Roscoe Lectures: Sarah Parkin

Lecture by Sarah Parkin

(Sarah Parkin is the Director of Forum for the Future and a trustee of Friends of the Earth)

As we enter Millennium Number Three, it’s really a very good opportunity to actually pause in the very hectic pace at which most of us lead our lives in order to just reflect about where we are in terms, in this case, of citizenship.

I’d like to explore the ideas of responsible, global citizenship in the context of time and space and ourselves. How do we position ourselves in time and space? I really think about it from a temporal, physical and a spiritual point of view – to think about the notion of citizenship of the earth and to argue that it’s essential to understand that if we are going to develop a notion of modern citizenship that’s going to serve us in both an inspirational and a very practical sense in the next century, in the next millennium.

We are at the end of the twentieth century, we are just about to go into the twenty-first century and if you reflect in centuries, it’s quite interesting. If you think what’s happened in the last hundred years, here we are, the 6.3 billion citizens of the planet, and we reflect on a range of things. People in this room might reflect on two world wars, they might reflect on the assassination of President Kennedy, on man landing on the moon, on the Cold War, the collapse of communism and, technologically speaking, silicon chips, PCs, Walkmans, pacemakers, the splitting of the atom and of the fact that tamagotchis (we’ve got rid of the real ones and we’ve got electronic ones now) and also, from my perspective, two people who have influenced my life a lot, the birth and the death of John Lennon, a Liverpool son, and Yehudi Menuhin this century.

But if you go back to 1900, and think what would people in 1900 have reflected back on over the last century, you find we’ve got the first use of the word “socialism”, George Stephenson’s Rocket on the Liverpool-Manchester line, the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery in which women must have played a significant role, zips were invented, telephones were invented and, indeed, Coca Cola was invented, if we think technologically. All of that’s happened in the last two hundred years, which is just no time at all. To think of how we have progressed in those two hundred year!

Here we are, thinking in millennia. It’s quite a different sort of time thinking. Most of us here, in this room, perhaps know somebody who is a hundred years old. But you think of the millennia. In that sort of time-scale, empires have got time to rise and fall. In those times, golden ages can become dark ages and vice versa. A thousand years ago there were 265 million people on this planet, it is thought, and that’s not even double the number who were around when Jesus Christ was born. It was thought there were about 170 million people around there. So you can see that those citizens on the earth have gone in the last two thousand years from 170 million to 6,300 million and are anticipated in fifty years time to be joined by a lot more. That’s quite an important reason for thinking about citizenship at this time in the Millennium in the motion of the citizens of the Earth.

Yet, a thousand years ago, Western Christendom was actually described in my history book as emerging from a beleaguered and insignificant backwater of Europe. That’s how it was described in my history book. But most people will have had not the foggiest idea that a millennium of any sort was taking place or might have subscribed to a completely different faith that operated on a completely different time-scale. I think this year Buddha will be celebrating his birthday 2,563 years ago, Mohammed 1,430. Despite that, in the last two thousand years and especially more recently, the Christian faith has not only dominated the global calendar but it’s shaped its major institutions. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are not known protagonists of Buddhist Economics. NATO, I think we can realise, doesn’t have a lot to do with the Gandhian approach to non-violent conflict resolution. The OECD, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which is the twenty-odd richest countries of the world, despite the fact that they have less than a quarter of the world’s citizens, generate three-quarters of the world’s trade and they use half the world’s energy and only Turkey and Japan are not predominantly Christian nations.

So it’s quite appropriate, as we step into the third millennium, to ask, ‘Have we made a good fist of things so far?’ And I say ‘we’ with emphasis because there’s been a trend towards “armchair punditry”, what somebody called the “Parker Knoll” theory of life, which is explained when you are reclining back with your feet up and your slippers on. We tend to point our accusing fingers at politicians, at bureaucrats, at captains of industry, at banks, churches, seats of learning, newspaper editors – all the people who we claim run society on our behalf. But we are not separate from them. By electing them (or not even participating in an election), by financing them with our taxes, by buying their products, by studying or worshipping at their knees or reading their books and their papers, we actually make ourselves responsible for the world that they create.

