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7 May 2018

Sustainability Lessons from 14 years in Local Government

Regular readers may have noticed that my output here and on social media has been somewhat patchy over the last few weeks, That's because I was engaged in a tough Council re-election battle, one which I ultimately lost by 12 votes out of 2000 or so cast.

Obviously I'm disappointed, but I'm very proud of my 14 years' stint on Newcastle City Council, particularly on the Sustainability front – I spent 7 years as deputy Cabinet member for Environment & Sustainability when my party ran the Council, then 7 years as opposition spokesperson. Not to put too fine a point on it, and modesty aside, during the first seven years, Sustainability performance improved rapidly peaking with being designated the UK's Most Sustainable City two years running by Forum for the Future (2009 & 2010). When we lost control in 2011, things went into marked decline.

So here's a quick reflection on the lessons that I learnt over those years (many have appeared here before, often lightly disguised!):

  • Leadership is everything – when we took control in 2004, we set two big aspirational targets: zero waste and carbon neutral. Cllr Wendy Taylor, the Cabinet member 2004-2011, showed immense grit and determination to get a massive bureaucracy to take those goals seriously. The incoming administration in 2011 dropped those goals and deleted the cabinet member post, spreading responsibility around a variety of roles and claiming a 'green thread' ran through everything. The weakness of the latter approach has been proven by falling recycling rates and stalled carbon reduction programmes.
  • Commitment = stretch targets. Those two goals drove everything we did and made it clear to the whole organisation, whether officers or councillors, that we were serious about doing things differently. Hitting the targets is not the point: we didn't get close to zero waste, but driving recycling rates from 8% to 43% wouldn't have happened with an incremental approach – as demonstrated by recycling declining to 38% once the target was removed.
  • You've got to make Sustainability easy: one of the controversial things we did was to replace a segregated recycling collection involving a open crate, to a semi-co-mingled system involving a wheelie bin. Green activists screamed sell-out, but the recycling rate went up from 25% to 38% overnight. We made it easy and convenient for busy individuals to recycle and they did so.
  • Experience works: One area our administration was slow on was promoting cycling. So I challenged a group of senior officers and councillors to cycle from the Civic Centre to Newcastle Central Station at the far side of our compact city centre. I can still hear the cry of alarm from one of my colleagues as we ventured across 4 lanes of heavy traffic. From this traumatic experience, a revamped, ambitious cycle strategy was born (our party drafted it, but it came into force under the current administration who to their credit are implementing it).
  • People love winning: when I was first told we had won the Most Sustainable City accolade, my first thought was "how bad are all the rest?" and the second was "oh no, everybody will think we've finished when we've only just got started" but I was wrong – winning first time galvanised officers, fellow Councillors and partners (success has many parents etc) and drove us further and faster (our lead in the Forum for the Future ratings increased over the following year).
  • Activism is doing, not protesting: I've had a few wins in Opposition, however I've learnt you can protest all you like, but if those in power won't listen, you can rarely achieve anything. This is why I eschew protest for action no matter how small, grind my teeth when activist-journalists get lauded more than people at the coalface, and why I recommend my clients (and everybody else) work to align responsibility with authority.

So now I have just the one job, I will be able to focus full time on implementing these lessons in Terra Infirma's clients!

 

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12 February 2018

Small is Sustainable?

Interesting report from advertising agency 18 Feet & Rising this week. They polled 100 CEOs of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) about attitudes to Sustainability. 88% said they valued Sustainability, but 70% were struggling to do so.

I found the former statistic encouraging but the latter baffling. Having worked with a couple of hundred SMEs over the years, I've found their agility often makes it easier for them to adopt Sustainability principles than their larger competitors. Of the 18 interviews in my book The Green Executive, I quote the SMEs examples more than the others. Instant decision-making, short levers of control and relatively few assets mean change can happen very quickly indeed.

In my experience, the difference between those doing so and those who aren't is almost always the attitude of the boss. Leadership is the critical factor as usual.

So perhaps many of those 88% aren't being entirely honest with themselves – or the interviewers.

 

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31 January 2018

How to resurrect a dead Sustainability programme


This month's Ask Gareth considers an excellent question from Bill: how do you resurrect a dead Sustainability programme? Warning, this video contains references to a naff 80s movie...

