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May 2015 - Terra Infirma

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28 May 2015

The dumbest guys in the room

Last week, I finally caught "The Smartest Guys in the Room" – the story of the Enron scandal. If you have an interest in business ethics or corporate social responsibility, it is a damning tale of greed, egotism and self-delusion.

Imagine the culture in an organisation where the (perceived) weakest 15% of employees are fired each year. Where the organisation can report profits on energy projects which haven't even been built (or sometimes never were). Where people can be given multi-million dollar bonus for those imaginary profits. In such a poisonous environment, you can imagine that organisation deliberately withholding energy to the State of California until blackouts to push up electricity prices, so they can sell that energy at a premium.

And the extraordinary thing is how many people went along with it. The documentary referenced the Milgram experiments where ordinary people were persuaded to administer dangerous electric shocks to screaming actors (I had never seen the footage of these legendary and terrifying sessions before - truly harrowing).

And how did it end? In tears. The house of cards collapsed, the authorities started investigating and, of the two smartest guys in the room, Jeff Skilling went to jail and Kenneth Lay died awaiting his fate. In a word: Dumb.

But the lesson is, once again, culture beats everything else and culture flows from the top.


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26 May 2015

Going Wild in Northumberland

humbleton hill

I've just spent a wonderful long weekend doing exactly the same thing I've done on the spring half-term the last 2 years – camping in Wooler at the North end of the Cheviot Hills with varying numbers of family (and, this year, friends). The picture was taken at the top of Humbleton Hill, at just under 300m, a modest climb for adults and a challenge for the kids, but, given its 'last high ground' position, graced with stupendous views across Northumberland and up into Scotland.

Our boys had a fantastic time, largely ignoring the new adventure playground on the camp to go splashing along the two streams which run through the campsite. We had an 'emergency iPad' hidden in the car in case of traditional British Bank Holiday weather, but it went unused. No screens for 72 hours is quite an achievement for this generation.

jimmy ternAfter a couple of days of rambling around our campsite, we decamped to the Farne Islands. With tens of thousands of nesting pairs of puffins and guillemots, not to mention over a thousand psychopathic Arctic Terns (right), the islands are a Mecca for anybody who loves nature – yet on a Bank Holiday Monday we had no problem rolling up on spec and getting tickets. There's nothing like seeing with your own eyes a puffin land with a mouthful of sand eels and disappearing down its burrow to feed its young.

I've realised in recent years that the wanderlust of my younger years has dissipated significantly – nothing to do with carbon footprints, more I've realised just how spoiled I am by all the treasures on my doorstep!


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22 May 2015

Circular Economics 101

circular economy

Yesterday I was at the North East Recycling Forum in Darlington. NERF is one of the very few green events I attend as a punter as they have great agendas and I get to catch up with a lot of familiar faces.

The speaker I most wanted to hear was Andrew Dickson from Zero Waste Scotland. During the Q&A, there was a debate over the circular economy. I said while I was pleased that Andrew had said encouraging things about the need for a circular economy, most of Zero Waste Scotland's efforts seem to be focussed on pushing decent quality recyclate into the loop, and that it wouldn't be sustainable without industrial demand for the material.

Andrew reiterated his position that quality standards were necessary to unlock demand, but a representative from a major waste company waded in on my side, saying "We could produce much higher quality material than current standards – if somebody wanted to buy it."

Interestingly, the next speaker, Jenny Robinson from WRAP, put up a graph showing the decline in recycling of newsprint due to falling newspaper readership, which she said would cause problems for hitting UK recycling targets.

"Do the recyclers in the room want more newsprint?" asked the Chair.

"No." came a firm voice from the back "Supply and demand."

And that, to me, sums up the challenge for the circular economy. We can set all the targets, action plans and quality standards we want, but the basic economic principle of supply and demand will make or break it. Demand will increase volumes, drive efficiencies, improve quality, cut costs and spur innovation – as it does in every other industrial supply chain. Focussing solely on the supply side – the default approach of most public servants and quangocrats – is doomed to failure.

In the circular economy we cannot ignore basic economics.


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20 May 2015

Who's to blame for climate change?

This tweet flashed across my feed on Monday – retweeted by the Guardian Environment no less – and it immediately made me bridle.

For a start, it smacks of a straw man argument. Who is 'blaming' individuals solely for climate change? Who isn't 'blaming' companies at all for climate change? I have never heard either view expressed by any sensible commentator.

Secondly, I don't like anybody absolving or blaming anyone else 100% for climate change (or obesity for that matter). Our consumer society is a cycle between production and consumption – you can't have one without the other.

I can choose to cycle to the shops or work rather than drive. I can decide to spend money insulating my loft. I can buy fresh food rather than processed food. I can buy healthy food or fat/sugar/salt infused crap. I can decide where I go on holiday. I can choose when to upgrade my phone. I have choice over a huge chunk of my carbon footprint. I take the idea that I am a hapless cog in a machine built by evil capitalists as a personal insult.

We also need business and Governments to step up and provide sustainable products and services. After all, the scope of my freedoms above are determined by the choice on offer – and my ability to choose is limited by the visibility I have of the cradle-to-grave impacts of those choices. They have a moral obligation to sort out as many of these problems as they can. We need a virtuous cycle of consumer/voter choices and sustainable options to choose from.

Thirdly, the tweet is dangerous as it encourages people to point the finger and do nothing. As Ross Perot put it "The activist is not the person who says the river is dirty. The activist is the guy who cleans up the river."

So let's stop this kind of silliness and get on with the job in hand.


