We will either change or change will be forced upon us


Porto Business School have launched a new quarterly magazine – NORTE.AR – to explore the most relevant and pressing issues of our time. The first edition explores our collective future after the pandemic across four pillars: Purpose, People, Planet, Profit. Rob Symington has contributed to the opening publication with an article (in Portuguese) for the Planet section which have posted here in English.

We will either change or change will be forced upon us

I remember the exact moment I became an environmentalist.

I was travelling back from London, where I was working, to my home in Porto, and I bought a book called ‘The Hot Topic - How to Tackle Global Warming and Still Keep the Lights on’. Published in 2008, it was co-written by Sir David King, world-renowned scientist and, at the time, the UK Government's Chief Scientific Adviser. The book explained how the pollution of the atmosphere by fossil fuel emissions arising from human activity was causing a serious destabilisation of the earth’s climate and that our current trajectory would likely lead to widespread devastation, loss of life, and dramatic disruption to our way of life, all within the lifetimes of people alive today.

The threat of climate change can seem abstract. However, the more I have read, the more I have understood that this issue has very real, very serious implications. In my case – my family produces wine – we rely on a stable climate and healthy environment to farm our vines. We have been doing this since 1882. We have a long-term perspective; we think in terms of generations.

When I look at what the future holds for my children – within the context of the climate crisis – it is only natural that I would seek to do whatever I can to avoid the devastating future that the experts are predicting.

The coronavirus pandemic currently disrupting the economies, livelihoods and lives around the world is devastating and has very few positives. It is, of course, the top priority for governments, health services, and communities everywhere. However, one of the side-effects of the enforced slowdown in much of the economy is an opportunity to reflect, collectively, on our way of life, on the challenges we face as a human community and on the world we want to build when we emerge from lockdown.

Speaking for myself, I am reflecting on whether I am really doing whatever I can to safeguard the future that my children will inherit, for I believe nothing is more important. Within my own sphere of influence, as an individual, as a shareholder – what more can I do?

What must I do?

Back in 2008 when I read The Hot Topic I was concerned, but not yet fully alarmed. I reasoned that if all the world’s governments and their advisors were aware of the scale of the climate change threat, then we were on the right path towards global agreements to reduce emissions.

Unfortunately, despite annual Climate Change Conferences organised by the UN and the widely acclaimed Paris Agreement in 2015, yearly emissions have continued to rise. In 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that “limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” Specifically, “Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050.”

We are currently not on track to keep warming below 2°C – which will lead to a much less hospitable and stable world – let alone 1.5°C.

The more I have paid attention to this issue, the more I have understood that the environmental crisis engulfing the planet is the issue of our time. And the actions that we take - or fail to take - will define my life, my career, and those of everyone I know and love.

And it’s not just climate change. Our way of life – which involves extracting raw materials and natural resources from the earth, processing them into something for human consumption, and being left with waste products – is literally unsustainable. The earth’s natural systems that we rely on for our existence, are showing signs that they cannot sustain our behaviour and are beginning to break down.

In 2017, a research paper titled "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice" was published in the Bioscience journal. It was signed by more than 20,000 scientists from around the world – representing the largest ever formal support for a journal article.

The paper is an update to the original version published in 1992 by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The first notice started by saying, "human beings and the natural world are on a collision course", before describing trends such as pollution and depletion of freshwater sources, overfishing, deforestation, plummeting wildlife populations, as well as unsustainable rises in greenhouse gas emissions, and global temperatures.

We, collectively... humans, are an extremely intelligent species. We are smart. We cooperate to achieve things that individually would be impossible. But are we wise?

The science is clear. We know what we are doing to the natural systems that sustain us. Can we now find it within ourselves to adapt our own systems – be they political, industrial, economic, social or cultural – to meet the scale of the challenge posed by the environmental crisis? And, if the answer is yes, then what can the current moment – an enforced slowdown amidst a global pandemic – bring us?

