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.
This post outlines a simple ‘three pillar’ framework to help realise the often untapped potential of behaviour change. Pillar 1 is private personal action in the form of a new behaviour which stays in the private domain. Pillar 2 is where that behaviour is made available in the public domain through informal channels such as face to face in ‘the community’ or networks, and on social media, enabling escalation of the impact if it is spread to others. Pillar 3 is where the behaviour is taken into the domain of formal networks such as politics, campaigning, media and professional organisations.
It’s obvious that if nobody else knows about the new behaviour it has no effect on others and the change-impact goes no further than the individual action. In reality most new behaviours (for example those that cut climate pollution, such as replacing a diesel/petrol car with an electric one, or eating less meat) do have some effect on others but if they are actively communicated, and especially if this is done effectively, for instance using heuristics, values and framing, the effect can be magnified.
It argues that a huge amount of ongoing and potential behaviour change by individuals is having far less impact than it could, because little effort is put into deliberately catalysing its spread to others, such as friends and family, neighbours, and others in a community or network.
Some ‘top down’ campaigns aimed at securing change through force of government regulation or the power of corporate decision-making, ignore individual behaviour change. Other social marketing campaigns encourage only individual action. Too often the ‘middle ground’ is left to look after itself. This can leave highly motivated individuals worrying that their individual actions have little effect (eg ‘climate anxiety’), while the potential for adopters to become ‘champions’ and convert others, goes unrealised.
Cause groups often put a lot of effort into recruiting people into a ‘supporter journey’ leading to escalating activism or donations. The large number of people who are for one reason or another, not readily convertible to donors or activists, are frequently ignored. Here I argue that they could make gains if more individual behaviours became more public, where these align with change goals – working to escalate behaviour visibility not just to escalate activism or donating.
The debate over whether campaigns should be top-down or bottom-up is long-running and when driven by competing ideological theories of change it probably can’t be resolved. But for pragmatists, escalating the impact of individual behaviours so it is manifest in the ‘middle ground’ of society – the networks and communities between the individual and the ‘public’ – could make a significant difference on many issues.
The examples I give are mainly climate-related but the principles apply to many issues.
Remember The Climate Emergency ?
It may be hard to remember now but at least in some countries, in the world BC (Before Covid), the thing ‘everyone wanted to talk about’ was the Climate Emergency.
Worldwide Google Trends searches for ‘Climate Emergency’ (blue) and ‘Coronavirus’ (red) from 1 Jan 2019 to 8 June 2020, the latter copied and super-imposed. Apologies if this is an abuse of the Google Trends system – I couldn’t get them to work together.
In winter 2019 Bob Earll asked me to contribute to the January 2020 ‘Coastal Futures’ conference  in a session on climate change and communications. This annual event mainly attracts marine environmental professionals. Earll worried that his audience, who were pretty well-informed about the science, had become ‘habituated’ to the issue and so not everyone was treating it as an emergency. And many of those increasingly seized by the need to ‘do something’ beyond dealing with climate in some aspect of their day job, were in despair about whether individual action could ‘make a difference’.
The previous year an interactive session had showed that while it was not a topic presented at the conferences, his audience was already engaged with a wide range of pro-climate behaviours in their domestic/ personal lives.
Personal Action Escalation (Download bigger file) – a Three Pillar schematic
After some head-scratching I came up with the simple three pillar Personal Action Escalation model (revised shareable version above). It’s based on three contexts or ‘pillars’ for action and effort to bring about change. The above is not exactly rocket science and social marketers will recognize many things in it that they already do. I’d be interested to hear of other methodologies which may be better – do contact me and please do leave a comment on this post.
Pillar 1 is individual behaviour change or behaviour ‘adoption’, Pillar 2 is further adoption through informal community or networks, and Pillar 3 is involvement with organised channels of decision-making, politics or campaigns. These are in effect choices for an individual: you can just ‘stay’ in (1) or engage others and get into (2) or also (or only) get involved at (3).
Pillar 1 – I Make A Change
Assuming a situation where you as an individual want to do something yourself, it suggests thinking about your opportunities to make a change in behaviour at home, at work or at play (Pillar 1).
For example (in relation to climate): choices for diet, holidays, recreation, gardens, transport, energy, clothing, tech, services, investments, pets, building …
If this is not communicated to others, the change effect is contained here. If for instance, I switch from a petrol car to an electric one, or from a ‘ordinary’ mixed source electricity supply to a green tariff, the beneficial climate effect is only proportional to the emissions that choice displaces, and nobody else may know about it.
If it ends here, net change is proportional only to the additive effect of all individual changes. But if each individual change influences others, it’s more than additive, and if that continues, it can even become exponential (the ‘r’ rate above 1, one of the few bits of population biology to have entered popular consciousness, thanks to Covid). In reality many things can stop a sustained chain of contagion from developing but it’s quite easy to get a degree of contagion.
Pillar 2 – Community Spread
Once a behaviour exists, we can ‘add value’ and multiply the impact by engaging others through informal channels, including face to face (F2F) and social media. If I show my neighbour or relatives what I’ve done and they do the same, the effect is increased, and so on. The ‘Track 1’ tools of values, heuristics and framing can enhance the communication.
The Pillar 2 diagram above is my indicative British take on informal channels, contexts, moments or events in communities or networks, in other words the sorts of opportunities where this communication could happen:
social media, meeting at the Primary School gate, fetes, talking to neighbours, meeting other dog walkers, local news, local council meetings, community boards in supermarkets, Christmas, the pub, a film club, a bar-b-que, the library, a gym or sports club, shops, and a party (adjust for covid lockdowns).
If you make your own list of such touchpoints you’d of course want to take account of age, lifestage, lifestyle, disposable income and personal commitments (eg to children) to get a diverse range.
Applying these ‘Track 1 tools’ to enhance contagion of behaviours (emulating/ reproducing what someone else is doing) is more likely to work than trying to use them to get someone to adopt a new behaviour just by argument or advocacy, from a standing start. Indeed advocacy often does not even specify a behaviour. Matched values, heuristics (cognitive biases) and framing can act like communications enzymes, as behavioural catalysts.
Seeing something done and then doing the same yourself, is the well known ‘social-proof’ heuristic. A ‘heuristic’ just means that at a population level it’s likely to have that effect more than it does not (read Robert Cialdini or How to Win Campaigns ). Add a values filter and you get a more refined design. Settlers are more affected by social proof than Pioneers but it will help if the example ‘doer’ is someone like them, preferably someone they know (similarity, identity). Prospectors likewise but it helps if the ‘doer’ is a success-model. Pioneers are also affected by social proof but less so and in four different ways. Framing it ‘right’ helps a lot but it needs testing on a case by case basis.
Graphics from Coastal Future talk
Above – some things a new electric car owner could do with a car to communicate her example. She’s already put it on twitter. She could also take friends for a ride, park it where the neighbours would see it, hold a new car party or use it to give someone a lift – here it suggested giving young people a lift to the School Strikes (a genuine problem where I live, leading parents to drive their children to the strikes, usually in fossil-fuel powered cars).
A green tariff example might simply be if you switched to a green electricity supply and then communicated that to friends and neighbours, and they did likewise. There is a suggestion of how to make this largely ‘invisible’ choice more visible and ‘transportable’, below.
Social media, ‘old media’ and mediated media have considerably converged but as the lockdown experience demonstrated, human beings are social animals and so far, technologies like Zoom cannot substitute for the power of In Real Life (IRL) interactions. So this process of trying to escalate the effect of individual action is going to work best where social media and F2F or other ‘community’ contagion work together.
If the campaign delivery mechanism is itself online – eg an online petition or purchase – then social media alone may be sufficient but in many cases, campaigns require real life action, and even an ostensibly pure-online mechanism like a petition, not only usually asks for an IRL action but will be more effective if validated by IRL communication, such as what family members say to a decision-maker, face to face.
Moreover, most effective online mobilisations require a social object, usually an IRL activity.
