Tending the Flame Retreat | 24-28 April 2015

Interested developing your personal responses to the professional challenges of sustainability? Join me and Dave Key and Margaret Kerr of Natural Change Ltd for Tending the Flame.

tending the flame
When we asked people in a survey how optimistic they felt about climate change and sustainability, the majority said they experienced optimism coexisting with pessimism.

A deeper understanding of the state of the world can motivate us to make more of a difference, but it can also make it more difficult to be optimistic about the future. This can lead to anxiety, stress, burnout and in some cases serious mental health issues. Not good for us and our families, not good for our colleagues and employers – not good for the planet.

Engaging with clients and colleagues can be difficult when we carry this burden of knowledge:

  • should we share our concerns, and if so, can we do this in ways that are helpful and sensitive?
  • or should we paint a positive picture of the future, and if so, can we do this with honesty and integrity if we feel differently in our heart of hearts?

Tending the Flame is an opportunity to take time to reflect and explore these issues in a safe space with the support of like minded peers and skilled facilitators. The retreat will be based around individual reflection and group-work outdoors in the beautiful wild landscape of Glen Prosen.

Read all about it, and register, here…

Even climate change experts and activists are in denial about climate change

Another month, another important U.N. climate change conference. However, even if a deal can be reached – despite the urgent need for it – there is no guarantee that global greenhouse gas emissions will actually be reduced significantly and that dangerous climate change can be averted. Psychoanalytic theory provides disturbing insight into why this may be so – and it is all to do with the split psychological makeup of those who work at the forefront of climate science, policy and activism.

Interesting article by Aanka Batta and Steffen Böhm in Washington Post.

Who’s really going with the flow?

In the 70s, Gary Snyder – the ‘poet laureate’ of Deep Ecology – was working in California Governor Jerry Brown’s administration. One day Brown, exasperated, asked

“Gary, why is it that, whatever the issue, you are always going against the flow?”

Gary replied:

“Jerry what you call ‘the flow’ is just a 16,000 year eddy, I’m going with the actual flow!”

[Source: various versions of this floating around the web]

Optimism, Pessimism & Hope: Personal responses to the professional challenges of sustainability


Optimism, Pessimism & Hope: Personal responses to the professional challenges of sustainability presents the results of our survey of nearly 800 people working on environmental sustainability, social justice and related issues.

Over half believed things will get much worse for people and planet with little prospect of improvement within their lifetime; forty percent said a transition to a sustainable and just world is likely, but that this will involve major disruption and hardship.

Where does this leave us?

Hopes and fears

For the majority of people in the survey, social justice and environmental issues form a significant part of their personal and professional lives. Most people were deeply concerned about these and sought to live their lives in ways that would create positive change in our social and environmental situation.


About one third of people agreed that a transition to an environmentally sustainable and socially just world was possible within their lifetime. The majority however, felt that this was unlikely. Major disruption to our present way of life was seen as inevitable, regardless of the scale and rate of change.

Lacking power to engage political and public bodies was seen as a major root of pessimism. Pessimism itself was seen as part of a vicious circle, in which denial of our social and environmental situation becomes a way of coping with it.

Optimism was largely based on hope for radical social and psychological change. In general pessimism fostered deeper denial while optimism led to hope about the future. Most people described optimism and pessimism co-existing and described a wide variety of ways to hold this paradox in themselves.

Working together, having hope for future generations and being committed to making things better were all strong narrative themes. Keeping perspective and working on different scales (for example, local, regional and national) were referred to as important. Acting from present moment awareness was also a recurrent theme. Openness to feelings and emotions and being able to express them were both evident in the thematic and in the language many respondents used in their commentary generally.

There was a feeling that the public at large were in denial about social justice and environmental issues. However, this was also seen as a way for people to cope effectively with fear, allowing them to continue to function in their daily lives. Economic and financial concerns were regarded as significant in reducing public willingness to act.

Cultural barriers to change, especially the unquestioned focus on economic growth, were seen as very significant. Respondents suggested that courage and leadership was essential from those in situations of agency. Large-scale cultural change was seen as more important than personal change and as a way of facilitating greater change at a personal level.

A change in worldview was recognised across the narrative as essential. The media’s role was seen as important in the generation and maintenance of world views.


There was an approximate balance between people who thought they suffered from burn-out and those that did not. About a quarter of respondents were neutral. This suggests that around 200 of the people surveyed felt they were suffering from burn-out.

