Many commentators, pundits, politicians, journalists, NGOs, and even normal people, are talking about ‘bubbles’ and Brexit, and as my previous blog suggested, such ‘bubbles’ can easily form along values divides.
The way we now ‘living more separate lives’, aided and abetted by the digital echo-chambers of social media, may have helped cause ‘Brexit’ and helped make it unexpected. So many of us have our Brexit story, and our own bubble story, and here’s mine.
23rd and 24th of June 2016
On the morning of 23rd June, I went along to my local Polling Station (see video) to vote in the EU Referendum. I went quite early because I had a two-hour journey ahead. I was due to join a couple of days of meetings in Cambridge, run by the ‘Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership’ (CISL) to which I make a minor contribution.
When I arrived at the Methodist Church Hall of Wells-Next-the-Sea I found it was busier than it usually is on polling days, and my heart sank. As a ‘Remainer’ who had been writing blogs warning that a values driven split could tip Britain into leaving the EU, despite what most of the polls said. What I saw confirmed my worst fears. Here’s what I wrote the next day to an enquiring German friend:
‘Yesterday morning I went to vote in Wells next the Sea where I live and although I have lived here since 2000 and know a huge number of people having been involved in a lot of local community/ political activities, there were lots of people who were obviously Settlers and lots of them very old, who I had never seen before. They were literally being brought in on wheelchairs and on walking aids. It was not a good sign’.
What Did The Germans Ever Do For Us ?
A Cambridge friend told that the BBC had made a news report from the City just before June 23rd. In the interests of ‘balance’ the reporter had tried to find a would-be Leave voter, and a would-be Remain voter to interview. A Remainer was found immediately but it took another 71 people before they found the Leaver.
Little surprise then, that when I walked into town to join the ‘networking’ and ‘stocktaking’ meeting of the CISL, the day after the vote, people seemed unusually subdued despite the rush-hour activity and bright sunshine. Arriving at the conference venue, I found many of the Cambridge-centric audience murmuring to one another in funereal tones. Others paced about outside, mobile phones to their ears. Distracted, dismayed and bewildered, they resembled a gathering of relatives who had all unexpectedly lost loved ones in a sudden disaster.
“I don’t understand it” boomed one participant, “How did this happen? I simply don’t know a single person who voted Leave, and nor do my friends”. Exactly, I thought to myself but I do. I know lots of them, because where I live we do not live in such separate bubbles, and no longer feeling any enthusiasm to discuss ‘rewiring the economy’ I went home early.
A couple of days later I wrote to another friend, this time a long-standing campaigner with a deep involvement in British politics who I had met up with in Cambridge on the evening of polling day. Here’s a bit from my email:
“As I said to you in Cambridge, I thought the game was up the moment I went to the polling station in Wells and saw squadrons of Settlers and Golden Dreamers I’d never seen before, being literally wheeled out to vote. For many of them it was a last chance to vote against a complex of stuff they never understood or liked, and had become a patriotic duty.
Friday evening Sarah [my partner] and I went to the pub. We met a friend who declared he was too ill informed (educated) to have voted. His friend who he worked with (carpenters) declared he had voted leave because “I am a working man” and “I was a soldier”. He “wanted his country back”. “I’m a working woman” said Sarah. He looked slightly baffled. Our friend said he also thought ‘the whole system was wrong’. By way of explanation he offered: “they tell us to recycle our beer cans which is right and I do but then they make these cheap things that wear out, it doesn’t make sense”. His friend agreed. An example, they said, was washing machines that only lasted a year or so while the good ones went on for at least 7 years and could be repaired. “So which type is best?” I asked. “Miele” they said in unison. “Only a numpty would buy anything else”. “German then ?” I said – they laughed. “Yes like my VW” said the Brexiteer. So I asked, “should they have said that in the campaign ?” “Oh yeah that would have been a good idea, it might have made a difference” said the Leave voter.
The point being that Wells Next the Sea (population about 2,000 in winter, more like 10,000 with summer tourists) is an example of a sort of town now unusual in Britain. In short, it has values groups but they are more mixed, still living less in separate bubbles than in many other areas.
Visitors and even locals recognize Wells as unusual, and ‘like something out of the 1950s’ (or 60s, 70s or … pick your reference point from the past).
Wells has about sixty local voluntary organizations, often makes its own entertainment, and is widely known for ‘community spirit’. It’s friendly and has very little crime. It’s the sort of place where if you walk down the street and people have seen you before a few times, they say hello. Being a long-standing port it’s culturally a bit more open than inland Norfolk towns and villages and although it suffers badly from very high house prices and second homes, it still retains a fishing fleet and a lot of people live and work locally. Wells Harbour Commissioners do their best to keep it a ‘working port’ and not let it just become a marina for recreational yachting. Wells is almost entirely white, with many large families who have lived here for generations.
Although I’ve not run a survey, many of the residents and, although I’m a Pioneer many of my friends, are Settlers. Of course there are Prospectors and Pioneers too (in What Makes People Tick: The Three Hidden Worlds of Settlers, Prospectors and Pioneers, although names have been changed, some of the stories are from Wells). By English standards Wells is quite isolated with poor transport links, as local teenagers will attest. It has limited choices for social activities, such as pubs but quite a lot of social activities which bring the population together, such as the RNLI (the voluntary lifeboat service), the voluntary fire crew, the summer Carnival, and the winter Christmas Tide. People still mix here a lot more than they do in many other places: the ‘social elastic’ in Wells is still quite strong.
Yes, people in Wells self-select by values preferences and yes they have flat screen tv’s and broadband, go on foreign holidays and use social media but here at least it’s hard to overlook the reality that people who in many ways seem similar, are in fact quite different when it comes to ‘issues’, and politics and suchlike. Sociologists might say it has a lot of ‘social capital’. People in Wells might say that a lot of people know one another, which makes a difference.
Before you get carried away with the idea that Wells is some sort of paradise, it isn’t. For a start the majority in my area voted Brexit. One friend of mine even hoisted his own ‘Leave EU’ banner on the fishing shed but we are still friends.
Wells still has two state schools meaning local children (at least up to 16) and their parents get to know one another. But more of the teachers now seem to send their own children to fee-paying private schools (mainly favoured by Prospectors) and a few (mainly Pioneer) parents opt for unconventional new choices like ‘free schools’, Steiner Schools and home education. These encourage ‘bubbling’ as they create separate experiences.
Plus, Wells is becoming ‘gentrified’. The pub where we used to spend most Saturday nights with a drunken mixture of teachers, care-workers, fishermen, clerks, shop workers and owners, builders and artists, as rock bands played and local ladies danced on the tables and sometimes fought, is now Prospector ‘Norfolk Coastal style’. It caters for tourist families not fishermen, and to add class, in the summer it pays a lady to sing opera from the outside balcony. That I regret. Deeply.
(Values) Differences are significant but rarely absolute
(There are) Many shared values eg ‘being a parent’
Attributes nearer the centre of the map are more in common (more of that in Part 2 of ‘The Values Story of the Brexit Split)
With free-choice groups tend to self-select by values activities, social networks, venues etc and so avoid conflict
Social bonds of family, friendship and culture & interests
Utility eg at work: Settlers perfect essential functions, Prospectors are the turbo-boosters, Pioneers the experimenters
Common experiences and interdependencies eg reliance on public services, common bonds formed in national or community wide efforts, common understanding eg from media
Human contact and expecting to see one another again and needing to get along
Places like Wells provide low-bubble, weak-bubble or pre-bubble examples of how people can, by and large, get along, and not just by avoiding one another. OK it did not stop a vote for Brexit here but that’s not the point. The Brexit vote happened but it has not created noticeable fear or rancour.
One strategy for fixing destructive bubble-ization is to reinforce factors that enable people from different values groups to get along, for example social contacts, common experiences, and real-life things that make them need one another. Limiting choice for example, in education and health, even though that goes against generations of political assumption.
At the same time, as technology and lifestyles change, we will also need to take proactive steps to try and combat the creation of destructively separate bubble lifestyles, even in places like Wells.
Back to Cambridge, to CSR, Google and Facebook
This past week I went back to Cambridge to give a talk on values to a postgraduate CISL course on Sustainable Business. Afterwards, I spoke to two young CSR (Corporate Socail Responsibility) executives working for large and well known multinationals.
What, they wanted to know, did I make of the use of big data collection using psychographic algorithms, such as the use of Cambridge Analytica’s version of the OCEAN ‘Big 5’ model by Leave.EU and the Trump campaign ? Was CDSM’s values model being used like this ? And did the downsides of allowing values-worlds to develop as ever more separate values bubbles mean that stopping or reducing this should be, as one put it, “the new CSR for online companies such as Facebook and Google ?”
I confess I had never actually joined those dots before but yes, it now seems obvious that this is exactly what must happen.
Companies like Facebook and Google have significantly cleaned up their act on issues such as their climate change Carbon Footprint, with solar powered server farms for instance. It’s surely time they and others in the communications supply chain also took responsibility for their Bubble Print.
Unconscious motivational values are largely missing from most discussions about what happened in the EU Referendum vote for ‘Brexit’ and the Trump election. Many people have asked me what ‘values’ may have played and this post is my view of the most probable values dynamic, based on the available evidence from CDSM and other sources. In ‘Part 2’ I’ll look at what it means now and next.
If you are very familiar with the CDSM values model, you can jump to slide 13, then maybe slide 21. Otherwise it only makes any sense if you take a look at them all from the beginning. My thanks to Pat Dade and Les Higgins at CDSM for allowing me to use some of their data and materials. See some of more previous blogs for more detail on the Brexit campaign (links here).
If you’d like to discuss this further you can post a comment or contact me.
In 2016 voters in both the EU referendum in the UK and (very likely) the US Presidential election appear to have strongly divided along values lines which split the values map across the middle, as they sorted along the ‘power v universalism’ axis. This left (most) Pioneers and Now People Prospectors on one (the losing) side and the Settlers and Golden Dreamer Prospectors on the other.
The social, political, economic and technological factors which combined to facilitate this split were decades in the making but came together in a ‘perfect storm’ or ‘black swan’ event only in 2016.
After WW2 the ‘normal’ operation of the values ‘conveyor’ led to a gradual increase in the number of Prospectors and then Pioneers in society and improving social conditions led to new opportunities and experiences, enabling more people each generation to meet the sequence of dominant needs from security, safety and identity (Settler, Security Driven) to esteem of others and self-esteem through ‘success’ (Prospector, Outer Directed) and then Pioneer needs (universalism, innovation, ethical clarity and ethical complexity, self-choice).
The change-averse Settlers tolerated this, often reluctantly, as life overall seemed to be otherwise getting better, as for example the family benefitted as children led better lives than their parents. Mobility allowed more people to lead different lifestyles.
