I write this from a ward of Newcastle's Royal Victoria Infirmary after surgery on the little finger upon which I cleverly landed when out running/dancing-on-ice exactly a year ago. Not the most auspicious start to the year, but the enforced time out is giving me a chance to reflect on the last year or two and plan the year ahead.
One thing I have concluded is that our non-project delivery mechanisms often deliver much more value to our clients than the traditional consultancy project. A project is tightly defined and the client gets what they asked for. But in Sustainability it is often the stuff that people don't know that they don't know where major breakthroughs lie – those crucial issues take conversation to uncover, not phases and milestones and deliverables.
We have three main non-project delivery mechanisms (in increasing level of conversation richness):
But shameless plugs aside, with whom are you going to (or do you need to) have conversations about Sustainability in 2017? Is it everybody, or, more likely, key influencers? How will you start that conversation? What language will you use? What format will it take? And how will you work with the results?
And, as that last paragraph demonstrates, one of the best ways to kick off a conversation is with a question.
Here's to a successful and more sustainable 2017, full of rich conversation!
If 2016 was a tumultuous one in world affairs – Brexit, Trump, Syria, all your childhood icons dying – it was a relatively calm one here at Terra Infirma Towers. It was a year of solid delivery rather than breakthrough and, possibly related, for me personally, spending a lot of time in physio to try (semi-successfully) to get the little finger I dislocated at the start of January working again. Many of my blog posts in 2016 were written in the coffee shop of the Royal Victoria Infirmary here in Newcastle (a client of ours, so I wrote it off as background research!).
From a work point of view, we delivered on several major projects started in 2015. Two of these, a research project on employee engagement for a major sustainability leader, and a sustainability strategy for NHSBT, will become publicly available next year. I intend to delve quite deeply into those for your benefit when they are launched as some of the content and lessons are really cool, if I may say so myself. A notable new client was Durham University, who we helped to embed sustainability into its mainstream engineering degree syllabus – a real passion of mine.
The Northern England Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group (CoSM) continued delivering top value for its members. What I really like is when I see conclusions from CoSM shaping the sustainability programmes of members in practice. The Group will motor on in 2017 and we're looking to put together a Southern branch.
I put a lot of work updating our Green Academy webinar programme this year and we had some great new companies signing up. If you want to try it out for free, our 2017 taster session is on 18 January.
So that just leaves me to thank all our clients, partners, associates, friends and family for their support in 2016 – and looking forward to 2017 and whatever it may hold!
We're winding down now for Christmas as Terra Infirma Towers, so I'd just like to take a moment to thank all our clients, partners, friends and followers and wish you all a very Merry Christmas! The Flaming Lips song above is one of my very favourite Christmas songs and playing it triggers the seasonal cheer for me, and the lyrics hit the button even harder this year than normal.
A couple of years ago, the kids asked could we "send some money to poor people in Africa" and it has now become a regular thing to do a bit of fundraising on the run in to Christmas. The two years we gave to SolarAid, this year the kids wanted something related to water so WaterAid was the obvious recipient. As with last year, we ran a yard sale, and although we didn't shift that much stuff, we raised over £100.00 and caught up with the neighbours over a glass or three of mulled wine. It's a nice antidote to the traditional consumerism and gluttony, of which we partake liberally.
When I was clearing the garden to put up the stalls, I realised I needed to clean the decking as it gets very slippery during the winter. So I filled a bucket with hot soapy water and gave it a scrub. I went back to the kitchen to get some cold water to sluice it down. Just as I was about to fill the bucket, it dawned on me. "We're raising money for WaterAid and you're about to throw buckets of drinking water quality water at your decking, you idiot." I went back out into the garden and filled it from the water butt.
Goes to show how behavioural change requires interruptions, even for someone who eats, lives and sleeps sustainability every day!
To break up the monotony (as if) of rock pooling for the kids in our lovely coastal holiday location, we took them to Edinburgh Zoo yesterday. Like many, it always takes me a while to get over the confinement of the animals, until it is driven home to me what an essential job they do in terms of conservation, awareness and education.
It is indeed sad to see two bored Sumatran tigers pacing along in synchronicity where their cages meet, but as soon as you find out about that there are only 500 left in the world, it puts their individual situation into a wider perspective. I know there are some purists who would rather see the species go extinct than be in zoos, but I think they're idiots.
