Monthly Archives: April 2014

Dim the lights to restore nature’s body clock

This blog by Environment and Sustainability Institute’s Dr Jonathan Bennie first appeared in The Conversation.

By Jonathan Bennie, University of Exeter

Satellite images of the earth provide a striking picture of our planet during the hours of darkness. From space, the world at night appears as an intricate mass of tiny points of light, clustered into constellations of villages, towns and cities and linked by a spider-web of road networks. But can this be considered a form of pollution? What harm can light do to us or the environment?

It was astronomers who first put forward the argument that excess light could be viewed as a form of pollution, obscuring our view of the night sky – observatories must be located far from the glow of city lights. But a growing body of evidence suggests that artificial light may have more profound effects on the environment than simply polluting our view of the stars.Lightmare.

Craig Mayhew and Robert Simmon, NASA GSFC, CC BY

Nature’s light cycles
For nearly four billion years, life on earth has evolved under natural cycles of light – night and day, the phases of the moon and lengthening and shortening of days through the seasons. These cycles are hard-wired into the behaviour and physiology of animals and plants. They use the varying duration of daylight over the year as a cue to trigger seasonal events such as the breaking of buds for leaves and flowers in the spring, or mating and reproduction.

The internal biological clocks that regulate 24-hour cycles of production of the hormone melatonin in humans and other animals, are constantly recalibrated by alternating periods of light and darkness. Melatonin plays a crucial role in regulating sleep-wake cycles, chemically causing drowsiness when it’s time to sleep and lowering body temperatures when we’re out for the count.

The division of time between day and night regulates periods of activity and rest in animals – when to hunt or forage and when to sleep. And faint natural light sources help nocturnal animals to orientate and navigate. Recent research has shown, for example, that dung beetles use the faint trace of the Milky Way to find their way.

Environmental disruption

The effects of introducing artificial light into these complex relationships can be profound, affecting the whole gamut of species. A few examples: we now know that urban light at night can advance egg laying in blue tits and bring forward the development of reproductive organs in blackbirds.

Light pollution can disrupt the annual migration of salmon, restrict the nightly movements of bats and increase mortality in young shearwaters and turtles. It can also change the foraging behaviour of wading birds and cause deciduous trees to produce leaves earlier in the spring and retain them later in the autumn.

Street lighting changes effect the structure of natural food chains. One study on grass verges under street lights found significantly higher numbers of predatory invertebrates including ground beetles and spiders, as well as scavengers, such as ants and woodlice than in unlit patches. We are only beginning to understand how these impacts may have deeper, long term consequences for nature conservation, biodiversity and the health of our ecosystems.

Restoring night

Other ways to reduce the environmental impact of light, from the technologically advanced to low-tech, exist and could help to make progress.

The main barrier to making these reductions is lack of awareness that artificial light can be a form of pollution. Also, it is assumed that a brighter, whiter night-time environment is always safer, aesthetically pleasing and more desirable – this shouldn’t be taken as a given, and the evidence backing up these claims is often contested.

Preserving, where possible, darkness at night can help reverse some of the ill-effects that the explosion of light pollution in recent years is having on the environment. Plus, we’d all benefit from seeing more of the night sky’s natural beauty.

Jonathan Bennie receives funding from the European Research Council.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Cornwall’s new status shows how regionalism is changing nation states everywhere

This blog by Politics Lecturer Dr Joanie Willett first appeared in The Conversation.

By Joanie Willett, University of Exeter

Here’s a question: what do Cornwall, Scotland, Venice and Sardinia have in common? The answer: they all have vocal political movements calling for either independence from their nation states or at least some form of autonomy.

Most people in the UK are aware of the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence; Venice recently voted overwhelmingly for independence in an unofficial referendum, and Sardinian pro-independence parties have recently doubled their vote share. Now Cornwall has, after many years of campaigning, been granted national minority status by the European Framework Convention for the protection of national minorities.