Meanwhile politics began to decouple from people through factors such as privatisation, globalisation, professionalization, convergence of ‘offers’ on the ‘centre’, replacement of face-to-face with media and then social media channels, and hollowing out of political parties. Settlers, by the 1980s and 1990s a minority, began to feel increasingly forgotten by ‘them’. Socially minded Pioneers largely deserted formal political activism for NGO campaigns. Prospectors went shopping and into business. Political participation withered.
Technological, social change and globalisation combined to ‘stretch’ the social elastic keeping these groups together, as common experiences dwindled, lives separated and ‘living in bubbles’ was boosted by social media.
Then around 2008 UK values surveys showed the first rise in Settlers in decades, as some Prospectors ‘fell back’ during the economic crash and recession.
At the same time in Britain, the EU was being vilified and UKIP rose as a party paying attention to Settler needs and fears (security, safety, identity), and powerlessness (Settlers but also Golden Dreamers). Immigration from the EU rose dramatically and was magnified by media attention and political campaigns, triggering an authoritarian reaction as Settlers feared being culturally overwhelmed. This was reinforced by the EU Migration crisis and ‘foreign’ terrorism. Most Pioneers and the more confident Now People Prospectors nevertheless remained on balance positive about the EU. Society was values-primed for a split.
The UK EU referendum posed a simpler, clearer format of choice than normal UK elections. This reduced the barrier to participation for Settlers and Golden Dreamers at the same time as the existential threat, portrayed in the Leave campaigns as posed by EU Membership, reached a new high. The Remain side failed to engage Now People Prospectors and Pioneers with an emotionally powerful optimistic, positive campaign about what was good about ‘Europe’ in human terms. Some Pioneers will have voted Leave on Libertarian or anti-capitalist lines (ie splintered), and some Now People probably did not vote because they felt confused and had no positive, optimistic figure to follow. We don’t know for sure but it is likely that turnout for all Leave-leaning people was higher than for Remain.
UK (Leave.EU) and US (Trump) campaigns both used big data psychographic message targeting and gamed the media with controversialism, whereas their opponents did not use such techniques.
‘Progressives’ in both the UK, and the US (where something very similar happened) now live in countries where they are part of values-majority (more Pioneers + Now People than Golden Dreamers + Settlers) but where governments are in place with a programme based on playing to Settler and Golden Dreamer hopes and fears. ‘Conventional’ political explanations based solely on economics, geography and demographics and unstructured reference to ‘values’ offer inadequate insights into what to do next.
Meanwhile campaigners, upholders of standards of democracy, and those who did not vote for Trump in the US election or voted Remain in the UK’s Referendum on the EU, are alarmed at the methods used in the Trump and Leave campaigns to tailor (sometimes untrue) messages to what particular psychological groups wanted to hear, and the way they ‘got away with it’ by gaming the systems and reflexes of the conventional news media.
As Andrew Wigmore* who worked for UKIP and Leave funder Arron Banks, subsequently told Edward Stourton of the BBC:
“we actually were monitoring Trump, and he started sending out all these crazy messages, just to get attention. This was brilliant for Arron, he loved this, so we started sending out some of the most outrageously provocative tweets, and they were all immigration-led, so when it comes to the bad stuff we totally took the Trump rule book, and tried to apply it here. And we quickly discovered, it worked. And we got more and more fearless, you know, we would talk about who particularly we were going to pick on, whether it was an individual, a politician or a party, or a subject”
The old media assumption was essentially that there were consequences to actually lying, at least when it ‘mattered’ as when dealing with ‘serious’ things like politics, and that although spin and bias were unavoidable, ‘news’ was tested against the output of rival channels and standards of actuality, that is some form of objective truth. Trump and Leave demonstrated that this need no longer apply, and so the would-be fact-checking battlers against ‘fake news’ are now grappling with a new reality in the shape, particularly in the US, of a government which professes to believe in ‘alternative facts’.
This domain of believing anything you want to believe because it feels right has always existed but until now it was confined to gossip, cults, conspiracy theorists, unregulated advertising and marketing, totalitarian regimes, religions, the paparazzi, controversialists, drama, fiction, and arguably if intermittently, inter-personal relations. In public life it was suppressed and constrained by laws and media norms which are now limping after social media like a lame duck in the wake of a tsunami. That wave carried Trump into the Whitehouse and the UK into Brexit.
The cry ‘something must be done’ is one I agree with but the problem many of these projects face, and which may well undo them, is values differences. Some mainstream politicians for example, are seeing the current advantages of the Alt-Fact World, and using it to try and push further against their enemies. For instance on 6th February British MP John Redwood, rolled up the BBC, scientists and climate change into one example of why ‘alternative truth’ is needed. By treating political differences based on ideological belief, as equivalent to belief or not in what is established by scientific method, politicians legitimize and normalize any Alt-Fact, even how many people are or are not standing in front of the Whitehouse in a photograph.
The fact that John Redwood includes the BBC as an example of ‘bias’, shows the problem. No fact checking system produced by the BBC is likely to satisfy John Redwood. I don’t know but he might quite like one produced at the Daily Mail or the Daily Telegraph but certainly not The Guardian nor presumably New Scientist. [In Britain most national newspapers have quite distinct values-profiles. In the US it is more the TV channels that have distinct values-profiles].
For any sort of global fact-checking or Truth Rating system to work, it will need to be accepted across values differences, which to put it in contemporary terms, means across the Leave-Remain divide in the UK, and across the Democrat-Republican divide in the US. This means involving people from different values groups from the start, not fashioning something that one lot love and then trying to sell it to those who will hate it because of the predicates, language, reference points, source and assumptions, let alone the likely consequences.
It is pretty certain that the EU Referendum and the Trump election divided UK and US societies along the Power versus Universalism axis, just one but usually the most powerful one, of the many ‘values antagonisms’ found in all societies and mapped by Israeli professor Shalom Schwartz.
Converted into the Values Modes and Maslow Groups of CDSM, this looks like a horizontal cut across the ‘values map’, cleaving society along a line with Settlers on one side, together with Golden Dreamer Prospectors (pro Trump, pro Brexit), and Pioneers on the other, along with the Now People Prospectors (pro Clinton, pro EU/Remain). It won’t have been a 100% divide but it was a very strong sorting effect, of which more another time. (See also this previous blog).
This in turn means that to be effective, any ‘fact checking’ system will need to be supported by at least these two different (if huge) groups. There are ways to do this but right now all the initiatives I’ve seen appear to come from individuals and institutions on the Pioneer – Now People side (the losers in both polls). That’s not good.
Design Through Arbitration
With such recent polarisation in both the US and UK, some form of arbitration is going to be needed. In arbitration both sides agree that a third party will make the important decision, with that third party often picked by intermediaries, who are themselves trusted by the two conflicted parties. This may be much more complicated than just involving three individuals.
Not everyone will want to play ball but that’s not necessary. It might mean for example finding some senior Republicans or institutions that senior Republicans trust, to pick the intermediaries from their side, or maybe even Fox News, rather than expecting Messrs Bannon and Trump to be involved. On the other could be senior Democrats and maybe CNN. And something similar in other countries.
It would be possible to sell such a system after it is up and running, if it had sufficient utility value, for example if a critical mass of media and social media adopted it as the standard, and if businesses and stock markets started to do so and if it spread globally. But with the funds at their disposal, it would also be perfectly possible, if for example the Settler-Golden Dreamer-alt-right wanted, for them to launch and promulgate an Alt Fact Checker, thereby simply moving the values stand-off from one place to another, into an argument about fact checking and standards systems, rather than ‘facts’ and ‘news’.
* Mr Wigmore is pictured here in this Daily Mail photo, with Mr Farrage and others on a visit to Mr Trump in Trump Towers
When Theresa May said “Brexit Means Brexit”, nobody knew what it meant. Well they do now, they think it means Trump.
Donald Trump was elected and the UK referendum found for Brexit both by the narrowest of margins. Now May’s gamble on an early alliance with Trump has elided the two decisions, and made a protest against Trump a protest against Brexit. An unintended consequence of her attempted deal making with Trump is to provide the focus for popular opposition which she has strived to avoid by hiding behind the smokescreen of Brexit-means-Brexit.
By not just standing shoulder to shoulder but going hand-in-hand with Donald Trump, May has made herself a lightning rod for public dislike of Trump’s policies, and provided an intuitively understandable reason for Brits to worry about Brexit.
Without very compelling evidence to the contrary, it looks to many like Brexit means ‘Trump’.
Theresa May’s domestic strategy has been to try not to disturb the pond by making any big ripples: no sudden moves, no clear signalling of consequences with clear losers, no sharp edges, nothing for opposition to rally around, and be as dull as possible. Give it time and opponents would give up and accept the inevitable. After some initial protests of dismay, most of the stunned UK Remain camp fell relatively quiet: the ‘grass roots’ missed the summer holiday opportunity, Remain politicians were divided, and the less engaged public majority shrugged and got on with life.
Under the surface of course the UK’s Brexit preparations are fraught, complex, fractured, strained and chaotic but most people, especially those who voted Leave, are content to let ‘them’ sort it out.
Many Remainers have assumed, whether they aim to salvage the least damaging Brexit possible, or some new and renewed relationship with Europe, that it would be legal process and practicalities which might undo May’s plan, so they had to play a long game. Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn has helped Theresa May by hoisting a white flag before any real political struggle could start.
Brexiteers in contrast have been buoyed by good short term economic feeling in the UK but businesses are not convinced, and on both sides of the Atlantic, it is business which will provide a test of policy which cannot be mind-brushed away with ‘alternative-facts’ from La-La Land.
So under pressure to show Brexit can ‘work’, an emboldened May reached out to Trump to make Brexit seem more viable: a trip to Washington to create ‘optics’ suggesting that Britain could do a rapid trade deal with the US. Even less popular abroad than at home, Trump’s interests were also served by meeting May: be seen to be able to work with another country, and get praised. May responded positively.
Trump’s Domestic Strategy
Trump’s agenda is primarily domestic. He is in base-pleasing mode, coming good on his promises with a rapid barrage of actions which show him wielding power. Trump sits in the Whitehouse, recognized by admirers and critics alike as ‘the most powerful man in the world’. He signs off Executive Orders with a flourish, like Zeus sending down lightning bolts from Mount Olympus.
It plays well to Trump’s unmet need to look powerful and successful. Protests that appear to be mainly from Democrats makes them easy to dismiss. Criticism by DC insiders merely shows that he is shaking things up in Washington. Analysis from fact-checkers and experts can be crushed with alternative facts. All good in the Bannon play book.
