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September 2014 - Terra Infirma

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29 September 2014

Let's banish the inner priesthood of sustainability


Like it or not, the human race has a tendency towards tribalism - we can see that in a long history of brutal ethnic wars around the world. But the tendency also rears its heads in supposedly virtuous pursuits where those who see themselves as the inner priesthood raise barriers - using linguistics, dogma or people's background.

The environmental movement is as guilty of raising those barriers as anybody else. We read about 'endosymbiotic thrivability'. 'mindfulness' and 'eco-centric world views', we are told we must be against fracking, GM, nuclear - and capitalism in general, and I spent my early days in the movement dodging the question of where I did my degree (Cambridge) or where I worked previously (the Ministry of Defence) - as those answers dropped me a couple of places down the rankings of the self-righteous.

None of this snobbery is helpful in any way. We can sit on our self-built pedestals, sneering at those who 'don't get it' or we can get down amongst ordinary (and I mean that as a compliment) people going about their daily routine and help them 'get it'. Only one of those strategies will deliver sustainability - and it isn't the one occupied by those who think they are morally superior.

So my third rule of pragmatic environmentalism is:

No inner priesthood: we have to make sustainability relevant to others, not bend them to our will.

In other words, if people want to find out about environmental issues and what they can do to help, they should be welcomed with open arms - not subjected to some kind of initiation test. If they don't 'get it', then it is our fault for not making it understandable, not theirs.


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26 September 2014

Sustainability: It's not us against them


I've been blogging a lot about the politics of sustainability recently. As a part-time politician myself, I know that politics should be a battle of ideas, but all too often boils over into naked tribalism. And while I've been perusing the responses to many current political events - Naomi Klein's new book, David Cameron's speech at the UN, the green elements of Ed Miliband's conference speech - to name but a few - the prejudices of many commentators reminded me that I've seen the US - who get it - against THEM - who don't - mentality outside politics, in organisations, protests and even communities.

Green Jujtisu is an attempt to make sustainability appeal to all sides. If you are speaking to a right-leaning audience then you talk economic solutions, if they're left leaning, then regulation or grass-roots action will probably appeal more. In some ways it doesn't matter which route we pick - and 'The Answer' is probably a blend of the best of both.

As I said last week, everybody is an environmentalist - and we must look at sustainability through the eyes of all tribes - pitched battles will do more harm than good.


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24 September 2014

David Cameron shows some leg on climate change (at long last)

CameronHuskiesUK Prime Minister David Cameron finally gave a speech on climate change yesterday at the UN's Climate Summit in New York. We've been waiting a long time for it - arguably the 24 years since Margaret Thatcher urged the UN to take action in 1990. We haven't heard a squeak from those who served in between - Messers Major, Blair and Brown - so for that, at least, we should be grateful to the current PM.

Before I read the transcript, I was expecting the usual blandishments and weasel words - and there were some - but a couple of passages caught my eye:

As political leaders we have a duty to think long-term. When offered clear scientific advice, we should listen to it. When faced with risks, we should insure against them. And when presented with an opportunity to safeguard the long-term future of our planet and our people, we should seize it.

This is a strong signal to those climate sceptics in Cameron's party that he's not going to listen to their insidious whispers.

Another passage reframed climate action for a right-leaning thinkers:

We need to give business the certainty it needs to invest in low carbon. That means fighting against the economically and environmentally perverse fossil fuel subsidies which distort free markets and rip off taxpayers. It means championing green free trade, slashing tariffs on things like solar panels. And it means giving business the flexibility to pick the right technologies for their needs.

In short we need a framework built on green growth not green tape.

I particularly like the line on removing fossil fuel subsidies and hope that Cameron is true to his word on this. The recent New Climate Economy report estimated that these were six times that of clean energy subsidies - a level playing field could accelerate the world towards a low carbon economy very quickly indeed.

And there was a line about developing countries which sets out a realistic approach to developing economies and makes a case for richer nations to invest in their green development for the benefit of all:

We must provide support to those who need it, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable. It is completely unrealistic to expect developing countries to forgo the high carbon route to growth that so many Western countries enjoyed, unless we support them to achieve green growth. Now, if we get this right there need not be a trade-off between economic growth and reducing carbon emissions.