Last week, John Simpson, a much-respected journalist who has worked at the BBC for 53 years, asked, “when the Corona crisis is over, we’ll remember there’s something infinitely worse & more destructive hanging over us: the threat to our planet.  If we can lock down for a disease, can we not work together to do what’s necessary to save ourselves from the coming disaster?” It is the right question.

The response to the coronavirus crisis has also shown that when we are faced with a massive threat, we can make rapid and far-reaching changes to our way of life to address it. The difficulty is that it is infinitely easier (if not obligatory) for governments to make far-reaching changes to our way of life to avert widespread loss of life in the present moment – than it is to make deliberate changes to the economy in order to prevent what is likely to be far greater harm, 10, 20 or 30 years from now.

However, it is in times of crisis that ideas that were previously politically impossible or considered unworkable, become increasingly obvious, if not essential. In an article published on 5th April 2020 titled “Virus lays bare the frailty of the social contract”, the Financial Times wrote that “radical reforms — reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades — will need to be put on the table. Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy.” It is pretty remarkable to read this in a newspaper that typically defends free markets and the power of business to solve problems.

The FT editor Lionel Barber recently said: “The liberal capitalist model has delivered peace, prosperity and technological progress for the past 50 years, dramatically reducing poverty and raising living standards throughout the world. But, in the decade since the global financial crisis, the model has come under strain, particularly the focus on maximising profits and shareholder value. These principles of good business are necessary but not sufficient. It’s time for a reset.”

So, in the context of ensuring that we don’t destroy the natural systems that we rely on for our existences, what kind of policies might we now consider? What does a reset look like?

Kate Raworth, an economist and Senior Research Associate at Oxford University, has spearheaded the idea of a new economic mindset needed to address the 21st century’s social and ecological challenges. In her book, Doughnut Economics, she explains the ned for us to establish social and planetary boundaries – essentially a dashboard to ensure that human activity isn’t on a path to self-destruction.

On the social front she lists the foundations of a healthy, just and prosperous society – education, health, food, water, energy, networks, housing, gender equality, social equity, political voice, peace & justice, and income & work. In environmental terms she recommends nine key indicators (climate change, ozone layer depletion, air pollution, biodiversity loss, land conversion, freshwater withdrawals, nitrogen & phosphorous loading, chemical pollution and ocean acidification) and plots whether we are in ‘overshoot’ on any of them – i.e. whether human activity is taking us beyond the planet’s carrying capacity and causing unsustainable levels of environmental degradation.

Her powerful doughnut infographic clearly shows that the old story for how to progress human civilisation, whilst stunningly effective, is no longer sufficient. We need a new story, one with a sane understanding of the limits of human activity. I believe this is the kind of concept that, if adopted by policymakers, would see us design a healthier, more resilient, less destructive economy.

These are not just nice ideas.

Last week the city of Amsterdam formally adopted the doughnut model as the starting point for public policy decisions. “I think it can help us overcome the effects of the crisis”, said Amsterdam’s deputy mayor, Marieke van Doorninck, “so that we don’t keep on going on in the same structures as we used to.”

António Guterres, the Portuguese UN Secretary General, recently said “we simply cannot return to where we were before Covid-19 struck, with societies unnecessarily vulnerable to crisis. Now is the time to redouble our efforts to build more inclusive and sustainable economies and societies that are more resilient in the face of pandemics, climate change and other global challenges. The recovery must lead to a different economy.”

In his Easter Letter Pope Francis wrote that “it might be time to consider a universal basic wage” – a measure that the Spanish government (alongside other governments) is currently actively considering.

We are capable of doing what is needed when we must.

There is widespread consensus that the way things currently work, isn’t working well enough for enough people or for the planet. Change is possible, it is happening, and – the science is clear – if we do not change, quickly, then change will be forced on us by the accelerating breakdown of the earth’s life-supporting systems, the systems that underpin every aspect of our lives today.