Social media makes the transaction cost of contacting others very low compared to the effort that may be involved in F2F and other channels but it also makes it very easy to acknowledge someone’s example (eg behaviour) in a positive way (invoking the liking effect, eg literally a Facebook ‘like’) without even sharing, let alone changing a substantive behaviour. This can have the effect of stopping a chain of contagion. The commitment (to act) effect generated by a personal F2F interaction is likely to be much greater, if only because of the effort involved (see this blog on online and offline petitions).
The Power of Utility: the Fax Dynamic
“American wedding guest: Do you actually know Oscar Wilde?” Gareth: “Not personally no. But I do know someone who could get you his fax number. Shall we dance?”
The holy grail of behaviour contagion is a new behaviour which gives you the doer more reward if others do it too, so you have an active incentive to spread it to others. An ancient technological example is the fax machine. The first one was incredibly expensive and useless in that there was nobody to send a fax to. The second one was ‘better’ for the users and the utility increased with every adoption leading to the ‘fax dynamic’ (“you really should get one – so we can fax each other”). Users became advocates: a free sales force. And of course faxes got cheaper. Social media apps and messenger services can spread this way.
The spread of the integrated ATM network, now being phased out as cash is used less and less, was driven by card-holders frustrated that they could not get money from another bank. Once they started to migrate to banks with bigger networks, the banks had an incentive to ‘merge’ their networks. Right now electric cars are creating a similar dynamic as users become lobbyists for more and better charging points.
VISA is famously a chaordic network brand (a term coined by VISA founder, Dee Hock) with hardly any centre, which spread because it was useful to users, both buyers and sellers.
Change campaigns and movements are not usually selling technology or monetized services so what is their product utility ? It’s not usually just the issue campaign objective but something to do with motivational values. To be part of something, a community, an assertion or conservation of identity, safety, security or belonging (Settlers). To achieve, to be part of a visible success, to have a good time socially, respected, famous or admired (Prospectors). To have new and additional agency in changing the world ‘for the better’, to ‘give back’ (Transcender Pioneers), to be innovative and self-expressive (Flexible Individualist Pioneers), to live ethically (Concerned Ethical Pioneers), to seek a different way (Transitional Pioneers).
Pillar 3 – Engagement With Formalised Processes
To escalate personal action further, it can be taken into more formally organised channels such as associations, NGO campaigns, local politics and government, the media or affinity groups. By formalised I mean anything which is an entity recognizably designed to take or influence decisions – from XR to a rally to local government.
Taking the example of a green tariff, if we users now persuade our elected councillors to also switch to a green tariff and the Council then does the same to power its own assets, the effect of our example is escalated (an example of going from Pillar 1 to 2 to 3).
In the UK the electric car charging network is already and live issue in local council discussions and councils which have signed up to declare a Climate Emergency are in a difficult position if they don’t act on it. Due to fears about coronavirus transmission, the UK government has also advised people to avoid public transport with the consequence that (I heard) some London firms are looking at more parking to facilitate more car commuting – an opportunity for electric car ownership or maybe better rental, to resolve a dilemma.
An advantage of Pillar 3 action is that it can utilise institutional knowledge and assets as in a Campaign Organisation, making it possible to create focused strategic campaigns, including with the collaboration and cooperation of many people. A disadvantage is that it can appear ‘tall but shrill’. It may embody a case by aggregating and mobilising a narrow section of society, and might manifest this through opinion polls or other statistics but it may not be much evidenced through ‘real life behaviours’, necessary to create ambient community level signals. Such campaigns can look as if they are not ‘real’ but ‘mainly an online phenomenon’ or ‘on tv’.
Being locally present is part of the case for an ‘Organised’ base of ‘local’ groups but if all those groups do is to articulate demands, rather than adopt behaviours aligned-to or consistent-with the demands, they can appear to be purely ‘political’. In other words ‘local’ but still ‘theoretical’ or ideological.
The out-take from that may be to signal that this is something a section of people want but for which there is no evidence that if the demand was agreed to, it would be widely welcomed or that the intended behaviour would actually be adopted. Action speaks louder than words. Walking the talk makes it credible. Just aggregating the strongest ‘believers’ and showing them to other people may simply make it clear that ‘we are not like you’ (reversing the similarity heuristic). In contrast, organisations or movements which are socially embedded in ways that reach across differences, such as by providing community services, can avoid this problem.
An example of winning the media ‘air-war’ but not the political ‘ground-war’ is the way that the British green movement failed to repel a campaign by climate-sceptic politicians intent on disabling the government onshore wind programme, which has since spent four critical years in the doldrums (see blog ‘Killing The Wind of England’). Opinion polling consistently showed high public support for onshore wind farms but there was no grounded community-level campaign to match the organised effort of a very small but very active and visible anti-wind campaign which presented itself as ‘community’ based and persistently lobbied local MPs face to face. (In 2020 the policy was again reversed but not completely, as market access was granted but planning obstacles remained in place).
In the paper ‘Tragedy or Scandal’, I explored how Extinction Rebellion UK succeeded in raising public consciousness of the climate crisis in 2018-19. XR’s ‘theory of change’ involved the ultimate top-down change of replacing the government, through ‘grass-roots’ mobilisation of several million ‘rebels’.
Yet even by XR’s own estimates, its national ‘rebellions’ only ever attracted a maximum participation of 30,000 over a week, and it deliberately eschewed any role for personal action, such as individuals buying green energy, or buying or renting electric cars. When in 2020 it switched to trying to ‘decentralise’ its tactics of social disruption (eg in Cambridge), it suffered problems of community-level rejection and had little social validation to give it strength in depth.
If Pillar 3 type campaigning is seen to grow out of Pillar 2 type social contagion, it has a legitimacy conferred by ‘community level’ action, rather than concerns of ‘elites’.
If politicians see people spending their own time or money on something it demonstrates that they ‘really care’ about it in an instrumental, not just an expressive way. Seeing it spread in ‘a community’ shows politicians not just that it is popular but that it has the potential to grow.
Politicians are well aware that what people do has an enormous effect on their opinions. Getting rid of fossil fuels has been hard not just because of the malign lobbying activities of the fossil fuel companies but because so many people have been using them in day to day life. By the same token, the more people take up alternative behaviours, such as buying or renting electric vehicles, the more ‘political space’ there is to phase out fossil fuelled cars. The more obvious that behaviour change becomes – the more salient it is – the more it undermines the political grip of the fossil fuel lobby, making a top-down campaign effort more likely to succeed.
So when ‘bottom-up’ individual change begins to occupy ‘the middle’, being perceived as a thing ‘the community’ is doing, or ‘the town’ is doing, or a majority is thinking of doing, it triggers what public affairs expert, the late Simon Bryceson called “the law of political anticipation”: politicians react, not to events, but to what they anticipate will happen. In this way ‘consumer change’, rather than political theory or ideology, increasingly leads and catalyses political as well as retail decision-making.
Our mental model of politics may still say something like, ‘every few years politicians write a manifesto, voters are engaged at an election the politicians get elected on the basis of that programme which is the implemented in government’. If that was ever the reality, it isn’t now. Politicians are engaged in a permanent campaign, and in government they often navigate government with the two crude yardsticks of popularity (staying on the right side of what the public want, in a constant back-stage trade-off with what vested interests want) and feasibility (what can be done). Big behaviour signals from the public act to lower the threshold to acting on evidence of feasibility.
Making The Invisible Visible
Unlike solar panels, green tariffs, along with ethical bank accounts and investments, are socially invisible, so just making this behaviour visible could in itself make a difference. Simple measures could change this, such as some sort of sign that a house is using green power. In the UK, homes of richer people used to have ‘fire-marks’: plaques indicating that the owners held private fire insurance, and showing the house was subscribed to a private fire service. That practice died out after public fire services were introduced and in past-obsessed Britain the plaques are now a treasured part of our built heritage, and a status symbol for householders.
House Fire Mark from Wikipedia – the Hand in Hand Fire & Insurance Society operated from 1696 to 1905
Some green energy providers do send out window stickers to customers but these are not very attractive, visible or durable. To work, such ‘signalling’ mechanisms would need to be well designed and appealing to householders, so they actually want to have them on their home. This would be a straightforward thing to research and brief, or run in a design competition.