We are seeing an explosion of national or independence movements across Europe. What this means for governance and statehood here in the UK is yet to be seen – but the case of Cornwall can help us find an answer.

It’s easy to see why the people of Cornwall are so proud of their identity. Cornwall is a beautiful place with a lively and vibrant arts scene, a global presence in environmental research, a world class marine sector, and a mining school that produces world-leading graduates. Cornwall also has a proud history as one of the centres of the British industrial revolution, spawning some of Britain’s most important engineers – such as Richard Trevithick, inventor of the first working steam locomotive. More recently, researchers in Cornwall have pioneered geothermal power.

It is also hard to miss the strength and pride in Cornishness in a region where to use the word “county” is deeply political, and where “Cornish not English” t-shirts are readily available. Indeed, even the tourist information organisation “Visit Cornwall” uses “Duchy” instead to avoid offence. Road-signs are often bilingual Cornish/English, the Cornish Nationalist political party Mebyon Kernow contribute a strong voice to the local agenda, and symbolism associated with Cornish nationalism is used to decorate shops, advertise local products, and to form part of the regional brand.

This latter point is crucial for understanding Cornish nationalism’s growing ability to make its voice heard on the broader stage.

Regional powerhouse

Economic development and Cornish cultural heritage are inextricably tied together. Cornwall Council’s latest statement on local development is an Economic and Culture strategy (my italics); this has been the case across economic development plans since at least the 1999 Objective 1 Single Programming Document, which set out what the region was going to do with extra support and funding from the EU. Before this, culture and economy were usually seen as two distinct entities.

They have now become deeply entwined – and this isn’t just a Cornish issue. Michael Keating of the University of Aberdeen has argued this stems from a shift in the global economy, which asks “regions” to compete with other regions. This requires regional differentiation, or “branding” – which of course, appeals to regional identities. Many studies have argued that effective regional brands need to match the identities of ordinary citizens, rather than the criteria of marketing bods in boardrooms.

This is not to overlook the fact that many devolutionist or seccesionist campaigns are framed in terms of economic and political exploitation, where the region in question seeks redress for real or perceived neglect by the “core” of the nation state. Cornwall, Scotland, and Wales are no exceptions; each claim that their own unique circumstances are neglected by Westminster, that their voices are marginalised in the British debate, and that devolution or independence is the only way to ameliorate this.

The minority nations of the UK may well have a point. Certainly in Cornwall’s case, Cornish MP Matthew Taylor’s parliamentary question about the region’s poverty and desperation in the 1990s met with the answer that the region got quite enough support already. At the same time, the European Union was recognising Cornwall as one of the poorest regions of Europe, offering it financial help from Brussels.

Regional differentiation, not only encouraged but required by the global economy, provides a space for disaffection to operate. By becoming a central plank of the Cornish economy, Cornish identity has been woven into the fabric of people’s lives, rather than being the hobby horse of a few crazy activists. Indeed, throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s, local campaigners were gripped by the fear that Cornish identity was dying out. Instead, it has grown and grown – and the fundamental role it plays in the economy is directly responsible.

So what does Cornwall’s new recognition mean for the UK? Firstly, expect to hear a lot more about Cornwall and its identity. Expect too that the well-supported campaign for a Cornish Assembly (just like the one in Wales) will continue, grow, and amplify in the coming years. It will become ever more insistent if Scotland does vote for independence in September, something which of course would trigger a vigourous discussion about the constitutional order of the UK as a whole.

Regional identity is not going away, neither in Cornwall, nor elsewhere in the UK or in Europe. We are going to see many more assertions of regional difference in coming years, and we need a solid debate about the relationship between the nation state and the regions. How can the British state incorporate a multiplicity of nations within its borders? Does this require a shift towards a more open and federal system, or does it instead signal the death of the nation state?

As the growth in Cornwall’s identity and national pride shows, these questions will have to be answered.

The Conversation

Joanie Willett does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Read the original article.

