HomeBehaviour changeOne of the best things an environmentalist can do: get on a plane

One of the best things an environmentalist can do: get on a plane

Plane landing by sunriseThis post is by Brendan May, chairman of The Robertsbridge Group.

Some years ago, Prince Charles got into trouble for accepting an environment award overseas. ‘But he flew!’, they cried. Since then, from what I can tell, HRH has had to resort largely to pre-recorded video pieces or appearing as a hologram at non-British environmental summits. Mercifully, he adds as much sustainability work onto his official state visits as he can. Having seen first hand what his interventions can do to get a green cause moving (sustainable seafood, in my case) I was sufficiently irritated by the furore to write to one of the newspapers that covered the story. I argued that the Prince and others who spend most of their waking hours trying to stop business and government wrecking the planet should not just be entitled to travel the world but have an obligation to do so, building global traction for sustainability efforts.

Why more environmentalists should fly
You won’t stop deforestation in the tropics from a meeting room in the west country. Having spent a large part of my working life dealing with fisheries, forestry and agricultural commodities issues, it’s clear to me that I couldn’t have done much of it without flying. And, without a single exception, all the people I know who’ve done great things in the environmental field have travelled far and wide. We don’t do it for fun, it takes us away from our families, and we see far too many airports and hotel rooms. But we do it because we would achieve far less without it.

That’s my defence of the greens who travel on planes. But I want to go further. I wish more environmentalists would fly. In Britain we see ourselves as a hub of green innovation, the best thinking, the proud host of some of the world’s most sustainable companies, and so on. Yes, we have some good retailers and some great responsible business institutions. But having spent more and more time in the developing world, particularly in Indonesia, my perspective has changed. I don’t think much of the green community in England has seen the size and scale of the problems coming down the track. They may have seen pictures and slogans, and read reports and articles. But many haven’t seen first-hand the changes looming from these emerging economies.

Cloud cuckoo land vs reality
I know it’s fashionable to talk about ‘brand revolutions’ and ‘consumer behaviour change’. But I fear a lot of it is cloud cuckoo land. It’s a reflection of how its proponents would like to live. It bears no resemblance to the reality developing as a result of the vast rising middle classes of India, China, Indonesia and other developing nations.

I’m writing this on a flight from London to Singapore, en route to Jakarta. It’s the fifth time this year I have done this 24 hour journey. When I arrive I will survey the view from my hotel window: traffic jams, vast new construction schemes, the logos of every Western brand adorning the towers and malls. In the morning, it will be hard to get a table for breakfast, as the hotel will be full of people who have come here to do business, trade, or in my case, work on sustainability issues with NGOs and others. Lunch may take place in one of Jakarta’s countless huge malls where, for some shoppers, one iPhone is not enough, they have one for work and the other for pleasure. This is the rich side of Jakarta. Elsewhere, there is poverty, exacerbated by poor land right allocation, poor governance and past corporate misdeeds.

Next week three of my colleagues, all well known environmentalists, will make the same trip but they will visit the jungles of Sumatra as well. They will see the threat to communities and wildlife, and also the solutions and positive progress being made. This knowledge will be used to help shape and articulate one of the most significant business transformations in recent history. I would argue it’s worth it.

The focus of environmental work in 20 years won’t be Europe
When I return to England on Friday morning I’ll catch up on emails and tweets, including invitations to webinars and summits about how UK companies are changing the world, why I should only shop at farmers’ markets and how I can power my burglar alarm using cucumber pulp and worm poo. Well, not quite, but you know what I mean. Given the sensory overload I’ll have just had, dealing with challenges of such magnitude, this can all seem provincial and irrelevant. I know it isn’t entirely, but I think it all represents an incredibly unambitious and largely fruitless mindset when it comes to global environmental issues.

What Britain does matters abroad to some degree: in climate diplomacy, our stance on GMOs and so on. But an awful lot of what happens strikes me as a vast waste of resources. I suspect about 75p of every pound spent on green initiatives, roundtables, conferences, rankings systems, publications and reports in Britain would be more usefully spent grappling with the emerging giants’ challenges from a political and corporate perspective. Britain’s environmental footprint is miniscule in comparison and it will become ever more so in relative terms as growth continues in emerging economies.

When I think of localism I think about Britain as a whole, which is viewed in Asia and elsewhere as a small, albeit significant part of the European Union. But without the EU, it is insignificant on the world stage. The way we bang on about green issues you would think we were a global power house. We aren’t. I’m not the only person who believes the focus of work in the next 20 years will be far away from Europe, in China, India, and Brazil. The UK market for green is saturated, and overstuffed with thinkers and practitioners.

We risk losing the global perspective
Local issues are important of course, but I think the green community in Britain risks losing its global perspective if it doesn’t travel a bit more. All the debates about HS2, Gatwick vs Boris Island, fracking and the like feel very significant when in Britain. From the vantage point of Asia or the United States, they become peripheral. If you don’t believe me, get on a plane. If those with the power and skills to change the world don’t travel round it with a sense of urgency, there’ll be little left to talk about. The big challenges aren’t on Britain’s railway infrastructure, they’re in the cocoa plantations, mine shafts, oceans, and the tropical rainforests of the rapidly developing world.

Postscript: When I landed for a stopover in Singapore, I sat down to finalise this post. I got chatting to a man who turned out to be an oil field worker from Pekanbaru in Riau Province, Sumatra, which I visited in May. He wasn’t on his way back there though, he was taking his wife and seven month old son to Los Angeles on holiday. What was he most looking forward to, I asked? ‘I’m going to Vegas as well!’ came the reply. It was a useful snapshot of reality. And even if we’d be right to stop him, we couldn’t. It may be the green movement that needs the ‘behaviour change’ if it’s to be anything other than a quaint parish talking shop.

Twitter: @bmay

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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