Interview with Paul Bowers, Part 2: Bureaucratic Radicalism

Late in November 2020, I caught up with Paul Bowers, CEO of the Australian sustainability organisation Renew, for a brief chat. (You can read the first part here).

Renew evolved from the Alternative Technology Association of Australia, and today it advocates for sustainable living in homes and communities across the nation. In the second part of our conversation, Paul and I spoke about systemic change, revolution and reform, and encouraging the choice to live sustainably.

Parliament House, Canberra, by Wikimedia user JJ Harrison – CC BY-SA 3.0

You’ve written on “bureaucratic radicalism“, which seems to speak to this issue of what happens when the green hackers of the 80s find themselves represented on federal committees and contributing to the building code.

Bureaucratic radicalism was my attempt to think through how you systematize good practice, and using existing power structures in order to do that. My first thought is to consider what we need to learn from First Nations peoples, from communities where environmental sustainability and good practice is part of what you learn from childhood.

In schools, you might get a semester on “How to be green”, but then those same schools go back to unquestioningly being sponsored by meat companies, despite what we know about how animal farming damages the environment. So the green values aren’t embedded in the system.

Bureaucratic radicalism was about my recognition that within museums, there is a power in bureaucracy because the museum itself is conceived as an endlessly existing structure. Despite the fact that everything we know tells us that nothing will exist in perpetuity, the concept is still there for the museum; poets conceive of an audience, even if no one reads their poem, and museums assume that they will be there to continue their work in the future.

Yet the goal of Renew is, ultimately and effectively, its own redundancy. If we lived sustainably on this planet, there would be no need for a sustainability advocacy or empowerment or information organization. There’s no organization in the world devoted to helping you breathe because your breathing is automatic! You just do it. There are places where there are problems with breathing. People have trouble with breathing, so we have interventions, right. But fundamentally, there’s no one saying, “Hey, everyone, you should breathe! Breathing is good. Here’s how to do it!”

So really the question becomes about how to effect slow change that lands and sticks. Radical change, immediate change, may convert some people when there’s an immediate incentive, but the aim here is to shift the entire system over time.

Take policy on electric vehicles. It’s really easy to say there should be no tax on them, or they should be subsidised or what have you: that’s true and it trends in the right direction, but it isn’t systemic change. Another way to look at it is economic rather than technical. Start from the assumption that in 20 years’ time everything will be electric and society will have found a way to tax them in such a way that roads can be paid for. The question then becomes figuring out the smoothest route to get there.

Like the engineer trying to calculate values for a plausible scenario.

The bureaucratic radical approach is about figuring out that longer, slower, more enduring movement. Museums will be more inclusive in 20 years, they simply will; they question is do we get there through evolution or do we push hard, stir up resistance, and then the subsequent revolution finds that it has to rebuild everything from the ground up. That might be more satisfying to people who are the protagonists of the revolution, but it will also be harder and more costly.

The Open University is a nice idea of this slow gradual change. When it started in the UK, people felt it was a crazy idea; clearly you had to physically attend a university. But it turned out that higher education at a distance worked – and now it’s the COVID norm, and a few years hence it might even just be so banal and taken for granted that our whole notion of what a university is has completely evolved. But when the OU started, it wasn’t on a war footing. It didn’t seek to close down other universities, to shut every other seminar room. It proved its worth on its own terms and grew. That’s also sustainability: proving our point to the point where it’s just inevitable, and then helping it along on that journey.

Some years ago I watched a facilitator managing a disagreement between two museum directors in a group of 40 senior leaders. One of them was very clearly talking nonsense, but the speaker allowed the debate to run and run. I asked him afterwards: “It was really clear that guy had the wrong approach and everybody in the room disagreed with him, so why didn’t we just move on?”

The facilitator told me, “It was always going to end up that way, but by allowing him to realize it for himself in that room, rather than be told, he’s learned it rather than have it be forced upon him.”

Our job is to create the authorizing environment for sustainable living. If one of our branches helps people at the local TAFE – the technical college – and the students who are training to be carpenters, engineers, plumbers all get used to working in sustainable ways with sustainable materials, then you don’t need to worry so much about imposing codes and procedures, forcing the issue, because these guys are just going to take a sustainable approach to the projects they work on in the real world.

