Peter Madden on creating sustainable cities

Peter Madden, Chief Executive of the UK not-for-profit organisation Forum for the Future, has just visited Australia for a series of public lectures. The main event has been his part in the Deakins – the Alfred Deakin Eco-Innovation Lectures, an initiative of the Victorian government – and I gather his Melbourne lectures were well publicised and will soon be up on the web. On his way home, he spent a couple of days in Sydney , and I went to his lecture, ‘Creating Sustainable Cities’, at UTS on Thursday night. Although it was technically public, this lecture seems to have been a well kept secret, advertised pretty much by word of mouth,  with notes on the UTS staff bulletin board and the Sydney Cyclist web site. As far as I’ve seen it went unnoticed by the press. And you thought sustainability was a hot subject!

Forum for the Future was founded roughly 13 years ago by to members of the Green Movement in Britain who realised that Greens seemed to spend most of their time protesting – their activities had a predominantly negative feel to them. They decided to organise on a positive footing, and the Forum was the result. It has been working with business and government to persuade them to take environmentally responsible initiatives, and show them how.  The opening slide of the lecture showed the logos of maybe a hundred organisations that have worked with Forum for the Future. The idea is to help them think through ways to change their practices in response to climate change – to reduce their own carbon footprints and then to make their activities benign rather than destructive in relation to the environment.

I won’t try to summarise the lecture, but I have two thoughts to inflict on you.

The level of public conversation about climate change is very different in Britain from the one here. Prominent Australian politicians proudly declare themselves to be climate sceptics, failing to realise that the science of climate change is based on systematic scepticism and that they are actually identifying as denialists, and debate often gets bogged down there, pretty much at kindergarten level. Meanwhile the question of whether to pass the tokenistic CPRS legislation gets to be seen as the be-all and end-all, with Kevin and Penny saying, either disingenuously or idiotically,  that since they’re being criticised from both left and right they must have it about right. That is to say, climate change is hardly treated seriously at all, for all the lip service it’s given. In Britain the conservative opposition has more far-reaching policies about climate change than the Labour government, and there are significant commitments from Government – for example, by 2015 to have every new house built be carbon neutral.

Peter Madden guesses that the issue is taken seriously in the UK because so many of the leading climate change scientists are British , and speak with authority. It strikes me that the reason the science is treated with such disregard here is a legacy of the Howard years: just as the Howard government dismantled ATSIC and deprived Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders of a national voice, it also set about discrediting CSIRO, once looked to as a reliable source of information on scientific matters, now able to be dismissed by the likes of Nick Minchin, along with the vast majority of climate scientists, as left wing propagandists.

The other thought, more or less unconnected, is that greenies fail to communicate their message because they/we fail to listen. According to Peter Madden a recent study shows that green activists tend to have a weird and atypical psychological make-up, in which abstract, altruistic concerns rate high. Their/our attempts to communicate often come off sounding like preaching or even haranguing. What he and the Forum for the Future try to do is reframe the conversation in the positive: here’s a major problem we’re all facing, and here are some ideas for how we can address them. Business can do this thing and still be profitable. Governments and do that thing and still be re-elected. Individuals can do the other thing and still live well. So Tesco, the huge, many would say rapacious, supermaket chain, has a green strategy with teeth; the NHS is exploring ways to reduce its carbon footprint and at the same time deliver health services more intelligently.

About individual action to reduce carbon footprint, he said you could cut through a lot of the agonising over details by addressing these key questions:

1. What forms of transport do you use?
2. Where do you go for holidays?
3. How much red meat and dairy do you eat?
4. How do you heat or cool your home?

I’m sorry the audience for this lecture was so small, mainly because it gave a glimpse of possibilities. During question time, one man evidently a green activist, asked Peter to talk about bullshit moments – that is to say, moments when he realised that he was listening to someone talk about their green credentials in a completely disingenuous way. Peter did mention a bottled water company who claimed to be carbon neutral – the Forum had refused to work with them because bottled water is an environmental disaster, end of story. But he was adamant that while almost none of the companies he worked with could claim to be completely clean, they were all going on a journey. Even in the most profit-motivated corporations, there are people who, given half a chance, will have a go at sustainability.

What do you think?

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