Mid-afternoon, we went to the 'meet the insects' session which went down great with the kids and adults alike (see pic) and which gives people that deeper connection with the animals. The keeper, Barry, who led this session then went on a whirlwind tour of other exhibits - some scheduled, some just 'cos he felt like it. His commentary was brilliant, mixing animal physiology, conservation and fascinating factoids (like the sun bear being the main source of Chewbacca's voice).
Barry's emerging theme was that the biggest threat to many of the endangered animals is palm oil production in SE Asia leading to loss of habitat. My homework is to investigate further as, due to the nature of my clients, this is a bit of a blindspot in my Sustainability knowledge.
We're holidaying just north of the border from where I live in North East England – in a very secluded location. To get here from the main road, after a short wiggle through some minor roads, we had to unlock a gate, drive down a rough track with a precipitous fall to some jagged rocks and the sea one side, and stop outside a tunnel in the hillside. Just inside the tunnel is a wheelbarrow which we had to unlock, load up with some luggage and walk 50 metres in the dark towards the light, then out and 200m across a beach path and up some steps to our cabin.
The tunnel bit was enlivened by bigger children telling the youngest it was full of zombies who would "suck out his brains." It took about 3 shuttles with the barrow, and lots of reassurance to small child about the undead (or lack thereof), to get all our stuff in (and about 10 minutes to log onto the wifi.)
It's a glorious location, watching the tide roll in and out of the harbour, leaving rock pools full of fish, prawns and hermit crabs for the children to harass. House martins are nesting in the cliffs above us, swooping around feeding on the midges and trying not to feed the sparrowhawks in turn. The midges seem to be taking it out on me, and me alone, putting me in a special place in the food chain.
When we climb back out of the cove, we're surrounded by low carbon energy – Torness nuclear power station dominates the skyline to the west and we have major wind farms to the south and east. The latter two form an impressive backdrop to my cycles/hunts for a decent coffee stop.
We've been here for five days and have hardly 'done anything' – just being here is enough!
Drumroll! It is 10 years to the day since I set up Terra Infirma to bring sustainability to life.
A whole decade. ("I wouldn't go that far, Dave" as Trigger once (almost) told Rodney in Only Fools & Horses)
And what a decade. I started with a self-built website, self-designed/printed business cards and a dormant contract with Envirowise to do waste minimisation visits which I had transferred over from my previous job. My plan that summer was to build a dry-stone wall in my garden during August and get marketing in September with the hope of work in October. Three days of humping sandstone around later and the phone rang.
Next thing I knew I was in the shower, out, dried and into a suit – I'd landed my first new contract by mid-afternoon. The Envirowise work suddenly sprung into life a few weeks later, bringing in regular work. The dry-stone wall took another 18 months to finish.
And look where the company is now! A roster of great blue chip clients such as Johnson Matthey, BAE Systems, the BBC, News International, Viridor, East Coast Mainline. Stanley Black & Decker, the NHS and, most recently, Interface. Five books on Sustainability. Green Academy webinars. On-line training. The Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group. The Low Carbon Agenda. Green Jujitsu. This blog. Modesty aside, I'm very proud of what's been achieved.
But we want to do more to help others embed Sustainability into everything they do. Looking ahead, I'm working on a second branch of the Mastermind Group (because it's the richest way to learn I've come across) and expanding our on-line training (as that's got global reach).
Lastly, I would like to extend a massive, warm thanks to everybody who has helped over the last ten years: clients, suppliers, associates, partners, friends and, not least, family. It wouldn't have happened without you.
I wasn't planning on blogging today – in fact I had intended to be waking up for my fourth morning under canvas (well, nylon) at Wooler at the north end of the Cheviots. However our deliberations on the weather came to an abrupt conclusion when the cheap gazebo we used for cooking took off yesterday morning, leaving me standing in a field, holding a full cafetiere in a stiff northerly wind, with a surprised expression on my face. However difficult it was to dismantle the tent in the wind yesterday, it was going to be easier than doing it with the same wind plus precipitation this morning.
