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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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12 January 2018

Lessons from 'The War On Plastic'

So, the big news this week is that PM Theresa May has listened to me and announced a 'war on plastic waste' at the launch of the long awaited 25 year Environment Plan. Like most commentators my opinion is the plan contains all the right subjects and targets but is light on the actions required now to get us on to the right trajectory.

Here are some wider thoughts about what we can learn from the announcement:

  • Sustainability is now right at the top of the political agenda and that is a good thing, no matter who is in charge. The Government has finally woken up to the fact that the UK is doing rather well on the environment and by showing leadership they can do even better (and appeal to some of the young people who have deserted the Conservative party in droves - quite a carrot for more action).
  • Everybody is an environmentalist: the ocean plastics issue has united everybody from the deepest green to the climate-sceptics at the Daily Mail (right) and even those purveyors of nonsense, the Global Warming Policy Forum. If you want to engage people in Sustainability, be prepared to start the conversation on common ground, particularly with something very tangible (like the iconic picture of a seahorse carrying a cotton bud).
  • Blue Planet II is already one of the most significant TV programmes ever. Ignore the green snobs, if we want real change, we've got to get the message into the mainstream.
  • 25-years is too long for a plan: Even if you want to set distant aspirations, I usually recommend 10 years for Sustainability Strategies as this is long enough to make real change on the ground (e.g. capital investment) but not too distant for decision-makers to think it'll be for their successors to sort out.
  • Aspiration without action remains just that. If I was advising Mrs May and Mr Gove, I'd have insisted on a backcasting process to fill in the gaps between those goals and what needs to happen right now to get on the right trajectory. This is what I do with my clients and it works extremely well.

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10 January 2018

Getting the Sustainability Optics right

Yesterday, the Guardian published side-by-side pictures of UK Environment Secretary Michael Gove heading into Number 10 Downing Street last October with a disposable coffee cup and then yesterday with a reusable cup.

Why is this important? Well about the time of the first pic, Gove had just announced moves to tax single use coffee cups, so the image gave out a contradictory message. He's obviously learnt his lesson since, or a wise head bought him a very appropriate Christmas present.

I've long preached that Sustainability practitioners must get their heads out of the detail and look at the big picture. While that is true, we also have to be aware that the media and the general public often latch on to minor but resonant issues. Climate change is difficult to communicate, a coffee cup is tangible and familiar to everyone. Having the wrong coffee cup sends a louder message to the masses than, say, the UK's Clean Energy Plan, the new UK ban on microbeads or the forthcoming ban on neonicotinoid pesticides.

So the lesson is get the big issues and what politicians call 'the optics' right. You may be installing a huge solar panel on the roof, but if your canteen coffee cups aren't being recycled you will see cynicism in the workforce. You could argue that the solar panel will make a much bigger difference, but, as Ronald Reagan said, if you're explaining, you're losing.

Images copyright as per caption - used under 'fair use'.


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4 January 2018

Kick snobbery out of Sustainability in 2018!

OK, it was the slow news season with column inches to fill, but Lucy Siegel's attack on the eco-awareness generated by the BBC's excellent Blue Planet II in the Guardian got me really quite ticked off. Siegel's argument is that the right people knew this already ('woke' in modern parlance), but for the hoi polloi and Tory Government Ministers:

"for some reason we still wait for these rare, prime-time glimpses of the planet to give us permission to act on critical environmental issues."

This smacks of all the tin-eared, sanctimonious preaching of far too many green activists – ignoring the fact that Blue Planet has touched the many, many places where decades of campaigning haven't near (jealousy is probably why they feel they have to knock its success). They are the eco-equivalent of all those music fans who only like bands before they are famous and drop them with disdain when they hit the mainstream, muttering darkly about 'selling out'.

But the mainstream is where true Sustainability lies – real behavioural change by multitudes of real people. Personally, I'm no fan of the Tory party, but I rejoice when a Blue Planet-quoting Tory Minister announces action on single-use plastic packaging because that is real progress, both on a practical and a political level.

Another Guardian article caught my attention this week – Patrick Barkham describing some research on Sustainability and gender – apparently men are put off green behaviour as much of it, such as carrying a reusable shopping bag, is seen as feminine. Now, I think that is pretty daft, but, if this is the reality, then we have to deal with that reality. And Barkham quotes a great example of the approach to take:

One experiment found men more likely to donate to Wilderness Rangers – a fictional charity with a black and blue howling wolf logo – than Friends of Nature, with a twee font and tree symbol.

This is classic Green Jujitsu – reframing Sustainability to match the worldview of your audience. If they are macho, then make Sustainability macho. If they are engineers, translate it into engineering. If they are accountants, express it in £, $, €. If they are patriots, express it in terms of national pride.

