How it may soon be weird not to be green

Green scene: The folk museum at Skógar in Iceland. The name means “forests”. © Gustl Wessels

THE GREEN REVOLUTION: 2/5 Society. Will being green soon be as normal as saying please and thank you? A recent book explains how things we take for granted can change remarkably quickly.

Yu-fang was only two when the process of binding her feet began. Her mother wound a 20ft piece of white cloth round them, bending all her toes under the sole except the two big toes. Then she placed a large stone on top to crush the arch of the foot. Yu-fang screamed in agony until her mother put a gag in her mouth. She fainted, recovered consciousness, and fainted again.

Yu-fang’s ordeal is described by her granddaughter Jung Chang in her classic book Wild Swans. For years she lived in excruciating pain, with her feet tightly wrapped so that they could not recover their natural shape. When she begged to have them released, she was told that to do so would ruin the rest of her life.

For Chinese girls at the start of the 20th Century, this suffering was the norm. The thinking was that the sight of women teetering along on feet no more than four inches long was attractive to men. Those with normal feet could not find a husband.

But within one generation, reformers ended the 1,000-year-old tradition. They explained that it did not exist in other countries, and that natural feet were far healthier. They also set up societies whose members pledged not to bind girls’ feet, or to let their sons marry women who had been abused in this way.

In his book How Change Happens, Duncan Green argues that things a society considers normal are not so set in stone as people imagine. Foot-binding is a prime example. Similarly, colonisation and slavery – which were generally seen as the natural order of things 200 years ago – are now considered beyond the pale. Norms, Green writes: “are a continuously evolving system”.

Often it is activists like China’s natural-foot societies who set the ball rolling. But there are also what Green calls “critical junctures”, such as political or economic upheavals. World War Two – which saw White and Black US soldiers fighting alongside each other – gave crucial impetus to America’s civil rights movement.

Support from governments is vital, though they are often initially resistant to change. Green lists various stages: repressing activists; denying that a problem exists; making tactical concessions to keep critics quiet; and finally, passing laws to make people respect the new norms.

Mahatma Gandhi put it another way: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

International bodies such as the United Nations can also play a major part, while writers, artists and film-makers often prove very influential.

Financial interests are hugely important too. Nothing has signalled the change in attitudes to the environment more dramatically than the decision of car manufacturers to switch to electric power. President Biden’s assertion that alternative energy could be a huge source of profit and employment was a key part of his election strategy. Businesses have realised that they must go green to attract investors and talented personnel.

Will being green soon be as normal as saying please and thank you?

Customs check

Some say, no. Foot-binding was a deep-set tradition, but giving it up did not cost Chinese society anything – in fact, it made half the population much happier. But going green is expensive and involves giving up things you love, such as enormous TV sets and roaring log fires. Politicians, meanwhile, think in the short term and worry about losing votes by closing industries like coal mining.

Others argue that we have reached a tipping point. Most people now recognise the catastrophic damage done by climate change; many have experienced it first hand. Businesses know that it will cost them a fortune if they ignore it; most political parties see greenness as an important part of their agenda. Increasingly, those who fail to act responsibly will find themselves treated as pariahs.

You Decide

  1. Will the pandemic prove a “critical juncture”?
  2. In the same book, Green suggests that football has replaced religion as, in Marx’s phrase, “the opium of the people”. Do you agree?


  1. Draw the opening scene of a cartoon set in the future in a super-green city.
  2. Write a scene from a TV soap opera in which one character criticises another for not being green enough.

Some People Say...

“Normality is a paved road: it’s comfortable to walk on, but no flowers grow on it.”

Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890), Dutch painter

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that television can play a major role in changing norms. The arrival of cable TV in India in the early 2000s is credited with increasing women’s independence, reducing domestic violence and boosting female education – largely thanks to the portrayal of strong modern women in soap operas. David Attenborough’s wildlife documentaries have alerted millions of viewers to the threats to biodiversity and the problems caused by plastic waste.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around how much religion is a force for social change. Green argues that is generally underestimated: though a lifelong atheist, he has been hugely impressed by the power of liberation theology to motivate people in Latin America. Most people, he notes, trust their local church, mosque or temple more than their government or any other institution. But equally, religion can be a major obstacle to change – for example, in the treatment of women.

Word Watch

She was born in 1909. Two years later the Emperor of China was overthrown and a republic was set up. But the country soon broke up into provinces controlled by warlords, and at 15 Yu-fang was forced to become mistress to one of them.
Jung Chang
Born in Communist China, she moved to England in the 1970s. Her other books include a biography of Mao Zedong.
Wild Swans
The book recounts the huge changes in 20th-Century China through the stories of her grandmother, her mother and herself. It has sold 10 million copies, but is banned in China.
Moving unsteadily or swaying like a see-saw. It comes from an Old Norse word meaning to shiver or shake.
Mahatma Gandhi
An Indian nationalist leader who emphasised peaceful protest. “Mahatma” means “great soul”.
United Nations
Set up after World War Two with the aim of preventing further wars, it replaced the ineffectual League of Nations.
Car manufacturers
They include Jaguar, which announced last month that from 2025 it will only produce electric cars.
Social outcasts.


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