To what extent do you agree with the statement ‘I am suffering from burn out?’

To what extent do you agree with the statement ‘I am suffering from burn out?’
In some cases, burnout resulted in people disengaging from the social justice and environmental movements. In others it led to internal conflicts filled with doubt and guilt. Recovering from burnout was achieved in a diversity of ways.

Sharing and caring

There was an exact split between people who shared their fears quite openly with others and those that chose to do so only in situations that felt ‘safe’. For example, where others would sympathise with their fears.


Some people felt it was important to share feelings publicly, while others thought it was better to keep a public face of optimism. There was conflict about choosing to share feeling or not and in which contexts to do so. There was also conflict about self-care being neglected in favour of caring for others.

Where do we go from here?

We haven’t analysed the official public narratives of relevant international agencies, governments and NGOs, however our impression is that while they highlight the challenges of climate change etc, they imply these can be overcome, and that the transition will be smooth and painless.

If this impression is correct, it stands in direct contrast to the majority view in this survey — that major disruption is inevitable. If the views of survey participants are typical, it suggests that the official views of many organisations may be radically different from the views of the people working on these issues — and perhaps even for these very organisations.

This, in tandem with the other points above, raises a number of related questions:

  • What are the implications for people working on these issues when their personal views may be very different from those of the organisations (perhaps their employers) with responsibility for addressing them?
  • How can they find the right balance between being honest about their fears for the future and conveying positive and motivating messages to the organisations and communities they work with?
  • If denial of the implications of our situation is both a coping strategy and holds back the chance of addressing it effectively, how do we move forward?
  • How can people working and campaigning on these issues best look after themselves and support each other?

In response to the findings of this survey, we’ve decided to host a retreat in April 2015 to provide a space to explore how we can live and work with the burden of what we know about the state of the world: Tending the Flame.

Amazing to be cited in a UN report — but also sad…

Email from Robin this morning:

Your fame spreads folks… isn’t it in equal measure amazing, rewarding and sad that this April 2014 United Nations report quotes East Ayrshire work started over 10 years ago and that other than your intervention which attributed some metric to this with SROI there is internationally such a dearth of similar evaluations.

In 2004 Robin set up a ground breaking, award winning programme in East Ayrshire which continues to provide children with healthy, unprocessed, local and organic school meals.

Robin commissioned my colleague Sheila and I to estimate the ‘social return on investment’ of this project. The high quality school meals cost a bit more than ‘normal’ school meals, but were better for the children, staff, local business and the environment in many different ways. We estimated how much these benefits were worth in financial terms.

We’re all chuffed that the project and our findings are cited with approval in a briefing by Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur to the UN on the right to food:

In East Ayrshire (Scotland), school food reform has produced a SROI index of above 6, meaning that ‘for every £1 invested in the initiative, over £6 of value is created in economic, social, environmental and other outcomes’.

Such multiplier effects cannot be ignored in assessing the costs of targeted procurement programmes. [These] costs may be justified taking into account the full range of benefits, including higher incomes and improved market skills for small-scale food producers, as well as against the multiplier effects on the local economy.

But as Robin says, it’s terribly disappointing that our work hasn’t been superceded by other more recent, and more in depth, assessments of the benefits of public bodies making purchasing decisions on the basis of long term social and environmental wellbeing. As Mr De Schutter says:

Governments have few sources of leverage over increasingly globalized food systems — but public procurement is one of them. When sourcing food for schools, hospitals and public administrations, Governments have a rare opportunity to support more nutritious diets and more sustainable food systems in one fell swoop.

O. Lancaster and S. Durie, The Social Return on Investment of Food for Life School Meals in East Ayrshire, Edinburgh, Footprint Consulting Limited, 2008

Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, The Power of Procurement: Public Purchasing in the Service of Realizing the Right to Food, Report to the UN Human Rights Council, 2014

A day in eternity

image source

I cross the threshold before dawn, walk through the half light to lie by the waters’ edge. Close my eyes, open my ears.

The sea laps on the beach, rustling sand and pebbles. In… and the wave sighs on the sand as it turns and dies. Out… a rattle as the very last of the water draws back, just as a next wave comes in… The ocean’s breaths are longer than mine. In… and… out… And again… and again…

I press deeper into the hollow out of the rising wind. The wave touches the rock now the tide is higher. Slap… sigh… and rattle…. Slap… sigh… and rattle….

Ever since water first appeared on the earth the waves have rolled. Eroding rocks before life existed, creating the sand to form the sandstone. Did they sigh, slap, rattle and roar if no creature was there to hear them?

