People all over the world love nature, plants and animals. Online and on TV, Natural History films are a hugely popular and profitable genre as they attract family audiences. The BBC has just started public marketing of it’s new Attenborough mega-series Green Planet. Yet the extinction of ‘biodiversity’ has struggled to be taken seriously as a political issue. In this blog I explore what it might take for campaigns to make a difference to this year’s global biodiversity conference, the history and challenges of this ‘Cinderella’ political issue, and the bizarre case of Swanscombe Peninsula, which may become a test case in the UK: a biodiverse site threatened by a theme park with dinosaurs.
[note: some readers have questioned what ‘Cinderella’ means in this context – I meant that it’s neglected, overlooked compared to climate. Journalist Peter Greenfield called the biodiversity the ‘little sister’ COP compared to COP26 on climate]
Will 2022 be the year when governments take the Nature Emergency as seriously as the Climate Emergency? Hopes are focussed on the 15th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD15), due to take place in Kunming China, from 17 – 30 May. Few commentators are optimistic about it.
Ever since the 1992 Earth Summit, governments have promised effective action to stem the loss of biodiversity and then failed. Conservationists have long complained that ‘biodiversity’ is an under-resourced Cinderella issue. Communicators complain that it’s not understood: ‘biodiversity’ is policy-speak not everyday language for nature. Academics identify a plethora of difficulties explaining it but overall, nature still drains away. Scientists fear millions of species will soon be lost.
What Needs To Happen
Perhaps I am stating the obvious but it seems to me that it needs at least three things for nature even to gain the political and social traction that ‘climate’ has through international action:
Getting governments organised. Effective international political and scientific organisation and structure connecting to national economic, land use and natural resource policy
Enabling politicians to understand it. Translation of targets derived from science into shorthands and metrics which non-scientific domestic politicians and decision-makers can understand and communicate at least between themselves (equivalent to climate’s ‘net zero’ and 1.5C ‘safe limit’ and ‘unburnable carbon’)
·Enabling people to put pressure on politicians to act on commitments. Connection of the top-down agenda for action with bottom-up public support and pressure to protect surviving nature and enhance it, meaning that it must be visible, tangible and tractable where people live, work, rest and play, with outcomes testable through personal experience. This is where campaigns can make the biggest difference.
Late in coming it is, and inadequate it may be but there are signs that an inter governmental infrastructure is now being put in place, partly emulating and drawing energy from that in place for climate. Corporates, NGOs, scientists and politicians have come together in new initiatives and alliances (see Cinderella COP below). The second problem is soluble but it’s unlikely to be sorted by May, although it might just emerge from the CBD process through luck. There’s not much time for the third one but it’s the most realistic opportunity to take for campaigners wanting to improve on the default outcome for biodiversity’s COP15.
COP15 already has a full agenda. It’s reported that:
‘The 21-point draft includes targets on eliminating plastic pollution, reducing pesticide use by two-thirds and halving the rate of invasive species introductions, aimed at cutting the rate of extinctions and protecting life-sustaining ecosystems’.
It’s also said that ‘nature based solutions’ – the obvious cross-over with climate – are in the draft, although president Jair Bolsanaro of Brazil opposes them and they ‘may well be cut in the run up’. And both the UN and a ‘high ambition’ alliance are pushing ideas such as protecting of 30% of the planet for nature by 2030 and stopping the loss of biodiversity by 2030 (see Cinderella COP below).
There’s not much to be gained by campaigners trying to push new ideas onto the agenda for CBD15.
In my view, the underlying problem for biodiversity is that politicians still assume it can be saved without having to fundamentally disrupt the way we do things. And if they do think it needs fundamental far-reaching change, it’s not politically possible, just yet. This is a penny that has dropped further and faster on climate than biodiversity.
So whether or not for the conference proves a turning point will depend on whether national politicians attending it already believe they must change their domestic economic, development and planning systems, pollution controls and use of land and the sea. That in turn will depend on manifestation of public demand and support.
If that doesn’t happen CBD15 may just be a small audience spectator sport for environmentalists on zoom, with a zoo of paper tiger commitments let loose in Kunming.
The political temptation is always to agree to vague targets or those with an implementation date well into the future. At the top level ‘biodiversity’ itself is vague, generic and placeless, allowing one dimensional single metric metaphors such as ‘moving the dial’. It’s easy for politicians to attend an international conference and agree we must change the trajectory on biodiversity without it translating into instrumental change on the ground, in how things work in my country, at home. That’s been the history.
It’s much harder for governments to stop something they’ve already started or are accustomed to, than to agree to do something new. So if they do, that really means something. If I was looking for a campaign target to make a difference for CBD15, that’s what I’d look for: something to stop, something already happening or planned but which is incompatible with the Convention ambition that the relevant country would like to align with.
The strongest signal for politicians to receive from a campaign is not seeing opinion polls or being lobbied by experts but the experience of having to do different: whether they themselves decide that or they are forced into it. Seeing an unmistakable change-signal from significant others who cannot be ignored (eg expenditure of corporations or large instrumental changes in public choices and behaviours) can come a close second.
In other words whether it involves a battle or not, I suggest looking for a reversal or abandonment of an existing practice or project, rather than just promoting a target for future change.
Such objectives can be tough to achieve but it doesn’t have to be huge and running across the spectrum of problems and solutions associated with biodiversity. It could be quite discrete but emblematic nonetheless. In practical campaign terms between now and May, such a stop- or save-target has several advantages:
Availability – if the thing already exists, the campaign does not to spend a long time defining and constructing public awareness of it
Comprehension – if it’s real, physical and familiar then the public is more likely to understand it and can respond to a conflict over it by seeing who’s involved without having to be educated about finer points of biodiversity and policy
Speed – if your demand is binary enough, there is time between now and May to engage public as well as elite audiences
Test of intent – in the run up to COP15 it should be a cogent litmus-test of true political intent and working assumptions
And less obviously it might be
Crossing a Rubicon, a defining moment of decision which departs from past assumptions
If you try, and you win, then great. If you try and you lose, too bad but at least you have run the test, and you have created evidence for next time, with a lot of witnesses. Without such moments, a process like the CBD COP15 may go un-noticed by most of the public, or understood only through episodic exchanges of soundbites between biodiversity advocates and politicians rehearsing the usual arguments.
The ideal contest is an event which signals the public support and the essence of the issue, and which is extended enough for a conversation to develop, for days or weeks. Campaigns which achieve this are candidates to trigger a what theorists term a ‘dialectical moment’, a time when two conflicting ‘truths’ are resolved as society rethinks in real time and a new truth emerges. (See Final Thoughts below, on biodiversity and nature as a blank free space).
In terms of timing, for a campaign to now make an impact on politicians who go on to make an impact on COP15 it needs to get ‘inside the loop’ and have its effect faster than the default timescales for preparation, participation, decision making and implementation through the Convention process.
All that’s still fairly generic as the opportunities will vary radically from one country to another so I’ll share an example I know about in the UK. It’s a bit idiosyncratic and it’s in the ‘when in a hole, first stop digging’ category. In other words stop making the problem worse, in this case by not building on an important nature site near London.
Back in 2013 the UK government put a proposal for a huge entertainment park on a ‘fast-track’ for development approval. It still doesn’t have planning consent but if built it would destroy one of the most biodiverse places in the country, at Swanscombe Peninsula in North Kent. Strangely, even the BBC is involved, and on the wrong side. It’s a bizarre microcosm of what happens in the UK, a highly nature-depleted over-developed country, when biodiversity comes up against conventional development thinking.
Swanscombe’s Extinction Theme Park
Local campaigners Donna Zimmer, hairdresser and naturalist (left), Laura Edie, special needs teaching assistant and Councillor (centre), and Karen Lynch, right, of Save Swanscombe Peninsula
By UK standards Swanscombe is an outstanding hotspot of biodiversity. It has many rare plants and in an area about one and a half times the size of Regents Park, a greater number of breeding birds than any major nature reserve in south east England. It’s home to nightingales, water voles, cuckoos, otters and ravens. Foremost among its remarkable 1700 invertebrate species, is the extravagantly named Distinguished Jumping Spider, surviving only here and on the opposite bank of the Thames.
The main habitats of Swanscombe Peninsula – from Natural England
A ‘Nature Reserve’ For Extinct Animals
London Resort PR artists impression of the ‘Prehistoric Nature Reserve’ to be built on Swanscombe Peninsula
Potential nemesis of the Distinguished Jumping Spider comes in the form of larger-than-life ‘PY’ Pierre-Yves Gerbeau, an ex-ice hockey player and something of a travelling salesman for outlandish attraction developments, who made his name with Disneyland Paris and as ‘rescuer’ of the controversial London Millennium Dome. Gerbeau is CEO of LRCH. With his trademark bravado, his latest big idea for the London Resort, alongside six rollercoasters, is a ‘Prehistoric Nature Reserve’ featuring fake dinosaurs.
P Y Gerbeau and the Distinguished Jumping Spider (spider photo – Buglife)
Principal champion of the Distinguished Jumping Spider and the other invertebrate species found on the site, is a small national UK charity called Buglife*. Established in 2000, its name echoes the 1998 Disney Pixar movie ‘Bug’s Life’, which has inspired generations of children to ‘like bugs’, and in which ants fight for their home against a predatory swarm of gangster-style grasshoppers. Buglife has a petition against the development.
“Too Much Democracy”
PY’s boss at LRCH is Chairman Steven Norris, a former MP and Conservative Minister, now a property developer who has twice gone public with his neo-con styleview that there is “far too much democracy” in the UK as it gets in the way of development. He’s also said in a Property Week Magazine video in 2018 that universal suffrage is a “daft idea”.
Steven Norris – “far too much democracy” at 6 secs, NSIPs “very very welcome” at 1min 4 secs
Money behind LRCH comes from oil-rich Kuwait through Dr. Abdulla Al Humaidi, former oil executive, politician and Chairman of Kuwaiti European Holding (KEH). LRCH is ultimately controlled by companies based in Kuwait. London Resort is ‘overseen’ by KEH. Dr Al Humaidi bought the local fooball club, Ebbsfleet in 2013.
The cast of characters extends to blue-chip media companies, all on the wrong side of the biodiversity fence as ‘IP partners’, having signed Development Agreements with LRCH to supply their Intellectual Property for themes and content of rides and attractions. These include Paramount Pictures, ITV Studios, and most extraordinary of all, BBC Studios which signed up in 2014.
David Attenborough And The BBC
The BBC of course is a palace of natural history content and the long-standing HQ of Sir David Attenborough, often referred to as ‘a god’ by BBC insiders, one of the most popular people in Britain, famous for wildlife spectaculars such as Planet Earth and Blue Planet, and in recent decades an environmental campaigner backing causes such as The Wildlife Trusts and Prince William’s ‘Earth Shot Prize’, featured in a BBC Studios production, Repairing the Planet. So far the BBC has rejected calls from campaigners to withdraw from the theme park project. (Sign Save Swanscombe Peninsula’s petition to the BBC here). Attenborough has also made several films about dinosaurs but LRCH and BBC publicity suggested the BBC content for the theme park was most likely to be from Dr Who.
How BBC reported the deal with London Resort in 2014
Earthshot Prize featuring David and Attenborough in 2021 – a BBC Studios production
Both the BBC and ITV have featured in an investor marketing promotion for the London Resort
Since 2011 both the BBC and ITV have made much of their commitments to sustainability, although in both cases it focuses mainly on cutting their climate-changing footprints and waste, through adherence to the ‘Albert’ sustainable production system set up by the BBC and now also adopted by Netflix, ITV, Sky and Channel Four. Symptomatic of a wider challenge for biodiversity campaigns, Albert says nothing about biodiversity and the BBC has no policy on biodiversity and nature conservation.
To cap it all, crucial land required for the LRCH project to build its nature reserve for extinct species, car parks, hotels and the rest of the theme park is 50% owned by the world’s largest cement company Holcim (through Swanscombe Development LLP, a partnership with Anglo-American). This is because although originally chalk grasslands and grazing marsh, much of the area was mined to feed a cement works, with land acquired by Lafarge, which then merged with Holcim. Enough flora and fauna survived to recolonize the whole site when the industry shut down, fortuitously also insulated from the chemical onslaught of industrial farming, which explains its biodiversity riches. In recent decades Holcim has set out to be a more sustainable company and in 2021 its CEO Jan Jenisch was one of 20 business leaders [Business for Nature] who wrote an Open Letter to Heads of State on the importance of biodiversity.
Finally, the London Resort theme park project (then Paramount Park) was granted special status in 2014 by then then Conservative Planning Minister Eric Pickles, as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project or NSIP. This by-passes normal democratically controlled local planning process and puts decisions directly in the hands of central government planning inspectors and Ministers to fast-track projects.
Eric Pickles (right) commons.wikimedia.org
Why a theme park, a straightforward commercial development, should qualify as ‘nationally significant infrastructure’, a special treatment normally reserved for major infrastructure like power stations, ports, or large road or rail projects, has puzzled many informed observers. Pickles justification was ‘economic’. If it goes ahead the scheme will destroy several local industrial estates home to 140 small businesses, many of which oppose the theme park, employing over 1500 people. The businesses believe Pickles was ignorant of their existence, and was only told by planning consultants Savills that the area was a ‘mainly post-industrial brownfield land and largely derelict’.
This puts the fate of Swanscombe Peninsula directly in the hands Boris Johnson’s government. After many delays caused by LRCH’s failure to meet deadlines, the NSIP hearings may start in March and run throughout the time the UK government is taking part in the CBD’s COP15. The UK likes to portray itself as an environmental leader at such events and together with France and Costa Rica has been promoting the concept of stopping loss of biodiversity by 2030 (see Cinderella COP, below).
Boris Johnson has adopted the same target as a national objective, saying: “biodiversity loss is happening today, it is happening at a frightening rate”.
These awkward circumstances are made more acute because following calls from Buglife, the CPRE, RSPB and Kent Wildlife Trust, and over 70 scientists and conservation experts, Swanscombe Peninsula was confirmed as a nationally important Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in November 2021 by Natural England, the government’s own conservation agency. In normal circumstances that should prevent any damaging development, and the heart of the SSSI would be concreted over if the Theme Park were constructed but an NSIP is not normal circumstances. Consequently Swanscombe is a test case of the UK government’s commitment to biodiversity.
LRCH claims that the theme park can compensate for lost biodiversity with its ‘off-site ecological compensation strategy’ but conservation groups dismiss this as impossible given the scale of the direct footprint (about 100 Hectares) and knock-on indirect effects. Natural England have stated “compensation cannot adequately address the harm that would result to the SSSI from the development proposal, as the feasibility of doing this is considered low and very unlikely to offer an equivalent assemblage and richness of species.”
[For more information – background papers on Swanscombe – one on the value of the site, the other on LRCH and the BBC]
The Cinderella COP – Some Campaign Issues
Climate change emerged as a global political issue in the late 1980s and it became progressively more obvious that protecting biodiversity needed a similar scientific and political commitment-making system to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, est 1988) and the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change est 1992). Imperfect though these are, they helped stimulate and frame political action. Although the CBD or Convention on Biological Diversity was first launched at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, it has struggled to translate the global overview of acute need into systematic action at national and regional level.
Grand Targets, Weak Delivery
A 30 December article in The Guardian by Patrick Greenfield was headlined ‘Can 2022 be a super year for nature?’ “Super Year” is the hopeful term that was coined by UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen for 2020, before both the CBD COP15 and COP26 on climate got delayed by Covid. It follows decades of failure. Greenfield summarised the state of play like this:
Those failures include a 2002 commitment on the tenth anniversary of the CBD originally signed at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, to ‘significantly slow’ biodiversity loss by 2010. That was incorporated in the Millennium Development Goals but missed and in turn was followed by the 20 biodiversity ‘Aichi Goals’ of 2011 agreed in Japan. None were fully met, including target 5, to ‘at least halve’ the loss of natural habitats by 2020.
The detail shows more protected areas, at least on paper, more cases of individual species brought ‘back from the brink’ of extinction, and more successes of many kinds due to a huge amount of effort, just not enough to outweigh the impacts such as from industrial agriculture, pollution and land use change.
Now the ambition is now to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030 and set aside 30-50% of the planet for nature. In his 2016 book ‘Half-Earth: The Planet’s Fight for Life’ the eminent biologist E O Wilson** proposed making half the earth’s surface into sanctuaries as the only way to be sure of stemming the loss of biodiversity. In 2019, spurred by the failure of the Aichi targets, conservationists adopted a more direct approach and put forward much the same target for land to be set aside for nature.
In April 2019 20 leading scientists including Tom Lovejoy**, called for a global Deal for Nature with ‘30% of Earth to be formally protected and an additional 20% designated as climate stabilization areas’. Their proposal was framed as a complement to the Paris (climate) Agreement.
In September 2020 leaders of the European Union and 70 countries (now 93)made the commitment in a ‘Leaders’ Pledge for Nature’. The initiative was backed by NGOs, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), Belize, Bhutan, Colombia, Costa Rica, the EU, Finland, Kenya, Seychelles, and the UK. It came just before a UN Summit on Biodiversity held at the General Assembly in New York with (due to Covid) leaders sending pre-recorded videos .
In Paris on January 11 2021, ‘30 x 30’ got international political backing with the launch of the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People at the One Planet Summit. This committed nations to protecting ‘at least’ 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030. Led by Costa Rica, France and the UK, it now includes 70 countries. This is undoubtedly progress in starting to organise a progressive network among governments but it is not enough to create delivery. Soon after his inauguration US President Joe Biden announced ‘America the Beautiful’ his 30 x 30. In the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his 30 x 30 in September 2020, with all the right sentiments:
“We can’t afford dither and delay because biodiversity loss is happening today, it is happening at a frightening rate … If left unchecked, the consequences will be catastrophic for us all … Extinction is forever – so our action must be immediate”
But search online for ‘30 by 30’ and you quickly find a forest of criticisms calling such commitments into doubt, from objections that Biden’s plan might not help the environmental struggles of indigenous peoples to campaigners pointing out that Johnson had included England’s National Parks as ‘protected’ areas covering 26% of the country, whereas the RSPB’s Lost Decade report found as little as 5% of the UK was actually well managed for nature. The extent to which such more ambitious targets actually produce bigger and better results will depend on how much politicians believe the public want it.
There is growing engagement of corporations with biodiversity but, as with the BBC, it is generally much lower level or an earlier stage than that on climate. Against that, companies have a track record of being able to move much faster than most governments when they want to.
A 2018 study found one third of the sustainability reports of the top 100 (largest) Fortune 500 companies had some sort of commitment to biodiversity. However the researchers, from Oxford and Kent University, also noted:
Of the top Fortune 100 companies, 86 have publicly available sustainability reports … almost half (49) … mentioned biodiversity … and 31 made clear biodiversity commitments and an additional 12 made clear fishing or forestry commitments. However, only five of these companies made biodiversity commitments that could be considered specific, measurable and time-bound. This is unlike the much greater adoption of science-based climate commitments made by companies committing to reduce carbon emissions in line with the Paris Agreement within the next decade (https://sciencebasedtargets.org/), emphasising that biodiversity loss remains a less pressing issue to the private sector compared to climate change.
‘when we took a closer look at which companies were making commitments that were specific, measurable & time bound, we found that only 5 of the Fortune 100 did so (Walmart, Hewlett Packard, AXA, Nestlé and Carrefour). For example, Walmart’s commitment: “To conserve one acre of wildlife habitat for every acre of land occupied by Walmart U.S. through 2015″. Beyond Walmart’s commitment, none of the remaining Fortune 100 had adopted quantifiable biodiversity commitments (e.g., no net loss or better), unlike the small but rising number of businesses outside of the Fortune 100’
A 2020 German study also suggested that biodiversity is still a Cinderella topic compared to climate. It examined corporate engagement of 618 firms in halting loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. It found
‘a favourable attitude, driven by perceived business relevance and benefit prospects, fosters engagement. Perceived difficulties, such as lacking finances and knowledge, hinder the engagement. Customers, employees and the general public are presently the only stakeholder groups that drive corporate conservation engagement. Nevertheless, the expectation levels of virtually all stakeholders were found to be quite low and as such inadequate for the ecological crisis we face’.
The observation that ‘Customers, employees and the general public are presently the only stakeholder groups that drive corporate conservation engagement’ is not surprising given that few governments have yet legislated to require actions comparable to those stipulated in climate-related regulation, such as car manufacturers facing heavy fines of up to €30,000 per vehicle if their model range does not meet EU targets on reduced carbon emissions.
Translating that to biodiversity would be more complex but the experience of other issues suggests that it’s only a carrot and stick approach which really stimulates comprehensive change. The latest post-Brexit UK scheme for increasing biodiversity on farmland seems to be all carrot and involves paying farm businesses to do so. According to The Wildlife Trusts, it also relies on them to self-evaluate.
Act for Nature is a French biodiversity initiative aimed at global actors including businesses, NGOs, academic institutions and public bodies. 57 companies have made commitments which Act for Nature considers SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound). It is associated with Business for Nature which has over 1000 corporate members with revenues totally over $4.7 trillion, including Holcim, and has called on governments to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030.
In 2021 nine philanthropic organizations , including Jeff Bezos’s Earth Fund and Bloomberg Philanthropies pledged to give $5 billion by 2030 to help reach the 30×30 goal of protecting 30 % of biodiversity.
A Risk For Campaigns
Earlier in this blog I suggested that we needed governments to get organised, to enable politicians to understand biodiversity (for instance it’s said that none of the 650 UK MPs have a degree in biology, and ‘biodiversity’ is really nature for biologists), and ‘Enabling people to put pressure on politicians to act on commitments’.
Track 1 and 2: advocacy can work on the slow analytical track 2, public campaigns must work on Track 1
The first two of those are mainly in what I’ve called the Track 2 World (see this blog), of policy communities and professional elites, in this case including diplomats and NGO advocates, international scientific networks and executives in corporate ESG (Environment Social and Governance) or CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) roles.
NGOs can have an important role in catalysing these things but there is always a risk of adopting concepts and language which work fine in the ‘policy community’ but do not cross-over into everyday life, which is the context for public campaigns. Or as communications researchers say, they are not ‘portable’ and don’t function in Track 1 terms where communication is not conscious and analytical (Track 2) but intuitive and dominated by unconscious processes such as framing, heuristics and values.
Given time and education, people can learn the meaning of concepts such as Biodiversity Net Gain or even more arcane ideas, and the biodiversity and climate issues are littered with their acronyms but in everyday life there usually is no time or opportunity for education or training to decode glossaries, certainly not during live campaigns.
So if NGOs approach the CBD on the assumption that they can rouse political support for key demands beyond their most dedicated core base with such concepts, their efforts are unlikely to succeed. That’s a risk which NGOs could mostly control themselves.
Of course, it is possible for simple repetition to create understanding without analytical education, most often based purely on association. For example a thing understood to be connected to nature or climate without necessarily having to understand exactly how.
Although not very useful, this happened in the UK with COP26 (held in Glasgow) and climate. ‘COP’ got repeated so often in the media and social media that I’ve even seen politicians wanting to criticise climate measures referring to them as ‘COP’ without mentioning climate.
A more useful example is the Carbon Footprint. In the 2000s I was surprised to find that volunteer crew of the local RNLI (lifeboat service) who had shown no prior interest in ‘climate’ beyond gentle scepticism, were enthusiastically trying to fall into line with a request from headquarters to save energy and cut emissions. When I asked why, the answer was just “carbon footprint”.
Happisburgh (pron. Haze-burr) footprints in Norfolk UK from 900,000 years ago. A footprint is an intuitively understandable metaphor – an imprint we leave.
Some campaigners don’t like the carbon footprint because it was originated by Ogilvy and Mather for an advertising campaign which associated BP with climate action (and copied the format of the personal rather than corporate responsibility used in many advertising campaigns including the 1970 ‘litter’ packaging campaign, discussed in a previous blog, A Beautiful If Evil Strategy). However it was preceded by the concept of an Ecological Footprint, which campaigners rather did like, and the same basic idea of source specific responsibility has been turned to good use in assessing the footprint of countries (eg the Living Planet Index/ reports by WWF et al) and by campaigners such as Greenpeace (which has its own carbon footprint calculator) to target corporations.
It seems likely that such carbon-responsibility campaigning helped drive corporates to sign up to initiatives such as the SBTi or Science Based Targets Initiative (begun 2015) and the Carbon Disclosure Project (which also includes forests and started in 2000), and these in turn may even have influenced other initiatives such as the TCFD (Task Force on Climate Related Financial Disclosure, 2015) which has also influenced regulation.
A strength of the footprint concept is that it relates responsibility to an entity, right down to the individual. If policy measures adopted by governments or even international initiatives have expression at the regional, local, organisational and individual level, the gulf between elite analytical discourses and personal street corner conversations and actions disappears.
One of my favourite examples of a visible, tangible, personal action that was begun to address a national nature problem, is the American Duck Stamp. The Duck Stamp Act was passed by Congress in 1934. It requires ‘each waterfowl hunter to purchase a stamp, thereby generating revenue for wetland acquisition. The Act has resulted in 4.5 million acres of waterfowl habitat protection’.
I’m not a duck shooter but I can’t help thinking that the basic idea could be turned to advantage in the modern nature emergency context.
Is Biodiversity Understood?
It isn’t safe to assume that the public as opposed to professionals in the sector, know what ‘biodiversity’ actually means. Back in 2009 I analysed a huge opinion poll used by the European Commission to plan its Action Plan ‘Halting The loss Of Biodiversity By 2010 – And Beyond’.
At the time it was claimed that the poll showed 65% of the EU public understood the term and could explain what “loss of biodiversity” meant “in their own words” but in reality the question format had already provided (prompted) them with the answer. A small but more penetrating 2007 survey from the UK had tested unprompted understanding of the term. That found only 9% got the ‘right’ answer.
The UK study also gave people four possible meanings of biodiversity and asked which was correct. These were ‘waste that breaks down naturally’, ‘the variety of living things’, ‘rubbish that can be burnt for fuel’ and, ‘the use of trees to off-set carbon emissions’. Of these the most popular was “waste that breaks down naturally” at 33% (37% amongst women).
Bio-d … Bio-degradable. From vecteezy.com
This suggested people were guessing, and using cues like “bio” and “d-something”, “biodegradable” as an easy gut option, with the most likely everyday source of reference being adverts for “biodegradable” products such as washing up liquid. 31% ‘got the right answer’ but as pure guesswork would have given a 1 in 4 chance of selecting each option, or 25%, I’d say 9% was a more realistic figure for true understanding than 65%.
Maybe now people are genuinely better informed but I would not bank on it. In 2020 Robb Ogilvie published a LinkedIn article ‘The greatest problem in communicating the biodiversity crisis is the word biodiversity’ [a quote from journalist @_richardblack]. After scouring international research Ogilvie concluded that:
‘Biodiversity conservation is in trouble … hobbled by a ‘wonky’ name, 85+ definitions, an inconsistent media more interested in climate change, a public -30% of whom have never heard of the word, a concept that has too many ‘moving parts’ for a 30 second sound bite and aspirational mainstreaming that has to fight its way into institutional thinking and into the lifestyle choices of individual members of the public’.
Personally I’d have similar misgivings about assuming the public understand terms like ‘nature positive’, which is now popular in the biodiversity community along with ‘nature positive 2030’, and is used to garner support for numerous initiatives, has it’s own international alliance at www.naturepositive.org and will no doubt feature around CBD15 (I withdraw my misgivings if it’s been rigorously tested for public use in qualitative research).
Given that most of the relevant policy world has been using the word biodiversity for decades I’d also question the utility of inventing new but similarly not understood terms.
This stuff is all very interesting to some but is it a problem?
Yes but only if advocacy specialists are asked to do public communications and they try to use Track 2 jargon to engage the public operating on Track 1 rules. What works in advocacy to politicians with advisers and officials to analyse things, or who may even know their stuff, does not often work in public campaigning.
Use Terms People Already Understand
The simplest and cheapest workaround, indeed something of a golden rule in campaigns, is to use concepts and language the public already understand (and given that all the foregoing is about English language terms, for many, those will anyway have to vary). In English these might be things like nature, the ‘balance of nature’, leaving space for nature, keeping nature intact, responding to the nature emergency, and so on.
In a similar way, use species that people already know and understand, and human supporters, brands and associations people already know and like, to make the case for a place or practice that helps biodiversity. In the case of Swanscombe, in the UK, creatures water voles, nightingales and otters have (in the UK) a wider appeal than spiders, although in news values terms the Distinguished Jumping Spider has the virtue of being almost totally dependent on that one site.
Water Vole by P G Trimming (Creative Commons) – aka ‘Ratty’- much loved in the UK from Wind in the Willows, a children’s book
Language is a problem but not the problem for getting politicians to start to take the nature emergency as seriously as the climate emergency.
Two Shifting Baselines
Attempts to protect biodiversity suffer from two shifting baselines: political and perceptual.
The political one is the can-kicking-down-the-road, in which political targets are set in the future, and become an agenda for deferred action rather than stimulating immediate real action. This is compounded if new baselines are adopted after we fail to meet targets on old baselines. Hence my suggestions about interventions to stop existing practices.
The perceptual one is more insidious. It’s resetting expectations in line with experience, in this case meaning we no longer expect to see plants or wildlife that disappeared from where we live before our memories started, or we set an expectation of abundance of nature lower than previous generations, or simply get used to not seeing things around any more. In his book The Moth Snowstorm, journalist Michael McCarthy called the gradual loss of abundance “the great thinning’.
The Moth Snowstorm takes its name from the once-common now largely lost experience of drivers in the UK seeing a ‘snowstorm of moths’ in car headlights at night.
Both of these have been much discussed in the nature and biodiversity community, and the latter was one of the inspirations for the rewilding movement. Having emerged ‘left field’ from outside the biodiversity policy mainstream, rewilding and its language has side-stepped many of the issues entangling biodiversity communication efforts. By accident or design it hasn’t tried to take on fundamental social, political and economic questions (the polar opposite in some ways of ‘Sustainable Development’) but has taken ground by direct action, often enabled by the support of wealthy property owners.
In so doing rewilders have come up with explanations or causal stories with an everyday intuitive Track 1 logic such as “rewilding – large-scale restoration of nature to the point where it can take care of itself – will help reverse this collapse in biodiversity”. The key ideas here are that left to it’s own devices and given its own space ‘nature’ will take on responsibility, and that there is an inbuilt success mechanism which will swing into action once there’s enough extra nature. Both are intuitively attractive ideas.
But there is another lesson that biodiversity campaigners might draw from the current success of rewilding which is that it may well be easier and more effective to generate public engagement to support the practical actions needed to save and restore biodiversity, than to escalate political pressure within the machinery and constraints of the CBD itself, worthwhile though that is.
I would argue that the same has been true of climate change. Progress, including through enhanced political will, started to escalate once renewable energy began to look successful and capable. That had the effect of marginalising the efforts of ‘climate sceptics’ funded by fossil fuel interests. They haven’t entirely gone away but having lost in the energy market they also have lost their ability to use the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change as a theatre in which to stymie progress by conjuring a ‘scientific debate’.
So more campaigns to support practical action for biodiversity could make more political space for biodiversity, in other words make it easier for politicians to be bold, without having to be brave.
Wolves are now spreading back across Europe, not entirely due to rewilding. Photo (in A Barvarian National Park) by Aconcagua Creative Commons. ‘Rewilding was originally envisionedas a continental-scale effort in North America with protection of large wilderness cores, suitable habitat corridors for wildlife movement, and recovery of large carnivores’ – https://rewilding.orgAccording to Wikipedia, first use of the term ‘rewilding’came from Earth First in a 1990 Newsweek article, ‘Trying to take back the planet’.
Getting Time On Our Side
Complex environmental issues which can only be fully perceived through science –technological and industrial risks as Ulrich Beck called them – are difficult to get a handle on directly, not least as they are usually populated by scientists pushing the boundaries of knowledge and constantly producing new uncertainties. Climate change and biodiversity are both like this and it makes it hard for decision-makers to tell not just what should be done but how much and how quickly.
Systems modelling is one tool which has helped convert forests of evidence into scenarios and projections that enable politicians to make policy choices. Climate examples include work by the Stockholm Environmental Institute in the early 1990s which related greenhouse gas heating of the atmosphere to the ability of ecosystems to adapt naturally (ie survive intact) which is where the 1.5.C target ‘limit’ originated, and the subsequent IPCC reports. Around the same time others related the warming gases in the atmosphere to carbon released from fossil fuels, and the amount of such fuels in the ground, which is where concepts such as the carbon logic, unburnable carbon, and carbon ‘wedges’ (referring to graphs) came from.
These gave an idea of how much global heating could be tolerated, and how much carbon could be burnt and more recent work has tried to show how much time might be left to act on these, offering decision makers a rationale for when they must act.
In 2019 Peter Schellenhuber, director of the Potsdam institute and an adviser to the EU and German government, combined the decision-logic of air traffic controllers on urgency, and insurers on risk, with climate modelling on tipping points, to produce an equation reproduced in a Nature paper with Timothy Lenton and others, aimed at politicians piloting their nations.
The Schellenhuber emergency equation
It reads ‘we define emergency as the product of risk and urgency … Risk is defined by insurers as probability multiplied by damage …urgency is defined in emergency situations as reaction time to an alert divided by the intervention time left to avoid a bad outcome … the situation is an emergency if both risk and urgency are high. If reaction time is longer than the intervention time left, we have lost control’.
The authors were talking about the global climate system although many of the modelled tipping points are living ecosystems such as the Amazon rainforest. Perhaps such analyses will be presented as part of CBD15 but campaigners could do much more at a local and national level to relate nature understandable without resort of scientific models, to risk and damage and particularly to time and urgency.
For example communications analysts have pointed out that in western societies, ‘time’ is metaphorically treated as a substance having value, for instance we talk about having ‘wasted’ or ‘saved’ time, or ‘running out of time’. Yet protecting ancient nature is often not afforded the same importance as protecting human-made artefacts such as ancient buildings. It has been shown in the UK, for instance, that once damaged or destroyed, ancient grasslands do not fully recover their species and integrity even after more than 100 years. The oldest yew tree in the UK, at Fortingall in Scotland, may be 5,000 years old. Fungal networks and seagrass beds in other countries have been found to be even older.
“It’s not bringing in the new ideas that’s so hard; it’s getting rid of the old ones”
John Maynard Keynes
In many campaigns there’s the foreground story and the background story. The real significance, if it has one, usually lies in the background. In the case of Swanscombe and battles like it, whether campaigners win or lose, the true significance is about how politicians view nature, and how they allow the systems they control such as planning, to treat it.
Steven Norris’s frustrations about ‘democracy’ getting in the way of conventional development and his breezy approval of NSIPs for large developments as “very very welcome” were expressed with the deep confidence that nature and open space are basically blanks on the map, better filled with new infrastructure.
Norris is not particularly unusual, his assumptions are just typical of conventional past thinking. This ecosystem-or-nature-as-free space assumption underpins the no-limits politics which led to the nature and climate emergencies. It has to go and be replaced with something more akin to a circular economy operating more organically, like a properly functioning ecosystem. And, as Rebecca Willis said in Too Hot To Handle, her brilliant little book on finding democratic solutions to climate change (such as Citizen’s Assemblies), “the problem is not too much democracy, it is too little”.
‘The BBC ‘pays no rent’ for nature: it has a debt to repay, and could yet really help ‘save the planet’.
The BBC has improved since then but to come good on that responsibility it at least has to switch sides over Swanscombe Peninsula.
As part of its PR launch for Green Planet, the BBC ‘took over’ Green Park tube station in London
* I did some work for Buglife on Swanscombe in 2021 but these are my own views
**Wilson was often compared to Charles Darwin for his insights, and along with ecologist Tom Lovejoy, was credited with inventing the term ‘biodiversity’. Wilson died on 26 December 2021, Lovejoy on Christmas Day 2021.
Have you seen Adam McKay’s ‘Don’t Look Up’, a satirical story about what happens when a ‘planet-killing’ asteroid is discovered to be on a collision course with earth? If not, I recommend it to campaigners, if only because it might become a widespread cultural reference point for climate change, without climate change ever getting a mention in the film.
News of the impending end of the world gets a positive spin on mainstream news
With an A-list cast, the film parallels many of the stages of human reaction following the scientific ‘discovery’ of human induced climate change in the 1980s, including denial, obfuscation, prevarication, political and commercial exploitation and so on, right up to today’s billionaire dreams of escape into space.
Stripped of the asteroid plot flesh, the narrative skeleton of Don’t Look Up is a potted history of climate change in terms of motivated reasoning in the political and media response to climate science. That makes it very different from previous attempts to take climate change to the big screen, by either attempting to explain the science or bring to life one or another possible future. It seems to me that Don’t Look Up has the potential to make a real difference but first, a recap.
The Scientists: “This Is Our Story!”
After a limited theatrical release in the US on 10 December the film appeared on Netflix on 24 December where it has since been the most watched movie. Movie critics described it as a black-comedy, a disaster movie, science fiction, comedy or satire. Some panned it (see below) but climate scientists and campaigners have loved it.
The first effect it had on me was that it brought back that horrible feeling you get when it suddenly dawns on you that humanity faces a huge threat which most others are blissfully unaware of: a sensation I remember having more than once as a campaigner, and then immediately feeling “we must do something about this but how?” The second was to think if that’s how it affected me, then this really is about others who have spent almost the whole of their working life struggling to convince others to act on the ‘climate science’. I tweeted:
Soon a succession of social media posts and articles showed a growing number of scientists and campaigners recognizing it as a pretty faithful analogue of their own experience in trying to get society to respond to ‘the climate science’.
No surprise because as it turns out, Director Adam McKay and collaborator David Sirota were motivated to make Don’t Look Up by through frustration with the lack of media and political attention given to the climate crisis, and McKay spent a lot of time talking to climate scientists about their perspectives in order to write the film.
“I started talking to a lot of [climate] scientists. I kept looking for good news, and I never got it. Everything I was hearing was worse than what I was hearing on the mainstream media. So I was talking to [David Sirota, who asked him to write the film], and we were both just like, “can you believe that this isn’t being covered in the media? That it’s being pushed to the end of the story? That there’s no headlines?” And Sirota just offhandedly said, “it’s like a comet is heading to Earth and it’s going to destroy us all and no one cares.” And I was like, “that’s the idea!”
Author of the New Climate War climate scientist Michael Mann took to the columns of The Boston Globe and twitter to promote the film and was credited with being the inspiration for Leonardo di Caprio’s astronomer character, Randall Mindy. On 29 December another climate scientist, Peter Klamus, wrote in The Guardian that it’s ‘the most accurate film about society’s terrifying non-response to climate breakdown I’ve seen’.
(@neiltyson is an astrophysicist)
What The Reviews Said
Reviews were ‘mixed’. Many of those most cross about the film took issue with it because they did not think, or could see how it would ‘make a difference’. So although entangled with their views about the film-making technique, professional reviewers became amateur political scientists and campaigners.
On 8 December 2021 The Guardian title a review, ‘Slapstick Apocalypse According To DiCaprio and Lawrence …’ and the reviewer (on my browser it has appeared under two different names) wrote
‘Adam McKay’s laboured, self-conscious and unrelaxed satire Don’t Look Up is like a 145-minute Saturday Night Live sketch with neither the brilliant comedy of Succession, which McKay co-produces, nor the seriousness that the subject might otherwise require. It is as if the sheer unthinkability of the crisis can only be contained and represented in self-aware slapstick mode ..”
and so it went on, although it did end with: ‘… But if the movie helps to do something about climate change, such critical objections are unimportant’.