One of the things I did a while ago was to look at some of the visionary work that had been done with young people and with various community groups who had engaged in the Agenda 21 process. I don’t know if everybody knows what that is, but it was the idea that out of the Earth Summit that was held in 1992 there would be a local agenda where local citizens actually addressed how they wanted their communities to be. I looked at the lists that had been coming out of this, particularly what young people hope and fear for the future (in the assumption that they’ve got slightly less baggage than people like me and the rabid environmentalists that tend to get involved in Local Agenda 21) and I boiled that list down and came up with a shortlist of six things that people say they really want. They want environmental ecological security and, high up in the mist, they want trust in justice and government systems that they have around them. They want appropriate technology; it doesn’t mean that they are against high technology, but they want appropriate technology that’s not threatening. They want satisfying work; they want to be able to fulfil their potential. It’s always astonished me that all of us have got multiple talents and skills and yet we have to train either as a nurse, a plumber or a lawyer and then do that for the whole of our life, yet we’ve got this great range of interests and aptitudes that the way we run things at the moment doesn’t allow us to exploit. Yet there was a clear thrust from people that they wanted satisfying work. They want to live, unsurprisingly, in safe and supportive communities and they actually also want to belong to a community where there is a shared sense of purpose and a common set of values.

That’s all come out of research that’s been done in the last decade but I would like to say that I reckon that’s what our family and all [?] probably wanted too, if they had had an opportunity to think about it. I think it’s what we’ve always wanted. What’s gone wrong is that we actually have not yet worked out a stable way of getting it. We’re finding it a real struggle to get what are fairly basic and widespread ideas of what people would like to have as they way they run their lives. Instead, as David has said already, we seem to have got what Hermann Daly, an American environmental economist, has described as a “full world”. Scientists have been trying to calculate how much of the environment we actually consume for our, currently, 6.3 billion people to live, to go about our business and do the things that we do. The estimate is a bit wobbly but it’s round about plus or minus 10% or so, it’s round about 40% of the biological product of the land every year we take and use in our economy. That may sound as if we’ve got a leeway (because that 40% doesn’t sound that much, there’s obviously 60% left) but, if you think that that’s the easiest 40% we’ve taken, and also if we’re going to have a sustainable environment have to be sure that other species can share that biological product as well (and I’ll come back to that) and also that each year of our take for our human economy, an increasing percentage of it which is ostensibly a renewable resource, becomes non-renewable. So we are actually diminishing the amount of renewable resources that are available to us, and David spoke of the growth of the deserts and so on, and the loss of fertile top-soils because of deforestation and very, very ill-advised agricultural techniques.

There’s another reason why we know that 40% is possibly too much, because when I’ve seen the feedback of doing this on us, on people, the evidence can be seen in health, whether it’s locally (increased asthma in cities, which is due not just to traffic but to other pollution agents as well), hormone replicating substances which are causing quite a dramatic decrease in male fertility in many countries, and the furious amount of research going on, believe me, to try and prove that this is all wrong, and each one reinforces the correctness of the previous one, and then you think that the pesticides we produce here in Europe are found in the snows of the Arctic and the Antarctic, you realise that this is not just a local problem; it’s a global one. We can see the effect on our economy, and it’s not just what we have to spend in cleaning up polluted land from past industrial activities, but we are now seeing huge bills coming in for quite unexpected and increasingly frequent extremes of climate. The insurance companies, the big re-insurance companies who are the final stop for the insurance industry, are writing reports that sound like radical tracts from the Green Party. They are so concerned because so many claims for billions of dollars each year are being put in. Two years ago, on my insurance policy for my house, which comes in your premium that you’ve got to pay, there was an additional 30% that was added as “extra premium” for what they called “natural events”; the subsidence from drought, the consequences of flooding. It’s feeding down not just on the global economy, and the insurance industry globally is as large as the fossil fuel industry (about $1.3 trillion industry globally), but also right down to my domestic insurance the consequences of these quite extraordinary and increasingly frequent extreme climatic events.

