Weatherbys Private Bank hosts an exclusive conference, Creating the Future, with climate change at the top of the agenda, reports Alec Marsh
Somewhat unorthodox, but certainly eye-catching: the first speaker at Weatherbys Private Bank’s Creating the Future conference this week compared tackling climate change to sex.
‘We need to make the green future a participation virus through collaboration,’ the ‘futurologist’ Mark Stevenson – author of An Optimist’s Tour of the Future – declared with a slide behind him showing the cover of Alex Comfort’s 1970s hit, The Joy of Sex. In other words, if we make change something we enjoy doing, we’re likely to do a lot more of it, he said championing ‘bottom-up diverse collaboration’, the best current example of which might well be the Extinction Rebellion protests.
How we bridge the generation divide and whether democracy can achieve it was the focus of Cambridge politics professor and podcast impresario David Runciman’s talk next. The generation divide is at the heart of our politics, whether it’s climate change or Brexit, noted Runciman. ‘I think what’s going on it really different,’ he said. To understand it, he says you have to acknowledge that most people do care about the future: ‘You have got to explain it in terms of experience and identity,’ he said, ‘not in terms of self-interest.’
So whether you lived through the seventies matters; whether you grew up in an online environment matters. If your only experience of politics is since 2010, then you would think our democracy isn’t that great. ‘Our democracy is broken,’ he warned. ‘This is one of the faultlines.’
Pointing to the support among young voters of Marine Le Pen’s party in France, he warned that the education divide in our societies was also fuelling division and undermining democracy. Hitherto the young tended to support centre left parties, but these now represent mainly the university-educated classes he says, leaving the young who don’t go there with no sense of belonging.
‘This is new,’ he told the audience at the IET on Savoy Place. ‘It’s a real problem.’
And one compounded by the rise of social media and the online world – in juxtaposition to the real world of politics. ‘We no longer share a framework for discussion,’ he added.
Completing the first session was Carole Cadwalladr, the Observer journalist best known for breaking the Cambridge Analytica story and investigating breaches of electoral law by the Leave campaign during the referendum. Her investigations have helped her to understand the power of tech firms in our daily lives and political arenas and she said: ‘Silicon Valley technology companies are more powerful than us and we are unable to hold them to account.’ In a chilling session, she noted that the legal environment for journalists was tighter and cooler than before. ‘It’s not true that we have free speech here,’ she declared. ‘We have very expensive speech.’
From civil society to the mind: Professor Siddharthan Chandran of Edinburgh University and foremost expert in neurological conditions such as Motor Neurone Disease, talked about the power of regenerative medicine in treatment of currently incurable brain condition including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. ‘One in six people over 80 has dementia. Every three seconds somebody is being diagnosed with dementia,’ warned Chandran, noting that by 2050 it’s estimated there will be 1.75 million people in Britain with a form of the condition.
He discussed the challenges of treating such diseases and conditions, noting, ‘the brain is the last area of human discovery’, because so little is known about it compared to other parts of our bodies. And the limitations are huge: scans have their place, as do animal models. ‘But you don’t need to go to medical school to know that rat brains are very different from ours,’ added Chandran drily.
Asked to imagine a future where the progress of these conditions could be arrested, and then even reversed. Chandran, who has worked with philanthropists such as the author JK Rowling, showed how progress had been made in the ‘repair’ of cells affected by Multiple Sclerosis using stem calls.
He also called for more money to tackle these diseases so multiple clinical trials could be carried out in parallel and not in sequence.
The gut expert Tim Spector, King’s College genetics professor and director of the TwinsUK registry of some 13,000 twins, talked about the impact of the microbes in our bodies. He introduced the room to a ‘totally new organ in our bodies called the “microbiome:’. This ‘virtual organ’ was created by some 100 trillion microbes in our guts, a ‘chemical factories’ which affected our health, emotions and minds. ‘We share 99 per cent of our genes,’ he said, ‘but only 25 per cent of our gut microbes.’