Going on marches and ensuring the visibility of our movement has its value, but when you look at the economics, at the wider and longer social trends, it’s also about using all the levers of power to deliver deep and enduring change. How do you structure the macroeconomics of things like the energy market to incentivise desired behaviour?

How do we stop everyone coming home from work in the summer here in Victoria and switching on their aircon and putting a sudden load on the power grid? You encourage the building of passive houses and dwellings that don’t need aircon, and alongside this you just make it cheaper for people not to turn on the A/C. Financially incentivise people.

We’ve seen that people make changes in their behaviour when they have an electric vehicle. A friend of mine in Sydney has just bought one, and because of that, he now does his Saturday shop somewhere he can charge his car. It’s free to him, because from the shopping centre’s point of view, it’s a near zero cost to charge his car if it brings him there to shop. He then doesn’t have to charge his car at home, he gets the sense of having saved ten bucks. It becomes clear that the companies and organisations that are providing infrastructure for a green economy are succeeding more than those who don’t. Instead of prescribing, you create the conditions for the desired outcome to flourish. It’s working – not quick enough yet – but it’s working.

It reminds me of Jeffrey Kottler’s book on change, in which he shares an anecdote of going on safari. He sees a lion standing majestically on a rock, totally photogenic. He remarks to the guide, how convenient is that! And the guide tells him: it’s a temperature controlled rock. They make it warm when it’s cool and cool when it’s hot, and it’s always the place that the lion wants to sit. They don’t try and steer the lion to the spot, they don’t leash him there, but they contrive to make the environment appealing for the lion to make that choice. Of course, there’s a tension around this kind of behavioural work: “We are the enlightened experts who know best, and we will nudge the great unwashed to do the Right Thing as we’ve determined it to be.”

We’re all manipulating everyone’s behavior all the time. The question for me is how you build the introspection and the evidence and social feedback to know if you’re doing it well or badly. I think that’s one thing where being a members organization gives us a different position. We’re not a think tank of seven people, you know, sitting in a corner, having ideas. We’ve got members who, if we publish something in our magazine that is wrong, they’d write us letters! They would tell us, they’d vote with their feet. We develop policy by consulting our members. We’ll put up a kind of draft and members will come in and say, well, over here in South Australia, it’s like this, and it needs to be like that.

Right, I think Gerd Gigerenzer talks about it in these terms; nudging is dodgy unless you make sure that the nudged also have a voice – the ability to nudge back, not just be herded like sheep.

So that we have a corrective on that, on that nudge. The other thing to remember – which again I can tie to museums – is that not everyone will be into you all the time. 

My friend Michael gives this example; you could offer me free tickets, a limousine ride to the racetrack, give me free champagne, I’m still never going to the Formula 1 because I’ve just got no interest. Doesn’t matter how well you wine and dine me at the Grand Prix, I’m not interested. That’s also part of the sustainability discussion. For some of us it’s a way of life, for others it’s not even on the radar, yet you still want to bring about that slow change so that we can live in a way that does not cost the earth.

So it’s also about the layers to behaviour, the conscious stuff and all the rest of it. There was a famous analysis of BMW adverts in the 80s which went down several layers: do you buy this car because the ad tells you it’s a good car? No, it’s because it’s seen as a good car. And then you dig a bit deeper, and when you get down to the bottom, it’s because you wish to be seen as the kind of person who would drive this kind of car. That motivation is so deep, so internal.

So if you’re trying to change something that deep, you need to make the environment safe and supportive for people. Like, “I’m not going to be the first weirdo in my street to put up a solar panel! I don’t want everyone else telling me it’s a load of greeny nonsense.”

Those who do make that move are brave people whose values are about being iconoclastic and whose peer groups are not the folk in their street but the other sustainability enthusiast in the next suburb, who’s also saying “Never mind what the neighbours think, I’m going to do this.” That’s how it was forty years ago. These people pioneered the future. But now, it’s not an outsider act to put panels on your roof. The social environment has changed; it’s happening now with electric vehicles, just as it once happened with cycling to work. Remember there was a time where the default belief was that people should drive to work, offices shouldn’t need to have showers for cycle commuters – and that changed.