So nothing groundbreaking, but I do like Cameron's pitch for a right-of-centre case for tackling climate change. If the  debate continues to descend into a left vs right battle then we will get nowhere (I'm looking at you, Ms Klein). If both left and right can agree to act in their own way, then we can get moving.

However, the litmus test will be whether Cameron runs the same arguments in his forthcoming party conference speech. Labour leader Ed Miliband remembered to talk about climate change in his conference speech yesterday and I'll be comparing and contrasting the three major party leaders' speeches when they've all been given.






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22 September 2014

Evidence Rules!

frackingA few days ago I postulated 5 rules of the new vein of pragmatic environmentalist. Number 2 was "Evidence Rules".

Like many, I have spent far too much time patiently (most of the time) demolishing the zombie arguments of climate change denialists - using evidence to put cherry-picked 'sceptic' claims into context. Then, a couple of years ago I read The God Species by Mark Lynas which challenged the green movement to apply the same trust in scientific evidence that we take in climate science to contentious issues such as nuclear energy and GM. It was one of those reads that rocks you back on your heels - and I swore I would attempt to be as objective as I could in all environmental issues.

It was this maxim which gets me in trouble over fracking. I'm not a cheerleader for fracking, but my gut instinct against it is tempered by the review of its implications by the The Royal Society and The Royal Academy of Engineering which concluded the technology is safe as long as it is done properly. Without some pretty robust arguments you can't use the Royal Society as a bulwark against climate change scepticism but ignore it when it tells you something you don't want to hear.

That doesn't mean that science doesn't make mistakes, but to move forward to sustainability at pace, we've got to work on the basis of our best current understanding, tempered by the precautionary principle. Yes, some people in the US claim that fracking makes them ill, and we must investigate such claims, but others have claimed wind turbines make them ill and the green movement didn't give that too much thought (rightly, it turned out, but for the wrong reasons).

We've got to be rational about sustainability - a little more head, a little less heart.

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19 September 2014

Can you generate Scottish Referendum levels of enthusiasm for sustainability?

Union Jack of the United KingdomSo it's the morning after the night before and, as broadly expected, Scotland voted to stay in the UK with the rest of us. But what really stood out is how, in this age of extreme political cynicism, the people of Scotland got really fired up about the issue. It became a topic of daily debate with friends, family and neighbours for months and the turnout of 84% speaks for itself - by comparison, the UK 2010 general election turnout was 65%.

Those of us in the sustainability profession looked on in green-faced amazement. How on earth can we generate this level or intensity of engagement in, say, climate change? Or a fraction of it, for that matter?

Well, it seems to me that what fired up the independence debate is that it was an issue that really mattered to the population of Scotland - and they had a chance to decide the outcome. And that's what we must do with sustainability, either with groups of people or with individuals - frame it so it matters to the audience and get them involved in the decision of what to do to address those issues.

Classic Green Jujitsu, in other words!


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17 September 2014

The old sustainability vs growth chestnut gets another roasting

go green

Two interesting interventions caught my eye this week:

  • First of all we had Naomi Klein, of No Logo fame, wading into the climate change debate by declaring that the problem wasn't carbon but capitalism - and that all of us working with big business to facilitate change were as deluded as climate change deniers.
  • Secondly, a report from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate concluded that there was no fundamental conflict between economic growth and tackling climate change.

The two viewpoints couldn't be more different. In my view Ms Klein is on the wrong side of this argument for the following reasons:

  • Finger pointing is easy; facilitating real change is the real challenge;
  • Big business is not just going to disappear overnight because of the righteous indignation of the activist;
  • She admits she does not have an alternative practical solution to climate change (so why bother entering the debate?);
  • I was inspired to embrace sustainability by witnessing the ecological legacy of the Soviet regime in Russia - it doesn't matter whether carbon is emitted under socialism or capitalism, carbon is carbon.

But it still leads us to a fundamental question: is economic growth compatible with sustainability? And the answer from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate is that it is. They set out a series of practical measures to harness capitalism to tackle climate change rather than trying to destroy it wholesale - for example removing the subsidies propping up the fossil fuel industry (which are estimated in the report as being six times that of the subsidy to the renewable sector).

I would go further. We must MAKE growth compatible with sustainability. A vibrant global economy is the only way we will continue to bring down the costs of, say, renewable energy technology. In conjunction with appropriate Government action on taxation, subsidies and investment, I do believe we can create a prosperous and sustainable society.

