Posted by: sustainablyspeaking | July 18, 2010

I’m off to Sweden. Follow the journey.

There’s something strange going on in the developed world. We are the wealthiest group of societies ever to grace the earth, and yet we seem to also be the most stressed, worried, depressed and untrusting. Why is this?

Meanwhile, people seem to recognise that there is something intuitively wrong about the massive and increasing gaps between rich and poor, both in the UK, and across the world. While cumulatively, we’ve been getting richer, we’ve also been getting more and more unequal. In the UK, the richest 20% of the population have 45% of the wealth, with the poorest 20% having just 5.3%. (Department of Work and Pensions, 2009). These kinds of stats are rolled out so much they almost seem to become part of the background noise of life. But read them again. They’re startling!

But people also generally don’t think equality is particularly good either. I reckon most people are for reducing inequality, but not for greater equality. The two sides of the same coin have been tarnished by a left-right ideological divide entrenched since the Cold war, that equates equality with communism and inequality as a necessary evil of efficient market democracies.

A new book called the Spirit Level spells out in convincing and shocking detail the statistically proven relationship between a whole range of social ills (for example crime, bad health, teenage pregnancies, and lack of trust) and levels of inequality within developed countries. It is inequality, not GDP, which appears to determine a countries ability to tackle the long-standing and fundamental social problems we face. The most unequal countries: the USA, UK, and Singapore, fare many times worse than the most equal: Sweden, Norway, Finland and Japan, irrelevant of how rich they are per capita.

The implications from their findings are profound. It suggests that instead of piling millions into end-of-pipe solutions to our social problems: like mental health clinics or prisons, we need to introduce interventionist policies to seriously reduce the levels of inequality in our society- and everyone will benefit, even the very richest.

The book’s argument is elegantly simple and politically loaded, and so has come in for some stick from the political right: who say it’s a coup to smuggle in big government, and that it’s statistically inconsistent. There’s a great debate planned between the authors of the book, and its critiques, at the RSA on 22nd July

But its argument is based on decades of statistical research, and what’s more, its basic thrust- that inequality is not an intrinsically good thing for society- seems intuitively to me to make sense, whatever your political persuasion.

And so, inspired by this book and the debate it has triggered, a friend and I are setting off on a journey across one of the most equal countries in the world: Sweden, on August 4th 2010.  Often seen as the model of socialist utopia, its citizens appear to be rich, trusting, healthy, low users of drugs and alcohol, tolerant and happy. Of course it’s no actual utopia. There are plenty of problems in Sweden. But since it’s one of the most equal countries out there, what better place to go to find answers to the questions: What is it like to live in a more equal society? And what can we learn to take back to the UK in a period of changing political and economic realities?

A little quote from our website sums up nicely what we’re going to do:

The exploration will take the cyclists thousands of miles through the cities and fjords of Sweden; wild camping, staying with strangers, talking with ordinary people and academics alike. They will learn what it is about these countries that mean they record such high levels of what are considered to be social ‘goods’, and uncovering any negative side affects that might ensue. The adventurers will record their six week journey via video diary, photo-blog, and interview. The material will tell their story, and that of Sweden, in an interwoven mosaic of visual media.

This trip is not about presenting a utopian vision of another society. It’s not about saying everyone must be the same. It’s about testing the basic premise that living in a less unequal society is better for us: our health, mental well-being, communities and more. By exploring the lives of people living in Sweden, we hope to uncover what it might be like to live in a society in which more people have more. We don’t think the UK should become Sweden- each country is different, culturally, historically. But what would greater equality look like in the UK? And would it be desirable? We hope to spark debate about these issues, particularly among new graduates of our generation- who will be shaping what the UK looks like in years to come, and have a chance now to decide what kind of society they want to live in. In the context of massive budget costs and the promotion of a ‘big society’, now is the time to be asking this question of ourselves.

You can follow our progress at want you to get involved. Sign up to our blog, post your view, donate some money or items we need to make the trip happen, spread the word, read the books, have a debate, form an opinion. It’s going to be fun.

And so ends the forum blog- sustainablyspeaking my year at forum comes to an end. But a new adventure begins.