‘It’s hard to think about who, exactly, is going to be moved to make changes to how they live their lives by Don’t Look Up, a climate-change allegory that acquired accidental COVID-19 relevance, but that doesn’t really end up being about much at all, beyond that humanity sucks.’
A slapdash, scattershot sendup that turns almost everyone into nincompoops, trivializes everything it touches, oozes with self-delight, and becomes part of the babble and yammer it portrays… This might have been great fun if it had been executed with some respect for our intelligence, and for the power of sharpshooting satire, rather than glib nihilism.”
‘In its efforts to champion its cause, the film only alienates those who most need to be moved by its message… The champions of science must always try to leave politics at the door. Otherwise, the task is not just convincing people that the comet is coming, the planet is rapidly overheating or the vaccine will protect them. It is also forcing huge swathes of the population to accept that a cornerstone of their personal ideology is wrong. And when the comet is this close, there just isn’t time for that’.
The reviews were followed by a small maelstrom of online comment about reviews, between scientists and reviewers, and comment about the comment. Different people have read different things in the film.
In Current Affairs, Nathan J Robinson took issue with the allegation of nihilism writing: ‘The point is not that the working class are sheep who don’t care about the future, but that the rich manipulate people’s perceptions of one another to serve their own self-interest’. On 30 December Forbes magazine carried an appeal by Paul Tassi, ‘The ‘Don’t Look Up’ Critics Versus Scientists Narrative Has To Stop’. Tassi wrote
‘…the success of the movie, compared to its relatively lukewarm reception by critics, has resulted in a pretty bizarre new narrative [apparently referring to arguments between McKay and critics, no doubt online] . The idea is that if critics didn’t like the movie, they must hate its message, the idea that climate change is a clear and present danger to our planet …I do not agree that I must declare that Don’t Look Up is a great film, or else I’m contributing to “damaging” its message, and this view somehow puts me at odds with climate science. That is simply not how this works’.
Well if that’s what’s happening, I am with Tassi on that one but unless the scientists – film maker – critics argument begins to determine the public impact of the film, it perhaps does not matter that much.
How Don’t Look Up May Make A Difference
Here are five reasons.
First, Don’t Look Up is really quite funny. It’s entertaining, it has big stars, and now it’s well known so it’s likely to get watched again, including by people who would might watch a political satire or ‘just’ a disaster movie but would never choose to watch a straight-up documentary on climate change. It can reach a totally different, or at least far wider audience, than AnInconvenient Truth Mark 2 (or 3 if you include the sequel).
Second, it’s well nigh impossible to watch it and not to buy into the thickly-laid-on conceit and narrative of the film – the impending asteroid doom scenario. That in turn makes it hard not to be emotionally on the side of the would-be truth-teller scientists. For me that makes it more of a parable than a straight satire, black comedy or documentary: ‘a succinct, didactic story, in prose or verse, that illustrates one or more instructive lessons or principles’, in this case that politicians and the media should take science seriously.
Third in terms of effect, the swayable audience is not those who are dead set against climate action and who might (well) be offended if they recognize themselves in some of the thinly disguised Trumpian characters but those who are neither active deniers nor pro climate activists. For that reason I am not so worried as the CNN reviewer about it alienating audiences.
Fourth, because it is not overtly about climate change, it will be hard for the denier lobby to ‘deal with’. Already some would be critics have tried to attack the ‘science’ in the asteroid story, which just makes them seem ridiculous.
Fifth, the title “Don’t look up” is a brilliant and entirely plausible call to action, or inaction, made possible by the simplicity of the story structure (unlike climate change) in which a straightforward specific danger comes from above. I can imagine “Don’t look up!” becoming a cipher for evidence-denial, a cultural reference point heard in places from pub conversations to newsrooms and Parliamentary or Presidential debates, even in public demonstrations. It will be understood by politicians and media.
The aviation industry and airlines in particular have had a pretty free-ride on climate change so far but the covid pandemic has created a new reality: it turned out that most air travel for business was not needed. The economic case for air travel and thus airport capacity and pubic subsidies to airlines, has been severely weakened and it’s the attitude of corporate customers rather than airlines that will be key deciding any post-covid ‘new normal’.
On top of that, a significant side-effect of the near-shut down of passenger aviation, is the revelation that FFPs or Frequent Flier Programmes are critical to the economics of many airlines*. Sometimes they are worth more than the transport activity of flying passengers. This was covered in the financial press but seems not to have filtered through to political thinking on transport.
In other words, aviation Business as Usual is being sustained by a marketing exercise, which extends to hundreds of banks and retailers outside aviation. So far this seems to have escaped any scrutiny in terms of carbon accounting. One professional in the business travel industry who is concerned about climate change said to me that allowing FFPs in the context of a Climate Emergency is “equivalent to promoting Frequent Smoker Programmes”.
Should they chose to use it, this new context provides climate change-makers with a golden opportunity, and not just around the coming COP26 climate summit.
The Great Grounding Experiment
Flying for business was running hot before covid struck in early 2020. Since then it has reduced 70 – 90%, yet business itself has continued. The pandemic created what was otherwise impossible: a vast experiment in interruption of a behaviour so taken for granted and unquestioned that stopping it would have seemed, unthinkable.
The rapid replacement of air travel with Zoom, MS Teams and dozens of other digital communications tools, coupled with lock-down working from home, has fast-tracked change that otherwise might have taken decades. This has gone on long enough for the new behaviours to spread to all levels in companies and across sectors and countries. Like climate change itself, it’s become a new ‘social fact’, and video-conferencing may be to aviation what renewables have been to fossil fuels.
Those in the behaviour change business, from social marketers to market entrants with new products, know only too well that it’s very hard to stop an established behaviour but once a new one becomes a habit, it’s rarely reversed. The extended covid great-grounding has revealed the potential for business benefits, such as huge reductions in T&E (Travel and Expenses) budgets and greater productivity. Where these coincide with a desire to ‘be green’, corporates have unexpected headroom in cutting carbon.
This is pretty much unassailable evidence of feasibility, far stronger than arguments, modelling scenarios, proof-of-concept pilot studies or campaign demonstrations. The only question is how much of this windfall will be retained, and that partly depends on what advocates and politicians do.
“Now is the time for responsible companies to commit to keeping their business-travel carbon emissions way below pre-covid levels. We will also ask them to rethink any involvement in frequent flier programmes. This is climate action that the corporate world can lead on, quickly and easily: it’s already been market-tested”.
Jump On A Zoom, Not On A Plane
The international business travel world has been awash with discussions about what the ‘new normal’ for air travel will look like ‘after Covid’.
Bill Gates sparked a vigorous debate when he opined that 50% of it will never return. This matches the long-standing weary acceptance in many organisations that ‘half of it is un-necessary’. See for instance this interesting podcast from Business Travel News. Guesstimates vary (eg Ideaworks are more bullish about recovery, putting permanent losses at ‘just’ 19 – 36%) and I’m told that executives at London Heathrow are expecting any recovery to take at least two to three years. Lufthansa also says not until 2024.
Supplier sectors like training have been almost completely substituted by video-conferencing and in some businesses intra-company meetings, presentations and project work have been systematically replaced. Releasing budget (only 17% of an ‘average’ business travel budget is the actual air-ticket cost) and saving staff time spent traveling to, from and recovering from international trips, is increasing productivity.
What is certain is that as legacy carriers in particular rely on the higher spend of business travel for much of their profit, their viability and that of the associated sector of business-focused hotels, exhibitions and conference centres are deeply affected. Only about a fifth of passenger air travel is for business but it makes up around three quarters of the profits.
The first lockdowns brought a ‘Spring of Zoom’ (or more often, Teams), giving many senior managers their first taste of self-controlled remote-working. Their “it actually works!” experience happened at the same time as many costly city-centre offices were running almost empty and new commercial office developments were being postponed: mutual reinforcement for the idea that ‘things really will be different’.
After experiencing a switch to online board meetings, Maurice Gallagher, chairman and CEO of Allegiant Travel Company acknowledged that video is a “viable alternative to business travel”. He told shareholders:
“streaming capabilities from companies such as Zoom, Googleand Microsoft have come into their own …
“Just like all things new, there were problems in the first few tries but when you have to use it, when you have no choice, you figure it out … I now appreciate the tremendous savings of time and additional productivity”
He added that unlike past episodes of reduced air travel, this time senior executives “understand the power of this technology and appreciate the ability to reduce travel and entertainment expenses in the coming months and years … Conferences and trade shows still have merit and there are businesses who believe face-to-face meetings are critical competitive requirements” but financial savings and greater productivity “has to have an impact on the return of business travel”.
The top 100 business travellers by company – from Business Travel News based on air tickets bought in the US.
The top 10 biggest corporate fliers listed above are all in the digital and knowledge economy, such as consulting, in which face-to-face contact was assumed to be vital but much of it turns out not to be. The carbon footprints of these companies are largely made up of indirect or ‘Scope 3’ emissions, such as business travel.
Many of the companies on this list also have specific carbon-reduction targets. Some have targets that break out or specify business travel reductions.
Deloitte is among the 43 companies for example, listing ‘business travel’ as a component in their commitments to meet a ‘1.5C’ climate target submitted under the SBTI or Science Based Targets Initiative. 271 companies appear on the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) ‘A List’ for climate commitments, for example including Apple, Bayer, Pfizer, Microsoft and Unilever. Over 30 companies have joined the Climate Pledge to achieve net zero ahead of the Paris requirement, initiated by Amazon and Global Optimism. This includes Atos, Brooks, Canary Wharf Group, Coca-Cola European Partners, ERM, Groupe SEB France, Harbour Air, ITV, Microsoft, Neste, Rubicon, Unilever, and Vaude.
In short, the corporates leading the charge on climate are now in a good position to consolidate the climate-dividend of the covid grounding and break the trend of rising emissions from business travel. And in a bad position not to do so.
The covid grounding effect has landed on top an existing trend to factor in sustainability in corporate Travel Policies. Numerous blogs, statements and surveys in the business travel sector note that while, spend on business travel had reached record levels, it was already widely accepted that one of the main future drivers would be sustainability. Before the 2009 Copenhagen climate COP, Paul Tillstone of travel company Festive Road which advocates ‘purposeful travel’, started ‘Project Icarus’ which tried to get the business travel industry to address climate change. Following the 2008 financial crash such initiatives fell off the corporate agenda but the general agreement is this time it’s different.
He and other travel management experts take part in CACTUS (Climate Action for Corporate Travel Urgent Solutions group), launched by Helen Hodgkinson, formerly of Barclaycard, which has engaged corporate travel customers on issues such as setting carbon budgets for travel.
Greta Thunberg’s leadership of the climate movement in 2018-19 has been credited as stimulating corporate action. A retrospective on 2019 in Harvard Business Review stated:
‘another critical protest movement that grew this year came from employees. More than 8,700 Amazon associates signed an open letter to CEO Jeff Bezos demanding the company develop an aggressive climate action plan. Microsoft employees staged a walk-out in September to protest the company’s “complicity in the climate crisis.” Companies that want to attract and retain the best talent must have a strong climate strategy’.
Total business travel spend for the largest 100 corporate travel programs measured by U.S.-booked travel volume rose again in 2019. U.S.-originating travel as estimated by BTN for these programs hit $11.8 billion, its highest point ever.
… Deloitte again captured the top spot in BTN’s annual list with $583.1 million in U.S.-originating air spend …
She added that:
There was just one trend other than managing through the Covid-19 crisis that dominated the psychology of Corporate Travel 100 companies in 2019 and 2020: How to make business travel more environmentally sustainable. Even for companies that significantly expanded their travel spend in 2019—like Deloitte and EY and Microsoft—the drive to reduce emissions was palpable among these large global corporations.
EY is looking to cut net carbon emissions to zero by the end of 2020; the Covid-19 crisis and travel suspension will likely contribute handily … Oracle has implemented a stringent policy that limits employee travel to “business-critical” trips. Likewise, Dell’s travel strategy also now puts a much heavier emphasis on meeting the company’s longer-term sustainability goals.
She goes on to mention Siemens, Novartis, SAP and Citibank, concluding: “ The message from global companies is clear on the sustainability issue: Business travel may be largely suspended for now, but when it comes back, it’s going to look different”.
‘But It’s A Perk’
George Clooney in the movie Up in the Air. [Photograph: Allstar/Dreamworks pictures/Sportsphoto Ltd]
In the 2009 Hollywood movie ‘Up In The Air’ George Clooney played Ryan Bingham, a specialist in firing people in corporate restructures, who rarely stops flying. He ‘aspires to earn ten million frequent flyermiles with American Airlines’. Romance and tragedies are precipitated when Bingham is challenged by younger exec Natalie Keener who advocates cost-cutting through video-conferences.
Until recently, air travel was seen as in the “too difficult box”: a hard to change ‘perk’ on the one hand and assumed to be critical for winning new business, project management, auditing and other vital functions. Yet companies have survived managed without it.
True, some corporate executives will rail against any loss of business flying perks. One in a vast multinational told me:
For senior execs, as a generalization, traveling on business is a defining feature of their life. … Not being on a plane twice a week is really denting their identity. A senior XXXX guy in Singapore told me half jokingly that as soon as they reopened Australia he would go there to meet customers, even though customers didn’t want to meet in person and he may have to do it over Zoom from a hotel room in Sydney. These guys aren’t used to spending time at home with families, it’s just not who they are [of course some will love it, but I think many don’t].
Yet such changes can be achieved. It’s largely forgotten now but in the UK at least, any suggestion that corporates might change their car fleets for environmental reasons used to be met with the ‘perk’ argument: a company car formed part of the remuneration package, from top exec’s to ‘travelling salesmen’. But the tax rules got changed and company car fleets, and remuneration packages changed.
Pivotal to flying for business as a perk, is membership of a ‘Frequent Flier Programme’. Anyone can join one and you may not even need to do any flying these days but it tends to be people flying for business who are the most ‘frequent fliers’.
At present most companies (German ones possible excepted?) allow staff flying on tickets paid for by the company, to keep the ‘points’ or ‘miles’ generated by individual membership in FFPs or Frequent Flying Programmes, which all airlines seem to have. (Technically, the points are probably the property of the company paying for them). The top 100 airline loyalty programs are together worth around $200 billion.
FFPs are a fascinating case study in brand extension and clever marketing incentives which play on social reflexes established in the ‘jet set’ age of the 1960s and 1970s as mass air travel took off: creating a feeling of exclusivity.
To begin with (1970s) FFPs were simple loyalty programmes – you could redeem points and generate a new air ticket. Over time, airlines changed the value of miles so you had to fly more to ‘earn’ a ticket and also over time, they became ways of generating cash more than loyalty. ‘Partners’ such as banks (which issue airline-branded credit cards commanding a premium) and a host of other companies from fashion to electronics, provided deals and discounts to FFP members in which they can ‘redeem’ points against almost anything, from food and drink, to luxury goods, petrol or hotel rooms.
FFPs enable members to access a host of small esteem-generating advantages in the stressful and annoying airport environment hosted by airlines: priority boarding, access to lounges, upgrades, easier changes to tickets etc., even in an extreme case, a limousine to ferry you to the aircraft. Today it’s said the ‘real value’ lies in acquiring personal data, and the most valuable data is from people who fly a lot, as they are generally the wealthiest. Apparently people are more willing in the air travel environment to share data in order to get ‘free perks’ than they would be in the normal world.
The remarkable thing about FFPs (which are usually owned not by an airline but within an airline group, such as Avios which is part of the IAG group which also owns British Airways) is that they can now have a higher market value than the flying business of the airline. This only emerged because airlines facing bankruptcy once flights were grounded by covid, had to use the value of their FFPs as collateral, in order to raise loans from governments and the markets. Papers filed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission by Delta and United laid out the ‘licence-to-print-money’ financial model of the FFPs, which are akin to a private currency whose value and exchange rate is set by the airlines, in great detail.
“The profitability and the size of these loyalty programmes, it’s the only reason American Airlines isn’t in bankruptcy right now,” Stifel analyst Joseph DeNardi told the FT in 2020. The FT noted that MileagePlus, the United FFP, ‘was valued at just under $22bn in bond documents, while United’s stock market capitalisation is just $10.6bn’, and:
‘Valuations recently put on the loyalty schemes have exceeded the market capitalisations for the airlines themselves — implying that investors value the business of flying passengers at less than zero’.
In October 2020 Bloomberg reported that JP Morgan announced it was working with Affinity Capital Exchange to enable investments in FFPs be traded as an asset class.
Many corporates act as ‘Partners’, buying and then giving away ‘miles’ or ‘points’ (and seats) as incentives. These include many banks and hundreds of other companies. The British Airways online points shop for instance includes 158 brands such as Dell, GAP, Gucci, Harvey Nichols, John Lewis, Microsoft, Oakley, Tommy Hilfiger and Vodafone. The Quantas points store features over 500 brands including Apple, Bang and Olufsen, Bosch, Calvin Klein, Google, Lego, National Geographic, Penguin, Sony, Swarovski and XBOX. And so it goes on. All these companies are not only profiting from frequent flying but lend the soft-power of their brands to the aviation industry. Many of course have their own carbon reduction policies, yet are complicit in promotion of frequent flying.
Some of the brands supporting frequent flying with the IAG Avios currency (issued by British Airways, Iberia and Are Lingus but usable on 27 airlines)
What does this mean? Perhaps that without FFPs, a large part of the passenger aviation business would evaporate.
Which for the climate and thus the great majority of people on the planet who are not ‘frequent fliers’, could be a very good thing. The airlines don’t want that, and nor do the participating banks who make a ‘staggering’ profit on cards glossed with a flying-brand [see a scathing recent analysis of airlines skirting bankruptcy by industry analyst Hubert Horan in the journal American Affairs].
Global air travel is not a huge contributor to climate change (about 3.5%) but as other sectors decarbonize, it is becoming one. Business travel is a small part of recent air travel but it is pivotal to the profitability of the current model. And the freedom to jump-on-a-plane and go without a care, is a legacy of petrol-head days.
Faced with the climate crisis, the strategy of the aviation industry has been to re-assert old assumptions about the value-add of air travel for businesses to maintain political commitment, while framing possible solutions in technical terms: wait for new engines, new aircraft, new fuels.
At a global level the sector has committed itself to a strategy of PR promises that multiple analysts have recognized it cannot keep [eg Evan Davis, BBC] . That worked, until the great covid grounding but the new reality has now shifted who gets to decide.
The airline industry is starting to look a bit ‘stranded’, rather like fossil fuel assets. Carbon is now on the agenda of Chief Financial Officers through initiatives like the TFCD (Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures), itself a creature of the G20’s Financial Stability Board. In February 2020 it had the support of over 1,000 organisations from financial management companies to governments and central banks. A year later that had grown to 1,700. It would be interesting to listen in to what the TCFD makes of businesses like FFPs. Politicians may have yet to grasp the scale and depth of what has happened but it’s the airline’s corporate customers who may decide what happens next.
single aircraft during the first UK lockdown in March 2020
*This surprised me. In the interests of disclosure, I started looking into flying-for-business late last year because the Brussels-based group Transport and Environment asked me to, as it had spotted the potential to realise significant reductions in emissions from business travel. (This ‘T & E’ is Europe’s expert network on environment and transport matters, and were the first to spot ‘dieselgate’, the emissions-test cheating by companies such as VW). You can contact Andrew Murphy of T & E here.
True to form the UK (England) badger-TB issue has repeated its familiar cycle since I wrote this blog in December 2020. A new govt consultation is due to close on 24 March. When it was briefed to the media, the government managed to make it sound as if badger culling was being abandoned in 2022, in favour of vaccination of cattle and badgers, and control of cattle movements. in reality, as The Wildlife Trusts have pointed out, the proposal allows badger killing to continue until 2026 and ‘could see the death of 130,000 more badgers in England’.
What do you do with a long-running campaign that’s got stuck ? The English civil war over badger-culling and TB in cattle is one such case: an issue trapped in attrition and trench-warfare.
It’s a long running struggle, going back at least to 1971 when a dead badger was found in the West of England, infected with bovine TB. Because culling (shooting, trapping or gassing) badgers was proposed very quickly, animal welfare groups soon adopted an anti-cull position, and farmers a pro-cull position. Each side has since tried to prove themselves right, leaving fewer and fewer people in ‘the middle ground’.
Politicians immediately detected a tricky public communications issue: it could boil down to a popularity contest between farmers and badgers; a competition they did not want to have to oversee. So they looked to ‘Science’ to decide. A series of ‘Scientific Reviews’ were held – at least seven major ones to date and many Parliamentary and other Inquiries (see Chronology).
Scientists found it was all very complicated and the narrow question that politicians wanted answers to – ‘can badger culling stop TB in cattle’ ? – was not at all easy to answer because it was not clear how much TB was passing from cattle to badgers and vice-versa and within the cattle herds and within the badger population, and what effect that had on cattle TB. These questions have arguably still not been completely answered but scientific opinion is overwhelmingly that culling cannot eliminate TB, whereas cattle movement and health controls and biosecurity measures probably can, and only perhaps 0-6% of TB in cattle is directly passed to them by badgers (see supporting documents and particularly Science).
As a result, the battling factions of farmers on one side, and animal welfare groups, and conservationists on the other, have fought almost to a standstill over an issue which converts in the media to ‘who is to blame for TB in cattle: is it farmers or badgers?’ Both lobbies exchange fire using scientific research as ammunition. Often the same research has been used to draw diametrically opposed conclusions.
Involved scientists include those who believe they could yet sort it out if only politicians and the opposed lobbies stayed out of things, and those who plaintively try to tell politicians that it’s a question of value-judgements, which science as such cannot answer. Politicians of course know this but it’s not something they want to hear, and not something governments have to hear, so the various independent expert panels have been set up and then abolished. In this respect it is very like long-running science-heavy arguments over subjects such as GMOs or even aspects of contemporary Covid strategy.
So almost every year (see Chronology), the two sides mount new offensives and counter-offensives but like opposing armies deadlocked on the Western Front of World War One, neither scores a decisive victory.
Change of Strategy
Barring a sudden technical breakthrough such as widespread deployment of effective vaccines for cattle or badgers, neither of which looks imminent, unless there is a change in strategy, the stalemate seems likely to continue.
In this post (more detail in supporting papers) I argue that the best option for wildlife groups is to ‘go up a scale’ and refocus and reframe their efforts on not just on TB in badgers and cattle but in terms of the de-escalation of conventional (intensive) cattle farming itself.
In particular this means dairy farming, which has become progressively more intensive, larger-scale and more polluting, over the period of the cattle-badger TB issue. Strangely, although it is accepted that many elements of intensification are causes of higher TB in cattle (such as contaminated slurry, larger herds kept indoors, maize growing for feed, leaking silage and frequent movements of large numbers of cattle with inadequate testing), this has hardly been considered as a cause of England’s ‘intractable’ cattle TB problem. Successive Conservative Ministers and the National Farmers Union have fixed on attacking badgers as the cause instead.
Many aspects of those intensive farming elements are undisputed causes of damage to public goods’ such as healthy air, soil or water as well as known risk factors for TB. The global imperative to cut climate-heating gases from livestock farming and cattle provides an additional imperative to downsize cattle farming in favour of rewilding, biodiversity, ecosystem regeneration and a more plant-based diet.
Badgers were gassed with cyanide by the Ministry of Agriculture until it was ruled inhumane when it was discovered that they did not die quickly like rabbits – cover from ECOS magazine 1981. Shooting them with rifles above ground was substituted, and continues despite the fact that a scientific appraisal found it also to be inhumane (see Chronology).
A Long Running Policy Failure
England’s country’s chronic bovine TB problem has eluded government attempts at eradication since the 1930s. It almost succeeded when by using the agricultural equivalents of ‘test track trace and isolate’ now familiar with coronavirus (only with slaughter thrown in for infected livestock, which is frustrating and upsetting for farmers) all of the UK was declared free from cattle TB in 1960. The disease fell to just 0.6% in 1965.
Transfer of TB from cattle to the human UK population was effectively stopped by meat inspection and milk treatment by the 1960s but TB was never eliminated from the national cattle herd. Controls were relaxed and it slowly started to regrow from a small chronically infected areas including but not only at West Penwith, near the SW tip of Cornwall.
Slaughter of TB-infected UK cattle 1956 – 2017 (Source RSPCA) ‘reactors’ = cattle reacting to a test. Numbers slaughtered blue line, testing positive red line.
Then in 1971, vets discovered a dead badger with TB in Gloucestershire. Badgers were suggested as a ‘maintenance reservoir’ of the disease in wildlife, which might be infected-by and reinfect cattle. Many farmers and landowners had long regarded badgers as pests and vermin, and from 1973 fell in behind killing (‘culling’) badgers, often with enthusiasm. It was widely assumed that badgers must be the reason why TB in cattle had not been eliminated, and while the previously conventional tools of movement control, testing and sanitation on farms were never completely forgotten, culling badgers became the default ‘missing ingredient’ of policy.
So what had been seen as a human health and agricultural disease problem, became reframed as a farming and wildlife problem. The current campaign battle-lines were established.
A research and management policy community developed in which farm vets, animal disease epidemiologists and microbiologists were joined by academic ecologists and zoologists. Government began what would become a long series of badger culls and research projects to establish whether or not culling ‘worked’ or could work but the meaning of the results was contested. One reason for this was that most of the ‘research’ projects served a political dual purpose of also being badger ‘control’ and so very few were designed in such a way as to be properly controlled or rule out ‘confounding’ factors or auto-correlations.
Some government scientists and most politicians became implicit or explicit proponents of culling. They saw research as a way to test how culling could best work, as opposed to whether it worked at all or alternatives might be better.
To begin with the default was ‘reactive’ culling, meaning culling in response to problems with TB in cattle herds. Nevertheless, TB rates in cattle increased. A 1997 review led by ecologist Professor John Krebs recommended what became a ten-year scientific trial to test the effectiveness of reactive or proactive badger culling against non-intervention controls: the RBCT or Randomized Badger Culling Trial. An ‘Independent Scientific Group’ (ISG) led by Professor John Bourne ran the RBCT and it was soon found that ‘reactive’ culling made matters worse not better because it disrupted badger society and increased TB. In 2007 the ISG reported:
‘‘badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain’’ and ‘scientific findings indicate that the rising incidence of disease can be reversed, and geographical spread contained, by the rigid application of cattle-based control measures alone’.
‘There was a very definite view from the outset that future policy was going to be the reactive culling. That was it. And when it was shown that it was not gonna work there was all hell let loose’’.
Culling itself was shown to disrupt badger communities (‘perturbation’), and although rates of infection in badgers fell inside the cull area, they went up outside it. Meanwhile TB rates in English cattle went on rising and the ‘pro-badger’ camp started to promote badger vaccination, which had first been raised as an idea by vets back in 1971.
TB in cattle spread after the 2001 Foot and Mouth Disease epidemic, when cattle carrying TB were used to restock areas such as the Midlands and Cumbria (Source)
After many twists and turns (see Chronology), by a process of campaign focus, political polarisation (with Britain’s Labour Party becoming pro-vaccine, anti-cull and Conservative governments resolutely pro-cull), fierce pro-cull lobbying by the NFU as the champion of the farming side, and media simplification, ‘the issue’ was boiled down to the current bipolar framing of ‘culling versus vaccination’. Positions became entrenched, deadlocked like the Western Front of WWI.
The Western Front in WWI left and English battle lines on TB in 2016 right. Derbyshire, the site of one of the latest clashes, is at the top right corner of the ochre coloured zone (Wikipedia and APHA).
Over time, the weight of scientific opinion among first ecologists, and then vets, shifted against the idea that badger culling could be effective and humane in eliminating TB in cattle. Many studies continued to show that most transmission was down to TB spreading within cattle herds and by cattle movements but the political influence of farmers on Conservative governments meant that culling continued on the grounds that badgers played some role, even if this was hard to quantify, and any subsequent reduction in cattle TB was even harder to pin down.
Alternatives to culling have been side-lined by the pragmatic government imperative of trying to suppress the disease while appeasing both sides of the debate in public. Aside from a short interlude under a Labour Government which favoured vaccination over culling, government has bowed to farming pressure and continued killing badgers.
The stand-off has gone on so long that the issue now also has its own historians. Many have pointed out, as did the government-commissioned 2018 Godfray Review, that the fixation on badgers has largely excluded policy options of sanitation, biosecurity and husbandry which successfully controlled cattle TB in other countries (and until the 1970s, in the UK).
Currently the government policy is to intermittently cull badgers, back development of a usable cattle vaccine, and allow but not seriously pursue badger vaccination, leaving that to mostly to NGOs such as the Wildlife Trusts. There is little TB in Scotland, and Wales has switched to badger vaccination, while England’s government (confusingly the ‘UK’ Westminster government) has steered itself into an uncomfortable no-man’s land between the two dug-in camps. Because culling and vaccination are often in conflict, this has sent conflicting signals and led to criticism of the government and legal actions against it by both sides.
Badgers are popular animals in the UK and the issue is sometimes hard to ignore. In 2019, Prime Minister Boris Johnson himself got involved and intervened to restrict a cull in Derbyshire after being lobbied by his now wife, conservationist Carrie Symonds, because of a Derbyshire Wildlife Trust vaccination project (see document on vaccination).
In March 2020 Johnson’s government announced a ‘shift’ in policy to phase out culling in favour of badger vaccination, and in July 2020 it hailed a ‘scientific breakthrough’ of a test which could enable a cattle vaccine to be used (a test is needed which can distinguish between infected and vaccinated cattle, otherwise they cannot be exported). Then in September, it suddenly announced a new and much larger cull of over 60,000 badgers, taking the number sanctioned to be killed since 2013 to 170,000, or 35% of all badgers in the UK. Unsurprisingly, it was accused of a u-turn.
A ‘Cultural Divide’
The badger-cattle issue splits opinion across an ancient English cultural divide, about who has the right to determine what happens to wildlife in the countryside: landowners or the public? It’s a proxy conflict for a well-financed but numerically weak landowning and hunting lobby which promotes a largely mythical idea that England divides into ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ tribes with irreconcilably different values (see supporting document on Rural Politics).
In the court of public opinion, the pro-badger lobby wins easily, and politically, farmers are electorally insignificant in population terms, so why hasn’t culling been abandoned or reduced to a relatively minor tool of policy ? For several reasons.
First because farming and landowning interests are heavily over-represented in the policy-making corridors of Whitehall and Westminster. Second, because the ‘popular vote’ counts for nothing in the English electoral system, and in a sprinkling of Britain’s first-past-the-post geographic constituencies, the farming vote is important. Third because the ‘rural’ vote is very important electorally to the Conservative Party and although only 17% of the population live in what are classified as rural areas, they elect all the MPs who can claim to speak on and for ‘rural’ issues. (Polling actually shows that ‘rural people’ are slightly more likely to see ‘animal welfare’ as important than ‘urban’ people but the ‘countryside’ lobby claims the opposite).
This makes for a stand-off of complementary strengths and weaknesses in which the NGOs have mostly won the air war and lost the ground war but neither side has proved able to achieve an outright win. To make matters worse (see Conclusions in the supporting papers), the larger NGOs are shy of taking on agri-business and perhaps intimidated by the NFU, which exploits the myth of rural-urban divides for its own purposes.
Advocating their right to ‘control’ wildlife as a political ideology – the ‘Countryside Alliance’ promotes field sports and badger culling and revels in accentuating perceptions of a rural-urban divide
What Next ?
The pro-badger faction could opt to continue the battle of attrition and hope that a majority Labour government is elected in 2024 (the last one stopped culling and brought in six vaccination trials, five of which were cancelled by an incoming Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition) but there is no guarantee of that. So is there a way to fix the pro-badger campaign?
I suggest that the opportunity for the ‘pro-badger’ side is to step up a scale, shift the battle ground and change the players by putting the badger-TB-cattle issue into a wider frame around the sustainability-or-not of intensive farming and specifically, dairy farming, for three reasons.
First, the progressive narrowing of focus so that TB in cattle is seen as a choice of badger culling v badger vaccination excludes an array of cattle-focused measures which worked before in the UK and abroad. No convincing evidence has been produced to show why the involvement of badgers means these measures cannot work now. They need to be revisited.
Second, the same restricted political lens means that ‘the badger/ cattle TB issue’ also routinely excludes a nexus of intensification factors which changed farming fundamentally. The UK joined the EU in 1973, and farm intensification was encouraged by government in order to cash in on the Common Agricultural Policy of the time. At the same moment, bovine TB had just started to bounce back (see Farm Intensification and Science and TB papers). Land use change and farming practice very possibly made cattle farming, and especially dairy farming, more susceptible to TB. Geographically, dairy intensification has involved specialisation and concentration. At a farm enterprise level it has brought conversion of hay meadows to silage, indoor and ever larger herds, massive slurry production and maize-growing. (See paper on Farm Intensification). All these are known risk factors encouraging TB but by default, are little investigated because egged on by the National Farmers Union, badgers have been nailed as the villains of the TB story by politicians.
Third and perhaps most important, the cattle TB issue is isolated in its own little silo. It’s not being ‘joined up’ to other issues where there are bigger and urgent political imperatives in play which at least nominally, are now accepted by the current UK Government. The top one is that acting on climate targets demands a radical change in farming and diet, including less dairy and less beef, meaning fewer cattle, and requires land for carbon sequestration.
In addition many Conservatives and others support more rewilding, a shift from farm subsidy to payment for delivering public goods (eg clean rivers, in which respect farm pollution is a current disaster in England), rather than just paying farmers to produce more crops and meat, or simply exist as a farm. These aims have been advocated by influential Cabinet Minister Michael Gove since 2018, and are now expressed in new Environment and Agriculture Bills and a Plan to overhaul farming.
In short, the ‘productivist’ model which lives on as the assumed purpose behind both subsidising cattle farming and culling badgers is, to put it in political terms, already subject to radical revision. It’s a weak door, if NGOs have the nerve to kick it.
Strategic elements that could be drawn into this include:
The policy imperative, already embraced by the UK Government, of achieving net zero carbon by 2050, which requires radical changes in farming practice and diet, particularly regarding beef and dairy
The COP26 climate meeting in Glasgow in 2021
The parallel commitment to ‘rebuilding biodiversity’ and the popularity of rewilding, which could quickly take high risk areas with persistent recurrences of TB out of conventional dairy farming altogether
The chronic and extreme river, groundwater caused by large volumes of slurry from livestock and particularly intensive lowland dairy farms, which have been getting bigger and fewer
Severe damage to soils and to rivers and even the sea (as soil runoff), resulting from heavy machinery and crops such as maize, which is grown either for silage, particularly for dairy cows (replacing hay), or for subsidised AD (Anaerobic Digestion) for renewable energy but which has disputed green credentials
The growing importance of air pollution from intensive farming, particularly from ammonia emissions from dairying and poultry, which is damaging to public health
The government’s radical plans to reform farming so that subsidy is only paid for ‘public goods, ie public benefits such as flood reduction, clean air and water, increased biodiversity and cutting climate change emissions (dairying is one of UK farming’s most profitable sectors but it is still heavily subsidised)
The shift in consumer demand from liquid milk and beef to plant-based alternatives
All of these points are already actively in play in other policy fora and communities. Put together, they could redefine the political question from ‘how do we eliminate bovine TB in badgers and cattle to help the cattle industry produce more cheap meat and milk?’ to ‘how do we maximise public goods from the land currently used for cattle farming?’. The underlying predicate switches from ‘we need to promote cattle farming’ to ‘we need to reduce cattle farming’.
In 2020 former DEFRA Chief Scientist Ian Boyd (a sceptic of badger vaccination) argued (see Chronology) that the UK needs to convert half its farmland to other uses such as carbon storage for climate reasons, for health and recreation and biodiversity recovery and that half of all farming is not viable without subsidy. “Moving to the Lancet Diet” (a 50% cut in meat) will “have to be done” and on current trends and with these drivers we would “take most cattle farming out of production”. So, he asked, given that bovine TB is a disease of cattle and people are “the transferers of the disease” through moving cattle, “if the whole point is to protect cattle and [very few] cattle [will be] left, then why are we culling badgers?” In these circumstances “living with TB is a much more attractive option”.
Campaigning on elements such as those above could reframe the issue so that it exposes the assumptions that still underly current policy, such as the idea that dairying is an essentially a benign activity and that farm intensification is in the public interest.
In terms of the long-running stalemate involving the small policy community immersed in arcane arguments about cattle/badger TB transmission, it would lend heavyweight reinforcement in the shape of bigger policy drivers and engage a wider community.
Many of the above elements could be directly translated into specific tactical objectives which campaigns could use as specific ‘can-openers’.
Finally, for campaigners who struggle to convert the techy world of improving agricultural sustainability into terms that can immediately engage the public, the opportunity to do so in ways that also stop the unjustified slaughter of thousands of badgers – the closest Britain has to living Teddy Bears – could also be interesting.
Culled – ie shot – Eurasian badgers in the UK Photo @BadgerCrowd
Account of a badger funeral, from The Badger, Ernest Neal, Collins New Naturalist, 1948:
How do you get people to take covid seriously? In England, that’s a question which pre-occupies many scientists, medics and politicians. They are fearful that festive Christmas drinks and family gatherings will lead to a re-escalation of the epidemic.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is an obvious problem. His ‘mixed messages’ populate an ever-enlarging case study of how not to do pro-precautionary communications. His tone as much as his inconsistency is the problem. He urges caution and justifies restrictions in one sentence while telling the nation that he, and they, are freedom loving libertarians in the next. He seems unable to resist the urge to emotionally distance himself from the life-saving controls he announces, by saying how much he regrets them. He says he thinks this is the right thing to do but his qualifications say he feels it is the wrong thing to do.
Another issue is the combination of presentations of Johnson and his government scientific advisers. He deploys sub-Churchillian flowery rhetoric and Trumpian bombast as if he thinks he can bluster the virus into submission: a progressively less effective approach. Then the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser and their assistants deliver death-by-PowerPoint presentations filled with statistics, which then have to be summarised by journalists, by which time many of the public have switched off or zoned out. Neither the English governments’ politicians or its scientists seem to have the capacity of Angela Merkel to calmly explain key scientific facts in a way which makes the policies make sense.
Today it was announced that NHS intends to make the vaccination case with ‘sensible celebrities’ as messengers. Not a bad idea, although it’s debatable whether it helps to share the strategy as opposed to the content, and probably reminds us about Johnson who obviously wouldn’t pass the audition.
What Else ?
You could fill a communications strategy book with could-have-done-better illustrations drawn from the Johnson Government’s handling of the epidemic but some of the might-be-better next steps are hiding in plain sight. During the first wave ‘lockdown’ the ‘clap for carers’ became a weekly public ritual on streets across the UK, after it was started by Annemarie Plas, a Dutch national living in south London. It focused attention on something that the statistics lack: empathetic victims, in the shape of health workers. And it was mobile phone videos shared by exhausted Italian doctors and nurses and repeated in media interviews, that first convinced the British that coronavirus was not “just like the ‘flu”.
Communicators should hardly need reminding that Joseph Stalin once said “One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic” but simply repeating, as England’s Ministers do relentlessly, that ‘every death is a tragedy’, reinforces rather than avoids this problem.
In the UK at least, these difficulties are compounded by the fact that the deaths are largely invisible. Funerals are themselves constrained by the need to limit gatherings to stop more lives being lost, deleting the emotional impact that surely would be felt, if they were larger and more visible. My suggestion is that England needs to find a way to make this reality more visible, and to do so before it is too late to have a beneficial effect on this epidemic.
Some years ago I met a man who attended a training event I worked at, who was trying to raise funds for armed services charities. What could they do, he asked, to overcome public reluctance to engage with them because many individuals were against the wars they were sent to fight in – such as Iraq and Afghanistan. For many, soldiers and airmen and women were not empathetic figures.