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18 May 2015

Surface vs Substance in Sustainability

8020 coverOver the weekend I've been mulling on a tough dichotomy, arising out of my last Ask Gareth episode:

  • To make a real change in, say, our carbon footprint, we have to tackle the big issues – space heating, transport, the extraction of raw materials etc. This is the essence of my book 'Accelerating Sustainability Using the 80:20 Rule' – we should stop sweating the little stuff and focus on what really matters.
  • The general public sees (or has been taught to see) environmental issues in terms of relatively trivial issues: single use plastic bags, leaving phone chargers plugged in, drinking bottled water etc. So if a sustainability practitioner breaks one of these populist 'green rules', they will be seen as hypocritical.

The more I think about it, we just have to accept this reality. To make a real difference we should be focussing our efforts on the 20% of 'levers' which will deliver 80% of potential improvements.

However we need to be mindful that our audience may not see our efforts through that prism; we must also make sure we are seen to do the right thing through their eyes. You should see these simple measures as an introduction to sustainability for non-experts – the first steps on the way to understanding the bigger picture.



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15 May 2015

We can't bore our way to sustainability


A couple of weeks ago, I was at one of those parties where you kind of know a lot of people, but don't know anybody really well. I wandered over to the group I knew the best, where I found a woman holding forth on politics. At the end of her lengthy and self-assured monologue, she declared "And that's what we all want, isn't it?"

There was a frosty pause. Everybody looked at their feet. She stared at each person in turn – I'm not sure whether she was waiting for affirmation or daring anybody to disagree. Somebody changed the subject. The chill passed.

Another example. I follow an academic on Twitter who is making increasingly catastrophic predictions of the impacts of climate change. There's a passive-aggressive slant to his pronouncements, one saying "I've been telling the public this for years, but nobody is listening." Funny that.

The worse thing you can do in any attempt to persuade people is to assume you are right, they are wrong and a stern lecture will put them right. People will change the subject. Unfortunately far too much green communications and engagement starts from this position.

My Green Jujitsu approach flips this through 180°. It says 'put yourself in your audience's shoes. Understand their hopes, fears, aspirations and habits. Find the overlap between that and sustainability and start there.

Or to put it bluntly, don't be a bore.



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13 May 2015

Practising what you (don't) preach

This month's Ask Gareth considers a corker of a question from Staffordshire University's Dave Moreman: "How can you ask others to behave more sustainably when your own lifestyle is far from perfect?"

Do you agree with my views or disagree? Have you any great examples? Please add your views & experiences in the comments below.

You can see all editions of Ask Gareth here.


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11 May 2015

Whither the UK's Green Economy now?

Rethinking Government Assistance: David CameronSo it's the week after the week before. The Conservative Party defied all electoral lore and increased its control over Westminster, the first Tory majority since 1992. Their erstwhile coalition partners the Liberal Democrats (my party, sniff) lay shattered on the floor and the opposition Labour Party slumped on the ropes battered and bruised.

I will leave the whys and wherefores to other places, but what are the implications for the UK's green economy?

It is well known that for the last five years it was up to the Lib Dems to fight for sustainability. Despite PM David Cameron's (pic) pledge to lead "The Greenest Government Ever", Lib Dems Chris Huhne and latterly Ed Davey had to fight for every inch against the Treasury and the green-sceptic Chancellor George Osborne. While Tory Greg Barker was an early ally for the green cause, he was later unceremoniously ditched as his party leadership "scraped the barnacles off the boat" in the lead-up to the election. Cameron continued to blow hot and cold, and another climate hawk, William Hague, has hung up his hat.

So all eyes are on who, if anyone, will get the pivotal job of running the Department of Energy and Climate Change?

It is possible that to placate the right wingers in his party, the role will be split and folded back into the Business and Environment Departments. This would relegate the topic back down the agenda, as suggested by the Tories election manifesto. The 'muddle-forward' option would see the competent but hardly cheerleading Amber Rudd promoted into the role which would fit with Cameron's stated aim to see more women in the Cabinet. The radical action would be to pitch the charismatic and feisty Zac Goldsmith into the role, but he may be seen to ruffle too many feathers, particularly amongst the noisy right of the party.

My money is on Amber Rudd. Instead of seeing Government support for the green economy collapse, we'll see it decline slowly to a lower priority issue as attention turns to the Tories' traditional internal battleground, Europe. I believe the surge in the green economy has enough momentum now to carry it along regardless, but we have to accept that the days of looking for Government to lead are over for the time being.

Let's make the future the one we want to see; let the Government claim credit afterwards.

Update: As soon as I hit "Publish" on that post, Cameron tweeted that I was right...

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5 May 2015

The Ultimate Sustainability Strategy is...

go green align your business growth to sustainability.

Unilever has just announced that half its growth last year came from its Sustainable Living Plan and its sustainable brands are growing twice as fast as others. They join GE, Interface, Johnson Matthey and many others in aligning the future of their business to sustainability.

To me, this blows the idea that sustainability is somehow incompatible with growth out of the water. That meme comes from people who see a win-win as some kind of sell-out. Frankly, that clique would rather lose-lose and keep their sense of self-righteousness.

So don't be put off by the naysayers or feel guilty about success. If we want to make sustainability 'the new normal', then we must do just that. And for a business, that means the business strategy and sustainability strategy converging into one.


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1 May 2015

Is climate change like the Titanic?

I was interviewed about attitudes to climate change by my friend, colleague and fellow Belfast-born Anna-Lisa Mills yesterday. We got into a lengthy debate about the balance between risk and opportunity - I like to favour the opportunity, Anna-Lisa feels that we need to communicate the urgency to act now.

To that end she has produced this rather wonderful video likening our attitude to the scientific evidence with the ill-fated journey of our home city's most famous export, the Titanic. If you are going to communicate risks, this is the way to do it.


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