Sustainable fun for a Friday

It’s a Friday lunchtime in London and, all over town, there are literally millions of people looking ahead to their Friday night.  What do they want?

At first sight it’s an unanswerable question: how on earth can we know what millions of people want to do with their Friday night?  There are almost as many things to do in London on a Friday night as there are people.

I’m going to hazard a guess, though, that for a very significant majority of the millions, there is a common denominator: fun.

Many, to be sure, will be facing an evening for which the word ‘fun’ would be inappropriate.  Perhaps they will be undertaking a boring or dispiriting job; perhaps they will be enduring a long and dreary journey; perhaps their family circumstances or their health circumstances or their financial circumstances mean that Friday night will be an occasion of depression or distress. 

But, for most, it’ll be Friday night, and they’ll be after some fun.

We can easily sketch out a few of the things that will happen.  People will go to the theatre and the cinema.  They will go to opening nights at art galleries, to concerts and to gigs.  They will watch television, eat with their loved ones, watch movies, play computer games, plan their holidays, go to the gym and feed their pets. They will practice playing their musical instruments, they will sing and dance, they will play cards with their friends, pray with their faith groups and learn French with their fellow students.

They will go shopping at the late night opening at Westfield.  They will buy their lottery tickets.

And when I say ‘they’, of course, I mean you, and me.  We will do these things.

From the perspective of sustainability, there are three things in particular to say.

The first is to distinguish between those activities in which the ‘having fun’ – the play - is a consumption act, and those where it is a production act.  Consumption play is where the work has largely been done for you, and you consume something for your pleasure: go to the cinema, watch the television, see a concert, go to the late night shopping.  Production play is where you make your own fun: sing in a choir rather than watch the concert; knit a new jumper rather than buy one; plant a seed with the intention of nurturing a shrub rather than buying it fully grown from the garden centre.

(It’s a little more complicated than this, in fact: many activities are a hybrid of production and consumption.  When the family gathers around the Wii, for example, they are ‘consuming’ the game, but ‘producing’ the social experience; and, when attending a concert, the audience is both consuming and producing the occasion.  All of our play activities lie somewhere along this consumption/production spectrum: the particularly interesting stuff, however, is what is going on at either end of the range.)

Some work by Angela Druckman and Tim Jackson confirms what some of us have long suspected: that ‘consumption’ play is, in general, responsible for far greater carbon emissions than ‘production’ play.  If you tot up all the component parts – the direct electricity consumption by the machines around you, the consumption of energy by all the other machines that keep the show on the road, the embodied energy in the materials and processes used to manufacture the things that you’re buying, the emissions from the travel you undertook to get there – if you tot all these things up, it’s generally true that going shopping is a great deal worse for the planet than going singing.

So, a more sustainable Friday night in London would be one in which more of us were making our own fun rather than merely consuming some fun that someone else made for us.

One of the particularly interesting features of such a statement is the implications it has for responsibility.  It’s hard to imagine, for example, a Mayoral strategy for fun: indeed, most of us would react pretty badly towards such a notion.  If there’s one thing we want to have control over, it’s our own fun – we most certainly do not want somebody telling us how to have it.

Except that – and here’s the other interesting implication – most of the ways we can have ‘consumption fun’ help someone somewhere to make money, and most of the ways we can have ‘production fun’ are precisely the opposite.  There are not many adverts encouraging us to knit a jumper, or gather with some friends to play the piano, or just go for a nice walk.  On that basis, it’s hard to imagine that corporations or capitalism will be encouraging us anytime soon to increase the amount of time we devote to sustainable fun.

No.  On this one, more than most, the responsibility is ours.

The second thing to say about sustainable fun is that we should not forget the other noteworthy feature of Friday night: namely, that very great numbers of those pursuing fun will be doing so under the influence of some sort of recreational drug.  Mostly that means alcohol of course, but many tens of thousands of us will be indulging in one or more of an extraordinary cornucopia of psychoactive ingestants.