This, together with official reluctance to allow members of the armed forces to wear their uniforms off-duty because of terror attacks, meant that the services were effectively invisible except when seen fighting on the tv news. I suggested that they make the families visible, who were, after all, the people they were trying to help. I don’t know what happened to that charity but what changed the social picture was what happened in the small English market town of Wootton Bassett.
By an accident of geography, military fatalities were landed at an airfield the near the town and then taken in hearses to an Oxford mortuary for post-mortem. Draped in flags, the passing coffins became the focus of spontaneous shows of respect by towns people, and that grew into a local and then (through media), a national phenomenon of grief and respect. When the airbase closed and the coffins were landed elsewhere and took a different route, there was controversy. (Read this brilliant account in the Daily Mail from 2011). But by that time, in my view at least, the Wootton Bassett experiences had done their work and rebuilt an emotional link between ordinary members of the public and ordinary individual service women and men, and their families, whatever they thought about the politics of the wars.
Sensibly, so far as I know, no politicians or senior military ever appeared at the events in Wootton Bassett.
I’m not suggesting processions of hearses of covid victims. Only that visual social signals of the reality of covid’s impact are a missing ingredient.
People who died in road accidents are often commemorated by friends and relatives tying ribbons and flowers around at tree near the site of the accident. Yellow ribbons have been used to signify emotional connection to a very wide range of causes around the world. Those who have gone missing or become casualties have also been signified in many other ways: Amnesty International for example has used empty shoes to symbolise the ‘disappeared’, and others have adopted that to represent other victims.
The thank you ‘clap’ for health workers came from the people (and wasn’t restricted to the UK). Some sort of authentic local sign that covid is taking friends and relatives might have a similar impact.
Will the New York Times revelations around Donald Trump’s tiny tax payments make any significant difference to the US Presidential Election campaign? I can’t say, although it is perhaps obvious that they’d have a bit more traction with some voters in ‘fly over’ States if they’d been surfaced by a less Democrat and metropolitan publication. But the extent to which they do will partly depend on what people think of taxes: are they a good thing or not? In other words, how they are framed.
‘Going forward’ this communications issue still applies to very many campaigns whose objectives depend upon raising and spending public money.
For this reason I’m republishing an essay that first appeared in Campaign Strategy Newsletter back in 2008. It was written in the immediate outwash of the 2008 financial crash but in most countries, the argument for re-framing tax still applies in the climate and covid-challenged world of today.
Campaign Strategy Newsletter No 47, December 2008 Re-Framing Tax: Why It’s A Strategic Target For Campaigners
Tax is a bad thing. That is the conventional dominant frame now used by politicians, media and the public. Or at best it is a necessary evil, a constraint on our aspirations, a corrective to our instincts, a burden which must be shared, and so on. Framing maestro George Lakoff uses tax as the most obvious example of the power of a ‘frame’ in his elegant little essay “Simple Framing” .
Investment, in contrast, is a ‘good thing’, and so although you could be talking about the same policy issue (eg public spending on education), it can be approached from two directions with opposite results. Moreinvestmentisgenerallybetter. Startadiscussionfromthereandmorespendingisthelikely result. More tax is bad so start from there and the conclusion is likely to be less spending.
This presents a problem for political communicators, governments and, I’d argue, campaign groups, for we need tax. We therefore need a new and more positive way to talk about tax. While this has always been the case, the new American political conviction that we need more, different and bigger government intervention, means there is not only a need for tax but at least temporarily, an almost open field in which to develop a new ‘narrative’ about tax.
We Need Tax But …
Much is in flux and it’s unclear how our societies will change as a result of recession but one thing is certain, if we emerge from it with democratic economies intact, then after the borrowing and the short term tax cuts, taxes will be needed to pay the bill.
Right now most UK, US and many other politicians who have spent decades immersed in a liberal free- market economic political ‘reality’ in which tax was demonised, are still suffering something like Post- Capitalist Collapse Trauma. While they no longer simply espouse the ‘free market’ as the preferred solution to everything, their conceptual and communications locker is pretty empty.
Their instinct too, will be to tiptoe around tax and migrate us to new or more taxes by stealth or fine graduations, avoiding sharp movements that may attract attention, burying ‘bad news’ in the feel good of public holidays and so on. This is unlikely to work – governments are in a classic strategy trap  where they had economies that were, once you ignored externalities like climate change and a few other problems, generally seen to be ‘working’. Now they don’t have that and they need to disengage from that model and rebuild a revised economy. But to migrate to that place, they need to traverse uncomfortable territory of dysfunction. Far better, on that journey, to have a positive vision of what that will be like, and to have the communications tools to do so. Tax needs to be seen as part of the solution and a doorway to benefits , not as the problem.
The Case For Tax
Try these what-if tests of tax. What if we were in a situation where we need massive public investment to rebuild our economies in a more sustainable fashion? What if the track record of private investment is that it can backfill, and run infrastructure once it is there but that major public spending is necessary for societies to revise their infrastructure – for example putting in place new electric grids suitable for distributed generation? What if we need to invest now for future generations? What if public borrowing cannot go on forever – in the end we need to pay for investment from our taxes?
What if without tax, and in particular a ‘high’ level of taxation, we cannot build societies which are equitable and just, as well as ‘green’? What if sustained tax and public expenditure is an essential ingredient in establishing the sorts of societies that people, like the economic refugees crossing to Europe from North Africa, are prepared to risk dying trying to get into?
What if the market will never deal effectively with protecting public goods such as the environment because of dynamics such as the ‘tyranny of small choices’, the practical impossibility of commodifying or monetizing environmental externalities, and the tragedy of the commons?
Or what if, like the British Liberal Democrats and perhaps now the British Labour Party, you want to raise taxes on the rich and lessen those on the poor?
Or what if none of the above is true but you are a fiscal conservative who wants to adopt progressive policies, perhaps like Obama’s Peter Orszag, who will head his Office of Management and Budget? You might still need to raise some taxes, maybe on pollution, while reducing others.
Or what if you run a campaigning organisation concerned with raising an issue as a public priority but you don’t want to end up having to raise the necessary funds from an altruistic few? What if it can only be solved by, say, public investment in medical drugs or education?
For all sorts of reasons there is a case for tax. Yet with only negative frames available to talk about tax, political platforms are constructed in ways which either demonize tax or dance around it as the subject- which-must-not-be-named for fear of being labelled a ‘high tax party’. This is not conducive to good democracy or good governance. So how could tax be re-framed?
Let’s start with the heroes of the piece: those who pay tax. Given freely, voluntarily, their sacrifice resonates with a host of positive frames. They help build communities, they invest in our children, they care for each other and care for the carers. They pay for our defence. They aid the poor and protect the weak.
Without tax payers there would be no public schools, hospitals, roads or armies, no public broadcasting, no judiciary, nowhere for the elected representatives to meet, and precious few railways, roads or water treatment systems, not to mention overseas aid budgets, bail outs of banks, help to mortgage owners or an Apollo Programme for renewable energy.
So why not talk about these people in more positive terms? Not ‘tax-payers’ as if they are fined, implying bad behaviour or other victim hood, but contributors, the funders and builders of our society.
Such language would make the issue with tax evasion and avoidance much easier to talk about, and for politicianstodosomethingabout. IntheUKthe‘non-dom’issuehasattractedspasmodicattention because it attaches to Gordon Brown and questions over his strategic economic judgement. But the real gain to be made is not an enhanced ability to demonize the ‘stateless’ super-rich who manage to avoid tax almost altogether but to help create a new politics of sustainability built on more of a common sense of purpose.
“a new interest group made up of the willing taxpayers …“
During the last few decades in which tax was a government function to be ashamed of, only a few super- richemergedastaxchampions. In2007TheTimesreportedhowsuper-investorWarrenBuffetsaw the subject:
Speaking at a $4,600-a-seat fundraiser in New York for Senator Hillary Clinton, Mr Buffett, who is worth an estimated $52 billion (£26 billion), said: “The 400 of us [here] pay a lower part of our income in taxes than our receptionists do, or our cleaning ladies, for that matter. If you’re in the luckiest 1 per cent of humanity, you owe it to the rest of humanity to think about the other 99 per cent.”
This ‘narrative’ chimes with the basic message of practically every health, development or justice cause group in the world, and tax is one element in operationalising that thought. Buffet drew his inspiration partly from Nicholas Ferguson, the head of SVG Capital, investors in private equity firms, who said in June2007thatitwasunfairthatprivateequitypartnerspaidlesstaxthantheircleaners. Taxbreaks, said Ferguson, had been introduced “not to make private equity executives very rich but to encourage investment and entrepreneurship”.
Others from the very rich have made the case for being taxed before Buffet and Ferguson. In 2000 Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution pointed out that Warren Buffet, George Soros and William Gates Sr had campaigned against the Bush Administration’s proposed repeal of estate tax. Here’s some of what he wrote in an op-ed in USA Today  in a piece entitled ‘Taxes: Most Pay With Pride’:
“you [Soros et al] have given me cover to float an idea that surely escaped the architects of the Bush tax cut and its Capitol Hill supporters: What’s really needed is a new interest group made up of the willing taxpayers of America.
I know all the reasons it’s a silly idea. Our libertarian, anti-government streak. The dreaded IRS and tax day. The California tax revolt that propelled Ronald Reagan to the presidency. George Bush Sr.’s banishment for not keeping his “no new taxes” promise.
Americans don’t like paying any more taxes than they have to, and they certainly resent it when some don’t pay their fair share. But there’s a deeper reality that gets lost in the scramble to distribute the budget surplus.
Not only are most Americans of ordinary means unexcited about a tax cut, but they willingly pay their taxes — and derive some satisfaction from doing so. Cutting taxes may bind together Republican activists of varying ideological hues, but paying taxes is how we as a people foster the public goods that contribute to our individual and collective well-being”
Who are the heroes then? I searched Google in vain to find out who are the biggest individual contributors to our tax income in the UK or the highest proportionate contributor. I couldn’t find anything although it is easy to find lists of the top 1000 richest – which is perhaps indicative of the problem.
There are a host of simple ways in which this tide could be turned in a new direction. Tax contributors could be sent a thank you for, example, or a certificate to display. HMRC (UK tax) envelopes could be colour coded so that the postman or woman would know what scale of contributor he or she was delivering to … and so on. Instead of a tax ‘demand’ government might send you your contribution calculation. Financial rewards would be – well, counter-productive – but the full panoply of psychological rewards, incentives and heuristics could be deployed to establish being a contributor as a good thing.
I’ll leave those of you who think about values to ponder how this could be played out around the map of Values Modes . Presidents and Prime Ministers could invite high contributors to receptions – the Queen (where does she fit in?) might have them to a Garden Party based on cumulative contributions? Accountancy or a career in the Inland Revenue could take on a whole new friendlier tone.
It is not hard to put this issue into domestic terms.
In 2008, Nigel Farndale  wrote in the right-wing Daily Telegraph:
“Taxes are the glue that holds society together. The high water mark of civilisation. Cicero called them the sinews of the state.
Without taxes there would be no education for all, no health care from cradle to grave, no armed forces to defend us.
Yet canvass your friends and colleagues and it becomes apparent that there are taxes and there are taxes. There is a general assumption that we should be allowed to pick and choose which we pay. When I point out that I prefer to pay VAT to builders, friends look at me as if I am eccentric, and possibly a little perverted.
There seems to be no taboo about not paying VAT these days, no sense of having crossed a moral line. In a conspiracy of silence and petty crime, the customer nudges and winks, and then heads off to the cashpoint. Yet think what it is doing. Either you believe in taxes/society/civilisation or you don’t. If you do, and you try and get out of paying VAT, then you are a hypocrite.
… You might well disagree with how governments spend taxes and what levels they set taxation at, but those are separate issues. They are what elections are for.
… you are breaking the law if you use the black economy. Why do we resent lawbreakers of every other kind but chuckle indulgently when someone tells you they managed to get out of paying VAT?
Like taxes, laws are a good thing. They are the opposite of anarchy. Again, if you don’t like them, elect a government that will legislate in a way you do like. Until then, pay your taxes with joy in your heart. It’s not a perfect system, but it does work”
The Great Rethink occasioned by the Recession may make such a move easier or simply more necessary. Not only do we need to encourage more productive, less risky use of money and public investment with long term benefits but the fact that in countries like the US and UK a disproportionate majority of taxes are paid by the ‘middleincomes’ rather than the rich, maybe causing a new dynamic all of its own. This could be brought to a head by growing joblessness amongst the educated ‘middle classes’ (ie aspiring professionals).
In an article  in the 1 December New Statesman Iain Macwhirter noted:
“The new global economy is beginning to erode class differentiation and has left many middle-income earners exposed to the kinds of insecurities that formerly afflicted only lower-class workers”
Macwhirter points to ‘a remarkable forecast’ by a UK Ministry of Defence Think Tank in 2007:
“the world’s middle classes might unite, using access to knowledge, resources and skills to shape transnational processes in their own class interest”
As Macwhirter says, Britain has an indebted, educated, and now increasingly unemployed generation of under 35s who ‘look to the state for security, but the state may not be able to deliver’. If that State is to deliver, and if they are to see virtue in being part of that capability, the idea of good tax would be a good idea.
Non-Contributors and Non-Combatants
In the war on climate change, most non-contributors are equivalent to non-combatants.
The same can be said of any pursuit of major public goods.
Re-framing tax as solution building and tax payers as contributors would enable governments and society to depict non-contributors as non-combatants. Rhetoricyesbutnotspinasithasanunderlyingtruth. Perhapsthetimehascometodeploysuch rhetoric to counter that which says that any wealth creation, however extreme and however non- contributing, somehow is justified by trickle down from the invisible hand ?
In his book Who Runs Britain? , BBC Business Editor Robert Peston discusses the super-rich and their political influence but it is their attitude to contributing to society through tax which is the point here. These people have been promoted as role-models. Peston writes:
“Many of the super-rich actually feel it is their moral duty not to pay tax. This is not malicious hearsay. I know these guys pretty well, and they regularly moan about paying any tax. But whatever you think about the waste and inefficiency of public services … my strong conviction is that no one should use a club’s facilities who is not prepared to pay the subscription fee. Here’s the point. Any particularly wealthy individual may have used state schools and hospitals while growing up. Or their employees may still use them. And their ability to generate wealth today depends in large part on the stability of the state and expensive physical infrastructure. All of which costs money …”
Perhaps instead of just advocating what governments should do in terms of delivery objectives – be it providing drugs for HIV AIDS, the terms of aid or investing in renewable energy or education – NGO campaigners should utilise their political advocacy networks to help reframe the tax that is needed to createthewherewithalforgovernmentspending. Ashasbeensaidathousandtimes,NGOslack political power but they and their brands have great moral authority. It’s time to deploy a bit of that influence to help reframe tax.
On the day that George W. Bush took office, the words tax relief started appearing in White House communiqués to the press and in official speeches and reports by conservatives. Let us look in detail at the framing evoked by this term.
The word relief evokes a frame in which there is a blameless Afflicted Person who we identify with and who has some Affliction, some pain or harm that is imposed by some external Cause-of-pain. Relief is the taking away of the pain or harm, and it is brought about by some Reliever-of-pain.
The Relief frame is an instance of a more general Rescue scenario, in which there a Hero (The Reliever-of- pain), a Victim (the Afflicted), a Crime (the Affliction), A Villain (the Cause-of-affliction), and a Rescue (the Pain Relief). The Hero is inherently good, the Villain is evil, and the Victim after the Rescue owes gratitude to the Hero.
The term tax relief evokes all of this and more. Taxes, in this phrase, are the Affliction (the Crime), proponents of taxes are the Causes-of Affliction (the Villains), the taxpayer is the Afflicted Victim, and the proponents of “tax relief” are the Heroes who deserve the taxpayers’ gratitude.
Every time the phrase tax relief is used and heard or read by millions of people, the more this view of taxation as an affliction and conservatives as heroes gets reinforced.
 See for example Kelly’s discussion of company ‘fitness’ and the work of MIT economist James Utterback, chapter 6 in New Rules For The New Economy, Kevin Kelly, Fourth Estate, London 1998
 I mean benefits for society not social security http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/money/tax/article1996735.ece
 See Using Values Modes at www.campaignstrategy.org
 There’s only one way to pay tax: with joy, Nigel Farndale http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2008/02/24/do2403.xml
 Ian Macwhirter, How safe is your job? NEW STATESMAN Dec 1 2008 pp 16 – 20
 Who Runs Britain?, Robert Peston 2008 pub Hodder
Earlier this year I posted a critical analysis of XR UK’s ‘revolutionary’ theory of change, mostly on grounds that it was unlikely to work and posed many risks including a values culture war. Since the New Year, XR has apparently dropped the government-overthrow theory and adopted a new if more vaguely defined ‘strategy’.
So a revolution may not be being televised but XR UK’s post-revolutionary tactics are creating a public campaign laboratory, with a very public debate of it’s campaign tactics and strategy, rather than what to do about climate change. What happened after its last high profile experiment action has at least one straightforward lesson for almost any campaign.
I got a fundraising email from XR the other day complaining about how it was being attacked in the media and declaring Extinction Rebellion was ‘not the story’ but in reality that is exactly the position, following its blockade of newspaper distribution on 5 September.
What Happened ?
For the benefit of readers outside the UK or others who may have missed it, XRUK held a ‘rebellion’ in early September, consisting of a fortnight of protest, mostly in London. One action provoked a small storm of media and political debate and some public attention, when XR delayed the distribution of five national newspapers, The Sun, The Times, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times, all targeted because of their coverage of climate change.
The newspaper distribution blockade got XR back ‘in the headlines’ and resulted not only in predictable criticism from the Conservative Government but also from the opposition Labour Party, and provoked a mixture of support and overt and coded criticism from previously supportive climate campaigners. These included Craig Bennett at The Wildlife Trusts (formerly of Friends of the Earth) and John Sauven at Greenpeace.
Much of the wider comment was very similar to the reaction to XR’s ill-fated disruption of electric tube travel which hit London commuters at Canning Town in October 2019: people questioned XR’s tactics and strategy, based on the assumption that an effective campaign picks targets for action which win over rather than alienate key audiences.
Thinking Through The Third Step
At its simplest level, even the most straightforward skirmish in a public campaign usually aims to create a story which engages a public wider than just a debate between the campaign entity and the target.
Whether it’s done by taking direct action, by making a public claim, instigating a legal action or releasing the results of an investigation, campaigns attempt to create an ‘inciting incident’ which gains attention, causes a reaction, and invites judgement in the court of public opinion. All three steps need to be thought through in advance. Beyond that you are into territory that you can’t expect to plan for in a deterministic way, and the longer term strategy, route maps, critical paths and the like is another topic. This much though is campaign basics:
Step 1: intervention – intended as the inciting incident
Step 2: generate public attention
Step 3: use the attention – shift public opinion your way
In this case, XR’s newspaper blockade achieved steps 1 and 2 but not step 3.
XR’s first-step was to set up the blockade. Unlike many attempts by campaign groups, this successfully created public attention: step two.
It was a disruptive act with consequences for a target which could be relied upon to react, and was well equipped to do so in terms that would be widely noticed. The UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Daily Telegraph for example, are almost ‘joined at the hip’. All the targeted newspapers responded along with most of Britain’s media.
Yet that’s where things immediately started to go wrong, or wrong at least if you assumed that XR is trying to conduct a change campaign and not continuing with its original strategy of ‘movement’ revolution through disruption and personal ‘sacrifice’ to build public support.
Retaining The Frame
In communication terms the opportunity to frame the story is in what you say and do at step 1, and it must be sustained through step 2 and 3.
For the longer campaign to gain rather than lose momentum as a result of the skirmish, the attention created needs to validate the proposition manifest at step 1: for instance through endorsement by third parties, by generating popular acclaim, by emulation, through swelling numbers participating, or by trusted voices saying “they are right – here’s why – this is what it means”.
In this case the public attention got used alright but not so much by XR as by their chosen opposition: what it called the ‘billionaire press’, which immediately reframed it in terms that the rest of the media found hard to resist: as an attack on press freedom.
That reframing created an alternative narrative which pitched two freedoms against one another, freedom to protest against freedom of speech. With each pulse of reaction, the story then unravelled in those terms, dividing XR’s naturally supportive values-base.
As a micro campaign-study, it’s an object lesson in what happens if you lose control of the story framing once you have generated public attention. Did XR think this through? That’s hard to say but it happened.
5 September: in The Metro the newspaper block gives Boris Johnson an opportunity to say a free press is ‘vital’ to hold his government to account
Once the story was reframed as an action against press freedom, even XR-friendly campaigners faced a dilemma. Public campaigning is a form of politics, and like politicians campaigners have a deeply pragmatic relationship with the media: a marriage of convenience based not on love but mutual advantage.
For campaigners to say nothing might imply agreement with the idea that the media should be muzzled. The online Daily Telegraph was able to report on 6 September that:
‘Greenpeace, who backed the group when it shut down parts of central London last year, said that while XR’s core message was “undisputed”, “a free, diverse press and the right to peaceful protest are both expressions of free speech and hallmarks of a healthy democracy.”
Its executive director John Sauven added: “Greenpeace has been working with the news media for five decades, and we know the absolutely vital role they play in informing the public, exposing environmental abuse, and holding powerful interests to account”.’
The Telegraph quoted Bob Ward, of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change as saying: “The criticism XR make of these newspapers is legitimate. But this is not the right way to tackle that problem” and Richard Black, of the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit:
“These actions obviously get climate change in the headlines but they’re highly polarising – surveys show that while support for a clean energy transition is higher than it’s ever been across British society, a substantial proportion of the public finds XR’s methods off-putting”.
Ben Caldecott, a Government adviser on climate finance was reported as saying Extinction Rebellion risked setting back environmental policy. “It’s very hard immediately after that kind of thing to want to give the green movement, the environment movement, a big win” … “Whoever made the calls on this action made a really bad one”.
“When Extinction Rebellion appeared on the scene a year and a half ago it was fresh and brought a new energy and sense of urgency to the debate. I would hope and urge that they would always continue to do that – what they can’t be involved with is censorship …
“It’s so incredibly important that they take the public with them and try and build support, rather than distancing the public. So I hope that they are thinking very carefully about how they make sure they do that”
Announcing the action, XR said that Rupert Murdoch’s papers had ignored climate change to such an extent that his son James had complained – citing an article in The Telegraphas evidence of the family’s climate tension.
The problem here is that, along with Murdoch’s Timesand Sun, XR activists blockaded The Telegraph, which had provided them with ammunition for their cause’.
Some influential environmental voices were raised in support of XR, for example E3G’s chairman Tom Burke (see his blog) who argued on LBC radio on 6 September that:
‘The media are getting upset that somebody is holding them to account. Extinction Rebellion is making a point that the press is unaccountable for the role it is playing in climate denial. They are not attacking the free press they are making a point’
Burke made several important points but he was having to argue against a frame that was already dominant.
Was It Predictable ?
Given that XR had visibly interrupted publication of newspapers, the ‘freedom of the press’ response was rather predictable. Stopping newspaper production is not like blockading an oil refinery, fracking site or coal mine whose sole function is to provide things that the media and public already know to be primary sources of climate change pollution.
Although as XR itself pointed out, quoting from a YouGov poll, many people suspect that large parts of the UK media underplay climate change or still give space to deniers, the press would not feature in a list of most people’s existing convictions of the causes of climate emergency.
Making the case that these newspapers are a contributing cause of climate change is a complex analytical process: a multi-step story and therefore not possible to do in real-time in the outwash of an action (that reportedly lasted twelve hours). In contrast, it was self-evident that XR had impeded the free operation of the press, and to see that as justified on climate grounds, required existing convictions or some pretty clear proof.
If at Step 3 in the little schematic above, XR had been able to point to third party evidence such as a political or academic enquiry into the power of climate sceptic media coverage by the targeted newspapers in driving political anti-climate decisions, or even in just significantly influencing public opinion, it might have succeeded in ‘showing justification’ but it did not.
To have ‘counted’ in the media-political news conversation, that evidence would have either had to be new, or authoritative, or both but it wasn’t. XR explained:
‘We targeted the billionaire-owned media because they are not responding to the scale and the urgency of the climate and ecological crisis and the main reason for this is that our press is in the hands of the powerful who have vested interests, who are set on dividing us, and are in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry. A free press is about speaking truth to power, but how can we do this when the press is owned by a powerful few?’
This is a point of view but it’s more rhetorical than evidenced. If there had been clear binary true-or-not evidence that the press was ‘in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry’ for example, it was not provided.
If such evidence was available, another option would have been to first put the issue in play in the news agenda, for instance working with other pro-climate organisations. For that, it would only have needed to passed a test of ‘balance of probabilities’ rather than the binary requirement of visual news. For example if organisations like learned bodies or some widely supported NGOs such as WWF, Wildlife Trusts, Oxfam or Greenpeace had just launched a campaign against the same newspapers on climate grounds. They could then have jumped in to make use of the attention generated.
Or the media or politicians might have conducted an investigation exposing evidence that particular climate-denying editors or owners had exercised a malign effect on climate outcomes. None of this happened.
One reason that did not happen may be that while some of the targeted newspapers are guilty of a long and damaging record on climate content, it’s a battle many campaigners may feel is essentially won, and much of the strongest evidence is old.
The main tent of the UK climate sceptic camp started to sag back in 2018. That’s when Fran Unsworth, head of BBC News, removed it’s main storm-guy, by ending the BBC’s policy of reporting climate change as a two-sided scientific debate. After that, it became far harder for sceptics to get attention for their agenda, and all the newspapers XR targeted, have started running more coverage of the reality of climate change.
Along the lines of Napoleon’s dictum “don’t interrupt your enemy when it’s in the course of making a mistake”, campaigners may have concluded that even if these publications do sometimes still give space to sceptic views, there’s little to be gained by focusing attention on that battlefront instead of, for example, issues of implementation of decarbonization of economy and society. Indeed if XR had succeeded in making newspaper content the climate issue, it might even help sceptics by giving them the oxygen of publicity.
Kicking The Wasps Nest
Like politicians, campaigners are wary of criticizing the media unless they have very strong evidence, on the basis “don’t getting into a pissing match with a skunk”. You may often feel it treats you unfairly but it’s a reality you need to learn to navigate. As one politician said, ‘for a politician to complain about the press is like a ship’s captain complaining about the sea’.
Holding a particular news platform, editor or journalist to account over demonstrable deception is one thing. Attacking news organisations en bloc is the communications equivalent of kicking a wasps nest. A coal company may have a few press officers and a Public Affairs agency but it is mainly full of mining engineers, accountants and technical staff who know little or nothing about communications. A news organisation is stuffed full of news communications experts, adept at playing on public perceptions, with deep and constant political access, and with little else to do but to spin stories.
The media story of XR’s blockade was immediately populated with evidence that their action was questionable. It emerged that environmental icon David Attenborough had recorded an interview for The Sun, Britain’s biggest newspaper and owned by the Murdoch Group. Bob Ward of the Grantham Institute, probably Britain’s leading ‘climate hawk’, tweeted “unfortunately it means readers of The Sun will not see this interview with David Attenborough about climate change”.
In 2019 Attenborough spoke up for Greta Thunberg and for disruptive climate activism, saying “‘You can say, “It gets you nowhere, just stopping the traffic”. But it gets you noticed. People listen to what you say. And that you’re important”. After the newspaper blockade he said: “I don’t think it’s sensible politics to break the law”.
A Human Political Thermometer?
Does it matter that XR created headlines about itself and alienated fellow climate activists ? That depends on what you think XR is for. Perhaps not, if XR’s function is merely to act as a human political thermometer of public frustration about climate change. The Newspaper blockade was probably the single biggest climate-related story in the UK in 2020 to date, aside from the more elite and diverse conversations around green recovery and ‘building back better’ after Covid.
One commentator has argued that XR’s critics misunderstand how campaigns work and that being unpopular with the public is a cost worth paying if you are effective. That can be true, if you are effective but unpopularity is not in itself a measure of effectiveness. As many journalists have done, he also cited a rising wave of public conviction for climate as a national issue as evidence of XR’s effectiveness in 2019 but that wave was growing before XR appeared, and seems more likely to have been driven by real-world climate impacts than protest.
Just generating spectacle without results, is only effective if others can exploit the attention created, and in that respect not all publicity is good publicity. In the case of XR’s Newsgate, it created a debate about ‘protest’, mostly exploited by the opposition, not by its natural allies.
It was noticeable that neither Johnson nor any of his Ministers felt the need to justify their record on action to tackle climate change (or to disown media denial of climate change) as a result of the XR newspaper blockade. Instead they could comfortably position XR as putting climate-action in peril by stifling a ‘free press’.
Home Secretary Priti Patel’s threat to classify XR as an ‘organised crime’ group was widely ridiculed on the Left and may just be the flying of an impractical kite. But Boris Johnson’s stated desire to ‘impose tighter restrictions on mass gatherings, in particular where it threatens the freedom of the press’ as “a key tenet of democracy and the law”, could lead to new police powers similar to but going beyond the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which helped finish off the 1990s ‘roads movement’ by criminalising previously civil offences.
It could also create a tempting dog-whistle opportunity for many in the ruling Conservative party. Knowing that XR’s methods are unpopular with most of the public, and aware that they owe their political majority to MPs elected in seats such as the ‘Red Wall’ by ex-Labour voters who are strongly authoritarian, many Conservative MPs would probably support a legal crackdown on ‘climate anarchists’.
Most of the public might not support new laws to stifle protest but most of the government’s potential voters might well do so.
The Newsgate action is also unlikely to have done anything to persuade such MPs to support the proposed Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill, promoted by XR, along with environmental luminaries such as Kumi Naidoo, Carolyn Lucas MP and 350’s Bill McKibben.
XRUK does have a lot of supporters who will come to its defence but they are mostly not influential with Britain’s government or its large Parliamentary majority. To be effective it will need to think and act a lot more carefully, and working more closely with other pro-climate groups could be a good starting point.
I interviewed Peter Melchett in May and July 2018, at Courtyard Farm, where he lived in Norfolk (he died in August 2018). My daughter Amazon Rose transcribed the tapes and I’ve edited them somewhat to try and group the topics. Unfortunately as two old codgers reminiscing about events over past deacdes, our discussions were somewhat rambling.
However some of what follows may be of interest to the many people Peter worked with, and it focuses mainly on his abiding concerns about the environment, organic farming, pesticides, politics and conservation, as well touching on his time in Northern Ireland. Peter was particularly saddened by the the failure of conservation and environment movement to act effectively against the growing onslaught of farm chemicals on nature.
(I also wrote about my own perspective on his time at Greenpeace here, and his obituary in The Guardian here). : Peter Melchett, C: Chris Rose
[satirical British magazine – above cover featuring Mandy Rice-Davies, involved in the Profumo scandal]
C: Cass [Peter Melchett’s partner, Cass Wedd] told me that when she first knew you or when you were both very young that you were an avid collector of Private Eye information, did that influence your attitude to..
P: (laughs) Very young at school. Yeah I think it did…
C: … how it actually worked rather than ideological, I mean its not exactly a source of political theory.
P: Well, bear in mind that I’d been brought up you know typical upper class privately educated boarding school, Eton, and it’s at Eton that I came across Private Eye.
I’ve no idea why or how and I subscribed to it, and my house master, you know we lived in houses, 50, 60 ,70 boys of all ages. He was a sort of terribly conflicted liberal conservative, who sort of believed in free speech and letting boys have access to all sorts of opinions and things but couldn’t get it out of his head that Private Eye was somehow terribly subversive if not communist but he let me subscribe to it, quite surprising: Archie Nicholson nice basically decent man. I think looking back on it, prompted by your questions probably it taught me an irreverence … to see that politicians were people capable of not being respected of lying, of bending the truth, and the establishment generally. It’s that undermining of accepted the deference that the established is owed, which upper class people certainly were brought up by which I think I lost.
Partly that, partly the Keeler scandal. Quite influential and undermining. Cabinet Ministers, lying to House of Commons and things like that. Also being at Eton, and seeing some of that sort of lying to gain or keep power in practice in the boys, because it was quite a pupil-centred sort of system of running the school where you had these houses of about 70 kids, Captain of the House who had a lot of disciplinary power, including to beat people, and then a group around him, I’ve forgotten all these fancy names, I think they were all called the library? And there was another committee underneath them. So it was all structured to teach boys to run things..
P: Yes successfully, and I certainly came across a sort of blatant case of somebody in a vote, claiming somebody had voted one way when they had voted another and they’d gone to London so they couldn’t check, just a flat out lie to win the election.
C: Did Boris go to Eton?
P: I can’t remember, one of those sorts of schools.
C: It’s that sort of, he’s an extreme example. The willingness to think it doesn’t matter if you make things up.
P: A more open example, not necessarily more extreme.
C: No, but extreme in his openness. The fact that he gets away with it because of the other things that people like about him and tolerate. I remember Private Eye being one of the things when I was young that showed you that it wasn’t just, it showed you that there was duplicity in lying and all that sort of thing. But what it also showed you that there was a whole layer of people or a whole network, networks of people in society who knew all about these things, because it was all about hinting at things that lots of other people knew without saying some of it because of libel or whatever. This was where these people were sort of privy to a different version of what was going on in the society from what you could get by just reading newspapers of watching the television. Which I think probably did effect quite a few people who became campaigners.
P: Yeah, no I think it did have that affect on me.
Newspaper photo – from the Ramblers Association
C: What was the first NGO you were involved in?
P: Probably WWF as a trustee on the allocations committee.
C: So you got, your father was a farmer, and you …
P: and an industrialist.
C: Yeah, and you come from a family with roots in industrial business and science. You’d got involved with an NGO and seen the sort of internal political machinery of giving money and getting money.
P: and the Duke of Edinburgh trying to stop them from doing anything to do with people (both laugh).
C: And you’d been involved with the Labour Party which meant that you were interacting with people from across all social economic segments. From Eton down to DE whatever, and you’d been a Government Minister and seen you know so that’s an extraordinary range of experiences and I just wondered you know how … Looking at the people who go to work in these campaign groups and NGOs, how much they understand or what sorts of things they need to understand and do or don’t – if you had to make …
Academic Qualifications in Campaign Groups
P: good question. I remember at Greenpeace, being really gobsmacked at the increase in the level of academic and other qualifications that people who applied for jobs had in the 15 years I was involved.
C: which was from which year to which?
P: From 85-2001. Initially being, well for all the time if I’m honest, seeing that as a sign of success. But now as I get older and grumpier, and you see these very highly qualified people, coming to the Soil Association, which also attracts incredibly good people, including some who have been in industry and decided they want a more enlightened and moral job to do. But you do tend to get the feeling they’re very well qualified, they’re very good interviewees, they can write a brilliant synopsis or whatever the job is you’re asking them to do, but their passion and determination … ? I remember Elaine Lawrence [Greenpeace Campaigns Director] always used to drive our HR people crazy, by saying “you can tell if somebody’s going to be a good campaigner and its nothing to do with anything written down or anything measurable, its a gut feeling”.
“very bright indeed and very knowledgable, and incredibly naive about power. Down to very simple things like assuming things you send to a Government Minister will be read by the Minister”
P: Yeah there are people who you feel will stand up and be counted, and if they get thwarted will find a way round it … And don’t accept things at face value, and we get people you know I can think of one or two who’ve been at the Soil Association when I have, who are very bright indeed and very knowledgable, and incredibly naive about power. Down to very simple things like assuming things you send to a Government Minister will be read by the Minister. (guffaws)
One of the things you taught me, quite early on I remember, you know Greenpeace was very print heavy, … do you remember … saying what you should do is not ask people if they’ve read the magazine but where they put it when they read it? The other thing I remember you told us to do and we did I think, was to ask people what story they remembered, and they almost always remembered something from about 8 years previously which probably hadn’t been in a magazine for about 6 years but had been in the press or telly, a whaling thing or something. To try and get that sort of sense of what it’s like in the real world, what ordinary people actually take in and remember, and what affects them, and who affects them.
This idea that you win arguments through argument, rather than because your brother in law tells you something they heard or your sister or your mum or whatever it is, a friend at work
P: experts but naive experts!
C: Yeah naive experts, but people who’ve come up through local politics, very local politics especially, seem to me … if then they get involved with campaigning at a bigger level, they realise that all politics is basically the same social interactions it doesn’t matter if its at the framework convention on climate change or the..
P: if they can leave the local behind them. Some people get stuck there, come and work for a national NGO, and their only really interested in what Bristol* City Council will or won’t say in a debate next week and thats pretty frustrating. [* the Soil Association is based in Bristol]
He Had This Trick
C: Yeah, but I mean as a sort of crucible of learning experience, and of course the same person can be in the same organisation doing the same job and learn a lot about one can learn a lot about how to get people to do things and the other one learns nothing. So it is about people.
Do you remember John Grey at Media Natura? He used to run a design company but he was incredibly good, he wasn’t really a designer, he had a load of brilliant designers, he was incredibly good at explaining communications to his clients. I learnt a lot from John.
One thing he did was to teach visual language, like how things work visually, where he’d get the managing director of a new client to come see him and then he’d get all these bottles and he’d pick wine because they tended to like wine, and he’d put the same wine in all the bottles, and then the designers would design different labels on the bottles, and they’d have a wine tasting. So first of all you ask them, looking at them, how much they thought they cost, and what the wine would be like, and what the person selling it would be like and making it. And he got them to taste them and they’d give long erudite analyses of what they could taste and they were all exactly the same thing.
Of course after that he got permission to do things otherwise about the brand or something. The other thing he said, I remember I was on a panel with him and WWF has asked us to help recruit some campaigners, we’d been interviewing all these people who all had long strings of qualifications of whom most obviously were never going to be very useful as campaigners, and he looked at me and said “the thing about campaigners is to be a campaigner you’ve got to want to act up” I thought “yep you’re right”.
“An Historic Mistake” On Climate Change
P: Looking back at it we were terribly pleased to recruit Jerry Leggett as our first scientist at Greenpeace and he did amazing things. We got, it did us the climate campaign in Greenpeace a lot of good, particularly the sceptics in Greenpeace about whether the climate change was real or not. It gave us all sorts of things but, there’s no doubt in my mind looking back at it, that as a movement it was a historic mistake to follow the agenda of the state, the government and successive governments and the establishment scientific and economic, into a scientific framing of what we were trying to achieve.
So although I think recruiting Jerry and Sue Mayer afterwards, was good for Greenpeace, we were so on the fringe of being, so far away from being seen as scientific, it probably was right …
C: What did you most enjoy about working at Greenpeace?
P: Hmm. Awful lot of it really.
C: The other two questions – do you have a favourite campaign and do you have a stand out moment from your time at Greenpeace?
P: Quite a few and one of them was in that Shell boardroom with you. When you said that three people I think we met, their salaries would be more than Greenpeace UKs total income, and they were all total doof balls (laughs) that was weird.
C: Apart from the Dutch guy [actually, Swiss], who sat there saying “I warned them”. (Both chuckle).
P: So undoubtedly, the Brent Spar, was a great moment, there’s things I suppose the collapse of GM food in early 99. Was pretty spectacular, from 70% of processed food to virtually nothing, in a couple of months, a few months.
C: So 70% of processed food…
P: Contained GM because it was made with soya and there was no segregation and soya all came from Latin America or the US and they were both growing GM. Then Malcom Walker of Iceland [supermarket] got a non-GM source of soya and said he was going all non GM. Everyone else had to.
C: They’re doing it again Iceland on plastic.
P: Yeah, I know interesting, and they are prepared to say so, whereas Waitrose who are going non-GM animal feed, will not make a thing of it. Nervous. You know the French are now passing a law saying all meat and dairy products which come from animals fed on GM have to be labelled. As either GM or non GM. I’ve been drafting tweets this morning, a new world of campaigning Chris.