Another approach could be to make statutory Home Energy Rating schemes visible. These already rate buildings by stars or A B etc grades depending on their energy efficiency in countries such as Australia, the US and UK. The certificate may be a legally required documentation if a building is to be sold. The rating could be mandated to appear on the outside of a building.
In 2015 before the Paris climate talks, I suggested that we could require green pilot lights on electric cars, to make them a more obvious signal of change. On 16 June Sky News reported that the UK government is to introduce a green flash on electric car number plates to encourage the switch. It’s great although I still like the green lights which could go on many renewable installations.
From Sky News – Green Flash Number Plates
Catching People Doing Something Good
Drawn up for the Coastal Futures conference, the ‘three pillars’ discussed above are laid out as choices for an individual. However from a campaign organisation’s perspective, the biggest potential gain is probably to engage new audiences, drawn from people who are adopting behaviours aligned with change objectives but who are not engaged by campaigning. Working with these people can help diversify effective support for change as well as growing it. Doing it successfully probably does not mean immediately trying to turn them into campaign activists or donors, but helping them become behaviour champions.
What does this mean in practice? Locate people doing something consistent with your campaign goals. It might be buying or renting an electric car. Directly or indirectly congratulate them for doing a good thing. Show other people that the behaviour is a good thing. Then encourage or enable the first group to do more by sharing their behaviour with others. It’s not a highly sophisticated process.
This approach of ‘catching people doing something good’ is quite well known in business, used in staff motivation, in innovation, and in politics. Marketers use it by directly or indirectly making people aware that ‘people like you’ (the similarity heuristic) ‘also did this’, or ‘surveys show people doing A are X% more likely than others to do B’, and making sure the people who see that have done A, in order to prompt them to do B.
Giving praise or enabling people to bask in reflected glory is also likely to make people a bit warmer towards the messenger (the liking heuristic). For some, probably a small minority, this might even make them candidates to convert into campaign activists but for many, the gulf between their personal lives (eating less meat) and what they often see as ‘political’ action (for example e-mail my MP about livestock farming), is far larger than many change campaigners realise. Those working in change organisations are surrounded by people with far higher self-agency than the great majority of the population and so overestimate the appetite for activism. But people are likely to be much more confident about sharing their new behaviours, especially with familiar contacts.
Different levels of self-agency and dominant needs among values-group act like a social sieve in sorting people exposed to a change-campaign proposition, leaving the end-of-the-line Transcender Pioneers as the group hugely over-represented in such organisations. (A process illustrated in How Change Campaigns Get Populated By The Usual Suspects).
A bonus with this approach is that although it might take a bit of thinking through and some research, you haven’t had to first put in the time and effort to get people to adopt a behaviour in the first place. Strangely this is also why ‘behavers’ are often ignored by campaigns: triaged-out as ‘that’s happening anyway’ and so they don’t need attention. But with some positive feedback – a psychological reward – they are a bit more likely to do something else along the same lines (consistency – see also the VBCOP model linking values, behaviour, opinion and politics) and possibly reach out to others.
On some issues the potential behaviour signal may be large. It may be much bigger than the number of people consciously engaged in explicit campaigns and change movements.
On climate for example, the numbers of people changing diet, or buying electric cars or signing up to renewable energy, are pretty big. As a result of the covid-lockdown experience, cycling has been booming in Britain, at least in some cities. (up tenfold in London).
Changing diet – which has multiple motivations – is large scale. In May 2020 polling company IPSOS reported:
‘In a global surveyof more than 20,000 people across 29 countries, more than two in five people (41%) say they’ll eat less meat or replace it with alternatives like beans in the next year to limit their contribution to climate change. Another third (35%) say they’ll eat fewer dairy products or replace it with alternatives like soya milk’.
IPSOS Mori survey 7 May 2020
Interestingly, the survey also found that on both eating less meat and on less dairy, it was those in developed countries who were less willing, and those in developing countries who were more willing. In this case the question started by asking what people would be willing to do in the coming year to make a difference to climate change. But if any campaign has the objective of reducing meat consumption, with whatever aim in mind, the reason an individual has for changing diet does not necessarily matter. If they then share this in a way that encourages others to do the same, the contagion and escalation in numbers helps achieve that objective. ‘Market signals’ do not just influence commercial decision-makers but also political ones.
Elsie The Cow – the large US milk producer Borden filed for bankruptcy in 2020 (image from Wikipedia)
Globally the amount of milk produced and drunk is increasing each year but in the mature US market it is falling and has declined 25% since 1975.
Falling UK milk consumption
In the UK, there is an even more pronounced trend of declining milk production in the UK (though not for cheese). Per capita UK milk consumption has fallen 50% since 1974, with non-dairy alternatives increasing.
Shot from animation of the spread of solar panels in a part of Colorado, from a Vox article
A well known case of the social-proof heuristic is the clustering of solar power installations on domestic properties – behaviour influenced by the example of neighbours. Some clustering is down to social housing provision but in private housing, it’s an individual decision. This contagion study of 60,000 homes with solar pv in Switzerland found that the more visible the panels were, the greater effect they had on encouraging others to get solar pv too. Similar results have been reported from the United States and Germany.
In the UK, as of 2018/2019, UK government data suggests some 858,000 – 930,000 households have solar pv on their properties, close to a million. The UK average household is 2.4 people meaning that perhaps 2.3m live in homes with solar pv (about 4% of the population). These aren’t the only people with ‘their own’ renewable power – they and others can also buy ‘green tariff’ electric power from the grid. As of June 2018 30% of tariffs offered to UK customers were classed as ‘green’.
From Ofgem State of the Energy Market 2018
Customer numbers are harder to come by but www.comparethemarket.com says its (undated) research found one in seven UK households have switched to a green tariff (14%) and 31% were thinking of doing it. There are 28.4m domestic electricity customers in the UK so 14% would be around 4m bill payers. Chris Goodall of Carbon Commentary says he suspects the number of ‘green tariff’ households is now over 4m, perhaps 5 or 6m. Octopus Energy alone has over 1.5m customers and only offers green electricity.
Although electricity users ‘going green’ is not socially intrusive or politically disruptive activism as XR’s escalating ‘rebellions’ were intended to be, it is a redirection of power generation. Although many electricity suppliers run ‘recommend-us-to-a-friend’ incentives, so far as I know, nobody in UK civil society has tried to engage this huge number of climate-friendly householders to go a step further into other climate-saving actions.
How much more ‘consistent’ behaviour change is going on? I don’t know but on the environment, it looks like quite a lot. As I noted in ’10 Things About Covid and Campaigns’ the pandemic interruption of Business As Usual has prompted new behaviours which are more likely to last than the ‘new ideas’ it has surfaced, if these do not lead to new habits before a new normal sets in.
A much discussed area is transport. The official UK survey of environmental attitudes and behaviours has not been updated since 2014 but a survey by a leading UK driver’s association the AA, found in May 2020 that half of 20,000 drivers sampled said they would walk more and 40% intended to drive less. In April the President of the AA, Edmund King, said that anecdotal evidence on more working from home during the covid epidemic suggested that planned government spending on roads would be better spent on improving broadband, and in May he called for a roads pricing scheme to encourage drivers to switch to cycling. That’s pretty amazing stuff.
In February a ‘global’ IPSOS survey (20,000 across 29 countries) found ‘71% of adults globally agree that, in the long term, climate change is as serious a crisis as Covid-19 is’. In June an industry analysis forecastglobal electric car rentals would increase 11% a year 2020-2024 despite Covid, and in April the electric car market overall was forecast to grow by 23% a year to 2027.
My intention is not to encourage anyone to campaign for electric cars – there are all sorts of view pro and con – but only to suggest that there are huge numbers of people changing their behaviours and the potential audience this creates this should be considered by change organisations.