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Posted by: sustainablyspeaking | July 12, 2010

The Year that was

On 21st July I will graduate from my one-year masters in Leadership for Sustainable Development. As I listen to the first ever Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, give us her pearls of wisdom, I will reflect on the year that was: five placements in different sectors, a business plan presented to a dragons den of social entrepreneurs, a workshop organised for civil servants, presentations, seminars, two residentials at the Leadership Trust, and a course wild camping in the Lake District.

In a small sweaty room on the top floor of Forum for the Future’s offices in Islington, the 12 of us have learned, debated, reflected, argued, got stressed, clapped, bitched, plotted, got deflated, got energised, and laughed. I’ve written well over 45,000 words in essays, reports and reflective pieces, and I’ve sat through hundreds of hours of lectures and seminars.

Many recent discussions have been about the future. Some people I know still don’t understand what I could do after a master’s like this. In truth, there’s no lack of options. Previous students have gone on to do some cool things: setting up a communications and PR agency specialising in environmental and social issues, making a product to help people fit renewable technologies on their houses, creating a sustainable farming outfit near Stevenage. Others are working in government, have started magazines, become expert advisers to the insurance industry on climate change, and become a Director of a green charity.

For me, it’s about trying to work out where I fit into this growing world of people trying to affect change. It’s a busy area. All over the world, people without backgrounds in sustainability are finding themselves with responsibilities relating to it. It is these people; engineers training in renewable energy, accountants turning their hand to making our economic systems fairer, that will help to make this world a more bearable place for 9 billion people. I.e. people like you, my friends and university graduates- leaders of the future- not just sustainability generalists like me!

It’s all about finding what could be called the sweet spot- the crossover point between what you’re good at and able to contribute, and something the world genuinely needs. The sweet spot can be all the harder to find when we seem to be surrounded by bad news and pessimism. This course has all been about finding solutions and exuding positivity. It doesn’t come natural to me! But even in the most seemingly crazy situations, we can find reasons to be optimistic. When oil prices rose consistently a few years ago, the markets shifted in an extraordinary way- billions of pounds was pumped into the Canadian tar sands. Now, the tar sands are very bad news when it comes to averting dangerous climate change, and it would be easy to get depressed about this shift to an even more carbon intensive energy source! But it’s an example of how the markets can shift massively and quickly. If we can get the prices right in carbon markets- to make renewables and nuclear attractive investments, then we could see a shift so rapid away from all carbon-intensive forms of energy, that we won’t believe our eyes.

In a recent lecture we had from Proffesor Paul Ekins- an economist and founder of the course, someone asked whether he was optimistic or pessimistic that we could achieve some kind of sustainable world for our growing population. He replied with the response: it’s an irrelevant question. If you’re pessimistic, failure will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. There’s a challenge to be met, and you’ve just got to get on with making the changes are needed. It’s pretty good advice, whatever walk of life you’re in.

The challenge is this: how do we create a world in which 9 billion people can live without undermining the ecosystems upon which we depend, in a way that guarantees quality of life for as many people as possible? Achieving this isn’t about going backwards. It’s about choosing a different future. One that combines the best of the great things we have, with the best of what we’re rapidly destroying. To do this will require a little bit of soul searching, and some alternatives to be on offer where they currently are not. We are taught from an early age the way of this world: that to be successful, you must be as rich as you can possibly be. That happiness comes from buying stuff and consuming as much as possible. That bigger is always better. That humans behave rationally and in self-interest. That in general people cannot be trusted. That humans are intrinsically competitive. That the business of business is business (plus a bit of CSR). There are many more.

These are just some of the mental blockages that need to be questioned, debated, and re-worked if we are to meet the challenge our generation faces. Every single one of us will have a role to play. The end goal isn’t clear in my head. What does a sustainable world, or ‘the good life’ look like? Lots of us will disagree. But we all share some common ground. And whatever ‘there’ ends up being exactly, I’m looking forward to getting my head down and forging a path that takes us closer to the world I think we all want to inhabit: one that’s fairer, resilient, recognises the good in people, and is more aligned to mimic all the great things that nature does for us.

(One more blog to come- on an exciting project I’m getting involved in this summer- and I’ll be needing your help and involvement to make it happen!)

Posted by: sustainablyspeaking | May 16, 2010

Quantity is not the same as quality, Tony

The BP oil spill is a symptom of a much deeper problem that needs solving: weaning ourselves off fossil fuels.

