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  • Nicoleta Talpes

Climate Change Champions Spotlight - interview with Ed Gillespie

The ecological education platform is a partner of the Climate Change Summit, the first and largest event in Central and Eastern Europe dedicated to climate change, and brings to the public's attention a series of interviews with key guests of the Climate Change Summit, an editorial extension called Climate Change Champions Spotlight.

In the Spotlight: interview with Ed Gillespie, Inspirational Keynote Speaker, Writer, Poet and Futurist

Your book, 'Only Planet - A Flight-free adventure around the World,' highlighted the interconnected nature of global challenges. How can this interconnectedness inform our approach to addressing climate change in the future?

Great question! For me this interconnectedness and indeed ‘interdependence’ is absolutely critical. The horrendous brutal conflict in Ukraine has highlighted this in terrifying ways as we have seen with the abrupt cessation of Russian oil and gas flows. This has led to energy price rises and cost of living crises, as well as the impacts of grain exports via the Black Sea and the hunger problems the whole world feels when a ‘bread basket’ of the planet like Ukraine has it’s agriculture, harvests and exports disrupted.

It shows how we really are all in this together and that we cannot either as individuals or even as nations insulate and cut ourselves off from conflicts and disruptions that may be created or worsened by climate change. The atmosphere and global weather that it creates are obviously a shared phenomenon – we all live under the same sky – and the way we are able to come together to protect that planetary commons will be fundamental.

There’s a famous old English poet John Donne who wrote: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” by which he described our ultimate indivisibility, our inextricable interconnections, our shared fates and destinies. We really are all in this together whether we believe it, like it or behave like it or not! People often talk about ‘living in the REAL world’ to dismiss environmentalists, implying that the entirely CONSTRUCTED world of economics and finance is somehow more ‘real’, despite its implicit projection, than the manifestly more important, supposedly subordinate world of ecological limits, productivity and resilience. This is the world we actually rely on for our prosperity and wellbeing, a fact that we dismiss at our mutual peril.

With your focus on helping organizations understand the post-pandemic world, what key lessons should businesses and institutions take from the pandemic experience to become more sustainable and resilient in the face of climate challenges?

Again another great question! We like to think of the pandemic as an aberration. A once in a generation phenomenon. Something that can never happen again. Yet a new zoonotic disease (one that jumps species from animals to humans) emerges every 3-4 months, and has increased as we have put more pressure on wild ecological spaces and intensified farming practices and the intimacy of humans and animals. Covid-19 was a relatively benign example, despite millions of deaths worldwide due to its infectiousness, but other zoonotic viruses like Zika, HIV, SARS etc. have had much higher contraction mortality rates. We may not be so ‘lucky’ next time.

Part of the post-pandemic world has been about the move to hybrid working, which has made office based staff largely happier and healthier, has enabled people to spend more time with their families, perhaps a double-edged sword?! And has also reduced the impact of commuting. It has shown us we don’t need so many big offices that are empty half the time, so they can be repurposed. It has shown us we don’t always need to travel to be ‘in person’ at every meeting, especially abroad, it has challenged the whole notion of ‘hypermobility’. We all have the right to travel. What we don’t have is the entitlement to go wherever we want, however often we want at the expense of everyone and everything else.

Another aspect of the pandemic experience is a deeper connection to nature. Lockdown enabled many of us to appreciate more the wild outside our windows. So I think if there were a few main ideas for organizations to learn it would be to expect the unexpected, to connect more deeply to nature, do more with less and work flexibly.

You've been involved in co-presenting podcasts like 'The Great Humbling' and 'Jon Richardson and the Futurenauts.' How can media, including podcasts, play a role in shaping public awareness and action on climate issues?

I am obviously a particular fan of podcasts! I think the media plays a crucial role, and is as a whole I fear failing to fulfil its responsibilities in communicating the climate crisis, not making links between extreme weather and climate change for example. In the UK our media still ‘celebrates’ a heatwave like it’s a blessing, with pictures of people cavorting on beaches, rather than raising legitimate concerns of worrying temperature changes. I also worry about the simplistic sound-bite’ culture of bite-size information that fails to communicate subtlety or nuance or complexity and tends towards binary polarity. For example for years we battled against ‘media balance’ that would put climate advocates against climate deniers, even when the science was unequivocal! By all means let’s debate our response to the crisis, but questioning the crisis itself was reckless.

None of us can afford for climate change action to become part of a ‘culture war’, pitting one side against the other from entrenched positions, leaving the bulk of the population in some kind of argumentative ‘no man’s land’.

One of the reasons I am such a huge fan of podcasts is both the duration and the intimacy. In a long-form format of an hour or so you can really dig into the detail of a topic and have enough space and time to explore it in creative and imaginative ways, represent different perspectives and give the listener enough rich information to form their own opinions. It is also a huge gift for someone to ‘lend you their ears’ for long periods of time, I’ve produced 100’s of hours of content and it’s touching to know there are people out there who have listened to it all (and enjoyed at least some of it!). That’s a responsibility for me when you have that opportunity to talk directly into someone’s ear for hours at a time. You want to make it count! Its in stark contrast to snatching at a news headline for a few seconds.

