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  • Writer's pictureNick Keppel-Palmer

Keeping it Simple? Now that's Stupid

The pursuit of Silver Bullets and an obsession with standards are not helping with climate

"What's the single most effective thing I can do to fight climate change?"

This simple question was asked as we were planning, in our little village in Somerset, how we could collectively get together to make sure that the natural environment in this place was as enduringly healthy as possible, and that individually and together we were doing all we could to tread more lightly upon this earth.

This effort has tapped into a wealth of enthusiasm to "DO SOMETHING" which seems to pervade every generation in the village. The urge to do that 'something' collectively, together, is a welcome legacy of the pandemic, during which we managed to do ourselves proud as a community. It felt good, we like doing things together, especially good things.

But what things? What should we do? What should I do?

The potential answers to this question - what's the single most effective thing I can do - are pretty much always (or should be) "it depends".

But "it depends" is not clear cut. And boy do we like clear cut. Which is why the world of climate and sustainability suffers from excessive amounts of absolutism: we'd much prefer to seek out some climate change silver bullets: stop eating meat; switch all cars to electric; stick up millions of wind turbines*.

Save the Silver Bullet

Ben de Haldevang is a clever chap with lots of real world experience of trying to make transformations happen. His world of transformation mostly resides inside corporates, or more often when a couple of corporates are getting married or M&A'd.

There is a "transformation" industry that loves nothing more than a framework and a process. A set of tools that can be applied anywhere and everywhere. But Ben has a written a book, Save the Silver Bullet, that is a compelling case for "it depends" being the right answer in any transformation. And with that to recognise that the context, the starting point, the framing circumstances, all come together to make a unique blend of challenges that every and any program manager needs to pay a lot of attention to, before deciding what the play looks like.

You cannot know - a priori - what the best thing to do is.

There is no simple, silver bullet answer. Read his book.

It depends.

Break out the livestream and the selfies - it's COP time.

Whisper it quietly but COP has become a bit embarrassing. Not the proper COP full of big cheeses making pledges, but the army of COP groupies that have headed up to Glasgow to make their noise and to do their Ted Talks and to pronounce. The fringe COP. It's like Glastonbury met Davos for the TikTok age. My timeline is chock-a-block with the selfies and the livestreams of all the people who have decided to go up there, get on their soapbox, and to TELL US ALL WHAT TO DO.

They are (for the most part) lovely and smart people who mistakenly have persuaded themselves that standing on a platform and exhorting everyone else to do things is a good use of their time.

It isn't.

I wish they'd use their collective energy and talent more productively. The time for platforms and soapboxes is over.

It is super important that the politicos do their bit and sign their pledges and press hard on the legislative accelerator. Optimistic signs so far. But it is hard. We should leave them alone. An army of well meaning people banging their metaphorical drums we do not need.

It's not simple and it's not standard

As we've got further into Good Growth and setting up regeneration programs in different places, we have become acutely aware of the massive gulf between the pronouncements of this crowd and what is actually needed on the ground.

Every place is different. What is needed in one place is not the same as what is needed in another. There are no simple solutions.

It depends.

But this version of sustainability - the one that has to adapt to circumstance, that eschews cookie cutter approaches, does not fit in a world that loves simplicity and standards and frameworks. In a world that loves a silver bullet.

The sustainability industry (and it is fast becoming an industry) loves frameworks and standards. Convinced that we have to "make business greener". That the answer lies in "transforming" our current ways of doing business. That the power of business can cure all this.

I used to believe the same, even made my living from it for a long time. But we've got it all wrong - we need a root and branch reset, not a bit of transformation.

Crowbarring sustainability into the way we run business and finance is not going to work - business and finance thrives on standardisation, depends on standardisation. Accounting can be standardised all over the world.

But you cannot standardise nature.

Which is why ESG is so pointless. Which is why sustainability standards certification schemes are so worthless. Which is why our obsession with TELLING PEOPLE WHAT TO DO is so damaging. (Please, please someone just shut TED off until we've fixed the problems.)

What we are trying to do in Good Growth is the opposite - to redesign business and finance to fit into nature. And that means we cannot standardise, we cannot silver bullet, we cannot "keep it simple".

It depends. What is right for me is not what's right for you. My route to eliminating my impact on the planet is not the same as yours. What's right for the nature in this corner of Somerset is not the same as Somuncura in Patagonia is not the same as Khanghai in Mongolia is not the same as the Norfolk Coast is not the same as Lyme Bay etc etc etc.

It depends. Always.

*everything in sustainability is a trade off and has a consequence. It always depends.

Wind turbines use balsa wood in their sails. There isn't enough balsa wood. So it is being grown unsustainably to satisfy demand for wind turbines.

Hooved animals are critical for biodiversity. When artificial meat companies make it their mission to "wipe the cow off the face of the earth" they are proposing a hyper-simplistic approach with pretty devastating consequences for the planet.

Electric cars are better than others but that doesn't make them sustainable - for starters they require some rare metals to work. If everyone switched to an electric car (as opposed to say reducing overall journeys, leveraging different ways of moving around and radically reducing the number of cars on the road) we'd be swapping one form of unsustainable for another. Unfortunately lithium - which is what the batteries need (for now - lithium is the 8 track stereo of eco-tech) - is to be found in some pretty lovely places (as well as some pretty grim ones), which means that "in order to hit our sustainability targets" many of those lovely places now need to be dug up to sate the world's demands for battery cars.

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