In an interview with the Guardian on Friday, Tony Hayward (BP’s CEO) said something that reveals more about BP than all of their shiny PR documents proclaiming their green credentials:

“The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume,”

Tony’s inability to make the basic distinction between quantity and quality is astounding. It betrays his complete lack of understanding of ecosystem dynamics. It’s almost as if he’s suggesting an oil spill is only really bad if there’s more oil in the ocean than water. Tony- oil is not seawater. The stuff you love will damage the ecosystem in the Gulf of Mexico for decades.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 in Alaska spewed out 250,000 barrels of oil and killed an estimated 250,000 seabirds & marine organisms in the first few months alone. But a study in 2003 proved that oil remains just below the surface, salmon have stunted growth and die younger, and the effects will continue for 30 years. As the author of the study commented: “These results require a complete reconsideration of the foundations of ecological risk assessment.”(Dr. Charles H. Peterson, University of Carolina)

5,000 barrels of oil have been leaking a day for the past three weeks. If it does take BP three months to drill a relief well to stem the flow (as they’re predicting) the spill is on course to eclipse the size of Exxon Valdez. A drop in the ocean? Technically by volume, of course. But this is not at all relevant in terms of the impact that drop is having.

Unfortunately, Peterson’s warnings (above) have not been heeded. Corporate giants like BP continue to post massive profits whilst neglecting some very basic safety considerations, both on the Horizon rig, and in other operations. Thank goodness the stock market has responded by wiping 15% off BP’s share value. And concerned shareholders are using our broken corporate-shareholder model to hold BP to account: with numerous shareholders taking BP to court.

These are really just symptoms of something much bigger. This spill has to raise wider questions about the energy trajectory we find ourselves on. My editor at the Environmental Finance Magazine (my latest placement) suggested in his editorial that “the hard headed” will see spills like this as the price we have to pay for hyper-mobility & cheap oil.

They might. But more importantly, are they right ? The truth is, our attempt to get every last drop of the black stuff out of the ground is completely irrational.

Here’s why. If we were to extract, refine and burn all the oil and gas from all the known reserves across the world, just the one’s we already know about, its burning would release enough carbon dioxide to take us over the 750 parts per million mark (This is based on calculations made based on this study in Nature).

To put this figure into context:

392ppm                       Current Co2 levels as of April 2010.

280ppm                       The level for most of human history

450ppm                       Widely accepted as being the level we have to keep emissions at to have a 50% chance of staying at 2 degrees above pre-industrial global temperatures. This is the aim of international negotiations.

750ppm would be beyond anything Homo sapiens have ever experienced. The flourishing of our species has occurred in a 10,000 year period of unusually stable climate; this is no coincidence. As NASA’s chief scientist James Hansen has said, we threaten to push our climate out of the bounds which has allowed human life on earth to develop. He was just talking about going over the 450ppm mark.

The conclusions of this internationally agreed science are clear: we cannot extract all the oil we have, let alone go searching for more, if we are to stay within survivable climatic limits.

Energy companies continue to insist that drilling for new oil and gas is necessary & possible, even in a sustainable world; despite the fact their expansion plans are atmospherically impossible alongside their climate change commitments. And whilst some might hope the high price of oil or a high carbon price might change investments, you only have to look at the investment in tar sands in Canada, which are many times more carbon-polluting than oil. These have only become viable because of the high price of oil, and may become even more so to the US administration after the  oil spill.

If we go back to BP, its first quarter profits statement for 2010 showed that they invested:

  • Almost $9 Billion in oil fields in Azerbaijan, Gulf of Mexico, Brazil and Norway.
  • $900 million for a 75 percent stake in the oil sands assets of a Canadian company called Value Creation.

Compared to this, BP’s investment in “alternative energy” is pitifully small. Just as they were spending big on an advertising campaign in 2008 which suggested they were leading the world in investments in renewables, they spent just 3.9% of their global capital expenditure on wind and solar, and 93% on oil and gas extraction.

Thankfully, global investments in renewables are rising rapidly, albeit with annual variations and a slowdown during the recession. Indeed, rising demand is being fuelled by burgeoning industries in a few places: wind in Spain and the USA, solar in China. But we are a long way from the transformational change that is required if we are to avoid irreversible climate change.