Naomi Klein's vision would take us back to mid-90s noisy inaction on the climate while the global juggernaut judders on regardless.

Which would you choose?


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15 September 2014

Everybody is an Environmentalist


Last week, I posited five rules for Pragmatic Environmentalism. Over the next couple of weeks I'm going to expand on/refine this a little to explain my thinking, so, first up is:

Rule 1: Everybody is an Environmentalist

Yup, everyone. We pay good money to holiday in beautiful places, we pay a premium for houses with a view of nature or near a park, we get very excited at the sight of a whale or a bird of prey. Mainstream environmental NGOs have a massive membership - 4.5 million in the UK,  1 in 10 of British adults, or an order of magnitude more than the political parties can muster.

Even those hate figures of the green movement have a sliver of environmentalism - the Daily Mail has campaigned against single use plastic bags, climate troll James Delingpole has been known to fret about fish stocks, and Margaret Thatcher remains the only prime minister to make a major speech on the environment.

However, this does not mean we are a nation of goateed, yurt-dwelling tree huggers. There is a strong suspicion that the more vociferous elements of the green movement are 'watermelons' - green on the outside, socialists/reds on the inside - trying to use the environmental agenda to deliver wider political ends. I don't think there is a great conspiracy, just that many in the movement can't divide the two in their own minds - or acknowledge that people who disagree with them politically are allowed their own view.

I'm proud to be a 'mango' - green on the outside, orange (liberal) on the inside. I like to think that liberalism sees the plurality of environmentalism and that we have to form a broad coalition to tackle global environmental challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss or resource depletion. And key to that is to tap the inner environmentalist in everybody.


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12 September 2014

The (Draft) Rules of Pragmatic Environmentalism

business angel

I was called a hypocrite last week.

Not to my face, the individual is too cowardly to look me in the eye. No, he took to Twitter and attacked me for not being 100% against fracking - merely 80%. My arguments for leaving the door slightly ajar were a. while shale gas is a fossil fuel, shale gas is almost certainly much better than coal, b. we could find ourselves in an energy security crisis before too long, and c. the sensible end of the environmental movement has left such black and white dogma behind them and is making swift progress without that baggage weighing them down.

I resisted the temptation to hit reply and leave either a pithy one-liner or fire a torrent of scorn in his direction (it never works out the way you would like, anyway - I just end up waking up in the middle of the night 'cos I've though of a REALLY good put-down).

But it got me thinking about the difference between the new breed of pragmatic environmentalist and the old style ideologues. What about these rules of pragmatic environmentalism as a starter for ten:

  1. Everybody is an environmentalist - you just have to find what is important to them.
  2. Evidence rules: you can't cherry-pick the data that suits you.
  3. No inner priesthood: we have to make sustainability relevant to others, not bend them to our will.
  4. Technology and markets mechanisms are powerful tools: we must use them to our advantage.
  5. Think big or go home.

Comments? Thoughts?

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10 September 2014

What if employees won't engage in sustainability?

In this edition of Ask Gareth, I tackle the nightmare scenario when employees refuse to engage in sustainability. The answer, naturally, is Green Jujitsu!

You can see all editions of Ask Gareth by clicking here.

If you'd like to send a question to Ask Gareth fire away!.


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8 September 2014

Fashion kills sustainability

tombstoneFor a newspaper from the Guardian stable that prides itself on its approach to sustainability, I winced when I read this in a Observer article on fashion yesterday:

The ability to recycle favourite dresses is being curtailed by sites such as Facebook and Instagram.

When the journalist said 'recycling', she didn't mean passing it on to a mate, selling it second hand or using the fabric for something else. No, she meant "wearing the same dress twice" - claiming women are afraid to do so as their friends will see this cardinal sin on social media. To a man who still wears dozens of garments over a decade old, this is an alien concept.

But it illustrates a much bigger point. Our modern design and manufacturing supply chains are capable of delivering us very high quality, low price products exceptionally quickly. But it is not quality or design that consigns those products to the bin - it's fashion. And by fashion I don't just mean clothes - Douglas Coupland nailed the phenomenon in his 1991 novel 'Generation X' when he referred to 'semi-disposable Swedish furniture'. Even a ship will be scrapped when the value of its steel is thought to be higher than keeping the ship in use, rather than when it 'wears out'.

