Rainforest Reflections: Reaching the End of the Runway

On January 1st 2020 I will stop using air travel as a means of getting around for either work or pleasure. I will start with the obvious reason for that decision but I want to move onto something that is perhaps a little more hidden.

If the British climate scientist Kevin Anderson is correct with his data demonstrating that 10% of the global population is responsible for 50% of total global carbon emissions (20% are responsible for 70% of emissions) then I certainly fit easily within that affluent 10%. 1

Inequality is a huge problem today in every arena of life across the globe and of course it’s no surprise to see that inequality really driving the climate and ecosystemic crisis. As someone who has worked for almost 15 years as a consultant in corporate organisations around the globe I am, or have been, come the final reckoning, one of the great offenders in terms of my high-mobility high emissions lifestyle. In the last couple of years I’ve greatly reduced my travel, nonetheless when I undertook a couple of recent comparative self-assessments on my personal carbon footprint I was shocked to discover that my own footprint stands at around 53 metric tonnes per annum despite the reductions.2 Whilst I am aware that there is great debate and uncertainty about how to measure carbon emissions accurately (I am a lay person and not an expert in these matters) nonetheless even as a broad approximation, this is stark news. To give some perspective, the average UK footprint sits, as far as I can tell, at around 8 or 9 metric tons and the world wide average at around 4 or 5 metric tons.3 The typical annual output in Kenya is reported to be around 0.2 tons 4 and the global target to combat climate change is around 2 tons per capita.5

Under further analysis, of the 52 metric tons I probably emitted in 2018, a staggering 42 tons was attributed to flying. At 10 metric tons per annum the remainder means that I’m still overweight of course-I am after all one of the privileged 10%- but it’s a meaningful shift and an action I am able to take. So in January I will stop flying and I will surrender my once cherished BA Gold Card and the once esteemed position of being a ‘frequent flyer’.

How those of us amongst the 10% tackle the responsibility of being in such an exclusive and troubling ‘giant footprint club’ is a compelling question. There are quick solutions of course as one might expect. We can with relative ease for the most part-if we actually care to do so-calculate the emissions 6 that our high

mobility lives generate and then with a couple of simple clicks and a credit card offset the burden we have placed on the environment perhaps supporting a bit of tree planting, or buying some low power light bulbs for an African village, thereby cleverly and easily absolving us of any lasting sense of guilt and side-stepping any deeper consideration of the real problem. It’s all very convenient and very typically tailored for our busy, solution focused lives and we buy it. It’s a simple enough equation, like buying indulgences for catholic sins.

We know ourselves to be basically decent people (subjective intention being more important than observed action when it comes to self-assessment) and our work which we value along some subjective measure relating to a combination of importance and necessity we do diligently. We run hard. We accept that work in a globalised economy involves a lot of travel and see the truth of that fact echoed in the behaviours of so many of those around us. Sure we emit carbon in pursuit of important goals but we know we’re good people with good intentions and somehow well, that’s life, that’s business and with a couple of tax deductible clicks we are assured that any damage done can be mitigated, even leave us feeling fairly good about ourselves, with the sense that we are doing something really positive in the world, that we are indeed the decent people we know ourselves to be.

I am not condemning offset schemes per se, they are good and necessary but they are also an insufficient means to address the real and pressing depth of the trouble we are in. The issue is that I think in general they allow us to duck too easily the really difficult conversations we need to have now. We don’t need to simply offset anymore, we need to actually reduce our emissions both drastically and urgently if we are to pass anything like a future onto our grandchildren. This is the real issue. The difficulty is that this requires that very difficult confrontation and conversation with ourselves- as private citizens and as larger organisations and of course the high emissions, high mobility lifestyle we are locked into mitigates heavily against that.

Rather than expecting those with the least to plant trees for us to support our un-amended but questionable lifestyles it would at least be interesting if the physical burden of offset actually came back to us directly. We would learn a lot more about trees and tree planting; we would get dirty, get fitter, feel the consequences of our actions in our backs and shoulders and very probably choose more carefully.