Data mashups can help answer the world’s biggest questions

This blog by European Centre for Environment and Human Health‘s Prof Lora Fleming first appeared in The Conversation.

We collect climate data. We collect health data. What if we combined the two?

As the world wakes up to the power of data, we need to start working out how to join up all this information. We need to turn it into meaningful findings that will help us to make changes to the way we live. A new technique is emerging as part of this quest – the data mashup. This approach to linking data could help us shed light on phenomena such as the health impacts of climate change.

Data comes in all shapes and sizes. It can record boundless sets of characteristics over different time scales and geographic areas. But this diversity means that individual databases are often created for specific areas, such as health research, and are rarely shared or combined with others.

Yet it is becoming increasingly apparent that by joining these disparate sources of data, academia, governments and businesses may be able to access information that is currently hidden within closed systems. So researchers are now turning to techniques developed by computer scientists in order to access this Aladdin’s cave of information.

The Medical and Environmental Data Mashup Infrastructure (MEDMI) project is one of the initiatives doing this. We’re hoping to enable research into the links between climate, weather, environment and health. By bringing databases from each of these areas together and allowing access through one web-based portal, we’re aiming to create a shared resource for medical, environmental, and public health researchers.

The collection of health and environment data over the past 20 years has provided a growing resource of information. It includes detailed monitoring of weather and climate variables like temperature and rainfall and digital health records, among other useful additions.

With this information, you could combine temperature and air pollution data to predict when people with chronic lung disease might have respiratory problems if they go outside. The UK Met Office did this and now provides an early warning service for patients, their families and healthcare providers.

But joining such varied forms of data presents some significant hurdles. For a start, in many cases we are at the mercy of the way data has been collected historically. Pollen data, for example, traditionally suffers from a lack of resolution. Only a few measurement locations cover the whole of the UK but pollen moves rapidly in the air all over the place. These differences in resolution over time and space make it difficult to identify links with other more finely recorded factors, such as individuals with certain types of skin cancer and radon levels in a particular area.

The huge disparities in data collection are even more apparent when considering other environment and health variables. Take rainfall or cloud cover data for example, which are measured on an hourly basis, at very high resolution, over the whole of the UK.

It might be interesting to combine large scale environmental data with the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, which followed the pregnancies of 14,000 mothers in the Avon Valley, to see if solar irradiance (a measure of vitamin D levels) exposure is related to the development of allergic diseases. But this is difficult to do because the Avon study only collects data every couple of years and the participants predominantly live in a small geographic area.

Bridging the gaps

Merging data types ranging from a description of a person’s mental health to measurements of ocean currents, requires some serious head scratching. Fortunately, statistical techniques and methods such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) provide us with a really good start, and the standardisation of spatial data services by the Open Geospatial Consortium has begun to create a common international language between databases. There is also a growing interest from the private sector, with companies like Google dedicating resources to connecting data and enabling access over the web.

Perversely (to health researchers at least), the link between the changing climate and human health has received little scientific attention, particularly when compared to investigating how climate affects the weather and environment. We’re hoping that MEDMI will begin to redress this trend by allowing us to investigate where climate and health data overlap.

For example, we want to identify risk hot spots – places where climate and other environmental factors converge to affect vulnerable populations – early enough to both mitigate the consequences and study these interventions.

The sheer number of partners working on the project highlights the dizzying complexity of any mashup endeavour. And of course there is the veritable minefield of protecting confidential and sensitive health data. The importance of that cannot be overstated.

But scientists like me, already committed to the data mashup cause, aren’t fazed by these challenges. We’re already looking towards a future where these linked databases can be queried in real time.

We’re imagining a world where a regional cold snap can be associated with flu cases and hospital admissions as it happens. That would mean local resources could be quickly and efficiently deployed. We’re hoping that long-term predictions about climate and human health hot spots can help us to plan our cities so that they are more resilient.

Living in a world undergoing rapid environmental change will increasingly require this kind of vision. We’re not there yet, not even close, but just like television on your mobile phone, we may get there sooner than you think.