Escalating the effect of personal behaviour change could make a huge difference to many causes, campaigns and movements. It’s a largely untapped potential and could have a catalytic effect on both ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ change efforts.
Research by Anne Owen of the University of Leeds shows that the signal of individual behaviour change in terms of household expenditure, can be detected in changing the UK’s national carbon footprint. In other words, with a lot of statistical detective work, she confirmed the obvious truth that, at scale, individual behaviour decisions do have a big effect. For instance trends and fashions in consumer behaviour on the negative side, such as buying SUVs.
So why is this often fiercely denied by some theorists, activists and campaigners but promoted by others? It may come down to a combination of pre-existing ideological commitments and, just as important, methodological commitments to business as usual.
Business As Usual
A shift to spending time in the middle-ground of ‘community’ or ‘network’ behaviour escalation requires looking at potential public audiences in a different way, and doing public engagement which is not about donating or supporter activism.
The default public universe of a ‘supporter journey’ strategy (left) starts with a wide funnel and narrows it as commitment to the organisation is promoted. A behaviour escalation strategy aims (right) to spread the behaviour across the population, so it expands.
This may run counter to internal targets and priorities set to optimise income and take people along ‘supporter journeys’. An unintended effect, or at least, a rarely interrogated consequence, can be that the campaign develops and satisfices its own support and mobilisation bubble, and measures success by what can be done within that resource, rather than experimenting outside it. Promoting positive public behaviours beyond the bubble is often left to the market and government ‘public information’ campaigns, which may not exist.
At least in the UK, the idea that campaigns have to chose between a bottom up or a top down approach is so deeply entrenched as a polariser and simplifier, that it’s hard to have a campaign strategy conversation without it coming up. ‘Behaviour-change’ campaigns, whose starting point is individual decisions, are often seen as bottom-up, and by many as not having much of an ‘up’ at all. But this is political not just technical.
The top down/bottom up dichotomy doesn’t really capture how a lot of actual change takes place but it mirrors a dominant political axis. At one end libertarians espouse individualism and personal responsibility, and at the other contemporary liberalism, socialism and some other isms. The former promoting less government and the free-market and the latter favouring government intervention.
In a country like the UK with highly centralised power, these political differences translate into ‘right-left’ party political choices. Without having to be explicitly acknowledged, these then colour and underpin the attitude of many campaigners to which strategies and tactics to adopt: individual behaviour change as a solution is often mapped onto the right, and government-action onto the left. Anti-capitalism also leads some people to reject any change which involves consumer choices.
A combination of these prior and often tacit commitments can make both campaign NGOs and self-styled ‘progressive’ social movements deeply conservative about their strategies and tactics. In this case it may mean they ignore individual behaviour change and the scope to escalate it at a community or network level, even where it’s aligned with their goals. So perhaps this potential will only be realised if new actors take it up?
Written before the covid pandemic took hold, ‘Tragedy or Scandal?’ looked at the ‘new climate movement’ of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion, and suggested that we need a complementary new ‘social movement’ or campaigns to leverage household expenditure aligned to goals such as action on climate.
Is the individual-bottom-up versus top-down dichotomy partly cultural? It may be. Perhaps it is not such a divide in countries which are less individualistic than ‘western’ Anglo societies, for instance in Asia where community acceptance tends to be an important norm in many walks of life, from business to family and possibly campaigns. I’d be interested to hear from others about that.
It would also be great to hear about examples of campaigns which already do try to escalate individual personal action
Some change organisations already set out to send these sorts of community-level signals and to encourage individual action. Rachel Collinson suggests the Fair Trade campaign or movement, as an example, maybe along with Transition Towns. Fair Trade supporters have long set up displays of Fair Trade products in shops or community venues and got some towns to name themselves as Fair Trade Towns.
One way of making a movement locally visible
Finally, Bob Earll the conference organiser has also been doing his own experimentation. In 2019 he asked 93 delegates to the Exeter Marine Network conference “what actions are you taking personally” in relation to the climate emergency. His results are here. The 93 individuals generated 299 responses, of which 72 concerned diet, 69 travel, 31 energy, 12 trees and gardens, 30 consumption, 23 activism (ie pillar 3) 29 plastics, 16 actions at work, 10 communications and 7, other things.
Bob has also produced two documents he’d appreciate comments on (please contact him directly). The first is A Guide to Individual Action on the Climate Emergency which includes a lot of information about other such guides and lists as well as his own. The second is a description of a very interesting idea by Maggie Bligh that he is piloting with friends, and was prompted by a desire to get rid of plastic in people’s lives, and is called a Can Do Café. Both of these are relevant to ‘Pillar 2’ behaviour escalation discussed above.
Thanks to Bob Earll, Chris Goodall and Rachel Collinson.
Please leave a comment if you have one and share this post if you find it interesting.
 The UK ‘Coastal Futures Conference’ was held in mid January. Organised by marine biologist Bob Earll, it’s an annual event attended by about 400 people. The audience is mainly environmental professionals from conservation, planning, regulatory agencies and marine industries, along with some academics and and journalists.
Bob asked me and others to contribute to a session ‘The Climate Emergency and How We All Respond’, saying “There are three key messages that I would like the audience to take away from this session; 1.The Climate Emergency is just that and much more serious than people realise 2. Understanding the problem is important but now How we respond now crucial …3. Since the societal and environmental changes will affect us all I’d like the entire audience to get the message that they can’t leave this to somebody else to sort out and they need to act”.
Earll has been running these conferences since 1994 and describes the audience (including himself) as ‘habituated’ to climate change as an issue. Well informed and professionally engaged but for many, until the ‘Climate Emergency’ broke as a dominant social issue, climate change was something they dealt with in their work silos rather than through ‘political’ activism or personal lifestyle change. Thousands of similar gatherings take place the world over. It’s not a small ‘audience’ in itself. In the UK alone the EIC says it provides ‘373,000 good jobs’ but others say the renewables industry alone employs 250,000. At any event, it’s a lot.
The UK government, or to be more accurate the English Government which is the bit directly led by Boris Johnson with the advice of the propaganda specialist Dominic Cummings, continues to write the textbook of how not to handle a coronavirus crisis. Communications failures are a central factor.
Two days ago the Daily Mail, normally a supporter of right-wing governments, reported
‘Boris Johnson’s government has the worst approval rating in the WORLD for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic – below even Donald Trump despite the US having the highest death toll’.
From the Daily Mail – based on a YouGov poll
The Johnson government has navigated the covid epidemic like a drunk in charge of a runaway car, in a series of crashes and u-turns. On top of this it has failed to show any leadership in a massive public row over the Black Lives Matter-led campaign to remove the country’s numerous statues commemorating people who were slavers or who benefitted from the trade.
One cause of this incompetent performance is the Johnson-Cummings addiction to old-style Decide-Announce-Defend, or DAD. As I explored in much more detail in this Newsletter back in 2010, DAD may have worked quite well in a Settler-dominated society which respected or at least did not challenge ‘authority’, which was the case in the UK as late as the 1970s but it does not work in a society in which the majority are the more critical (evidence-demanding) Prospectors and the more questioning, involvement-seeking Pioneers (see previous blog).
Share Consult Decide – SCD
The result is that DAD turns into DADA – or Decide Announce Defend Abandon, at the cost of credibility and public trust. Under the last UK Labour administration there was a trend to seek ‘evidence-based’ policy and officials and Ministers gradually turned away from DAD because of communications evidence showing that it simply did not work, to more consultation and involvement. Working for the Environment Agency on seeking public backing for flood policy and preparation, my suggestion at the time was to replace DADA with SCD – Share, Consult, Decide. Another consultant running public engagement exercises pursued much the same thing but as EDD – Engage, Deliberate, Decide.
This is exactly what the Johnson government has not done in the Covid/Corona virus outbreak. It has been secretive, not even wanting to reveal the names of its scientific advisers on ‘SAGE’ until forced into it by leaks to The Guardian, finally prompting a retired government Chief Scientist to set up a parallel open source version of SAGE.