I spent the first 10 years of my career in the UK.

I first worked as a business consultant helping massive organisations become more efficient, but I became disillusioned that the companies at the heart of the economy were not focusing on the big challenges of our time. The environmental crisis and climate change were considered as fringe issues, to be dealt with by the Corporate Social Responsibility team. After that, I left to start a mission-led business called Escape the City, which helps people find meaningful work with responsible companies that are actively seeking to be part of the solution.

I am relieved to say, that in the years since I left the corporate world and immersed myself in startups trying to make things better, business culture has changed dramatically. Yes we still need to change our systems, our rules and our economies to take planetary boundaries into account – but first we need to assert our values, we need a culture that says “enough is enough” – and from this we can ask ourselves what innovations and what regulations are needed to build a truly sustainable world.

Although we haven’t yet changed our destructive trajectory, I am relieved that this culture change is now rapidly happening throughout the economy. Fossil fuel investments are increasingly considered as socially unacceptable. Politicians (with a few unfortunate exceptions) and business leaders accept that we are facing a massive environmental threat which requires global cooperation. Social enterprise used to be a niche term for a for-profit organisation that solved a social or environmental problem – today all credible organisations know that they need to be social enterprises in some form.

When I returned to work in my family business in 2017, I was concerned that I may be joining quite a traditional organisation that didn’t “get it”. I needn’t have worried. I entered a company where my colleagues and my family fully understood the scale of the challenge and, in fact, had long been working on initiatives to protect biodiversity, support the local community, reduce our carbon emissions, and adapt to climate change in the vineyard. We know that we cannot thrive as a business and as a team unless the environment, climate and communities where we work are healthy.

In 2019 we were the first wine company in Portugal to become a certified B Corporation, joining a global movement of companies committed to meeting the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance and responsible, ethical business practices. We have changed our legal articles to oblige company directors to put social and environmental considerations on the same level as financial ones. We have joined International Wineries for Climate Action, which obliges us to meet science-based CO2 reduction targets over the coming years. We are long-term partners of Rewilding Portugal, an organisation pioneering an ambitious conservation strategy in the Foz Côa valley.

However, we know that we cannot do this alone – 90% of our carbon emissions are in our supply chain, not under our direct control and we operate within a wider economy that is designed to maximise growth – even at the expense of environmental stability. We are determined to be part of the solution, but we know that the solution is bigger than us. We understand that excessive consumption and the pursuit of growth ‘at any cost’ are part of the problem… and we are committed to being a force for moderation, for sustainability, for resilience and for the protection of the beautiful natural environment which we inherited and which we want our children to benefit from.

I started this article by asking what more can we do to avoid environmental destruction and contribute to the construction of a truly sustainable world. I believe the causes of our current predicament are systemic – they are designed into the economy – and they are not going to be resolved by you or I swapping lightbulbs, eating less meat, or driving electric. If the causes are systemic then the solutions must also come from the reform of those systems – led by government in partnership with business.

What can each of us can do, within our sphere of activity and influence?

I believe we must each try to be a positive force for cultural change, to be someone who says “there must be a better way of doing things” and “our world is worth protecting and it is our generation, together, who must now do our utmost to protect it.” We must be brave in speaking out. We must vote for politicians who take the planetary crisis seriously and who have credible, viable, bold plans. We must buy from companies who are pioneering a new economy that operates within the limits of the earths’ systems. We must be a force for ambitious change within our organisations – be it as business owners, founders or employees – using our voices to demand change and our talents to design solutions to our shared problems.

And, if the break in ‘business-as-usual’ caused by coronavirus, contributes to a collective reassessment of what truly matters and an opening for bold new social and environmental policies – supported by a broad alliance of government and business – then something truly worthwhile will have come out of all the pain, loss and disruption that our communities are living through.

Rob Symington - Porto, April 2020

Published 2020-05-04
© Symington Family Estates

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