Understanding Change: Air Pollution

Some days Twitter feels useful, others it only acts a relief valve for the anger that I am feeling about a particular issue: lately, mostly, air pollution. 

Scrolling through my tweets from this year and I seem to have mainly focused on news stories highlighting the growing air pollution problem or showing evidence of the link between poor air quality and ill-health.

Most days, though, it feels like I am just shouting into the wind. Maybe so. But, instead of feeling despondent about what isn’t happening, I realised my shouting could reveal something about the change that is. This is what my social media activity reveals about action on air pollution:

Moving to the mainstream: I have shared so many articles because The Times, the Evening Standard, the BBC and other mainstream news outlets are covering the issue. I am not sure air pollution – a very human affliction – will ever have its ‘plastic moment’, but it is getting coverage. In my early career as a sustainability analyst I worked with companies to help them understand the lifecycle of environmental and social issues – the message was: once an issue hits mainstream media, legislation is likely to follow.

Building a movement: Individuals and grassroots parent groups, such as Mums for Lungs and I Like Clean Air, to coalitions of health professionals, global institutions and now celebrities are  the voices calling for change. A movement is building that is operating at all levels in society, looking to change norms, behaviours, policy and institutions. Whether it is providing evidence or raising awareness of the issue, taking legal action, calling for clean air policy, taking practical action to close streets, providing toolkits and programmes for schoolsmapping air pollution and providing information on avoiding exposure or mobilising people take part in anti-idling events – multiple levers are starting to be pulled to bring about widespread systemic change.

Networked change: Whilst air pollution is on the agenda of some of the big environmental NGOs, the power is with those most directly affected. Client Earth – the high-profile NGO that has successfully taken the UK Government to court three times for its failure to act on air pollution – and the British Lung Foundation has established a Clean Air Parents’ Network to empower and provide resources for parents to engage local and national decision makers. The network recently organised a parliamentary reception that enabled parents and other concerned citizens to meet with their MPs and discuss the issue. This is a good example of a directed-networked campaign. The report Networked Change maps out the strategies and practices of successful advocacy campaigns and directed-networked approaches are identified as the most effective. These are typically led by a central body that frames the issue and sets goals, but leaves a fair amount of freedom and agency to a diverse network of self-organised supporters and allies. Living Streets is another good example with its local groups.

Examples of better: A strong vision of the change that is needed is emerging, even if examples are isolated. Cheltenham is trying to put “people before traffic” in one small corner of the city. Hackney has launched two zones that will be restricted to walking, cycling and low emissions vehicles only. The borough is also the birthplace of ‘play streets’ and has implemented a number of ‘school streets’. Further afield Car Free Days have been in place in a number of cities for some time. Some cities have taken it further with Oslo in Norway planning to permanently ban all cars from its centre next year. Madrid is also working to the same goal by 2020. George Lakey, who I wrote about in a previous blog, believes campaigns needing to stop telling people what the problems are and show supporters the solutions and how to change things. With these initiatives there are many examples of the benefits that action will bring.

What I have observed is happening from my tweets is happening because enough of us are shouting into the wind. In the words of Seth Godin: “If enough people care, often enough, the word spreads, the standards change, the wind dies down. If enough people care, the culture changes”. I will continue to shout until the wind dies down, and the air is clear.



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