Secrecy around the covid SAGE experts committee may have been driven by a desire to control the media agenda but instead led to the establishment of an independent alternative and loss of control. Here the Independent SAGE criticised a plan to re-open schools without adequate preparation and reduction of the disease – the government subsequently u-turned on the policy.
It lacks an evidence-based culture, treating science as a pick-and-chose prop to shore up its policies and perfering bluster, spin and constant resort to values dog-whistles to try and inflame support from it’s Settler base (Cummings’s speciality), and use of Lynton Crosby ‘dead-cat’ distraction tactics, as if it was still running the smoke-and-mirrors style Brexit campaign which brought together Johnson and Cummings. But real-world governance is not like running an election or referendum campaign.
The government has managed to alienate most of those ‘on the ground’ charged with or left with trying to deliver its covid crisis policy, by making announcements about what will happen before telling them, and not involving them in making or testing policy. It has announced a policy of localised lockdowns without agreeing that with Local Authorities. It has avoided engaging local Public Health experts and General Practice doctors and instead out-sourced testing and other key logistics to centralised commercial suppliers – with disastrous results. It has announced policies on opening and then not re-opening schools without any meaningful consultation with teachers, and did the same with the police on rules, regulations and ambiguous ‘guidance’ on travel and lockdown terms (then broken by Cummings himself).
In the last week it suddenly announced that all hospital staff would need to use masks from a few days time without consulting NHS hospitals. Today, amidst uproar about its latest schools u-turn it suddenly announced that zoos and safari parks would re-open, a move widely seen as an attempt at distraction by playing the animals and children card. Meanwhile its own MPs are kicking up about a decision by Home Secreatry Priti Patel to impose a blanket two-week quarantine on all incoming air travellers, which flies in the face of all available evidence. Even some Conservative commentators see that as an ‘anti-foreigner’ dog whistle from the Cummings stable. Given the UK’s continuing high covid rate it would make more sense to quarantine people going out of the UK than coming in. (Patel’s policy is being dismantled by the government bit by bit; given time, the zoos may yet yield their own fiasco). And there are plenty of other examples.
Meanwhile London Mayor Sadiq Khan took a step in the Share-Consult-Decide direction by announcing a review of all the ‘slaver’ statues in London, after the Black Lives Matter protests led first to the toppling of a statue of slave-trader Edward Colston in Bristol, and then the removal of a statue of Robert Milligan in London’s docklands.
The statue issue is of course a long-running one but re-ignited by the blowtorch of international outcry over the murder of George Floyd. It has already provoked an avalanche of debate and position-taking about what should happen, who should decide, what should happen to the statues removed, what they should be replaced by if anything, and the pros and cons of the symbolism and the possible impact of the statues issue on the wider question of practical action to reduce and eliminate racism in the UK. Personally I’d favour putting them in an open-air history-of-slavery museum and replacing them with something decided on through public involvement.
Facilitating national debate on racism, slavery and our imperial past is an un-appetizing prospect for government as it promises at the very least, the prospect of a ‘logjam of violent agreement’ as people with different values agree on something that should be done but not why or how. But it’s not something government can or should ignore. Sadly, if Covid’s anything to go by, Johnson’s government looks unlikely to handle it well, and may start by trying to deflect it before making an ill thought-out announcement and having to abandon it.
Every few years the motivational values researchers CDSM Cultural Dynamics Strategy and Marketing run a national survey to take a snapshot of values groups in the UK, broken out as 12 Values Modes and three large ‘Maslow Groups’, Settlers, Prospectors and Pioneers. (For explanation and links to the many papers/blogs using this system at this website see here).
Pat Dade at CDSM has just shared some 2020 results with me, which I’ve summarised in this post. ‘Values’ in this sense are linked sets of attitudes and beliefs which are deeply and largely unconsciously held to be true – how the world really is. We see the world through them and they play a big role in how we interpret information, developments, opportunities etc. They tend to change slowly, and numerous researchers such as Ron Inglehart in the World Values Survey, have tracked them changing across generations.
The current UK survey – conducted in early May in the midst of the covid epidemic – shows the proportion of Pioneers (Inner Directeds) and Prospectors (Outer Directeds) have both slightly increased since 2016, while the proportion of Settlers (Security Driven) have slightly decreased (this is a zero sum game – everyone is in just one of these Maslow Groups or the smaller Values Modes within them).
This continues the long term trend of the society becoming more Pioneer-ish as a gradually increasing proportion of the population meet their needs for safety, security and identity (hence individuals moving from Settler to Prospector), and for esteem (hence moving from Prospector to Pioneer), seen since 1973. I’ve plotted the percentage of each ‘MG’ here, taking 1973 as year 1.
Students of values will notice that unlike the 2005-2010 dip in the number of Prospectors and the rise in Settlers, which was associated with the recession, so far there has been no such effect in 2020 but it is early days. That ‘glitch’ in the ‘values conveyor’ led to a shrinking in the number of Now People, the optimistic high energy Prospector ‘leaders’ and a ‘pile-up’ of Golden Dreamers (the entry mode Prospectors), and consequent increase in Settlers not transitioning to Prospector. The Settler>Prospector transition appeared to have restarted in earnest by 2016 and is now continuing. From a social point of view that is good news (net ‘improving’ conditions).
From a political point of view it places even more importance on not forgetting the needs, psychological as much as material, of the Settlers, as was explored in my earlier blogs on Brexit (in which Settlers were much more strongly pro-Brexit than Prospectors (split) and Pioneers (mainly against it except for some more libertarian types). However in attending to these needs, UK politicians of parties trying to reach across values in a way that represents Britain as a whole, must recognise that the values centre-of-gravity in the UK lies more to the Pioneer end of the values spectrum than the Settler end, and that’s not just true amongst the young.
If ‘the prospects for success’ start to dim in the next months and years, the Prospectors, normally not very ‘political’, will start to kick up, and they are 39% of the population. A battleground for Starmer and Johnson. Starmer has to recover lost Prospector and Settler support but in terms of an energetic and forward-looking optimistic Britain, his most useful VM allies will be the Transcenders and Now People. An interesting problem.
If it turns out that Brexit does not deliver for Settlers and the Golden Dreamer Prospectors (the latter were split on it), things could get quite bitter and despondent. Dominic Cummings and other Leave campaigners played the Settler values pitch very well but he may have fatally blotted his copy-book by ‘saying one thing and doing the opposite’ over lockdown. Breaking the rules, especially when they themselves have dutifully upheld them, is not something Settlers will easily forgive – it’s not honourable.
Politics aside, these values proportions show, as mentioned in my previous blog on Covid and campaigns, that although we’ve all been prioritising safety and security in response to the epidemic threat (ie adopting some of the main priorities of Settlers), that does not change our underlying motivational values. (And as a very domestic UK aside, ‘clapping for the NHS’ got cross-values participation, whereas the VE Day celebrations pitched in jingoistic terms by the Johnson government, were a much more Settler-Golden Dreamer affair). Values powerfully influence behaviours but you can’t reliably read values from behaviours because people may do the same thing for different reasons.
Here are the UK Values Modes proportions for 2016 and 2020 showing an increase in four of the ‘outside edge’ Values Modes (the more ‘values bothered’ ones from the values map), Golden Dreamer and Now People Prospectors, and Concerned Ethical and Transcender Pioneers. This suggests values-driven national debate is likely to get louder rather than quieter. UK VMs 2016 and 2020:
Pat Dade writes:
The numbers look more like the pre-crash of 2008 figures than anything since then. It appears that the resilience of the British population is alive and well. Not only have the values of the British population absorbed the structural change to the economy and political changes that followed – they also are becoming more likely to optimistic and open to new experiences than they are to be traumatized and anxious about change.
At CDSM we’ve often been asked over the past few months, “are the Settlers increasing during the pandemic?”. Our standard answer is that values don’t change for any one reason and real values shifts take between two and five years from start to finish, and multiple factors have to line up to create a crisis that initiates the change process.
In fact the most common way for the crisis to occur is for existing values-needs to be satisfied. You are happy but begin to question ‘why?”. In other words people usually begin their changes from a position of strength, not from a position want and need.