We are now seeing in security policy an increasing number of Foreign Secretaries actually making speeches and starting to look at policy to deal with the fact that the impact of environmental degradation on people is becoming a security issue. Western Europe, one of the most densely populated regions of the world, actually is hugely dependent on imports but it also generates far more toxic waste than we’ve got licence facilities for dealing with it. It’s going somewhere, either in Europe or somewhere else, nobody’s quite sure. It was this sort of evidence, far more than my outstanding campaigning skills over the last few years, that led to the Earth Summit in 1992 which looked at the conflict there was between maintaining a life-supporting environment and the aspiration of human development. That was where “sustainable development” was coined, the worst soundbite that any possible group of people could be lumbered with, but “sustainable” just means something that’s got the capacity for continuance. So we’re looking at human development, human progress, the growth of civilisation, the right sort of citizenships and states (or however we want to describe the place we live) that give satisfaction and well-being but do not destroy the capacity of our environment to support life.

Now although we, the people in this room, in Liverpool, in Britain and in Europe, live in a very sophisticated civilisation in many technological senses, the actual basic ingredients of citizenship are not available to the majority of people on Earth. A fifth of the world’s population is hungry, two billion people are described by the World Bank as “water insecure”. Even in our rich countries in the OECD, we still put about 40% of our sewage raw into the sea. There’s a widening gap between the richest and the poorest and I don’t think, here in Liverpool, I have to underline that; you can see it happening in the UK, you can see it happening globally. There are some parts of the UK that are poorer than some of the poor areas of Greece, looking at some of the figures that have been coming in.

When I was in Tanzania, I was visiting hospitals there and just looking at what people do there and what resources they have to care for people who are sick. You can trust that, with what’s happening in the training hospital in Liverpool, the contrast is monumental. Here in the City of Learning, I know that learning, using the latest electronic means, is absolutely fantastic. It’s certainly got the potential to make access people to education and learning of all sorts and there are supposed to be about eight books per head of people in the world (about fifty billion books in the world), but we still have to remember that a quarter of the world’s population cannot read or write. When I was in Tanzania, I took a lot of pens, just ordinary biros, because an enormous number of children can’t even do basic learning because they don’t have even pens to write with or paper to write on. Can we really call ourselves any sort of citizen when so many people are actually being denied those really basic ingredients of any civilisation? What are we going to do?

I think one of things we have to do is reformulate our perceptions of our own responsibilities, to take that side of the whole balance of citizenship between rights and responsibilities. Where do we fit in on this Earth? Where do we belong? Where is home? What are our obligations to place where we are and to each other? I do agree a hundred percent with the emphasis on responsibility because my experience, especially in other countries and indeed here, is that rights are only a mechanism for delivering them. The only mechanism that is sustainable is that it is our responsibility to do it. If you are in society where there is a responsibility to deliver rights, then you have them. If there isn’t, then you don’t. I do believe that it’s an intrinsic part of our humanity to do right by others and our place. Maybe it’s just a bit of the evolutionary memory that we’ve lost, or not so much lost, we’ve been separated from it, because from the way we’ve constructed our notions of progress and what is right, we’ve had to bury those basic instincts. If you look at all the MORI polls and all the work that’s been done into looking at values in young children, you find that the majority of them have no difficulty in understanding instinctively what is right and what is wrong. It’s just that we seem to operate in a society that doesn’t reward it at the moment. I’ll come back to that.

When I talk about relocating our notion of citizenship in place, I want to explain what I mean through my own experience because I was hugely typical 1960’s teenager, as my parents tell me frequently. My prime concern was monitoring the transition between the Age of Jazz and the Age of the Beatles. I have been told by my parents who had to sacrifice their youth in the War, and therefore I had a responsibility to have a good time. I took this responsibility really seriously. We were all being told we’d never had it so good, there was no unemployment so it didn’t matter if you fooled around at university and took an extra year because jobs weren’t a problem. At that time, I was studying to be a nurse. We learned how the human body works. We learned the most extraordinary fact that left me breathless in the classroom; when learning about the body being made up mostly of water, and we are all molecules and chemicals, the fact was that each six years or so, every single molecule in our body has changed. So, if you were to turn to your wife after seven years of marriage and say, “I’m not the person you married,” you’d be absolutely right. So if the murderer in prison said, after seven years of sentence, “You have to release me – I didn’t do it.” Technically they are right. This really blew my mind, because it’s not just the food we eat that’s our relationship with the environment. We are in a permanent engagement with a very chemical, physical and biological sense with the environment. Horrendous! So that relationship we’ve lost. If there are people in this room who know that fact , you have a huge responsibility to tell at least five people a day so that they are understanding that we are literally “of our environment”, there is not a separation.