Continuing to search for more oil and gas is not rational self-interest on the behalf of billion-pound profit oil companies. Its entrenched, self-harming inertia: BP’s long-term success depends on the very transformation it is doing its utmost to prevent. And so does the future of human life on this planet. The stakes couldn’t be higher. We need a global push, from local community to big industrial company, to wean us off the fossil fuels. Part of that will involve leaving some of them in the ground.

Posted by: sustainablyspeaking | March 2, 2010

The business of business is business

So after 70 days of silence, you might just get three in three weeks.

Blogirific. Blog heaven. Blogtastic. Blogging hell.

It’s long. But worth it. If it’s not you can have a high five.

I’m in Wolverhampton, and it really isn’t that bad a place.

I’d heard bad reports. The images of people in Dudley on TV commenting about the 5.0 earthquake that hit Brick Kiln Lane in 2002 has never left my memory. My supervisor at Carillion- the construction and facilitation management company for whom I’m working for the next month- advised me to ‘live in Birmingham’.

I’m living in a nice Victorian house. Work is only one mile away. I walk in on crisp cool sunny mornings, through a park where geese with misty breath shout at each other. Wolverhampton? Lovely.

In the past few weeks at Forum, and in the first two days at Carillion, I’m beginning to understand what ‘the business case’ for sustainability looks like. In recent years there’s been a burgeoning amount of work that tries to explicitly outline why doing sustainability is good for business. From the World Business Council on Sustainable Development, to the work of the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership, to this company, this book, this article…you see what I mean. This recent series of blogs is particularly useful.

Taking sustainability to the heart of a business strategy means something more than donating to charity, or recycling. It’s also more than a bit of shiny Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)…

Q.        “What are you doing to make real social and environmental positive contributions, Mr Corporation?”

A.         “Ah, well, we donate £10,000 a year to the charity for mine victims, and we plant shrubs right down the road from our HQ, come and see”

Q.        “And do you pay the workers that make your trainers a living wage?”

A.         “Err, no…most of them are very unwell, living in poverty with no possibility of escape…but did I tell you about the new park we’re building?”

CSR has for many companies been an ideal way to appear like they’re being responsible, whilst hiding the fact they do not understand how to do anything more than tag on social and environmental responsibility to their core business which might well be exploiting both these things. As we move further into this 21st century, it is becoming clear that maintaining & replenishing our stocks of social and natural capital will become the most pressing issue for businesses and Government’s alike. The National Intelligence Council’s report to Obama on his inauguration made this clear. A broad sustainability approach, which aims to pursue our social, environmental and economic goals at the same time (Parkin, S), whilst respecting the laws of physics that govern how much extra ‘stuff’ we create, is the only way left to deal with these challenges properly.

At Carillion, I’ve already seen how they’ve taken sustainability to the heart of what they do. The sustainability strategy was not just a report, or the responsibility of an underpaid minion in a far-flung department. The chief engineer, members of the Executive, and the key strategy man sat down and, after consultation, re-worked their sustainability objectives & key performance indicators to their core business plan objectives. Their results are here. 10 years ago, they were trailblazing.

That’s not to say Carillion’s perfect. Its absolute footprint is massive and growing with new acquisitions and contracts for huge infrastructural projects. It is bidding to be one of the contractors for nuclear new build. How does Carillion match its commitment to sustainability with deciding what contracts to take on in the first place? I’m going to be asking that question over the next month.

In the meanwhile, many people I know have gone to work for big business recently. If I were them, I’d be asking myself these questions:

–         Was I given any formal training or induction into the approach my business is taking on sustainability? If not, why not?

–         Is there any senior management presence on sustainability committees, or in developing the businesses sustainability strategy? If not, why not?

–         Is there any kind of presence around the place that suggests these issues are incorporated into the business plan?

With all the evidence of the benefits of sustainability to business activity; from financial savings, retained top talent, a motivated workforce, positive brand, resilient & successful supply chains, with all the moral arguments having been around for ages, with all the evidence pointing to a very different future world for which we need to prepare and adapt, it’s a mad CEO who doesn’t get on this bandwagon. And it’s a complicit staff member who doesn’t try and get their company to do something about it.

Posted by: sustainablyspeaking | December 22, 2009

Scaling the Summit of Sustainability

Below is a blog I wrote for the forum website, attempting to summarise the course for those thinking of applying in the New Year. It has been posted here: Happy Christmas!