But the first step in this is having the humility to realise that your audience's worldview is more important than your own. So, please don't be tempted into the high priesthood of Sustainability with their secret handshakes and codewords. Get out there and listen to people instead.

For more on Green Jujitsu, check out our online training course.


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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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22 November 2017

A Green Budget, Phil?

It's Budget day here in the UK and everybody, well a few of us, are waiting to see what Chancellor Philip Hammond will pull out of his red box. As you would expect, I'll be looking for the green:brown ratio to be high, but I'm not getting too excited as, on past experience, Chancellors of all political ilks tend to see Sustainability as the responsibility of other Government departments rather than a core economic principle.

But here's why I think Spreadsheet Phil should reinvent himself as Treehugger Phil:

  • It's the right thing to do, obviously;
  • Meeting our Paris Agreement commitments would give the country an internationalist, outward looking fillip at a time of Brexit and worrying nationalism;
  • Instead of propping up sunset industries by bunging tax relief at the UK's dwindling Oil & Gas sector (a perennial Tory habit), he could be investing in the industries of the future which will would boost higher-paid jobs and prosperity;
  • The Government's Clean Growth Strategy should really become the semi-mythical Long Term Economic Plan if it is to work;
  • The Government is struggling – no majority, infighting, struggles with Brexit and the whiff of post-Weinstein scandal are draining whatever enthusiasm it had. How about a bold, new and unexpected direction?
  • The Conservative Party's standing with young voters, particularly students, is very poor and climate change is a key concern of that demographic – it's easy to join the dots;
  • Environment Secretary Michael Gove has recently wrong-footed many of his critics (including yours truly) by making some big green announcements – it does work;
  • In my opinion, Sustainability is one of the few things the UK has going for it at the moment (fastest decarbonisers in the G20 etc) yet few people actually know how well we are doing – why not play to the country's strengths?

Hammond has made a very strong right-of-centre case for tackling climate change in the past, so there is a possibility of progress. But he is also notoriously unadventurous, so I suspect there will be just a few goodies tucked in amongst a very banal soup of dry economic tweaks. I'll update this post after the Budget Speech this afternoon with my thoughts.

UPDATE: What Phil did...

The good (from a Sustainability pov):

  • Investment in EV funding and tax break for those charging at work;
  • Increased duty on older/dirtier diesel cars with funds going to tackle air quality
  • Expected review into single-use plastic packaging

This was accompanied by some very strong statements on leaving a decent planet for future generations, but just as I thought he was going to make a big, bold, unexpected announcement, he moved on.

Not so green:

  • A continued freeze on fuel duty: although raising it would hit those on low incomes hardest, so I have some sympathy;
  • A suggestion of another tax break for oil and gas: money literally down the well;
  • No mention of the Clean Growth Strategy: another case of one of the Government's best moves being ignored in set piece speeches – so easy to say "This is what we are doing!"

Overall conclusion: some welcome moves, but the big opportunities have been missed.


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20 November 2017

Michael Gove, Eco-warrior

The environmental movement let out a groan of exasperation when Michael Gove took over the reins as UK Environment Minister earlier this year. A long list of anti-greens or time-servers had filled the post since 2010 and the only environmental thing we knew above Gove was that, in his divisive stint as Education Secretary, he had apparently considered taking climate change off the national curriculum. So when he stepped up to the podium at the Conservative Party Conference, expectations were rock bottom. But then he said: Read the rest of this entry »

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15 November 2017

Sustainability Signal vs Noise

Fascinating piece of research by Sustrans which found that 78% of city-dwellers would like to see more segregated cycle lanes even if it meant losing road space for motor vehicles. This flies in the face of the raging media battles where you would think lycra-clad cyclists were a widely detested menace to society.

I was asked to comment on the research as a local Councillor and gave it a full-throated welcome. In a way I'm lucky as the patch I represent is very liberal and generally pro-walking and cycling –we're 20 minutes walk from the city centre, which also helps. Colleagues in the suburbs often feel under more pressure as there is nothing noisier than the anti-cyclist and leaving the car in the driveway isn't as easy. A recent court case where a cyclist on a road-illegal bike fatally collided with a pedestrian hogged the headlines for a week; 35 people died in car-related accidents in that same week and didn't garner a mention.

Such noise obscures other Sustainability trends such as the strong public support for renewables. In fact the climate change denial movement relies on noise in environmental trends to detract from the worrying signals. But the left can be as guilty as the right: I often read about soaring inequalities in the UK when inequality measures haven't changed significantly for 30 years and are actually lower than just before the financial crash and the subsequent austerity. That's not a political statement, that's simply a fact.

I have made it a rule to do some simple fact-checking on anything before I comment in public – I even check the provenance of oft-used quotes before using them in this blog which can be very interesting... Let's look for the signal, rather than the noise.