Another things that happened was that I saw the Earth from the Moon, for the first time. I think it was an amazing experience for many people. It was a huge experience for me to see it because you could see that that was it; you could see the edges of it. There was, to all intents and purposes, nowhere else to go except the Earth. And it was beautiful – that was also something that was quite extraordinary, to see it at that size and that it was beautiful and that at a cellular size, the world is beautiful too. This had a tremendous effect on me. Subsequently we have learned an awful lot more about how the Earth works (cycles of carbon and oxygen) and I’ve been fascinated by the latest research that suggests that micro-organisms in the sea are actually used on crests of the wave in order to catch the winds and to go up into clouds. It’s been known for a long time (the relationship between plankton and algae and sea and climate), but all of this I thought was completely amazing. It made me think that really the symbol of WWF shouldn’t be a panda, which has taken a rather difficult evolutionary path and only breeds and is on heat once a week and is a solitary animal who doesn’t like meeting other pandas. You have to think that perhaps the panda should be replaced by a mug of blue-green algae, as the organism that has probably got a much bigger role to play in the sustainability of life on earth.

Recently there’s been hardly any research done into the ecology, the relationship between gases and micro-organisms and climate in the oceans. We’ve spent a fortune on research into nuclear technologies, genetic technologies, the sort of tiny building-blocks of life, but we haven’t looked at the way they all fit together and how the whole system works.

But, in Edinburgh, a contemporary of our friend William Roscoe, a certain James Hutton who was a physician, a farmer, a philosopher, was in 1789 describing the whole Earth as one organism. He said that it’s a bit like the way the body works; that the actual purpose of the Earth was life itself. Now that was at a time when everybody was looking down the microscope. Those ideas have trickled down, they were not popular, but now we are realising that people who had those insights then were right, just as William Roscoe was terribly brave in actually knowing that however difficult it was and whatever personal consequences it had for him, slavery was not right. Now, at last, we’ve got to the stage with the climate scientists where we are really starting to understand not only the incredible power of our world but also the fragility of the mechanisms and the way that we are intervening.

The other thing that happened to me during this time was that I realised how disconnected our society, our politics, the economics and everything, how divorced they were from the biological realities of the way the world worked and the way we fitted into it. We were of it, rather than separate from it. The physical fact that any use of energy and raw materials would cause pollution. There was a paper at the beginning of the 1970s, written by, ironically, a NASA space scientist, on the thermodynamics of pollution. He did this wonderful paper which showed that, if you put energy and raw materials in at one end and you change it in some way, you get pollution at the other end. Of course, engineers know that, but I also know that engineers think of it in a mechanical sense; they don’t actually relate it to the way life works.

I do a lot of work with engineers who read very diligently through my CV, and I say; listen, you guys have got some very important knowledge that you need to actually bring to the way we understand how the world works. If you change energy and raw materials you get pollution, even if you make a product, it eventually becomes waste and pollution. So the only way to do anything about that is to think about how much energy and raw materials you use. We operate in an economy based on a theory which is designed to assume there is no connection between the exchange of money (and things like that) and the use of raw materials and the consequences of producing pollution. It is assumed that the raw materials and the energies are dirt cheap or, in some cases, free, or they can be had with complete lack of concern of what it does to people (where they are taken out of the Earth) and that we’ve got, to all intents and purposes, a completely free environment waste treatment service. It’s the most sophisticated treatment service, the natural world, and our economy assumes that it’s free. The best example is that every person in this room, in the sort of society we live in, will use each year about a ton of stuff (this has all come out of the work that’s been done the waste industry) of which about half is food and the other half is the other things: our clothes, our cars, the chairs we sit in. In order for us to go out and buy that, we mobilise ten tons of stuff. So for every ton we pay for, another ten tons is shifted from water, rocks, etc., which we don’t pay for. The bills for that are picked up elsewhere; in the health of people in other countries and in the consequences to the environment.