Our problem is that the 'make do and mend' concept is unlikely to storm mainstream consumer culture. There are other models which can help:

  • The service economy: despite the slip on 'recycling', the Observer article did reference services where you can rent high fashion items for one night only, so each dress will be worn dozens of times. You can do this with everything from a luxury yacht to industrial solvents.
  • The circular economy: designing products to be recycled continuously means short product lives doesn't have to be dependent on extracting more raw materials and creating more waste.
  • The sharing economy: purchasing a product and then sharing it with others. When my parents moved into their house 40 years ago, they found it came with half a hedge trimmer!
  • The retro economy: many well designed products have as much value when they are old as when they are brand-spanking new.

In the meantime, I will be recycling - in the true sense of the word - my favourite pair of cords as I have worn them threadbare. Don't think I'll be gracing the fashion pages of the newspapers anytime soon!



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5 September 2014

Why you need to be a pain in the ass to deliver sustainability

rantAn offhand tweet yesterday got me embroiled in a debate about the efficacy of environmental awareness weeks. This spilled onto the ZeroWasteWeek Facebook page where most participants politely tried to argue for awareness weeks (largely that this one had worked for them), but there were a couple of more tetchy contributions:

"Some people will do anything to try and create an argument."

"If he doesnt doesn't care for it, why bother tweeting?!"

Maybe I am just a bit of a pain in the backside, but, on the other hand, as the legendary software pioneer Rear Admiral Grace Hopper is quoted as saying:

The most dangerous phrase in the language is: "We've always done it this way."

When we are trying to facilitate massive change, we need to challenge everything - both in the system we are trying to change and the methods we use to change it. Circling the wagons around our comfort zone stifles progress.

My Green Jujitsu technique was a reaction against standard practice in employee engagement for sustainability - and the wider approach to change management. I could see that standard practice - all those drippy posters and jute bags - wasn't working. So, I stopped and thought it through. I came up with an idea that made sense, tried it, refined it, tried it again, refined it some more et voilà!

Same with organisational systems - the most powerful weapon in your armoury is the Toddler Test - keep asking 'why?' until the person can't answer.

So don't be afraid to be a pain in the ass - a nice, polite one, but a pain in the ass nonetheless.


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3 September 2014

Infographics for Sustainability: A Love/Hate Relationship

I LOVE a good infographic. A good infographic (let's call it 'an infographic' for short) adds value to data by presenting it in an easily digestible and engaging form. The graphic above from, demonstrates the difference between the scientific view on climate change and that of the general public (although the colour key is missing for some reason). But, even for the most numerate, the graphic illustrates the point much more strongly than the numbers.

Volvo_infographic_DG_v11I HATE false infographics. Take this one by Volvo (click to enlarge). It consists of numbers and statements, put into a quirky format and with some broadly relevant clipart scattered over it. You could argue that the layout and images distract rather than add to the information (and patronise the reader), but at best they merely decorate it.

There is no doubt that infographics, if done properly, can add hugely to our communication of sustainability issues. But that's a big 'if'. If it doesn't add value, go back to the drawing board.



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1 September 2014

When sustainability gets tough...

low gear now

Back in the (work) saddle today after a wonderfully lengthy August break in Belfast and latterly Wensleydale, Yorkshire. Speaking of saddles, I took my bike with me to enjoy the glorious countryside of the latter. And those U-shaped glacial valleys give the cyclist plenty of challenges - I did the Buttertubs pass as featured on the Tour de France earlier in the summer, the more difficult climb to Fleet Moss from Hawes (supposedly one of the 10 most difficult in the UK) and plenty of even steeper backroads like the one above by Semer Water which I climbed 3 times all told.

It is said that major cycle races are won on the climbs, not the descents. I try to remember this at work all the time and I strongly believe it applies to sustainability practitioners in general. We are trying to facilitate change on a massive level, often against prevailing short-term trends and some bizarre prejudices (the bile of the anti-cycling lobby is downright frightening). But it is the organisations and entrepreneurs who attack the climbs with gusto that will win in the long term.

That's not to say we should make life difficult for ourselves - expert cyclists know which gear to choose, when and what to eat and drink and subtle variations in cycling position. In the same way, sustainability techniques such as my own Green Jujitsu will help you facilitate change much more easily, just like riding a lighter bike will help you climb faster.

But we shouldn't shy away from those big steep climbs - they are the road to success. Relish the challenge!


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