What do you think? Comments in the comments, please!

Ask Gareth depends on a steady stream of killer sustainability/CSR questions, so please tell me what's bugging you about sustainability (click here) and I'll do my best to help.

You can see all previous editions of Ask Gareth here.

 

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19 January 2018

Is the circular economy at a tipping point?

As I look out over the white-coated river valley I live in, 'snowballing' is a very appropriate analogy for the revolution going on in public discourse over waste and plastic waste in particular. Bloomberg journo Jess Shankleman sums up nicely how that snowball is fast gathering momentum:

When you're making a snowman, that little snowball you start rolling round takes for ever to start to grow, but then suddenly it takes on snow at an ever faster rate and it's up to your waist. This kind of exponential growth happened with renewables largely for financial reasons – as demand increased, prices fell, fuelling further demand. Suddenly, from a tiny fraction of the UK's electricity supply, renewables are delivering huge chunks of our power.

Waste is quite a bit more complex than energy given the eco-system of players from product producers to retailers to consumers to collectors to reprocessors, and this complexity presents many more barriers to change. But you just have to read the newspapers – from across the political spectrum – to see the consensus that change must come.

Among politics geeks, this is called the 'Overton window' – the stuff you can freely debate in public without appearing like a crank. The window has shifted decisively towards the circular economy since the days when then Deputy PM Nick Clegg had to fight to bring in the plastic bag tax – the fist-sized snowball that started this all off. I have no doubt that the current Government sees plastic waste as a rare opportunity for good news amongst their many other struggles, but they seem serious about mining that seam of political goodwill, and I'm certainly not going to criticise them for it.

And, as Jess says, it's amazing what a little bit of proactive leadership can do.

 

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13 December 2017

Sustainability Leadership on the Rise, despite Trump

There hasn't been much coverage of President Macron's One Planet Summit on Tuesday, probably because nothing went wrong. The event was to mark the second anniversary of the Paris Agreement on climate change and was marked by quite a number of big pledges from the EU, Governments national and local, corporates and investor groups. Divestment from fossil fuels was a strong theme.

PM Theresa May and Climate Change Secretary Claire Perry flew the flag for the UK.  As I've previously said, it makes complete sense for the PM to take ownership of Sustainability as this is one of the few (the only?) areas where the current Government has a good story to tell, plus it resonates with younger voters, a demographic where the Tories' polling is dire.

But it also raises the bar, with other UK political parties taking to the media to explain how they would do more than the Government. This kind of green one-upmanship is a wonderful thing and long may it continue.

Ms Perry has brought some real pragmatic ambition to the table with the recent Clean Growth Strategy and did a bit of (presumably inadvertent) Green Jujitsu at the Summit by telling the BBC's Daily Politics "Tackling climate change will bring jobs and growth, I thought that's what Donald Trump wanted."

Speaking of the President, Arnold Schwarzenegger made the best statement about the US and climate change I've heard in a long time:

“It doesn’t matter that Donald Trump backed out of the Paris agreement, because the private sector didn’t drop out, the public sector didn’t drop out, the universities didn’t drop out, the scientists didn’t drop out, the engineers didn’t drop out. No one else dropped out.

Donald Trump pulled Donald Trump out of the Paris agreement, so don’t worry about that. We at a subnational level are going to pick up the slack and continue on. We will fight and we will create the kind of future for our children and grandchildren because that is our responsibility and no one will stop us.”

Despite the Donald, I really feel that we are at a tipping point on Sustainability in general and climate action in particular. This level of leadership, visual and practical, is an inspiration to all of us on the ground. And, if you are finding a leadership vacuum in your organisation, remember Arnie's words and take up the slack.

 

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29 November 2017

OK, so I was wrong on the plastic bag tax

Regular readers will know that I have been somewhat dismissive of the plastic bag tax (to put it mildly...) Well, hands up, I was wrong.

Ish.

My case was that plastic bags are such a tiny part of our carbon footprint, that the regulatory effort to tax plastic bags would be better spent, say, requiring higher insulation standards. But two things have happened since the plastic bag tax was introduced in the UK.

