We create change not by telling people what to do, but by helping them tell their peers what they have done.
In 2000, Marshall, an environmental campaigner, moved to Oxford and into a small 1930s ex-council house that was sagging under the weight of decades of dodgy DIY work. Having dedicated his professional life to combating climate change, Marshall decided his house should become an extension of that aim. After all, he could hardly make it worse.
What surprised him was that this first step led to a dead end. He could find hardly any information on environmentally friendly renovation, and what he did find was too hippy, too technical or assumed he was building from scratch. Without a guide, Marshall and his wife Annie became pioneers, pulling together what advice they could and making the rest up as they went along. In case anyone wanted to follow, Marshall began putting what they had learned up on a website.
‘I thought I could write a book about it that no-one reads, or I could write a book that I then spent the next five years trying to publish,’ he says. ‘Or I could just stick it up on the internet. The magic of the internet is that you get results.’
Today that website – The Yellow House – has had about 650,000 visitors and provides a wealth of tips, technical reports and links to architects and material suppliers. As it developed, Marshall found himself fascinated not just by the information, but the nature of the medium itself.
‘The internet lends itself very well to what I call peer-to-peer communication,’ he says. ‘The most powerful and inspiring form of communication there is is someone just like you.’
This inspired step two: bringing people together to teach each other what they have learned from similar eco-renovations. One weekend last September, 18 eco homes in Oxford threw open their doors to more than 1,700 people. Marshall’s home had 150 visitors in one day. That’s a lot for a small English terrace. A separate website has also been set up where people can read case studies from others who have ‘ecovated’ their homes and can tell them what works, and what does not.
‘The idea behind the project was that we can create change most effectively not by telling people what to do, but by helping people tell their peers what they have done,’ says Marshall.
And this change is vital. A 2007 report from the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute noted, ‘the household sector represents 27 per cent of our total emissions and achieving deep cuts here is an imperative’. While existing legislation governs emissions from newly built houses, four in five of the homes we will inhabit in 2050 are already standing and, as the report says, cutting emissions from these ‘will require a quantum leap in commitment from government’. Only in recent months has Whitehall begun to grasp this nettle.
For Marshall, step three means expanding nationwide. This year a series of open weekends will be held across the country, with the ultimate aim of establishing a single national eco-home open day. Building an eco home then has a multiplier effect, he says: as well as the carbon emissions you save yourself, you can inspire others to do the same.
George Marshall also founded the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN)
George Marshall blogs here
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