But before that slightly dramatic end (thank god most people left our field on Monday – that flying gazebo could have done some real damage) we had a fantastic time. Breakfast with buzzards soaring overhead then swooping down and scattering rabbits, some really gorgeous walks with picnics, the boys playing in the stream that runs through the camp site, dinner al fresco and bedtime stories as the sun went down (see pic). I also got to sneak off for a 46 mile coffee ride on my brand new carbon fibre road bike (well I have just turned 45 so I had to buy one).
I try not to get too romantic about the 'back to nature' element of camping – all the high-tech fabrics, sleeping bags, inflatable mattresses, gas cooker and cool bags make our annual family forays very comfortable. But there is something wonderful about being buffeted that wind, hearing the peep of the oystercatcher protecting its young in the middle of the night and watching the kids really get down with nature (although the 'slug licking' maybe went a tad too far).
Is the model of embedding oneself in nature while wearing a Polartec fleece and a Gore-tex cagoule the one for our sustainable future? Appropriate technology allowing us top quality of life in harmony with our fantastic natural world sounds like a winner to me.
Although the fate of our gazebo, now lying mangled in Wooler's household waste recycling centre, reminds us what happens when we get it wrong.
I'm exhausted this morning after doing the grunt work for my sons' yard sale yesterday. Every year the boys raise cash for Solar Aid, but this summer they saw the multifarious yard sales in Portland and decided to import a little of that to Newcastle. It was a lovely event with friends, neighbours and the occasional passerby having a good rummage through our old stuff.
They raised £168 – enough for 54 of Solar Aid's signature solar lamps/phone chargers (right). These bring clean electricity into remote villages allowing kids to study at night without choking on kerosene fumes and people to charge portable electronics. The lamps aren't given away, instead Solar Aid creates social enterprises, creating employment and ensuring the recipient values them. That hits all kinds of buttons for me (I believe hand outs can often do more harm than good).
It was a good introduction to the world of commerce for the boys – these guys would skin The Apprentice candidates with nary a shiny suit in sight!
Last Thursday morning, with a lump in my throat, I finished the newspaper and folded it carefully. I didn't want the kids to see the pictures of the lifeless body of three year old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi lying in the surf on a Turkish beach. Later in the day, I came into our living room to find Charlie, our three year old, snoozing on the sofa in almost the same position, bum in the air, one arm along his body, the only difference his thumb stuck firmly in his mouth. I lifted him up and hugged him close, tears in my eyes.
Many people have asked why it took these pictures to make so many sit up and take notice when the refugee crisis has been building for so long. Countless other little kids have drowned in the Med, out of sight, their parents trying to get them to physical and economic safety, yet it is only now that the on-line petitions have started, charitable donations have surged and politicians have started to do something more than mouth platitudes.
The answer is human nature – we relate emotionally to individuals, not numbers. We cannot comprehend the six million-plus who perished in The Holocaust, so we focus on Anne Frank. By all accounts, Anne Frank was a perfectly normal little girl, who happened to keep a diary, caught up in one of the blackest periods in history. Her posthumous fame doesn't detract from the suffering of the millions of others, it simply helps us get out heads around it by scaling it down to the personal level we can engage with.
I've been aware of the refugee crisis for a long time, but the photos of little Aylan made me act - if only to sign petitions and pledge some cash. I feel guilty that I didn't made these small efforts months ago, and I'm certainly in no position to criticise others for 'jumping on the bandwagon' now. At the end of the day, we're just being human.
Anyone noticing/blessing my absence on social media action for the last 6 days need fear no longer, I'm back on-line after 6 days camping at Lost Lake, 950m up in the Oregonian Cascades. It was absolutely wonderful too, with the backdrop of old growth forest and the towering Mt Hood like one of those cheesy 70s wilderness posters that many of us grew up with.
Amazing wildlife, too. Just after I took the picture above, an Osprey dived to scoop a fish out of the lake and head back towards its perch. Our daily campsite routine was tolerated by ever entertaining chipmunks doing their chipmunk thing. The potential, if unrealised, appearance of a bear or even a cougar gave the stay a frisson we don't get back in Northumberland.
Despite the compromises of staying in a camping trailer on a site with running water, (compost) toilets, garbage bins and a store, I do like the way camping makes you very aware of your relationship with nature and the benefits/impacts of modern life. There is no way we could have survived here for more than a few days without food supplies. Finite gas/electrical power and a single rubbish bag and the need to empty waste water manually makes it very clear what you are consuming/wasting.