  1. Increased understanding of the scale of the problem of ocean plastics, particularly the feedback loops that mean plastic fragments are now being found in drinking water. The issue is much more critical than (almost) everybody thought.
  2. Rather than being a token gesture, the plastic bag tax has opened up the political path to further action on all single-use plastics (and arguably other eco-actions) as promoted by the unlikely green champions Michael Gove and Philip Hammond in recent weeks.

The latter is a really difficult one to predict. I get regular complaints from industry contacts that their organisation's leadership likes to have a green project or two to wheel out periodically to show they are doing something before they are put back in the cupboard and life goes on as before.

On the other hand, as with the plastic bag tax, a relatively minor achievement can lead to a snowballing effect. It's the same with employee engagement for Sustainability – getting people involved through 'quick wins' can help open minds to more radical change. But the leadership must be there to keep rolling the snowball down the hill every time the natural momentum stalls.

The difference then, as always in Sustainability, is leadership.

 

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18 October 2017

Making Sustainability Robust to Sudden Change

IMG_2999

What happens if your super-Sustainability-champion-of-a-CEO suddenly announces their retirement? How do you make sure your Sustainability programme survives the inevitable upheaval? It was questions like this that my Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group considered recently in the gorgeous and historic surroundings of the Undercroft at the Live Theatre, Newcastle.

The Masterminds chose three such upheavals to discuss and below is a selection of the resulting learning points. As we operate under the Chatham House rules, the identity of the members and the conversation leading up the generic points has not been recorded.

Change in the C-suite

  • Research the incomer’s background (eg via LinkedIn) and tailor your pitch to their interests (ie Green Jujitsu) for example, talking $ to someone with a CFO past;
  • Embed Sustainability so deeply and overtly that any incoming CXO knows exactly what they’re getting themselves in for (and the ‘wrong type’ doesn’t apply);
  • In particular, have commitment and coherent message coming from rest of C-suite and senior management;
  • Align Sustainability Strategy to the business case as it applies to your organisation so backpedalling is counter-productive to the business;
  • Stick to the plan until you are told otherwise; you don’t need permission to do Sustainability;
  • A new face may bring new opportunities to address issues which weren’t on the agenda before.

Read the rest of this entry »

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13 October 2017

Sustainability Bites 13/10/17

Here's this week's edition of Sustainability Bites where I really struggle to find anything to criticise in the UK Government's Clean Growth Strategy, so I turn to Donald Trump who never fails to disappoint.
 

 

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10 October 2017

The State of Sustainability in UK Politics

As a political geek, I've been following the UK's party conference season as avidly as usual. My theory is that the content of the Leaders' speeches are the true measure of commitment of each political party to the Sustainability agenda. After all, it doesn't matter what is discussed earnestly on the fringes, if it doesn't penetrate the Leader's speech then it can hardly be a true priority.

The problem with this theory is that the shadow of Brexit has dominated these speeches over recent years, so I thought I'd add in a brief summary of other notable conference commitments. As usual I will try my best to be non-partisan, but I must declare my membership of the Liberal Democrats. Speaking of which, first up was:

1280px-Official_portrait_of_Sir_Vince_Cable_crop_2Vince Cable, Liberal Democrats

Cable talked quite a lot about climate change and green issues; most of it expounding the Lib Dems' achievements in the Coalition Government, expressing fears for some of those achievements under Tory rule and concerns over Brexit (noting the significant overlap between Euroscepticism and climate change denial in UK politics). He made a clear forward commitment – "Liberal Democrats will always fight for the green agenda" – but the speech lacked any more concrete proposals.

This was an opportunity missed, as the Lib Dems had earlier agreed at target of net-zero emissions by 2050 and adopted a plan which would take us 93% of the way there. A simple reference to this policy would have lifted Cable's speech way up the green-o-meter.

At the No More War event at Parliament Square in August. A Creative Commons stock photo.

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Read the rest of this entry »

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6 October 2017

Sustainability Bites 6/10/17

Here's this week's edition of Sustainability Bites, covering the Sustainability elements of the Conservative Party Conference (more than you'd think), the latest green energy record and some of the exciting things that I've been doing this week. Comments in the comments!

 

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13 September 2017

Embedding Sustainability: Bottom Up or Top Down?


This month's Ask Gareth considers an excellent question from 'Rob' (names have been changed to protect the bashful) – should you approach Sustainability from the bottom up or the top down? In response, I say both, plus another angle and add some strong caveats... Comments in the comments, please!