If you go and talk to energy and material scientists and you say, “Gosh, got this problem, we would like very much to lead a comfortable life of high quality for every body and yet here we are with this evidence that we can’t go on consuming the energy and raw materials as we are doing because the consequences are so serious to the environment.” They say, “What, 90% improvement in efficiency and use of energy and materials? Technically, no problem. There is no difficulty in being much more thrifty in the way we use energy and raw materials. We are profligate because we’ve not thought about it before. We haven’t had to think about it before. We just used what we wanted to use and it wasn’t a problem.” Slowly but surely we are beginning to see this beginning to filter through to the way we think about our economy.

This government is beginning to put in place some environmental taxes, the idea of making the price right. So that when you buy something or when you do something, the cost you pay for doing it actually brings on board the real cost of its impact on other people and on the environment. We’ve seen some leading companies now beginning to think, because companies that survive are the ones that can think what the market will be like twenty years from now and position themselves. One of the partners that the Forum works with is a company called Interface, which is one of Europe’s biggest carpet manufacturers, and they’ve said that twenty years from now people will be leasing floor covering because really, when you think about it, we don’t really want to own the carpet. What we want is warm, attractive floor covering and so they would take responsibility for the carpet. They will lease us the warm floor covering and when it wears out or when we move they will take it back and lease us another one. So we would rent it rather than buy it. And they would take responsibility for closing the loop so that there is absolutely minimum input of energy and raw materials in carpets. They would make old carpets the resource that provides new ones. There are other companies beginning to think of that too. It’s quite true that we don’t really want to own a washing machine that goes rusty and falls apart in five years’ time but we would like to have the capacity to get our clothes clean and, if somebody else provided us with that … We don’t really want energy; what we want is heat, light and power and companies like BP are beginning to rethink the way they position themselves because they know they are going to have to think differently about the way they deliver resources to our economy because we, whether out of choice or because we are forced to choose (and I think the whole point about citizenship is that it’s the former rather than the latter) to lead our lives, buy things, do things in a way that is hugely more resource and energy efficient.

Why aren’t we doing this very fast? Well, there is a little problem. Politicians actually do want to deliver what people want. We want them to deliver what we want. But they are structurally incapable of doing it because if you want an essential democracy, with the sort of citizenship that you’ve been hearing about in this lecture series, that protects the environment, it is completely inimical to motion that you’ve got a global market which absolutely rewards profligacy, competition for money (it doesn’t reward competition for improved social policy, treating people better, not employing children). It actually rewards people who have lost that connection between the way we go about our lives. Economists say it’s about the market’s value-free. That’s why it is completely indiscriminate, but if we leave it like that and always go for the cheapest option economically, it will not deliver the quality and standards we want for our environment and the way we run our societies and how we relate to each other.

I agree 100% with Peter Toyne that the sort of citizenship we are talking about here has to be learnt because, as a species, and again this is something I reflected on in Tanzania, we are actually tribal. We are not used to living cheek-by-jowl with everybody. Western Europe is one of the most densely populated places in the world. Since forever, successful human relationships have depended on a range of negotiated compromises to achieve the maximum of the common objectives that we want – objectives that tolerate, but which are not unwarrantably derailed by legitimate minority points of view. Such continuing negotiations about common objectives and about what are legitimate minority points of view are the stuff of families. They are the stuff of communities. They are the stuff of the way in which international bodies work. They are absolutely the stuff of citizenship; the whole idea that it’s a dynamic process and it’s not static.

In the UK, the grossly inadequate democratic arrangements that we’ve had over the last goodness knows how long and the cult of the selfish individual as the economic actor worth considering has actually removed this sort of debate from public life for too long. We should have a culture continually debating those areas between what’s right and wrong, what’s good and bad and what we want to do together and how we actually tolerate others. That has to be part and parcel of the things that we learn. We do not learn that, and it’s great that this is going to be brought into schools. I just hope it will be extended from a very traditional approach to citizenship as just being the state. I want it enlarged to be the Earth. If we top them into a new millennium, I think there’s some really exciting opportunities for making up for all this lost time in the past of genuinely fulfilling and fair civilisation (what does that mean? Ed.)