The other less common way people make values changes is when they are consistently unable to meet their dominant needs. In this case they are beginning a transition from a point of weakness and unmet needs. In values terms this can even result in Prospectors reverting to being Settlers.
In a short-term situation like the last three to six months we wouldn’t expect change. But the cultural reaction to Covid-19 is having an impact on various aspects of society: lockdowns, no work, new ways of being paid, death, fear of others, uncertainty about the future in multiple ways, etc.. These could increase the likelihood of an unhealthy change.
Years of austerity, a summer of global climate change activism, the final death throes of anti-Brexit demonstrations and the continuing merry-go-around of British governments are also the types of conditions that could trigger an avalanche of negativity and retrogressive values change.
Diagrammatic version of the British Values map 2020:
Thanks to CDSM for sharing these data. Thanks for Mike for pointing out a couple of labelling errors in the original post, now corrected
LCA, Life Cycle Analysis or Assessment, is supposed to be an objective way to compare the environmental footprint of products, and is a mainstay of corporate decision-making in sustainability. But it’s blind to plastic pollution, leaving it available to be mis-used in comparisons of plastic with other materials. LCA-based comparisons of plastic bags with other bags for example have been widely cited and give a misleading impression that plastic is ‘greener’, while not assessing plastic as a pollutant at all.
Characterisation of plastic pollution is complex and a relatively new topic but recent work from Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute may enable development of a standard measure of plastic as a persistent and potentially bioaccumulative pollutant. Meanwhile, campaigners, journalists and environmentalists, as well as scientists who may be commissioned to carry out LCA studies, should be alert to the risk of ‘greenwashing’ plastic through conventional LCAs. The initial wave of concern heightened by Blue Planet II has subsided but the plastics industry’s fight to rehabilitate itself continues, and with essential uses for PPE at the forefront of covid responses and rock-bottom prices for oil, virgin plastic is cheap and the recycling market has collapsed in many places. The flood of plastic pollution shows little sign of abating anytime soon.
You may have noticed that despite various ‘bans’ on plastic bags there are quite a lot of media and social media stories in which plastic is compared with alternative materials and plastic is found to be ‘greener’, for example plastic bags compared to cotton bags, or plastic compared to glass or steel bottles.
Track back to the sources of these stories and you usually find they result from a LCA or Life Cycle Analysis or Assessment (for example carrier bags / bottles). The out-take from these stories generally gets condensed to ‘plastic not so bad after all’, or glass/ paper/ cotton/ aluminium (etc) is ‘actually worse for the environment than plastic – says study’.
BBC World video including a much repeated ‘fact’ that a cotton bag needs to be used 131 times “to have the same environmental impact” as a plastic bag.
Press coverage, even from the BBC’s ‘reality check’ unit, tends to convert assessments into a single dimension such as ‘greener’ or ‘the environmental impact’. The original factors used for the assessment are often shorn away in the telling of the story, and as it moves along the media chain from the study to the out-take, and through social media.
(This BBC report cites a LCA report by the Environment Agency for England and Wales on bags available in 2006, published in 2011. The ‘answer comes down to’ because those were criteria put into the analysis).
LCAs are widely used in industry and business to try and standardise environmental and sometimes social comparisons between material options, from ‘cradle to grave’. Some LCAs are bespoke, invented for a particular purpose but many rely on using or adapting an off-the shelf methodology which of course helps with comparability. LCAs (review article) are required to comply with ISO 14040 guidelines which specify four main stages.
On the face of it, a comparison based on a LCA, with its quantification and set methodology, seems more objective and authoritative than other ways of making a decision. As they are detailed, and cumbersome and demanding to conduct, they come with an aura of expertise as well as dependability.
But at the moment there is a serious problem in trying to use them to compare plastic with other materials, which at its most basic, is that plastic pollution is invisible to most if not all standard LCAs.
Here for example are the categories used in the EN15804 (a standard for LCAs in the construction sector):
EN15804 – a European standard
If a whale dies from the mechanical obstruction of its organs by ingesting plastic for example, then no matter how many times that is reported in the scientific literature, there is no place for it in most of the impact inventories used to conduct ‘Impact Assessments’ in LCAs. The same would go for seabird or turtle entanglement, or starvation due to ingesting plastic due to mistaking it for food. If they were poisoned by toxic chemicals released by the plastic that might count but there would need to have commissioned a specific study to produce input data, or that factor would need to appear in a standard reference database such as Ecoinvent.
The obvious large items ‘macro’ and the smaller flakes of ‘meso’ plastic whose impacts created public concern and a little political action through campaigns and programmes like David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II, are simply dismissed as a ‘littering’ problem and not captured in most LCAs. But there’s more to it than that because ‘microplastic’ is not included either.
In a 2017 blog I argued that policy-makers should treat plastic as a persistent organic pollutant, and regulate for a phase-out except for essential uses. Several groups of scientists had already made similar calls, pointing to it’s effectively indefinite lifetime, its accumulation in the environment, its roles as a source and vector of toxic substances, and its un-nerving capacity to almost endlessly fragment in the environment. Since then a growing number of studies have confirmed the omnipresent nature of plastic pollution and it’s ability to travel throughout human and animal bodies, and it’s as yet not-well-defined potential to cause disruption to important cellular mechanisms, suggesting that like forms of radiation, it may have no ‘safe level’ of exposure.
With the possible exception of measures of toxicity derived from substances directly leaching from plastic (freshwater, marine and human health toxicity do routinely feature in LCAs) most of the features of plastic pollution are not accounted for. So because other factors are included, such as embedded energy costs and emissions like CO2, plastic often looks environmentally better than alternatives. A glass bottle for example, will usually have a bigger carbon footprint than a plastic one of the same volume. Not the same plastic pollution footprint of course but LCAs don’t count the plastic footprint.
‘a challenge with LCA methodologies is that they do not account for plastic as a pollutant, but rather only for the indirect effects of plastic use, e.g. depletion of resources, energy consumption, or emission of chemical contaminants. LCA methodologies neither provide an inventory of the marine plastic leakage nor characterise factors to assess the impacts of plastics on ecosystems or human health. This lack of appropriate accounting of plastic leakage has encouraged companies to massively favour plastic packaging in many situations, due to its lightweight nature and low carbon requirements’
The Environment Agency (EA) study cited by the BBC in 2019 for instance (report above) considered Global Warming Potential and ‘other impacts: resource depletion, acidification, eutrophication, human toxicity, fresh water aquatic ecotoxicity, marine aquatic ecotoxicity, terrestrial ecotoxicity and photochemical oxidation (smog formation)’ but not the creation, accumulation and effects of plastic as a pollutant. ‘End of life’ waste management options such as recycling were included but not ‘the effects of littering’ and ‘discharges to water and soil’ were ‘outside the system boundary’. (Studies which identified littering effects were mentioned in an annexe but played no part in the assessment).
The highlighted finding of the study only focused on climate impact and was featured in the only graphic included in the executive summary:
Not surprisingly the point that registered with journalists was the idea that for re-usable cotton bags to have the same environmental impact as ‘disposable’ plastic carrier bags, they would need to be re-used 131 times.
The study drew on 2006 data and was published in 2011 before the 2017 peak of public concern (see this previous blog) but factoids from such LCA studies are constantly recirculated and most if not all current LCA methodologies still fail to register plastic as a pollutant.
Last October the Dutch-based campaigning NGO Plastic Soup Foundation launched an attack on LCAs, declaring ‘The plastics industry abuses lifecycle analysis (LCA) in communication surrounding plastic pollution’. It pointed out that LCAs often do not take the end-of-life consequences of a product into account and may make optimistic assumptions about recovery and recycling. It criticised a recent Dutch industry campaign Plastic Truth versus Plastic Fable for using LCAs as the basis of a claim that plastic bags were more environmentally friendly.