Whither sustainability in this case?

On the one hand, as sundry reportsblogs and policies make obvious, the amount of alcohol that we as a nation consume is a severe problem.  Whether in terms of the violence perpetrated on a Friday night against fellow revellers, random strangers or ‘loved ones’; or in terms of the short term injuries that pile up and clog A&E; or in terms of the millions – nay, billions – of pounds that our over-stretched health services need to find each year to deal with the chronic consequences of all this booze; on pretty much all fronts, all this drinking is hardly the sign of a society at ease with itself.  This is not ‘social well-being’.  This is not ‘sustainable’.

On the other hand – and as reaction to some of the above-mentioned concern illustrates – it’s my body, it’s my mind.  Who are you to tell me what I can and cannot do with it?  If I want to get completely out of it on a Friday night, that’s no-one’s look out but mine.

This kind of reaction reveals the depth of feeling evoked by the prospect of intrusion into our (very) private lives, and it characterises a number of aspects of everyday life.  In general, the closer to home an issue, the more sensitive the reaction.  Tell me what I can and cannot eat?  What I can and cannot drink?  What I can and cannot smoke/snort/swallow?

To correspond with the depth of this reaction, we have to ask ourselves a correspondingly deep question: why do we need to get this pissed/ stoned/ wrecked?  What is it about our lives that means we need this level of escapism?

Last time I checked, the data suggested that Londoners are the unhappiest people in Britain.  Is that why we drink?  At lunchtime on Friday we are so looking forward to Friday night; yet by early Saturday night hundreds of thousands of us are damagingly drunk.  In a more sustainable London, well-being would be higher; which would mean that our need to bludgeon ourselves with alcohol and other drugs will be reduced.  If we drink less, then all the other harms that arise from our drunkenness will also diminish – less domestic violence, fewer injuries, reduced liver disease, the whole nine yards.

So, yes, it’s a sustainability issue.

Whose responsibility is this one?  Well, according to the adverts that tell me to “Drink responsibly” (and that other oxymoron “Gamble responsibly”) it’s my responsibility.  But I don’t quite buy that.  And I don’t quite buy the idea, either, that the companies that sell this alcohol should be the ones to bear the responsibility of telling me it’s my responsibility.  No: on this one, I – we – need a little help.  And I don’t think I want the help to come from the people who’ve contributed so massively to the problem, so I don’t want ‘responsibility deals’ that involve supermarkets and booze merchants.

I want a Mayor of London to say: I would like a healthier, happier, more sustainable London.  Tackling alcohol and drug mis-use is at the heart of that ambition.  I'd like leadership that says: I’m going to do my best to help everyone have a fantastic Friday night that doesn’t involve getting slaughtered.

And the third sustainability issue? Sex.

It doesn’t often get a mention in the sustainability literature, and I don’t remember ever seeing it in a ‘sustainability indicator’ set.  But I’m pretty sure that lots of Londoners on Friday lunchtime will be either looking forward to or hoping for some good sex on Friday night; and that far fewer of them will get it than want it.

There are plenty of bad things about sex in London in the early twenty first century: the sexualisation of childhood, the extent and degree and availability of pornography, the scale of sexual abuse and sexual harassment.  But I’m also pretty sure that people who are getting good, regular sex are happier than those who aren’t, and that they will – on average - do less shopping and less drinking than the rest of us.  Good sex is good for well-being, and fabulously low carbon to boot.

Sustainable sex?  Yes please.  And the responsibility?  Well, for that I turn to my favourite philosopher Thomas Nagel, who explains that healthy sex is grounded in a mutuality, a shared sensitivity and feedback between the one and the other.  Sustainable fun might be an individual responsibility; and sustainable drug use might be a societal responsibility; but sustainable sex is a shared responsibility.

Not the sort of thing I’m expecting to see anytime soon from the think tanks or the policy-tariat, of course, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth thinking about.


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