Posted by: Jon | 15/11/2009

Chickens, charisma, and creativity

Rescued hens by their new chicken houseI’ve had a constructive week. Helen, who works with my wife Louise at a disability centre, cares not only for her vulnerable fellow humans but rescues battery hens as well. Of her first batch of seven featherless and bedraggled birds, two were too severely scarred by their factory lives and only enjoyed a week or so of sunshine, rain and the open air before their little hearts gave up on them.

But she has plans to take more and when she asked me to build them a new chicken house I happily agreed. Easier said than done because, in our small rented home, I have only a 5 square metre backyard to work in, my tools are all in France, and it’s been the stormiest week of the year. But the mechanical properties of a borrowed hammer, a handsaw and a couple of screwdrivers proved up to the job and there were enough interludes between downpours to get it done.

So Louise and I now look forward to free eggs for some while to come. They may not be up to the quality of those of the Buff Orpingtons that Helen already keeps, but it is remarkable how quickly the battery birds can recover the natural health that has been denied them in their unnatural confinement.

Most of us know of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the success of his awareness-raising campaign against factory eggs and chicken. Free-range meat and eggs are widely sold now throughout the supermarket chains. Jamie Lining laying boxes with hayOliver, too, has campaigned for proper healthy meals in schools and Rick Stein has celebrated the Food Heroes of the nation who still produce unprocessed food.

Of course, recession has hindered our willingness – and, for the 1 in 5 of us who live below the official poverty line, our ability – to pay for good quality food, but the real problem is that we expect to spend far less of our incomes on our ‘daily bread’ than we did even a generation ago. We’ve become used to cheap processed food in the same way that we’ve become used to cheap Primark clothing. But, to achieve such unrealistically low prices, corners must be cut and something or someone away back at the start of the production process is suffering. (To find out more about how severely degraded is the nutritional value of what we eat and how much this has affected our nation’s physical and mental health, I recommend Graham Harvey’s  eye-opening and very readable  ‘We Want Real Food’).

Amongst the celebrity campaigners for real food, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in particular stands out for me. Many of us would like to challenge the handful of corporate ‘behomoths’ that now control what we eat and how we live, but Hugh seems to have managed momentarily to knock the Tesco beast off its stride. How has he achieved this? And what are the lessons we can learn from his campaigning style that transfer to our other seemingly impossible missions – to halt irreversable climate change or to combat excessive consumption?

Well, first off, HF-W is a well-known public personality. So are Leonardo DiCaprio and Scarlett Johansson, yet somehow there seems less evident conviction in their championing of worthy causes and we are left uninspired. The difference, it seems to me, is that Hugh is informed, credible, consistent and congruent. We are familiar with his long-term commitment and it is difficult to imagine that he might preach one thing and live out quite another. And, importantly, there is genuine passion to his campaigning. He is unafraid to wear his heart on his sleeve and weep before millions on television at the horrific sights and sounds of a battery shed. But then he shows us how to direct such anger and emotion to play the enemy at its own game – appealing to the consciences of shareholders and forcing a vote. A forlorn hope indeed, but a very public airing of the issues. And last, but far from least, he presents us the powerful attractions of the alternatives – coming together as neighbours to keep chickens, to grow fruit and vegetables, to share the social and creative enjoyment of harvesting our own produce from the soil, to display more than a fleeting interest in the poor nutritional value of the processed foods that, in our urban lifestyles, we now take for granted.

If you doubt my appraisal of HF-W’s successes, then take a look at the Land-Share campaign that he launched earlier this year. Will he now turn his attention to the wider issues of sustainability or climate change? Probably not, because, although he signed up early to the 10:10 campaign, he confesses that he doesn’t like to think about the high carbon-footprint of his high-profile version of living off the land.

But that’s not my point. It is his outstanding ability to communicate, to motivate and to engender in his audience a ‘feel-good’ response to doing the right thing that interests me. Here’s an ad hoc list of some of the leadership qualities he displays that might have wider relevance to the success of champions of behaviour change.

–  congruence between the message and the lifestyle of the messenger

–  ability to communicate an issue non-judgementally

–  ability to communicate across social divides and boundaries

–  credible role-modelling and leadership by example

–  willingness to engage with morals and ethics

–  willingness to display personal emotion and passion

–  willingness to engage with an audience’s reasons for dissent

–  ability to communicate the desirable ‘quality-of-life’ benefits of (often less-than-desirable) behaviour change.

It is salutary to reflect on how many of these characteristics are absent in the top-down communications we receive from Government and most other social institutions about the need to adopt sustainable lifestyles.

Louise's loose-fit box coverOn a different creative thread, Louise has also had a productive week. She has stitched Tess's embroiderya loose-fit cover for the box in which Tess, the oldest resident of the home, keeps her life’s treasures.  Tess has reciprocated by intricately embroidering a ‘housewife’ for Louise to store her needles and thread in. And both are delighted at the enjoyment each has had in the making and the receiving. Despite our daily dependence on monetary exchanges, it seems the most valuable things in life are still those that we give freely.


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