Below me the wave now crashes onto the rocks, tosses up spray and wets my face. The sea gurgles back between the rocks. The next wave crashes, salt on my lips, and gurgle. And again… and again…

Drizzle turns to rain and still the waves throw themselves at the shore. I’m getting cold; I have no watch, eat my sandwiches: are they lunch or elevenses?

I watch the waves now. Still they come, gathering speed as each nears the shore. How far has that wave come? Was it created by a storm in the Atlantic, running on between the islands, bouncing off cliffs, refracting around headlands? If I follow that wave back across the face of the ocean, how far would I travel — in distance, in time?

Did the first hunter gatherer in this land sit here, listening to the sea, watching the endless procession of waves? How many countless people — girl, boy, man, woman — have heard the same sounds, seen the same patterns on the face of waters?

The wind calms, the clouds pass and the evening sun sets the sea a-glisten. I feel the warmth on my body. After I’m gone, still the waves will come, slap… sigh… rattle… And again… and again…

I focus my gaze on the future stretching out across the sea. Generations upon generations will hear the same sounds, see the same waves. And when the time of the humans comes to end… still the waves will come. Slap… sigh… rattle… And again… and again…

In the dusk I retrace my steps, across the moor, down the track and back across the threshold.

I’ve spent a day in eternity.

And I’m at ease.

Pathways to Sustainability: Different paths or different destinations?

I’ve been working and living ‘for sustainability’ for years, so why is all the attention that the Forum on Natural Capital in Edinburgh is getting making me so uneasy?

Many years ago I wrote a guide to sustainability for businesses, called The Triple Bottom Line (that was cutting edge in those days). In it, I made many of the same arguments that I imagine are being promoted at the Forum on Natural Capital: the dependence of humans, and therefore business, on the natural world, and that the use and protection of these resources needs to be accounted for in decision making.

Copies of the guide were sent, if I remember correctly, to the directors of the top 100 companies in Scotland. I suspect in most cases it went straight in the bin. Now, many of those same companies and others from around the world are attending this event, and the First Minister of Scotland making much the same points in his keynote. Judging by the tweets and news coverage there’s great enthusiasm.

The success of the forum is in some ways a dream come true for my former self. So why the sinking feeling? Among friends and colleagues I’m well known for seeing both sides of an argument, for seeking to find, not necessarily compromise, but ways forward that respect differences. But increasingly I’m coming to the view that it’s time to come off my fence and start walking.

The sustainability compass

I’ve often used the metaphor of the compass to discuss the possible paths to sustainability:

The compass points to ‘sustainability’ and if different definitions of, and approaches to, sustainability are somewhere between the red lines — north west and north east — I’m fairly happy. We may argue about what angle those red lines should be, but broadly we’re travelling in the same direction.

Our compass becomes more accurate as we approach our goal — our understanding of sustainability evolves, and we develop new approaches — and we can correct the course.

Because it’s impossible to know now what sustainability will look like — exactly which of the several promising paths we should follow.

I’m now questioning this metaphor — or rather thinking that it’s more complicated, and revealing, than I had realised.

In the fog

Link to source

Imagine you’re lost, you’re in the fog on featureless moorland. No sun to guide you, no clear valleys or hills, no river, just endless rolling moorland. You find an old compass; much of the lettering is worn; paint on the needle has flaked off; and the needle no longer swings freely on its pivot. But it’s good enough: you can make out North, which is your destination, and with a tap every now and then the needle swings to point you to home.

You set off full of hope. Because of obstacles along the way and the sticky needle your path is rather a zig zag, but you are heading for home. But eventually, aching, footsore and bewildered you enter an unknown landscape, a landscape of devastation and doom. This is not home. You sit in despair staring at the compass that has let you down. And then it strikes you — the needle, having lost its paint, is completely symmetrical. You must have been travelling south, away from your destination — you’ve been guided by the wrong end of the needle.

Two destinations?

I wonder if this is the point I am at on my journey: the crystallisation of instincts and evidence that while there are many paths to sustainability, there are not one, but two destinations — and they are polar opposites, exactly like north and south.

What those two destinations are, I’m not sure. But I think there are two options:

North = Unsustainbility; South = Sustainability

or perhaps:

North = a form of ‘environmental sustainability’ that is technocratic, anti-democratic and social inequitable; South = a sustainability where people and the rest of the natural world flourish.

