Ben’s Strategy blog: Stubborn optimism and imagination

18th October 2017

Three recent events provided some useful food for thought about where we are in the journey to a sustainable society, and to some extent linked up. I’ll try to bring them together here.

First an inspiring evening at Edinburgh Castle where Christiana Figueres, the architect and driving force behind the Paris Agreement, was receiving the Shackleton Medal. The medal was awarded jointly in 2016 by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society to Christiana Figueres as the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, M Laurent Fabius, the French Prime Minister who chaired the 2015 Paris conference, and Manuel Pulgar Vidal, the Peruvian Environment Minister who chaired the 2014 climate conference in Lima, which was central to the success of the Paris one. Presumably Ms Figueres hadn’t been able to travel to Scotland to receive the medal in 2016, but she was here last week speaking at a number of events.

Stubborn Optimism

Figueres gave a speech highlighting two of Ernest Shackleton’s qualities. First his commitment to his team, and here she paid tribute not only to her fellow medallists but to all who are working for a better, zero-carbon world. Shackleton of course promised his men that he would return to rescue them from the icy wastes of Antarctica, and did so having made an extraordinary and perilous journey. Arguably after the divisions at the Copenhagen conference in 2009, Figueres had to deliver in Paris on a similar promise made to the poorer nations of the world in the intervening years. Second she focused on Shackleton’s ‘stubborn optimism’, which she unpacked as being an attitude that saw problems as the stimuli for innovation and an opportunity to bring people together to overcome them; and an ability to get up in the morning feeling that success was possible, despite overwhelming odds. She finished by introducing seven young climate leaders from low lying islands who were also in Edinburgh. She urged them to remember that they had come here on the ‘Peace Boat’: ‘not the Anger Boat, or the Blame Boat, or the War Boat’. Her speech was a good reminder of what an achievement the Paris Agreement is, with all its flaws, and how easy it is, in an era of Trump, Brexit and Spanish politics, not to work together – and how important working together is, whatever the circumstances. (I’d say it’s also more fun.)

More economics please

Next came the event with Professor Tim Jackson, about whom I blogged in August. His talk, hosted by the Macaulay Development trust and the James Hutton Institute was very good, although it didn’t tell me anything new that I hadn’t read in his book (which I suppose is fair enough – not everyone will have read it). I was hoping I’d get the answer to the question posed in my blog, whether Jackson’s vision of a low-carbon, post-growth society that is based on services is possible, or whether we don’t actually need some ‘stuff’, which is more carbon intensive. However this wasn’t forthcoming and I didn’t have the opportunity to ask my question…

The Q&A afterwards, with Lesley Riddoch, Patrick Harvie MSP and the economist Professsor Deborah Roberts, turned into a rather generalised discussion about the failures of classical economics and governments etc. And maybe that was part of the problem with the whole event: Jackson spent more time than was necessary explaining why we need a new economics of sustainability, and not enough on outlining what that might look like. I think the ‘why’ argument has been won since he set out on this journey in 2009, and he could now focus on the interesting and difficult thinking he’s been doing since. For example he mentioned in an aside that a Universal Basic Income is actually a less effective way of achieving the aims normally associated with it than a capital tax, which itself is less effective than the strengthening of the power of labour and constraints on the power of capital. Now that’s why I go to hear an economist speak!

The Golden Thread

And finally the annual conference of the Sustainable Scotland Network, which supports the 180-odd Public Bodies which have duties under the Climate Change Act here in Scotland. Chris Stark, the Director of Energy & Climate Change at the Scottish Government, gave a terrific talk in which he spoke about the ‘golden thread’ of energy joining up all sorts of policy areas: as his team’s Draft Energy Strategy consultation makes clear, ‘Affordable energy provision is a prerequisite for healthy, fulfilling living and productive, competitive business.’ He made clear that the easy work had been done, in largely decarbonising the electricity supply, but that domestic and non-domestic heat (which produces around 40% of Scotland’s carbon emissions) and transport (another 20% or so) would be much greater challenges. What struck me was that for the first time I heard someone from the Government hinting about a fundamental change in society, not suggesting that life in Scotland would be the same, but magically zero-carbon. He was followed by Professor Jan Webb talking about the difficulties of arranging collaborative projects to deliver the low-carbon heat Chris Stark was talking about: she proposed a general ‘Duty to collaborate’, which I think is crucial. However it would need to trump other targets and duties if it were to have any effect. It is easy to show that you have met your carbon reduction target, and to be sanctioned if you haven’t, but harder to show that you have or haven’t collaborated effectively.

Other speakers from public sector organisations at the conference sounded a bit ground down by their climate change responsibilities. Dave Gorman, Director of Social Responsibility and Sustainability at the University of Edinburgh described the position of senior managers, who have plenty of other priorities that they are trying to juggle alongside sustainability. His argument was that what they needed were clear proposals that showed how a sustainability-focused project would also deliver on those other priorities: in a way an echo of what Chris Stark was saying, and perhaps a hint about the collaboration that Jan Webb was describing.

Revolutionary thinking

Chris Stark was effectively talking about a revolution, and Jan Webb was telling us that current structures as well as current ways of thinking are not going to bring that revolution about. This is of course what we at Creative Carbon Scotland are working on: proposing different ways of doing things to get different results. As finance across government is getting tighter, there is even greater need for different ideas and collaboration across sectors and silos to achieve our common aims. There is no doubt that people at the carbon face are struggling, and that isn’t the easiest time to try out innovations, but it may also be the time when imagination is most needed. There is a long history of the arts contributing to the health, education and justice agendas but sustainability is seldom mentioned. Our mission is to make sure that culture’s role in the transition to a sustainable society is fully recognised and utilised by both the cultural and sustainabilty worlds. And we bring some of Christiana Figueres’ stubborn optimism to help overcome the significant hurdles along the way.

Image: Christiana Figueres  www.iangeorgesonphotography.co.uk

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