The Consequences For May
If Trump’s bolts of lightning merely caused alarm in the US, this would not create great problems for Theresa May and Brexit but as the botched immigration controls immediately showed, they can have much wider implications. Blameless American families detained at airports were the most empathetic people in the story: it felt wrong, it felt unjust. Last night there were protests up and down the UK as well as across the US.
Many of Trump’s policies that so please his base also resonate with the anti-foreigner, climate-denying, inward and backward looking reflexes of the more entrenched end of the UK Brexit base. This however is a much smaller number of people than those who voted Leave.
Trump’s America project begins to look like, and feel like, a blueprint for what Brexit means for Britain. Trump’s lightning bolts are turning into lightning rods for Theresa May. Trump is providing the focal points for protest and opposition which May has been so careful to avoid, and she can do little about it. By coupling Project Brexit to Project Trump, May has re-activated the values base of the Remain vote.
Faced with one and half million British citizens quickly signing a petition calling for the postponement of Trump’s invitation to make a State Visit to the UK, Theresa May could have clearly distanced herself from Project Trump by ‘siding with the Queen’ and finding an excuse to put it off. Instead she quickly announced that the invitation still stood. By doing that, no matter how much the UK Government quibbles and wrings its hands about Trump’s assaults on refugees, climate realists or Europeans, when her government is tested by asking whose side it’s really on, for many people in the UK Theresa May has already provided the answer: she’s on Trump’s side.
Having gone to so much trouble to distance herself from Nigel Farrage of UKIP, it is a remarkable political mis-step.
Brexit Means Brexit Means Trump ?
Trump is hardly into his first one hundred days. While nothing is certain, he seems most likely to continue as he has begun, as long as he can.
May has a very different problem. She is progressively alienating much of Europe, yet she has to negotiate Brexit with Europe. Now, every time Trump ignites more opposition, it will rock her boat. For Remainers, Trump is a gift which may go on giving.
In terms of polls and numbers it remains to be seen how her alliance with Trump will go down with Britain, and more particularly ‘Middle England’. It has definitely activated protest.
Most important, it has provided an easily understood proof of why Brexit is problematic, in a way which the Remain campaign never did before the referendum. Until now, since the referendum, most Remain politicians have argued arcane points such as that Britain voted to leave the European Union but not to leave the Single Market (something few understand but most can imagine), or they voted to leave the European Union but not to leave the Customs Union (something almost nobody has ever heard of). What most of them definitely did not vote for was coupling Britain to Project Trump.
So probably by accident, Theresa May has also finally given an answer to all those who asked what she really meant when she repeatedly stated “Brexit means Brexit”: now Brexit seems to mean Trump, and right now it’s hard to see how she can undo this.
I often get asked about values study examples, data and how the CDSM Values Modes system works. Below are some links to posts at this blog, in my Newsletters/ articles and elsewhere, that may be useful.
Links to descriptions of the 12 Values Modes within the three large segments of Settlers, Prospectors and Pioneers are at the home page of www.campaignstrategy.org where you can also can sign up to my free newsletter.
I tweet things about anything new I come across on values etc from @campaignstrat
Academic study on why attempts to change values are not likely to work (so instead we need to design offers and asks in ways that engage different values groups, to get desired behaviours) Why social values cannot be changed for the sake of conservation by Michael J. Manfredo et al (2016)
VBCOP – A Unifying Campaign Strategy Model (2009) [values drive behaviour, due to the consistency heuristic people rationalise the behaviour, they then adopt opinions in line with that – this can be used to affect politics]
Example of use of qualitative research segmented by values, to develop action proposition (in this case across all three values groups).Marine conservation project for example (for Natural England) in my book with images – How to Win Campaigns: Communications for Change, and described with links in a Newsletter here
http://threeworlds.campaignstrategy.org/?p=375 Why Our Children are Not Being Connected to Nature (about ‘nature blindness’ –– links to longer report Why Our Children are Not Being Connected to Nature; nature or lack of in popular culture, and the role of values etc here)
BBC production genius, big budgets and the gentle charisma of David Attenborough were combined to take the BBCs hallmark nature spectaculars to new heights in Planet Earth II. It is more awe inspiring, more immersive, more cinematic than ever before. Yet for nature’s sake there should be no Planet Earth III on the same model.
Planet Earth II goes too far in supplying high-dose nature therapy at the sofa, without showing how nature needs help, how it can be helped, or helping viewers to help. Given his age, the BBC may fear Planet Earth III may be unimaginable without David Attenborough’s magic touch but the rest of the cast may soon anyway be unavailable: the natural world celebrated in these BBC statement movies is simply vanishing. The BBC could go on doing ‘more with less’ but Planet Earth III on the same basis would be a descent into virtual reality.Most of the world’s wildlife has disappeared over the time the BBC has been making natural history films. It is time to rethink the model.
The Success of Planet Earth II
When the BBC’s Planet Earth II aired in Britain before Christmas, it immediately became the UK’s most-watched natural history programme for 15 years. It is being sold around the world, and a few days after it went online at Tencent in China, the first two episodes had been downloaded 61 million times.
The millions of viewers who watch TV nature mega-series such Planet Earth II presented by David Attenborough, probably assume they must help save nature. Such popular programmes are certainly a vote for ‘liking wildlife’, and make presenters famous. An academic study described them as Natures’ Saviours: Celebrity Conservationists in the Television Age. Yet when conservation professionals and media analysts have tried to discern some sort of media-cause and conservation-effect, the answer has never been very clear. The issue has long been debated within the nature and media circles. That debate has now been reinvigorated by strong criticism of Planet Earth II by a fellow BBC Producer.
BBC Executives were reportedly ‘thrilled by the huge audiences watching the programme’, especially as ‘more than 2 million of the 12 million total weekly UK audience are in the prized 16-34 age range, meaning the programme has attracted more young adult viewers than The X Factor’.
I fear this series, and others like it, have become a disaster for the world’s wildlife. These programmes are pure entertainment, brilliantly executed but ultimately a significant contributor to the planet-wide extinction of wildlife we’re presiding over.
The justification, say the programme makers, is that if people (the audience) become interested in the natural world they will start to care about the natural world, and will be more likely to want to get involved in trying to conserve it. Unfortunately the scientific evidence shows this is nonsense.
For instance, the World Wide Fund for Nature and Zoological Society of London’s authoritative 2016 Living Planet Report has concluded that between 1970 and 2012 there was a 58% decline of vertebrate population abundance worldwide. This encompasses the period in which Attenborough’s outstanding natural history series have been broadcast (starting with Life on Earth in 1979). The prime factor in this destruction is humankind’s insatiable need for space – destroying and degrading habitat at an appalling rate – coupled with species over-exploitation, pollution, invasive species, climate change and rampant poaching.
Yet these programmes are still made as if this worldwide mass extinction is simply not happening. The producers continue to go to the rapidly shrinking parks and reserves to make their films – creating a beautiful, beguiling fantasy world, a utopia where tigers still roam free and untroubled, where the natural world exists as if man had never been.
By fostering this lie they are lulling the huge worldwide audience into a false sense of security
Opinion amongst Guardian readers was divided: many agreed with Martin Hugh-Games but some Attenborough devotees were outraged at such sacrilege. Over 1000 comments were posted within a few days, and letters followed. ‘ryanallan2010 ‘ declared the Planet Earth II ‘perhaps the finest TV show ever made. Perfection hosted by God himself’, while ‘BookwormFoundInBrick’ denounced Hughes-Games as ‘a mediocrity desperately seeking attention’.
Several media friends of mine agreed with the argument but said ‘Attenborough was the wrong target’. No doubt they were thinking about how programming decisions get made. When I sampled opinion amongst long-standing environmentalists, I found almost universal agreement: Hughes-Games essentially has it right. Few doubt that the overall effect of decades of nature broadcasting on conservation has been positive but their view is that the nature spectaculars are now more of a hindrance than a help. Reluctantly, I have to agree.
Conservation groups will not want to get into a public slanging match with wildlife film makers but with so much nature sliding so fast into oblivion, the time has come for a rethink about top-end nature TV. At the end of this blog I offer a few ideas on what could be done but first, I try to consider how we got into this position and some of the factors which may need to be reconciled if something it to change.
When I Wanted to ‘Be David Attenborough’
Back in the 1960s I was tasked with a Junior School essay on “what I want to do when I grow up”. I wrote that I’d either like to be David Attenborough, or a helicopter pilot: I couldn’t decide which. I didn’t manage either but David Attenborough’s Zoo Quest books had made a great impression, and I saw some footage from his early tv series of the same name. Here was a grown-up who seemed to have found a way to spend all his time going out into an amazing world of nature to collect animals for zoos, and showing other people how interesting they were.
Foremost was Peter Scott, whose 1967 autobiography I read, The Eye of the Wind. Scott was also a film-maker (he made the first BBC natural history series, later called Look) but in addition had helped start the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Scott famously designed WWF’s giant panda logo, not just to thrill people about pandas but because it would reproduce well in black and white, as he and environmentalists like Max Nicholson felt it would help them raise funds to actually protect nature.
Scott had also started what is now the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) back in 1946, and through his paintings, writing and creation of visitor experiences was a relentless promoter of public awareness about conservation. In 1969 for instance WWT lobbied successfully against construction of a dam at the main breeding ground of pink-footed geese at Thjorsarver in Iceland. Descendants of those geese now spend the winter where I live, and around midwinter, thousands fly over my house every night and morning.
David Attenborough brought wildlife into millions of homes through tv but while a conservationist since boyhood, for the most part he was never a conservation practitioner. Nor were most of his films about conservation but about nature. While the likes of Scott and Nicholson and even a succession of Princes such as HRH The Prince Phillip immersed themselves in committees and organisations and ‘issues’, David Attenborough’s career developed mainly in TV world. He became Controller of BBC 2 from 1965 to 1969, where and amongst other things, he commissioned Monty Python.
Attenborough became Britain’s dominant media-celebrator of wildlife through his series The World About Us from 1967 – 87, and Wildlife on One, from 1977 to 2005. By then he had become internationally known, inspired numerous imitators and is widely credited for establishing an entire new genre of tv. He narrated and presented many other series such as Life on Earth (1979), Living Planet (1984), and in 2006 Planet Earth, which within a year, had been sold to over 130 countries made him into a global BBC brand.
Over those decades I became an amateur naturalist, trained and researched as an ecologist, helped start the London Wildlife Trust, worked as a campaigner for Friends of the Earth and WWF International, started a media charity to enable the media industry to help NGOs communicate better (Media Natura, now extinct), and worked for Greenpeace and have worked on many conservation campaigns since. So while I’ve never worked for the BBC or been a film-maker I am something of a witness to the question of how much high profile nature TV has helped conservation.