Ask Gareth depends on a steady stream of killer sustainability/CSR questions, so please tell me what's bugging you about sustainability (click here) and I'll do my best to help.

You can see all previous editions of Ask Gareth here.

 

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30 June 2017

Perfect Green Jujitsu

Green Jujitsu Venn

On Wednesday I was delivering a workshop upskilling green champions at one of my healthcare clients. Just before we got into the meat of the session, learning about green jujitsu (see above) in order to engage effectively with their colleagues, the director with responsibility for Sustainability (amongst a much wider portfolio of responsibility) arrived to talk to the champions.

I'm always a little nervous at times like these as I have to keep my fingers crossed that what 'The Boss' says is aligned to what I am trying to communicate. While I have done a boardroom session where I used green jujitsu to get the board to make the links between the health and sustainability agendas, I haven't explicitly coached them in the technique.

I needn't have worried, the director told the champions clearly that, as their mission was to save and improve lives, then Sustainability was very much part of that mission, whether in terms of air quality, reduction of toxic materials or climate change. That is the perfect green jujitsu, when you can link Sustainability to the core purpose of the organisation.

I then explained the principles of green jujitsu to the champions. We all filter out all the stuff that doesn't interest us and pay attention only to what we want to – like flicking through the magazines in the dentist's waiting room until an article or picture catches our attention. So to get people's attention in Sustainability, you have to find the elements of Sustainability which get through their filters.

If your message is "Stop thinking about what you are passionate about and think about what I am passionate about", you start to sound like the pub bore. My client's employees are passionate about health, so health becomes the starting point every time.

 

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12 June 2017

What does the election result mean for Sustainability?

what can I do

Well, that was weird, wasn't it? The winners lost and the losers won.

The whopping Tory majority everybody expected (me included) didn't happen, and PM Theresa May now has a minority Government supported by an agreement with 10 Northern Irish DUP MPs. 'Unelectable' Jeremy Corbyn's much mocked (by me amongst others) rallies turned out to have struck a chord with the public, particularly the younger voter, and he gained rather than losing seats, although too few to form any kind of Government.

So what does this mean for the Sustainability movement? Here's my take: Read the rest of this entry »

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8 May 2017

At last, some political leadership on climate change

Emmanuel Macron Ministre de l'Économie, de l'Industrie et du Numérique

Emmanuel Macron

If you're of a liberal bent, then Emmanuel Macron's election as President of France is a welcome relief from the global political contraction into populist nationalism. And, if you care about the future of the human race and the natural world, then Macron mentioning climate change twice in his victory speech is a feast for the ears.

Twice. My rule for political speeches is once is a nod to an IMPORTANT ISSUE, twice is a significant commitment.

Regular readers will know that I believe that leadership is the critical issue for Sustainability. Obama understood this, but Obama is gone (well, Barack anyway), and most political leaders of the centre ground - including almost every UK Prime Minister I can think of - will say the right things, but do a little less than everybody hopes. The recent rise in right-wing populism threatened even that half-baked progress.

There is far more leadership on climate change coming from business at the minute than politics. That's not a bad thing as business is our supply chain where most of our carbon footprint lies. But imagine a world where political and business leaders vied for who could make the most difference. That truly would be something to behold.

But in the meantime: félicitations Macron, en marche!

Photo: Ecole polytechnique Université Paris © creative commons license

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5 May 2017

Breaking out of the Sustainability Silo


This month's Ask Gareth answers a great question from 'Bill' (name has been changed) which many face – how do you put together a Sustainability Strategy in a vacuum? I explain three steps to breaking out of the Sustainability Silo and getting key decision makers involved.

Ask Gareth depends on a steady stream of killer sustainability/CSR questions, so please tell me what's bugging you about sustainability (click here) and I'll do my best to help.

You can see all previous editions of Ask Gareth here.

 

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26 April 2017

Beware the HiPPO

2560px-Hippo_mouth_opening

At a meeting this morning, someone used an acronym which I don't think I'd heard before: 'HiPPO' – the Highest Paid Person's Opinion. But I know exactly what it means – I once lost a client because I disagreed with the HiPPO in the room. I was right (naturally), but it didn't matter, the HiPPO prevailed, everybody else fell into line, and the next phase of my involvement in the project never materialised.