I’ve debated with Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband, surveyed 13,000 people at a national charity about their views on sustainability, and spent three exhausting days at the Leadership Trust in Ross-on-Wye, all in one action-packed first ‘term’ on Forum for the Future’s Masters in Leadership for Sustainable Development. I’ve written close to 20,000 words, felt useless and useful in equal measure, role-played being a local councillor, given a class on energy and climate change to a group of Year 9 schoolchildren, and immersed myself in the world of sustainability: from social capital, to the Natural Step, to carbon markets and green economics.

Staff at the Forum describe us as future ‘change agents’. It’s an alluring yet daunting phrase. In our first week we were presented with the image of a snow-capped mountain: ours to climb this year. This was the goal of our journey – a sustainability vantage point from which we could survey the state of the planet and its people and contribute to creating a world of increased social and environmental prosperity, a ‘good’ world, not just a less bad one.

My current vantage point is a long way off that sustainability mountain (I reckon there’s been a bit of altitude sickness, and there’s more to come). I’m currently well below the tree line… – in fact I’m selling trees. Are Christmas trees sustainable, I ask myself, as I wrap them in plastic netting which I fear could end up in the stomach of some unfortunate seabird.

Truly understanding the sustainability of the humble Christmas tree has less to do with netting and more about the systems with which the tree interacted and was a part. What effect did growing have on local ecological systems? Were the people who trimmed them into shape paid a living wage? And how did this impact on local societies? The Forum has instilled in me the importance of systems thinking which involves seeing the forest, in spite of the trees. Creating a more just and prosperous future will require us to change the way we think fundamentally.

In these first few months I’ve seen glimpses of a sustainable future. For example, district heating through Combined Heat and Power plants in Birmingham where efficiency is 85% compared to traditional power stations’ frankly pathetic 35%. I’ve seen the value of local strategic partnerships bringing businesses, politicians and community groups together to create shared visions of prosperous, low-carbon futures.

It’s been a personal journey too. At Birmingham City Council, as I sat wondering what I should be doing and puzzled over how to integrate into the team during my four-week placement, I was beset by a lack of imagination, inspiration and drive. I was better prepared to deal with this because of our seminars on the importance of self-reflection and self-learning. The course’s focus on self-directed learning is vital, but challenging! It’s a far cry from university, and it leads to moments of self-doubt about whether I’m making the most of the opportunities being placed in front of me. The Forum leaves doors ajar – we have to push on the ones we want, and decide how to walk through them. Sometimes it’s not very clear or obvious how to do that!
Throughout it all, lecturers have stressed the importance of optimism. The catastrophic and negative portrayals of the environmental movement have desensitised people to many environmental issues. The number of people who deny that human activity causes climate change is growing, not diminishing. How do we create a positive vision of the future, whilst convincing people of the scale and urgency of the problem at hand? This is a key question we’ve been battling with in the past few months on our first two of five placements this year: in the NGO sector and in local government.
What’s been the hardest? Bridging that gap between those of us who are climbing that mountain, and many others I meet who haven’t even heard of the mountain, never mind seen it. The reality is the core messages and realities of sustainable development are often lost in a sea of ‘greenwash’ and climate-change frenzy. “I’m doing a course in Leadership for Sustainable Development” I say, excitedly, yet with trepidation. The response? Blank faces, or an uncertain “Oh, that’s cool”, or the most terrifying: “What’s sustainable development?!” Explaining that one succinctly, whilst staying positive, has been more difficult than I expected!

There’s a lot more to come on this journey. I’m off to the Department for Energy and Climate Change next month and am both apprehensive and excited about a placement with big business, a corporation or bank after that. The attitude to take on this course is ‘no-holds-barred’ – seeing even difficult challenges as a welcome contribution to personal development and learning.

The course is a great melting point of young optimism, drive and differing opinions. My fellow students include scientists, philosophers, sociologists and vegans, people passionate about social media, sustainable fashion or activism, all united by one common aspiration: to get out there and do something that creates true ‘added value’ for people and the environment, and to ‘reverse the perverse’ in our economic and social systems.

The best thing so far? The fun. Twelve people trekking up that mountain together, exploring, learning, and creating, together with expert facilitators and lecturers.

Posted by: sustainablyspeaking | November 28, 2009


So I’m feeling strangely inspired, and words appear to be flowing from my touch-typing fingers rather better than they were but a few days ago. It’s rare. So I sit down to write with no real plan at all about what this is about, apart from inspiration, and I promise I won’t edit it too much and will just post it, whatever it reads like.

Maybe I’m inspired because I’ve just seen my girlfriend for the first time in a couple of weeks. I spent the afternoon in picturesque St Albans, climbing a tree, eating a waffle & holding a freezing small hand.

Maybe I’m inspired because I’ve just read Howies Winter catalogue, in which they really hit the idea of a carefree life of sport, nature and…quality made clothes…pretty much bang on the head.

Maybe I’m inspired because at the back of the recycled pages, I’ve discovered and have been wowed by the fleet foxes dulcet harmonious tones, or by

Maybe I’m inspired because I’m planning to build a pond & start growing my own food, having read the pretty outrageous stuff that’s in the book ‘Not on the Label’ by Felicity Lawrence.

More inspiring, the planning of a trip to Sweden. Some people there have a phrase called ‘super-nice’.  And from all that I’ve read and seen, I need to go there, and so do you. In Sweden, they spend a hell of a lot of their income on tax. But something over there is different. Their happiness stats are through the roof. They give more of their GDP as foreign aid than most other developed countries. They are pretty hot on renewables, efficiency, community and well-being. They’ve got something going on, and I want to find out what it is. So if anyone wants to join me and some of the other Forum students on a cycling trip to the lakes and fjords of Scandinavia in August 2010, the more the merrier.

Admittedly, I think you’d have to be a bit of a scrooge not to be inspired if you lived against the backdrop of a Swedish Fjord. Against the backdrop of Birmingham, where average commuting times are the highest in Britain because of congestion, it’s harder to get that inspired feeling (sorry David). I’ll admit that there have been times in the past 3 weeks of working for Birmingham City Council I’ve felt pretty frustrated, useless, and demotivated. But there have been glimpses. Giving a presentation to some year 9’s about energy and climate change was fun. Wearing a 42L borrowed DJ to attend a posh meal in Council House, before having a tete-a-tete with Ed Miliband (UK Minister for Energy & Climate Change) in the Q&A that followed his immaculate speech on Copenhagen was a definite highlight. As was catching up with the Silver Street posse (David & Cagan) in Birmingham’s mean streets, pretending to be Teach First teachers at a party with David’s real teach first teachers. We giggled all the way to Dudley. Morning!

I’m beginning to get the measure of what well-being means, I think. Since going to the New Economics Foundation bigger picture festival, and talking with people about Tim Jackson’s new book ‘Prosperity Without Growth’, the idea of engaging more with a community, reducing my reliance on a food system that holds a store of no more than 3 days worth of food in our grossly inefficient supermarkets, and building that pond, seems eminently the only rational thing to do.

And what of the decision to work pretty much everyday, 9 hours a day, from the 5th-24th December selling Christmas trees, and the fact I’m excited about earning lots of money to ease financial pressures? What’s that stress going to do to my well-being, I hear you cry? Well. It’s pretty silly. Or…pretty rational and rewarding. I can’t wait to get paid to work outdoors, flexing my weak upper body muscles, not looking at a computer screen, cycling home through Richmond Park at night (no cars). I can’t wait to be physically exhausted, but mentally fresh.

This all sounds terribly pie-sky. But here it is. It’s how I’m feeling.


Posted by: sustainablyspeaking | November 5, 2009

NIMBYism, wind and the energy challenge

A friend of mine recently wrote to their local council laying out a forceful objection to the building of five 110m wind turbines near their country home in a beautiful rural landscape. The project, 60% funded by the Government, would blight the natural landscape, they argued, and would provide no local income or jobs. It would be inefficient; both economically and in terms of carbon mitigation achieved.


Wind turbines have been in the news recently. Kenneth Clarke MP was forced to retract his comments about the siting of turbines in British countryside as it contradicted official Tory party policy, but his views represent those of many in the UK. Wherever wind turbines are proposed, they court controversy that seems hugely inflated compared to their impact. Meanwhile, the planning system prevents local opposition to thousands of mobile phone masts, and Donald Trump’s billion-pound Scottish golfing development gets the go ahead despite huge local opposition and destruction of the coastal environment. How come a seemingly benign energy source is being successfully scuppered in many places by the strength of our local democracy, yet large-scale destructive developments are given the go ahead with or without local support? Do we need to choose between local democracy and wind turbines?


