The theme of this talk (originally given at the House of Beautiful Business in Lisbon, November 2019) is ‘New Power’. I usually use a LOT of images in my presentations. Today I am using just one because I think this image speaks volumes about today’s power dynamics between genders, generations, values and worldviews. But first a poem…
The Choice by W.B.Yeats
The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life or of the work
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark
When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left it’s mark
That old perplexity and empty purse
Or the day’s vanity, the nights remorse
I have spent the last twenty years trying to reconcile these tensions. Of combining my life and work in service to something bigger and more meaningful. I was born in 1972 the year the Club of Rome first published ‘Limits to Growth’, perhaps the first modern salvo in the battle for a very different way of thinking about economic growth, progress and our relationship with the natural world.
My first love was the sea. As a marine fisheries biologist I was passionate about ‘responsible management’ of the oceans resources. Inspired by the rather dry, utilitarian notion of ‘maximum sustainable yield’ and how logical, sane and rational approaches should prevail. However it wasn’t long before I realized I was going to spend my whole career saying ‘If you don’t stop catching all the fish…there won’t be any fish’. As world renowned fisheries expert Daniel Pauly said ‘We’re fighting a war on fish…and we’re winning’. For me fisheries were a microcosm of relationships gone badly wrong, criminal outlaw behaviour on the high seas, modern slavery and wanton destruction. Worse the very nature of the so-called ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ led to the very economic thinking of enclosures, property rights and power against shared ownership and solidarity that have brought us to where we are today.
In 2001 I co-founded Futerra, the sustainability consultancy I parted ways from earlier this year. It was ‘the school of change management of things that pissed us off’. Over 18 years we grew the business to 3 international offices, 75 staff, delivering thousands of projects to hundreds of clients on six continents (and I was lucky enough to visit the seventh in 2016).
We started by communicating sustainability for our clients in the belief that we could ‘make sustainability so desirable it becomes normal’. We policed ‘greenwash’, we drummed a beat for positive environmentalism, we believed in the power of behavioural psychology to influence people and change the way they live. But personally something began to change for me.
Increasingly, like my friend the green ape Mark Shayler, I was of the belief that our work was not ‘just about doing the same things better, it was about doing better things’. I felt stuck in a cage of client service, trapped by the constraints of the brief. I kept thinking this is not just about adjusting your messaging! It’s not about your posturing around your bigger than self purpose that you’ve cackhandedly retrofitted onto your business without actually changing anything. Because all the time the world kept changing around us. Not for the better. It actually got worse.
Despite all our efforts global carbon emissions went up. And continue to do so. And even more tragically during my lifetime we lost 60% of all our wild vertebrate biomass. Over half of all our lions, tigers, bears, giraffes, rhinos, shrews, birds, fish…on our watch. I began to feel that we weren’t even winning slowly, we were just losing marginally less quickly.
And there was a good reason for this. The system is resilient. Business is extremely good at finding ways to make a profit. And then protecting those means and preventing change happening around them. It’s what the US futurist Alex Steffen calls ‘predatory delay’ — the deliberate slowing of change to prolong a profitable but unsustainable status quo whose costs will be paid by others. This is how power manifests itself. Perhaps most obviously with the fossil fuel sector, currently desperately trying to put the brakes on a transition to an inevitable renewable energy future which fundamentally disrupts their business model.
And let’s be clear. They knew. The recent flurry of tobacco-style litigation against fossil fuel companies like Exxon is because their own scientists warned of the likely global warming consequences of burning billions of years of fossilized sunshine in the eighties. And they did it anyway. And if data is the new oil. They know. The big tech companies are also fully aware of their corrosive effect on our social energy system. And they’re also predatory in their delay of change because of the insanely lucrative monetization of our online lives.
Don’t get me wrong I wish my former colleagues and the company all the best in their endeavours. But as an individual I felt I was no longer a change-maker I was simply defending the status quo and I have returned to activism. And that’s because of the way I feel about the world. When Extinction Rebellion burst onto the scene just one short year ago the direct simplicity of their message spoke to me: Tell the truth and act like that truth is real.
I have been both lauded and attacked for my own practice of ‘insultancy’ — being strategically cheeky or rude to clients to compel them to raise their sustainability aspirations. But XR’s truth connected with not just my logical, rational head — the IPCC report of 2018 had sent me into something of a tail-spin mentally, but also with my compassionate heart and my gut instinct. Life is an embodied act and if we’re not intellectually, emotionally and instinctively feeling the state of the world right now then we really are not paying full attention.