Treading the Boards with TED

A Blog by Dr Claire M. Belcher, Senior Lecturer in Earth System Science and TEDx Exeter 2014 survivor.

When the enthusiastic TEDx organisers contacted me last year to speak at the TEDx Exeter event in March 2014, I first read the email invite and turned pale with fear but then re-thought and realized that although it seemed like quite a challenge, I couldn’t say no.

The global phenomenon that is TED speaks to millions of people across the world irrespective of background, race or gender. It’s all about “Ideas Worth Spreading” and spread they do. For those not familiar with TED: TED started as a conference in 1984 where Technology, Entertainment and Design converged.

TED and TEDx (local and independently organized TED like events) invite “Thinkers. Doers. Idea-Generators” to deliver talks at TED conferences that anyone can attend and the talks are further posted online and translated into more than 100 languages. No joke TED is a global phenomenon its online presence has challenged the likes of viral videos such as pop hits like “Gangnam Style” with some TED talks being viewed billions of times.

The Guardian summarized TED in 2008 as “Consistently the best thing you can watch on the internet: the TED talks. Brilliant people, in the true sense of the word”. Luckily when I was asked and agreed to give a TEDx talk I hadn’t read the Guardian’s summary else I might have thought twice; stepping up to the mark of “Brilliant people” seems a daunting task.

Over the months the TEDx team prompted me, and prompted me, months before the event “how is your talk going, can we help, can you send us an outline” as I looked at these emails over a mountain of undergraduate marking and still with more imminent undergraduate lectures to prepare, PhD students to supervise and 12 hour working days the weight of TED would lie heavy on my shoulders. Again and again I blocked out weeks in my calendar with the instruction to “prepare TED talk” and sure enough something would come up that wiped out those plans.

By early February however, I was on version 6 of my talk and it was starting to take shape. Finally on 26th February, whilst battling Jet Lag from a scientific meeting in the US and just over a month before TEDx Exeter I constructed what were to be the final slides. These were sent to TEDx a week later (as per the deadline) and the remainder “spare” moments were spent finalizing exactly what I would say.

The week of TEDx loomed and arrived, I instructed my dissertation and PhD students that I was going in to hiding to practice my talk but that I would answer emails to them. So I prepared myself, I rehearsed and rehearsed, I decided I couldn’t do it but then got a cup of tea pulled myself together and began again.

The morning of the dress rehearsal arrived. I hate rehearsal talks, rehearsal interviews, rehearsal anything, it’s not the real thing and I can never get the real energy and often if it goes wrong and it makes you feel worse. My rehearsal was OK, but what it did allow me to do was familiarize myself with the surroundings of the Northcott Theatreand all the technicalities of radio microphones and waiting in the wings to go on.

Dr Claire Belcher discusses wildfires at TEDx.
© James Millar/TEDxExeter

The day arrived, by now I was quiet but calm, my nervous energy used up in the days before. The Northcott theatre was a buzz with excitement and the aura of TED. My talk wasn’t on until the afternoon, so I sat at the back of the theatre enjoying the other talks and trying not to compare how mine might seem in reflection. The talks were thought provoking, every talk gave me a new thought and by lunchtime I realized all those thoughts were beginning to push what I wanted to say out of my mind! So I snuck off for a re-rehearsal and to gather my thoughts. 3.15pm and I was back stage in the dark and being rigged up to the microphone 30 minutes in advance of my talk.

Waiting in the darkened wings transported me back some 14 years where I was standing in pointe shoes and a tutu waiting to go on stage as the sugar plum fairy at my ballet schools annual show. Those black brick walls and darkened wings, with tech support and lighting and people moving around behind the scenes seemed so familiar that I began to feel at home. I’d spent so long back stage while I was growing up that the only oddity was that I didn’t need to do any stretches and there was no musical queue to prompt my entrance. Now however, I had to go on and talk rather than dance. Speaking in public has always held a lot more fear than dancing, dancing comes naturally to me; public speaking does not.