C: Yeah well it’s succinct.
P: It slightly reminds me of meeting people from advertising agencies and what’s one sentence three words, very good discipline actually. Umm
C: What about the anti-nuclear proliferation campaigns, that was something you felt strongly about.
“nearly every warship US, French, British, Russian … actually had … nuclear depth bombs and they were sailing into the middle of ports like London … we … got them all removed, but it was never a public issue”
P: Yeah, we never really had a sort of gotcha moment. The most significant thing, I was thinking about this the other day, was nuclear depth charges, and how nearly every warship US French, British, Russian was actually had nuclear weapons on board. Nearly all of them had nuclear depth bombs and they were sailing into the middle of ports like London and wherever and we campaigned against that successfully. Got them all removed, but it was never a public issue, it was techy expert issue.
Greenpeace seals discharge pipe from nuclear weapons facility in Aldermaston. This led to a police raid on Greenpeace offices and a stand off between Melchett and Defence Minister Malcolm Rifkind.
The general cleaning up of rivers and seas if you take it all together from dumping nuclear waste right through to the Brent Spar, was an extraordinary series of victories, of rivers and seas and nuclear, industrial, sewage, and then oil and nuclear waste, all those nuclear submarines were still sitting not-dumped in the Atlantic, as we speak.
I always think, you have the moment of victory or the moment something happens, but of course the really interesting thing is to look back 10 or 20 years later. Has there been another oil rig dumped, have any of the nuclear submarines been dumped? Have we reopened toxic discharges into rivers and seas, these are all campaigns which have been permanently successful.
“Climate change … No reduction in greenhouse gases for the last 6 years while manufacturing industries halved overall. Waste is cut by 80%, farming 0%”
I was thinking about the difficulty of climate change and all the things we tried to do, you tried with bits of the Atlantic and Rockall and how difficult that’s been as a campaign, and yet, you see the proportion of wind and solar going into our the grid now. Again if you look back its been pretty remarkable, except in farming. No reduction in greenhouse gases for the last 6 years while manufacturing industries halved overall. Waste is cut by 80%, farming 0%.
C: I saw something the other day which was on twitter, so may or may not be true, saying that a quarter of all meat related meat production related emissions were down to pet food. Not sure if that’s true or not.
P: No sounds on high side to me, but it would be a fair amount of course. So Greenpeace I mean there’s the obvious you worked with, I worked with incredible people, exasperating sometimes. I saw John Castle on the news when [he died], and remembered some of the ups as well as some of the downs and David McTaggart, extraordinary characters, some flawed but generally speaking amazing committed, do you remember that thing we did with Annie Townend testing our personality traits, and out of all the senior management team only Steve Thompson had an inclusive or not single minded or whatever [trait].
C: Oh yeah, Sensing rather than iNtuitive [MBTI]
“it was right for resources, for example on GM, the court case really, to mainly go to India and China, and South East Asia and not to Europe”
P: But they were, it was great fun. I loved the internationalism, it was a huge challenge but once I’d got my head around it, the idea that it was right for resources, for example on GM, the court case really, to mainly go to India and China, and South East Asia and not to Europe and should have gone to North America but the US never worked properly, still doesn’t apparently.
Shortening The Distance Between Saying and Doing
C: … I remember people accusing Greenpeace, and it had happened for ages, depending on who they were, of being communist or in the CIA or things like that, which McTaggart sort of always banged on about as evidence that he was in the middle and therefore right. Then people would often say they were like the mafia because they popped up all over the place and that they were a sort of much more globalized organisation before most organisations became globalised, and I read this thing about the mafia in the Sunday Times and the guy quoting somebody as saying “the mafia is an organisation that knows how to shorten the distance between saying and doing”, and I thought in that respect its true, Greenpeace is like that in my experience, which I found was very different about it, from anywhere else I’d worked. Which despite the exasperating things did actually never the less mean that you did get a lot more things done more quickly.
P: I remember for example an international AGM in the Med’ somewhere, and Jean Moffatt from Canada turned up and said all these people had been arrested in the rainforest west coast and there was a discussion and the campaign was launched, and people went off and got arrested within a few weeks, extraordinary.
C: Was that including Cornelia? [Durant]
P: Including Cornelia yeah …
P: We had that great meeting, John Sauven and I you know the Canadians, we got the BBC Wildlife Magazine or something to say they wouldn’t be printed on Canadian [rainforest] pulp. It was reported in Canada, as “the BBC” and therefore the British government are boycotting Canadian pulp.
There were so many small instances like that. I remember the discussion with Albright and Wilson at a secret breakfast with Greenpeace Business that Steve organised after the swan-necked pipe blocking where we sort of managed by just dropping a couple of names, to convince them they were going to face a global anti-phosphate campaign. Particularly what was that island called ? Nauru or somewhere. And odd references to ships sailing across and we did a deal with them and they closed the plant.
So I suppose it was the, you said what did I most enjoy about Greenpeace, thinking about it, it was that huge range of things we did, often very quickly, sometimes over 20 years, ranging from the secret off the record breakfast or hint being dropped, right through to hundreds of people storming into Sellafield. The whole range of activity, but always just with an eye on ‘will it change things’?
C: Did you ever keep a photograph or object from Greenpeace ?
P: Not really, I kept a few things. As somebody who’s listened to The Archers on and off for most of their lives since university, I’ve loved the headline in The Independent about GM you know, that Tommy Archer got arrested before we did. Then they did an unusual thing for The Archer’s: a whole week of episodes just in the jury room, so it was just the discussion of the jury. The headline in The Independent was ‘Tommy Archer got off but will Lord Melchett?’ (both laugh).
C: The answer was no.
P: No the answer was yes in the end, he did get off thank you very much. Innocent.
C: But you did spend a couple of days in Norwich jail or somewhere.
P: One night in Norwich, one night in police cells with everyone else. But Greenpeace … in London we’ve still got the old from before I came, in Bryn Jones’ and [Pete] Wilkinsons’ day, the ‘clean water, pure air, or clean rivers’ whatever it was poster, little roundel.
C: Yeah I like those.
P: I had some good stuff.
C: When did you, why did you become an organic farmer?
P: Well it was partly thanks to Greenpeace. Because we got into this point with the GM campaign in about 97-98 when we had to have a solution. Every campaign had to have a solution. The solution had to be non-GM food, but then the toxic campaign, notorious for their attention to toxic detail, they pointed out that most of the pesticides … used in non organic farming they were campaigning against and wanted banned. So how can we recommend food produced with that? On the whole, and its still true today, although slowly becoming less so, lots of Greenpeace offices didn’t want to advocate organic, too controversial, too small, too niche, too almost non existent in their countries. John [Sauven] and I got agreement somehow, probably by using the toxic campaign, that we could say that organic was an alternative.
We did a joint report with the Soil Association which everyone has now forgotten, and I keep a copy of the cover power point just to remind people from time to time that it existed. We published that, so that was the alternative, although of course it was slightly odd that the boss of Greenpeace had a non organic farm.
C: I remember saying that to you.
P: You probably did
C: “We can’t start campaigning for organic [as it had ruled out GM] unless you’re an organic farmer”
P: Thank you very much (laughs). Well it was good bit of advice as it turned out. Simultaneously as far as I remember, we here [Courtyard Farm] had in 95, we’d started planting the wildflower meadows, which Cass and I originally did as set-aside and we thought it was a terrible waste of money which shows we were still profitable in those days, to take 10, 000 quid from the taxpayer every year for set aside and just do nothing with the land. So we planted it with all these wildflowers, that’s when most of them were planted.
Peer Melchett with a field of (planted and self-seeded) Cowslips in 2015
We hired a guy who’d worked as a volunteer at Holme [Nature Reserve] called Micheal O’Leary who was a nature conservation, one of probably your UCL MSc [CR was at UCL] such or undergraduate degrees.
Mike ran the conservation side of the farm and we contracted out the cereals to a near neighbour, who was a sort of middle of the road farmer but from our point of view quite intensive. We grew our own sugar beet with a guy called Bunny, working here. After two or three years Mike said look you’ve done all the set aside, I’m trying to keep the wildlife but it will carry on going down as the partridge numbers were, while you are not organic.
We tried a bit of organic several years earlier, two fields, but the farm manager’s then wife got very ill so he had to spend quite a bit of his day caring for her, we simplified the whole farm, sold cattle, dropped the organic to make the job do-able for him, he was coming up to retirement. So it wasn’t sort of the very first leap, anyhow then we decided to go organic and the two things came together the Greenpeace and the farming, wildlife evidence. It was only later I discovered we were doing good things for the soil, and for animal welfare, for the quality of the crops and the food, all the other things, I learned as we went along. Still learning.
Waiting For ‘The Signal’ And Business Decisions
C: Do you remember this conversation with Shell or BP or whoever it was, that you had, because you told me about it, about them waiting for the signal, that was around 96/7. They were waiting, my recollection is that you had a meeting a breakfast or a lunch with either the UK CEO of Shell or BP I don’t remember, about climate change and their line was, which I heard as well, was that if the government was serious, they’d know when the government was serious about it because they’d change the tax regime so it favoured investment in renewables.
P: Not sure, I think it was John Brown probably, BP.
C: In their perception, they never got the signal. My perception of it was that they didn’t understand how the industry worked, not at a political level anyway.
P: The government didn’t understand it?
C: Yeah there was internal competition. They [the politicians] had this idea that renewables, prices were going to fall as it got scaled up and that it would naturally by some market mechanism, or left to itself that the energy industry would just start doing different things and therefore they wouldn’t have to do anything much. Where actually there was this constant competition for finance with projects inside the oil industry, for exploration [versus other things], and therefore if that was giving the best rate of return on investment then they weren’t going to put the money into anything else unless there was some strategic signal which said this is where you’ve got to go.
“it’s a fairly ubiquitous mistake to see these companies as very one dimensional and to ignore the fact that there are nearly always fierce debates going on internally”
P: I certainly think it’s a fairly ubiquitous mistake to see these companies as very one dimensional and to ignore the fact that there are nearly always fierce debates going on internally. I’ve been hearing recently, I know you have, about debates in the pesticide companies and the fact that there are people who can see the writing on the wall, but that doesn’t necessarily alter the … calculation that people running the business make.
I mean, look at the farm here you could say that it’s clear that even organic pigs are going to have to have more space, [and] be kept in enclosures which keep grass all year round so there’ll be smaller numbers and more land used. That’s perfectly possible, but it will up the cost. At the moment, the rules are you can do it [blah blah this way etc], and at the moment we need income at the farm because of the uncertainties of Brexit and we’re buying a new second hand combine.
So we’ll take a pig business which is more intensive, its organic but its more intensive than I’d like and does more destruction to the clover fields they go on than I’d like. But that short term income, quite a lot of money every year for four or five years certainly while we pay off the combine, is the business imperative, we’ve got to have another combine. Got to have it sooner or later, with all the uncertainties of Brexit sooner rather than later makers sense, five years time we might not have the income to buy one for a while. So even making fine judgements between two systems which are far better than general, you still have that business calculation to make.
Businesses Are Also More Sensitive Than People Imagine
P: So I’m sure that’s right. Businesses on the other hand are much more sensitive [than people imagine]. One of the things Michael did, which always surprised me a bit which I took as confirmation, was, a small thing, an ‘Organic Action Plan’ when he was the Minister at DEFRA.
He was in charge of it [DEFRA] at the time, and we wanted UK supermarkets to buy more British organic. There had been a big expansion in the British market, people like ASDA had filled it by importing in this case onions, organic onions.
“So what governments say, if they say clearly, ‘you should do X’, even that could have a significant effect. But as you say just leaving it to market forces, [it] could take years”
So Michael had meetings with some of the supermarkets maybe all of the big ones, and a year later ASDA was sourcing 100% UK onions: no money, no incentive, just ”I think you should do this, why aren’t you doing it ? … we could grow onions”. The Soil Association did this survey which showed in November or something, October, the peak onion season, ASDA had 100% Spanish onions, organic onions. So what governments say, if they say clearly, ‘you should do X’, even that could have a significant effect. But as you say just leaving it to market forces, [it] could take years.
Assumptions Based on Mythology
C: I get the impression that, when I work with a lot of NGOs on campaigns that it’s quite unusual to find one where they really seem to understand the dynamics of the thing they’re trying to change. Yet when you talk to people in businesses as sometimes when I’m doing stuff with CISL or when I’ve been doing a campaign and got to know the people on the receiving end of it, and they explain their thinking or their assumptions, they tend to assume that whoever is even mildly interested in or criticizing them or anything, does understand what’s going on, whereas of course they don’t. It’s not at all transparent unless you’re in that business, and they assume everybody knows things.
P: The NGO’s do the same, they assume business knows what they’re doing and why, they make assumptions about business, based largely on mythology, which are often wildly wrong. No what I meant to say is that businesses make assumptions about NGOs as well, it works both ways.
It was fascinating talking do you remember that woman who worked with the Monsanto boss, the Scottish guy and she was American? she came over and she married [ ]’s friend in Swiss-Re [insurance], and I had quite a couple of long chats with her.
“all the Monsanto people listened to their scientists because that’s what they did as a company … … and your scientists say X will be wonderful for farming, and you don’t say “you’re not a farmer” to them you say “you’re a scientist I believe you”. And of course they know f*** all about farming”
She said first of all the Monsanto people listened to their scientists because that’s what they did as a company, and they thought that was right, morally, intellectually everything else, there were scientists so you listen to your scientists, and your scientists say X will be wonderful for farming, and you don’t say “you’re not a farmer” to them you say “you’re a scientist I believe you”. And of course they know f*** all about farming.
“the idea that there was any science in the argument against GM was sort of unbelievable to them”
All those bio geneticists, but were too narrow minded to realize that. Then they heard somebody say its all anti-American and ideological they’re all communists, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth and so on, and that fitted with what else they were hearing and their world view and they believed it. And the idea that there was any science in the argument against GM was sort of unbelievable to them.
C: That is still from what I hear, my friends who work with pharmaceuticals and agri- chemicals, the Europeans generally know that isn’t true but a lot of the Americans still absolutely believe it.
P: Yeah I’m on an email list which is a GM one which is from the UK but is now dominated by the US because that’s where the debate is very live.
P: If you look at it there’s some British academics but if you look at places like Rothamsted its become much less a sort of centre of GM propaganda and more wide ranging in what their looking at. They’ve got some amazing assets you know all those soil sampling historic soil samples and things. They could be leading on soil science and soil organic matter and soil garden sequestration? Globally really, given the history, and they’re just beginning to scratch that surface. And John Innes have got lots to do on marker – assisted selection but they are still a bit GM focused.
Individuals Making A Difference
C: Looking back on all the things that you’ve been involved with in environmental issues and social change issues but especially environment, and especially nature conservation – how much do you think it depends on few individuals actually doing something and making something happen to get real change? Dave Goulson’s the person who made me think about it actually.
P: Yeah it’s an interesting question, I remember the campaign to get lead out of petrol was always held out as an early real success, and all driven by one person. What was he called?
P: Des Wilson, yeah. Who became sort of an icon of the successful campaigner. And, I was always sort of bit suspicious about that being an over simplification, and of course we now know he should have been getting rid of petrol not lead in petrol [laughs]. I mean there’s no doubt to my mind that brave individuals make a huge difference, Rachel Carson (Silent Spring) is always one of mine, if I’m asked who inspires me. And Marion Shoard’s Theft of the Countryside made a huge impression on me.
Above: Ian Prestt – advocate of action against DDT
Re pesticides I always think of Ian Prestt [Director of RSPB, 1975-91 ] and particularly Derek Ratcliffe – given that he worked for a government agency, and just how much he individually achieved. Whenever I hear the story about a National Nature Reserve in Scotland, it’s almost always somewhere that’s there because Derek Ratcliffe leaked the fact that some forestry company was going to cover it in conifers and got a campaign going.
Derek Ratcliffe, brilliant naturalist and scientist who showed that pesticides like DDT were killing Peregrine Falcons, a discovery that led to a change in the law
But that’s the interesting thing of course what he did was leak the information and Stuart Housden and other people in the RSPB got the campaign going and I maybe asked questions in Parliament and things, so Derek needed all that backup and without it he wouldn’t of had any effect.
I suppose you could argue that Rachel Carson, while eventually we got rid of DDT … I’ve been writing and thinking lately about our failure to do anything significant about pesticides. Not only that, but the fact is that pesticide use is increasing – and dramatically in the last 15-20 years. So, it takes more than the individual but then brave and inspirational people are very important part of the mix I think.
C: I was thinking that you know there’s a big sort of bystander effect, in that a lot of people knew what was going on about various problems, but not that many of them did something about it in terms of pushing it to the point where they caused some sort of change.
‘Causing an Upset’
P: Or caused some sort of upset you could say. I think we’ve had apart from the DDT killing birds of prey, and we’ve had 70 years of people standing and watching, pesticides obliterating wildlife and insects and birds from our countryside. In some cases, knowing it was happening and saying it didn’t matter because you were saving the rarities, that was the argument when I was on the RSPB Council. I was thinking about that the other day, the farmer called Mike Shrubb was on the council I didn’t know much at the time, this was back in the early 80s and Mike had been monitoring the birds on his farm and had seen a huge decline.
I knew that was true because we’d monitored grey partridges here [Courtyard Farm, Norfolk]. Although I couldn’t really tell you about any of the other birds or what they were, so I backed him, but we were faced with a really strong group in the RSPB whose view was we have nature reserves, we’re saving rare birds, that’s what we’re here for, that’s all that matters, and anything else is a distraction.
That ran from not wanting to buy farmland, so they were against really buying certainly something like the Nene Washes, you know “carrot-land” going back to the grazing marsh? Which the RSPB has done more [of] recently, or the reclaimed land on the edge of The Wash, or farmland around reserves. You know all of that was considered common-or-garden – “don’t bother”.
“also it was a problem of confronting real power, and upsetting everybody including themselves, because they were all eating stuff which was killing birds. They didn’t want to think about that”
As were birds like skylarks, corn buntings and tree sparrows and it took nature conservation a long time to start to get that right. Of course it involved a change in focus from “we’re here to protect the rare and the beautiful and the amazing” which we [RSPB] did brilliantly, but also it was a problem of confronting real power, and upsetting everybody including themselves, because they were all eating stuff which was killing birds. They didn’t want to think about that.
C: I think in the case of Derek Ratcliffe, when I worked for Friends of the Earth and was doing that stuff with BANC, Derek was regularly giving me information about things. I remember asking him one day, why it was that the NCC as it then was, why they had failed to stop the afforestation of Llanbrynmair Moors in Wales, and it was a grade 1 SSSI, and how that happened, and he looked at me and said “oh, it was the intervention of human weakness” (both laugh). Meaning actually someone on his staff. But the point is that what struck me about him, and Dave Goulson is that they’re prepared in different circumstances but prepared to be unpopular. Intransigent you know.
P: With Dave, it’s lead to him certainly and so far as I know so far truthfully, not getting another grant from DEFRA and probably not from the BBSRC either, in his career, and it happened to Carlo Leifert a professor in Newcastle, who is another one who was prepared to stick up for us. Do you remember when we were at Greenpeace we asked him to write something for us.
“real trouble getting funding”
P: He said he would, and Aberdeen where he worked said he couldn’t, so he upped after you know, quite a while and no doubt there were other factors as well, and he left Aberdeen and went to Newcastle with a lot of money, he was working with TESCO’s money then as well. And he wrote it for Greenpeace. And more recently of course he did the nutritional meta-analyses which showed the difference in nutritional content in Organic crops and milk, dairy and meat. Funded partly by the EU and partly by the Sheepdrove Trust the Kindersleys.
And Newcastle University, I mean it got huge coverage, wide and very successful, in academic terms, it was in the British Journal and Nutritional three meta-analyses, a very prestigious journal. The university basically tried to squeeze him out because they thought this would end Newcastle University’s chances of getting BBSRC and industry money. He’s now a visiting professor in Australia and Norway, and not in Newcastle any more I imagine.
So these things come at a real personal cost, and Dave will have real trouble getting funding. Soil Association did a bit of his work, but you can’t replace big DEFRA and BBSRC grants. Carlo moved as well partly because, leaving the EU his main source of funding was EU, running big EU projects, and we can no longer do that from the UK. There are huge costs, in Derek Ratcliffe’s case it led to the break up of the NCC, from which they never really recovered.
[Note: I contacted Carlo Leifert, now a Plant Sciences Professor at Southern Cross University, NSW Australia, Director of the Stockbridge Technology Centre (STC) at Cawood, Selby, UK and a Visiting Professor in the Medical School at the University of Oslo. Carlo confirmed what Peter said. Leifert’s recent work includes papers on pesticide residues in organic and conventional wheat flour and nutrientcontent, in UK and Germany.
I also contacted Dave Goulson who is still at Sussex University. He said: “I haven’t got a NERC grant in more than 10 years, or any money from BBSRC for the last 7 years, but to my surprise I did get funding in 2018 from the Veterinary Medicine Directorate (part of DEFRA) to study neonics in flea treatments on pets”. ]
[The Nature Conservancy Council was broken up into several agencies including English Nature, which later became Natural England. In my view it progressively lost independence, resources and influence.]
Government and Research
C: How much do you think government in this country uses research and the absence or presence of it, and funding, to try and stimulate or stifle policy change, well not policy change but the direction of policy? [For example] I worked in a laboratory in Chelsea College where there was team with NATO funding called MARC Monitoring Assessment Research Centre, who looked at hard-to-study environmental problems like heavy metals, and early climate change. They were doing a lot of analysis of soil samples from London and these were used to make a map of all the contaminated land in intricate detail and then when [Michael] Heseltine wanted to develop it, this contamination was obstacle because you couldn’t use the land for housing. So they solved the problem by abolishing the map (P laughs). So that was a very obvious ‘change the numbers’ thing but a lot of it’s more subtle than that I think.
“the basic rule was you didn’t commission people to do work for you unless you knew what the answer was going to be and it was what you wanted”
P: Yeah when I was a Government Minister the basic rule was you didn’t commission people to do work for you unless you knew what the answer was going to be and it was what you wanted. Then it was done very subtly and carefully and worded by things like balance and so on.
[For example] There was a terrible part of the British sort of army military complex of propaganda against the IRA [which claimed the IRA were] corrupting youth, when actually Northern Ireland was very law abiding.
Communities were very tight and prior to the IRA starting fighting again you had much less youth crime. Then when there was youth crime defined by the troubles it was of course young people doing what older people were also doing, and approved of, rioting against the RUC or attacking Catholics depending on which side. So I inherited when I got there, some sort of major thing about this, but I got Laurie Taylor appointed, who was a left wing criminologist, to head up some committee to look at it all. Of course Laurie came to the conclusion I expected which was that they were very law abiding well behaved and it was a myth that they were being turned into criminals.
GM and Government
P: [So] there are obvious things, but [on the other side] I always think its quite life enhancing – the fact that we’ve spent millions and millions of pounds on GM research in this country with institutes like John Innes and Rothamsted becoming pretty-much GM research establishments for parts of their recent history; Rothamsted tried to get away from it a bit now, but not one GM crop has ever been grown commercially in this country. So governments can try and spend huge amounts of money, in that case with the support of industry, the food industry, the farming industry, the research establishment and still get little in return. But yes they do try, and its often in science that ‘what the accepted truth is’, is terribly powerful. In areas where change is happening, particularly areas where change is happening [that] is not friendly to the established power and economic interests.
So organic farming would be an example, the fight against showing that there’s so many nutritional differences in how you grow food. Even though in non-organic farming, they’ve long known that different levels of nitrogen produce different levels of defence compounds and therefore different levels of nutrients, in non organic crops. So it’s obvious that organic crops have lower levels of nitrogen still have more defence compounds, and produce more nutrients. But people fought against it tooth and nail, still are to some extent. So it’s self -interest, coupled with government money.
“Don’t forget government ministers are very temporary”
But don’t forget government ministers are very temporary on the whole, so their chance of influencing things is quite slim really. The longest I was ever a minister was two and a half years and it was only in the last twelve months I started to get a grip of things and actually do things that might have made a difference. Then of course as soon as you go, you realise almost everything you can do can be undone. As Obama is finding out with Trump. The longest lasting thing I ever did was in Northern Ireland – and I was interested in reading an autobiography by a guy who was a senior civil servant, who said the same thing of his career – was that we set up the charitable trust and charitable trusts can’t be …
C: easily gotten rid of, in fact very difficult.
P: Almost impossible. Unless they do something criminal or don’t do anything at all for 50 years or something. Which is why we’ve got the farmland [Courtyard Farm] run by a charitable trust. So the Northern Ireland voluntary trust which was only 2 or 3 million quid or something public money, a couple of million [was long lasting].
C: I often wonder what would have happened if instead of setting up the lottery for sport, John Major would have been much more interested in nature? We have the Heritage Lottery Fund but it’s outcomes and objectives aren’t actually about promoting or conserving nature, so everything needs to be done now through the filter of how many people … [it benefits] … .
P: Yeah, trying to get some money.
C: The measures they use for that are extremely crude.
P: Yeah they tend towards, some, the Norfolk Coast Partnership are trying to get money to do some work on the River Hun. A very short stretch of largely canalised chalk stream which they want to put some meanders in and things, and will be dressed up as community involvement. Not dressed up but they’re having to add all that in to try and get some lottery money. Don’t think they will.
It’s interesting isn’t it, because a lot of the money, all the money when I was first involved in WWF, back in the 70s, soon after I became a Lord, they wanted somebody from the Labour side, one person, [on the] WWF trustees, and I learnt a lot from that, that was when Gren Lucas [was Chairman], did you ever know him?
C: yeah yeah
P: wonderful man, I thought. But we gave quite a lot of money, most of the money for land purchase. Quite a bit to RSPB and County Wildlife Trusts but we got the Woodland Trust going, against in the teeth of opposition from John Parslow at the RSPB who was on the trustees. Didn’t like these new upstarts. Huge complaints about their lack of any ability to manage anything. I think their management has been better than many Wildlife Trusts over many years, very impressive right now.
Lord Dulverton and Tax Breaks
P: But then, you know, it was quite a stretch to give money to any policy things. We gave money to the Ramblers, towards the end of our time. I was on the allocations committee, for a report on forestry, and all the forestry tax break conifers you mentioned were happening and the Ramblers got a mole from either Economic Forestry Group or was it Fountain Forestry? One of the big ones.
“Eventually they came to some deal where he gave the money but it didn’t go to the committee which allocated it …”
They wrote a report explaining all the tax breaks and Lord Dulverton refused to give any money to WWF UK ever again (both chuckle). Eventually they came to some deal where he gave the money but it didn’t go to the committee which allocated it (laughs). We did give some money to some anti-nuclear thing but you know most of it went for land purchase.
So I am just worried that Lottery money, which has gone to land purchase would it have gone to policy stuff? You need to change things fundamentally. But then buying land and having nature reserves is important I’m not saying it’s not.
The Effect of Fund Raising
C: How do you think they compare with companies, NGO’s? In respect of being competitive brands, and resisting market entrants and innovation … ? If I’m having to talk to people who’ve never got involved with NGOs, I say “these things are more like churches, they’re more like belief organisations and they are like businesses because businesses, if you fail to make money you actually go bust and there isn’t really a mechanism for that in NGOs”. They can linger on forever on the one side, but on the other hand they do behave sometimes like very conservative businesses … If you look at where they spend most of their money, a lot of it is by necessity spent on fundraising one way or another, especially if you’ve got a large membership base and that’s what you’re getting your main funds from. Then that affects a huge amount of their communication, most of it and it affects sometimes, quite often their programme work, what they do and their attitude to the public. So my perception was in the 90s and 00s … the RSPB and the National Trust and the Woodland Trust … and to an extent the Wildlife Trust but in a less organised way, went in for a lot of sort of ‘satisficing’ of their members. So you’d get all these RSPB members driving from London to Titchwell to go and look at birds and not looking at the countryside in between, and having a sort of birdfarm experience.
P: I remember you telling me about that. Going from gardens where they were feeding the birds to where they were saving them – yes a bubble.
P: well I think there’s a lot in that. Although, a couple of positive things.
First of all its been interesting to see that to some extent there’s some reinvention going on or returning to roots. I think Fiona Reynolds did that to some extent at the National Trust, incredibly difficult because you’ve got such a huge entrenched mass of people and interests an expertise and resources all tied up in the things which I agree with completely that you were talking about. So to shift some into … I mean first of all showing kitchens as well as stately dining rooms, but that cooking by what they ate, where they produced the food and the kitchen garden looked like, and maybe talking about the oppression and the poverty that went with it. All of that was a huge struggle.
RSPB I think is still work in progress. Barbara Young made it more populist, but it had the problems you described of becoming tremendously supporter driven, with a 1 million member target. Which I used to think that involved recruiting at least a hundred thousand people a year, new supporters. Because you get at least a ten percent dropout, and probably the rate they were recruiting, higher. So they were on an incredible treadmill and I’ve noticed now they’ve dropped the 1 million members, clearly unsupportable financially and practically.
I always remember you tried to persuade me at Greenpeace that we ought to go for free membership, do you remember that? Which I think you were probably right about but as usual ahead of your time.
C: That was because that was what the online model looked like that it was going to be built on. The other thing I tried to persuade GPI to do was to give away all the photographs. Because they were trying to make money for no logical reason because they weren’t at the time short of money and it was an incredibly small amount of money. But if you looked at what people searched for, this was before social media, then they were looking for pictures. Mainly either porn or cats, they were the two top things, pets, and then wildlife so Greenpeace, all the wildlife pictures, and they were not putting many of them online. They didn’t do anything with all this amazing photography because they couldn’t. But the people running the photo library, ran it as if they were running a little commercial old fashioned photo library.
Morality and NGOs
P: Yeah, we’re still bad at that in the Soil Association, pictures. Getting slightly better.
The [second] big difference that always surprises me that people are surprised by, is that generally speaking I think the standards of morality in NGOs, are completely different to business.
“bits were clearly trying to do the right thing – but there was behaviour in business and the media which would have been unthinkable in an NGO”
I mean you get pockets of business – my son in law worked for Glaxo Smith Kline and you know there were bits there which were clearly trying to do the right thing – but you know they were driven by business models and all sorts of other things. There was behaviour in business and the media which would have been unthinkable in an NGO.
I remember, did I tell you that story when the Brent Spar mistake happened, and I had to go on Newsnight that night? [a mistaken estimate of the amount of oil in the Brent Spar storage buoy which Greenpeace revealed and apologized for]
C: yeah I remember watching it, you were very good.
“he said to me, ‘I bet you regret telling the truth now don’t you?’, and I was so gobsmacked”
P: Jeremy Paxman putting me through the ringer. And after we were off air – I wish this had been recorded – he said to me, “I bet you regret telling the truth now don’t you?”. And I was so gobsmacked, I couldn’t think of a snappy [rejoinder] … I mean he just assumed that everyone would normally lie about something like that, and to me it was just unthinkable that an NGO would lie. I mean they might try and keep quiet, at the most.
C: I remember after that the – it was either Sky or ITN – some of the journalists who liked Greenpeace, I remember them saying to us, I think Cindy Baxter was there, they said “why didn’t you just lie? nobody would believe Shell if it was a choice between you and Shell’ (P Chuckles) and we said, we were actually just about to do an interview or something and we said “mmm well we don’t do that sort of thing” and they sort of shook their heads, ‘what a shame you didn’t’ sort of way, ‘because now you’ve spoilt it you know, the people are all confused’.
P: And of course it leaves, I often think of that when I think of Save the Children and their current problems, it means that people in NGOs think it can’t happen here and it can’t happen to us. But of course occasionally it does, and Greenpeace was a bit more worldly wise. Partly because when it happened to us we assumed it was the French Secret Service. (Both chuckle). Which it was in a couple of occasions in France, deliberately bankrupting the organisation. So we were more cynical and suspicious but not in the sense that we thought decent NGO people were bad like that.
But um … competitive? There’s certainly an element of competition, I mean I find myself getting cross when I see Friends of the Earth claiming credit for something that I know Buglife have actually done all the work on. Like the neonicotinoids and bees and I suppose it’s motivated by the fact the Soil Association helped Buglife right at the beginning.
We got Matt [Shardlow] who runs Buglife to take a report they’d done to Downing Street where Gordon Brown’s wife had a meeting about bees, because she’d seen something on social media. It led, what was that guy … who was Brown’s environmental…?
C: Mike Grubb? [It was probably Michael Jacobs]
P: He helped chair a sort of policy meeting. After Sarah Brown had had a sort of general get together, and Matt presented … the report, and that I think was what got the government to do the research which eventually including Dave Goulson going back to him, he got some money from it … showed the neonicotinoids were having an impact. So I think we had an influence but it was Buglife’s work. Then Friends of the Earth weighed in when that research started to come out.
So there is actually a competitive [thing], and they did very well, and they did a public campaign and got more attention to it than the Soil Association or Buglife ever would have done. But you still feel… so there’s that competitiveness, but I don’t think it [does much harm].
C: I suppose what I’m trying to get at is that, is it do you think its in terms of getting effective change, is it better to start something new or to spend something new or to spend your time redirect or change an existing organisation?
P: I think it depends.
C: yeah it does all depend. But it is very hard to re-steer, I mean the National Trust, we were a bit involved when Fiona had her um ‘we ought to do something that should all be about striding around outside instead of just, all this stuff about houses’, I mean its not quite what she was saying but … going back to the roots of Octavia Hill and all that. We got involved in that project that she was starting and unfortunately she left after about a year. Then it all sort of fell to bits really but it was…
C: well it has sort of gone on in various ways but it was, the National Trust felt that anything that needed to be decided and led from the centre [was problematic] you know she was a sort of very much like operating osmotically by talking a lot about stuff in public and sort of usually very hand wavy terms.
It took quite a while for us to get them to, in workshops and things, with all these people, from all over with different layers and segments of the Trust, and all the senior people, to recognise there was a difference between just getting people outdoors and getting them engaged with doing something about nature. Having then established that there was such a difference, they went away for about a year to argue about it. (P laughs).
In the meantime she had committed to do something they felt so they had to say something and, we talked to the press people and that was why they produced their list of ‘things to do before you’re 9 and 3/4s’ or whatever it was, and then that was almost all they did and a few surveys [and a report Natural Childhood by Stephen Moss].
[Also] people in the middle of the National Trust like Tony Burton in his policy [group] … there were all these different silos, were starting to do innovative things but usually in the guise of doing the sort of things they always did. For example they’d been proselytising about local food, and all that stuff for years. They were saying nobody was noticing what they were doing, I said “that’s because you’re not really actually doing anything about it. When people go to your property they see tea rooms, and they notice that, because they actually go in the tearoom. Why don’t you turn some of your gardens from your houses into allotments?” and they did, they were quite radical locally.
P: And organic and certified with the Soil Association, and supplied food into the tearooms, and they got all the tearooms accredited to Food for Life, a Soil Association scheme, as have the RSPB. And that’s been driven by pressure from the farming group in the RSPB who are a progressive force for good. So you can get bits of organisations [changing].
The RSPB and Neonicotinoids
And I still use another thing you introduced [in Greenpeace] which was investigations. The Soil Association you may notice from time to time does investigations, so if you look at the movement as a whole… and right now the RSPB its sort of in the grip of an appalling scientific mafia they’ve created [laughs], science directorate or science […] they’ve called it something incredibly fancy. Do you know they haven’t said a single f****** word about neonicotinoids? From their introduction to their banning, from their science people. And they’ve been doing research on them for three years.
P: I send letters to David Gibbons [who was head of the science unit] … emails about the neonics. They’ve done some research on neonics, and I know for two reasons, one is I went to a science unit annual meeting when they had Dave Goulson speak. Which they must of thought in retrospect was a mistake.
And Dave talked about neonics and he’s got his slide showing how many seeds a partridge would have to eat to kill it, 4, 5 or 6 or something, from the dressing, seed dressing, very low number, of course its quite concentrated. So I went up to Dave Gibbons at the end of the talk and said you know, “in the light of what Dave’s said about partridges, are you going to do any research about this ?” And he said “Oh yes we are – we’re doing some”.
P: Then I met [ ] who worked as a volunteer as the RSPB – nameless – … been a volunteer on this research project, been watching grey partridge to see if they’d eat neonicotinoid treated seeds because one theory is if they are blue or pink or something they won’t eat them and [ ] said they found that they did eat them.
That was 2 or 3 years ago, they haven’t published a single thing: none of this has been made public. Neonics are now being banned, and the RSPB said nothing did nothing and had vital conservation information. It’s terrible really. To get Dave Gibbons to answer an email in under 6 months is something of a miracle, now we’ve got a meeting coming up with him which I’m not sure I’m going to be well enough to do later this week. That was one of the issues, anyhow.
P: It’s like the RSPB science team haven’t got a single person who knows about pesticides*, they’ve got 30 or 40 or 50 staff or something, can’t see a single toxicologist that may have changed since I last looked. It was certainly not well represented and you’d think they were the leading organisation that stopped DDT. Extraordinary turn around … The people who lead the battle against DDT with Ratcliffe, have been nowhere on Roundup, nowhere on Neonics. I think in the last 15 years we’ve seen this collapse in insects, totally unremarked, a collapse in insects is a collapse in huge numbers of bird species. Totally unremarked. Its really sad.
[Note: I looked into this story in 2020 and wrote a blog about what I found in a post on neonics – here. RSPB scientist Will Peach is an author of two of the papers on neonics, published in 2020, discussed in that post. *At the time of writing (August 2020) theRSPB profiles 50 members of its’ Centre for Conservation Science. Only two of the profiles – for Will Peach and David Gibbons – mention pesticides. It’s not clear if any of the staff are toxicologists. A further recent paper in Nature attributes large scale reductions in farmland birds in the US to neonicotinoid pesticides.]
[Peter was trained as a lawyer and had a remarkable ability to remember a brief and an abiding interest in drilling down into details and primary sources. This aside about ‘land sparing’, which he was a critic of, illustrates his appetite to spend time reading even quite obscure papers].
P: the science thing was set up as sort of semi-independent, scientific. It’s where Rhys Green [works] who I know well who’s a great land sparing [advocate], in a group in Cambridge under the ****** who believes in land sparing and keeps writing papers about it. Did I tell you about this?
They wrote a paper [that] defended land sparing paper showing you could produce all the food from intensive smaller areas and spare land for wildlife and they got criticised because it wasn’t reducing greenhouse gas emissions. So then they did a paper where all the spared land went into forestry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which of course didn’t do much for farmland birds to put it mildly but then they said you had to sacrifice them …
But I looked at what they were doing to get the increases in yield because we’ve had a yield plateau on wheat and all main commodity crops globally for several years now, haven’t been increasing in yield.
They assumed the 1% per annum successive yield increase, and of course a significant increase in the [greenhouse gas] output from livestock from intensive systems.
They had in one of these scientific annexes that nobody reads, supporting papers, they’d got this one percent per annum increase in yield, and I said to Rhys “how did you work that out ?”, he said “oh we talked to some scientists who know about it”. They’d talked to the GM people at John Innes and at Rothamsted (laughs), and then on the livestock side, they’d assumed the GM animals were going to be engineered to produce more and there’s absolutely no scientific evidence to back it up. But these were just assumptions hidden in annexes, anyway that’s a rant …
C: We were talking about..
“that applies to NGO’s with knobs on”
P: I was very struck by a lot of (Oliver) Letwin’s (environmental) speech when they (the Conservative Party) were still in opposition, saying that politicians should talk about emotion and beauty, ‘beauty’ was the word he used. I’ve quoted that a lot and I’ve thought that applies to NGO’S with knobs on.