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8 November 2017

Prince Charles and the green investment conundrum

One of the more intriguing revelations from the 'Paradise Papers' – a leak of documents relating to offshore tax schemes – is that the Duchy of Cornwall, Prince Charles's private estate, had invested in Sustainable Forestry Ltd  which lobbied politicians to amend global agreements to allow the trading of carbon credits from rainforests.

Eyebrows were raised at this revelation as the prince has also made speeches in support of such a change. The Duchy says the prince has no direct involvement in investment decisions, but, if he wasn't aware of the company's position on this, the co-incidence is remarkable.

The Prince is not alone, Al Gore has been attacked for both having investments in green technology (by the right wing climate change denial movement) and for having investments in other technologies (from the hard left). He can't win: if he invests in green then he has a vested interest; if not, he's a hypocrite.

While my investments in green energy schemes are decidedly small beer (understatement klaxon!) compared to the fortunes of the prince and Mr Gore, I decided that I'd rather use my limited spending power in the pursuit of a sustainable future than worry about perceived conflicts of interest. If I saved for my future through 'business as usual' investments, then I'd be helping sustain business as usual. That's a no brainer.

Where Prince Charles has fallen down is not declaring, or possibly being unaware of, a conflict of interest in a specific policy intervention. This is a basic transparency principle for politicians and it should apply to royalty as well.



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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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29 September 2017

Sustainability Bites: Labour Conference, UK Green Summer, Demise of GSB

Here's my hot takes on the week's big Sustainability news - join us each Friday (unless I'm away) at 10am on Facebook. Comments in the comments, please!


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22 September 2017

Sustainability Bites: #ClimateOptimist, Cause for Optimism and Theresa May

Here's this week's edition of Sustainability Bites. I covered the Climate Optimist campaign (again), the Nature Geosciences paper on progress towards Paris Agreement commitments and Theresa May's speech to the UN. Comments in the comments please!


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6 September 2017

The biggest truth in Sustainability...

Framing Sustainability

On Monday I spent a total of 7 hours going to and from Birmingham by train for a project close presentation to a client. This always gives some time for thought, background reading and poking around social media – all soundtracked by the Rolling Stones live in Brussels '73 or some other classic live album of the 1970s.

One tweet from another sustainability practitioner caught my eye; roughly speaking it went:

We have #Brexit and the #McStrike and all people can talk about is the #RoyalBaby 😡.

Now let's deconstruct this a little. The Brexit jalopy has been spluttering along for 15 months since the referendum without a dun-dun-DAAAAAH moment. I'm politically active, campaigned for Remain, would love a second referendum, and yet I am bored stupid by Brexit – I now skim read the newspaper stories and I guess most do the same.

I am not surprised that MacDonald's employees are striking given their poor wages and insecure contracts, BUT, let's put it into perspective: there were 2 restaurants striking out of 1249 in the UK – hardly Hold the Front Page stuff no matter how much you or I might support the cause.

Lastly, the royal baby has all the ingredients of public appeal – celebrity, gossip, glamour, happiness, impending cuteness etc, etc. It hasn't captured much of my attention, or that of the tweeter above, but it is not surprising it has caught the public mood.

Because here's the rub. Not everybody thinks like me, the tweeter, or you. Or should do. Just because I'm not that into the royal baby news, it doesn't mean that millions of people aren't - or shouldn't be.

My biggest realisation is Sustainability was that to engage people for whom Sustainability is an alien concept, we've got to stop talking about Sustainability from a practitioner's point of view. If they haven't 'got it' already, they won't 'get it' by being preached at. Instead we've got to put ourselves in the audience's shoes, see the world from their perspective, and reframe Sustainability to resonate with that worldview. I call this Green Jujitsu.

If you haven't checked out our new Green Jujitsu Employee Engagement training yet, then click here for details.


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4 September 2017

Sustainability Bites Ep1: Harvey & Climate Change

Here's the pilot episode of a new series of short, sharp, lo-fi Sustainability snippets I've decided to launch. I've called it Sustainability Bites as a. the episodes are bite-sized, and b. it's all about how Sustainability is starting to bite – we've gone way beyond chin-stroking and are now making different decisions to make things happen.

This edition is about whether natural disasters are the right time to raise climate change.

At present, these will appear as and when I feel like it rather than on a regular basis, although it may find it's own niche naturally. The best way to keep up is head over to my Facebook page and send me a friend request!


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14 August 2017

Ignore Lawson et al, get on with the job in hand

Opening eyes

You can't have missed the furore. Al Gore was touring the British media last week promoting his new climate change movie, An Inconvenient Sequel. After his interview on Radio 4's Today programme, the BBC (disclosure, a Terra Infirma client) let climate sceptic Lord Lawson spout a few climate/clean energy zombie myths by way of 'balance'.