It's kind of like that ancient Chinese engineer who suggested the Great Wall of China wasn't being built the best way. The engineer was right (naturally), they adopted his idea, but they lopped off his head anyway for daring to go up against the Emperor. This kind of macho, rutting stag culture annoys the hell out of me, but when it's there, it's there and you have to deal with it.

Of course, the Green Jujitsu approach would have been to persuade the HiPPO that he had realised that there was a much better way of approaching the problem, rather than me, an outsider, dismantling his logic. But you can't win 'em all.

 

Photo © Jon Connell used under creative commons licence

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27 February 2017

Ambling towards a low carbon economy

grass feet small

A funny thing has been happening in the UK over the last 7 years. We have had two Conservative Prime Ministers since 2010 who have rarely paid more than lip service to sustainability issues in general and tackling climate change in particular. We have a press which is largely sceptical about climate change science, or possibly worse, cynically calculate that climate denial sells papers. Green activists fume and rage about all of this, but how come UK renewable energy is booming and coal is dying?

Here's a few things which might explain things:

1. Ninja legislation: Some simple legislation, such as Feed-In Tariffs, the press and green activists can get their head around, but there are other bits and pieces which are more complex and stealthy in operation. A good example is the Carbon Price Floor, which has been  lurking quietly in the background putting the coal-fired power sector to the sword and boosting the opportunities for renewables.

2. Supply and Demand: one good reason for cutting solar feed-in tariffs is that they have been far more effective than their designer, one Ed Miliband, expected, leading to a precipitous fall in solar PV installation prices. Cutting the tariffs may have slowed the original goldrush, but installations continue to make financial sense. Demand not only pushes down prices, but incentivises innovation – a virtuous cycle which will drive ever more demand and remove the need for any subsidy in time.

3. Responsible Business: as businesses grasp the full business case for Sustainability (ie going beyond a simplistic 'go green, save money' mindset), they are investing in renewables whatever the direct financials as they know the indirect benefits (PR, winning business, attracting and retaining staff) will deliver many times the return.

4. High fossil fuel prices: while the price of oil plummeted from its 2008 peak, at $55 a barrel, we are still facing historically high oil prices and the $147 peak in 2008 is a brutal reminder that nailing your colours to the fossil fuel mast brings significant risk.

Which all begs the question, how good could the UK be if senior politicians showed real leadership and the press woke up and smelt the coffee? I live in hope, perhaps naively.

In the meantime, if they don't do it, the rest of us will get on with the job!

 

 

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20 February 2017

Book Review: Global Sustainability by Mark Lefko

lefko bookWhen I first read the bumf around Mark Lefko's new book Global Sustainability, I was a bit worried that it clashed with my own tome, The Green Executive. Both are aimed at senior management, both take a more strategic look at Sustainability and both are built around a series of interviews with senior executives. However, on the latter Lefko has roped in considerably more star wattage than I did, with Sir Richard Branson and the CEOs of TATA, Dow, Cargill, and Unilever featuring amongst the 21 interviewees.

From these interviews, Lefko has extracted 9 best practices which make up the chapter titles of the book. The content of each chapter consists mainly of interview quotes from those CEOs, some extending to quite lengthy extracts. The nine chapters are:

  1. Establish Guiding Principles
  2. Practice Long-Term Thinking
  3. Deal Fairly and Ethically with Suppliers, Employees, and Customers
  4. Be Concerned about Your Employees’ Motivation and Well-Being
  5. Support the Well-Being of the Communities Where You Do Business
  6. Form Good Partnerships
  7. Find Ways to Reduce Waste
  8. Be Adaptable—and Seize Opportunities
  9. Measure the Return on Your Sustainability Investment

The book's aim is clearly to persuade senior business executives to get on board the Sustainability train via peer pressure – if these business titans are doing Sustainability, shouldn't you be? And it does this job very well, with a consistently clear and upbeat message, reinforced by those captains of industry.

I've had plenty of arguments with publishers over book titles and, to me, Lefko's subtitle "(21 Leading CEOs show) How to do well by doing good" would be a more accurate title for the book – and one more compelling to its target audience of CEOs and those new to Sustainability than "Global Sustainability".