All that time, while Attenborough remained a reference point for people trying to understand what we did: “oh you mean like David Attenborough” or “did you see … ?” or “I guess you must know Attenborough”, the man himself rarely featured in anything we did. Sometimes this was not for want of us trying to involve him. The polite answer which often came back was along the lines that he felt himself to be ‘just a film-maker’.
Similarly, the BBC often proved less helpful, for example in providing footage for campaign or ‘awareness’ projects, than companies like Anglia TV, where Aubrey Buxton’s Survival (1961-2001) made rather more programmes with an overtly conservationist content (eg about gorillas, Antarctica).
So when I worked for WWF Intl and similar groups struggling to protect ‘biodiversity’, I remember railing, like Martin Hughes-Games, against the unintended consequences of wildlife-spectacle tv, of which Attenborough’s series were pre-eminent. I met many people disappointed when their experience of visiting a nature reserve did not live up to the intense cornucopia of wildlife presented on TV but a greater frustration was that the big audiences were shown fantastic wildlife living in forests which seemed to go on forever but which off-screen, were fast vanishing. Now, unless conservation action is dramatically stepped up, the problem is vastly more acute: we are in the end game for nature.
Why It’s Big Business
Natural history programme making has become a big business because it gets ratings. The relative ease with which films made in the ‘classic’ all-nature format can transfer across languages and cultures, has helped create a global market. Plus if we are shown only nature, with no signs of human activity, the programmes have a longer shelf-life, and viewer research tends to show that immersive, amazement-generating spectacle is what entertains and retains the biggest audiences.
The BBC has made itself a global leader in ‘blue chip’ nature tv, although as Morgan Richards has pointed out, the formula of spectacular nature in “primeval wilderness” can be traced back to Disney’s True-Life Adventure films (1948-1960), which also ‘set the precedent for wildlife documentary’s persistent marginalisation of environmental issues’. Today Disney is looking again at the market, one which only organisations with big budgets can play in because of the time, travel, research and development, technology and marketing involved in making such wildlife epics.
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22193619
Planet Earth I cost £8m to film and made £20m for the sales arm, BBC Enterprises. Planet Earth II, no doubt cost much more and may make even more. It was filmed in UHD and HDR formats (a first), made use of new 4K cameras, and involved filming for over 2000 days, more than 100 trips by six producers to 40 countries, and ‘features countless sequences that could not have been achieved without new, ultra-lightweight cameras and drones’.
Planet Earth II has a score by Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer (personally I thought it was great), stunning Hollywood style cinematography (the desert scenes recalled and bettered David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia I thought) and was hyped in advance just like Hollywood movie.
The ‘package’ of such programmes may say little or nothing about conservation or how to help but the film-makers are now routinely making themselves the story, with features about how challenging and exciting it was to make, and the new technology. In 2012 The Natural History TV Reportenthused:
The blue chip still exists, and has pushed its production values further and further into the stratosphere with every new landmark show, making sure it’s at the forefront of each advance in production technology from HD, to 3D to 4K and from time lapse to slo-mo to low light
As in other globally competitive sectors from cars to pharmaceuticals and consumer IT, market success now depends on going-to-scale. Financing big-ticket productions, known in the BBC as ‘landmark series, has led the Corporation into co-productions with competitors. BBC’s Frozen Planet and Blue Planet were made with Discovery Channel. Planet Earth I was made with Discovery and NHK, and Planet Earth II was made by three parts of the BBC including its new non-public service entity BBC Studios, plus ZDF, Tencent, and France Televisions.
Nature is the BBC’s second largest investment genre. Sales from BBC Worldwide a commercial part of the BBC, returned £222.2m to the coffers in 2015/6. This helps the Corporation fend off demands from Conservative politicians to abolish the licence fee, a constant worry of BBC managers and the governing BBC Trust.
BBC strategy is to achieve three things: ‘to increase focus on premium, world?class content; to grow global brands; and to effect a gradual transformation to digital products and services’. The logic of high-end nature mega productions is framed by this context, which means any change to the winning formula faces many more obstacles than simply persuading David Attenborough himself. After the series was previewed to the media, Esther Addley wrote in The Guardian:
It is a measure of how important Planet Earth II is to the sometimes embattled BBC that at a packed screening in London this month for national and international press, the warm-up man was Tony Hall, the broadcaster’s director general.
For all those reasons, the Corporation is probably hoping that the debate sparked by Martin Hughes-Games will go away but the conservation community should not let that happen.
‘Almost Like A Drug’
Martin Hughes-Games has expressed similar concerns before. In October 2015 before the start of the programme Autumnwatch, he said big wildlife shows had created “a form of entertainment, a utopian world that bears no resemblance to the reality”.
“I’ve been doing this for 35 years and we always used to say what Sir David [Attenborough] used to say, which was that by making people aware of wildlife and conservation issues – that’s the first step – they will get involved,” he said. “That’s been the plan but clearly that has not worked; we have failed.”
Presenters of BBC Autumnwatch: Martin Hughes-Games (left), Michaela Strachan and Chris Packham. photo Jo Charlesworth/BBC NHU
“I fear those beautiful seductive programmes are not balanced by a clearer idea of what is going on and the loss of habitat … It’s almost like a drug. We love it and we come back and we lose ourselves in the beauty of these places, not realising that the habitats they are being filmed in are getting tinier and tinier. We don’t reflect that.”
As long ago as the 1980s, the BBC Natural History Unit was under similar public criticism for the way its compelling output portrayed nature without much reference to threats to nature. For example from The Listener in 1983:
“Paradoxically, wildlife on TV may be piling up new problems for the conservationist lobby rather than helping it. After all if we see countless host of creatures, crammed into one Technicolor half hour through the unseen wonders of TV technology and editing, then they can’t be that endangered can they?” (Listener, 3.11.83 quoted by Gail Davis).
In 1987, ‘environmental issues’ were climbing high on the social agenda and the then Head of the Natural History Unit John Sparks made the case for the BBC’s approach in ‘Broadcasting and the Conservation Challenge’, in Ecos, a magazine mainly read by conservation professionals. Sparks acknowledged that: ‘for many years the BBC concentrated mostly – but not exclusively – on an Arcadian wild world interpreted with in a framework of sciences’ and he sometimes got letters complaining about the lack of reference to destruction of nature in the BBC’s output. But surveys, he argued, showed tv nature programming did lead some people towards more engagement with nature. and figures suggested nearly a million people might have been made more available to join conservation projects as a result [read John Sparks full article here].
Moreover his part of the BBC was indeed trying to cover environmental issues. ‘The Natural World looked at the nuclear winter and the fate of the world’s topsoil and sweet water’, while three documentaries had ‘celebrated the recent Bruntland Report under the series title of ‘Only One Earth’’. ‘Celebrated’ is probably not a term the BBC would use now. Subsequent decades of attack by climate sceptics have left it scared to appear pro-environmental.
Sparks also explained ‘In 1983 I devised ‘Nature’, which for four years was the only series on BBC Television dedicated to issues affecting the natural world, and which received an audience of between 2.5 – 4.5 million’. This was an environmental news/ current affairs magazine programme, which ran for over 400 episodes but according to Gail Davis, Nature was not seen as a success in the BBC Natural History Unit. It compared unfavourably with ratings of the high-tech new offering of Supersense which used innovative ways of filming (and trained ‘wild’ animals) to wow viewers, and attracted audiences of over 10m. One of her pseudonymous interviewees said:
“Nature I thought of, but then I thought that it hasn’t really done anything. It should have done something but it hasn’t. I don’t think that it has really had an effect. […] I suppose the only thing that I can say about it, is it probably did a disservice in that people are terrified of now touching the environmental subjects within the Unit, because they know that they are going to get low viewing figures. Whether that is the fault of Nature, or whether the fault of changing climates, I don’t know. I’d like to say it had had an effect. It was the only conservation programme that we put out” (Jenny, interview 21.7.95).
Tony Soper presenting BBC’s Nature magazine programme. from: http://www.wildfilmhistory.org/film/130/Nature.html
Nature was eventually taken away from the nature film makers and finally closed in 1994. In Davis’s words: ‘rather than a milestone in the development of the Unit, several people suggested it was a millstone’.
Gail Davis referenced Andrew Neal, who became head of the Unit in 1989:
” It was a devastating blow. People in the Unit believe passionately that they should be making environmental programmes because they’re out there every day seeing what’s happening to the wildlife and to the planet” (quoted in Venue, 23.10.92).
The bruising folk-memory of the Nature ‘failure’ may be one reason why the Natural History Unit fell back on Attenborough’s traditional recipe of safe celebration of nature through marvellous pictures with only oblique, almost whispered moral generalities about our responsibility to look after it. In 1984 David Attenborough summed up his and probably thus the default BBC rationale like this:
My job as a natural history filmmaker is to convey the reality of the environment so that people will recognise its intrinsic value, its interest, its intrinsic merit and feel some responsibility for it. After that has been done, then the various pressure groups can get at them through their own channels and ask them to send a donation to, let us say, the World Wildlife Fund
At any event for the most part major BBC nature programmes, have made only tangential reference, and then mainly verbal rather than visual reference, to the threats to and destruction of nature, and mainly steered away from engagement with conservation projects or organisations. It’s the pictures that count on TV. In 1997 Gail Davis wrote:
The style of blue-chip natural history films was explained to me by John Sparks, series producer of the Natural World when I interviewed him in 1995. John Sparks is reputed to have coined the phrase, “blue-chip”: “It just means basically that kind of film, you know, which has got no people in it. Lovely, natural history. Nature in the raw. Beautifully filmed. High production values, good editing, good photography that sucks you into a place” (John Sparks, interview 13.6.95)
An “Ooh”, “Ah”, “Yuck” or “Click” Film ?
In 1989, conservation-minded film-maker Stephen Mills authored another article in Ecos ‘The Entertainment Imperative: Wildlife Films and Conservation’ (here) subtitled ‘Why wildlife films don’t always please conservationists’. BBC commissioners he said, used this ‘unwritten convention’ to categorize programme ideas:
‘An “ooh” film is about pandas or koala bears, and it shows how they spend their whole lives cuddling their young without the interference of social workers. An “aah” film makes you gasp with wonder. It describes how the peculiar fly orchid is pollinated by just one species of insect – and shows you the process from inside the flower. The “yuck” film shows in sticky detail the slimy sex-life of the large yellow slug Limax pseudoflavus, and it lasts for half an hour. The “click” film is the slimy sex-life of Limax pseudoflavus part 2, including a treatise on the need to conserve the species in Stow-on the-Wold: the click is everyone turning off their televisions’.
A Mission To Amaze
Few people, observed Mills, watched natural history tv ‘to exercise their brains’. ‘At least 80 percent said they watched simply “for the photography”. TV natural history, noted Mills ‘enhances reality … it shows you things you really wouldn’t see’.