The Foundation noted that on the one hand, LCAs regularly rate plastic as more environmentally friendly while on the other, 80% of plastic ends up as waste in the environment, causing immense harm to marine wildlife. It stated:
‘Industry must, therefore, stop using the current LCA method for promoting single-use packaging plastic in particular. In the meantime, a legitimate supplementary criterion that takes into account the impact plastic has once it inevitably reaches the environment should be agreed upon’.
A Solution For Plastics in LCAs ?
No such measure has been agreed upon, although in 2019 researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and the University of Leiden proposed an ‘entanglement factor’.
McHardy et al 2019 proposing a LCA entanglement factor
In 2019 one study took a Spanish LCA assessing different bags and showed that when a ‘pragmatic littering indicator’ was introduced, it produced ‘precisely the opposite’ ranking to when GWP (climate impact) was the main criterion.
From Civancik-Uslu et al 2019 – a littering indicator
More recently, Daniel Maga reported on the work he and colleagues at the Fraunhofer Institute (the German institute for applied science) are undertaking to systematically characterise and quantify the risks attendant on plastic as a pollutant. Speaking at a virtual conference of Setac in May 2020, Maga gave a presentation on a research methodology for plastic emissions available here in video form.
From Daniel Maga presentation (video) at Setac May 2020
Maga points out that current end of life modelling as used in LCAs does not consider littering or loss of plastics through abrasion or weathering. He proposes a characterization factor combining fate, exposure, effect and severity and asks how the risks of plastic emissions can be captured in a LCA. Maga cites the ECHA (European Chemicals Agency) which asserts that there is limited evidence of environmental risks from microplastics and no suggestion of bioaccumulation of hydrophobic organic compounds in organisms (eg many pesticides, PCBs) but also that conventional risk factors may not work with micro or nano plastic risks. He proposes that the ‘fate factor’ is sufficient to capture the main risk from plastics due to their extreme persistence, so they should be treated as a ‘non-threshold substance’ in a similar way to PBTs (persistent, bio accumulative and toxic substances) for which any release can be assumed to create a risk. This is a classic case in which the Precautionary Principle should be applied (there being a priori reason to act even without definitive evidence of the impact having already occurred).
Detailed characterisation of plastic pollution is a formidable task. Maga goes on to itemise a mind-numbing welter of technical challenges. To deal with these in a way that could be included in a LCA, he proposes calculation of plastic equivalents, homing in on a SDR or ‘Specific Surface Degradation Rate’ measure, published in February. (How micro-plastics degrade is strongly dependent on shape – watch the presentation for details)
Where’s this going? If used, such an approach would enable decision-makers such as government agencies to compare and regulate plastics according to their risk as driven by fate-factors such as persistence.
Maga says “we imagine” it generating tables such as this one for macroplastic emissions (based on estimates from the plastikbudget project in Germany), showing rates of loss, where they are (environmental ‘compartments’ such as soil or water), type of plastic, degradation rates, SDR, length and shape:
And the same for microplastics
If a system like this were to be adopted by decision-makers, it could enable fairer and more realistic LCA comparisons, and help prioritise regulatory action as well as choices within companies. In theory possible that a country like the UK or more realistically the US, could do this alone but both are seriously weakened in terms of capability by a decade or more of environmental back-pedalling and hollowing out of expertise in central government and agencies. The EU, probably led by the economic and scientific powerhouse of Germany, is probably the main hope for scientific R & D in tacking the plastics crisis.
Beware The LCA
In the meantime, environmental correspondents, NGOs and campaigners need to be wary of LCAs. They should check the methodologies behind any claims to compare the ‘green-ness’ or ‘environmental impact’ of plastics and alternative materials, particularly where data has been fed into the blender of a LCA to give a ‘simple’ result.
Although it may be a big ask for researchers hungry for money, scientists asked to conduct similar studies should also ask themselves why they are being commissioned, and whether the framing that a brief will create, is designed in advance to greenwash plastic by what is included or excluded.
Researchers should also be careful about the way findings are converted into everyday terms. One example of framing and possible inbuilt cognitive bias is use of the ‘number of times you’d have to use a bag’ metric. This may seem innocuous but it positions a large number against a small number by taking as its ‘impact’ reference point the ‘footprint’ of a single plastic bag (excluding the plastic pollution impact), and comparing it to a different type of bag (eg cotton) and then working out how many times the for example cotton bag ‘would need to be used’ to ‘be as good as’ the plastic bag. The UK EA 2006/2011 study mentioned earlier calculated 131 times and the 2018 Danish study found (p 80) ‘conventional cotton carrier bags should be reused at least 50 times before being disposed of; organic cotton carrier bags should be reused 150 times based on their environmental production cost’.
What this does is to frame the consumer choice in terms of effort required in order to get the reward of being environmentally friendly. Either use a disposable plastic bag, or you have to go shopping with a cotton bag 130-150 times! Can you imagine – (your brain does that instantly without you thinking it through) – it’s just not feasible is it? This invokes the anchoring heuristic: the busy (time-pressed, time-is-a-scarce-commodity) shopper is given the first single-action choice as a reference point (the anchor) and the second (131x) action) to compare to it, just in order to get the same reward. It’s a no-brainer that plastic is the more feasible choice.
The focal effect in this snap judgement also stops us asking awkward questions like “how many times can you actually re-use a cotton bag anyway ?” I have no idea but some suggest durable bags can be re-used 500 times. Think of other items made out of cotton (requires a frame-change). Would you be satisfied with a cotton shirt or pair of trousers than could not be worn for at least 131 days, and would it ‘make more sense’ to replace them with 131 pairs of disposable plastic trousers if they had a lower carbon footprint?
Even setting aside the omission of the very reason plastic needs to be assessed – plastic pollution – and any other doubts that might exist about the assumptions made about non-plastic choices in these studies, the cognitive behavioural bias of the framing is clear. Try thinking about it the other way around. “What’s better, to use just one cotton bag for your daily shopping over the next four months, or 131 plastic bags which you then throw away?” ‘Obviously’ the re-usable bag is an environmentally better choice. Now the effort implication of the cotton bag has disappeared and you are triggered to think about environmental responsibility by being reminded that these are ‘disposable’ short-lifetime plastic bags. Picture that huge pile of waste plastic bags.
In a fleeting mental encounter with such a study factoid, as in watching a 30 second news clip, another mental bias is triggered, which is WYSIATI ‘what you see is all there is’. The ‘issue’ captured is the story is the choice between two bags.
Other possible redesign options or behaviours, sometimes mentioned in the fine-print of LCA studies, are not shown and thus do not exist in the mental processing. Using a wheeled shopping basket for example (no bags needed), or a rucksack you already own and also use for other purposes, or re-using a carboard box the store provides, or a host of other possible options that might resolve the ‘bag problem’.
The focus is kept restricted to the plastic bag v other bag, as in a ‘horse-race poll’ in politics where prospective voters are only asked about the ‘two main candidates’ and not the five others running, so they disappear from view in stories reporting the result of the poll, triggering voters to make an instant mental choice between the two candidates featured, not the total seven.
That device is popular with larger political parties. Restricting the focus and terms of a LCA-based study can enable those with a vested commercial interest in say, plastic, to generate seemingly scientific, impartial and ‘objective’ findings that happen to show their product in a good light.
No wonder perhaps that the plastics industry loves LCAs as they stand at the moment. The British Plastics Federation website states: ‘They are as close to the gold standard of understanding the environmental consequences of a product as researchers can currently get’.
Imagine you are in the driving seat of the ‘public affairs’ strategy for the plastics industry, or its Siamese Twin the oil and gas industry. How would your situation report go? Maybe something like this:
Covid has brought mixed blessings but generally things still look good. The vast majority is still made from oil or gas and despite the response to Blue Planet II, plastics use worldwide is still increasing and rapidly risingin Europe. Pressure to cut carbon emissions is a problem but it can be turned to advantage if plastic can be positioned as greener than alternatives in energy terms. Unfortunately one side-effect of Blue Planet II and the associated wave of campaigning was the introduction of bans and restrictions on high profile ‘single use plastic’ such as bags, starting in Europe and spreading around the world.
