I was fascinated to read a letter in support of the Extinction Rebellion last week, expressing support, as business people, for the aims of XR. After 24 years focused on voluntary business efforts on sustainable development, last year I abandoned that to explore different approaches to our climate disaster. That included supporting people putting together XR. Part of that was being a lead signatory of the letter from academics last October that declared our support for the forthcoming rebellion. So, I believe in the utility of expressing public support as professionals in addition to what we can do as volunteers in the range of activities needed in a social movement. But the negative reaction from some to the letter from businesses brings to light some issues that need to be explored at this critical time, so I am writing this open letter.
I see that the letter was signed mostly by people who work in companies that are proactive on environmental issues. So that means, like me, you have been following global sustainability issues closely, and must be feeling a similar anxiety at how bad things are becoming. The confirmation from the IPCC that we are heading for imminent disaster for the human race, as well as the rest of life on Earth, really helped bring that home. Suddenly, the lives of our own families seem at risk. Then there is the deeper pain we may feel as we sense that our own choices were mistaken. We believed that we had time and techniques to reform this capitalist system towards something sustainable. It was a wonderful idea at the time, and even got its swansong with international agreement of sustainable development goals. I have experienced myself how difficult it is for that sense of personal efficacy to fall apart.
The frustration we feel at the predicament we are in means we can feel great solidarity and respect for people giving up their freedom on the streets of London to bring national and global attention to our climate emergency. I felt such an honour to have helped a bit and spoken to launch the international rebellion on April 15th.
As some of you may now have heard, the letter of support for XR from business leaders, and its suggestion of some sort of “XR Business” initiative, caused concern amongst many volunteers and convenors of XR, both in the UK and internationally. While some might think this was simply a case of uninformed negative views of businesses or business executives, that would be mistaken. There is something to be learned from the concern, which may help any potential future support from businesses, banks, celebrities or anyone with perceived power in the current unsustainable system.
Perhaps some of you have already joined in XR individually as meeting organisers, arrestables, legal observers, or the other many roles that exist in the movement. But in writing a supportive letter that identified your companies and your role as business people, you are not simply joining in as equals. You are deploying your status as people in the private sector to help add weight to this activism. We did the same as academics when we wrote that letter of support. In the case of business leaders, this raises some questions about the role of business in our current predicament and how that will need to change. While organisations and individuals from the private sector have major roles to play in responding to climate change, and in helping us cope with the massive disruptions ahead, it is important they help not hinder the power of citizens coming together for radical change.
So I am going to suggest some ideas that could be recognised by business people if considering support for Extinction Rebellion. These are only relevant after you confirm you understand what XR stands for. The group has declared a peaceful rebellion, which means inviting non-violent law-breaking as a way of rejecting the legitimacy of governments and the system they are part of. So in declaring support, you are recognising that our climate emergency means that our current political and economic system is broken and in need of transformation. After accepting that, then the following five ideas could be useful to hear from business leaders. If you may excuse the presumptuousness, I will have a go at writing it as a letter from you to XR:
Dear XR activists, as business leaders we recognise the following:
First, we failed. Although we tried to make businesses and financial institutions more sustainable from the inside, it has not stopped carbon emissions rising or biodiversity loss increasing. We work in the most funded and dynamic sector of society but couldn’t achieve the change we hoped for.
Second, we were wrong. We believed that working with existing systems of power, within market systems, was the way to deliver positive change at scale. While we do not know what could have been achieved by efforts going into other approaches towards climate stability and biodiversity conservation, we told people our approach was more pragmatic and scalable.
Third, we will learn. We believed that being business professionals gave us credibility in addressing issues of climate and biodiversity. Now we realise that some of the assumptions and attitudes we have learned in the private sector may not be that useful, so we are ready to learn from others.
Fourth, citizens need more influence than us. Although as individual executives we think we have been useful participants in dialogues with communities and governments, overall, the effect has been to prioritise the interests of profit-making over other concerns. Because businesses can fund initiatives, lobbyists and so on, as a sector we have had unfair influence over our societies. As this has coincided with the predicament we are in, it is understandable to conclude this unfair influence is at fault. Therefore, citizens and scientists need more influence than us in future on how to drawdown and cut carbon, as well as how to manage the difficulties ahead.
Fifth, we must be made to behave. Although it is difficult for some of us to say this, it is the natural implication of where we have got to now facing catastrophic climate change. Praising individual companies doing useful things was never enough. We need state intervention to redesign the economy so we can more swiftly decarbonise and also prepare for the disruptions ahead. That means corporate support for changes in the law, perhaps even introducing a law on ecocide by corporations.
We hope that by expressing these realisations, we can find ways for our knowledge and resources to help humanity respond to our climate emergency. That may mean supporting you from a distance as organisations, but closely as individuals. Or it may mean finding ways to support you more actively with our organisations. Perhaps we can find ways to hold space open for your activism and ideas without any influence from the private sector. We will certainly work to ensure other companies do not get in your way.
Concerned executives, deeply impressed by your sacrifice.
I do not speak for XR in presenting these suggestions. However, I am aware of the sentiment of many of the lead organisers and volunteers and believe that if business executives wish to support or engage as representatives of companies, then it will help to acknowledge the need for massive change.
The XR leaders I have worked with all recognise that the difficulties we face require a great coming together of people from all walks of life and all corners of the world. They deliberately avoid blaming people or sectors, as they know we need to foster a culture of forgiveness and love, so we do not make matters worse as an unstable climate ruins our normal life. It’s an approach that I share, and what we are promoting in the Deep Adaptation Forum, which is focused on enabling readiness for likely societal collapse.
Like me, the XR leadership does not believe that one group or ideology has all the answers. To help get things started, with Rabbi Newman, I shared some ideas for the kinds of economic reforms we will need to help us decarbonise and prepare for disruption, on the XR Blog. While we will need more ideas to be shared and trialled, the options for responding to the climate emergency must not be driven by those with more time and money to shape dialogues, policies and initiatives.
I understand how deeply challenging this issue is so thank you for reading.
Professor of Sustainability Leadership
Former Director of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS)