the cusp of change #keepitintheground #guardianlive

I was at the #keepitintheground event yesterday, in London at Kings Place.

You can currently find background to the event itself here at the Guardian Membership site.

As the page tells us:

The event will be chaired by the Guardian’s editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger, and will feature a guest panel of Nick Stern, President of the British Academy and chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, Meryam Omi, Legal & General Investment Management, Dale Vince, founder of Ecotricity, Steve Howard, head of sustainability at Ikea, Lisa Ashford, CEO of Ethex and David Blood, co-founder of Generation Investment Management

All the speakers had something serious to offer, and whilst some spoke far more than others, the different approaches and voices of the seven participants made the evening a fascinating foray into the realities of business, and their more than occasional disconnect from the planet.

I expected to agree with everything Ikea’s Steve Howard said, and didn’t – in particular that active investment was as important a tool as divestment.  I agreed entirely with David Blood (he of Blood & (Al) Gore fame!), co-founder of an investment corporation, when he suggested that whilst the moral case for divestment was unassailable, the business case was almost as powerful.  His introduction was well structured, very American in its listenability – very to the point; very professional; very optimism-raising.

In fact, to be honest, I went into the event, expecting to be sad at the end – and came out of it, quite buoyant …

I found Meryam Omi, of Legal & General, a most persuasive intelligence: a thinking person in a place I would have expected outright rejection of the issues on the table.

That’s simply a sign of my personal prejudices taking charge of my perceptions of reality: it ennobles her and shames me.  Her call for clients to make a move as well, to ask for different approaches to investments, was notable and significant, and echoed for me many things I try and advocate in politics.  We must stop expecting everything to be handed on a plate; we must step up and take engaging control ourselves, too.

She was also disarmingly frank about the short-termism rife in her sector.  A grand speaker, as I say.

I found Dale Vince’s belief in Ecotricity tech, and thus the importance of controlling demand not just supply, touching, appropriate and actually far less hippy-ish than one might have expected (they do say “never trust a hippy” after all, don’t they?!).  In this Steve Howard had already clearly agreed, as Ikea proceeds proactively to change the nature and carbon footprints of the technology it sells in its shops.  I’m not sure the technological hopefulness is necessarily altogether wise, though – whether it sends out the right signals to the gathered business audiences out there: surely it plays into the geo-engineering getouts the big fossil-fuel companies love to promote.

Lisa Ashford, meanwhile, presented ethical investment’s best foot, and appealed in her discourse to the more humane side of those present.  As CEO of an ethical investment organisation, Ethex, I again found my prejudices a little stricken by the sincerity, honesty and humanity.

The overarching thesis did, however, seem to be economic: that these things will get done precisely because the economics is on the side of the divesters.  The problem, then, becomes managing the decline of hugely important industry.  What would, for example, be wrong is to follow the lead cooked up by the Spanish government over the past couple of years where existing vested interests and energy corps receive a tax (imposed after the event) from every solar-panel owner – a tax, in fact, on the sun for the benefit of powerful industry lobbyists.

No.  The management has to be done in some other way.  Maybe Steve Howard was right, though it pains us (me!) to admit it: whilst divestment from certain tech is possible, a plan of engagement is necessary for, say, international transport.

There was little time for the public to ask questions; most, in fact, seemed to be asked by investment-fund personnel of one sort or another.  There was, however, one I should’ve asked myself near the end: following on from a Canadian proposal I read about earlier in the week, would it be useful to see the fossil-fuel sector through the prism of Big Tobacco?  That is to say, sooner or later, to legislate in favour of health warnings on petrol pumps?

Which brings me to Nick Stern, who was quite the most powerful speaker of all – not because of personal charisma (there were many on the panel with bagfuls of that …); rather because of the charisma of his monumental stats – stats he communicated gently but not baldly; stats he allowed to speak quietly for themselves.  And although I don’t remember the detail, it never is my strength, I can remember a couple of global figures (and do correct me if I’m wrong): hundreds of thousands of deaths in China alone directly due to the emissions of hydrocarbons.  And tens of thousands in Britain every year.

More people dead, in fact, via emissions than our vehicles kill on our roads.

Now if that doesn’t deserve a health warning on petrol pumps, what does?

Two final things: firstly, an observation.  Alan Rusbridger alluded to the continuation or not of the #keepitintheground campaign.  It’s clear the new editor-in-chief of the Guardian, Katharine Viner – who starts her job on Sunday – is going to keep the pressure up on the industry and its hangers-on.

But as Meryam Omi so powerfully reminded us, this is a job and a half for everyone concerned.  The planet may be in the process of being shortsightedly carved up by business elites, but nowhere during all of human history has the grassroots been so informed or connected.

Secondly, a final anecdote: I once taught English for a year in a Spanish school.  A sociopathic schoolkid always brought a knife to class.  He was allowed to because his father was a big contributor to school coffers.  I had to deal with this; I didn’t very well.  One-to-one, he was most charming.  But in groups, he became a monster.

This is what’s happened in business.  The big contributors allow the knives into our lives, and turn face-to-face charm into the idiocy of public relations.

This is what we must reach out to prevent.

It’s time to re-engineer corporate behaviours – to reach out to the sociopaths and show them enough is enough.  But not just enough is enough; also how to change.

For as the session served to conclude, this may – after all – be that cusp of change we’ve ached so long to arrive at …

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