The talk ahead of me finished, I ran through my opening sentence in my head and it was time for me to tread the boards once again, time to come alive and be that person people want to see. It made me think that my many years at stage school paid off, I may not have realized my dreams of becoming a ballerina but they prepared me well for performance and stepping up to the mark in front of an audience. 12 minutes later (10 minutes longer than Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy) and my time was up and I was done.

I’d told the story of Earth, Air and Fire, I’d talked about how wildfires help maintain the air that we breathe. I haven’t seen my talk yet, TED haven’t released the videos yet from the day, we all await them with baited breath how did we do? The proof will be in the viewing!

I very much doubt that my TEDx talk will go viral on the internet, it is unlikely to rival “Gangnam Style” or perhaps even the new internet trend of watching kitten videos however, if just one person in that audience, which included several school groups is able to say “wow I never knew that about wildfires” and it sparks one persons interest and perhaps another via the internet then that’s how ideas start spreading.

It’s not so much about what I said at TEDx but more about what those few people will now start to think, what there own “Ideas Without Frontiers” will be? Will any of those young people become one of the next great thinkers of our time because I said just a single sentence that inspired them?

IPCC report: climate change’s impact be on human security

Professor Neil Adger is Geography Professor; in this blog, he discusses the implications that climate change will have for human health and security.

This blog first appeared in The Carbon Blog on 7 April 2014.

No place is immune to the impacts of climate change. This is the principal message from the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. The impacts of climate change will be felt in individual places such as in back gardens, homes, fields and cities and will likely make us feel less safe and secure.

For the first time the IPCC examines in detail the impacts of climate change on well-being across its Working Group 2 report, with a cluster of chapters on the topics of health, human security, and poverty.

Human security encapsulates the notion of the vital core of human lives and the ability of people to have freedom and the capacity to live with dignity. Human security has direct material elements, such as life and livelihood, but also elements of cultural expression and identity.

The notion of human security captures a central part of how the impacts of climate change, as they unfold, will affect values and things that people care about beyond, for example, its economic costs.

The IPCC report finds that the impacts of climate change are evident and being documented across all continents and in the oceans. Given emissions trajectories and lags in the climate system, the world is committed to warming over the coming decades that will increase risks in the natural world, and for major sensitive sectors of the economy. So how do these impacts translate into human security?


First, health. The report shows that climate change has already contributed to human ill-health in recent decades. While it may not be the dominant burden of disease, there is now strong evidence of increased heat-related mortality as a result of warming.

These are not likely to be offset by decreased cold-related mortality, because of the influence of seasonal factors other than temperature on winter mortality.

And climate affects health through other mechanisms: localised changes in temperature and rainfall, for example, have altered the distribution of some water-borne illnesses and disease vectors. The report gives stark warning of how these risks increase with projected warming over the incoming decades.

How and where we live

Second, climate change will have an impact on how and where people live and the decisions they make about moving. Displacement of populations as a result of extreme weather events is usually involuntary and often taken as a last resort, but has major public health and policy consequences.

Most displacement is temporary but often amplifies migration trends. The impacts of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and New Orleans in 2005 show that temporary displacement of populations from flood impacts leads to highly differential permanent migration patterns. While wealthier populations returned, such displacement changed the demographics of the whole region.

Governments are also planning for the movement of people, given some impacts already observed or expected. In Alaska, for example, some coastal towns, where roads, ports and other services are badly affected by melting permafrost, are planning their movements.

Such planned resettlement could be positive, but there is much experience of such schemes where residents really do not wish to move and schemes fail to protect the integrity of community.

Migration experts Robin Bronen and Terry Chapin, working with Alaskan towns and government authorities, have argued that only inclusive and patient engagement with such communities can avoid the trauma and stress of such major life upheavals.