‘Every year the amazement factor is jacked up a notch or two. A kingfisher diving into the river is no longer good enough. Now you must deliver it hurtling into the champagne ice bucket at a Buckingham Palace Garden Party.’
This increased costs which raised the stakes in terms of required ratings. The BBC was embarking on its mission to amaze, impress and stupefy natural history audiences.
TV natural history was progressively pulled away from real life nature. By accident rather than design, audiences were primed to consume nature through screens. The small screens of 1980s tv sets meant close-ups were important. Viewers expected them and real outdoor nature very rarely offered the same experience.
At one nature reserve the RSPB had ‘opened up the nest of a great-spotted woodpecker, putting glass in front so people could watch from a hide as the birds went in and out of the tree’. But the RPSB also set up a video camera to relay live pictures into the hide. ‘Visitors settled themselves in front of the TV monitor – and ignored the real-life events that were happening a few feet further away behind the glass’. I have seen the same thing happen elsewhere.
A Moral Bind
In 1997 Mills, who contributed films such as Tiger Crisis to the BBC, published a far more despondent article in the Times Literary Supplement: ‘Pocket Tigers: The sad unseen reality behind the wildlife film‘. ‘Pockets’ referred to pockets of surviving tiger habitat. He described capturing footage of a beautiful and terrifying encounter with a tiger which ended as it left the track he was on and disappeared into the forest. What the film did not show was that:
‘when the tiger left the track, it was because he did not wish to cross the railway line that chops in half this particular relic of forest, and that he turned away to avoid the raucous tinny radios stabbling out from the village up the line’.
For a journalist, the answer might be to report the reality but what are nature film makers ? Documentary makers (and if so of what type ?), entertainers, advocates, or something else ?
‘All over the world’ said Mills:
‘we frame our pictures as carefully as the directors of costume dramas, to exclude telegraph poles and electricity pylons, cars, roads and people. No such inappropriate vestige of reality may impinge on the period piece fantasy of the natural world we wish to purvey’.
The wildlife film-maker, wrote Mills, is ‘in a moral bind. Put simply, he makes his living out of nature; nature is disappearing. If he says too much about that he loses his audience. If he does not, he loses his subject.’ Mills ended:
‘The loss of wilderness is a truth so sad, so overwhelming that to reflect reality, it would be the subject of every wildlife film. That, of course, would neither be entertaining nor ultimately dramatic. So it seems that as film makers we are doomed either to fail our audience or fail our cause’.
Helping Viewers Feel Better
In 2016 David Attenborough himself described such ‘blue chip’ wildlife programmes as a ‘form of therapy’ for viewers craving a respite from their concerns about the future of the planet. Where once the rationale was to prime the audience do good by supporting conservation, now it has morphed into making the audience feel good. He pointed out that when in 2001 his programme Blue Planet first aired on the day after 9/11, it dramatically exceeded expected ratings as it was broadcast at a moment when “as a nation we craved refuge from the horror and uncertainty”. The motivation, he argues is that audiences are ‘reconnecting with a planet whose beauty is unblemished’. How this helps conservation is harder to see.
This new rationale is maybe the natural end state for the TV nature blockbuster. It accepts that blue-chip nature programmes are not just escapism but more like an anaesthetic which leaves the audience ‘stunned’, and no longer having to worry about what is happening to nature.
Ironically, over the years in which the Attenborough team brought nature spectaculars to their current potency, a growing body of evidence has shown that exposure to nature is indeed ‘good for’ people, psychologically and physiologically. Author Richard Mabey wrote about how it helped him fight depression in Nature Cure. Richard Louv has led a popular movement to recognize nature deficit disorder and ‘Vitamin N’, the importance of first-hand experience of nature in child development. Doctors such as William Bird who has worked with the RSPB and Natural England and the NHS, have demonstrated how just being in or seeing ‘greenery’ and even more so ‘becoming lost’ in nature, reduces stress and improves health.
All that is a reason to ‘prescribe nature’ and design buildings, places and lifestyles to include it but unless it is converted into real-world experiences, it helps people not nature. Moreover, the research that Louv and others are acting upon shows that physical real-life immersion in nature, and being able to read and recognize, relate to and understand it (ecoliteracy if you like or in old fashioned terms, actual natural history), is necessary for it to have a profound and lasting effect on young people so they grow up ‘hard wired’ to love it and want to protect it. That makes engaging with real nature more like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, something which empowers people rather than a liquid cosh of synthetic nature-fentanyl to temporarily suppress anxiety.
Campaigners, marketers, advertisers, fundraisers and motivational trainers also know that first sedating your audience is not a great way to get them to contemplate action. If natural history TV programming is to lead to action that makes a difference, the visual content needs to be designed accordingly, and that could be done.
There is a market for TV-nature as therapy. As E O Wilson pointed out, all human beings start out ‘biophilic’. We need nature. After watching James Cameron’s Avatar with its utopian planet Pandora, some movie-goers got withdrawal symptoms and were depressed because they could not live in tune with nature along with the fictional Na’vi. If real nature continues to vanish, this could be the future of BBC Natural History programming.
Some nature film producers already complain about the sums they are charged for filming in National Parks and Nature Reserves in developing countries, even though that can obviously help conservation (a point the BBC could make a virtue of by explaining it). Maybe the BBC, Disney and the like will end up running their own parks to film in ? Or possibly just resort to CGI and reworking old material.
‘released on iOS and Android on November 17, 2016, contains more than 1,000 of the greatest moments in television history, from more than 40 landmark natural history programmes. The culmination of over a year’s hard work by BBC Earth and our co-producer AKQA, it is offered to audiences globally as a gift from the BBC and Sir David. It can be downloaded from Apple and Google Play’.
Was There An Alternative ?
In the 1980s and 1990s it seems to have become conventional BBC wisdom that the ‘blue-chip’ model of natural history film-making could not be combined with environmentalism. Yet others did so, for instance Michael Rosenberg who produced the influential Channel 4 series Fragile Earth which ran from 1983 – 1992 and received many awards.
Phil Agland’s rainforest filming platform in Korup. from: http://www.wildfilmhistory.org
The British Film Institute guide to British film history says: ‘its simple and direct philosophy was to show a world that was intricate and beautiful but easy to destroy’, adding ‘the programme awakened our wonder at the continuous creativity of our fragile planet, while forcing us to confront the implications of the extermination of species on a scale equivalent to a genocide of nature’.
An anonymized BBC Natural History Unit member told researcher Gail Davis in 1995 that Fragile Earth “was a huge landmark … those films were brilliantly produced”. When he died in 2015, a newspaper obituary recalled that the reason Rosenberg moved to Channel 4 was because he was ‘frustrated with the BBC’s rather negative attitude towards environmental stories’.
Fragile Earth films by Phil Agland and other directors helped directly inspire conservation projects such as for the Korup Rainforest. Today Agland is still using film storytelling to help conservation, for example with the project by WWT and other groups to save the iconic Spoon-Billed Sandpiper from extinction.
Why the BBC mostly remained at arms length from conservation is something of a mystery. Gail Davis found Natural History Unit staff blaming the commissioners and the commissioners blaming a lack of ideas from the staff. Alastair Fothergill, Unit Head at the time, suggested an institutional problem: a lack of clarity ‘about how environmental problems should be covered’ in the BBC as a whole.
Davis also spoke to long-term BBC producer Richard Brock who agreed “the Unit does not do enough on conservation … we are doing what I call escapist natural history”. Brock also left the BBC. In 1995 he quit to set up Living Planet Productions and pursue a project Winners and Losers, tracing the fate of species recorded in the 1950s in 60 (now 70) new films. Remarkably, Brock has used his own BBC pension to fund the project, which can now be found on Vimeo and Youtube. Rather than made for TV, his films are made to be shown for free in the communities where wildlife is directly threatened, and where it may be saved. See also http://www.brockinitiative.org/, which includes good wishes from his old colleague David Attenborough.
The BBC itself has experimented. It has had moments when it even ‘nature’ programmes tackled environment head on, such as David Attenborough’s The State of the Planet (2000), ‘a smaller three-part series … the first wildlife documentary to deal comprehensively with environmental issues on a global scale’ (Morgan Richards, ‘Greening Wildlife Documentary’).
David Attenborough does environmental impacts in 2000 on State of the Planet. from: http://tv-shows.prettyfamous.com/l/29547/State-of-the-Planet-With-David-Attenborough
On the 50th anniversary of the Natural History Unit in 2007 it broadcast Saving Planet Earth, comprising nine celebrity-presented documentaries on conservation struggles to save animals. At the same time it launched its own charity, ‘the BBC Wildlife Fund’ and raised £1m with a BBC telethon fronted by Alan Titchmarsh. A second live telethon Wild Night In followed in in 2010 presented by Kate Humble, Chris Packham and Martin Hughes-Games featuring conservation projects which had benefited from the support of the BBC Wildlife Fund, raising another £1 million.
In the UK the BBC can also point to the achievements of the Springwatch stable of programmes fronted by the same team. There is not enough space to discuss them in detail here but they have done a lot to engage audiences with real-world nature, and get big audiences. Similarly, working with Natural England from 2005 – 2010 it backed Breathing Places, a mix of programming and outdoor nature activities, which aimed to move TV nature audiences out of the ‘BBC bubble’ and into real world projects.
The BBC Dilemma
Having embarked on its present strategy the BBC faces unresolved quandaries and dilemmas. It has been consistent in developing it’s natural history output but inconsistent both in its approach to whether nature films make any connection to conservation, and in its coverage of the environment across the BBC (which has of course included a host of other coverage such as on Horizon).
This may reflect divergent views within the BBC, which by media standards it is a vast enterprise. At one end there are ardent conservationists such as Springwatch presenter Chris Packham, who has been attacked by the shooting lobby for opposing persecution of protected birds of prey. At the other are overtly sceptical or hostile executives like Peter Barron, editor of Newsnight in 2007. During one of the BBC’s periodic bouts of angst about climate change coverage, he blogged: ‘is it our job to encourage people to be greener? I don’t think so’ and ‘I don’t think it’s the BBC’s job to try to save the planet’.
As a whole though, the BBC has erred away from advocating for conservation.
All broadcasters are sensitive to public mood and interests, and environmental coverage has flowered at times when environment was a ‘rising issue’ and ‘hit the headlines’ because of activism and political attention (for example when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declared herself a ‘friend of the earth’ in 1989, and when David Cameron’s team adopted greenery as part of a project ‘detoxify’ the Tory brand in 2006). One difference between the BBC and commercial broadcasters is that it has a complex but much closer and often fraught relationship with government. Consequently it is much more sensitive to the mood swings of those in power. Ultimately the BBC depends upon retaining political support for its survival.