The book is not really a 'how-to' on making Sustainability a strategic business priority (check out The Green Executive for that!). As someone who lives corporate Sustainability day in day out, I got a couple of new insights and some nice fresh case studies, but nothing to shake up the status quo on planet Sustainability. That's not a criticism, just an observation on the target audience.

Verdict: buy it for your boss.

 

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3 October 2016

Activate your sustainability programme!

cosm7-template

At last week's Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group, I (re)used my 'monster truck' template (above). The analogy is that we are in the truck, transversing the boulders which are in the way of 'the new normal' - ie meeting our sustainability goals.

As we were packing up, one member, a chemist by background, referred to the pile of boulders as the 'activation energy' for sustainability. I can remember enough of my A-level Chemistry to remember that this is the energy required to get two reagents to react, even if the results are more stable than the ingredients you started with. So to light a wood fire, you need to light a match and set it to paper and kindling to give the main fuel enough energy to burn itself. In a way the wood is sat there waiting to be burnt, but if you just throw a match at it, nothing happens.

I thought that activation energy was a great analogy. One of the big frustrations of Sustainability practitioners is that a sustainable world is clearly more desirable than an unsustainable one. Who really wants pollution, an unstable climate or the destruction of natural habitats? So why do we allow those things to happen? Or why do our efforts to change things often flounder? The answer is the activation energy required to get from here to there.

What do chemists do if activation energy is too high? They find a catalyst to reduce it. Sustainability catalysts include policy changes, technological breakthroughs and facilitators – the last of which is where we come in.

Here are several ways that you, as a sustainability catalyst, can reduce that activation energy:

  • Focus people on defining 'the new normal' rather than obsessing about 'business as usual' (this is how we start with the template above;
  • Expand this into a backcasting approach to define intermediate steps;
  • Frame sustainability to match the culture of the audience (aka Green Jujitsu eg talk engineering for engineers, health for the health sector, cash for accountants etc);
  • Involve people in solutions generation to get enthusiasm and buy-in for change;
  • Get visible leadership buy-in;
  • Demonstrate progress;
  • Get people (employees, suppliers etc) to compete to be the most sustainable;
  • Remain upbeat, encouraging and cunning.

But don't just chuck matches at the fuel and complain when it doesn't light.

 

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2 September 2016

Why I'm an Eco-optimist

grass feet small

There's an old joke:

An optimist says the glass is half full,

A pessimist says the glass if half empty,

An engineer says the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.

I'm an engineer so, naturally, I'm an entirely rational person who acts purely on objective evidence. Except of course I'm not, I just like to think I am. Like everybody else us engineers are irrational, fearful, illogical and we distort our perception of the world to match our inner feelings. But I do  make a real effort to read both sides of an argument, if only to understand which side I am rejecting – the most depressing thing in the world is people who are so (un)sure of their worldview that they boycott newspapers who write something that challenges it.

Speaking of the press, I heard a quote attributed to Nassim Taleb yesterday along the lines of "Judging the world from newspapers is like judging a city by spending a night in its hospital emergency room" (I'm taking that on trust, Google wouldn't cough up the original words). This reflects the fundamental rule that good news rarely if ever dominates the flow of negativity from the media. So we get the tales of gloom and doom from both sides of the green debate – the "we're all doomed!" brigade and the "eco-loons want to impoverish us" squad. Any good news, like the fact that 25% of the UK's electricity is now from renewables without any adverse effect on our lifestyle, passes by both groups without notice.

But it's more than who's right and who's wrong – both negative points of view switch people off. Only hope can galvanise us. Martin Luther said "I have a dream" not "I have a nightmare" (as pointed out by Shellenberger and Nordhaus more than a decade ago). The people who will deliver Sustainability are not the doomsters, but those who grasp the opportunity to change, like the late Ray Anderson of Interface, Tesla's Elon Musk or Unilever's Paul Polman.

My influence is less than these guys, but I do my best to counterbalance the doom. As well as orienting my consultancy, training and coaching towards pragmatic solutions, I have developed the habit of seeking out and sharing good news, ideally on a daily basis. This is not because I think the sustainability challenge is trivial, but because, without hope, the challenge is impossible.

 

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