Finally, climate change affects the risks of conflict. Learning from the political and social sciences in this area is essential to put climate risks in context. The IPCC assessment, in effect, concludes that conflict risks are an area of concern for two reasons.

First, it is difficult to say decisively whether climate change impacts will exacerbate conflict risks, and in many ways the past is not such a good guide to the future.

Second, there are good reasons to deduce that climate risks may enhance conflict. Factors that themselves are common to many recent conflicts, such as poverty and economic shocks, are themselves sensitive to climate change.

Hence climate change may not directly be implicated in triggering conflict. And greed, grievance and other factors may be dominant in many types of violence. But that is not a reason to dismiss this risk. Indeed, this area needs much more work.

One clear conclusion of the IPCC’s assessment is, for example, that places in conflict and recovering from conflict are much more susceptible and have many fewer resources for dealing with weather extremes and climate variability.

 The bottom line

In summary, climate change will affect things we care about, including the security of the places we live, the local environment as we experience it, and health. The IPCC assessment has for the first time given prominence to these broader questions. It rightly concludes that the future is still in our hands. Taking the right action means we can build a safer and more resilient world.

World Health Day: The battle against Malaria

In honour of World Health Day, Anthropology lecturer Dr Ann Kelly has written a blog on the battle against Malaria.

Benito Mussolini once boasted that his anti-malarial campaign would place a pig under every peasant’s bed. Characteristically grandiose, ‘the Grand Bonification’ combined public health measures with hydraulic engineering, housing construction, novel agrarian technologies and cultivation techniques – a totalitarian vision that linked disease control to the creation of a new class of farmers and the regeneration of the Italian economy. While more propaganda than viable social policy, freeing marshes from the shadow of the fever entailed nothing less than a social and political revolution.

The theme of this year’s World Health Day is vector-borne diseases – a set of public health scourges affecting disproportionately the poor in the Global South. Disease vectors – mosquitoes, ticks, snails – thrive in areas that, in the WHO’s words, “have been left behind by development”. To a certain degree all communicable diseases map onto socio-economic inequalities, the correlation between poverty and vector-borne diseases such as Malaria, Yellow Fever, Dengue, Onchocerciasis and Shistosomiasis is amplified.

Public health experts agree that improved infrastructure – e.g. the pavement of roads, the building of structurally-sound and screened houses, the construction of drains, filtration and sanitation systems – constitutes the most effective strategy in reducing the transmission of pathogens. Thus, in focusing on vector-borne diseases, the WHO brings to the foreground the link between health outcomes and development, disease control and civil engineering.

Malaria is the most famous and, in terms of overall fatalities, deadliest of all vector-borne diseases; the fraught history of its control is the backdrop of the WHO 2014 brief. The discovery at the turn of the twentieth century, by Ronald Ross and others, that some mosquito species of the Anopheles genus were a central component of the malaria transmission cycle opened new courses of public health action focused on prevention rather than clinical care. Across Europe, the USSR, the Americas and Africa, comprehensive programmes of environmental management sought to uproot the mosquito from the landscape through the introduction of engineering works, the pre-planning of urban settlements, and the management and systematic destruction of An. gambiae breeding habitats, from marshland to footprint, septic tank to coconut shell.

These methods are, needless to say, labour intensive and logistically complex and stand in an uneasy relationship to other forms of anti-malarial action. While arguably less effective in the long run, the mass distribution of quinine to treat the disease was cheaper and did not require specialist engineering or entomological expertise. In tropical climates where breeding grounds were abundant and infrastructure weak, Robert Koch’s dictum, ‘treat the patient, not the mosquito’ made a certain financial if not epidemiological sense and throughout the early twentieth century, policies that focused on the life of the Plasmodium parasite in infected humans, rather than on the insects that carry the parasite into and out of the human body, gained the upper hand.