There is a strange ritual which many will be familiar with that takes place every time a European city hopper flight lands at Heathrow (or indeed any city anywhere). It can tell us a lot about life in our hyper-urgent world because it is so commonplace and in a strange way so unremarkable despite its absurdity. The ritual begins when the plane taxis to the stand and the cabin crew are told to ‘turn doors to manual and cross-check’. The plane comes to a stop and you can feel the passengers brace, rather like horses at a racetrack. Phones are pinging of course all over the place as the world presses in again after the temporary respite of the flight but the ping everyone is waiting for is the one that tells us the captain has switched off the seatbelt sign. The ping comes and then the most remarkable thing happens, not occasionally, but always- every time. With an urgency reserved usually only for fires and other life and death escapes everyone is up out of their seats as one, grabbing bags, coats and so forth whilst fiddling with a text message in the rush to get off the plane and on with the day. No doubt people have things to do but it seems to me to be a remarkable and disproportionate phenomenon. Superficially polite, the rush and jostle nonetheless too often hides a current of quiet irritability and entitlement as people wait impatiently for the cabin door to open whilst asserting rights to their position in the departing queue occasionally looking witheringly as someone –maybe someone not ‘in the know’ about the hurry we are all in who fails to retrieve their bag quickly enough…a kind of bizarre passive aggression exists in the drama that is I suppose inevitable where the deeper human need for time and space is so utterly compromised in such a casual way and where the typical confusion about status and role is exacerbated  by a temporary class system based entirely on money.

This strikes me as a more or less unconscious example of hyper-urgency amongst apparently intelligent people who without thought or unable to stop themselves simply must be up and at the next thing, to be first out of the plane, first up the gangway, first to passport control, first to the car or the taxi or the office or home or the meeting…always pursuing the next thing, driven by the invisible hand that tells us that every second counts without realising that this blind pressing and rushing  towards a future that never arrives makes every second actually count for nothing. It’s a small thing perhaps, this ritual, but a meaningful indication that in some sense we are at the end of the road. Something here, the reactivity, seems to say so much about our society and our times. There is so much that we need to pay attention to today, so much we could do and yet we are so distracted and caught up with ourselves so harried  in our urgency to get to the next self-evidently important thing that we can’t see the wood for the trees.

I recently returned from the Amazon Rainforest 7 where I was living with a tribe close to the border of Brazil and Peru and whilst there I was invited by the village elder to undertake a ‘dieta’. The dieta is a process by which a person in the village becomes over time, fit for the role of either a shaman or a village leader and later a recognised elder. Within the tradition of the people I was with there are four levels of dieta, beginning with the most simple and rudimentary progressing over many years to a final year long ordeal of isolation and endurance that is tremendously challenging and hard. The invitation given to me was to experience the first dieta in its 30 day form so that I could gain a little understanding of the way the village prepares its people for significant roles within the community and more importantly so that I could improve my life.  I accepted the invitation.

Essentially the dieta requires the candidate to live a life that is restricted in the intake of foods, liquids and other things. The process is conducted according to traditional guidelines and customs of the tribe, focusing attention on the development of the whole person-the trichotmous human being, constituted of body, mind and spirit.

To engage in the dieta I had to agree to certain things. I could not drink water for 30 days, nor could I eat anything sweet including fruits or anything containing any form of sugar. I could not eat red meat, bread or dairy products. I was to live in the community rather than in isolation (which is a core feature of the later dietas) eating only small amounts of prescribed foods at certain times and consuming a particular drink made by a woman who had been assigned to be my guardian. I could not share food and had to bury what I could not eat because no person or animal could share my plate. Alongside restrictions in food, alcohol was not permitted, nor was any form of sexual intimacy. Mentally I was to remain quiet and calm; I was told to avoid distractions and noisy places, encouraged to be outside in the forest and in nature as much as possible and to reflect on certain songs and stories of the people that would act for me as guides. The dieta was opened with a night of prayers by the village elder followed by my drinking a specially prepared, sacred drink called kaysuma. Over the course of the 30 days I was instructed to meditate and pray regularly especially at dawn and dusk -using a plant resin called Sepa to send my prayers to the spirits as smoke and a tobacco based powder known as rapeh that would ground me and clarify my thoughts. My life in a sense was to become a prayer.