A 2019 European Environment Agency review of the measures taken by European countries to reduce the plastics problem found revealed that 37 of the 173 measures identified were market based and most ‘referred to fees for plastic carrier bags’. We can live with those but the real risk is if the same political thinking behind them (respond to popular sentiment against plastic) spreads to the rest of the packaging market and other uses. We particularly need to keep politicians thinking bout plastic as an issue that can be solved by better waste management and more consumer commitment to recycling, and not ‘phase-outs’. This is why it’s even now important to discredit the ‘bag bans’ as an irrational and regrettable reflex, not borne out by ‘the science’.
Some good news is that the more scientific end of the media covering environmental issues is particularly motivated to encourage ‘rational’ rather than ‘emotional’ environmentalism, which means they have an appetite for the quantified and factual. Here LCAs are our friend as they generate factual proofs that plastic can be the better environmental choice.
Its life cycle analysis of a number of different types of shopping bags found that a cotton bag would have to be used 131 times to be below the total global warming potential of an HDPE bag used only once. And once you factor in reuse of HDPE bags as bin liners, which is reasonably common, this reuse factor rises. The point made by the study is that the global warming impact of HDPE bags is negligible
It’s good to be able to report that New Scientist went on to cite that 131-times fact at least twice more in 2018, in an article advising its readers (May 2018):
The LCA 131-times example has been repeated many times, for example here in The Conversation, here in Stamford Magazine, here in Earth Times, and here in Business Insider, all channels likely to reach this ‘Rational-Environmental’ audience. There is no way we can make plastic popular with all the public but we don’t need to – to paraphrase Frank Luntz on climate, we just need to maintain doubt about alternatives, while we keep on growing.
That’s enough of the imaginary report. I freely admit that my view of the activities of the plastics industry is somewhat jaundiced as a result of seeing some of its lobbying activities and the way, for example, that it used the ‘litter’ frame from the 1970s onwards (see A Beautiful But Evil Strategy) to prevent people seeing plastic as a pollutant, and still uses today. It’s in the industry’s interests to see these misleading ‘factoids’ derived from LCAs in wide circulation, spreading like memes.
Even better than having them repeated in a ‘straight’ science magazine like the New Scientist is if the pro-plastic LCA findings are endorsed by re-appearing in publications from environmental organisations themselves. This can happen when ‘green’ groups are engaged in projects framed by environmental waste ‘management’ assumptions, and are trying to optimise choices from inside the status quo, rather than to change the strategic drivers. The ‘circular economy’ community is particularly vulnerable.
Given the demand for change since the BBC’s Blue Planet II aired in 2017, and the promises that have been made since, one might have expected a considerable market shift away from plastic by now, at least for packaging in the grocery sector. There have been some minor changes … but, overall, the proportion of plastic packaging seen on most supermarket shelves, and the amount collected as waste and reported to the Environment Agency, has not altered significantly.
Based on anonymous interviews within the sector, author Libby Peake reported that despite one of the supermarkets reporting a ‘ferocious’ anti-plastic response from consumers with an 800% increase in customer queries, actual behaviour change was limited. Professionals such as brand managers cited a host of frustrations, from dubious brand claims to unintended consequences of switches, inadequate recycling (Britain is a mess) and difficulties sourcing recycled material.
The Green Alliance study was no doubt conducted with the best of intentions but the conventional plastics-dominated packaging industry will have been delighted that it also repeated as fact the LCA-based findings from ‘a 2011 study for the Northern Ireland Assembly … that paper bags generally require four times as much energy to manufacture as plastic bags’ and the Danish study which ‘concluded that … a paper bag would need to be reused 43 times to have a lower impact than the average plastic bag’.
The plastics industry PRs will also have appreciated the headline “we can’t just replace plastics” quoting Libby Peake in an interview about the study with the Packaging Europe (used in its weekly newsletter).
A Question of Strategy
The real issue for change groups in relation to LCAs is one of strategy: what are you trying to achieve and by what steps will that come about? The above quote from the packaging industry magazine asserts that climate change is ‘an even more serious problem’ than ‘plastic’. In what sense? What does this mean? From whose point of view?
As Green Alliance’s report records, most people (public in the UK) in fact reject the implied trade-off and think that climate and plastic are of equal importance. If you asked ‘experts’, then with all sorts of caveats, they would probably give you a similar answer. But if you asked about a specific case, as in for example choices about bags or bottles, you might get a different answer depending on people’s understanding and how they assume change can happen on either ‘issue’.
In the end a LCA essentially constructs a two dimensional rating by adding up the results of a set of scores to enable rankings from best to worst. In my view, change strategy has to be at least three dimensional. One tool I developed for doing this in relation to potential campaign targets is the ‘ambition box’. It has three axes, the hardness or difficulty of a change target, the size of that target (how much of the problem it represents), and the significance of the target (the consequential effects or potentiation resulting from the achievement of the target).
Problem management logic is mainly dictated by the first two axes. For example it would make sense to start with the ‘lowest hanging fruit’, the biggest soft and easy target first. Strategic change logic is mainly dictated by significance. LCA is fundamentally a tool for problem management (eg making optimal choices at one level which are all sub-optimal options in the ‘bigger picture’), not strategic change. An exception, as has been argued above, is that it can be mis-used to obstruct strategic change.
Put this another way: with a wicked global problem like climate change or plastic pollution, we need a strategy to ultimately eliminate the problem not just manage it. This is why campaign groups and now most governments are trying to eliminate fossil fuels from the energy system, not just increase energy efficiency, and why human-made industrial greenhouse gases like HFCs need to be simply phased out completely and replaced with alternatives, not just reduced to a particular level or ‘so far as possible’.
Plastic made from oil or gas is important as a direct contributor to climate change (the carbon gets released adding to environmental CO2) but its not as important as getting to zero carbon energy across industry, transport or electricity generation, which would ‘deal with’ all the energy related ‘carbon problem’ behind production of all sorts of bags, bottles and so on. So the carbon footprint of plastic is not necessarily an ‘even more important’ problem if looking at say packaging, than plastic pollution is. On the other hand, packaging certainly is the major source of plastic pollution, along with tyre wear. So for plastic pollution these are strategic targets, requiring substitution, or ‘replacing plastic’ within a regulated phase-out, excepting essential uses.
LCAs are simply not set up to make (or even really facilitate) such judgements but this may not be widely understood by many of those who use them on a regular basis. Others may be ‘naive rationalists’, naive about the way LCAs are easily mis-used to ‘game the system’ and attracted to what seems a ‘rational calculus’ defining ‘the right answer’.
This is what Michael Warhurst, a UK chemicals expert and Executive Director of ChemTrust told me about LCAs:
“LCAs are a nightmare, as it is easy to get the answer you want & ultimately the data & assumptions that they are based on are very poor. On chemicals, for example, they use old databases and assumptions while REACH is constantly identifying new problems & also finding that know problem chemicals are active at lower levels.
I think for an effective assessment you have to disaggregate different elements & create a system that is as transparent as possible…
I don’t think LCAs will ever be satisfactory, but they are popular as an apparent ’simple’ solution – they are fine to use within an organisation if you know what you want and are comparing options, but they are terrible for policymaking in a wider sense”.
Of course there are many possible dimensions of significance. One of the psychological-political ones is public resonance and iconography. Plastic bags and bottles now fall into this category, which is one reason why politicians took some sort of action on those, and why old LCA-factoids on bags and bottles keep being put back into the public conversation.
Some of those involved with LCAs rightly point out that they were not supposed to be used to form policy but when their results derive from assessments which manifestly fail to capture key environmental impacts, and are designed in a way that gives a stamp of green approval to plastic, and these are put into the public domain, they can of course affect politics and policy.
Finally, a question for those pursuing the ‘Circular Economy’ is what are the steps by which it can actually be brought about, and are any of these strategic ? If not, you may remain trapped inside a universe of many small sub-optimal choices which you are trying to use to change drivers that are being set by the strategies of others, such as the plastics and oil industries.