C: When I give standard talks about you know, how to do public communication … with scientists, they’re sort of now interested … and NGOs who ought to know better … they supposedly do it all the time … I talk about heuristics, values and framing. They all think they know what framing is but they don’t by and large, and values is a bit challenging but heuristics – you could not have a simpler thing, because all it means is on average 51% more right than wrong. Because that’s how its defined and there’s lots of research gone into it with all these cognitive psychologists doing testing in labs, like Kahneman and Cialdini and all these people. The first one I usually show them is ‘liking’: if you get someone to like you they’re more likely to do what you ask or try and persuade them to do. You can see quite a lot of people are sort of affronted intellectually by this idea, and then slightly alarmed by it, and then tend to want to challenge any examples you give them. Like the cosmetics industry for example, the hospitality industry, and why you get free gifts, and why you have after dinner speeches after dinner and not before, you know and almost everywhere you go.
P: So how do you deal with some obstinate bastard like me who thinks that I agree with that, and I’m told it regularly by my colleagues at the Soil Association trying to calm me down a bit – and Tom Macmillan’s very good at this – he’s an interesting person to work with because and I’ve seen him to do it to some quite key people who started off very hostile, and who I was very hostile with – Tim Benton for example – who said foods are, don’t know if he still is but he was for the government and was a land sparing advocate, and his group at York I think it was University, big land sparing people.
I got quite angry with him and you know and exchanged things publicly and privately, and Tom appealed to his intellect, to intellectual argument, or discourse with him even not even argument and Tim’s now a significant advocate of the need for dietary change and extensification and so on; he’s not hostile to organic at all, and has worked quite closely with us in recent years.
So you’d think I’d have learnt a lesson from that but I haven’t really, because I do think that in the process of change, at some point in most of that, there will need to be confrontation with powerful interests, and so yes at some point. The difficulty is knowing when to switch which I’m probably not very good at.
The Switch From Confrontantion
P: We used to have this argument in Greenpeace all the time – when to switch from the confrontation and the direct action and the challenge, to lets do a deal, and we get together over breakfast – which we did do you remember with the Albright and Wilson pipeline, having breakfast in some hotel by Harrods? Which Steve Warshall organised through Greenpeace Business which [they] thought was a separate operation. We did the deal that they closed the discharge and the people arrested they withdrew the evidence of millions of pounds worth of criminal damage, that was a good resolution. But knowing when to make that switch and how to is difficult.
Strategy and Mindset
C: Yeah, and that’s partly down to strategy as well and it’s a sort of different question, it’s a different level of question but the application of things like heuristics is more like getting its a sort of mindset that people who have come from anything that tends to be called a discipline. Like medicine, law, science and economics, where you’ve been trained by and large, in my experience, to think in a particular way and think this is the way to get things done, and as a professional, it is. But there’s the constant pulling between the two. There’s this resistance which you don’t get in a lot of business and marketing and PR about doing those things.
P: wanting people to like you [getting people to like you]
C: Yeah, or things like social proof, showing lots of people are doing it, consistency, you’ve done a thing a bit like this and people like you tend to also do this other thing, all those ways of getting people to do things and if you look at how many campaigns are structured there’s very little, amazingly little use, especially in the on the nature conservation side of things.
P: Isn’t there a moving in your [values] groups from Pioneers to Settlers.
C: No, everyone is susceptible to them, but in some of those are much more…
P: Don’t the Pioneers quite like the common version?
C: Yes [taking] social proof as an example, the Pioneers have a much higher sense of self agency than the Settlers, [so] … the Settlers are automatically more effected by seeing everybody else doing it. As long as it is so ‘everybody else’ that it looks normal [Settlers change to stay in line with ‘normal’]
P: making things normal is a phrase I use when we were trying to make Organic normal
C: Prospectors want to be seen to be doing it if its seen to be ‘the right thing to be doing’, which means it could be the relatively recent but it’s the thing to be seen doing now. Then they need assurance it’s going to work, and they’re not going to look or feel stupid and their friends won’t think that. The Pioneers will say that they are not affected by these things at all, and … a subset of them will question it on ethical grounds: “is it the most ethical ?” – the Concerned Ethicals – and go round and round forever trying to split that finer and finer and think of new ethical things to add in to the mixture.
The Flexible Individualists, the most sort of Pioneer-y Pioneers in the sense of being self-reflective will want to do their own thing, and argue and adopt contrarian positions in order to discuss it.
But at the end of the day, they are all still influenced by the fact that they do see other people doing it. So although they will talk about it a lot … in consultations they all get all these people coming and asking loads of awkward questions and wanting to debate and debate and debate – a bit like having a change conversation in Greenpeace – it’s a very Pioneer organisation, … they’re typically attracting a whole load of Pioneers who want to talk, and that often feels like they’re resisting it, and at the end of day they don’t actually do anything to resist it. They’re just like: “it was good to discuss it”, they want to discuss it a lot.
“we can’t have it normalised”
P: The group that annoy me, are the group that, we’ve had a couple of them in the Soil Association council a few years back. Who are basically, are only there because it’s a tiny minority of, or they think it’s a tiny minority supporting it. You know we get all the, “we can’t have multi-nationals involved”, “we can’t have it normalised”, “we can’t, because it’s going to involve scale”, or “big farmers doing it or mass production, which will sully it and make it unacceptable”.
It seems to be stronger in America, particularly in the organic movement: there’s a real split in America which is not doing them any good at all. Although it doesn’t seem to be affecting the market much, which is interesting, its a very inside the organic movement split. This is [a] tax on big Organic companies, some of which we’d say were justified in terms of standards, but the level of venom, you know its always [higher internally].
C: Those tend to be the Concerned Ethicals, and it’s about sort of ethical one up-manship which becomes ethical authoritarianism as well.
P: Mmm and [as] a campaigner who’s trying to achieve change, I find it particularly aggravating, but when [corporates] do start to choose change they immediately reject it, and we had plenty of those in Greenpeace campaigns: the toxics campaign I seem to remember, being particularly well populated.
[external bird calling] There is definitely an oystercatcher around, they must be nesting here somewhere mustn’t they.
P: When you were saying do you need to start new organisations or reform existing ones I think BANC would be a very good example for me, of where starting something new and communicating what for me anyhow and I guess for a lot of other people were new radical ideas, was very significant
Yes I remember distinctly, I don’t remember how I came across it (Ecos, BANC’s journal), but it played a significant part in making me see that there were two sides to nature conservation, two different approaches, that ideology played a significant part. It was always good to see things about or by Derek Ratcliffe and the criticisms of the sort of non Derek Ratcliffe group, the individuals. But I remember it having a significant mind opening impact [that] wouldn’t have been possible through other means then. Now of course you’ve got Mark Averys blog and things like that.
C: blogs have sort of taken on that role or function, because the reason we started it was that being sort of arrogant young MSc students, me and Bill Adams and Charlie Pye-Smith mainly. But mainly me and Bill, wanted to say some things and we tried to get Biological Conservation which was the journal the one and only at the time really. It was run by a guy called Eric Duffy who was a bit curmudgeonly, and was a senior old ecologist, and was very establishment – he was nice enough in a way – but he wouldn’t publish our stuff because he said it was just our opinions. We said we thought a lot of the stuff he published was just peoples opinions.
P: the right opinon
C: yeah exactly, so eventually he got so annoyed with us he said “well if you think you’re so bloody clever why don’t you go and start your own journal” (P laughs) and we did think we were so bloody clever so we did. Keith Clayton at UEA, a geo-morphologist, was a lot more … [open minded]. Keith was … always saying, ‘Norfolks got to prepare for all the houses falling into the sea and sea level rise’, way before his time, which got him lot of attention but didn’t win him massive amounts of friends in Norfolk I dont think. Anyway Keith published journals and so he basically told us how to set up a magazine, he helped us, and there was a guy on the course I was on called Nick Pinder who he knew him well from Norfolk. So that’s why, and BANC has now become a much more stuffy entity which still exists. It does suffer from being in the blogosphere and I think now they’ve stopped actually printing their journals. It was a ginger group. Max Nicholson was very supportive of it, extremely. Max was you know an anti-establishment ‘Establishment Person’ if ever there was one.
“enormous shock I got in discovering Peter Scott was a real animal welfare enthusiast and radical”
P: I remember [with] WWF in the early days, the enormous shock I got in discovering Peter Scott was a real animal welfare enthusiast and radical, and how WWF liked to try and keep all that hidden. Interesting.
Peter Scott’s original design of the WWF logo
C: What do you think is happening and actually will happen to Organic Farming?
P: well, if you take a world wide view, while it’s still pretty irrelevant in quite a lot of countries, Russia, still very small in China, it’s growing everywhere, the recession in 2008, only knocked the market back in one little tiny offshore island, namely the UK. Everywhere [else] it carried right on growing through the recession which showed it to be remarkably proof against economic shocks in western Europe and North America. So the immediate future looks pretty positive.
from www.soilassociation.org in 2020
The interesting thing to me is how will we produce food with 80% cuts from current levels in western agriculture of greenhouse gases by 2050, to meet the Paris 1.5 degree centigrades zero carbon emissions net, thereafter. Pretty much all the science now points to the impossibility of doing that by intensifying production.
We talked earlier about, my little rant about land sparing, intensifying production and setting aside some land for wildlife or climate change or something, while ignoring the horrors you’re perpetuating on the rest of it. If you’re not minding wildlife or releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gasses one or the other you’re going to be creating huge diffused pollution, nitrogen enrichment, phosphate problems and so on.
So you have to go for a low input system and nitrogen is got into the system through solar power equivalent which is clover and alfalfa legumes, and from that follows you don’t need pesticides hardly at all: you want to rely on natural and vitatitive crops and livestock and natural controlled systems diversity.
All of those sort of things which apply to organic, really follow from what you decide to do about nitrogen. If you have a lot of nitrogen biologically fixed, you have to have a break crop whether its one in three annual crops within a year in India or two out of six years in Norfolk. You’re growing a legume to put nitrogen back in the soil and changing the farming, the rest of the farming system.
So I suppose I think its inevitable, it’s not a choice people can make, so the question is how quick, whether we can do it with some of the things that aren’t compulsory like the greater social justice, more public involvement and public access, you know those don’t follow from what you do about nitrogen.
Why Not More Conversion ?
C: Is it likely to happen on a larger scale, is it not happening in a big scale here because of the land control issues to do with lack of turn over of people in agriculture or what they’re taught in agricultural college or the land is so valuable for non agricultural purposes?
C: Why isn’t more conversion happening in this country?
P: Definitely there are two factors, one due to successive governments. Going back to our ‘normal’ discussion I think its because it’s seen as ab-normal, exclusive, for a minority, a tiny minority and therefore something that’s not safe to back as a Labour or Conservative government.
“it’s seen as ab-normal, exclusive, for a minority, a tiny minority and therefore something that’s not safe to back as a Labour or Conservative government”
Michael Gove and George Eustace, both of whom agree with all the things it does and the outcomes it produces, are still nervous about mentioning the word ‘organic’ in this country, That’s a function partly of the small size so it’s self perpetuating, partly it’s the mid way mid Atlantic position the UK always has on a lot of environmental stuff.
“alright for the Danes, and Austria can have over a fifth of its farmland organic but never in England”
I’m sure you and I were told, well I was told when I was a minister of the Department of Industry that “they can recycle in Denmark but we’ll never do it in Britain”, and then we were told that windfarms which was something that happened in Sweden and Germany but would never happen in England and so on and so forth. Now maybe it’s Organic- alright for the Danes, and Austria can have over a fifth of its farmland organic but never in England, and of course its inevitable it will be.
“the value of the drop in sales in TESCO’s accounted more or less for whole of the the drop in UK Organic sales”
But it’s also, the recession showed me very clearly that the power of supermarkets in choice editing what people eat is significant here and at that point TESCO’s were undisputed leaders, they saw the recession coming, looked over their shoulders at Aldi and Lidl and said ‘right we need to take high value high cost items off the shelf anf replace them with cheap items to survive the recession’. The autumn of 2008 they reduced their Organic offer very significantly, and a colleague worked out that the value of the drop in sales in TESCO’s accounted more or less for whole of the the drop in UK Organic sales.
There was some drop in ASDA and Sainsbury’s and Waitrose increased their sales, ‘box schemes’ increased their sales, specialist stores like Planet Organic and Wholefoods increased their sales. One box scheme, what’s it called … Abel and Cole, did the same sort of thing as TESCO’s and thought we’re going to have to sell non-organic to survive and they dropped their sales till they brought back Keith Able who sold it to private equity at a huge salary I have no doubt, to turn it around. And he did a Ratner and said ‘we’re selling a lot of non-organic rubbish I’m going to get rid of it all’ and they did and they’ve done very well since.
C: Aldi and Lidl, they’re Organic in Germany is that right? But not in the UK?
P: No they sell some Organic stuff here, not much, like with everything else very limited lines. One of them started with sort of potatoes, carrots and onions. But good quality, certifiable with the Soil Association.
C: I haven’t seen it in Aldi in Fakenham, but maybe Fakenham is right at the end of the change curve?
P: I suspect, yeah. I doubt we’ll see, there’s a new Lidl going up outside Hunstanton, I doubt we’ll see it there. There isn’t as much Organic as you’d expect at the Waitrose in Swaffham.
C: There used to be a lot more Organic, we used to get our food from Tesco’s because they had a lot of organic and then they stopped.
“we actually had a great conversation with some young new buyer in Tesco’s who said “… I can’t understand it, why we can’t get the Organic supplies we need, it’s an outrage what are you doing about it?””
P: Hunstanton has more Organic back again now, we actually had a great conversation with some young new buyer in Tesco’s who said “I don’t understand, I can’t understand it, why we can’t get the Organic supplies we need, it’s an outrage what are you doing about it?” to the Soil Association! Tesco’s single handedly having destroyed the market and driven people out of Organic.
C: Did Elaine tell you her story about the Organic tomatoes?
C: She’s been conducting a one woman campaign against I can’t remember which supermarket, I think more than one of them, by writing to them asking why the Organic tomatoes are in plastic. They’ve given one excuse after another, she’s gradually getting down to the truth which was it was in order to give them a marketing platform on the packaging and to make it look different and better and more expensive than the other stuff. “Of course she’s going do you seriously think people who buy Organic tomatoes want it to be wrapped in plastic” and I don’t know what’s happened…
P: It is a real problem for Organic in supermarkets but the real reason is they don’t want you to buy something loose, put it in a bag yourself that’s Organic, take it to the checkout and say it’s non Organic, and they lose the premium. So if you bought the tomatoes put them in a brown paper bag and told the checkout they’re ordinary tomatoes not organic she gets them much cheaper. Because there’s far less Organic than non-Organic it makes sense and you use less plastic actually if you package the organic and not the non organic.
C: But they could package it in paper or something.
P: They could package it in paper and we’re doing a huge amount of work… it’s interesting that packaging plastic debate, we’ve been dealing with for the last few years has been all about health risks and migration of chemicals into food.
C: Do you know Tamara Galloway at Exeter? She’s the sort of leading micro-plastic health researcher yeah she’s really good.
P: No, we’ve got an advisory group looking at what you can and can’t use.
C: Are you looking at the cellulosic and micro-fibrillated cellulosic plastic feed stock stuff from Finland?
P: No, we’ve looked for a long time at the company which Greenpeace business had at a Greenpeace Business conference which was the plant based plastics from America, which was part owned by Monsanto or Dow and I think they sold it. Their problem was that they built a factory in the middle of the corn belt and using GM corn.
C: These people are using wood.
P: Oh really.
C: Yep, and they’ve built huge bio refineries. I heard Tom Heap on BBC’s Costing the Earth … its called Superwood is the name of the programme. He went to Finland, it’s completely Scandinavian, Nordic, you know those sort of like ‘well this is er will save the world’ and the guy is going do you really think so and they’re saying ‘oh yes, oil is a disaster’ they’re so matter of fact. Their claim anyway is that they can, anything that you can make with petrochemical plastic, you can make with this stuff. They can make polymers. They can even make crystal, so they can make screens, stuff like glass out of it. Any fibres, so already viscose, rayon and stuff, are cellulose but the way they make those is often very polluting and this thing is 100% renewable, zero emission, factory now its in Finland. In terms of the plastic business from what I’m working on, looks like the largest single possible solution. [see this]
P: I mean it would presumably be similar to making plastic from plant based, from a crop like maize or something.
C: Yes although these are a combination of cellulose or lignin [so you can use any plant material not just food crops] … There seems to be quite a big shortage of people in NGO’s and sort of on the anti plastic side of things who are eco-toxicologists or toxicologists and ecologists who the NGOs don’t seem to have very much expertise available to do anything about this stuff. I think partly because there was the climate change effect, and everyone’s starting to work on that…
C: When I saw you the other day we were talking about agro-chemical companies like Syngenta and Bayer, the arguments inside those companies, about [new] business models. Can it be a high value sector, wrapping things up with advice and something or services and reduction of toxics that are just liberated into the environment. Most of those debates don’t seem to have lead to any yet, to any significant change?
P: I don’t think there will because there’s a real limit. I mean agriculture’s interesting in this country very highly subsidised, when I was a kid, because it was so subsidised and profitable, we had machinery people calling round every week, you’d have sales people turning up and they were selling agro-chemicals, fertilisers, and machinery, and it was clearly a huge market … there’s been consolidation as in all industries but the margins have got tighter, consolidation has meant, fewer people are buying fewer machines, buying bigger machines …
The scope for advice, in chemical farming is still there, because it’s got more and more complicated and more active substances being used on each crop, and you almost need a degree in chemistry to know what the hell you’re putting on things.
[Note: Peter also told me that because farmers now relied on consultants for advice rather than the old state advisers, there was mokre encouragement of ‘insurance spraying’, ie apply chemicals just in case there is a pest problem rather than when it occurs, as the advisers are concerned about being sued].
“one of the big farming companies … have a spray advisor and … 12000 hectares or something really big estate … he advises them on fungicides and using about a dozen active ingredients on a wheat crop, of one spray – fungicide – that’s apart from the insecticides, herbicides, growth regulators, and nearly all, all of them are mixtures of two or three fungicides … and he’s keeping his costs he was proud to say, at below £100 a hectare. So that’s 12000 hectares x £100 for one type of spray: a significant amount of money and that’s without all the other sprays, and the nitrogen and phosphorous and things”
P: I was reading the other day one of the big farming companies, Century, have a spray advisor and they’ve got, 12000 hectares or something really big estate of farms they farm for, and he advises them on fungicides and using about a dozen active ingredients on a wheat crop, of one spray – fungicide – that’s apart from the insecticides, herbicides, growth regulators, and nearly all, all of them are mixtures of two or three fungicides put on at once. I would guess he’s getting his information from the chemical companies but you know there’s money there, and he’s keeping his costs he was proud to say, at below £100 a hectare. So that’s 12000 hectares x £100 for one type of spray: a significant amount of money and that’s without all the other sprays, and the nitrogen and phosphorous and things.
C: People basically don’t realise this do they, how many chemicals are put on?
P: No, we’ve been trying to move away from – that’s we the Soil Association – from individual campaigns against things like neo-neonicoitinoids or Round Up, individual chemicals, to highlight the huge increase in the use of chemicals, and we’ve got data for potatoes, onions and wheat. 6-18 times increase from the 70s to now.
Coupled with that, all the new science which shows there’s no safe lower dose and its not true that the dose makes it poison because tiny doses have been shown through a knowledge of genes, a positive use of it, to effect the gene expression: very sensitive to minuscule doses of Round Up for example.
“the huge increase in the use of chemicals, and we’ve got data for potatoes, onions and wheat. 6-18 times increase from the 70s to now … new science which shows there’s no safe lower dose …
you feed an animal one realistic dose of pesticide, well below the maximum residue level, the allowed level, and then feed it a different pesticide, also well below the MRL, and the second pesticides impact is much greater than you’d expect. So it’s the succession that makes the dose …”
There’s been a very elegant bit of research, which makes sense I think as soon as you hear it, which says, looked at succession. So you feed an animal one realistic dose of pesticide, well below the maximum residue level, the allowed level, and then feed it a different pesticide, also well below the MRL, and the second pesticides impact is much greater than you’d expect. So it’s the succession that makes the dose not the dose. Given that we eat food in succession, well food has different pesticides in it, it’s not very comforting information.
C: There was a woman who worked at the when I worked at Friends of The Earth as a pesticides campaigner at the (BUPA) Nigtingale Hospital in London. Who was one of the few medical experts active in talking, speaking out about pesticides. I think she was originally an expert on allergy, allergic reactions to organo-chlorines, and that’s who most of her patients were. But I think she was also working on OPs and things, and she talked about that sort of affect when people are ‘challenged’ they called it, by exposure then becoming much more … sensitive afterwards.
P: That’s another factor in this, I mean there’s been a huge battle even to get organo-phosphates recognised as dangerous, making people very sick, killing them. Cancer Research UK – really really difficult to get them to accept there might be environmental factors in cancer. There’s been you know I suppose its sort of ‘this is the research we do, this is the hundreds of researchers and lots of money, genetics and other stuff’.
C: And it’s internal medical fiefdoms.
P: It is. The thought they might have to campaign against agriculture obviously fills them with horror. Or the fact they might have to tell people to eat organic. Same as Micheal Gove and George Eustace, you know, “oh it’s thoroughly elitist we can’t do that”.
Change The Name ‘Organic’ ?
“’who’s interested in soil?’ … but now of course it’s rather sexy”
C: Do you think we’ll be able to overcome that? Should organic just change what things are called?
P: No I don’t really believe in changing names … we had a big debate when I was there in the early 2000s about Soil Association, which shouldn’t be, you know soil: “who’s interested in soil?” but now of course it’s rather sexy.
So, no I think we’ve been doing some good things actually, partly luck as well as judgement and hindsight but getting organic into school meals.
Trying to get it into hospital food and workplace food so to take your point to make it normal. I’m beginning to think we haven’t been fierce enough, in making the point that I made a lot in Northern Ireland [about] leisure centres believe it or not. That just because somebody’s poor, you know Northern Ireland and Belfast this was, it doesn’t mean they can’t have a decent swimming pool to go swimming in. Or a decent gym, and because there was a big argument, one of the things I managed to do in Northern Ireland was to get leisure centres, which were funded by the Department of Education and Sport, built in working class areas. We were told if you built one in Andersonstown it would be blown up the next morning.
I went back after I’d left to open it, it’s still there perfectly happy and supported by the Provisionals while we were building it I think, very popular.
“just because somebody’s very poor why are they not allowed Organic food? It’s just an absurd elitest, horrible argument – it’s a British cultural thing”
Why should just because somebody’s very poor and lives in Newham or Tower Hamlets, are they not allowed Organic food? You know it’s just an absurd elitest, horrible argument.
C: Do you get that in other countries or is that a British cultural thing?
P: It’s a British cultural thing. It’s true it is largely I think, so maybe I should add to our why doesn’t organic do well here, government attitudes, Tesco’s and class. Class divisions, you wouldn’t hear people say that in Denmark would you.
C: I wouldn’t of thought so.
Labour, Conservative, and Environment
C: Do you think that do the Labour Party and the Conservative Party do you think they culturally get environmental stuff in the way that the public does?
P: No, I don’t. There are examples of people who do for one reason or another. I mentioned Oliver Letwin, [and] Michael Meacher was good from the Labour side, certainly on public access, public rights.
“farming has managed to be one of those areas which either sends one of its own into politics and government … or make itself into something … mysterious enough for non-farmers to feel they can’t venture there”
It’s interesting; farming has managed to be one of those areas which either sends one of its own into politics and government, so it’s an NFU representative in government, or, make itself into something which is, mysterious enough for non-farmers to feel they can’t venture there.
So, there’s a real hesitancy and one of the things we find in the Soil Association first of all, the huge advantage of being a farmer and doing Organic and working with quite a few other people like Helen Browning who’s my boss, who’s a very good organic farmer, and now runs an organic pub as well. The authority, some of it slightly spurious that you get from that, and so yeah they’ve managed to keep it sort of closed off.
C: If you look at somebody like say Jeremy Corbyn [then Labour leader], who you must know slightly?
P: No I don’t actually, may have met him once.
C: Do you think the latter reason about the mysteriousness and the sort of distance culturally of farming, is … an element of political competitiveness with the environmental movement. It became like a popular thing in the 60s or 70s, and it wasn’t the class war … ?
“maybe … there wasn’t a clear ideological issue they could get their hands on”
P: No I think it was just de-relevant, you know not relevant, partly maybe because there wasn’t a clear ideological issue they [Labour] could get their hands on. But its surprising that the obvious elements of conservative ideology of land ownership, of continuing privilege, coupled with in pre-Thatcher days, which she threw out the window pretty sharpish, and people like Lord Carrington and the old guard, felt quite strongly, and there are a few people around who still do. Michael Gove appeals to it, quite often, but they got away with that.
Labour never had an alternative vision to challenge them with, from I suppose a decline in Marxism and state ownership of land. I mean there’s still a debate back in the 60s and 70s but it never really got very far [see recent attempts by @guyshrubsole]. More so in Scotland and it remained an issue to which the SNP, it seems to me much more sensitive to.
C: Yeah, they acted on it to an extent.
P: Yeah on the land ownership thing, but they’re also at least in theory more sympathetic to good quality food for everybody and even Organic, in Scotland, than they have been in England. In practice they haven’t done that much but there is some, Aberdeen Council were always leaders in school meal provision for example in school meal quality.
I was going to say I think maybe we haven’t done enough to advance the argument that high quality food should be a right for everybody, and I’ve just been writing something for, which you might give to somebody who’s writing policy in this area of the Labour Party and thats an argument I started to make and I think I need to strengthen.
P: We also face the difficulty, and I found it in writing this piece, but all the politicians including Labour, work to defined silos, so food and health is different from environment and farming, different minister, different responsibility, and to write a policy paper which says you can’t think about one without the other is inviting trouble.
Turf wars, all that sort of bullshit, so I think that’s still going to be a difficulty. That should be the argument [poor people dersrve quality food too].
“it’s an overwhelmingly white middle class pre occupation that you shouldn’t promote organic because people can’t afford it”
It’s interesting, it tends to be white middle class people who say its unfair to try and persuade working class people to eat organic food. When you look at the work we’ve done in school meals I’ve always been struck by the more of the resistance comes from white working class than black and asian communities. Who are closer culturally to food and food production I guess, even though they may be even more disconnected from the countryside than white people are in this country and their culture is closer; cooking from scratch isn’t a shock to them in the same way that it can be for poorer white people. But it’s an overwhelmingly white middle class pre occupation that you shouldn’t promote organic because people can’t afford it.
C: How important do you think its been on food and farming and other things that you’ve worked on environmentally that we’ve been in Europe. In terms of ideas spreading or not from…
P: Very important.
C: It works in Denmark but it couldn’t work here stuff.
P: Yeah, and of course I’ve said the one bright spark of about this Brexit is that the EU will now be rid of the hugely conservative anti environmental influence that the UK, the malign influence we’ve exerted on everything from renewable energy to pollution, organic and everything else.
We’ve not been bad on climate change and not too bad on wildlife most of the time, not good on welfare which we always claim to care about, very negative on everything else including pesticides. Neonicotinoid ban is the first time we’ve ever voted for a ban on pesticides that I can ever remember, in the EU and that’s Michael Gove, and also the science had become so overwhelming.
I think the DEFRA Chief Scientist had started to switch sides and made it tricky for them.
So I think it’s been extremely important and it’ll be a great loss – the ideal would be we remain in the Single Market and have to follow the EU rules without having any say in them because the rules will get tighter and we’ll still have to follow them. Maybe it’s slightly malevolent but I think it’s true.
“a monumental tragedy and a cock-up”
No it’s [Brexit] a monumental tragedy and a cock up. Absolutely extraordinary, you know do you ever talk to anybody who’s an expert on any little tiny bit of it, and what you think is a tiny bit balloons into a huge complex miasma of unresolved questions. There’s a whole lot of stuff these are meant to be people on the right of the Tory party against red tape and bureaucracy and you know they’re hiring hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of new civil servants to write new, well not even new rules, but EU rules into British law.
The interesting thing, I mean there are unintended consequences and you’ve got a lot of people in DEFRA who are completely new to it who come in without the old MAFF legacy which was still knocking around because they lost so many of the old guard and Andrea Leadsom was sacking 20 or 30 percent of them, and they’ve now got that number plus 50% more or something back again and of course they’re all fairly new.
“organic’s always had the scientific evidence to back it up, it’s just not had the politics and the cultural commitment which you get in Germany, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, France …”
So they’ve come to it with a much cleaner sheet. Which is a good thing for things like Organic Farming because organic’s always had the scientific evidence to back it up, it’s just not had the politics and the cultural commitment which you get in Germany and Austria and Denmark and Sweden and so on. And now in France; France is seeing an extraordinary turn around from thinking ‘if it’s French food, it’s French food and it’s perfect’, and organic being a tiny part of production on the market, to being a very significant market and it’s on course to overtake the UK. That was NGO pressure partly the deal that what’s his name. Who was the president? Little guy?
C: Not Macron?
P: No, before Macron [Nicholas Sarkozy or Francoise Hollande].
P: They did it with Greenpeace and WWF in France. That’s what we were told by Carrefour. Because Carrefour were told by the government to make organic food available to everybody and they did their best to do it and sell it at the same price as non organic whenever they could. The market’s grown dramatically and production is now growing too in France.
C: The French are doing a lot of good things on chemicals.
P: and on pesticides.
C: Extended Producer Responsibility on plastics.
P: They’re good on RoundUp, they’ve been anti-neonics all the time, they are good. Mind you I met somebody I met somebody from the French Agriculture Department I had sent an email to who when I launched into an paeon of praise for the French at a DEFRA meeting a week or two ago, looked rather sceptical. As if you know there’d been a lot of talk which I picked up and not so much action so I thought I ought to try and have lunch with her in London some time.
Brexit Lessons ?
[note these conversations took place in 2018]
C: What lessons do you think campaigners and NGOs more generally should draw from the story of the referendum and Brexit?
P: Well, its a lesson, one lesson is that people can be in favour of things or do things not for what seems like the reason you’re asking them, the question. Or, I think that it sort of parallel is the protection of the North East Atlantic. You remember during the Brent Spar campaign, we had colleagues in Greenpeace international like Remi [Parmentier] at a conference or going to a conference to protect the oceans, to which dumping of oil installations was not directly relevant, and they all said that. I remember some people saying you shouldn’t do this now because its not relevant to OSPAR, I’m sure you told me, and I certainly saw from the experience that people don’t make these very direct mechanical sort of linkages: ‘this is happening its bad, we can do something’, doesn’t need to be a connection particularly but “its the some general area so lets do it”. I think the Referendum was partly, partly, less often explained partially explained by the fact that people were just fed up with Cameron, and the establishment and particularly the recession and cuts and things, and this was a way of expressing that.
I think one big thing was economics and you shouldn’t assume because the EU is a good thing, and rationally people should be in favour of it, that they will be. Because you may find their upset about falling living standards which is actually probably being not so bad because we’re in the EU but they’re upset about it so they’ll vote against the EU.
The thing I’m more conflicted about and find more difficult is immigration. You know I feel a personal twist every time I see one of those stories, things that other people have done to people … But I think there was an attitude in New Labour and probably one at the time I shared I suppose, which said prejudice against the number of immigrants, as well as where they come from, is racist and right wing and horrible. But of course, the fact is you cant have unlimited ‘people can go where they want’, its completely impossible and would lead quite quickly to violence. And this is despite all the you know, as I say the feelings of horror when you hear or read about the terrible things that are happening to people, and the sense that we can certainly take in a lot of immigrants without doing any harm, and in fact doing a lot of good; the fact that my family come from immigrants from east Germany originally, the fact that the anti-immigrant feeling is strongest in places like South Wales where there aren’t any immigrants, weirdly, you know, all of those contradictions and nonsenses.
But I think the sense that New Labour particularly, probably but [it] started with Thatcher and carried on with Cameron, that it was ‘out of control’ that there was, nobody had a grip of it was probably very damaging. And of course the irony is as soon as we decide to leave the EU they’re going to clamp down and have a system that probably nearly everyone in this country we’d find perfectly acceptable. So of all the many ironies of Brexit, that’s certainly one of them.
[Peter Melchett was a government Minister in Northern Ireland]
C: The Northern Ireland border question may yet scupper Brexit and amend it in ways not intended by the Brexiteers. Peter Haine said on the night of the referendum that nobody had thought about that. Do you think this says anything systematic about the UK political class or process or culture relationship with Ireland?
P: Yes. I think Northern Ireland is something on the whole, UK politicians will prefer to forget. And they did all, our life times up to, the outbreak of violence again. In the seventies. But as soon as the peace deal had been signed, which was quite an achievement I think, then it went off the radar again, I reckon.
It doesn’t fit with any sort of established ideological mainstream political discourse, it’s not rich vs poor, its on the whole the poor killing the poor, usually poor Catholics and poor Protestants but occasionally poor English soldiers get sent in and are killed in their turn. A left or a Marxist analysis would see the middle class upper class protestants and Catholics or republicans and unionists united in a unholy holy effort to suppress and make use of working class fears.
So it’s easily forgotten, and it was in the EU Referendum.
The idea that it could be big enough to forestall anything, would be seen as absurd in the context of that referendum debate, but of course Ireland is a Member State, and Ireland has a say in all this. Given that the EU want to make it as difficult as possible for anyone to leave, they’re more than happy for the Irish to cause difficulty, but the border was never that sealed anyhow. There’s hundreds of tracks and farm tracks and roadways and so on. Smuggling, moving stuff both ways across the border was a way of life. It’s all a bit academic.
C: When you were in Ireland did you get that, did that affect what you were doing? I know the government spent loads of money on it, but was it seen as something that was other from the rest of it – didn’t really have anything to do with politics as [British] people thought about it.
P: Yes. Except of course the bombing campaign on the English, Scottish mainland did make it a UK political issue. I don’t think the killings in Northern Ireland itself really did, and the sort of understanding of the dynamic of who was being killed and why, what kept it going and so on, was pretty minimal.
C: I was in Ireland a week ago and we went to a museum in Galway. Which is a great museum.
P: EU funded.
C: Yeah of course, I expect. There was one whole area, it was very much laid out for the education of local school children, I think that was the purpose. There was a big thing on the oceans, there was a lot of archaeological and historical stuff, there was stuff about the families that used to run Galway, the waves of French, Normans, British and English families, all that and how it panned out the history of the place.
But there was one whole room on the struggle for independence. Which of course most people in this country only have an extremely dim idea that anything happened before the 1970’s but there was a time wasn’t there when it was with Lloyd George, when it was very much a political question but that seemed to have sort of got lost from … I guess with the establishment from the Republic they just sort of forgot about all that stuff? When looked at from an Irish perspective it was all one long thing, but they also had the watershed of the Republic as established, and then there’s a problem in Northern Ireland that isn’t really their problem.
“come the border, from the Republics’ perspective they, gradually they lost touch with the North, the North was a foreign country, filled with foreign people, all the Unionists that they didn’t understand, didn’t relate to or have any cultural or political affinity with”
P: Exactly it isn’t really their problem. It was very interesting, by the way my great grandfather was sort of, he had a couple of things which were mentioned in political biographies, which defined his political position: he was in favour of votes for women and the Irish Republic. It was one of the major political issues at the time. He was in politics. You’re right that come the border, from the Republics perspective they, gradually they lost touch with the North, the North was a foreign country, filled with foreign people, all the Unionists that they didn’t understand, didn’t relate to or have any cultural or political affinity with.
“It was amazing to me, how difficult it was for example to get the Irish Republics’ education minister to visit the north. In theory they wanted to try and control the whole thing: in practice they wouldn’t even get on a train to Belfast to visit a couple of schools, it was that alien. They’d rather go to Lithuania probably”
It was amazing to me, how difficult it was for example to get the Irish Republics education minister to visit the north. In theory they wanted to try and control the whole thing: in practice they wouldn’t even get on a train to Belfast to visit a couple of schools, it was that alien. They’d rather go to Lithuania probably.
“decades of discrimination which needed to be not just ended but reversed”
So they put it aside, the British put it aside until the army went in, you’d have to say, once they’d seized the problem, there were people in the British establishment and successive governments and civil servants who grasped the complexity of what they were dealing with. And accepted that there’d been decades of discrimination which needed to be not just ended but reversed, which was part of what I was doing when I was there, even handed administration really. People who understood that,
A violent campaign of the sort the IRA were waging depended on popular support so you weren’t going to defeat it militarily but you could defeat by removing the water in which fish swim and all that sort of stuff.
It was true, towards the end, you saw more and more Provisionals being arrested, and that was information that wasn’t sudden change and security, more informers probably. But that reflected a change in public attitude.
“the Provisionals had a real impact … their campaign did change Northern Ireland, it’s now a much fairer country”
It’s interesting how the various groups that have been called terrorists in our lifetime and how Bade Meinhof occasionally gets mentioned in the news, but its nothing, and the time it seems some huge great violent [thing] and they killed lots of people and kidnapped and god knows what but the groups with widespread popular support like the ANC and the Provisionals had a real impact. The Provisionals did, their campaign did change Northern Ireland, it’s now a much fairer country.
You know, when I went there, there were still people who thought that you got a hospital bed by knowing the minister for health and you went to see him. Somebody actually came to see me, and (chuckle) and the civil servants were all really embarrassed about it, as a sort of shady past they wanted nothing to do with they were very decent people, on the whole. They were all terribly decent people on the whole, and literally a woman in a mink coat turned up in the DHSS.
C: In the south there are still scandals about exactly that sort of thing, only it’s not individuals going to hospital, it’s building hospitals in my constituency, which I think was just what’s happened but its hospitals or special schools or something very recently.
P: And of course it happens in the north all the time, under the Unionists rule but you know its a small country, one and a half million people it doesn’t take much to change it actually.
What Should NGOs Be Doing ?
C: what do you think NGOs ought to be doing that they’re not doing? My big thing is that none of them have done anything effective to make the public literate in nature, being able to recognise things like natural history and that sort stuff of completely fell out of the cultural and educational system with lots of consequences, blindness to nature really.
P: That’s interesting because I would have said one of the things we’ve focused on in our school meals work is trying to make children literate in food, I mean what does a chicken look like, is it something white with no feathers and size of a chicken leg and wrapped in plastic, or is it a bird with feathers and beak that lays eggs.
We find that literacy in food is a big reinforcer or a necessary pre condition you can almost say to a healthy diet, so behavioural change follows a necessary understanding.
So I’m sure you’re right that knowledge about nature would then make people more aware of the threats.
“I’ve definitely noticed a distinct drop in insects … used to be a real nuisance at times … wasp invasions every summer … huge quantities of flies in the house in the autumn … flying ants in the garden … the frequency and quantity has gone down dramatically”
But I’ve been interested, in the last 10-15 years, last five years maybe, I’ve definitely noticed a distinct drop in insects. The sort of you know they used to be a real nuisance at times, we used to get wasp invasions every summer, or a wasps nest nearby, we’d get huge quantities of flies in the house in the autumn, we’d get flying ants in the garden and things. I mean there are still examples for all those things but the frequency and quantity has gone down dramatically, I was thinking this walk Cass and I had the other day and we saw four different butterflies, the yellow brimstone, there was a gatekeeper, gatekeepers used to be really to a penny on the farm, all over the bloody place, now its really rare to see them.
C: So anyway you were saying there’s been this massive drop in insects.
P: Yes, yes but have people noticed?
P: I mentioned it to Cass or Jay, my son and things and it sort of passes people by a bit. I suppose I only really became acutely aware of it when I read scientific reports, about the 75% drop in insects on German nature reserves. I read another paper the other day about dramatic drop in hoverfly’s I think it was, but this was recent.