The absence of my favoured deluge of bite-sized internet information forced me into doing something I've let slip recently – reading books properly, 50-60 pages at a time, rather than in 10 page chunks. I'll be bringing something from one of those books, Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, back to the business later in the week.
Anyway, this morning we're packing for an afternoon flight and I'll be home with the little 'uns tomorrow. Blogging will continue slightly erratically for the rest of the summer.
So, I'm in sunny Portland with the family, recently declared the most sustainable city in the US by the Mother Nature Network and the second most sustainable in the world by Grist back in 2007 (annoyingly Portland wasn't included in the recent global sustainability ranking of 50 cities – other US cities were – so it is difficult to judge how it stands up against, say, Copenhagen.)
The city is renowned for being achingly hip, so much so it has even spawned its own sketch show, Portlandia. I overheard an unwittingly hilarious conversation at a cafe about the traumas of trying to survive on a vegetarian, gluten-free diet which could have been straight from the show. But the upside is organic food aplenty, craft beer (OK, we took the kids to a beer festival... above) and more people on bicycles than I've seen anywhere else in the US (albeit in my limited experience).
Portland seems to be the Prius capital of the world – I've certainly never seen so many in one day's walking. But through European eyes, any carbon savings from the Prii will be more than obliterated by the sheer number of humungous SUVs which many Portlanders seem to drive for no discernible reason other than because they can. Even the hipsters seem to prefer unhealthy sounding elderly station wagons than something leaner, cleaner and more modern.
There's a drought on here. Not enough snow in the winter or rain in the spring has depleted reserves. Most people in this neighbourhood have respected calls not to water lawns – most are parched brown.
Last but not least, the people we have encountered so far are delightful. Not just the 'have a nice day' clichés, but ordinary passers -by going out of their way to be helpful to a family of Brits trying to negotiate a strange city.
Next week, I've got a meeting with the City Council to hear how they are delivering sustainability in the city – expect a post next week.
As of today, I'm on my usual summer mixture of holiday, work and childcare - blogs will be less frequent, less regular and more informal.
The good news is that for the next three weeks, I'll be based in Portland, Oregan, renowned as a sustainable city, and I've got a meeting booked with the City Council to hear what they've done and how they've done it. Salves my conscience a little for the most carbon-hungry trip I've taken in a decade...
We've had a very educational Spring chez Kane with our camera-rigged bird box hosting its first blue tit family. The video clip above shows the mother – 'Melody' – bringing in food and removing a fecal sac. Having watched the parents build the nest, lay the eggs, feed and brood the young and, finally, a quick glimpse of the fledgelings making their way in the world, we feel a bit sad that they've moved on.
But our attention has now moved on to our Painted Lady butterflies. A friend gave our boys a kit where we could see the caterpillars fatten themselves up and then move into a chrysalis and now the first one has emerged, stretching its wings, fastening the two sides of its proboscis together and expelling shockingly bright red meconium – basically all the poo it has stored up since it last ate. As Mrs K put it, when you see the magic a caterpillar does to become an adult, there's a long, long way for technology to go.
Now you can watch all this stuff on Springwatch – and we do, religiously – but there is something about experiencing the joys of nature right in front of your eyes which can never be replicated. It is no surprise that 'eco-therapy' has been shown to help those with mental health problems, that nature is an interesting start point for engaging employees or the general public in sustainability (our local Nestlé factory kicked off the process with a butterfly garden), or that bringing nature into the urban core is becoming the in thing (see M&S's living wall in Newcastle, right).
But you don't have to think about all that, you can also just relax and enjoy it!
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.
After 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!
I'm down in our capital city with the family for a short break. The two bigger boys were very keen to come because of various school projects, and the little one – well as usual he just has to lump it!
As usual, on holiday, I have my eyes peeled for anything sustainability-related.
I remember musing on my way back from Bruges back to Newcastle by train in 2009 that in Belgium you saw at least one solar array in every village or suburb, but virtually nothing on the English side of the Channel. Oh, how that has changed. Not only is there a huge amount of roof-mounted solar along the East Coast Mainline, but we passed at least 3 field-sized solar farms and plenty of wind turbines dotted here and there. It is no surprise to me now that UK solar installed capacity doubled in 2014 – you can see it.