When I finished the dieta I had lost a stone in weight, felt mentally sharper than I could recall feeling in years and felt spiritually connected both in a transcendent (divine without) and immanent (divine within) sense. Perhaps more importantly the dieta process itself, this period of focus, attention and heightened awareness provoked me somehow to think deeply and inwardly raising a number of very fundamental and consequential questions in regard to my basic place on the earth, my work, the climatic and environmental crisis and my part in it.

By extension it really made me think about the problem of how people like me, among the most privileged 10% can actually start to determinedly address our own behaviours. Specifically I decided to confront behaviours which are still everywhere encouraged, underwritten even demanded by the highly complex assumptions of high mobility, with its high emissions lock in; I wondered about how we might be able to quickly re-think our position, recognising our dependency on such a complex high carbon lifestyle, how we might act immediately to mitigate the damage we have done and continue to do. I wondered about how we could possibly get free of the tangled web we had weaved for ourselves and within which we now find ourselves stuck?

Despite what some may think who have not worked in the corporate space, actually in very large part the offices and meeting rooms, the senior management teams, boards and executive committees are populated by good people-decent people with familiar lives working hard, who know personal difficulty, may have come from tough places, know about family crises, joys and sorrows and so forth. I know many excellent leaders in organisations around the world who are greatly skilled who care deeply about their work and who seek every day to make a positive impact on society. Of course affluence and power can change things a lot, subtly desensitizing people, skewing their image of the world with a false sense of entitlement and expectation. Of course there are bullies, tyrants, fools, uncontrolled corporate warriors in it only for themselves, supporting industries that continue to blindly deny what so many of us know to be true about both the climate and environment yet don’t seem willing or able to weigh the consequences of their actions. Nonetheless, the fact is that most organisations and their people want to do some good and imagine they do. What I realise today-something that confused me for a long time- is that the issue of good  people in an organisational context is a bit of a distraction when we think about the global problem of climate change. After some reflection I think there is a formula that goes something like this in which we discover at least part of the crux of the global crisis.

Good people-running very hard-in the wrong direction.

For years I have spent my time working with good people running hard. In my first career in the field of addictions I think I was working with essentially good people who had lost themselves often for good reasons. In recent years as a consultant it extended to good people addicted to running hard. My issue for years in the corporate field has been the hidden personal cost to leaders, leadership teams and the wider organisation when running hard would itself become addictive, driven, unconscious behaviour- when our human capacity to cope was overwhelmed by the VUCA world that organisations generally inhabit. I was dedicated to the development of self-aware leadership, better workplaces, places that could connect soul and role, workplaces that had some dignity. In truth I don’t think I ever really thought deeply of the relevance of the wider organisations footprint in the world; what it actually did; when I did glimpse at it, I basically offset it. I was too busy rescuing individuals, I wanted to help people feel better, to be good and do well. Now I realise that alongside these things, which remain important to me, there is a more pressing question relating to what the organisation is actually contributing to and what the individuals’ role is in this. I had discovered the urgent concern of wrong direction. This insight has been pivotal for me.

In the forest, I was struck again and again by my own insignificance. The forest is large in every conceivable sense of the word and during my time there it right sized me thoroughly giving me a remarkable chance to take a long hard look at myself and the assumptions by which I have lived my life. I recall that I engaged deeply with a question about what it was about my particular life and work that I felt gave me special dispensation- more than others-to use up a disproportionate amount of our remaining shared global carbon budget as I so chose without any serious reflection on the consequences or indeed on the purpose of the work I was doing. It turned out to be a case in point, my first, of a good person running hard, in the wrong direction. I had no measure for the cost/benefit of my work that would include in any way our shared global crisis but I turned a blind eye based on that clever hidden assumption I mentioned earlier- that I knew myself to be a good person who would not seek to do harm and who saw himself as doing good. I was up against that old problem of intention and action again-call it the ‘say-do index’.  In the end I had to conclude that neither I nor my work was ultimately ‘special’ and that I had no right to continue to act unreflectively, delivering work that too often actually ensured that companies remained caught in a model of work that was basically BAU.