It seems to me that the BBC’s rule of thumb in this area can be approximated to this: nature coverage is always ok and harmless (green light); connecting nature to conservation and any working relationship with NGOs is to be treated with caution (amber light); and environmentalism is potentially dangerous and best left treated as a contestable two-sided political controversy (red light). That enables deft repositioning anywhere along the spectrum from overt green advocacy, to studied neutrality to outright ‘scepticism’, in order to align with the political mood of the times.
I do not know what the current thinking is inside the BBC. A 2013 analysis by IBT (International Broadcasting Trust) heard from Matt Walker, editor of the BBC’s online Nature site ‘that those dealing with natural history’ were ‘having a discussion internally about what role the BBC should play – are they neutral observers or should the BBC act as a vocal supporter of nature?’ “From a public service point of view”, he said, “the BBC is naturally supportive of the natural world and therefore not agnostic about habitat loss”. Fine enough although it doesn’t seem to have led to any noticeable change if the latest iteration of its halo-brand, Planet Earth II, is anything to go by.
In November 2016 the new head of the BBC’s Natural History Unit, Julian Hector, said of Planet Earth II:
“Audiences love Sir David’s authenticity and the craft of the programme-makers that give us a window on the motivations of the animals. When so much is going on in the human world, that the natural world has an agenda all of its own, regardless, gives us a place to escape.”
The problem which conservationists are increasingly left with, is that nature no longer has a place to escape to.
What Can Be Done ?
Peter Barron is right. Legally, it’s not the BBC’s ‘job’ to save the planet. Nor is it Unilever’s job nor Marks and Spencer, or Sky TV (gone carbon neutral for ten years) or a host of other corporates who are anyway doing something about it. So to be credible, I think the BBC can forget that argument.
Martin Hughes-Games proposes a ‘conservation tax’ to fund 20% of ‘natural history’ commissions ‘across all channels’ as conservation oriented tv showing ‘the reality of what’s happening to wildlife worldwide’, including through drama and other formats.
It’s a reasonable option. At least it should start a conversation. The first step is for the BBC to recognize that there is a problem, and the second to talk to people about it from outside the BBC.
John Muir – Hero
John Muir (right) and Teddy Roosevelt, namer of the Teddy Bear, at Yosemite. From https://www.nps.gov/yose/learn/historyculture/muir-influences.htm
My own first suggestion for a drama – preferably at a Hollywood epic level of course – would be one about the long-dead and therefore suitable environmental hero, John Muir. This Victorian Scotsman is the mainly unsung super-star of conservation. After his family emigrated to the United States he inspired the ‘wilderness’ movement, walked across America, was the first to prove that glaciers moved, saved Yosemite redwoods, persuaded President Roosevelt to establish a network of protected areas and founded the Sierra Club, which in turn led to Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. The conservation movement lacks heroes known for their real achievements and Muir’s life story is a “couldn’t make it up” trail of extraordinary adventures.
Congruence – Walk the Talk – ‘No Planet Earth III’, not yet
Second, the BBC could help itself, and help conservation, by applying a few communications fundamentals. For one thing, if it does actually want viewers to get any sort of conservation message, it needs to display what psychologists call ‘congruence’. This means that for someone or some organisation to be convincing, for us to believe they really believe a thing is important, they need to look like they believe it, sound like they believe it, and act accordingly.
The single biggest thing the BBC could now do for conservation would be if it were to announce that the corporation is no longer making ‘blue chip’ nature spectaculars because it is concerned that they mislead people about the real state of the planet. If David Attenborough announced there would be no Planet Earth III until the tide was turned on destruction of the environments it showed, that would send an unequivocal signal and provoke a global social and political conversation.
Of course that is too radical for BBC management and so unlikely unless Attenborough himself suggested it.
Here’s How To Help
At the very minimum, the BBC could at least make a visible, noticeable effort to help conservation while still ploughing its existing furrow. In the crudest iteration, it could add a simple screen or section at the end of all its more popular (‘blue chip’) broadcasts which don’t show the reality of threats faced by wildlife, explaining what they are, and signposting viewers to help real conservation projects. “The wildlife you have seen in this film lives precariously in a few small pocket of habitat and is vanishing. You can help put this right by …”
The BBC should also recognize that Attenborough’s mental model of passing on viewers to conservation groups who will ‘use their own channels’ to recruit them has two key failings. First, unless the content of the programme or an accompanying ‘message’ makes the audience feel it is somehow responsible, there will be no ‘it’s about me’ alignment and no result. Second, even if ‘inspiration’ is to flow into action, the ‘channels’ of even the best resourced NGOs, are tiny: a water pistol compared to the Niagara Falls of the BBC blockbusters. So it behoves the BBC to actively refer connect its interested viewers to conservation projects as other broadcasters have done before. Digital media such as SMS, Twitter and Facebook now make this easy.
Likewise, it could also re-run it’s conservation fundraising telethon but with more resource. The BBC Wildlife Fund raised almost £3m and closed in 2012. Not to be sneezed at but tiny compared with Comic Relief started by BBC’s Richard Curtis and Lenny Henry, which at the end of the 2015 had raised over £1 billion over 30-years. In 2016 alone it raised £100m for charities such as Barnardo’s, Cancer Research UK and Oxfam, and viewers were thanked by BBC Director General Tony Hall.
Scandal – Not Doom and Gloom – The Optimism of Rewilding
For another, it could consider the difference between scandal and tragedy. Film makers have long known that ‘all doom and gloom’ is a turn-off: healthy people stay sane by not making themselves unhappy. But simply adding a sotto voce, whimsical fragment of regret at the end of a wildlife spectacular, is no solution.
Planet Earth II Series producer, Tom Hugh-Jones said, “David does a very poignant wrap-up to explain that for most animals, what we are doing to the planet is a bit of a tragedy.”
A bit of a tragedy ! That is perhaps an understatement for the thousands of animal species facing near-term oblivion but whereas a tragedy is demotivational, as nothing can be done about it (a problem with no solution), once something can be done, tragedy becomes a scandal (a problem with a solution that is not yet implemented).
It is this which the BBC could attach to the bad-news that awesome, splendid and magical nature is vanishing. The solution could frame an entire story, a programme or series. Campaign groups do this all the time: having a solution which is not being put into practice gives you the psychological licence to talk more about the problem until it is but it means being connected to real life.
The most obvious candidate is ‘rewilding’: reconnecting those ‘pockets’ which leave wildlife fatally isolated. Ecological guru E O Wilson has called for half the planet to be put aside to allow nature to survive.
The BBC has of course mentioned rewilding but often as a ‘controversy’. Instead it needs to get behind it. Rewilding captures the popular imagination because it is positive, optimistic and part of the nature solution. Perhaps Springwatch should next be based at Knepp, the amazing rewilding project in Sussex with its charismatic owner Charlie Burrell.
An English river being rewilded at Knepp
But rewilding is going on across the world, and could easily form a series of international scope. It is full of people and nature stories with scope for the high empathy encounters which David Attenborough has done so well, as with gorillas or the memorable encounter with a blind baby black rhino in episode 6 of Africa.
Key Target Audiences
Third, rather than just thinking about ‘smuggling in’ conservation to genre formats (comedy, sport, drama etc), the BBC could get to grips with audience psychology.
The aspirational Prospectors for example, under-served by the formats of nature programming, as opposed to lifestyle, sport or game show formats and achievement dramas such as The Apprentice. The fact that most ‘green’ groups are dominated by Pioneers is one major obstacle to effective conservation.
To engage Prospectors (about 30% of the population and over-represented amongst people working full time in organisations) you need to enable them to look good and feel good: for example to get ‘good at’ nature. The BBC can do this. Comic Relief does it be enabling people to become locally famous for 15 minutes. Producing the best nature garden with the most wildlife, or getting to be the best at navigating the landscape by knowing nature could be their sort of programmes, and have a huge positive impact.
Fourth, at least in my view, when it comes to a ‘back catalogue’ the BBC should remember its roots and connect its viewers and listeners with nature’s unvarnished, authentic reality. I hear that some in the BBC perceive this as incorrigibly antediluvian but I think younger and older audiences would appreciate it. For example Lord Reith chose a live broadcast of a signing nightingale for the first BBC Outside Broadcast. When I and thousands of others, pressed the BBC to restart such broadcasts, Lord Hall pointed to programmes such as on Tweet of the Day but these are of recorded and therefore probably long-dead nightingales. This is the road to the ‘media museum’ (wildlife salient in our lives but only virtually) which I argue is a growing cause of extinctions. If on the other hand, the BBC helped encourage its audience to demand real live nature, it would be a force against extinction.
A Debt to Repay
We can all suffer from group-think and almost every human being is adept at rationalising what they do, in order to avoid the discomfort of cognitive dissonance but it seems to me that the BBC has allowed itself to indulge in both, in a way which is unhealthy and unethical. When it redefines the purpose of natural history films as therapeutic escapism – which there is a market for – it offers audiences a second-best substitute for conservation, and buries the question of whether it has any responsibility to actually help nature, whether for moral or ethical reasons, as a matter of social or corporate responsibility, or from any residual public service duty.
David Attenborough is not the issue, nor is his commitment to nature. He does a lot of direct good works supporting conservation initiatives, such as for Wildlife Trusts. He has spoken out on climate change and a host of other issues.
The BBC ‘pays no rent’ for nature: it has a debt to repay, and could yet really help ‘save the planet’.
With Trump to be in the Whitehouse, many ‘progressives’ are truly horrified at the possible consequences. But if campaigns are to work effectively, campaigners need to guard against an ‘ethical panic’, especially among supporters mesmerized by dwelling on how Trump seems to personify their ‘sum of fears’. This could rob them of their crucial sense of self-agency and blind them to the many factors which may slow and restrict the reality of Trump’s project once he is actually in the Whitehouse.
‘If campaigners treat the nightmare of what Trump could be as if it is real, they will be granting Trump influence beyond his power’.
It urges campaigners not ‘to talk up Trump in terms of power but to talk him down, by seeing him for what he is, and by clearly exploring the real situation he will face once in office’.
An Incubus demon – The Nightmareby Henry Fuseli wartburg.eduimage public domain. Incubi were regarded as real in law in the Middle Ages but are now regarded as an effect of sleep paralysis.
‘Trump is not a demon’ it argues, ‘he’s just a man, flawed and limited, who by accident as much as design, has ended up, probably ill-prepared and ill-equipped in the Whitehouse: a malign version of Chance the gardener, in Hal Ashby’s film Being There.’
During the campaign we had ‘Trump the Movie’ but once he heads a government, Trump will face challenges in balancing the demands and conflicting interests of business, the Republicans in Congress, the expectations of his voters, relations with other countries, his inconsistent and sometimes incoherent economic agenda, and the markets.