As an entrepreneur, you worked on influential sustainability initiatives. What do you believe are the most effective strategies for businesses to transition towards more sustainable practices and achieve their climate action goals?

Start from what needs to be done. We are in a Net Zero transition world. 2050 is the goal, but the work starts NOW. We have an interim target of a 50% reduction in absolute, not relative, carbon emissions by 2030 – that’s the immediate target. Every organization should be using it’s collective wisdom to sketch out what it will have to look like in a net zero world. How will its business have to change? Is it about radicalizing efficiency? Or is it about developing entirely new products and services? How will it navigate the transformation?

If you are a senior person in an organization this is your job and your ultimate responsibility. It is for you to help lead this process. What you do next on climate change may well be the most important and impactful thing you do in your whole career!

Without these inclusive visions, a sort of in-house corporate ‘Citizens Assembly’ we will not have the collective buy-in and imagination and resilience to deliver what will likely be some pretty tricky challenges and changes.

You mentioned pursuing opportunities in responsible leadership and purpose-led disruptive start-up businesses. Could you share any specific examples of such initiatives that you find particularly promising in driving climate action forward?

I work with the Forward Institute on responsible leadership which works with 40+ of the UK’s biggest institutions, private, public and third sector on an inter-disciplinary programme. I facilitate a ‘Discussion Group’ of 12 diverse senior people from different backgrounds and organizations over the course of the 18 month programme. We hopefully help enable the ‘creative collisions’ between influential people who would not normally meet, that allows new ideas, projects and system change initiatives to emerge. One example is bringing together a major UK bank, the largest provider of agricultural finance, and a big supermarket, the largest purchaser of UK agricultural produce, to explore what they could both do in partnership to directly incentivize regenerative agriculture.

I am also passionate about sustainable start-up businesses and have invested in many over the years, with mixed success! After my flight-free adventure around the world one of my more successful investments was in a company called Loco2 who were creating a platform to sell integrated European rail tickets, so you could book a journey from Berlin to Barcelona in one transaction. We wanted to make it as easy and simple to book a European train as a European plane. We sold this to French Rail company SNCF in 2017. I am also involved in another promising business which capture methane from organic waste on farms and converts it into tractor fuel, with huge climate benefits. Solutions like this which turn waste into a resource, remove a powerful greenhouse gas and displace fossil fuel use are really smart innovations that are also commercially very successful.

As we look ahead to the future of climate action, what role do you see innovation and technology playing in addressing climate challenges, and what potential disruptions or breakthroughs are you excited about in this regard?

I am certainly NOT a techno-utopian who believes technology has all the answers! One of the things we always say on the Futurenauts podcast is that ‘technology is a question, not an answer’ – it asks you to think carefully about how and whether to deploy it. So my relationship to technology is ambiguous.

On the one hand I find the innovations in wind, solar and emerging renewable energy technologies like geothermal and OTEC that I have witnessed over the last 25 years of my career hugely exciting, and I like the emerging systemic thinking over how electric vehicles can be integrated into this mix as batteries. That way an EV can store excess renewable energy when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, and we have a very different energy system being born, one in which people and power relationships look very different to the ones we have today which are extractive, exploitative and linear. Tomorrow they could be two-way, decentralized and based on mutual exchange and sharing. The question the technology is asking us is ‘how much do we wish to share the means of energy generation’ in the future?

On the other hand I am also very keen on humility, simplicity and back to basics approaches. We have an enormous tendency to over-complicate things and for technology and modernity generally to only end up solving problems that modernity and technology have they themselves created! The best mode of transport is still the humble bicycle (or walking) especially in cities. The best tomato is still the one that is ripe and warm from the sunshine you pick in your own garden or on your balcony. The most meaningful and important things in life – love, laughter and connection with wild and wonderful nature – are still free, and hopefully always will be!

So I’m a pragmatic realist who still likes getting their hands dirty in the soil, loves the slow, sensuous seduction of overland travel, and is a hopeless romantic at heart!

About Ed Gillespie

Ed Gillespie is lead facilitator at the Forward Institute, where he works on responsible leadership with 40 of the UK’s biggest institutions, Director of Greenpeace UK, Trustee of Ecolibrium and Chief Futurist at the Global Destination Sustainability Movement. He is also actively involved in a number of pioneering ethical businesses as a director or investor, and has held speeches all over the world, giving dozens of talks a year from Hong Kong to Bratislava, Korea to Auckland.

Ed has been heard by every kind of audience, from people in the UN and in national governments, to people working for multinational corporations and global associations. Gillespie is the author of Only Planet – a Flight-Free Adventure Around the World, a book about his circumnavigation of the globe without getting on a plane. He also co-presents two leading podcasts, The Great Humbling with Dougald Hine, and Jon Richardson and the Futurenauts – Book of Revelations with comedian Jon Richardson and fellow reluctant futurist Mark Stevenson.

The ecological education platform is a partner of this initiative and brings to the public's attention a series of interviews with key guests of the Climate Change Summit, an editorial extension called Climate Change Champions Spotlight. Interview conducted by Nicoleta Talpeș, Guerrilla Verde.

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