Twitter went into meltdown. Scientists, environmentalists and environmental scientists tore into the BBC for 'false balance' (presenting a minority view with equal weight to the consensus). Carbon Brief did their usual methodical debunking of Lawson's claims which forced Lawson's Global Warming Policy Forum to withdraw his erroneous claim that global temperatures were flatlining. Everybody else, huffed and puffed as if it was the end of the world.

Now I agree with the frustration, but I think the sound and fury is misplaced. Why?

  1. You ain't gonna stop Lawson. He's invested too much personally in this bunkum to back down, he is/was a significant political figure, and we have free speech in this country, which means hearing what you don't like as well as what you do. He will get on the media whether we like it or not.
  2. When was the last time you changed your mind on a subject because you heard a politician say something? The listeners probably came away with the view that Lawson didn't agree with Gore rather than believing Gore was wrong. I would be very surprised if anyone changed their minds.
  3. If people are susceptible to Lawson's message, then we're not going to bring them back on board by screaming at either Lawson or the BBC. It just creates more noise and plays into the sceptics' claims that environmentalism is a religion rather than based on sound scientific evidence. We need cleverer ways to sell sustainability to those people (I would of course recommend Green Jujitsu).
  4. Lawson, along with Monckton, Ridley, Lomborg et al, have been spectacularly unsuccessful at slowing the shift to a low carbon economy (see graph of the UK's renewables growth as an example). Yes, it could always go faster, but I would suspect that institutional inertia, the planning system, the immaturity of supply chains, and short termism are all more potent brakes than a few smart arses writing newspaper columns, tweeting or getting a few seconds on the wireless. UK_renewables_generated
  5. We each have limited time, energy and cash. We can choose to spend those resources moving our society to a more sustainable footing, or we can jump up and down in rage. I responded to Donald Trump's election by making a modest investment in renewable energy as it was the only thing I could think of which would make me feel better at that moment. It did, and it will have a much more positive effect on the planet, and my sanity, than spending the same time raging ineffectually on social media.

When I made this point on social media, a colleague responded that we had to "remove ALL barriers to climate action". This is not the case: perfectionism is the enemy of success. Some barriers are insignificant and should be ignored as they are a waste of energy. We need to focus on the significant barriers, remove those that can be removed, and work around those that can't.

Let's do it!


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21 June 2017

Neutralising anti-green attacks

bike lane westminsterNewspaper-cutting-2-1024x993






Between the horrific series of recent terrorist attacks and the shocking disaster that was the Grenfell Tower fire, the UK has been hit with some pretty grim news recently. For me, these horrors are exacerbated by the distasteful use of such events by commentators to further their tangential ideological aims – from people across the political spectrum, I have to say.

A sizeable chunk of this jumping to convenient conclusions is aimed squarely at the Sustainability agenda. Cycle lanes have been blamed in the Westminster Bridge attack for no better reason than they were there (a kerb is a kerb, after all) and the Daily Mail has pointed the finger at 'green targets' for the deaths at Grenfell.

As Carbon Brief has pointed out, the main reason for the suspect external cladding on the tower block was to tackle fuel poverty, with carbon reductions a subsidiary factor. The main aim of the public inquiry must be whether the cladding was responsible for the deaths (as it first appears), whether the material and its installation was compliant with fire regulations, if not, who was blame, and, if so, how those regulations need to be changed. Read the rest of this entry »

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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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5 June 2017

A Call to Arms on a Sad Day


It's only a couple of weeks since I wrote on the Manchester bombing and here we are again with blood on the streets of the UK. I was in Manchester last week on business and I was very taken with the defiance mixed in with the grieving.

I grew up in Northern Ireland during 'The Troubles when more than 3,000 died, many in indiscriminate attacks (the only difference is the terrorists had an escape route planned). Many acts of barbarity were carried out in the name of one cause or another, but in the pre-social media age, you rarely got to see gory detail. But the vast majority of us got up in the morning, went to school/work, came home, had our dinner, watched telly and went to bed. The threat was always there in the background, but that defiance, a refusal to be bowed, was always the best answer to the men and women of violence.

As in Manchester, I have been astonished and reassured by the many acts of courage during the London Bridge attack: the two unarmed policemen who tackled the terrorists, the Romanian chef who hit one over the head with a crate, the woman who lay down and blocked a doorway so the other cafe patrons could make their escape. Then of course there were the armed police who neutralised the terrorists with calm professionalism, and all the paramedics, nurses and doctors who saw to the wounded. So many awesome people.

So the big question for the rest of us is: what awesome thing are we going to do this week to make the world a better place?

Here in the UK, voting in the General Election on Thursday must be a priority (I despair at the calls for a postponement). But what else? Will you kick off that new Sustainability/CSR project you've been putting off for weeks? Will you invest in a renewable energy scheme? Will you do a litter pick in your local area?

Whatever it is, let's each do something really great and show the nihilist losers that they will never win.


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