C: Yeah it is recent.
P: so it’s not the 70s or 80s
C: so what is going on ?
P: The neo-nicotinoids are persistent and get off the fields and into the margin so that’s obviously one. And neonicontinoids are not just used on farms but you know pets, and garden insects,’ and so on, so that must have had an impact. But I think fungicides … the next big scares I’ve been saying this for a while, will be people will be recognise the impact fungicides are having…
C: I said that to a guy at the Woodland Trust I’ve been corresponding with about ash die back, there’s sudden oak death, theres a whole load of ‘new’ diseases, and I was saying it doesn’t make [sense], why are all of these things happening. It may just be a coincidence but it seems a strange one..
P: I have a theory that the trees on this farm are more resilient. Let me just point out the window, there are…. hedgerow, you see the ash coming in to leaf-
C: It’s a healthy looking ash tree.
P: The one next to it is not quite so healthy but the next one is. All three of them looked as if they were getting die back when it first happened the first summer it happened, the ash and the wood the older ones are alright, the younger ones, we may have had one or two die. Those are Oak mainly I think not in leaf yet, but we’ve had no…
C: I was looking at them when I arrived I was thinking they look unusually healthy.
P: We’ve got too old, middle aged Ash on the road, the road from Ringstead to Docking. They both looked as if they had ash die back, and they got the forester when he came to do our tree work in the winter to lop some branches off in the road, in case it fell down, thinking we were going to have to knock trees down the next year and they’re both perfectly alright.
C: That’s good if they are. If you actually do have healthy trees then the Woodland Trust and the forestry research people would be up here like a shot.
P: Yeah well don’t want to tempt fate I’ll wait.
C: I said to him a while ago, that I remember when I worked on acid rain air pollution and the Forestry Commission in this country saying “oh nothings happening”. You know, they sent pathologists, who find disease organisms in things that are dying. They said it was due to this rot and the other sub-top-die-back, so I asked “what exactly is sub top die back?” and they said “itis when the top bit just below the top dies back”, and I said “but why?”, and they said “we don’t know why” – but they had a name for it. Then they just moved on. He was saying “yeah that’s exactly what’s happening like there’s another disease that’s killing all the juniper trees”, native junipers which nobody talks about. He said the forestry research people just wash their hands of it, they’ve given it a name and they’re just ignoring it they’re not giving any research. I said with ‘Waldsterben’, acid rain related air pollution decline they discovered its the combination of this dissociation of the mycorrhizae affecting the nutrition of the tree and making it vulnerable to these other things and that was connected with ozone damage and changing the stomata which was upsetting the balance between the respiration and transpiration, and of nutrients and the acidity removing cations and so on. There was all these things tied together, but in Britain there was hardly anybody knew anything about mycorrhizae, whereas the first thing that you learnt was in forestry school in Germany, they get down and that’s immediately what German foresters do, they get down on their knees and expose the roots and look at the mycorrhizae – they don’t ever do that in this country. So you could see that with fungicides you know … and how about micro-plastics because they’re carrying all these other chemicals so because they’re completely ubiquitous it’s an heroic assumption that these things have no effect. Especially for fungicides because they’re supposed to have an effect.
P: Yeah as I say earlier if you look at the quantity and variety of the fungicides now being used, a dozen spray times, eight different active ingredients, it’s extraordinary. In the old days you might spray once or twice and even that was having a really significant effect on insects when they were first introduced which Dick Potts discovered through his modelling of the grey partridge populations.
C: I remember reading about it some time ago.
P: Now you’ve had this sort of hidden, you know in secret huge increase in the number and variety of fungicides being applied. There was an Ash disease thing in the 70s which they never found out what it was. I certainly found that depth of ploughing was having an effect and disturbing the roots and we’ve got Ash that died in that thing where they sent up a whole lot of suckers and some of my personal work on the trees on the farm, cut them all back except left one to go up, there’s two on the way down on the road there on the left. Now with wider margins and shallower ploughing, they’re thriving, and of course no fungicides being used on the farm either.
C: I suggested to Adam Cormack [now at the Woodland Trust] in the Wildlife Trusts and to Friends of the Earth, to Craig Bennett [now at the Wildlife Trusts] who tends to agree but then nothing happens, that they ought to monitor chemicals in nature reserves to show that whether or not – I mean I’d be astonished if there aren’t lots of agrochemicals in nature reserves – seeing as they’re surrounded by them. In order to give them a line in the sand you know argument, that these things should now be surrounded by buffer land which is either organic farming or its taken out of farming because otherwise they’re no use you know.
P: Just to jump back to the discussion about the sort of people who work for NGO’s I think one of the problems is that if you are a real expert and trained scientifically or academically you’re much more conscious of your level of ignorance, and it worries you much more, so farming is really pretty simple, not that complicated. That’s another reason why those people are sort of nervous about moving into a new area, taking a sideways step, going forward, going down a different track towards their goal. They think they’ve got to stay where their expertise lies. See that with Friends of the Earth people sometimes. Even really good people they obviously feel a bit nervous about straying outside their area of expertise and they shouldn’t I mean nobody’s that expert, and when they are they’re usually talking bullshit .…
C: They can commission and advise, work with them to work out what it is you’re going to say you want to happen. Then they don’t have to have done it all. But I do think they [many NGOs] need to have more capacity to actually do stuff and that’s partly a lack of investment so for example they’re quite, their culture is very much we’ll comment on something and not “we’ll go and find out for ourselves”
P; Yeah we [Soil Associaton] have that problem sometimes, and to actually get someone to identify something we can do and do it, and they’re so bloody busy commentating on what the governments about to do or not going to do.
C: and social media has probably made it worse, because it gives a guaranteed, you control the publication opportunities, but then the only people reading it are the ones who probably already agree with you.
P: Yeah or the professional people who disagree with you, being paid to argue with you, keep you busy yeah.
Downsides of Political Consenus ?
C: There was a lot of British cross-party consensus over Northern Ireland partly because nobody actually wanted to have articulate views about it because it seemed insensical. The same thing happened in climate change, that helped get an Act but did it actually kill it as an issue that people wanted to compete for politically, because it was just sort of seen as a government thing, not politics?
P: I think it [environment] was in that box by and large, ever since the end of the first post war Labour government. I would have said, and it may be partly ‘rose-tinted’, but the post war Labour government as part of the new settlement after the war, saw things like access to the countryside, National Parks, having a beautiful countryside, protecting it and so on as part of that general ‘we’re moving to a new world’, with the NHS and social security and so on.
“There was never any ideology was there in it, was there ?”
I suppose, I haven’t thought about this but following that through, maybe it quickly became a bit like the NHS that you know that nobody could be against it. But then, I’m pushing this too far, but … it was deemed seen as settled politics, there wasn’t a big ideological argument we had once you’d got the NHS and it was in place, once you’d got the national parks and SSSIs, and even then they became or agricultural policy, a bit more of a political, not party political but political media issue through the 70s and 80’s. There was never any ideology was there in it, was there ?
I mean straw-burning wasn’t seen as a terrible thing that capitalist land owners were doing while working class motorway drivers piled up on the M1. We never framed like that by anybody including all the environmentalists, and attempts to make it to do with land ownership never got anywhere. So politics moved to the right since the … [microphone muffled] I think I’ve still got still got this poster Scottish Labour post-war election which is just a poster saying ‘take land into public ownership’. A major political poster. You never saw that through the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, no.
Countryside – “It should be a gift to Labour”
P: So yes, it got put in that box or I’ve argued for years and years if you look at the Labour Party’s record, particularly in the post government, a few things since, and you link things like, public rights to wildlife to enjoying wildlife and access for countryside, and countryside being managed in public realm and private interests and so on. It should be a gift to Labour. But their politicians are mainly urban.
C: I remember talking in the 80s or 90s, being asked to go and see Mandelson, before Blair got elected, by Stuart Boyle I think if you remember him. Because I’d been saying I didn’t think Labour would ever do much on environment because they didn’t have any visceral connection [with it], unlike people like Richard Body in the Conservatives, you can see the Conservatives who did. He got me to see Mandelson and I went and talked to him, he was pretty hostile, he said “well why not” you know, and I said you don’t have any baby-kissing or anyone who could lean credibly on a gate and talk and look comfortable doing it. He didn’t like this because he could see it was true in his sort of terms …
P: certainly yes (laughs) I can’t remember what the rest of the conversation was but it very didn’t last long. I mean he was a sort of apotheosis of [‘urban Labour’] .. he’d be comfortable sitting around Cameron’s …
P: or on a yacht
C: on his yacht in Corfu, yes but not only that. Also along with being comfortable about people getting [‘filthy’] rich, they also seemed comfortable about things like seven or eight Earls and Lords owning most of Norfolk.
P: I had a similar conversation, my mum invited Mandelson to dinner, through Adam Bolton who my sister was married to, it was awful.
C: I’m a great admirer of his political skills, but not the way necessarily he’s used them.
P: But it’s been to the great I think disadvantage of the environmental movement that there hasn’t been that political ideological debate because it just takes it off the agenda, takes it off manifestos, takes it off lists of Bills to passed.
C: And it doesn’t signal that there’s a career of being successful at this. Michael Gove’s recent antics being slight exception.
first time … since the ‘47 Agriculture Act, an actual discussion about direction of agricultural policy. Extraordinary, and interesting.
P: Well its a major post war exception really, first time we’ve had since the ‘47 Agriculture Act, an actual discussion about direction of agricultural policy. Extraordinary, and interesting.
C: Because he looks as if he might actually do something, exposes the fact like you were saying like before its a bit like a ‘house of cards’, you only have to change one or two major things and the whole thing changes. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.
The Effect of the Wildlife and Countryside Bill
[In UK nature conservation circles Peter Melchett became famous for being the main mover in setting up and then chairing Wildlife Link, a coalition set up to coordinate lobbying over what became the 1981 Wildlife and Countrtyside Act].
“it was interesting that bill you know it did something [I] didn’t realise you could do which was they changed the mood or the context for SSSI’s”
P: … it was interesting that bill you know it did something [I] didn’t realise you could do which was they changed the mood or the context for SSSI’s. I mean up to 1981 even through the bills passage, SSSI’s were being destroyed. Do you remember there was a wood in Sussex I think where the farmer went in with the bulldozer and bulldozed the trees at chest height and then the Nature Conservancy Council kept it as a SSSI because the ground flora was still [intact] … so it didn’t work but that’s the sort of damage and destruction.
C: There was a guy in Kent a farmer who said to me after they bought in compensation payments for farmers, he said “now”, and that’s when he’d ended up running an RSPB reserve [on a marsh he had tried to drain], he said to me, “now we’ve got the teeth to enforce a compromise”. A mixed metaphor, meaning…
P: Phillip Merricks?
C: Yeah Phillip Merricks, meaning they’d make a whole load of money [conservation payments]. But this other guy [also] in Kent and on the edge of Romney Marsh, was in a tv film called Butterflies or Barley. A friend of mine was the local ARO for the NCC and he had to deal with him, and I think it was probably him who got him on the TV, and he was a big NFU enthusiast who was the county person or something: Hughie Batchelor. I remember he was proud of what he was doing, they filmed like a sort of row of combines coming down this massive field he owned, on this big hill with all the dust going up as if they were like tanks in the battle of Stalingrad. They’d got him [on] because he’d been blowing up hedgerows, they’d got him to blow up the hedgerows in the background as it happened, and so it looked like a battle right? They had this on the TV and my then father in law saw it who was a Conservative supporting small business man in Surrey, who ran an engineering company, and he saw this and it sort of made sense [of] what I was complaining about. But what he was really incensed about, was that this chap stood there with this brand new Land Rover with his hand on it and his leg up on the side, saying “they look after us the Ministry of Agriculture, even the tool box in this Land Rover is a tax deteductable expenditure” … something like that, and this is entirely right and proper. He was beside himself with apoplectic rage at the fact that they were getting all these subsidies, that he wasn’t getting any of. That was when quite a lot of business people turned against the farming system but it wasn’t really sustained because they didn’t have much to do with it. Once the focus of that legislation stuff disappeared.
P: Yep. But what it did was change the mood from it being alright to destroy SSSIs unless you were stopped or got compensation or something, to a general feeling that they should be safeguarded and not destroyed, definitely a mood change.
Farmers Cheating On Taxes
P: So its interesting, I was reading some comments from the recent DEFRA consultation and the Agriculture Bill they’ve been consulting [on] … one farmers’ response to the question ‘why don’t you make more profit’, one answer was “we put all the profit through the books as expenses so we don’t pay tax”. And another answer was “I put all my living expenses on the business”, you think these people are replying to the government trying to get continued money from the [!] …
C: You were saying that you were they were replying to the government …
“we don’t make any money because we’re cheating on our taxes. So the attitude that ‘it’s our money and we should be given it’, is still surprisingly prevalent”
P: Replying to the government yeah for continuation of money after we leave the policy [EU Common Agricultural Policy], we don’t make any money because we’re cheating on our taxes. So the attitude that ‘it’s our money and we should be given it’, is still surprisingly prevalent.
Ravens and Hen Harriers
Campaigning on Hen Harriers (being shot on grouse moors) in 2020
C: What about all this stuff about Ravens and Hen Harriers and the current things that Mark Avery and people have been talking about do you see that as a resurgence of the shooting lobby asserting itself or as its last gasp in public debate?
“weakness by the RSPB … they know where they’ve been killed they know who owns the land, every time a Harrier’s killed there should be a press release …”
P: I see both of them as weakness by the RSPB, frankly.
I think Mark’s right. ‘Mean the RSPB should have been naming land owners where Hen Harriers are killed for 20 years at least, they’ve known there’s a pattern of the estates, nearly all managed by one or two managed by one or two management companies. So there are management companies. So there are management companies that manage grouse moors, and they mapped all the Harrier deaths I heard this from them, I don’t know what the percentage is, 70 or 80 or more percent just fall in, under two management companies, apparently.
C: Really ? I’ve never heard that
P: Hmm. But anyhow I mean they know where they’ve been killed they know who owns the land, every time a Harrier’s killed there should be a press release saying Lord X or whatever it is Stuttgart or whaterver it is German, or the land owner has had a bird of prey killed on their land. Don’t need to say they did it, or they ordered it or turned a blind eye to it … they should name who manages the land and they should be running a really strong campaign, to say that before farmers get any public money they should stop the killing.
Which the judge said in Norfolk do you remember the case for all those buzzards and things were found: ‘this is not good agricultural and environmental land management, lose 10% of your basic payment, for a big estate, you are talking about hundreds of thousands of pounds, second offence 25%’. It would stop it, you could stop it within months, the whole thing.
“they should be running a really strong campaign, to say that before farmers get any public money they should stop the killing … which the judge said in Norfolk do you remember the case for all those buzzards and things were found … lose 10% of your basic payment, for a big estate, you are talking about hundreds of thousands of pounds, second offence 25%’. It would stop it, you could stop it within months, the whole thing”
C: Why do you think the RSPB is like that? Is it because they become a sort of satisficing organisation they just want to keep their members happy visiting nature reserves and don’t want to rock the boat or …
P: There’s obviously an element of that, I mean there was, I was on the RSPB Council back in the early 80s and there was then. The Reserves Department was staffed by people who spend their lives desperately trying to get on with neighbours to stop them killing the rare birds when they strayed a few yards from the reserves: happened here at Titchwell. Norman Sills who was the warden back in when the 1990s, spent a huge amount of time trying to get on with gamekeepers on Steven Batts and other estates near Titchwell, where at that stage there were only two or three Marsh Harrier nests in North Norfolk, trying to stop them being killed when they came hunting over the fields. And the pheasant release pens…
C: That has all changed, you travel all over Norfolk now there’s an awful lot of marsh harriers you see them all over the place
P: And now Kites, Buzzards, and on the fens.
C: People just aren’t shooting them.
P: No … The RSPB … it is a bit of a mystery, I think they’ve had since Ian Prestt they’ve had bosses who’ve had other priorities. I thought Mike might be a bit harder but not.
Were you involved in the Crow Act [Countryside And Rights of Way Act], and generally do you think British attitudes to private land mean attempts to democratize access to the countryside are doomed? It seemed to me the Crow Act was sort of temporarily raised this idea of more public access but then seemed to have not had much momentum behind it.
P: I think that’s probably true. I’m a bit distant from it all, I had a sort of part to play when I was President of the Ramblers, so this was 1981-4. I think one of my – you had to make a presidential address at each AGM – and for one of them, I wasn’t sure what I should say, and I remember talking to Marion Shoard and she said “why don’t you propose a general right to roam like they have in Sweden?”, and she sent me some stuff about Sweden.
So I made a speech at the AGM, and the Ramblers were and generally are in a sort of holding the fort defensive mode of trying to stop rights of way being extinguished, and to register rights of way which are there but not on the definitive map, I mean its a fairly defensive posture. There’s been … it’s fair to say campaigns for new long distance paths, like Peddar’s way NN coast, the Thames way was one of the most significant and so on. But the idea of a huge increase in access has basically wasn’t on their agenda and I think it started that discussion a bit.
Then I left and was at Greenpeace and wasn’t involved particularly. I think the Crow Act was it was Micheal Meacher wasn’t it, I think it was, it gave access to land which in the end my impression was, was land which not only did farmers not want to farm but it was actually land that people didn’t really want to walk on much. Bit like saltmarsh, and so I never saw it as say looking from outside, as being especially significant, although I’m sure there were local instances where it was where it gave access to commons and things.
I think the Coastal Path is probably more significant. I had a training session for Natural England staff a few years ago and I said of all the things you’re preoccupied with of all the things you’re doing, the one thing which I think is certain to be remembered is the Coastal Path. What I’ve seen and its only tiny bits, the changes they’re making to the coastal path, because they’re improving the coastal path not because of CROW, look to some of them be good. The bit where it comes inland from Thornham they’re going to change that to keep it on the coast. I wouldn’t say its landmark legislation to put it mildly.
C: On a different subject about the curlew, Cass was telling me about your story of protecting the curlew. Meaning getting it off the shooting list I think? What happened there?
P: Yep. Well when the Wildlife Countryside Bill was published, in 1979 I guess, there were a lot of species added to protected lists including extra special protection for bat roosting and badger sets.
But on the European whatever it is, Birds Directive, there were several species added to the fully protected list including the curlew. I think various duck and things, anyhow, the House of Lords, the curlew wasn’t on the original list but the House of Lords agreed and an amendment which Lord Chelwood [Tufton Beamsish] known in Private Eye as ‘Sir Bufton Tufton’ and I promoted. So I was the Labour front bench and he was the Tory backbencher, and he was very right wing, but like you said earlier one of those Conservatives with a natural feeling for the countryside.
I remember my dad telling me that he tried to eat a curlew and it tasted like wellington boots boiled in saltwater for three weeks
A feeling and understanding which went beyond “we want to shoot as many things as we can” sort of ignorance, it was informed connection. So anyhow that passed in the House of Lords and I had history with curlews. They were shot, when I was a kid of course and up until then. I actually shot at one once at the top end of the farm, I was out pigeon shooting with a gamekeeper and he said “oy take the shot”, anyhow I missed. I remember my dad telling me that he tried to eat a curlew and it tasted like wellington boots boiled in saltwater for three weeks.
So anyhow the Bill goes back past the ‘Commons after we debated 1,200 amendments more than any other Bill up to that point, the Commons rejected most of the amendments, including all the ones taking things putting things on the protected list. The MPs had obviously been given a briefing by the shooting lobby, just to not accept any as a principle.
Lord Masereen and Ferrard took a silk handkerchief out of his breast pocket and said “there’s absolutely no problem my Lords, with bulls all you have to do is drop a handkerchief in front of them”
So it came back to the Lords with all these birds taken off, we had some group debates and Lord Masereen and Ferrard … there was a debate about whether you could keep bulls on fields with public footpaths through them or whether it was just dairy bulls and beef bulls were safer and blah blah. Lord Masereen and Ferrard took a silk handkerchief out of his breast pocket and said “there’s absolutely no problem my Lords, with bulls all you have to do is drop a handkerchief in front of them”. (both chuckle) The idea of this little silk hanky dropping in front of several tonnes of charging Charolais …
There was a Scottish peer … we were debating whether you should ban shooting on Sundays because the law varied … He got up and made an impassioned speech “as a Scottish land owner … shooting on Sundays – tradition part of Scottish heritage” and sat down. And I got up and said “but Scotland doesn’t allow shooting on Sunday’s it’s illegal” … it was bad taste to have pointed it out
There was a Scottish peer, can’t remember his name, and we were debating whether you should ban shooting on Sundays because the law varied, it’s banned in Norfolk but some counties allow it. He got up and made an impassioned speech “as a Scottish land owner you know I own this Loch and this moorland and shooting on Sundays – tradition part of Scottish heritage” and sat down. And I got up and said “but Scotland doesn’t allow shooting on Sunday’s it’s illegal”. (Both chuckle). Oh god.
C: What did he say?
P: I don’t remember, it was bad taste to have pointed it out though. (Chuckles)
Anyhow, Tufton Bufton Lord Chelwood, true to that old sort of Tory, I’ll always remember Lord Carrington reminded me of it, who resigned over Falklands sort of [Conservative] upright, very moral, probably crooked but honourable yeah.
He moved the amendment again and I supported. It was the only amendment which went back from the Lords to the Commons which the Common’s subsequently accepted. There were others that were more controversial I mean bat roosting areas and things and anyhow. It was an interesting Bill. … I do think of it and we have more curlew now than ever before and over organic, and we have big numbers in the Autumn well big, 20 or 30 40 50 sometimes. And spring and sometimes a few stay all winter now.
C: Well look, that was really interesting talking to you, not sure what we’re going to do with it.
P: Yes nice to reminisce, dangerous activity.
Campaigning from beyond the grave – the EDP reports on a posthumous Soil Association briefing by Peter Melchett
In winter 2017 I recorded a couple of conversations with Simon Bryceson, long-standing Public Affairs lobbyist, Liberal political activist, and one time employee of Friends of the Earth. We mainly spoke about the interaction between campaign groups, corporates and politics. What follows is a reconfigured and lightly edited version of the transcripts. Simon was then recovering from cancer operations. He died earlier this year at his home in Slovenia, aged 65.
At one time or another Simon consulted for many of the world’s most controversial corporations, mostly at CEO or Board level. He had his own guiding philosophy of making money while, as he puts it here, arguing for them to adopt ‘the most progressive position which seems to be consistent with that company’s commercial viability’.
While some in NGOs knew of him simply as a suspect cardboard-cut-out corporate operator, others in the corporate world saw him as a dangerous subversive maverick radical. His personal frankness and commitment to a democratically regulated market economy led to him being fired by a number of more neocon corporate clients, particularly Americans.
Bryceson saw himself as a ‘pirate diplomat’, moving between worlds and sometimes managing to explain one to another (and I think perhaps explaining himself to himself). He played a key role in the establishment of the Marine Stewardship Council.
Whatever you think of that, if you are interested in how the corporate-NGO-political triangle works or fails to work, you might find some of Bryceson’s insights useful. (See also Bryceson’s Political Checklist). A minority of people working in ‘Public Affairs’ share Simon Bryceson’s combination of NGO, political, and corporate world credentials but not many of them have spent so much time worrying about and trying to bridge the gaps between the three domains.
A Grand Bargain?
Though I never heard him use the clichéd term ‘win-win’, Bryceson often spoke about realising the potential for corporates to achieve progress on ‘progressive’ causes – or as he called them in these conversations, the “diamonds lying around”.
In the last decade of his life Bryceson was trying to catalyse what he referred to as a ‘grand bargain’ (between civil society, his agrochemical clients and regulators) to achieve more sustainable agriculture. In this he saw the political desire to be seen to have farmers onside, and the political culture of US ‘multinationals’, as obstacles to be negotiated around.
At the time of our talk (2017) Bryceson singled out what he saw as illegal but common practices in corporates about withholding information on increasing risks as an opportunity for activist lawyers on climate change.
Bryceson was brought up in Sussex, England and went to, in his words, ‘a fairly traditional working class Roman Catholic school uninterested in abstract ideas’. ‘By the time I got to 14, my relationship with them was very bad. A friend and I stowed away on a plane to Iceland on the way to New York, and we were arrested in Reykjavik. When we got back we made it to the national TV, the 6 o’clock news and all the rest of it … we just pretended to be Icelandic on a plane which was going to New York via Iceland and it all worked out rather well really’.
Constantly in trouble and by his own admission ‘a pain in the arse’, he precipitated being thrown out of school for writing ‘a four page essay in support of the rioting students in the London School of Economics’.
CR (me Chris Rose): Who was that with?
SB: A guy called Mark Colivet , who I remember very well. He unfortunately died years ago. He was murdered in the end. He was thrown from a building in Chicago, following an unfortunate argument with his drug dealer. But he was a fine fellow.
Bryceson was adopted, along with a younger brother. ‘Both of us have discovered our natural families in the last couple of years. It is highly likely that our families would have known each other at the relevant time’.
CR: So, you might even be related.
SB: Yes, and Mark who I was trying to get to America with, his great uncle was the Sinn Fein in Limerick, and some of my family’s people were the IRA people in Tipperary, so they certainly would know each other. My father and Mark’s father was a lorry driver for the most of his life and both of them drove in Ireland and both of them drank heavily. They must have known each other. It’s a weird set of circumstances.
CR: Do you think that being adopted and, or being Irish have any impact on you doing what you’ve done in campaigning, public affairs?
SB: it ‘tapped into a general feeling that what I was and where I was was somehow more constructed than everybody else is. So the physical thing is, I’m much more anxious than most people are, so I am much more driven. If I decide to do something, I do it. I cannot possibly bear the idea of failing. I mean, those who work with me will see that sometimes if it looks like we are failing, I move to the most extraordinary mania. But sometimes it works, that’s the fear of failure thing.
So if Theresa May says, these are the people of nowhere, I think, yes that’s me, I’m a person of nowhere, absolutely’.
CR: I asked you about when you had to describe what you do to people, or they have ideas about it, what do they tend to think and how does it compare to reality. You said “I am a pirate diplomat”.
SB: Yes, I like the phrase.
CR: I could tell you like the phrase, is being a pirate diplomat because of you feeling being an outsider as opposed to the normal diplomat or line operator or official?
SB: Yes, exactly. A normal diplomat would be a diplomat on behalf of a given place. I have no given place. Therefore, since I enjoy – I’m using diplomacy in its loosest sense obviously – but the wheeler dealing
CR: Being a fixer?
SB: Yes, definitely. Going back to your question about the Irish background, my father did not become what his father and his father had been before him, which was horse auctioneers and horse dealers, because he was considered too much of a wild drunkard to be left in charge of the horse auctioneering. What can I say?
CR: How would you describe what you have done, what you’ve been working for, in a commercial public relations / public affairs business, if somebody, your neighbour or somebody in a pub asks you, how do you actually explain to them what you do?
SB: It’s called public affairs. I did it in the normal way for the most of my life. It was only in the latter part that I got into a position where I could choose what I want to do really. Most big companies in those days and still today in my view, don’t have much by way of political sophistication in-house, because the resources are only needed occasionally. That’s why it’s done by agencies
‘if you look there, they are all over the place, like diamonds all over on the ground. Just people won’t look for them. They all are reading the f***ing science’
I’ve done the three big tobacco companies, nuclear power, pesticides, herbicides, the plastics industry, the coal industry, the lot. Because I was never in the business of being an ethical consultant. I was in the business of doing the best job I could, if they pay me. The only difference between me and everybody else is that I have a personal interest in a number of areas which is slightly more political to do with the environment, therefore I was looking out for the opportunities and most people don’t bother. But if you look there, they are all over the place, like diamonds all over on the ground. Just people won’t look for them. They all are reading the f***ing science.
CR: Would you, given the choice of what to do, try to choose what you call ethical consultancies?
SB: No, what I did was, I took on the interesting work. It was much more interesting for me to lobby for Leyland Daf, for them to get the military contract for 4×4 lorries which I did for a couple of years, than sitting around in seminars on what would a sustainable company look like. And it pays more. But the better you get at ‘we’ll take a box at the opera because that’s where the deputy permanent secretary will be on Thursday night’ the more you use you are, the more likely you are to be talking to people, when you say, we can fix this. They will go, yeah.
If you want to do politics in a country, you can do it being a pacifist, but it would be a hell lot of easier if you’ve been in the armed forces, so when you turn out and say, vote for me.
If you say, I did the job defending the neonics, I did the job defending the plastics division and all the rest of it, and now this is what we should do. They’ll take you seriously. If you turn up and say, prove to me you are acting ethically, and I’ll work with you. You are very unlikely to see the diamonds on the floor.
The reason you get to choose is, the better you get at it, which is largely a factor of practice and experience, the more valuable you are. If you want to get a broader choice, just lower your price. People are surprised by how much I get paid. I’ll tell you. I am paid a lot less than the equivalent people from the big agencies because that’s what gives me the choice. That’s how I do it.
The Interesting Stuff
SB: The main reason I get to do the interesting stuff, is that various people in various companies have worked with me, and when their chums in other companies are saying, we are getting nowhere, what can we do to change the management? That’s when I get the call.
CR: why is it interesting?
SB: Either it would be interesting because the project is intrinsically interesting, or because the objective is intrinsically desirable. But I would distinguish between the two, ideally one wants both. But sometimes I do stuff just because it is not terribly professionally interesting, but it looks worthwhile. I’ve done lots of it with you, including spending time with NGOs. It doesn’t make any money, and frankly they’ve never listened to a word I have said so it doesn’t make much difference. But I never mind doing because I’ve enjoyed it, and I get bragging rights out of it which can sometimes be very useful.
SB: The other reason why it would be interesting is if it actually it did something.
CR: In what sense?
SB: I enjoyed working in the team with moving BP to a coherent position on climate change, because I thought it was important to do it. The fact I am not interested in advertising myself as an ethical consultant, does not mean I am devoid of ethics. It just means I don’t feel the need to parade up and down the street, describing them and telling people how I won’t work with them because they’re beneath my contempt. I will work with anybody. But once I’m there, everybody knows what I argue for. That’s fine.
‘The most progressive position which seems to be consistent with that company’s commercial viability’
CR: So you argue for what?
SB: The most progressive position which seems to be consistent with that company’s commercial viability.
CR: I’m just thinking about the point of view, [of] campaigners, NGOs, organisations, who might be very interested in the sort of things you do, but they wonder about what really drives you. “What would I do it I was in his position, could I be in his position, how does this work?”
SB: I think that touches on one other thing going back to early life experience. If you look at the great fuss around spies in the 50s and 60s, a huge proportion of them were gay. I’m gay. One of the things you learn, and it sort of emphasises the ‘who am I and what’s my location’ from the adoption which is magnified a hundred times when you spend your adolescence pretending to be something you’re not. That gives you what in gay parlance what would be called the ability to pass. You can just walk through life pretending to be what anybody wants you to be. I can adjust to whatever circumstances are.
That’s what I think a really good diplomat should be able to do. And I repeat it’s not because I think I am a diplomat in a plumed hat, it’s the function, of trying to move between two groups that are sat in blank incomprehension of each other, and explaining to each group how each other are operating and thinking.
CR: About things which you think are interesting because you think they are useful, what would the useful sort of things be? You said about BP shifting outcomes on climate change.
Business and Sustainability
SB: I’m a liberal. I’m in favour of market economy. As a part of that, I’m aware that you can’t run market economy without strong and effective regulation. If you think public policy issues can be resolved by permitting more market activity, there is nothing further I can do in conversing with you. There has to be strong regulation and market. I’m not interested in socialism.
‘If you think public policy issues can be resolved by permitting more market activity, there is nothing further I can do in conversing with you’.
The problem that many of my friends in the business world have is they take regulation as a given. But the given has become wholly inadequate, because of the circumstances in which we find ourselves, because of the issue with the commons and the issue of developing GDP and all of the things we are both familiar with.
But individual business people do not, in my experience, generally experience that as a personal responsibility. By working in the corporation, you subsume your individual responsibility into the process of the corporation. When I got an opportunity to speak to the European Commission years ago – this is the only speech of mine that’s still available – what I said to the Stagiaires who were finishing, [was] “what you have to ask to yourself is what’s it for”.
SB: I was at a trade association meeting, of the political individuals i.e. the public affairs officers, of the pesticides industry. There were 48 people in the room. I said how many people in the room have a science degree? Two-thirds of them immediately put up their hands, with that slight swagger of the shoulders that tells you “this is the question I love answering”.
“How many people in the room have ever stood for democratically elected office?” Complete silence, not a single person in the room. I said, “that’s what the problem is. What we got here, is a lot of hammers, and everything therefore is a nail. The reason we keep banging on about the science, is we keep giving the job of public affairs officers to people who don’t know anything about politics and love talking about science, and that is exactly what the other side want”. But they don’t listen.
‘you have to be there at the right time and make all the different things that could be lined up, line up. But rational persuasion plays virtually no part in that at all’
CR: So would you say you spent a life not being listened to?
SB: I don’t think you can persuade people to do things. I don’t think most people are rational. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been able to achieve things. It just means you have to be there at the right time and make all the different things that could be lined up, line up. But rational persuasion plays virtually no part in that at all.
The Repulsive Fascination of Power
SB: Running [an] organisation or being involved in it would do nothing for me because this is a process job and I am just not a process person. Not because I am a revolutionary figure, it’s simply that I’m fascinated and repelled by the power. I have been always fascinated by trying to work out how it works, and I love to trying to pull the little bit of the handle that I can get my fingers on at any time to see if I can make something happen. That’s much more about it than saving the whale or whatever, which, you know, I’m in favour of, but the motivation is the joy of doing it, I think, rather than doing anything else.
CR: That’s what gets you out of bed in the morning.
SB: Yes, it is.
Unilever, Corporate Decision-Making and the Marine Stewardship Council
Before the great collapse in Newfoundland cod stocks
SB: Unilever led the charge on marine conservation because the marketing manager of Bird’s Eye Walls was from Canada, and her family had lost their jobs when the cod stocks had collapsed.
CR: From Newfoundland. Who was that?
SB: Caroline Whitfield. That’s the sort of thing that makes things happen.
CR: How did that happen? How did you first get involved in that?
SB: My position was across a whole range of things, marketing, public affairs, straight forward PR, city relations investor relations, the whole shebang. So, you got what was called cross-divisional work. The Marketing Division [Unilever] got in touch with me and said Bird’s Eye are very worried because Greenpeace is picketing supermarkets in Germany, saying don’t buy Birds’ Eye Walls’ frozen fish products. Will you come and talk to their European frozen fish marketing manager, we think you’ll like her.
I went to talk to her. She spent an hour telling me about how fish farming was going to save the world. I said absolutely nothing at all. When she finished, I said nobody is interested in that. It’s an environmental devastation. What you’ve got to do is to understand you’ve got something to do seriously about sustainability, but you’ll be surprised by how big the opportunity is here.
Richard Cox was in the room, who now runs Saltman and Lowe the marketing agency, very successful. Richard told me afterwards that he never seen anything like it. He said “no other consultant would sit saying nothing for an hour but then tells the client you’re absolutely wrong about everything”. But she loved it and it went very well from there on.
The same project, I ended up in a meeting in Unilever where all of the hostile people were around the table. It was chaired by then member of the board, one of the Vandenburg family. In the end of it, he looked around the table, and he said, very Dutch, “whether you agree with him or not, He knows how to draw a line in the sand!” I was very pleased with that.
CR: Basically your engagement with Unilever on fish led to the establishment of the Marine Stewardship Council. That was that the beginning of it then was it, going to talk to this woman?
SB: Yes it was. Because what I said was, I think that to trying to solve this through fish farming is just wholly implausible. I don’t know anything about this area but it only takes ten minutes to find people who do because in those days I knew everybody on the circuit. Let’s find out what the real score is.
I was then put in touch with Mike Sutton who was running the marine conservation side of WWF. He and I met for a drink at a pub in Guildford. We were together for no more than an hour and at the end of that we’d agreed that the Forest Stewardship Council could be improved upon and we were going to do it with the Marine Stewardship Council. We had already called it that in that pub that night. He was great to work with. He actually was the right person at the right time because he can put on a suit and appeared very corporate.
SB: A big problem here is that a lot of the NGOs employed brilliant people who would be able to cut like a knife through butter if they just dress properly when they came into the meeting. It is just not part of the thing to do.
I have to say to my clients. Look, look, I know you are going to think that you have to put a jumper, okay, and all this stuff. You don’t have to do that, and then they turn up in a jumper.
CR: Your clients being the corporate part?
SB: Yeah, they think they have to dress down because they are talking to the environmentalists, and I can see why they are doing that, but I also see it’s a psychological thing about “I don’t need the defensive equipment. I’m with the dippies”, and of course dippies turned up looking like dippies. It’s a bit frustrating sometimes. Not always, but sometimes it’s very funny.
CR: So, Michael Sutton was working with WWF. You were working for?
SB: Unilever. I was working for Burson’s on behalf of Unilever. There was a lot of resistance internally.
CR: But the conventional story is that Unilever were worried because it was prompted by the threat of campaigning. But did they become worried about fish stocks or was that actually just what the environmentalists were worried about?
SB: That’s what the environmentalists were worried about. They [Unilever] were worried about brand damage.
CR: Bird’s Eye?
SB: Yes, Caroline Whitfield personally, and this is the bridging point, had both. She was a brand manager and she wanted to do something about fish stocks sustainability. So that’s one of the diamonds laying around, you know.
CR: Why was she worried about fish stocks?
SB: She was brought up on the east coast of Canada. Some of her relatives had been involved in the fishing industry and the cod fisheries had collapsed and all of those people have gone out of business. It had been, I believe, in her teenage years and she had remembered it. She wasn’t overly romantic about it by the way. But what it did do was inoculate her against the industry bullshit – that was the key point.
So, when they turned up and said everything we do is sustainable, she would say “why are there no f***ing fish in the sea then?” It really was like that, and she could be very tough too. She was impressive – and difficult.
SB: I had a phone call from the then Head of Sustainability of Unilever, very nice woman I got along well with her years later. I was on a train, it came through on my phone, and she was shouting at me. “Marine conservation is not one of our issues this year!”
CR: Was this Christine Drury?
SB: Yes, and she was furious. The initiative was being taken that wasn’t on the grid, it’s not our issue for this year! Later on, when she saw what we were doing, she swung 101% behind it and which was excellent. But to my point, people who were used to the process find any kind of opportunity-driven thing, terrifying! We should predict it! That’s why we should grab it. They are fixated on predictability. When will this happen? I don’t know when this will happen. I’m just telling you this will happen. But if you don’t know when, it does not matter to us.
Motivating Factors for Unilever
CR: A quite well known official story was that the Unilever saw the light about sustainability. They were the world’s largest frozen fish buyer and supplier. It was in their interests to ensure more sustainable supply chain, and the government in action was inadequate. Therefore, they invented a certification system.
SB: That is a perfectly reasonable explanation for the action. It just does not happen to have been the motivation. That explanation would be [have been] true for years.
So the question would be, what made them suddenly change? The personal commitment of the people involved, the fact that I was making sure that everybody who had not been noticed were noticed, “oh whoops the inspectors have turned up here”, and normally that report would be buried somewhere and I’m going “if that comes out in the public we are all deep in the shit”, and all the rest of it. You’ve got all those levers, and most times nobody does. That’s what I think made the difference.
This does not invalidate this as such, because I was asked virtually the same questions at an environmental science thing I did a few weeks ago. He said “I worked for Unilever, but what you just told me bears no relation to what they’ve told me”. I said you don’t have to choose between those two stories because they are both true.