Making sense

I should admit now that I’m writing this post in the heat of the moment, as I try to get these ideas down to make sense of them. But I’m putting them out here in the hope of getting some feedback that will help me develop my ideas, and add flesh to these bones by way of evidence and arguments.

Which values? Whose system?

So, what are the characteristics of these two destinations? I think there are at least two fundamental, but related, distinctions:

  • The dominant human values that are being appealed to and reinforced: ‘greater than self values’ such as care for others and the natural world; or ‘self enhancement values’ such as the pursuit of power, status and wealth as ends in themselves.
  • Whether the economic system is under democratic control and used carefully along side other policy instruments in the service of people and nature; or whether the economic system continues to become increasingly unaccountable, with all other concerns subordinate to ensuring endless growth that is logically required to sustain the current economic model.

I’ll not expand these points at the moment, but to explore them further: on values, go to Common Cause, and on the economic arguments you could start at the Nature Not For Sale, the counter conference to the Forum on Natural Capital.

Who’s on which path? And where are they going?

There are several implications and questions that arise for me from re-thinking my metaphor of the ‘compass of sustainability’; those foremost in my mind at the moment are:

  • If there really are two, mutually exclusive destinations, we need to understand which paths lead to which destination. It might not always be obvious.
  • That those people following the path to what I believe to be ‘unsustainability’ or ‘unjust-environmental-sustainability’ may well share my passion and commitment to tackling the problems we undoubtedly face.
  • We should try and understand each others assumptions and goals.
  • But most importantly, heading towards north in an attempt to ‘engage’ people and organisations, when we need to head ‘south’, while it may lead to some common ground in the short term, may well make it increasingly difficult to turn them, and oneself, around and head towards the opposite pole.

And no I don’t, off hand, have ‘the answer’ to re-orienting global society towards this ‘southern sustainability’. But to mix another metaphor, I do wonder whether we’re in a hole and should stop digging — and work out where we really want to go?

Ecosystems and the stories we tell ourselves

Iain Woodhouse, a colleague at the University of Edinburgh, has produced a charming short video to explain the concept of ecosystem services to his son:

Take a look at the video, it makes some great points in only 90 seconds.

Go on, watch it now, before you read on. (It does have sound!)

In its way it’s a charming story and makes clear something that all too often is ignored or confused.

But what I find really interesting are the stories that underlies this short video. One of them is story of money:

And the problem is, because everyone gets [the goods and services of ecosystems] for free, we take it for granted. Now the [biosphere] is going a little bit wonky…

And the economic framing continues.

But what other stories could the video have picked up? Perhaps:

And the problem is, because we haven’t agreed how to share [the goods and services of ecosystems] fairly, the [biosphere] is going a little bit wonky…


And the problem is, because we’ve been ignoring where [the goods and services of ecosystems come from], we haven’t been looking after the land and sea properly. Now the [biosphere] is going a little bit wonky…


And the problem is, because we’ve been persuaded to buy so much stuff we don’t really need, the [biosphere] can’t cope and is going a little bit wonky…

Each of these stories, would I think, lead us to think about the problem and how we might solve it in very different ways.

To be fair, Iain raises the issue of economics in his blog post about the video; and I think he and Sandy have done a great job! Sandy does the voiceover and signs off with:

I hope [the biosphere] is still working when I grow up.

So do I Sandy, so do I.

Do you need a new bike? 7bn reasons why technology wont fix the environment

image source

Bikes are perhaps one of the most powerful icons of the green movement — low tech, low carbon, sociable and more. Along with wind turbines bikes frequently appear on book covers and illustrations of a future, better, more sustainable world.

the inevitable bike is top right (the book)

So, more bikes must be good?

This infographic doing the rounds recently on Twitter reminded me just how untrue this is:


Source: Charting Adventure

This isn’t about the bike, or any particular technology, it’s about a culture and mind set where if one is good, more is better; where we are bombarded daily with images and messages to be dissatisfied with what we have, to endlessly want new, more, better.

With over 7 billion of us, now more than ever, we need to develop a culture where we find joy in doing rather having, where, for example, cycling is about the pleasure of useful exercise, the fresh air on our skin, and quick and easy local transport — not about more bikes with ‘new’ features and the latest kit, the thrill of which rarely lasts beyond the unwrapping.

In 1719 a family in Oman carved over the door of their house:

Honour is in content­ment, Shame is in greed

Tackling technology without finding contentment may slow the pace of environmental damage, but does nothing to tackle its root causes.