Asking tough questions. It’s a good place to begin. We know we are good people mostly. We know we run hard. What about the direction of travel? It would be interesting if more individuals, organisations, consultancies, facilitators, business schools and so on who fly to or fly in, masses of people all the time to hone and develop their business skills, their company vision or strategy, to gain this or that diploma or degree, were to re-think the notion of special dispensation in relation to direction of travel. Does what you do (not say) accord with, for example, the SDGs as a basic tenet?  Is the work you are doing, the stuff you are producing, designing, building, teaching, authorising, actually helping in a meaningful sense, to address the biggest single crisis that humanity has ever faced or is it really more old stuff, more BAU that you offset because you’re a good person running hard? What story do you tell about this, to yourself, to others?

An inconvenient truth indeed.

The dieta showed me a lot about what a choice to restrict ones consumption can bring. What seems and is actually restricting and at times a lot of hard work is ultimately liberating because it makes choice making-in an endless sea of choices- easier. The dieta was a particular practice bound in ritual, supported by others including elders that came at a precise moment in my own life. It addressed my trichotmous nature supporting me to experience directly the fact that I am a subtle and complex mix of body, mind and spirit- a process that made it very different from a purely physical diet. This realisation affected me deeply. We are in reality physical, mental and spiritual beings and the loss of the interplay of this knowledge and wisdom lies I believe at the heart of the crisis we are in-a crisis ultimately of terrible and grievous separation. That we seek ways to recover a sense of our wholeness- call it our personal and shared integrity-matters greatly as we move forwards today and it has implications for how we care about our physical health, how we use our mental capacity for discernment, for contemplation, reflection and so forth, and how we define our spiritual lives.

One consequence of hyper-urgent living is emotional numbness which might be understood as something like an inability to feel or decipher one’s actual feelings about anything. In a numb state we may be emotional but it’s an odd sort of emotionality that trades real feeling, say grief or sorrow for a kind of sentimentality, useful anger for bickering, yelling and cynicism, joy of life for the pleasures of distraction, immediate highs, packaged experiences and quick fixes. There is numbness deep in the city hopper aeroplane ritual.

If it is true that 10% of the global population generates 50% of the total carbon emissions, in the name of equality it demands that we who have look at ourselves and that we take action now. We have to learn to feel again.The least well off will be first to feel the brunt of our failure to choose differently but future generations much closer to home will not escape. We will not hear either of them so it must be a conscious choice that we make before sanctions force the issue, by which time it will be too late. We each need to find a creative meaningful way to take our part in the struggle we are in for the future of the human project. It really doesn’t start anywhere else other than now and here with each of us. Someone somewhere makes a placard and with no hope at all, walks out and stands in front of a local government building populated by disinterested officials’ campaigning alone every day with the same clear message. That’s how things actually happen, that’s how the say-do index finally shifts. If they do it enough, with enough persistence and courage, unimaginable things it would seem, are still possible.

Footnotes/Links

  1. https://www-cdn.oxfam.org/s3fs-public/file_attachments/mb-extreme-carbon-inequality-021215-en.pdf
  2. https://www.carbonfootprint.com/calculator.aspx
  3. ibid
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/datablog/2009/sep/02/carbon-emissions-per-person-capita
  5. https://timeforchange.org/CO2-emissions-by-country

“100% renewable, decarbonisation, climate neutrality and a 2 ton personal carbon budget pledge by mid-century, linked with ambitious action in the short-term, are the only kinds of serious long-term targets which will give us a reasonable chance of keeping below 2 degrees and drive the innovation and investment necessary for us to get there.” Mark Kenber CEO Climate Group

  1. https://www.carbonfootprint.com/calculator.aspx
  2. One of my last international flights. I will miss my friends and family in the village very much.

Helpful Video Links

Because its not a Drill: Jem Bendell

We are Striking to Disrupt the System: Greta Thunberg on Democracy Now

https://www.democracynow.org/2019/9/11/greta_thunberg_swedish_activist_climate_crisis

Scientists Warning at the Foresight Group EU Commission.Stuart Scott and Alison Green

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