What I’m telling you is about what happened at the time and what motivated it. What they are telling you is how they’ve incorporated it into their narrative. When you say to me, they are not telling the truth, I don’t say to you, yes, they are lying, because they are not. They are telling the truth, and their narrative is very helpful now. Why would I need to criticise it? They’ve always been great on the environment. Their next decision even looks better than the last. Who’d want to say no?
CR: One motivating factor was the lady from Newfoundland. She was inoculated against the bullshit by her personal experiences. That was one thing.
CR: Cristine Drury, the sustainability expert, or her job, she came around and saw the potential in whatever terms matter, from that point of view, making Unilever a more sustainable company.
CR: What other motivations were at play in terms of decision-making by the corporation, people in the corporation that were important that actually leading them to do it?
SB: They’d become very sensitised to public opinion at that time because it was wrapped up in a number of other sensitive issues including GMO. There were others too, you know, food contamination scandals and all sort of bits and bobs, which was not Unilever’s fault but it was an atmosphere thing. So, people had become a lot more sensitised to it.
“aren’t they just doing this for the money?”. I said “I certainly I hope so because I’ve spent years trying to persuade these companies that there’s money in doing the right thing and I hope they make a lot of it”
There was a very good marketing man for the fats and oils division, which is where all the margarine is, which is a lot of money, who was a really hard-nosed character, Bill something or other I’ll find his name. He had no interest in the environment at all. He just said to me one day he thought there was a lot of money in it so is he incorporating it into his branding. I was doing an interview for BBC television when I was defending some petro company and the first question the interviewer put was “aren’t they just doing this for the money?”. I said “I certainly I hope so because I’ve spent years trying to persuade these companies that there’s money in doing the right thing and I hope they make a lot of it”.
Afterwards the producer said me, “we had nowhere to go after that answer”. I was pleased by that.
The Unilever people did climb on board. It was much more “you buggered up our process” than we don’t want to support sustainability. They wanted to support sustainability. But if you have an organisation where everybody could go off and do things, you would never have an organisation. So there has to be grids and stuff.
Changing The Power System
SB: When we were putting together the Marine Stewardship Council – and Richard Cox tells a quite funny story about this – it very quickly grew to the stage at which there was somebody from the finance and legal department of Unilever, several people from WWF and all sorts of people, somebody observer from something else.
It was clear to me that this was going absolutely nowhere. I remember going into the room. There was a table much like this, a board room style, there’s nobody in the end chair so I went and sat on it, called the meeting to order and ran it for the entire afternoon and drove it to all the conclusions I wanted.
There had never been an election or any discussion of who the chairman was but if I hadn’t done it no one else would have done and I’m pretty sure that if we hadn’t done that the bloody thing would not happened.
Because what you get is as soon as it looks like something is going to happen, every expert you’ve ever heard [of] in your life turns up and kills it stone dead. This isn’t about knowledge. It’s about moving the power system and most ENGOs don’t get that. They want to win the arguments.
CEOs, Leadership and Internal Power
SB: All of the people who end up with that kind of thing [the Unilever fish case], they are either CEO or they are difficult.
CEOs don’t need to be difficult because you just tell everyone this is what we are going to do. That’s the John Browne [one time CEO of BP] model.
Somebody said to Browne in one of the meetings that “a lot of people in the company do not support this, we need more time to get everybody lined up”. He said “there is not enough time on any subject, what I have to do is to kick the ball ahead of the field and make them run for it. I must describe what the policy is to the outside world and they’ll believe internally and act on it”. He was absolutely right.
‘what they have got is the ability to make things happen internally, and that is a very interesting power. If people internally believe the CEO wants this, you don’t need any process, it’ll happen’
SB: … I tried to work with the CEO, because that’s how you get things done. It’s not because I’m fixated with power. Besides anything else, believe me, I know how little power CEOs had in the outside world. I don’t buy any of this global conspiracy shit – most of these guys can hardly fart without having a load of inspectors up their arse, but what they have got is the ability to make things happen internally, and that is a very interesting power. If people internally believe the CEO wants this, you don’t need any process, it’ll happen.
CR: Would you say that if you are trying to influence a corporation … anyone trying from the outside like an environmental organisation or other voluntary organisation, should try and engage the CEO?
SB: Corporate decision making is 99% personal commitment and 1% rational argument, is my answer to that. The person who can most effectively use the 99% is the CEO.
If the CEO says, “our brand character must evolve over the next 6 months, so that we are the most progressive company in our sector as perceived by European Commission officials”, you can make sure, it will happen.
But it doesn’t come from the CEO normally, it comes from the Sustainability Officer who thinks how good it would be if the politicians loved us, why don’t we get more sustainable, everyone will say yes and there will be absolutely no budget for it whatsoever and everything will carry on as normal.
… you either have the big leadership thing with the CEO or you find somebody in the organisation with the personal commitment to work with you to pull the handles. That has been the two ways of doing it
Getting to Understand the Internal Decision Process – Past Employees and Academics
CR: How easy is it to find out about the actual internal decision-making process, and culture that goes along with that? If you are a complete outsider like a voluntary organisation, like a campaign group, as opposed to somebody who they actually paid to be there, and they then have to explain or expose it to?
SB: I’m always surprised by how poorly the NGOs do this stuff because it seems to me relatively straight forward.
CR: But is it ? Because if the campaign against fish and chips shops in Sussex was to turn up to the doorstep of Unilever’s HQ, or whatever, bang on the door and asked to be let in they would they be shown to the most junior person in the sustainability department who’s not even aware of these things.
SB: Indeed, they would.
CR: Whereas you are invited in, you are talking to board directors at the very least.
SB: Yes sometimes, but it wasn’t what I meant. It wasn’t about the access. It’s about not understanding human resentments.
‘Every company is terrified that the people it sacked are going to spill the beans’
Every company is terrified that the people it sacked are going to spill the beans. Every company that’s had senior people who have retired, those retired people are invited back for four times a year to the garden party to keep their mouths shut. I am amused that people have just not gone there.
You just need to look through the retirement files. Send them a note: “I’m conducting an interview on ethical corporate decision-making. You have a superb record. Would you join me for a lunch for an hour in your local pub? Do bring your wife” Brag? Yes, they all would. I know. I’ve spent time stopping them doing it.
‘They are terrified of being criticised by the academics’
Academics are another great way into companies. They are terrified of being criticised by the academics. They don’t mean environmental scientists needless to say. But if you say a Business School has put a graduate student on doing the basic research because this may be a case study. You’ll get the budget. Don’t worry about that. What you’ve got to find some student and say “here’s a tenner son, just turn up for ten minutes”. I’ve done it.
CR: How would you say that corporate decision-making, differs from decision-making in government departments, institutions, agencies of government? In some ways, there are some things that are very similar.
CR: Like somebody who’s got a limited room for manoeuvre, they’re in the middle of the chain. In other ways this is quite different. Do you think that outsiders like the voluntary organisations really understand the difference between the two?
SB: I don’t. But then to be honest I don’t think many insiders do either actually. If you talk to people about corporate decision-making who were there at the time, you won’t actually get much by way of useful information. Because what you’ll get is, “what I did next”, which bears no relation to the reality at all. A narrative thread from their perspective, but it won’t be much cop on the analysis front. Because most of them struggle to understand O-level politics.
I’m being serious. If you started to talk about the difference between representative democracy, delegated democracy, plebiscitary democracy, very important questions for how corporations react at the moment, I know virtually nobody at the senior level of the commercial world who would even understand the distinction you were making.
CR: Is that true across all nationalities and cultures? if you met a bunch of Swiss, a bunch of senior executives, would they all tend to be very process driven, like chemical engineers in chemical companies for example, therefore politically naïve in that sense?
SB: No, first of all, I would say all those groups would be politically naive, but it would be in different ways. National culture plays out in my view much more in corporate decision-making than most people realise.
Religion and Culture
SB: I know when I’m working for a German company or a Spanish company or a Chinese company and all the rest of it, you can tell immediately, the culture is completely different. I used to have great fun working for a Finnish company, in South America, trying to explain to Protestant Finns, why the Hispanic and native Catholics thought they were wankers. It was a really enjoyable project. Completely different worlds.
So that would be an example of how I’m very interested in the difference between Protestant and Catholic culture of the last 500 years, because it plays out all the time, and you see it everywhere. So, when we talk about the way Germans think, what we are really talking about is Northern Germans, Protestant Germany, with the exception of Cologne. Or if we are talking about France, what we are really talking about is a centralised Catholic culture. Nobody in the commercial world [considers this], with the possible exception of Christine Drury, oddly enough, since she came up earlier.
She commissioned a university in Netherlands to do some work on this, and they came up with an extraordinary piece of work, which would be great to get hold of, which said you are absolutely right and we’ve correlated our different products and their reception and the advertising’s reception against the historical religious tradition in the area. So Catholic cultures for all sorts of reasons do not think in abstract terms on environmental issues because in Catholic culture it’s is the water clean? Whereas in Protestant culture, because of the tradition of debate and abstract argument and all the rest of it, they want all the super-structure, so to speak.
CR: So, they think about the eco-system of things, the economics rather than just business.
SB: Because the Protestant traditions is individual responsibility and the individual responsibility is played out in a process. The Catholic tradition is actually very limited personal responsibility for what happens in the wide world because that’s the responsibility of His Majesty. Now every Catholic theologian would say what I just said is completely rubbish and would immediately have a drink and agree that’s exactly the case.
There’s a marvellous piece of work by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, whatever it’s called, three years ago, they found a valley in Switzerland, which for odd historical reasons, one end of the valley had stayed Catholic and the other end of the valley had converted to Protestantism, and in every other significant way, they were completely the same, in the quality of farmland and all the rest of it. It’s a great piece of research. You can track it year by year as the Protestants get richer, and richer, and richer, investing the money this year has made into what they’ll need for a better piece of machinery next year. Meanwhile on the other end of it, things are exactly what you want to be on holiday.
I know this sounds a bit abstract, but I talk about this all the time when I am working. It has to do with personal disposition, where you are on the autism spectrum, what your cultural background is, whether you were brought up religious or not, what your attitudes to money are. It has to do with the country you that come from, because the country will have a set of national characteristics which will also play out in your role as a senior manager. It has to do with generation. Each generation takes on a set different set of attitudes to some of these questions and you can see it, almost like rings in a tree by the time you got to our age actually. It has to do with function in the company.
NGOs Blinded By Issues ?
SB: When I am dealing with people in ENGOs, they tend to be issue focused, in a way which blinds them to what the possibilities for change are. People have to focus on how to make the thing change, not why it should change. Many of the campaigners in their communication focus on “why you should change,” which does not change anyone.
SB: John Passacantando – I got to know him very briefly when he was doing the Greenpeace job in the US and I was deeply impressed. When I had a couple of conversations with him about the real, corporate stuff, he actually understood, in a way which most of the people I dealt with in the environment movement never did. You could say things to him, and he will just get it all.
Corporates in a Hole
CR: Other people have said to me, for example Tom Burke – ‘[there are] very few people in business who understand how political decisions are made’.
SB: I think mental disposition, character dispositions play a huge role in it … If you have a corporation which is B2B and is, in plain language, “pile it high and sell it cheap,” in other words, commodity of some sort, the culture does not require and does not accept anybody who understands sophisticated communication. It would be a threat to the organism.
I have seen this in some of these companies. Some of these people at the senior management do not engage in these issues, because they would then know what is was wrong to do, and it would constrain their actions. I’m serious, I’ve seen that. I think [in] that kind of culture, [there is] a cross-over between the function of the company and the kind of people who get into the top of that company.
‘When you get those two in a perfect storm, what you get is a very large, global corporation, with no consumer interface, therefore no public recognition, therefore no understanding of how public opinion works, and therefore they dig themselves deeper and deeper into the hole’
When you get those two in a perfect storm, what you get is a very large, global corporation, with no consumer interface, therefore no public recognition, therefore no understanding of how public opinion works, and therefore they dig themselves deeper and deeper into the hole …
You could argue that selling to farmers isn’t exactly B2B, but actually it does not involve in large scale communications.
Where to Find Progressives
CR: We are trying to explore the difference political decision-making and business decision-making.
SB: If you really want to find real progressives, by and large the best place to look is the legal department. Everybody thinks it will be the marketeers, but that’s not right.
It’s the legal people who can sit back and understand what a big picture question might mean and think it through, in a way that marketeers generally don’t from my experience. Marketeers can be sold something, because as we have been talking about, if you want to sell it, sell it to a salesman. So I usually get the salesperson and marketeers on side because you can sell it to them.
‘If you really want to find real progressives, by and large the best place to look is the legal department. Everybody thinks it will be the marketeers, but that’s not right’
But if you want the intellectual arguments understood, the lawyers are the best place to go, in my experience.
Multinationals and American ‘Multinationals’
SB: So, personal characteristics, the way the process is going, which country you come from, what your function within the company is, whether the company has a communications-rich culture or a quantity-driven culture, how international the company genuinely is – many multinational companies are in fact national companies with lots of operations around the world; some are increasingly, genuinely multinational.
CR: An example? Presumably Coca-Cola is basically American?
SB: In my experience, American companies are all American companies. If I were looking for genuinely international companies, I would mainly look at continental European or Asian ones actually. The big Indians ones are genuinely multinational. If you go to work with a big global Indian company, they employ anyone from anywhere. That’s the way Indian culture works. Can you make us money? Good, you are in. Whereas the Americans, there will be, you know, the black man, the Chinese lady, one-eyed lesbian negress, all things will be carried through, but there won’t be any diversity.
‘If I were looking for genuinely international companies, I would mainly look at continental European or Asian ones actually. The big Indians ones are genuinely multinational’
CR: Do you think any of these has something to do with whether or not, some political cultures have a view about business, corporations, making money or not [is a good or bad thing], which others don’t so much?
SB: I think that’s true.
CR: Then that gets transferred into the social politics.
‘The Trump presidency has made maintaining America as the global leadership in multinational corporations untenable’
SB: Yes, I think that is true. I think there is a particular moment now. This is not just because of my working life right now. I am seeing it all over the place. The Trump presidency has made maintaining America as the global leadership in multinational corporations untenable. I am seeing it all over the place. You cannot pop up in Davos and say “Hello Charlie what are you doing for climate change and by the way I am paying for Trump’s inauguration.” You have to choose! Some of them are really wriggling in having to choose.
Drifting Into Right Wing Views
SB: Another element here is because of the political naivety, a lot of these people drift into supporting whatever the right-wing option is, because they do not see the centre-left option.
Browne at BP was unusual because he mixed socially with social democrats across the Europe, and Blair and all the rest of them.
But most senior people in corporations would struggle to see their way through a social event at the local Conservative Association to be honest with you. Everybody think he is the CEO of so-and-so, he’ll just ring Downing Street – well, first of all try it, I’ve been there when they try it. It’s not that easy.
Secondly, the first question would be: What are you going to do for us? Most CEOs and senior corporate people don’t understand that politics is about trading favours. They think politics is about judicial. We presented you with the evidence, and you haven’t ruled according to the evidence.
CR: Would you say that a lot of NGOs think that influencing government and corporations is about trying to present them with the evidence, and a lot of corporations think influencing government is about presenting them with the evidence?
SB: Yes, that’s where the power of government comes from, that they are governing people who do not understand how government works, and they can play everybody off against everybody else. 90% of the time spent on that science, 90% of the money on it from the commercial world and from the NGOs is a total waste of time, other than making life pleasant for the people who are involved in it. It makes no difference. Nothing ever gets changed by another rat study. It just doesn’t.
That’s not to say the case does not have to be consistent with the science and all the rest of it. What we are talking here is the cultural quality of the argument I think.
CR: Tell me about what happened when Unilever went to Buckingham Palace
SB: It’s just an easy example of the way in which when you are looking at decision making, what you have to do is to look at people’s self-image. And their self-image is as much to do with what their partners say about them as what they think of themselves. That was an acute example. We had a lot of resistance from the senior level, WWF fixed up for senior Unilever executives to go to spend an afternoon being shown round Buckingham Palace and then having tea with the Duke of Edinburgh. And had been given passes to see all the nice places and all the rest of it.
By the following week, they were all on board, because the Duke of Edinburgh was very good. “I understand this must be a challenging commercial decision, and I know I do not understand all the ins and outs of it, but I like the direction of your thinking!” And after ten minutes their wives are going “oh they like the direction of your thinking!” and by the end of it we’re on a home-run. That stuff happens all the time.
(Johnson Matthey made autocatalysts which were central to reducing vehicle pollution and contained platinum. The catalyst was poisoned by lead. So campaigns against lead in petrol, and against air pollution, covered with the interests of Johnson Matthey, a precious metals specialist.)
SB: I was working for Ian Greer, the lobbyist who was disgraced in the end, but I had a lot of time for him, he was very good at the job. We’d been to a meeting with Virginia Bottomley. I think she was in the environment secretary at that time actually. She said you must stop this campaign because I have decided, that under no circumstances will we agree to the amendment that you seek. So I want your clients to stop damaging themselves. That’s very clear. So out we came, and Ian who is about four foot high, was giggling like hell, saying we won! We won! She wants us to call off the dogs because we’ve won. If we were losing, she would say, carry on, you are doing a great job.
CR: What was this campaign about?
SB: Auto-catalysts on motor cars. We were representing Johnson Matthey. Very enjoyable campaign, which involved in working with Des (Wilson) on getting lead out of petrol. So all these things link up.
CR: What happened to Ian Greer?
SB: He moved to Africa in the end and I believe he leads a reasonably pleasant life. I got along with him absolutely fine. I never saw any evidence of any bribery he was involved in, if he was involved in any. What I did see, was an awful lot of sleazy Tory MPs whose minds could be changed over a decent couple of glasses of Port. That’s not quite the same thing as the allegation that he was paying them chunks of cash.
CR: This was a cash for questions thing?
SB: I think what happened there. I think in the end the allegation was true. The cash was being paid for questions, but to some extent, Ian is absolved of responsibility because he was working with one of the biggest maniacs I’ve ever met in my life. The man who owned Harrods, Al-Fayed. You only had to be in the room to see that you’d better check where the fire escape was and check your silver! But Ian, from a working class background in Glasgow dealing with the man who owns Harrods, so I think he fell for a bit more than he should have done.
… SB: … it frustrates me that nobody ever makes the effort to seriously measure what the benefit of doing this stuff is to these corporations. I see it all the time.
Johnson Matthey made an utter fortune out of the introduction of autocatalysts in Europe. That was the combination of a cleaning campaign that ran for 15 years – conjunction by Johnson and the commercial world and the NGOs. It would not have happened if that conjunction had not happened.
‘That is absolutely wonderful example of how commercial companies can make a fortune by doing the right thing and nobody has ever written it up. There are dozens and dozens of them. Because all of the ethical consultants are not interested. Because they weren’t there’
CR: Could you name a couple of other examples of where people made a fortune by doing the right thing?
SB: An obvious one is the Body Shop. You can argue about it, whether it was good or bad thing, I’m not interested in that. What I’m saying is, she clearly was motivated by a desire – I met her [Anita Roddick] several times and I have no doubt all that she’s motivated by a desire to do the right thing and happened to make several hundred million as a sort of en passant thing, largely organised by a very smart husband, in terms of the financing.
CR: Gordon Roddick.
SB: But as an example of making money from doing the right thing and branding yourself as doing so, it’s incomparable.
CR: That’s one of these examples that is known, and Johnson Matthey one’s not well known.
SB: Well if you ask people who are in the business, certainly if you ask Octel, who we were campaigning against, they would give you chapter and verse on it. But the ethical people aren’t interested in that stuff because it’s long and difficult and complicated, and it’s not going to the right whoopie cushion points frankly.
Scientists and Politics, in Which ‘Nothing Fits’
SB: When I’m working with a corporation, I have exactly the same problem [as with scientists in NGOs] . They have no idea the way the political system works.
‘in science, everything fits together until you get to a very deep and sophisticated level, whereas in politics, the whole point is that nothing fits together. Values are continually in conflict with each other. You must continue to make expedient value judgements the whole time, and you have to do it in the now-time’
So I run workshops … because these people are used to dealing in data. … The core issue, is that scientists, particularly commercial scientists, tend to be very certainty-orientated, proof-orientated and so on. But politics isn’t like that.
The obvious reason is, in science, everything fits together until you get to a very deep and sophisticated level, whereas in politics, the whole point is that nothing fits together. Values are continually in conflict with each other. You must continue to make expedient value judgements the whole time, and you have to do it in the now-time and you cannot plan for them. You have to do it on the basis of experience because no rules ever seem to work and so on. That’s what the difference is.
I acted as bagman for Roy Jenkins [UK politician] on several occasions, Roy took very profoundly important decisions based on something someone had said to him on the phone because that is his job. He has to take the rap for it and he has to have the right people in place so that when they phone him he says are you sure and they say 90% sure and he says that’s about as good as we can get tonight, we’ll go with it.
Smoke and Mirror Politics
I was bagman for Steel [UK politician, now Lord Steel] when he was being interviewed on a morning TV programme, this was in the early days of morning TV. His interviewer, some smart arse said: “Mr. Steel, does the Liberal Party, support the maintenance of sterling, in the European flexible snake mechanism?” I knew perfectly well he had no idea what this meant. “Yes, we do. We are strongly …” and away he went with all that kind of stuff. It was straight into, “You have got to be aware that we have people working on this thing night and day”. That was either yes or no.
You have to make it up on the hoof. He hadn’t got the bloody papers, he didn’t know what the science was, and he has no idea about what the f***ing snake mechanism was either. What is he going to do on a TV programme?
CR: What is the most important thing about what he said and the way he said it?
SB: It was plausible. To get through it. That’s what they have to do.
‘I’m afraid many people in the NGOs just do not get it. A minister will not read the bloody paper. The minister wants to know, when they ask the question, am I saying yes or no?’
CR: So is politics entirely a game of smoke and mirrors in that sense?
SB: It did not used to be, but it is now. When I first took an interest in politics, the average to do a camera comment was about 40 to 50 seconds in a main TV bulletin and it’s now 3 to 4. You can’t say anything in 3 to 4 seconds. If you are lucky, you can say motherhood and apple pie, that’s it. So there is no chance of the politicians engaging with the public and changing opinion. That’s now done by a vast machine, the Murdoch machine … whatever that might be. The politician is buffeting about in the dingy on the top of this, with absolutely no hope in influencing what so f***ing ever.
Enoch Powell was right, when he said 40 years ago, a politician who complains about the press is as a sailor who complains about the sea. They’ve got to sail over the top of it. That’s the way it is. And nobody in the commercial world, and I’m afraid many people in the NGOs just do not get it. A minister will not read the bloody paper. The minister wants to know, when they ask the question, am I saying yes or no. They do not need to know the rest. They can make that up: “Lady in my own constituency, only this week, told me she was concerned about the flexible snake mechanism. I told her – no one is more concerned about this than me …”.
The Most Effective NGOs ?
SB: The organisation which is brought the most change, from where I see it, without doubt at all, is Greenpeace … Because Greenpeace addresses the motivational issue. Greenpeace knows how to put the fear of god in them and that’s what brings the change.
I see WWF as coming along by coming along doing the sweeping up, and by that time frankly I have pretty well lost interest because all the politics is sorted …
CR: Aside from Greenpeace?
SB: I am a big admirer of Environmental Working Group in the US. I think they’ve got the balance right, between being a radical campaign organisation and being prepared to do the serious negotiations if needs be. They’ve also got a very coherent political strategy in the Trump era. I’m not a big fan of WWF – at its most basic level it has to do with looking at how much money it costs and what I think I could do with that much money, I’m afraid, is the answer. I normally see WWF as the acceptable face of the environmental movement when I don’t need to get much done. But if I want to get something done like a step change thing, and step change wouldn’t be just because it is good for the environment, but because I’ve been persuaded that the step changes is good for the clients. I have never done this at a client’s expense and I never would. There is no point doing that. I’d be one of those f***ing ethical consultants and I’m not interested in that. This works. This will make your company money. I’ve done this with other companies. I’ve got the numbers you can ring them, call out this is how much money we made. That’s what brings the change.
Climate and Environmental Lawyers
SB: There is one ENGO thing emerging which I think might turn out to be very interesting [this was winter 2017]. That is the increasing extent to which environmentally conscious lawyers are connecting with each other. That seems to me to have massive potential.
‘Not … the historic bilateral world of commerce versus the ENGOs, but in the newly emerging world of total chaos in which those distinctions are largely meaningless. I don’t know what the new distinctions will be but [they] won’t be those’
Partly for the reason I indicated earlier, if you look at big corporations that are in closed-in mode, the place where you will find the last redoubt of rationality is usually the legal department. Also legal people have a tendency to see what the implications of things are, in a way that marketing and salesperson just see the next quarter.
I think if I were looking at it from an ENGO perspective, I think that that development of that huge network of environmental lawyers, I’ve seen various bits and pieces of work they are doing, and I was impressed by it, has got big potential.
Not so much in what I see as the historic bilateral world of commerce versus the ENGOs, but in the newly emerging world of total chaos in which those distinctions are largely meaningless. I don’t know what the new distinctions will be but [they] won’t be those.
I also think, that around climate change and corporate behaviour, there is a f*** lot of money to be made, for lawyers. There are decisions being made every day that in my view are highly questionable legally.
CR: Because liabilities are going to rise?
SB: Yes. There is a very interesting piece of research which I read about on the WSJ about five years ago and I have been kicking myself ever since for not having clipped it. They interviewed nine multinational CFOs and asked them a set of structured questions which were looking at how investment decisions were made. [It was] only when they were analysing the answers afterwards, [that] they realised that one of the questions could only be answered “yes”, if the cooperation was acting illegally – and all of them answered yes. Because that’s what they do.
The question was: “at what point do you inform your shareholders when it looks as though a long-term risk has become harder.” Their answer was, “I will leave it as late as possible in the hope that something turned up.” That’s what they all do all the time and it’s illegal. They are not supposed to do that, and they all do.
‘Jesus that a soft underbelly, It really is, and I know some good people who are working on it. But if I were them, I would go hell for leather on it’
A good network of lawyers should be [saying], “Thank you very much for the annual report. We would like to know what papers were submitted by the legal department on the liability questions”. You’ll get, “That’s not available.” Why not? How many other shareholders believe that … ? Jesus that a soft underbelly, It really is, and I know some good people who are working on it. But if I were them, I would go hell for leather on it.
CR: Client Earth is the best-known group. Are there others?
SB: There appears to be a lot of informal ones actually. Bar lawyers in the United States who are just good at it, who are getting in touch with each other which I think is good. Client Earth I think is potentially very good. If I were one of the big foundations, I’d earmark a sum for a creative group to spend a week and say, if we had a big budget for legal, what could we do, because I think some interesting stuff could come out of it.
CR: [Aside from Environmental NGOs? ] I don’t know how involved you are on gay rights, gay representation politics and all that stuff. There’s a whole bunch of NGOs there, who made a lot of waves in terms of changing, like Australia, the marriage thing recently, what happened in Ireland, masses of stuff going back to the 70s and 80s at the beginning. Do you see from there or other NGOs, like development NGOs, other civil society organisations who you think, from understanding how it impacts corporates and governments, are impressive, competent?
SB: The examples you give are quite interesting. The success of gay rights movement was not driven by the success of gay rights campaigners. It was a fundamental change in society that just happened to manifest itself in that impact on the gay community. Once you’ve introduced virtually universal birth control, traditional sexual ethics just melt away and the church did not grapple with that. The homosexual community benefited from what basically is a technological event followed by a sociological change that went with it. So I think one has to careful about that.
There are some great campaigners. Peter Tatchell in the UK is a truly great campaigner and there are many others. But they were surfing the wave as they would be the first to say, I know Tatchell does, he’s very good on this stuff.
‘frankly, the development people are just better at avoiding the finger jabbing stuff’
SB: In the case of [the] development movement, I think that’s different again. And here, to me, one of the things I often do when I’m working with big corporations is engage with the development movement because that is much easier for corporate people to cope with. Because there are agreed and understandable outcomes. They can see to some extent what their responsibility is. Because frankly, the development people are just better at avoiding the finger jabbing stuff.
If you get the development people, Oxfam – which is a very radical organisation actually – they will do a tough check on what you are doing, but if they say this will be advantageous for our people, they’ll do it and they don’t give a shit.
You don’t get that with the environment movement which to me often has quite a lot of “I don’t know if I want to defend this one, and I’m talking to others, stuff.” It’s a difference between boots on ground and abstract argumentation stuff I strongly suspect. So that’s how I would come at those three different groups and how their cultures are different.
CR: What about health NGOs and politics? That’s a massive area, I mean, in terms of money, impacts, social importance, like the King’s Fund in the UK or big health charities, that are disease related.
SB: Yes. Right now [post cancer operations] I am a huge fan of the Macmillan Fund which has been unbelievably good. Their online resources are truly extraordinary. You get all the world experts, and then you get everybody else who has the same situation as you, putting in what they did, in really detailed stuff, fantastic resources. In some sense, Macmillan is a campaigning organisation actually, because it certainly mobilises political opinions and it does so in Brighton for getting more investment in the centre and so on.
SB: I’ll tell you what I think the issues are because I’ve been working for all of the big pharmaceutical companies, yes all of them. The big issue there is that the system is fundamentally broken. That’s the problem. This is not something where the right company can step up to the plate and change things. It’s the system that is f***ed. In a way in which the system isn’t f***ed in fishing or agriculture actually, in principle, we can fix those. The pharmaceutical industry would just have to start from the ground upwards.
‘The big issue there is that the system is fundamentally broken’
CR: Is that because it’s a disease model system?
SB: I think there are a lot of issues. I did a presentation called ‘Down Tobacco Road’ in the late 1990s which I showed at board level to most of the big pharmaceutical companies. The starting point for it was, I said, do not go for the over the counter TV advertising. This was in the States at that time. The industry wanted it, because they just assumed that we advertise on TV and we sell more product. And I was saying, look, you have a unique status and the polling was absolutely clear. You could sweep the village away, rape the women and butcher the children, but you made medicine, and you were fine. And I said as soon as you start to compete in TV advertising, you could forget all that.
Within two years, their reputation [pharma companies] crashed through the floor, because they made public realise that they were commercial organisations like any other. That mystique had gone, and they’ve been in the shit ever since.
CR: We should talk more about big pharma another time I think.
SB: Because there is a load of opportunities there. There are senior people in the pharmaceutical industry who are very interested in talking about fundamental change. There’s a very, very good person on this that we both know, who is the daughter of Christopher Tickell, Sophia Tickell. I only met her once, but I heard her speak in a radio programme, and I thought god she’s good. She’s understood it. But I do know some senior people in this industry whom I would be very happy to have a serious conversation about what needs to be done. Particularly now, all of these people, are terrified of going down with Trump, the serious ones are. The whole model of pharmaceutical companies being offered a long intellectual life and then them negotiating the price of the product simply does not work. Everybody knows, it does not work. So we have to change it.
Do NGOs Understand Industry ?
CR: I have another question for you, which is, in your experience, do you think, do the NGOs, the people on the NGO side, actually understand the structure of the industry and what it does?
CR: For example, the difference between chemical companies, plastics companies, crop protection companies, agro-chemical companies and pharmaceutical companies.
SB: They would have similar cultures, in some ways, although interestingly different in others. But much more importantly, an intelligent analysis shows you that they do not have shared objectives. I’m often surprised, and I know that you and I have had conversations over the years which had fruitful outcomes, just to mention one because I don’t think there is any problem with it. Do you remember when there was a campaign against the toy industry on plastics, and I said to you, Hasbro versus Mattel are really frightened over what will come out on your side just for the sheer hell of it and we went to Lego. Do you remember that? That’s the sort of thing I was talking about. Work out what the competitive marketplace is, and then work out who’s got something to gain by screwing everybody else.
CR: Why you think it was Greenpeace who ended up running… ?
SB: Indeed, but most NGOs don’t do that at all, because they are expressive. “We know what we don’t want, and we know who we hate”. When they grow, they then acquire policy people. Sometimes those policy people are like David Baldock [former director of IEEP], they don’t actually start off as an agriculture expert, they just do it as a side line because they worked out how that how the power system works. But he’s unusual. Most experts continue off down the policy system.
Then you end up with the worst of all worlds of course, which is where there ends up being a professional lobbyist for the organisation. That in my view is also a bad mistake, because they become the arbiter of the organisation’s priorities. That’s no good either.
All of these are exactly the same in the commercial world. If you speak to the public affairs people of the big multinationals without any doubt at all I can line them up for you. They’d all say “my biggest problem is I’m not allowed to do the political deals that work, because my bosses don’t understand how politics works. They just get a list of what will sound good in the next quarterly shareholders’ meeting and tell me that’s my political objective. Frankly, they are going to tell you this: ‘I organise meetings with MEPs who are mates; I take the Chief Executive there a couple of times a year, so the CEO knows we are campaigning on this; I do f*** all on it from one year to the next’”.
Are people stupid?
CR: … now on taxi drivers, and maybe we can add fisherman in my experience.
SB: Yes, there are certain groups in society, with whom it is completely impossible to reason neither individually or collectively. Farmers and fisherman are two such groups.
‘there are certain groups in society, with whom it is completely impossible to reason neither individually or collectively. Farmers and fisherman are two such groups’
CR: Why taxi drivers?
SB: Taxi drivers are the height of that. You don’t go into taxi driving because you love coordinated action. The acute individualism of those professions would attract people with that kind of personality. Therefore [they] feel animosity toward collective decision-making and process that might bind them to do something they don’t want to do in the future.
CR: Taking a completely different tack for a moment. Reading through the notes you sent me, which are very interesting and thinking about various discussions. I feel a risk of – if you just looked at this stuff, you might think, if you were either on the NGO side or a public affairs person, possibly on a corporate side, you might think there’s a bit of a clever dick, because every example is about how stupid somebody is and there by implication how unstupid you are. That’s why a lot of them are funny. I share the view that there’s a lot of stupid stuff in there.
SB: That’s how I experienced in my life.
CR: Yes, but as a story-telling position, or conceit or construction, it’s probably not the most effective.
SB: It depends on the circumstance.
CR: If you focus, to get some of the people at the end of it to change the way they are doing things.
SB: If you start from the proposition that those people are unchangeable, why would I want to try to change them?
CR: I suppose it depends on whether or not this is just an expressive or instrumental exercise.
SB: No, it’s not instrumental to get people appear to be on your side when they will betray you later in the process. If they don’t buy into the objective, they are not part of the coalition, because they will fall apart. That’s why I have such a problem with [ ]. If we do this stuff, and he’s not totally on side for it, he will say something in a TV interview, and the whole pack of cards will collapse.
CR: I wasn’t talking about the agriculture thing. I’m thinking if you want to turn this into some sort of book or course
SB: Oh, in that case I don’t care – whatever is necessary.
CR: Thinking about these examples of things you’ve come across over the years, there are a lot of examples of stupid behaviour by companies, and there are some implicit examples of stupid actions by NGOs though not so many. If you went through companies, and if you went through NGOs, and thinking in relation to the general dysfunction you described in their triangular relationship with governments and politicians, which examples of companies who are getting it right, in things you saw them do, being effective, so examples of “good practice”.
SB: Yeah, I know. There is good practice. That’s true. But good practice flows from good people. So what I would do is to look around the corporations where good people are doing worthwhile things. There is a board member at Trafigura, which is a real, nitty gritty, billion-dollar, shift it round the world, dig it out of the ground, type of corporation, who is doing all sorts of interesting stuff, on what sustainable mining would really look like, and what actually needs to be mined and all of these.
‘What you really want, is the grand bargain. The grand bargain is, the ENGOs, the agro industry, and the food processors, all getting together and saying this is what sustainability looks like’
SB: He’s the sustainability guy. I haven’t seen him for years, but I’ve seen one or two of the things he’s doing, and they are very helpful. If I could find somebody else who could share the big picture here. What you really want, is the grand bargain. The grand bargain is, the ENGOs, the agro industry, and the food processors, all getting together and saying this is what sustainability looks like. Of course, it would be a grand bargain which has a lot of details to be subsequently filled in. Those three parties, in my view, could agree on a grand bargain for the next 20 years without too much trouble. The difficulty is, the optics require the farmers, which prevent any kind of a grand bargain. What I’m therefore saying is, let’s do it by abandoning the desire for the optics. Let’s take the tough decision and accept that the farmers would go berserk.
SB: I would see, the farmers objecting vehemently, as a proof point. My ultimate audience, actually, is the regulatory process in Europe. What I want to say is, we can get together, we can sort out what sustainable regulatory processes look like, we can impose them in Europe, and they will then be adopted globally. The only hope, actually, of achieving global regulation, because the Americans have abandoned the whole project. I am forever being criticised for being too big picture. My reaction is, why does everyone else have such a poverty of ambition?
CR: There is long way of doing it, that is, to run a political simulation, to say this is game, you know, we’ve got the world’s top game theory people, getting together to a massive computer chip or some way. It is going to do interesting things to produce a lot of flowing, multi-dimensional diagrams about the result and you’re going to be in it. And it’s going to be three days in CERN or California or wherever you want … erase the difference between it being a game and being real. Because people would take part in games, what is experimental, what is solvable.
SB: Yeah, I do that. If you allow them to stay in their working role, they would be obdurate and stupid because that’s what the role requires. If you are now the Minister of Women of Uganda, you would be amazed by how imaginative and creative they could be.
SB: I do get it, but I think there is an interesting point. I don’t think even you realise how deep the emotional psychological resistance to this is. I’ll give you an example. I did a session in Asia, which was attended by the senior management team of Syngenta in Asia including the Head of China division. The top people were there, including the global Chief Operating Officer. We lined up half a dozen NGOs operating in Asia, not just WWF, but also working women in agriculture in Asia, Tropical Rainforest Alliance. Quite good groups. I spent two days talking to them on the phone, meeting them in the town and all the rest of it. I said I’m going to do a little bit of theatre and I’m going to make a few suggestions. If you feel you could persuade your organisation to go along with it, would you mind saying yes? Because I want to show them what might be possible.
All six of them said yes, including Tropical Rainforest Alliance. So in front of the entire management team, I said I would like to ask the panel, if the company agreed to use close-loop and licensing in Asia for the use of pesticides, would you agree to campaign with the company that only licensed distributors should be allowed to distribute pesticides and herbicides because there’s a massive commercial gap to the industry? It knocks out the pirates, which is a real problem to the environment movement but gives them a commercial gain. What is your view?
I started with the Women in Agriculture woman because she was so good. “This is a wonderful idea. I would be happy to support you. We can find women in the different countries to give views on what you need for all of it”.
The Chief Operating Officer then stands up: I arrived at this meeting, thinking it was a waste of time. He’s a charmer. I now see what the point it is. I want this, and I want it before completion, (completion is when the sales and purchases and various internal bits and bobs): nothing ever happened. Nothing. It would have dealt with it.
‘the commercial side is exactly the same as the environmental side. They are so used to planning everything around the animosity’
There is no division for having good relations with lots of different people. That’s a war room. They have no idea about how to go into a negotiation. So the commercial side is exactly the same as the environmental side. They are so used to planning everything around the animosity.
They have no mechanism, for when sensible people say, yeah, you are right, you’ve won, what do we need to sort this out? “No no no, you are evil!” But we just said, we are going to sort it out. You know what [ ]. said to them? “I won’t do anything with you in public, but you should talk to my team and you’ve got a lot to learn from them”. Thank you. F*** you!
CR: Another approach to this type of problem is to change the players, or change the format, say you just basically, that’s what I said to you before about the agro industry: one option would be for them to grow the food? I know that’s what they criticise. Monsanto is a bad example of wanting to do that.
SB: Bad people wanting to do something good does not make good things bad.