The invention of powerful insecticides such as DDT obviated this debate, enabling a far more direct approach to reducing transmission. Rather than seeking out mosquitoes, one simply needed to spray extensively to kill female anopheles mosquitoes in large numbers. The large-scale domestic application of insecticides or, Indoor Residual Spray (IRS), was the central strategy of the global eradication campaign of the 1950s and 1960s. DDT effectively de-coupled malaria control from the topography of urban settlements – design of sluices and dikes – and linked it instead with the power of a single-bullet technology.

The demarcation of malaria from development tallied with the post-war institutionalization of public health: the creation of the WHO as distinct from agencies such as the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank narrowed the scope of public health initiatives, while the internationalization of public health centralized medical expertise in Geneva and New York.

The ecological consequences of that campaign re powerfully chronicled by Rachel Carson in Silent Spring. Its epidemiological impact – e.g., the spreading of insecticide resistance, the shifts in mosquito behaviour to avoid sprayed surfaces, and critically, the exhaustion and retreat of the global health community from malaria control – are apparent in the current framing of anti-malaria campaigns. The WHO’s emphasis on vector-borne diseases acknowledges the entanglement of disease in broader questions of social improvement. The control of vectors is not simply a matter of the development and application of a technological innovation; the deep entrenchment of mosquitoes and other disease carriers in the fabric of everyday life demands attention to the particular contexts in which humans, vectors and pathogens come into contact.

Vector-borne diseases are resolutely local – vector control, to quote the WHO report “is a national development issue.” That recognition is not a matter of shifting responsibilities, but rather of disseminating the awareness that when it comes to interrupting the transmission of disease community-based approaches are the best way forward. We are reminded of the advice of Ronald Ross not to make mosquito abatement dependent on the resolution of difficult scientific questions, and to rely instead on the systematic and relentless application of what is already known, on the thorough implementation of what is doable from the very start.


All this looks very formidable on paper. It is not so in reality. A very few men working day after day will do wonders in the course of a few months. The great thing is to make a beginning: not to form counsels of perfection, not to measure means with ends, but simply to set to work with whatever force there is available, however small it may be. A single private citizen can eradicate malaria from a whole town. In an enterprise of this nature, the means grow as the work proceeds (Ross 1901: 31).


The psychology of habit formation, re-programming for greener living

By Dr Stewart Barr, Associate Professor in Geography

Do you ‘decide’ to recycle, switch your thermostat down or turn off the tap to save water? Although many of us might use this kind of language to describe some of our pro-environmental behaviours, a closer look at how we live our lives reveals that far from being conscious and rationally judged decisions, most of our everyday behaviours are habitual – ‘practices’ that are part of our daily routine as we go about normal life.

Such a conclusion helps us to understand why people often express concern for the environment and an intention to engage in a variety of pro-environmental behaviours like recycling but do not reflect this in their behaviours. This has become an increasing concern for policy makers and businesses in engaging members of the public in environmental campaigns because it illustrates that providing information and marketing alone to promote shifts in behaviours often fails to achieve the desired results.

If information and exhortations to change behaviours are ineffective, then what influences the habits – or practices – that we all engage in on a daily basis? To answer this question, we need to look at the ways in which we all so easily slip into routines as a way of handling the everyday management of life. In this way, rather than trying to rationalise the ‘barriers’ and ‘motivations’ for a pro-environmental behaviour like recycling, the most recent social science research indicates that the complexity of our contemporary lifestyles means that people need to find strategies for managing all of the different demands on their time, such as paid work, cooking, cleaning, looking after children, shopping and, yes, dealing with ‘the rubbish’. In our research for Coca-Cola Enterprises, participants referred to this process as ‘managing everyday life’, which many of them found was a task in itself.

This ‘management of living’ helps to explain why explicit messages to promote behaviours like recycling can often be so easily by-passed in the maelstrom of everyday life. As participants in our research argued, when asked why they didn’t recycle certain products: ‘Well, it simply goes in that bin’. Such remarks illustrate the habitual nature of most of the things we do at home and lead us to look for new ways to shift habits that are not so dependent on information and the assumption that all we need is better knowledge.

