far more questions than answers on this whole question. Work like that I was up to in Sierra Leone is about building the capacity of pro-poor organisations and helping them develop tools for promoting the economic wellbeing and resilience of the poor through small enterprise development. I am one of many to have made a career out of this kind of work.

In addition, I am one of a number of people from within the global ecovillage family to have created a sustainability curriculum drawn from ecovillage experience – what we have called the Ecovillage Design Education (EDE). This training programme, that has been embraced by UNESCO as part of the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, transfers life skills that will be of the essence as we head down the energy descent curve.

At present, the core EDE faculty finds itself doing a fair amount of international travel as we build the capacity of trainers in different places to deliver this educational programme. ‘Using a sprat to catch a mackerel’ is the analogy I have heard used to justify the use of carbon in this way to leverage a greater long-term benefit.

The issue of air travel poses a major dilemma to the ecovillage movement as a whole – certainly to the Findhorn ecovillage. On the one hand, a significant portion of our income derives from participants coming on our courses. The proportion of those coming from the UK has risen steadily over the years and now stands at about 50 percent. Sill, a good number of those continue to come through Inverness airport.

The sprat-mackerel analogy, however, still holds good here; many leave transformed, refreshed and better equipped to get stuck into good community development work of many shades and varieties when they get back home.

On the other hand, we are a highly international community. At any one time, between 15 and 25 nationalities are represented in our resident community. This generates a lot of what George Monbiot has memorably called ‘love miles’ – travel to meet up with friends and family on other continents. My wife is a New Yorker – I understand the dilemma.

The Findhorn community’s ecological footprint analysis gave us record low scores on most consumption categories (food 32 percent of the national average, home and heating 21 percent, car mileage six percent and so on). In one category alone, air travel, did we exceed the national average – by a factor of two and a half.

It is clear that government policy needs to change: a halt to new airport development; removal of taxes on aviation fuel and other externalities associated with flying; inclusion of air travel emissions in greenhouse gas emissions targets. Our top priority needs to be campaigns towards these ends. The time is rapidly approaching for us to decide where we want to call home and to sink our roots there.

In the meantime, as we effectively use our sprats to catch mackerels, is there not a case for continuing to undertake strategic international work – made possible by air travel – to strengthen the capacity, spread the skills and build the networks we will all need in the low-carbon world that is opening up before us?

The world of business shows little inclination to restrain its appetite for air travel. In this context, should those of us engaged in sustainability and global justice work unilaterally forgo the many advantages that continuing (at least in the short-term) access to air travel provides?

As I said at the beginning, more questions than answers.