The Government seems to think so. Its just set-up a new anti-democratic body called the Large Infrastructural Planning Commission (LIPC). This quango is designed to prevent the long planning enquiries that delayed nuclear power in the 1980’s, but it applies to motorways, airport runways and large wind turbine developments. A victory for local democracy and environmentalists despairing at the NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) of rural people opposing wind turbines, a disaster for our local powers to object to the third runway at Heathrow, and meet our stringent carbon reduction targets.


In a democracy, NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) is a vibrant force. Yet in the case of wind turbines, NIMBYism cannot be seen as anything more than a force preventing us from dealing with climate change. Take opencast coal mines. As George Monbiot effectively gets across in his interview with the Director of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), the reason CPRE doesn’t oppose these vastly hugely more destructive impacts on our local countryside is because no one living near them is a member of CPRE: upper-middle class and land-owning. With land comes power, the power to oppose. Truly protecting the rural landscape will require us not to continue to dig up vast areas of the country to produce a hugely damaging carbon-intensive form of fossil fuel energy like coal; yet this continues to happen.


This is not to say all wind turbine developments are necessary, efficient, or viable. We cant say ‘yes yes yes’ to all wind turbine applications, and ‘no no no’ to everything else on grounds of ideology. At the end of the day, we all need to make decisions about what parts of the natural environment we value more. Wind turbine developments versus opencast coal mining, a Severn tidal barrage, new nuclear build. Someone will have to live next to these developments. Who should it be? What do we value more, protection from the ravages of climate change through reduced emissions, or an uninterrupted natural vista? Increased climate change emissions from coal and a damaged landscape?! The 3% reduction in climate emissions offered by a Severn barrage, or the viability of one of our finest estuarine ecosystems? This is a question of values, and where we draw the line to make the tough decisions. Personally I think wind turbines look quite nice. Nicer than nuclear power stations, telegraph poles, opencast coal mines, golf courses and greenbelt housing developments: all the things the planning system prevents us from opposing.


For my friend, the question is rather more personal. They don’t have to choose between an open-cast coal mine and a wind turbine by their house. Some wind turbines are inappropriate- my friend may well be right in his example. But in a broader sense, they are being forced to make a choice, to cast a vote with their opposition, about what they value. Increasingly, we might all have to be making these kinds of value-choices. We need to think hard about what kind of future we want to be creating when we make them, because our individual decisions across the country link-up to create a policy environment in which it might just be more attractive to burn that coal, than spin that turbine.


Posted by: sustainablyspeaking | October 26, 2009

Sustainable Education, Commuting and (data) Corruption

My blogs are like Watford buses…

It’s been a pretty manic month, and I’ve failed to write a blog. Well, actually, that’s not true. I had written some drafts, and then managed to lose, on the third week of my one-month placement with the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), all my files on a corrupt memory stick: my placement report, interview scripts, the lot. I cried a little, then stayed up late for three nights to produce my report, entitled: ‘The sustainability challenge: the role of the WEA in creating a sustainable future.’

You see, for the past month, I’ve been a sustainability advisor. Yes, please laugh. It sounds a bit silly. Fresh-faced university graduate advising a national charity set up in 1903 to further the education of working-class men. In 2009, the WEA runs courses all over the UK, and is the biggest voluntary provider of adult education in the country, operating through a decentralised network of volunteers and tutors.

What does this have to do with sustainability, you’re thinking? In short, everything. The WEA is at the social justice end of sustainability; 20% of its provision is targeted at those with little educational attainment. It runs on principles of democracy, participation and equality. It strengthens local communities and provides them with the skills and competencies they need to act both individually and collectively to increase their chances of a prosperous future.

Most importantly, the WEA has the potential to increase society’s capacities to deal with the stresses and dislocations that are forecast as a result of un-sustainable living. How will we adapt to cope with climate change? How will we prepare for, and deal with, the increased scarcity and subsequent higher prices of vital minerals, fossil fuels and resources? Education for Sustainable Development offers us a way to create sustainably-literate adults by encouraging them to develop the skills and competencies they and their communities will need to prepare for a low-carbon, more sustainable economy and society.