The Trump Whitehouse script will be written more by external events and forces outside his control, challenging his self-myth of omnipotence and showing a very different reality to the way he promised to ‘make America great’ once again. Campaigning With Trump In The Whitehouse suggests that we have probably already reached ‘Peak Lacquer’ and the gloss will soon start to come off the stack of promises Trump made to the electorate.
Indeed this is already happening in his relations with China, as Trump’s financial borrowing plans for his ‘infrastructure’ package effectively push up the dollar relative to the Yuan. Likewise, although he has populated his administration picks with climate sceptics and promised to bring back coal, the markets suggest they have arrived too late to stop the shift to renewables and storage, which are now starting to out compete both coal and gas.
As with the Brexiteers, Trump promised to turn back the clock to a world that in many ways no longer exists, and simple but grand claims (such as the power of his ‘deal-making’) which may not stand the test of real politics.
A Trump Presidency will almost certainly be bizarre and it may be catastrophic – let’s hope not – but it could also turn out to be a lot more ordinary than his election campaign promised.
photo: Notions Capital (Flickr/CC 2.0)
And as some psychologists have suggested, Trump’s own psyche (eg an overwhelming desire to be seen as a winner and a blithe disregard for truth) may also even lead him to do surprising things, such as abandoning pledges and changing tack. This, and the exigencies and vicissitudes of simply being in office, may open up opportunities for campaigning which are currently hard to imagine, especially if you take Trump The Movie and make it your mental reality.
Was EU civil society’s opposition to TTIP mainly motivated by anti-Americanism ? We should know the answer to that question by how NGOs and other critics of TTIP react to CEUCIA,the forthcoming investment agreement with China, argues Richard Elsner
As just about everyone already knows, President-elect Donald Trump announced last Monday that his administration will withdraw the USA from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (or TPP), the trade agreement which the USA and 13 other Asian and American nations have agreed to. TPP was the key economic component of the Obama administration’s declared “pivot to Asia”, but was seen by a few sceptics (like the author of this blog) as a wrong-headed attempt to commercially isolate China. TPP was needed, so said the Obama administration, to prevent China from “writing the rules” of trade. Lest anyone forget, China is the world’s largest exporter, has the world’s largest economy (in purchasing power terms) and owns some 2/3rds of US debt. Isolate China? Trump has had the good sense at least to shy away from such self-defeating policies.
A ‘Rush for the Door’
What some people may not yet be aware of is that Trump’s statement early last week was followed by a mad “rush for the door” (TPP’s, that is) by no fewer than five of countries in the TPP ‘camp’ (namely Chile, Peru, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines). Where were they rushing to, then? They were headed straight for the front door of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (or RCEP), a rival trade organisation set up by China in 2012, as an alternative and counter to TPP, from which it had been intentionally excluded by the USA. The RCEP consists of the ten member states of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) plus the six states with which ASEAN has existing trade agreements (which includes the two Asian economic giants of China and India).
Former Australian Trade Minister Craig Emerson reportedly said last week: “The symbolism is clear: The US has abandoned Asia, the ‘pivot to Asia’ is dead, and China’s influence over the region’s trading is secured”. So, in wake of Trump’s assumption of the Presidency in January, it can be assumed that China will swiftly achieve the institutional and global political heft that Gideon Rachman foresaw in his insightful book “Easternisation” (2016, Bodley Head). Rachman forecast that such a shift would gradually flow from the economic power which China has accumulated over the past 30 years or so, only now it could happen quite suddenly.
Goodbye TTIP, Hello CEUCIA ?
If Trump remains true to his word that his administration will only enter into bilateral trade agreements in the future, then the Trans Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (or TTIP) would appear to be off the table. TTIP has been under negotiation between the USA and the EU since early 2013. Opposing it became something of a cause célèbre for European civil society, which successfully mobilised over half of the public opinion in several European countries (most notably Germany and Austria)against it. This opposition was fuelled most strongly by widely-shared concerns about the inclusion in TTIP of arbitration tribunals called the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) or the Investment Court System (ICS) through which individual companies can sue countries for alleged discriminatory practices (eg arising from new regulations passed by Parliaments).
Now that a deal with the USA is almost definitely off, the EU will doubtless task its trade negotiating teams to try to finalise the investment deal it has been negotiating with China since early 2014, known as the Comprehensive European Union China Investment Agreement (or CEUCIA)[i]. Few NGOs, journalists or politicians in Europe seem to have even heard of this agreement. While, according to Eurostat data[ii], only 2.6 % of the total 2012 flow of foreign direct investment (FDI) into Europe came from China, it is growing fast: According to the Rhodium group, “by the end of 3Q 2016, China’s outbound Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) was up by 54% year-on-year…Driven by the $4.8billion acquisition of German robotics maker KUKA, the combined value of Chinese FDI transactions jumped to $7.5 billion in Q3 2016, up from just $3.8 in 2Q…it is very likely that Chinese investment in the EU will surpass the $20 billion mark again in 2016”
When it announced the start of negotiations with China, the European Commission stated that the main aims of this agreement would be to protect investments made by either Chinese or European investors, and to guarantee the legal ‘certainty’ of investment (the rights of foreign investors relative to national ones).
The mandate given to the European Commission’s negotiators remains classified[iii], so we cannot know precisely what mechanisms the Commission is seeking to introduce into the agreement with China to protect investors from both sides. However, we know from the Commission’s statements regarding TTIP that it continues to favour ISDS mechanisms (re-framed as ICS, following civil society protests) over national judicial systems, and so it is fair to assume that the Commission’s negotiators will argue strongly for their inclusion in CEUCIA.
China will support their arguments, as it also supports ISDS. Since joining the World Trade Organisation in 2001, it has complained against other states on 13 occasions, mostly against the USA, using the WTO arbitration procedure[iv]. Chinese investors have also made regular use of the World Bank’s arbitration court system (known as ICSID)[v] to take states to task and to seek compensation. In its negotiations with Australia leading up to their 2015 trade agreement, China prevailed despite Australian reservations to have an ISDS protection mechanism included[vi]. Rather than operating from different rules, as the Obama administration has alleged, it looks like China has been working from very similar ones for over a decade!
If the EU and China include ISDS/ICS in a future investment agreement between them, how will the following questions get answered?
Will European civil society oppose it? If so, with what vigour?
If not, why not? Proponents of TTIP claimed in recent times that opponents to TTIP were primarily motivated by anti-Americanism. European civil society spokespeople repeatedly and robustly denied this claim, stating that TTIP (and especially its ISDS) was a threat to democracy.
If civil society does not oppose the inclusion of ISDS in the deal with China, would this not hint that maybe the above claim had some validity?
Does this mean that European civil society sees ISDS/IDS as less objectionable if petitioners are Chinese companies rather than US ones? Should European tax-payers therefore feel happier filling the coffers of Chinese as opposed to US investors?
This sceptic would struggle to see the logic of it.
(This is the second of three blogs about innovative developments in economics and business which, it seems to me, may have a big effect on many campaigns)
Pinning CEO’s bonuses to specific outcomes could offer campaigns a powerful tool
At the end of last month, Catherine Howarth, Chief Exec of the pension fund specialist NGO Share Action, announced a campaign to push oil companies Shell and BP towards investment in renewable energy. We have of course been here before.
From the late 1990s both companies talked great talk about becoming ‘energy companies’ and going green but when governments failed to organise taxation to make this more profitable than investing in new oil and gas, they both reverted to bad old fossil fuels. BP dropped ‘Beyond Petroleum’ and Shell dropped solar, and then wind in 2009. Now in the 2016 post-Paris political climate, and lagging way behind other newer renewables players, Shell has re-started its wind business with the creation of a new ‘green energy’ division. But Howarths campaign could pose much more acute incentive to deliver than general political commitments to phase out fossil fuels because she proposes that shareholders demand that executive bonuses are pinned to investment in green energy. In her sights are ‘responsible investors’ such as pension funds, who can get to vote on executive pay.
What’s New: The Context
Money as they say ‘talks’ and from the child with its piggy bank up to the most ‘remunerated’ executive, it provides an incentive. So it’s not surprising that this strategy is not entirely new. What’s different is that the context has changed, making it far more likely to work. That in turn means it should be higher up the list of tactics campaigners consider when they come to decide what tactic to build a strategy around.
What’s changed is not so much the formal rules – as specialists have pointed out, the requirements for Boards and CEOs to act on non-financial measures of performance, for instance those set by the US Securities and Exchange Commission – remain mainly rudimentary or non-existent. It’s public opinion, and hence politics. Today politicians are far more willing to challenge Executive pay on behalf of the public rather than defending it as a necessary freedom for the private sector to decide, lest we stifle entrepreneurship and lose its trickle down benefits.
In an era of corporate excess, recession, stumbling growth and ‘rewards for failure’, freeing corporations from social constraints is no longer a popular or particularly credible mantra. There is of course abundant evidence that on subjects such as carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, achieving efficiencies and using renewable energy increases profits (unless you sell fossil fuels) but the ‘facts’ have less to do with it than the public mood.
So for instance Britain’s recently appointed Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May, is making great play of her desire to stick up for workers and get them onto corporate Boards. Bonuses in general are under fire, from London and the Hague to Australia and points in between and beyond.
Lefty Campaigners ?
Campaigners are often lefty or left-leaning and so eschew trying to influence businesses, sometimes preferring instead just to condemn them and call for political action instead. They need to recognize that this mood of corporations coming under attack from the Right, is an opportunity which may not last. If they care more about outcomes than feeling good, it’s an opportunity to be taken, and investor and customer pressure may be the faster route, with regulation following on from behind.
Politicians will certainly be emboldened by knowing that the media and consumers have turned against the corporate executive class, who are increasingly easily spooked by negative social media. Bonuses are simply the most egregious example of the huge wealth inequalities now developed in most societies, and therefore the most responsive target: smaller has become ‘better’. Last month for example, the boss of a ‘troubled’ British railways company unfortunately named Go-Ahead, which owns Southern Rail operator Govia Thameslink, announced that he had waived his right to a bonus despite increased profits, because the service to customers had been so bad. The Guardian reported that he said “It just felt like the right thing to do”.
Campaigners thinking about the Bonus Pinning option will find that there are quite a few examples of blue-chip companies which are already a way down this road. The British retailer Marks and Spencer for example, linked executive bonuses to hitting sustainability targets when it needed to overcome internal foot-dragging and give some teeth to its much-lauded ‘Plan A’. Another sustainability leader, the Anglo-Dutch food and household products giant Unilever, has done much the same. M & S wrote in 2012:
Another key factor was the introduction in 2010/11 of a Plan A target for every M&S Director as part of their annual bonus objectives – and their ‘cascading’ through teams. This has ensured that Plan A is not seen as a ‘nice to have’, but a must-do, that is every bit as important as hitting sales or margin targets. It also ensures that Plan A progress is reviewed by senior management on a regular basis over and above the normal Plan A governance structure.