First, it’s because of the civic energy of people. I do not think it’s dead. It may be dozing, and people have understandably disengaged from, particularly, local democratic participation. But that, in Britain, above all the other Western European countries has resulted in a kaleidoscope of socially entrepreneurial groups. A survey suggested that for every hundred thousand people in Britain, there are three hundred of these groups. They deliver about 400,000 full-time jobs which is about 2% of the workforce. They contribute over £12 billion to GNP. We don’t hear about this in the statistics but there are all these tiny groups and they have been well documented and written about. About 4 million people engage in some voluntary activity at least once a month (we’ve heard a lot about it here). Birmingham looked at their socially entrepreneurial groups and found that for every £1 the council put in, they actually mobilised £4 of matching funding for what they were doing. They were actually delivering on the ground things like working with old people, delivering the sort of services that are not being delivered by our fund- and power-parched local authorities. So it’s known that if this government doesn’t delay too much the whole process of this democratisation that is starting in Scotland (we’ve got our elections for the Parliament on 6th May) but it really moves quite fast to the English region, the opportunities to channel that local energy that’s there into sustainable regeneration is huge. One of the (can’t make it out! Ed.) is a project on local economic regeneration and there’s loads of things happening but it’s really handicapped by the fact that there isn’t the regional, local empowerment energy to do this. People have stopped their innovation and entrepreneurism because they actually haven’t got what they need in terms of local finance, local partnerships to do it, but the ideas are there.

Secondly, there’s an urgent need to do something to slow and reverse environmental degradation. It actually offers a very powerful focus for what we need to do in complicated times. It was interesting at the end of the Cold War when the dust settled and people realised that the whole notion that there were communists and us, and this had actually shaped the way we saw how the world worked. When the dust had settled and we realised crikey, we’ve won, ideologically speaking, people realised that the glue, the common set of values that kept society together had been dissolving all this time. They were left a little bit adrift; people were not quite sure what to do. This morning, on Thought for the Day, the speaker (I don’t know who it was because I tuned it a little bit after it had started) was pointing out that the churches of all denominations had got a lot to answer for for actually not making themselves relevant to people’s lives, to the issues of today (there are exceptions, of course), and it is quite clear as we move into the Millennium that they are not leading this whole idea of what the next millennium needs in terms of common purposes and values from the Church’s point of view; they are just tagging along a bit, which is regrettable. I think the environment, also, has got a very positive role to play at a diplomatic level. If you look at diplomatic theory, you find that when you are trying to bring two sides together, people who’ve perhaps got a great history of violence against each other, who are racially different, who have got a whole track record of hatred between them, the whole theory of diplomacy is you find one piece of common ground that they have. Then you move together on that common ground and you work out from there. What could be more powerful than the fact that it doesn’t matter how many members of my family you may have killed, it doesn’t matter what the colour of your skin or religion or history is, we all need exactly the same standard of life-supporting environment? What could be a better way of bringing people together at an international level than peace-building and, in the example of Israel and Palestine, of that actually happening (of Israelis and Palestinians coming together because they share a common water resource and if they don’t collaborate neither can survive)? And here in Liverpool we know about disaffected children who have had an enormous amount of difficult circumstances, completely alienated and disaffected and there’s a lot of publicity about how awful it was that these kids were being taken off to do white-water rafting in France, yet it was the experience, carefully constructed, of how they got to understand how the natural world works and what they had to do to raft down a river, to put up a tent, to cook a meal; all of those intimate relationships with the environment was part and parcel of them recovering their self-esteem and confidence in the fact that they could affect their own future.

The backing of this Millennium has, as I suggested, seen some pretty monstrous experiments with “isms”, whether it was Marxism, Thatcherism, socialism, fascism or whatever. All of them have denied critical parts of our humanity and all of them have totally disregarded the environment. None is adequate for our purposes or the challenges of environmental sustainability and human development moving forward together rather than in conflict, as they are at the moment. Achieving our potential as individuals and improving the quality of life for people without damaging the capacity of our environment to support life; I don’t think this is an illusion either. This is what happened, what Roscoe and Smith and, I think, our family in (can’t make it out! Ed.) thought about too.

So if we can re-link our idea of citizenship, not in what I would call the johnny-come-lately concept of city or state but deeply, deeply in our physical and spiritual relationship with responsibility to the planet, then I think we will be able to see not only our responsibility to each other and future generations, but also the satisfaction and pleasure there is to be had in fulfilling those responsibilities.

Thank you for listening.