Our approach is first of all to demystify sustainable living, and then to be fully supportive of every small thing you do. So you choose to do one thing? Great. Feel good about it. That’s good. We can tell you how good it is. Would you like to do another thing? We start with the idea of inspiration and then we move into application. That’s captured in our two magazines. One of them, Sanctuary, is very focused on the inspirational side: “Look how beautiful sustainable living can be.” Renew magazine is the technical read: “Here’s the engineering. Here’s how you do it. Here’s your buyer’s guide to solar panels.” The community aspect of those publications, and Renew’s own networks, help our members to make connections that let them achieve their sustainable living goals.

The events we hold are really important too; the best person to tell you about sustainability is someone who’s been on that journey of modifying their home or building a sustainable dwelling. They talk about what fun the journey was, they’re realistic about the challenges involved, they share how nice it is to live in the end result! That helps people to see what is possible in their own lives.

The real challenge for us now is how we build such communities outside of homeowners, people who have the means. A renter doesn’t have the same power to control their sustainable space. So we work to give them power through advocacy, and find new ways to bring them, and landlords, and government together.

The thing is that the nature of the conversation has changed. Twenty years ago, the strongest form of advocacy for solar was: “It’ll save you money.” And the strongest line for museums was “It’s good for you.” With museums, the argument has gone from, “Of course a cultured gentleman goes to see such exhibitions”, to “It’s good for you, bring your kids so that they will learn”, and now we recognise that there is a social and fun value to experiencing the museum; unless you’re enjoying yourself, you won’t really learn anything anyway.

We work with a builder, Brendan, who’s done a development at the Cape in Victoria where people have been living in seven star houses for years. What’s significant is the way they talk about their homes: “I love living here. I feel so good. And it saves me money!” But the sense of wellbeing, safety, and homeliness has begun to replace straight economics as the reason why you choose sustainable living.

This is also about social pressure, and the small nudges towards a different way of living.

Cycling to work is now normal, leather jackets used to be commonplace and now they’re a bit questioned and maybe another decade or two out they’ll be completely rejected, wearing the skins of farmed animals. It’s a transition.

This is also a generational change, right? We know that we have an older generation who see things through the boomer framing, “It’s about me and my family.” There’s a strong self-sufficiency vibe. It’s about economics, the money in my pocket and what I can pass onto my children. Whereas the emerging generations actually put community before wallet.

That’s no critique by the way – I’m not judging those who put wallet before community, that’s the society they’re from and that’s their way of living and it’s okay. But arguments to, say, put a levy on something to help social good is something which is much more appealing to the generation now in their twenties, the emerging generation who are younger than millennials.

This is affecting the energy market too, and the tech is mirroring the social changes. Power generation was like a hose of power being squirted into your home. Contributing back to the grid from your own solar was like trying to push a teaspoon’s worth of water back into the hose.

We have to change the nature of the hosepipe in order to enable communities to share. But the future, as any First Nations person will tell you, lies in your local communities. At Renew, we don’t think the future is a massive power plant. The future is much more about the whole street having solar panels. And if one of you has their solar go down, the others could pick up the load. Or that solar might be on the local sports club. It’s on the local primary school. It’s on the local library. It’s on the local museum!

So you have a situation when you build a primary school, you’re also powering the 500 houses around the primary school. That requires a fundamental shift to a community based way of engineering, which is really similar to the community based way of thinking that groups like Extinction Rebellion are currently making mainstream. We’re moving towards a rhetoric around persuading people that sustainability is about you and your loved ones. Those around you will be healthier. We’ll feel safer. We’ll feel the world is a fairer place if you do this. Rather than “It’s good for your wallet.” And that’s the transition.

Join us for the final instalment from Paul next time, exploring the influences of his past and the choices which face Renew in the future. You can catch up on the first part of this interview with Paul Bowers here.

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