It’s been fascinating hearing other talks at the House of Beautiful Business. I loved Moon Ribas’ session on becoming a transhuman ‘sensonaut’, sharing tales of enabling herself to sense the world’s seismic activity through an implant in her elbow. Extending her body into a wider connection with the vibration of the earth, using technology to reveal a richer reality. My futurist compadre Mark Stevenson says ‘technology is not an answer. It’s a question’. And Moon’s work reminded me of what we might call ‘heart-led technology’ that enables us to become more sensate and aligned with ourselves and other species. Like the incredible, rapturous experience of ‘We live in an ocean of air’ where virtual reality takes you immersively into your interconnections with the flow of air; oxygen, carbon dioxide, blood and transpiration of water through a giant sequoia.
Now that’s powerful. But for me the question of ‘new power’ is really about old power. The oldest powers we have; co-operation and collaboration. Donella Meadows who edited the Club of Rome report argued the most effective tool of transformation is to change the story, the cultural narrative that underpins our understanding of the way the world works.
We have been sold an ultra-competitive ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ narrative in business. A survival of the fittest, gaining competitive advantage, seizing market share, capitalizing on opportunity type of mantra, that every consultant will have found themselves uttering. And yet, it’s not true. Nature is infinitely more interdependent, interconnected and collegiate than it is brutally competitive. Life literally begets life. After 4.5B years it’s pretty effective at it. Competition is surely part of the mix, but it’s not the principle ingredient in the recipe.
We also know that power is not given. It is taken. Every progressive movement knows this. From the Suffragettes to Civil Rights, bodies, freedom and liberty were put on the line to make those voices heard and for the system to capitulate and relinquish power. This never happens easily, quickly or simply. And in the twelve short months since XR burst onto the scene we have already had the UK Government (finally!) declare a Climate Emergency, revise zero carbon targets and commit to a national Citizens Assembly. Disruption, despite much of the inevitable colour and chaos of a non-hierarchical, decentralized and holocratic organization, works.
One of the most famous oft cited examples of ‘systems change’ is the emancipation of slavery. Barbarically indentured labour was an engine of the economy like fossil fuels. For coal oil and gas read blood, sweat and tears. Ending slavery threatened the prosperity of both the nation and the individual (even English country vicars owned ‘part shares’ in slaves as a nice safe investment). It would damage lifestyles and impoverish us. Well it didn’t. At least not in the way you might expect.
In fact slavery ended in massive compensation payments of 40% of the UK national budget. That would be about £350B today. A debt the UK taxpayer only finished paying off in…wait for it…2015, almost two centuries later. Of course that compensation didn’t go to the wretched slaves themselves. It went to the 46,000 slave owners.
We like to call our current era the Anthropocene. In which humanity has inadvertently become the driving force of the fate of all life on earth. As if we stumbled into this scenario by accident. But we are here by design. Because at almost every step of the way we have adopted a fundamentally extractive mindset, what can we get out of this through our take, make and waste linear exploitation model?
I prefer the biologist E.O. Wilson’s ‘Eremocene’ — the age of loneliness. Which perhaps better describes the destruction of our fellow species around us, and the increasing digital isolation of the online world — fragmented, atomized and alone.
This is a climate emergency. Yet we are still very much in business pretty much as usual. Maybe we should be starting every meeting with ‘This is a climate emergency…’ in order to increase the urgency? But this extraordinary emergency requires an extraordinary emergence. An emergence of an expansive empathy that embraces one people on one planet, of a worldview that appreciates our indivisible place in the web of life, not perched atop it.
And that’s not a new story. That’s an ancient one. There has been much talk of the need for new stories the last two days. I used to say the same thing. But now I’m more convinced its not about new narratives. It’s about properly understanding and embodying the old ones. Those myths and stories with common origins across the whole human family. That guided us for tens of thousands of years around the fires of our youthful species. Those animistic, indigenous stories that perceived and described the world as a thrumming, trembling, vibrating whole that we shouldn’t just ought to respect, protect and conserve but which actively needs to be admired, desired and loved.
Those are what Dr Martin Shaw calls our ‘bone memories’. They are infinitely more powerful than the superficial aspects of so called behavioural psychology. They are our old power, not the new power narratives that have distracted us for a century or two.
But instead of listening to these deep old stories we are high on our own hubris of positive one-dimensional brittle techno-utopian optimism. Blinded to the simple, obvious and indeed elegant solutions because they are not-profitable. As George Monbiot put it memorably in the context of rewilding recently ‘If only we had a magic machine which sucked carbon out of the air, costs very little and builds and replicates itself?’. We do. It’s called a tree!
New power is old power. We must attune to the world around us. Be present in this decisive and dark moment. And reconnect with one another and the rest of our living planet. Let us not rush headlong, headstrong and headless, even heartless into more urgent technological solutionising. Let us pause to ask the most profound ‘why?’ of what we do next. Because as Rumi puts it:
‘Sit. Be still. And listen. Because you’re drunk and we’re at the edge of the roof’
Ed Gillespie is the author of ‘Only Planet’