Some of these skills and competencies include a sense of interdependence, civic responsibility, tolerance, empathy and global awareness. To educational practitioners, a challenge: to what extent are these values being promoted in your educational institution? To those of you who’ve completed your studies: how much of these skills and competencies were encouraged in your course, and how? Not enough of our education systems are preparing us to deal with the inevitable challenges of the future, or inculcating a sense of urgency for us to avert some of those challenges in the first place.

The experience of advising a charity on their sustainability strategy was daunting and challenging. But being in a non- ‘environmental’ charity was the best of all: I’ve clearly spent longer talking about these issues to people who broadly already agree with me, than those who don’t. How do you communicate the messages about our current un-sustainable way of living, and the potential for a much more enriching future of equality, interconnectedness, and higher well-being, without either patronising, scaring, intimidating or coming across as a nut?! I’m sure I’ve done all of these to all of my friends at some point.

As I finished the month, I handed over a hastily re-written 45 page report, complete with no less than 23 recommendations, and beat a slightly relieved retreat back to the safety of three weeks of Forum for the Future lectures and seminars, which come to an end on the 6th November. Relieved because the toil of 2 hours of commuting a day and the banal insanity of computer-screen interaction was beginning to take its toll. How, please answer me, can getting on a train crammed with people, then on a tube even sweatier and busier, before sitting in front of a screen in a self-enclosed desk space for 7 hours, interacting more with cyber-space than with real humans, five days a week, be called progress?! Has the great swathe and innovativeness of human history culminated in everyone striving for this inadequate pinnacle of work-life?!

I hope not. I am determined to create a world in which a four-day week is the norm, and we spend the rest of our time in active relaxation, the pursuit of genuine happiness, relationships and fun. All by the end of this Master’s course.

Ok. A little ambitious. But check out the New Economics Foundation entry next, because a 4-day week is exactly what they would promote: a complete redefinition of how we conceive of progress, happiness and our work-life balance.

Right. My parents are away this week. I’m going to build a pond on the lawn before they come back, and there’s nothing they can do about it…

Check out for more on Education for Sustainable Development and its potential.

Posted by: sustainablyspeaking | September 21, 2009

The fun begins…

I’m a little behind with starting this, so here’s the first blog, from September 21st…

I’m sitting on a train from Bristol to Paddington, the sun’s out, the fields awash with colour. The diesel train is traveling fast, and I wonder what my carbon footprint is by traveling on it, and what it would be if they electrified the route. I plug in my dying laptop to the conveniently placed plug to sap some more energy from the national grid. A pin-striped-suit-old man opposite me pours through Jaguar brochures. An old man and his son come into the carriage and leave again; mistakenly thinking they’re in first class. Ah, the life on trains!

I reminisce on what has been an intense first two weeks at Forum for the Future. First of all, check them out at How do you get today’s business and public leaders to embrace the concept of sustainability (social, environmental, financial) and all the ramifications it has for our future world? Forum’s positive, vision-based approach has a lot going for it. People need positivity. That much has been hit home to me.

It’s been a challenging two weeks as well. Physically, and intellectually. Physically, because rush hour trains and tubes + sweaty Steven on crutches = embarrassing sweat patches on first day, blisters on hands. Intellectually, I’ve been hit with this lot of challenges:

  • Sustainable development is about people, not the environment. This is about the future of the human species on the planet: and what kind of quality of life we’re creating for ourselves and future generations.
  • The environment holds no intrinsic value, but is only valuable in terms of the services it provides to humans.
  • Forum uses a critical friend approach: it consults partners (from Tesco’s to Nottingham City Hospital), and provides a safe environment in which to privately challenge them and their operational models. Is this urgent enough? Should we be naming and shaming? Is Forum selling out on its radical values for major societal and economical change?
  • The biggest jolt to the system has been about positivity. There’s an increasing amount of evidence that the doom and gloom, negative portrayals of the environmental movement have desensitized people to many environmental issues. The number of people who deny the existence or human cause of climate change is growing, not diminishing. How do we create a positive vision of the future, whilst convincing people of the scale and urgency of the problem at hand?

Well, this is all very serious. The 12 of us future sustainable leaders are going to have a ball. Hopefully you’ll find the journey interesting. Meanwhile, did you know…

Most condoms aren’t vegan. There’s a little bit of animal in every one. Some vegan friends of mine briefly panicked, got their resourceful heads back on, and then bought thousands of vegan condoms wholesale.