Plan A: bonuses were part of it
An indication of how far this has gone in a few cases, and how much attitudes have changed and can change, comes from DSM, a Dutch multinational which adopted some radical sustainability targets. In 2014 DSM North America President Hugh Welsh said:
I didn’t get my full stock bonus last year. It wasn’t because I didn’t meet my revenue or profit goals; I exceeded them. Instead, it was because my carbon emissions reduction efforts fell short, partly due to the integration of multiple companies DSM North America purchased in 2012.
DSM tied all managers’ compensation to sustainability in 2010, with targets related to greenhouse gas emissions, energy and water usage, eco-friendly product development and employee engagement, as well as – of course – profit. Last year was the first time in my career – on Wall Street, American Standard and DSM North America – that I missed my numbers.
And you know what? I’m not mad about it. Instead, I’m more determined than ever to meet the goal this year. By not giving me all of my deferred stock compensation, my company made it clear it means business when it comes to sustainability practices. In my opinion, this is the way it should be.
So far these are still exceptions rather than the rule: when Unilever CEO Paul Polman got a £431,775 top-up to his bonus payment in 2013 ‘in large part for his work leading the company’s sustainability plan’, it was treated as newsworthy, whereas a similar reward for increasing sales of detergent or fats and oils would have gone unremarked. Bloombergs headlined its report: ‘Unilever Hands CEO Polman $722,000 Bonus for Sustainability Work’, as if something vaguely improper had happened. But what’s actually happened is probably that sales of fats, oils and detergents are now linked to sustainability measures.
Alcoa and Intel, two huge and very different companies, have also linked pay to environmental targets. In the case of chip-maker Intel this has meant giving every employee an incentive, and resulted in a 35% reduction in absolute greenhouse gas emissions and a 28% reduction per-chip within four years. Even the most business-sceptic campaigner might think there’s something happening here. A 2014 report put the proportion of companies linking executive pay to sustainability targets at 25%. A 2010 study of publicly traded companies in the US, the UK, Australia, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, put the figure at 29%.
Even in companies like Alcoa the total proportion of the rewards determined by such factors can be low, for example just 1% but in some cases it is a much bigger factor. In the case of Paul Polman at Unilever he got an extra 37.5% bonus for sustainability factors. In the case of BP and Shell, the call is directional, as the internal trade off is a zero sum game over investment of profits either towards renewables, or towards more oil and gas.
What’s Driving This ?
Every company will have its own internal and external story, and every NGO, not-for-profit or other lobby group which tries to influence them will have a different perspective but no company is totally isolated from society, even oil and chemical companies.
In recent years the ‘NGO’ end of blogosphere has been full of retrospectives, often anguished voyages of self-doubt, by veterans of the “Occupy” movement and “Wall Street Protests”. That movement can certainly take some credit for crystallizing and perpetuating public disquiet about how finance and big business work, and how that affects the wider public interest.
Recession driven by the credit crunch, debt crises and asset bubbles has further undermined public and political confidence in the ‘neo liberal’ project.
Within and around companies, these currents have met up with those from older 1990s initiatives such as the ‘Sustainable Development’ movement, Socially Responsible Investment, and their yet older antecedents. Amongst other things, these brought process, targets and measurements for public goods and externalities.
In addition many developed economy governments are now struggling with domestic stresses over how to balance public expenditure across generations, the politics and expectations of funding pensions and health, the affordability of housing, and the politics of economic migration.
Add these together and big business bonuses, available only to the 1%, quickly float to the surface as discrete, soluble looking examples of what is wrong.
At the same time, after decades of hesitation and argument, governments have accepted climate change as real, immediate and requiring a total economic restructuring. Carbon and energy choice is an obvious metric with which to hold corporations to account in the public interest. ‘Diversity’ in sex, age or ethnicity in hiring personnel is another, which also has well established metrics. But these are far from the only ones. What for agrochemicals for example ? The amount of biodiversity in places where their products get used ? Or for human rights ?
Pin The Tail on the Donkey
To my mind, the encouraging factor which underlies all of these is the influence of public opinion. However erratic and partial the social elastic may be, it still functions, despite the fluid reconfiguration and even fusion of roles amongst media, politics, business, markets, consumers and citizens.
Bonus Pinning may not be a game with a permanent future but in the short to medium term, it could be a great way for the public to pin the tail on the corporate donkey.
(This is the first of three blogs about innovative developments in economics and business which, it seems to me, may have a big effect on many campaigns)
To my mind one of the most interesting new campaigns of recent years is Positive Money (PM), set up in 2010. Yes it’s about economics but if you think it’s not really relevant to your campaigns, you are probably wrong. I suggest checking it out.
If you’ve not heard of Positive Money it’s probably because for a ‘campaign’ it is incredibly (to use an Anglicism) pointy-headed. It is full of really brainy people who mostly have little track record in the darker arts of campaigning (media, politics, advertising, marketing, state power, psychology, religion etc) but who know loads about economics. Such cleverness can be both a strength and a weakness, as campaigns need to be put in very simple terms if they are to gain public leverage.
Pincer Movement Potential
So far Positive Money hasn’t come up with campaigns that capture the public or hence media or indeed mainstream political attention but I think it may well do, only rather than bottom-up, it’s working its way down from the top. In some ways it’s what the 1%/99% ‘bottom-up’ movement always needed to meet coming down, in order to create a pincer-movement with potential for systematic real change in real time.
A possible deficit of street-fighting tacticians aside, Positive Money has a basic problem in that it is selling, indeed inspired by, what for most of us is a very unexpected insight. This insight is that almost all of what we think of as ‘money’ is now not so much ‘currency’ (coins, bank notes) but electronic money, such as debt. Indeed it is the issuing of debt by banks (such as mortgages for houses and other lending by commercial banks), which creates most of the money in a modern economy. 97% of the money in the UK, says Positive Money (and it cites lots of evidence such as from Bank of England economists) is this non-currency money. Like many ideas which could have a revolutionary effect, it’s counter-intuitive and so people don’t immediately spring to act on it.
The Grip of Death Moment
By his own account Ben Dyson the founder of Positive Money, was set on the campaign trail by a theory in the book he read called TheGrip of Death. This explained ‘why most economic theories failed, and why governments were usually unsuccessful in manipulating the economy’, because ‘almost all money is now created by commercial (high-street) banks, as debt, when they issue loans’. Lots of bad stuff followed such as financial crashes when ‘expert’ economists who themselves did not understand this, tried to deploy ‘conventional’ policy measures to which might old style economies running on real money might have responded but to which modern economies full of electronic debt did not respond.
I found this fascinating but anyone who knew much about campaigns would see the pitfall: Positive Money was then drawn into an educational campaign, which is largely incompatible with instrumental campaigning. It’s been on a bit of a mission-to-explain. The two things can hardly ever be done at the same time.
Positive Money’s central proposition which can get rather lost in a forest of stuff about why-it’s-a-good-idea to reform aspects of the banking and finance system, is to:
‘remove the ability of banks to create money, in the form of bank deposits, when they make loans … [and] transfer the ability to create new money exclusively to the state, creating what we have termed a ‘sovereign money’ system’.
This is what they mean by ‘Positive Money’, and although ‘Democratic Money’ might possibly get you there quicker, the central idea is highly political and quite understandable: that creation of money should be under democratic control, and that means it should be controlled by elected, accountable politicians because control of the creation of money – how much, when and what for – is of crucial public interest. Left to itself, with each cycle the ‘market’ operation of the system just ratchets up the difference between rich and poor, making the disparity greater and greater.
Put simply, the proposition is to ask who should be in charge of our national currency, the nation or the banks ? A case maybe of “give us back our money” which for most people would be awfully similar to “give us back our money”. What other metaphors might one use ? ‘Robbery’ perhaps, springs to mind.
QE or Public Money ?
This summer, Positive Money got a bit of a gift when a side effect of the UK EU Referendum vote for Brexit was a political crisis, which led to a fall in the value of the Pound Sterling and in turn a new Conservative Government, which promptly jettisoned previous Chancellor George Osborne’s policies of austerity and ‘balancing the books’. So in August to try and boost growth, the Bank of England set out on a new round of QE or Quantitative Easing, often called ‘printing money’.
outside the Bank of England with a message
This gave Positive Money a chance to campaign about a real choice by calling on new Chancellor Philip Hammond to convert this newly created ‘money’ into real money and not just the electronic value of stocks and shares. Such stocks and shares are mainly held by the wealthy as investments. Positive Money point out that the previous UK round of QE increased the wealth of each of the richest 5% of households by an average of £128,000, thereby also increasing inequality, which the government is supposedly against.
Instead, Positive Money argues, and an increasing number of economists agree with them, that the Bank should create money and put it into the real economy, in ways that mean it gets spent and creates work here and now. Either as ‘helicopter money’ whereby individuals get cash (which in the case of poorer people they are likely to spend), or, by investment in infrastructure projects, which also create real world economic activity including jobs, also leading to cash in circulation.
So why doesn’t QE normally do this ? Even at Positive Money’s own website you have to drill down to get the details but as I understand it, essentially it’s because the government gives the money to financial institutions and banks not to people to spend, or to itself to spend. Under QE the Bank of England creates a new ‘reserve’ account for itself and uses it to buy up ‘government bonds’ from pension funds or insurance companies. ‘Money’ then appears in the bank account of a Pension fund, such as in RBS. Only if this then gets spent will it benefit the real economy. Seeing as the wealthier shareholders in Pension Funds don’t need to spend it like the poor do, they mostly don’t: as a result, £375bn of QE produced only about £25bn economic activity in the real economy.
Positive Money says the Bank of England should give the money straight to people, especially poorer ones, or to the government, which should then spend it on infrastructure.
Relevance to Campaigns
If your campaign issue has anything to do with trying to or needing to reduce inequality, it is self-evident that taking control of the creation and direction of money into public hands, could play a huge role in shaping outcomes.
This has also to be one of the best ways of seriously using money to resolve critical practical problems for instance in the environment, and there is coincidence of interests between those wanting to achieve outcomes that rely on new investment (such as energy or transport infrastructure, or buying and managing forests), and those who want to stimulate flagging economies, such as politicians.
Tackling climate change is perhaps the most obvious example. If for instance we had a global decade or so of green investing to replace the old fossil based economy with a renewable-powered economic base, we’d be a long way down the track to implementing what governments promised in Paris. (The necessary investment cost has been put at $270bn out of $6trillion spent globally on new infrastructure a year, or just 4.5%).