Syngenta and Sustainable Farming
CR: I would be interesting to hear about the farm tour to discuss sustainable farming. Is that in Italy or somewhere?
SB: The industry, in this particular case, Syngenta, has a partnership with a wealthy guy in Northern Italy who is deep into sustainable landscape in the north of Italy. I can’t remember exactly his name. They set up a model farm to see how you could do modern farming in the most sustainable way. I’d been asked by Syngenta to organise tours of journalists to go and see it, which we never got around to doing. (I would have said 90% of the stuff we discussed with Syngenta that was a good idea no one ever gets around to doing.) What we did do, is I went down to see it myself and by coincidence, I was there doing the tour with a political journalist from the Evening Standard.
The tour was excellent. The two people doing the tour were scientists who actually live on the model farm, which is a beautiful place by the way. The water is all done as natural flows, there were ducks to eat the pests. But they do use pesticide and herbicide, where appropriate and everybody’s agreed it and so on. It was a model farm. It uses pesticides and herbicides radically less than what’s currently being used in comparable agriculture in the same region.
Towards the end of the tour, which was genuinely interesting, the political journalist became more and more political. [Journalist:] “Does this make us as much money as the other farms?” [Scientist:] “Yes.” I don’t believe it does incidentally, but we’ll set it on one side. [Journalist:] “In that case, what do other farmers around here think about this?” [Scientist:] “They think it is an interesting experiment.” [Journalist:] “Why aren’t they doing it if this makes the same money?” “Umm well, there may be a slight difference in how much the farms make. Therefore, we are looking at how we can do that.”
“Why, incidentally, if it’s a marginal thing, do the farmers round here not try it?” The scientist showing us around, said, “They don’t want to do it. They hate it. They hate all of this stuff. It’s a psychological problem, not a science problem, none of that, it’s a cultural problem.” Then the political journalist said, “That’s exactly the conclusion the politicians come to.”
The political journalist immediately says, “Is it possible that we could have a farm that is as sustainable as this, and the difference between how much this one makes and how much the other one makes could be made up by a reform of Common Agriculture Policy, and the cost would be far less than the common agriculture policy?”
[Scientist:] “Ah, well, yeah I suppose put it like that the arithmetic does seem to add up.” Then he [Journalist:] said, “Why, incidentally, if it’s a marginal thing, do the farmers round here not try it?” The scientist showing us around, said, “They don’t want to do it. They hate it. They hate all of this stuff. It’s a psychological problem, not a science problem, none of that, it’s a cultural problem.” Then the political journalist said, “That’s exactly the conclusion the politicians come to.”
CR: Was the scientist you were talking to Italian?
CR: Because in my experience, Italian scientists are more broad minded, when it comes to thinking about the human side of things.
SB: These guys were actually. I was very impressed by them. They were very committed to what they were doing, but they were not nerds. Frankly enough, the culture around here just hates this. That’s where the real problem is. I was impressed by the political journalist by the way, who left saying, the company is doing a lot. The problem is not with this company, but the farmers.
CR: When I worked for WWF in Italy, because they just won this nuclear power referendum or something, I was asking various questions about what is going to happen next, some problems with renewables, efficiency, and the power. I said, what about the nuclear industry? And they said “you know, that’s just a social problem, what we do with the workers essentially. It’s not a technical, not an energy problem it’s a social/psychological problem getting rid of nuclear power”.
SB: That’s true.
CR: The person I was talking to was actually a scientist and energy campaigner.
SB: That is an interesting point actually.
CR: [he said] “We are going to get the Unions on side”.
SB: Can I give a stronger version of that, on the farmers? I was working with ECPA, crop protection trade association, go and meet Ariel Brunner, Bird Life. Cut long story short, the team went, which was three of them, (to [see] the NGOs). I thought it was a good team for the industry to send. I felt all three of them perfectly reasonable people. They came back, presented how the discussion had gone. The man running the trade association, intervened at some point, and say, “just to make it clear, 80% of what he said he wanted us to do, we already know we should be doing”. They therefore concluded to end the discussion. In other words, they’ve gone to the NGO. The NGO said this is what you need to do, to be clear with us, on the birds’ side of this. They got back and said yes we can do this, but we’d better stop this discussion.
CR: Why did they want to stop? What would you mean by “we’d better stop this discussion”? In case what?
SB: If you start acting in the public policy process on the basis of the evidence, you will not be on the same side as the farmers.
CR: What did actually happen to ECPA (European Crop Protection Association)?
SB: They withdrew. They now just send ranty lunatic press releases about how the institutions of European Union are dominated by people who are not scientists, written incidentally by people who have no experience in science.
CR: So this 80% gap in terms of actions. What scope is there to actually…
SB: Make it happen?
CR: Yes, to make it happen by NGOs and …
SB: They don’t need to do anything. What I did, was I went to Syngenta and said, if you want to mark yourself out from the rest of the sector, why don’t you do something with Bird Life, because actually, what they asked for, we already know is perfectly reasonable? Andy Mack went and saw Ariel Brunner I believe I arranged for Ariel Brunner to go and talk to Alexandra and the little group leading this initiative. Ariel Brunner agreed. I don’t know about the last bit, whether he actually said yes. But I know he will. I’ve never met him. But I’ve indirectly communicated with him. I think he is aware of what we are trying to do and he seems to be prepared to play ball. The reason why I am going with that, is that as soon as I knew, what he wanted they could easily deliver, I thought good, I’ve got a bit we can hang on to here because we can use it as an example internally, of, look, bird lovers across Europe, if we get them on our side rather than on the other side, all of a sudden, we are no longer lepers.
CR: Back to farming.
SB: The point of the story about showing the model farming in Italy, and the point about the story about dealing with Ariel Brunner, is what the agro-chemical industry could do, could make a huge difference.
What’s stopping them doing it, there are lots of different things, multi-causal, but a primary one, is the belief that they will not have the support of their customers, the famers. In that belief, all the evidence shows, they are correct.
For nearly thirty years, more than that, I can remember going back to when we worked together 40 years ago, on straw burning [CR and SB were both at Friends of the Earth], the farmers were the problem.
There is a marvellous letter from the ambassador in India to President Kennedy, as to why farmers are always conservatives, that should be nailed [on the wall of the office of] every agricultural minister of the world. They are the problem. They defend what they’ve got, I completely understand why that is.
Somebody needs to explain to them that courage is getting from where you are to where you need to be. If they stay where they are, they are going to get wiped out. Politically they are. The public will not put up with this kind of subsidy system for much longer, even in France, I think. So they ought to move, but they won’t.
‘The answer is we have to reform the CAP to move towards sustainability, whether the bloody farmers like it or not, and they are going to have to catch up. What we have to give up on, is the belief that everybody has to agree on what has to happen. Because the farmers never will. But the agro-chemical industry will, because they don’t want to get the blame. They are caught between the farmers and the retailers’
So, the next question is, what can we do, that means they have to. The answer is we have to reform the CAP to move towards sustainability, whether the bloody farmers like it or not, and they are going to have to catch up. What we have to give up on, is the belief that everybody has to agree on what has to happen. Because the farmers never will.
But the agro-chemical industry will, because they don’t want to get the blame. They are caught between the farmers and the retailers, and the retailers are saying, we want sustainable agriculture, because that’s what the nice sign in our shops say. Get us sustainable agriculture.
The agriculture, agro-chem industry, knows what sustainable agriculture is. These people know what it is, and they can agree in private with the ENGOs on it. So, the question here is, can we come up with a really surprising alliance that fundamentally reforms the CAP to the benefit ultimately of the farmers, but not requiring their initial support? Because in reality, they’ll never give it.
CR: [If] we take it as read that Syngenta is going to move, which is a possibility. If that possibility turns out to happen, what else would you say, that people like the NGOs or others apart from farmers, and/or some of the farmers in your view, you know, if there are subgroups, but particularly the ENGOs, what do they need to do? How do they need to get involved?
SB: I’m speaking to you without qualifications. Of course, there are subgroups. We’re talking about the basics of the issues here.
I think what they’ve got to do is to accept that they too need to demonstrate a bit piece of courage. It doesn’t even need to be public courage. It just means, why don’t we sit down and talk, and see what these people are prepared to do? I think they’ll be surprised by what comes out of it.
I think, the industry, ultimately, will commit to accepting they have a role in climate change stuff and therefore moving to being non-fossil fuel based provided they are given a reasonable time scale and milestones to do so. I think they’ll agree to engage the public policy process in a different way because at the moment the internal decision is what is in our commercial interests that is what we would say in the public policy process.
We could easily remedy that. If we did so, it would change the nature of the public policy process.
Incidentally, I think that applies to all sectors, but why don’t we start with this one?
SB: I think we can get the Europeans to adopt a different way of looking at this from the Americans, undermining Trump’s disembowelment of the EPA. This is going to be a battle between Trump and all the loonies in the corporate world, trying to create a world without global corporate regulation, and the Europeans and, in my view the Chinese, who would be necessary to trying to do something else. This issue is going to split America versus the rest of the world.
‘This is going to be a battle between Trump and all the loonies in the corporate world, trying to create a world without global corporate regulation, and the Europeans and, in my view the Chinese, who would be necessary to trying to do something else’
Just look at the commercial position. The key playing field will be South America, which is the big expanding market for the agriculture, agro-chemical industry. At the moment, the drift in South America would be, in my opinion, not towards sustainable agriculture. On the other hand, I think that drift would not be that difficult to adjust in direction so that it did end in the place of sustainable agriculture, and I know there are serious people in the environment movement in South America that would take the same view. Because I’ve met a few of them in Brazil. Very impressive people. They are WWF people but not under the WWF brand. I can’t remember what they were called.
CR: Yes, in Brazil there’s lots of stuff like that.
SB: They are good actually. So that’s what I think the opportunity is.
CR: What is it that, in your view or your experience broadly, the NGOs in this area don’t know or think that’s wrong, or otherwise is a deficit or absence about getting this to happen?
SB: I think it’s not a knowledge or even an attitude problem. It’s a structure problem.
Nobody To Negotiate With In the Environment Movement ?
SB: The environment movement is more like the Orthodox church than it is like Rome. There is no centre of authority, there are just lots of archbishops who happen to get along okay, sometimes. If you have a serious conversation, who do you go and talk to?
This has been one of the biggest problems for me, working on this stuff. Now I’m used to it. So I know you have to go and talk to Ken Cook and you have to talk to Chris Rose and you have to talk to Peter Melchett. People in my generation who I know, and I trust, and I can have a frank conversation with.
Incidentally I don’t know many of the young people. When I engage with them, I found the cultural difference is so big it’s very very difficult to talk with them. Even the way they speak, I find difficult. The adoption of Australian accents – every sentence goes up at the end. I am thinking, “why are you doing this?”. I can’t hear what they were saying because they have these weird ways of talking. I don’t know who to engage with from the other side. It’s okay on the development side.
At the end of the day, Oxfam will always put someone serious in the room. But the environment movement, there just aren’t the people with the experience of big change negotiation. It would really need be a group of people who, in my view, were committed to the environmental cause, would probably be older and would be able to sit in a corporate broad room and say I see what you are doing there.
Ken Cook can do it and he does it brilliantly, because he says, I see what you are doing there, and I think we can help you with that if you put it in this way. At one stage, he said “you know your science is much better than ours, we’re astonished at how good your science is”. They were creaming themselves. Then he would say things like “I’ve got a fundraiser a week on Thursday, do you think you could take a table?” He leaves knowing everything, he had access to all of their science. “Marvellous science – look forward to further discussion with you”.
But he’s a serious negotiator. The deal he puts up on the table for the fragrance industry, he knew, was a very good deal for them, and it was. Their refusal to do it, was again, it is not about how good it is for the public policy process, ‘I will not work with the devil’. I said to Ken, at one stage, “they see you as the devil”. He said “you know what, if necessarily, I’ll wear horns when I come into the room so that they can feel more comfortable about it”. What most people say, is that’s what WWF is there for. Then why doesn’t it serve the purpose?
Ring Fencing the US
SB: Let me get back to the Agri-chemical sector, I think the way to change it, at the moment, it’s just a reactionary grouping. So Dow put a million into Donald’s inauguration. That to me is a symbol of that sort of thing. So how do we change that? You change the industry as a whole?
In my view, that’s not possible. Because the bulk of the industry culturally, the culture stuff is US.
That is the problem, not part of the solution. On BP, Unilever, and many other things I’ve worked on, you always have to ring-fence the US, because culturally they just can’t cope with this for deep historic reasons.
Because Trump is disembowelling the EPA I actually think there is scope for a clause in the grand bargain that says that the industry will not support what the chemical and petroleum industry is doing in the US to disembowel the EPA. That would split the industry straight down the middle.
For this reason all the European companies are horrified by what is going on in the US, absolutely horrified by it and the US companies all think it’s great news. If you want a split point, boy dance there.
CR: Tell me about you said the most professional people I’ve worked with, how Philips Morris and British American Tobacco actually work and how they usually win.
SB: The great thing about the tobacco industry’s culture, is that there is almost totally no self-delusion. That’s what it marks it out from all the other industry I’ve ever worked with. The tobacco industry is: “we are selling stuff that kills people. We are bound by a lot of rules and regulations. What are we going to do?” So you are straight away into a real discussion with real people. If you go to the chemical industry, you know, you will hear: “we are saving the world, they misunderstood us”, etc.
So what they do, is they appoint people who are realists. If you talk to a tobacco lobbyist, the first thing they’ll say is that we can’t do anything you just said son, we tried it all, and it don’t work. If we are very lucky, we’ll get this little bit if we are very good boys and we do all the right stuff. That’s how lobbying really works when it’s done successfully. Because they worked out what’s possible and focused their resources there.
Relationships and Talking To Yourselves ?
CR: Let me ask you a different question. Yesterday one thing you talked to me about what frustrated you about some groups, I think WWF was one of the manifestations. You came up with the phrase, that I hope you can recall. You had a word for them. It was essentially that they weren’t getting what they could get. They were giving without asking, getting just say the involvement of one company.
SB: It seems to me to they were focused on relationships at the expense of outcomes. I also think that the WWF people themselves actually have a deep poverty of ambition. Michael Sutton was very good on this, because he was the Head of Marine at one stage for WWF. He would say, when we go into a room and say, we want to reform the way fishing operates around the world, our problem is not going to be the fishing industry, it’s going to be the ENGOs, and indeed that’s what it turned out to be.
I remember talking to the Greenpeace fisheries people in Germany and ending up shouting at them – “the only people who read your labels are housewives in Germany!”. Of course, you can imagine the nuclear explosion on the other side. But it was perfectly true. What they wanted was what was called provenance labelling, so every package would tell you where the fish came from. How many people do you think would really pay attention to that information who are not professional fish stock sustainability campaigners? That’s the issue. They are always talking to themselves.
CR: But more generally, do you think NGOs that often fail? Because you gave me an example of agro-chemical people saying , and Bird Life people saying what they want to do. Is it the case that corporations quite often will be sitting on the potential to do quite a lot, which sometimes does not really cost them that much?
SB: I’ve never come across a corporation that do not have that. Most corporations not only have a little vault of things they could do, but some of the serious people will know what’s in the vault.
CR: Do you think by large the NGOs do not understand that?
CR: What’s the best way of finding out about it? Or, do they need to find out about it? Will they just be able to get the right result in the right circumstances by being in a position of putting on a bit pressure and pushing on this or that that eventually it probably hits on something?
SB: I think that the idea that part of the movement creates the pressure and the other part of the movement creates the solution is the ideal model.
Unfortunately, the campaigning end of that has, in my view, got quite good. Pressure on multinationals is often quite sharp and they really feel it. The solutions negotiation end of that has, in my view, have been very poor indeed.
‘the campaigning end of that has, in my view, got quite good. Pressure on multinationals is often quite sharp and they really feel it. The solutions negotiation end of that has, in my view, have been very poor indeed’
Not because that there aren’t hundreds of people who understand negotiating processes so on and so forth, but because this is about politics. If you are going to have that negotiation, they would want it over actually want it in two or three weeks. You either have it done before the next board meeting or it’s not going to happen. Who do you talk to, in those terms?
CR: To some extent that’s what people like you or you at any rate, I don’t know how many others have done, by giving some insight into what might be asked for so it’s the actual pirate diplomatic thing.
SB: I discussed extensively with Ken Cook what we thought a step change would be. By extensively I mean no more than five minutes but five minutes with Ken is deep stuff. He would say, we have to reconcile modern agriculture methodology with environmental sustainability and feeding at lot of people and everybody knows that’s the case, why don’t we get together and sort it out? I said, part of that is the industry needs a degree of certainty, and the turbulence of the last five years was hell.
Could we in private work out a list of all of the chemicals currently used by the industry and the ranking order of which everybody agrees they should be knocked out? I think the industry would be commit itself to it. The only reason they’re defending everything is they think you want to knock out everything. If you sat down with them and said, that is a really evil, bad thing, but that’s going to be okay for another 30 years. I’ll tell you what they’ll say. You say yes to that, we will say yes to that. Who would we have that conversation with? Because what happened on the other side of the table is that we want you to give up on everything now. That was pretty much [ ]’s position last night apparently. “I won’t talk to you in public. You must come to talk to my team, so you’ll understand what our position and feedback is”.
In Europe, Neonic’ pesticides have dropped from the heights of the public agenda following a ‘ban’ in the EU in 2018. As anticipated in Anthony Downs’s 1972 ‘Issue Attention Cycle’, neonics seem consigned to a ‘twilight zone’, with the result that alarming new evidence of their impacts gets little attention.
This blog examines the neonic case and others, and proposes ways that campaigners (on any issue) might plan so that they stand the best chance of escalating issues where necessary, and getting around the public attention dynamic trap created by the Issue Attention Cycle. It also calls for bolder action on pesticides by well-established groups such as the RSPB.
In 1972 Anthony Downs published Up and down with ecology—the “issue-attention cycle” describing how public interest would become ‘alarmed’ on discovering a problem, ‘euphoric’ about solving it, then hit ‘realisation’ of the costs of action, lose momentum and see interest fade away before the problem was truly resolved. This five-stage cycle became a popular idea in political science for some years. Is the current situation with ‘neonics’ (neonicotinoids) best known as ‘bee killing pesticides’, now a case in point?
Two truly alarming UK scientific studies have recently been published showing the levels of exposure to neonics among farmland birds, yet to no noticeable response. The distracting effect of Covid aside, the lack of obvious reaction to these studies made me wonder if this is because Neonics were ‘banned’ in the EU from 2018 (indeed while these studies were in progress) and so are now regarded in Europe as a problem solved: a validation of the Downs hypothesis.
Back in April 2018, after a considerable struggle, NGOs campaigning in Europe declared victory, ‘a historic day’, and told their supporters ‘you did it’. The ‘bee-killers’ were vanquished. Neonics were prohibited from outdoor use on all main crops and it was a real success but as Downs anticipated back in 1972, it wasn’t really a problem resolved.
The Two Studies
Many studies have shown the ecological havoc wrought by ‘neonic’ insecticides but these two recent papers on birds bring detailed observational and sampling evidence to add key evidential links in the chain of cause and effect.
The first paper reported that cereal seeds treated with neonicotinoids ‘were found on the soil surface at all 25 farms surveyed’ (shortly after sowing wheat). A much-repeated argument in the chemical industry’s case that neonics cannot be causing harm to wildlife is that they are ‘safe’ if used according to instructions, or in American parlance, to ‘the label’. In practice that is usually impossible. In this case the Bayer Crop Science label specified that seed should be buried 4cms deep – in reality a lot was left on the surface. Essentially similar agricultural processes exist worldwide.
Using camera traps, ‘15 species of bird were observed consuming clothianidin-treated seed at seed piles’. As I read it, the study effectively calculated the amount of neonic that birds feeding on the left-over seed (and seedlings) would consume over several weeks. After catching birds and taking samples, ‘Clothianidin was detected in the [blood] plasma of 10/11 farmland bird species sampled. Birds consumed up to 65% of a chronic toxicity estimate for clothianidin’. This included two birds (Yellowhammer and Tree Sparrow) which were exhibiting signs of acute poisoning when caught.
A third of the species and half the individual birds examine had been exposed to the neonic chemical and levels in their bodies were ‘among the highest recorded for wild birds to date’. The study does not directly tell us anything about what would happen to birds exposed over several seasons but the authors state:
‘Overall, these data are likely to have global implications for bird species and current agricultural policies where neonicotinoids are in use’ (in 120 countries).
The second paper found 89% of gamebirds analysed after autumn seed-sowing (from carcasses of shot birds, including red-legged and grey partridges and pheasants) contained clothianidin, whereas only 11% sampled before sowing had the chemical. Birds with higher levels of the pesticide in their livers also had more internal parasites, which the authors suggest may be due to interference of the immune system by the chemical. (Bees affected by neonics can have increased parasite burdens).
Aside from robbing insect-eating birds of food by being very efficient at killing insects and in the case of bees, increasing their vulnerability to parasites and interfering with their ability to navigate, so reducing their chances of survival, at high enough levels neonics can kill birds directly and at lower levels, impair their ability to migrate and navigate. A Dutch study published in Nature found a pattern of fast declining bird populations in areas with significant levels of imidacloprid, a ‘pattern of decline [which] appeared only after the introduction of imidacloprid to the Netherlands, in the mid-1990s’. Another very recent study in Nature found ‘alarming’ effects on ants (ants are related to bees), which like bees are a huge part of the natural ecosystem.
‘Problem Solved’ in EU Would Delight The Chemicals Industry
If the European public is largely in Downs’s ‘declining interest’ phase following the breakthrough ‘ban’ of 2018 and thus not responding to new signals that neonics area problem, the chemicals industry will be delighted, because outside the European Union, neonics are in massive and increasing use around the world. The EU is the only significant market in the world where the chemicals industry has been ‘defeated’ over neonics.
It’s not easy even to get firm data on neonic use unless you are prepared to pay sums of around $3,000 for market reports and forecasts, which is one of many reasons why campaigning on pesticides is a niche activity. But one market analyst forecasts “robust growth” in neonics to 2025, and another notes that ‘Asia Pacific dominates the global market in terms of value and volume’. An argochemicals industry insider told me not long ago that the industry, or at least the Europeans, thought they had ‘lost’ the battle over neonics. It is true that there is increasing investment in alternative ‘biologicals’ but in a way similar to the fossil fuel companies investing in renewables and hydrogen while still pushing petrol, disesel and gas: the chemical companies are also expanding their existing product portfolio wherever they can.
Mainly in the US but also elsewhere, the industry is still mounting a massive ‘product defence’ lobbying and propaganda campaign, as described by Lee Fang in a January 2020 article on neonics in Intercept magazine: The Playbook For Poisoning The Earth. Fang details activities involving Syngenta, Dow and Bayer (now incorporating Monsanto), including the ‘co-option’ of science through their domination of research funding, and promoting the views of bee-keepers willing to stress the role of disease rather than chemical pollution, in bee declines.
From Lee Fang’s Intercept article
Even in the EU, the industry is still trying to mount a rearguard action against the ‘ban’. As Farmers Weeklyreports, the British National Farmers Union and Bayer are currently challenging it in the European Court of Justice. Analysis by Client Earth and Pesticides Action Network also found that the EU’s 2013 neonic restrictions had been circumvented 62 times by Member States exploiting an ‘emergency use’ provision, and Unearthed recently foundthis loophole had been exploited 67 times since 2018. As I was writing this blog, Britain’s Wildlife Trusts published an excellent report Reversing The Decline of Insects, calling for national pesticide use to be cut by at least 50% but neonics are hardly mentioned. (Neonics were covered in more detail in a 2019 Wildlife Trusts report Insect Declines and Why They Matter).
If you are at all concerned about biodiversity, neonics are a significant and literally systematic threat to whatever you are working on. This also includes bird organisations in Europe, even if the ban is maintained and properly implemented, because about half of ‘European’ birds spend part of their lives outside Europe, such as swallows, cuckoos, swifts and nightingales which spend most of their lives in Africa.
‘Neonic’ Back Story
Neonics are systemic insecticides, meaning they get into a plant and make it poisonous to insects. They were invented by a Japanese subsidiary of chemical giant Bayer in the 1980s and at first were welcomed as a more targeted use of pesticide than aerial or general spraying of insecticides such as organophosphates. It has since turned out that neonics (a) don’t stay in the target crop but get into soil, water and thus other plants such as in hedgerows, where they also kill insects, and (b) as much as 95% of neonics applied to treat seeds sown by farmers, goes straight into the environment and not into the crop.
The first neonic, imidacloprid, was launched by Bayer in 1991, followed by a dramatic crash in zooplankton and fish in Lake Shinki from 1993.
Neonics nevertheless spread quickly around the world and a further six types have been put on the market by companies including Syngenta, Bayer, Mitsui, Sumitomo and Nippon Soda. By 2008 neonicotinoids had taken a 24% share of the total insecticide market of €6.330 billion. Widespread ‘collapse’ of bee colonies began in France in 1994, as the chemical ‘Gaucho’ was introduced by Bayer and used on sunflowers. It was Imidacloprid. By 1999 honey production in France had been halved.
Dutch toxicologist Henk Tennekes became one of the leading scientific campaigners against neonics when he realised that their ‘mode of action’ had ‘much in common with that of chemical carcinogens’. He has also pointed to the pivotal discovery in 2001 by Luc Belzunces, a bee researcher at theFrench agricultural institute INRA, that ‘an acute lethal dose of [neonic] imidacloprid’ was only 40 nano-grammes, much lower than most other insecticides but ‘his greatest discovery was that the lethal dose from chronic exposure … was 4,000 times less’.
Citing Rachel Carson “knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept quiet”, Tennekes (not to be confused with a Dutch climate-sceptic of the same name) decided to write a book warning the world of their danger: ‘The Systemic Insecticides: A Disaster in the Making’, published in 2010. By that time neonics were widely implicated in disappearance of bees, birds, and later insect life in general. ‘Silent Spring’ was becoming a reality.
Scientists at the US EPA warned about the ecological dangers posed by neonics in an internal memo released by Wikileaks in 2010: “…The proposed use on cotton poses an acute and chronic risk to freshwater and estuarine/marine free-swimming invertebrates…” and “..Clothianidin’s major risk concern is to nontarget insects (that is, honey bees). Clothianidin is a neonicotinoid insecticide that is both persistent and systemic. Acute toxicity studies to honey bees show that clothianidin is highly toxic on both a contact and an oral basis….”
In the UK, the area of land treated with neonics more than doubled between 2003 and 2013. Restrictions started to be imposed elsewhere in Europe, for example in Germany from 2008, and across the EU from 2013, leading to a ‘complete’ ban on outdoor use from 2018.
There are few restrictions on Neonics in the US. In 2018 John Tooker of Pennsylvania University worked out that an area of corn (maize), soyabean and cotton crops the size of Texas* was treated with Neonics, and noted: ‘between 2011 and 2014 the mass of neonicotinoids deployed in each crop doubled, indicating that seed suppliers applied about twice as much insecticide per seed. Unfortunately, many farmers are unaware of what is coated on their seeds, while others like the peace of mind that comes from an apparently better protected seed … Unlike most insecticides, neonicotinoids are water soluble … But only a small fraction of the insecticide applied to seeds is actually taken up by seedlings. For example, corn seedlings only take up about 2 percent … The critical question is where the rest goes’. [Germany is 53% of the size of Texas].
Within the EU, other uses of Neonics escaped the ‘ban’, including in veterinary pesticides such as cat and flea treatments for domestic pets such as cats and dogs. 3.6m individual British pet owners have pet insurance, and part of the insurance package often involves regular ‘flea treatment’. In 2018 The Daily Telegraph reported that charity Buglife found over 60 pet ‘flea treatments’ contained neoniotinoids, and that rivers and streams were widely contaminated, even in areas with little arable farming.
UK freshwater pollution by neonics (from Wildlife Trusts report)
Was Anthony Downs Right?
The Downs ‘cycle’ has been much discussed in academia (for example). Downs originally wrote:
American public attention rarely remains sharply focused upon any one domestic issue for very long—even if it involves a continuing problem of crucial importance to society. Instead, a systematic “issue-attention cycle” seems strongly to influence public attitudes and behavior concerning most key domestic problems. Each of these problems suddenly leaps into prominence, remains there for a short time, and then- though still largely unresolved—gradually fades from the center of public attention. A study of the way this cycle operates provides insights into how long public attention is likely to remain sufficiently focused upon any given issue to generate enough political pressure to cause effective change.
Downs conceptual model proposed five stages: ‘Pre-Problem’ when, he said, the problem is actually worse than by the time it is recognized; ‘Alarmed discovery and euphoric enthusiasm’ when in America, a ‘combination of alarm and confidence results in part from the strong public prerssure … for political leaders to claim that every problem can be “solved”’; ‘Realizing the cost of significant progress’; ‘Gradual decline of public interest’, and ‘The post-problem stage’, a ‘prolonged twilight’.
The original article is still worth a read. Although writing mainly about the environment in the US, his examples were mainly drawn from other issues such as racism and poverty, some of which are very topical today.
Some of Downs’s explanations may have been overtaken in subsequent social research but there is little doubt that innate human tendencies combine to encourage individuals and groups to focus on the most acute threat perceived at any one time.
This in turn combines with the crystallising, simplifying morés of news and social media and the limited space in a ‘news agenda’ and the herd-dynamics of common focus among media actors, to define ‘the threat’ or ‘the big issue’ of the moment. CEOs, Premiers or rulers convene to discuss ‘the issue’, and while waiting in the wings are candidates for being the next issue, the constraints of a ‘summit’ agenda and awareness of media appetitites are in themselves sufficient to create a single action focus.
The same thing happens within any ‘issue’ sector: development will have it’s top issue of the time, as will environment, human rights, and so on. Leaders and news editors are expected to know what that is, and maybe one or two things about it but no more. In so far as politicians and other leaders want to be seen to respond to ‘public opinion’ as manifest through ‘media’ these operating norms lead to a fix-one-thing-and-move-on effect, a scaled up version of single action bias. In an earlier blog on the history of the plastics issue I argued that happened in the early 1970s, when the popularising impact of Thor Heyerdahl’s ocean voyage helped shoot ocean pollution up the international agenda but oil pollution rather than plastic was incorporated into UN plans for action.
Once that happens, and the next issue heads the agenda, the ‘done-with-it’ effect creates a one-way valve resisting attempts to revisit the topic. In Europe, that may be happening right now with neonics, keeping scientific (Track 2 analytical) findings off the ‘mainstream’ agenda (Track 1, run on Kahneman’s System 1 rules).
Implications of the Downs Cycle for Campaigns in General
Since Downs wrote his piece in 1972, the lines between public, media and politics have become considerably blurred, as we have moved from a mass-media world with a few channel controllers (newspapers, radio, tv etc) to a much more porous online and social media web. But the above dynamics still have an effect. At least in the Anglo world in recent years ‘top issues’ have included ‘bees’, rightwing political populism, Me Too, plastic, climate (at times synonymous with environment), Covid and Black Lives Matter.
In some ways the ‘onlining’ of communications has made the Downs cycle effect even stronger because ‘issue agendas’ have themselves become more globalised. Online has made it easier for activists and campaigners to discuss and create calls-to-action internationally and even globally but that can then embed an assumption that ‘messages’ need to work globally and resolutions require global action. Both of these can make change harder to achieve.
It may be worth campaign designers asking themselves:
Can you get a result without having to ‘escalate’ your demand-making conversation, given that the escalating process involves reductionist focus? For example, designing campaigns to achieve change through geographically local or regional politics (and can add together to create a wider effect).
Can you get a result without broadening the public conversation so that it requires endorsement by ‘general public opinion’ ? For cause groups the very idea that ‘public’ pressure is always required is often built into the organisational DNA but even a brief encounter with the methods of the Public Affairs (lobbying) industry shows that many of their successes on behalf of corporate clients, involve much more ‘below the line’ methods. This might require more effort to research, segment and communicate with specific audiences. The default audience strategy of many campaign groups seems to be to start with their own followers or members, and then work out to the wider public, with the aspiration to ‘reach the general public’. This is rarely necessary, may even be grandiose, and sets the highest possible hurdle.
Can you get a result by changing behaviours first, from which changed opinions will follow, rather than setting out to win a public argument on the assumption that this. is necessary to ‘change minds’? For example one effect of the EU ban on neonics has been that conventional farmers have had to find alternatives and some are adopting non-pesticide methods (see eg the UK Farmers Weekly). If these changes feel good to the individuals concerned, they may be available as influential messengers among their peers or in politics. This is very different from ‘pressuring’ people into change by asking them to change their minds (for instance in Britain many conventional farmers have long adopted a view against Organic Farming so trying to get them to ‘go organic’ raises identity issues which a switch to different technical options like companion cropping and IPM does not). See also Increasing The Impact of Individual Behaviour Change and VBCOP.
Implications For Environmental Campaigning
Plainly neonics are far from finished business even in Europe, yet the 2018 ‘ban’ may have pushed neonics into the Downs ‘twilight zone’. But once an issue has dropped from the peak of public attention it is of course hard to re-escalate it. In the plastics case Why We Suddenly Have a Plastics Crisis I suggested that it was the role of two dramatic story-makers (Thor Heyerdahl in the 1970s, Charles Moore in the 1990s, both ocean-voyagers) who made the problem ‘discoveries’ in Track 1 intuitive public terms, that escalated the issue from analytical technical science world of Track 2. The subsequent slew of public plastic campaigns rode on the back of Moore’s wave, more than making it.
It was mass bee-hive deaths that catapaulted the neonic issue into public consciousness. They were visible, and by comparison with wild insect deaths, easy to communicate and study. They also came with human story tellers attached (bee keepers). They were disruptive of business as usual – no crop pollination = no honey, less food. In 2018-19 XR attempted to be the disruption that elevated climate into an immediate (political) crisis.
If neonics are to be revived as an issue from problem-solved to a salient crisis, who will do this escalation from Track 2 to Track 1 now?
Governments allowing so-called ‘emergency uses’ on farms and ongoing pollution from uses such as pet treatments (presumably also contaminating the homes of unwitting pet owners), mean neonics are still getting into the European environment. Little work has been done in that area.
Organisations like the RSPB, one of the worlds biggest conservation groups, are also deeply involved in work of BirdlifeInternational, and in Europe like the US, many of the most loved birds are visitors from other continents, where neonics are subject to few campaigns or controls. Millions of Britons are glued to the BBC Springwatchprogrammes each year, and millions of birdwatchers track the arrival of summer visiting birds. Are they a potential audience for Silent Spring II?
If the environmental movement is to deal with the global neonic threat, it will need the influence of major European campaign groups both for their resources and because companies like Syngenta and Bayer are essentially European. Which includes groups like the RSPB. The RSPB is a much trusted brand in the UK but has taken a very cautious and low profile approach to neonics. In 2011 when I was researching what became Friends of the Earth’s ‘bee campaign’ and small groups like Buglife were going head to head with the chemicals industry and the entire faming lobby, I asked the RSPB about Tennekees’ research and was told that their Head of Science, David Gibbons, was ‘monitoring the science’. Rumour had it that the RSPB had decided not to take on the UK government (pro-neonic) or the pesticides industry, and that Tennekees had sent a batch of his books to leading figures in the RSPB but received little or no response.
In May 2018 I spent some hours interviewing Peter Melchett, then Policy Director director of the Soil Association (an organic farming organisation), himself a farmer, previously Executive Director of Greenpeace, an RSPB Council Member and government Minister. Melchett, who died later that year, was full of regret about the failure of environment groups to tackle the ecological impact of pesticides, and particularly frustrated with the RSPB.
He told me:
“Do you know they [RSPB] haven’t said a single [expletive] word about neonicotinoids? From their introduction to their banning, from their science people. And they’ve been doing research on them for 3 years, Dave Goulson gave a talk at an RSPB science event, at the Zoological Society, must have been 3 years ago now, I went up to the guy who runs it, David something he’s called, and said “are you gonna do any work on Neonics?” And he said “oh yes we are” … And then a year or two later I met a young person who had been a RSPB volunteer who’d worked on this project, because we got talking about neonics; I said “oh really what were you doing?” and she said “we were watching the partridges and other birds to see if they’d eat spilt neonicotinoid-treated seed”. I said “oh really fascinating did they?” Yes they did. And Dave had already shown it took 2 or 3 – 5 seeds to kill a partridge or something? Yes relatively few. So, so far as I know, they have been sitting on this information”.
So far as I can see the RSPB has indeed said little about neonics although it hasn’t said nothing. Search for ‘neonicotinoid’ or ‘pesticides’ on the RSPB ‘news’ listing and nothing comes up but it has posted numerous blogs at its community site, produced position papers and taken part in lobbying and scientific research.
For instance, in 2012 the RSPB was asked about use of neonics on its own experimental farm (Hope Farm). Ian Dillon the farm manager responded ‘this is a difficult subject, as conservation farmers we want to grow as good quality and high yielding crops as we can while at the same time encouraging wildlife to thrive’, and ‘it’s not yet clear whether neonicotinoids are causing declines of pollinators in the wild. We’ve set out our views here: www.rspb.org.uk/…/Neonicotinoids_and_bees_RSPB_position_tcm9-327906.pdf and we’re keeping this policy under review as more evidence emerges. You’ll see from our policy statement that we do intend to phase out use of neonicotinoids on our land’.
In 2015 it published a blog by Ellie Crane who said:
‘There is very strong evidence that pollinators and other wildlife are being exposed to neonicotinoids at potentially harmful levels. Some particularly worrying research recently showed that even flowers around the edges of arable fields can be contaminated – a concern for any farmer doing his or her best to help pollinators. We are therefore calling for a complete halt on all uses of neonics and a clear plan for filling in the remaining gaps in our knowledge’.
In 2017 David Gibbons published a detailed blog on tracking the science (here) linking to a large review study he was one of the authors of (here) and alluding to RSPB research on birds. He also said ‘The recent decision by the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, to support a complete ban on the use of neonicotinoid insecticides came as a delightful surprise’.
The project Melchett was talking about seems (July 2020) to be the one described on its website here. According to this RSPB page, after observations of large amounts of neonicotinoid-treated seed on farmland in 2013, the study began in 2015 with ‘assessment of exposure risk’, continued in 2016, followed in 2017 by ‘assessments of NN exposure on the survival and behaviour of partridges’. It aimed to assess: the extent to which NN-coated seeds are left exposed on soil surfaces at crop sowing; NN residues on surface seeds and in growing crops; to identify the species of birds and mammals most likely to consume NN-coated seeds; and likely impacts of NN-exposure on bird survival and behaviour. Under ‘planned work’ it says ‘We recorded bird and mammal species seen foraging on recently sown fields, and consuming NN-coated seed at concentrations of seed spillage’.
In July 2020 I contacted scientist Will Peach at the RSPB who quickly sent me two papers which seem to stem from the work Melchett encountered, and which are described above. So from a science and conventional farm management point of view, the RSPB as a conventional (not organic) farm manager with its own science programme, could probably say that it has not been ‘sitting on’ findings, only waiting for the slow process of scientific research and pubishing to take its course.
What do you do as scientists if you discover something urgently important? This dilemma has led to an increasing proliferation of online preprints, especially since Covid.
From a campaign point of view, the RSPB may have made discoveries which might have made a significant difference in the campaign to get rid of neonics. Of course in terms of getting change, it’s not just publishing evidence that matters but what you do with it.
Now that the normally even more cautious Wildlife Trusts have called for a dramatic reduction in pesticide use, I hope that well-resourced environment groups like the RSPB will become significantly bolder in opposing the ecological wipe-out being caused by neonics and other agrochemicals. If the chemicals industry gets to decide the pace of change, the global picture for many forms of wildlife and the functioning of ecosystems that humans depend upon, is not good.