On my way to South America to attend three roundtable events for the STEPS project ‘Innovation, Sustainability, Development: A New Manifesto’. I just finished the first leg, London – New York City, where I plan to stay overnight to acclimatise to the time difference before I continue on to Venezuela.
About an hour into the flight I noticed an elder man seated behind me across the aisle. He was very obviously curious, looking over my shoulder to the laptop screen when I was fiddling with my presentation. He soon leaned way over toward me and said in a loud excited whisper “Miss? Miss? …Are you a revolutionary?!” I turned around and laughed in surprise, and said “well, depends what you mean by that. I try to be, in some ways. What do you mean by ‘revolutionary’?” He said “I mean, revolutionary like Lenin, Marx… I saw the word ‘manifesto’ there on your screen. So I thought maybe you were a revolutionary – like me.” I said no, this didn’t refer to the Communist Manifesto, rather the term ‘manifesto’ in this case was more generally meant as a statement of principles, a declaration, a platform. I told him that this manifesto was about how science and technology could better meet goals of social justice, environmental sustainability and poverty reduction [a side note belongs here on variation in cultural attachment and associations to definitions of certain words – like revolutionary, sustainability, development, poverty!]. We had a conversation then about revolution, social and political struggle, violence, non-violent revolution and pacifism. It turned out he is Nigerian originally, born and raised, then lived in France, where he did a PhD on Franco-African military politics. He now lives in NYC where he sells real estate (not easy these days, he reported).
“Are you a revolutionary?” Am I? Sounds thrillingly cinematic, a loaded term, but I can’t fairly say that describes me. What does it mean to be a revolutionary? Interesting thought to consider when the first of the three South American roundtables is Venezuela, if you’ve seen anything in the news on the Bolivarian Revolution. Sure, I intend to leverage my words and my hands (non-violently) toward enabling a more just world – socially, environmentally, economically, technologically… But here I am on a transatlantic, cross-continental journey, burning carbon airmile by airmile in order to learn/discuss about sustainability and development. How can I reconcile these contradictions? What can I do to satisfy the moral itching that comes with it? Where do I scratch? I thought about not going on this trip – both in terms of financial cost, exhaustion cost, and environmental cost. But then, I am optimistic that my presence at these events means that more of the resulting discussion will be transferred from these 3 roundtables back to STEPS researchers in the UK, and hopefully online and thus accessible to others across the world. And hey, it’s an amazing learning experience for me, a privilege. Is that enough to justify the expense in all its dimensions? Will this translate into a better world? I don’t know. I cannot presume that it will. Are the thousands of annual flights by UN personnel or from other international social/environmental organisations, universities, etc. justified (forgetting about carbon offsetting)? How should it be decided what is justified and who is justified? Am I worth any carbon expenditure as a research assistant? Should my ‘carbon budget’ be less than a full professor or an institute director, since they have more knowledge to share and a wider network of influence (e.g. imagine a measure of efficiency of carbon use per ‘kilo’ of influence- per publication, per google hit)? This makes me think of the heavy discussions on whether carbon emissions by industrialising countries are justified in the name of development, in the name that the creation of the climate change problem is the (ir)responsibility of the industrialised nations. It’s not the same, but I see some relevant parallels – more than just about uneasy contradictions, but about power, responsibility, opportunity, justification, vision and choice.
How does the Nigerian-French-American acquaintance I made on the plane reconcile his communist principles with a job that depends directly on the capitalist impulses of some privileged wealth-bearing members of a severely stratified society (selling real estate in the USA)? That’s just real life, right? You gotta do what you gotta do.
My mom was telling me recently about a book she’s been reading called ‘No Impact Man’ http://noimpactproject.org/, also made into a movie. It is about a New Yorker who decides with his family to lower the impact (environmentally) of their lifestyle in stages over a year and some of the challenges and contradictions that he’s faced with in the process. I’m looking forward to hearing what my mom has picked up from the book. Of course the big picture is not just about politics, nor about building innovative capabilities and technical change – it IS also about behaviour change, about choice, at least (or especially) for those that have the privilege to choose. And it’s not just about the environmental impact of our choices, either.
So how can I do this better? How do we do this better? Perhaps awareness is a start, and we can all try a little harder to match our practice to our principles, as long as those choices don’t make life too inconvenient, right?