Plastic bottle

Research has shown that most of our everyday recycling behaviours are habitual.

Recent research in the social sciences has argued that practitioners can effectively intervene in the habit-forming process through what are called ‘moments of change’. Pioneered in travel behaviour research, this strand of social science explores the ways in which changes in peoples’ lives, such as moving home, having children, or investing in a new kitchen or bathroom, can act as key points at which old habits are lost and new ones rapidly formed. Such research gets at the very essence of the relationship that we as humans have with the environment around us (such as a new home or kitchen) and the ways we have to negotiate using that space with others (spouse, children, and lodgers).

How can we intervene in this process to create moments of change? We might consider two ways of promoting habit formation within such ‘moments’. First, we are all attuned to the environment around us and there is clear evidence that getting the ‘choice architecture’ right is critical. This means that as households move into new environments (a new home, new kitchen), there are major opportunities for framing how people develop habits through the inclusion of technologies and spaces that promote behaviours like recycling. For example, how may of you have had a kitchen in which receptacles for different recyclables was included?

Second, the process of habit formation in new spaces and life situations needs to be something that is co-created between manufacturers and consumers. This is a relatively unknown world, despite the fact that designers work closely with consumers on many key products already (like new homes and kitchens). Yet such collaborations rarely incorporate practices like recycling, waste management or indeed water and energy management. There are major opportunities for collaborative design projects that could place effective waste management and recycling at the heart of their work, and which recognise the importance of creating better harmony between the demands of everyday living and the spaces and technologies that facilitate real change – enabling ‘a break in habit to create a new habit’.

Head of HSBC Commercial Banking talks to students

Carol Bagnald , Head of Commercial Banking, HSBC London, came to the university as part of the SEE Talks; a student run organisation to bring speakers to the university. BSci Maths and Finance student Alex Crosby was there…

Carol was the second speaker in the SEETalks series, and came with the aim of discussing the changing nature of business relating to dynamical shifts in the female economy. However, her talk became much more than that –  a discussion on corporate ethics and internal structures, the youth economy and which industries will be growing the fastest.

Carol raised some interesting examples of the shifting dynamics of business. Women are the key purchasers in the automobile industry, surprisingly. From our own research, we already knew the example of Harley Davidson, where 25 per cent of sales are now to women – and Harley have responded by manufacturing more ergonomic seats. This certainly is in contrast to the failed DELL products aimed at women –  it just shows making a laptop pink won’t sell it to women!

Businesses need to really understand their customers – and Carol argues the only way to do this is to change a business internally first. Carol raised the interesting example of Dulux, who teamed with a well-known cosmetic brand, in order to incorporate changing dynamics into their workforce and to better understand their customer base, which is predominantly female. This has been a great success.

Carol stated that whilst the male work force is decreasing by 10 per cent, the female is increasing by 7 per cent. But more importantly, there are more female than male millionaires in the youngest age brackets. In fact, In 40 years, all age brackets will have more female millionaires. But she asked the pertinent question; is the rise of female wealth created within existing businesses, or are they the creators of their own businesses? It would be interesting to have further research into this, has industry and the organisation of businesses aptly adapted to the rise of female workers – or are women generating their own wealth in new start-ups instead?

It would have been interesting to have more discussion regarding how to develop business to accommodate dynamic changes – how should businesses respond, what has worked in the past, and what businesses should look out for to be ahead of the next trend. This would have been particularly useful for the entrepreneurs in the room.

Carol gave us some insight into the other new trends – namely the youth economy. Industry must be aware of how the next generation are changing industry. There will be more millionaires under 30 than in all other age categories combined, and so both how businesses are run, and who the customers are is going to change dramatically.

Carol gave some insightful advice about how to ‘climb the ladder of success’ easier –  get involved earlier as junior board members –  utilise your youth, energy and new perspectives to drive a change in the workforce. Ultimately, Carol left us with an extremely positive message for all students; female and male alike.