We're staying at a genuine Airbnb house – a real family home as opposed to a regular rental – and our first proper use of the new sharing economy. The house is lovely, but you do have to put up with your host's tastes – there is no cafetiere, garlic press or, believe it or not, wine glasses. We can improvise on the former two, but bought them 4 cheap wine glasses (I hope that isn't taken as an insult as we can't take them with us). The other problem is trying to stop 3 rather excited and rambunctious boys from trashing the place...
Another thing I've noticed is you can now use a contactless debit/credit card in lieu of an Oyster card for London transport. This opens up the flexibility of London public transport for the casual visitor. Anything to remove barriers to the greener option wins in my book and, when my Oyster card runs out/gets lost again, I think I might give up on it.
As well as the tourist traps, yesterday we went to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust London in Barnes, not that far from the heart of the City - amazing to see what you can achieve if you leave a little space for nature in our urban sprawl.
I know I'm an irrepressible optimist, but going on a holiday allows you to see things afresh in a way you don't on a business trip. I am utterly convinced that, no matter what the doomsters claim, we are moving in the right direction.
I launched my Ask Gareth sustainability agony uncle series.
Not bad, given that I also got myself re-elected to Newcastle City Council in May - and had to deal with the loss of my dear Mum in October. It's been a roller coaster of a year and I'm eternally grateful to family for always being there for me. I am blessed.
That's why this blog has been largely quiet for the last week - I've been in that weird bereavement hollow zone where only family matters and everything else - news, entertainment, work - just seems irrelevant, not to mention irritating. But we gave her a great send off last Thursday - it was standing room only at the funeral service - and I'm getting back into my normal routine.
My Mum was a nature lover and it definitely rubbed off on me. I remember her running the Nature club at my primary school and we went on many nature hikes along the Lagan in Belfast where I grew up. In her later years her passion for the birds which visited the garden meant that there was only one option for charitable donations in lieu of flowers - the RSPB. Her passion also inspired my kids, particularly my eldest, Harry, who would trade bird lists on a regular basis on our Sunday morning phone calls.
The closing stanza of Mum's funeral service went like this:
You can remember her and only that she is gone,
Or you can cherish her memory and let it live on.
You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back,
Or you can do what she would want: smile, open your eyes, love and go on.
And that's what I intend to do - not only work for a better future for the next generation and the one after that, but to inspire them to take up the torch themselves. Not that kids need much encouragement!
I'm into phase II of my summer holidays - back in our favourite spot of Askrigg in Wensleydale. In the past, I've always refused on principle to holiday in the same place twice, but we love this old croft house so much, this is our third visit. First time we had one child, second time two, this time three. And no, we won't be continuing that particular trend...
You can't miss the Tour de France paraphernalia still adorning every house from the Grand Depart almost six weeks ago. I've been pedalling up hill and down dale a couple of times already, giving the old muscles a warm up before I hit the 'Côte de Buttertubs' that Nibali, Froome, Contador et al made look like a speed bump. Unlike them, I'll be stopping for tea and cake or a pint halfway around my circuit.
Naturally, I like to seek out local sustainability efforts when I'm on holiday. The amount of rooftop solar installed had increased once again, but the biggest permanent change I noticed was this fantastic archimedes screw on the river Bain in nearby Bainbridge - capable of powering 45 houses and generating £35,000 per annum for the community group which installed it - once the investors are rewarded, the profits are being invested in the local environment.
I remember reading an article in New Civil Engineer about a decade ago suggesting that hydro-projects at this scale are very cost-effective and avoid the impacts of large scale hydro. Nice to see a good, (presumably) successful community energy project too.
Another thing I like about Askrigg is the local produce, whether Wensleydale Cheese, local bread and honey, and, of course, the eponymous local ale. Don't worry, I'll have one on you!
Last Thursday, on the last full day of my Cumbrian holiday, I took the elder two boys back to Hodbarrow nature reserve and, after an hour's Biblical battering of wind and rain, the clouds parted for a few moments and, lo, the Walney Wind Farm appeared on the horizon. The sheer scale of the installation was breath-taking - and we could just make out two other distant farms, all turning, all generating clean power.
It is very easy to get caught up in the hurly-burly of the sustainability debate and forget that we are winning, if only by a nose. But seeing is believing - and it was a scene of ecological devastation that drove me into this career and it is the sights of such progress that drive me on. Let's do it!