Drawing on research of some 13,000 pairs of twins – looking at discrepancies in health, obesity and disease – Spector said that the secret to a healthier life was in gut diversity, so eating 30 more more plants a week, for instance, contributed to very high diversity. A bad gut in an unhealthy person might resemble ‘a back yard in Arizona,’ he said – all weeds and not much else. A healthy gut meanwhile, resembles ‘an English country garden’.
The secret is in the microbe-loving substance called polyphenols, which help our guts to thrive, found in vegetables such as leaks, onions and garlic, extra virgin olive oil and red wine. And this has a bearing on conditions such as autism, Parkinson’s, IBS, diabetes and more. What about vitamins, he was asked? ‘I don’t recommend any vitamins unless you have a disease. Real food is the only vitamins you need.’
After a break for lunch, the conference returned to the topic of tackling climate change with the climate lawyer James Thornton of ClientEarth (corr). He talked through his work helping to cut air pollution in European cities – taking governments through the courts to meet targets. Thornton founded ClientEarth in 2008: it now has 165 staff across international offices.
Thornton highlighted his firm’s efforts to curb the construction of new coal-fired power stations in Poland – that achieved through a shareholder legal action rather than through the courts – and other areas, as well as his work in China, supporting their initiatives there. There he briefed the supreme court on green regulations and has been invited to train judges to focus on those who break environmental legislation. He joked that he told the supreme court that this was revolutionary: ‘James, revolutionary is a very big word in China.’
‘There’s much to do but there’s much hope,’ he concluded.
Waste was foremost in the mind with Laure Cucuron from Terracycle, a company which aims to make rubbish a thing of the past. With a ‘reboot the milk man model’ already occurring with pilots in New York and Paris, its new Loop home-delivery offering brings consumer goods to the doorstep in reusable packaging. Major brands such as Proctor and Gamble are on board with the project which sees packaging reused at least ten times, but potentially hundreds of times. Loop arrives in the UK next year. ‘By 2050 there will be more plastic waste in the oceans than fish,’ warned Cucuron.
How much fresh water available for us to drink is out there? That was the question asked by Giulio Buccaletti, who warned that we are at the tipping point of our relationship with this precious commodity. Since 1970 the animal population of the world has fallen by 40 per cent – in freshwater it’s fallen by 76 per cent. Buccaletti called for cities and countries to invest in ‘nature based solutions’ to preserve water-sheds – ‘often best options to advance water security’ and more cost effective than alternatives.
The economist Kate Raworth warned that traditional developed economies were using far more of the world’s resources and emitting far more waste and carbon emissions than the globe could tolerate. The highly influential author of Doughnut Economics warned that the world was breaking through the nine ‘planetary boundaries’ – an 'ecological ceiling' covering biodiversity, carbon emissions and more, while at the same time failing to provide adequately for all citizens. This was endangering ‘home sweet home Earth’.
The co-founder of Extinction Rebellion Dr Gail Bradbrook began by apologising to the assembled room of she had spray-painted on of their banks or climbed on their buildings. ‘I do it with peace and love in my heart,’ she told the room. She confronted the official assertions of there being a decade to save the world from traumatic man-made climate change: ‘I really dispute the idea that we have got 12 years left,’ she said. ‘We already have 410 parts per million [of C02]: there’s no budget left. We have to stop harming and start repairing.’
Bradbrook ‘apologised in advance’ for the next Extinction Rebellion protests due to take place later this month. ‘We have got 12 locations in London. It’s a good reason to start cycling,’ she added.
Her organisation, which is now in 72 countries, wants governments to commit to being carbon neutral by 2025, and compared the need for action to a war. ‘This is not one Hitler,’ she said. ‘It’s 20.’ Asked how the Weatherbys guests could help, she said bluntly: ‘Get arrested,’ noting that one of their guests was worth about 500 of her.
If we want to change the world for the better, then persuasion, not compulsion is the best way to achieve it. So said Rory Sutherland, vice chairman of Ogilvy, the advertising giant, who advised governments to give citizens choices not new rules to obey. ‘Give everybody five things to do and let them choose two,’ he said. Describing this approach as ‘placebo libertarianism’, he said it would then see people embrace their choices and evangelise about them. Selfishness is vital too: when soap was first popularised in the late 19th century, makers such as Pear’s put fragrances in them so that users smelled better. ‘What they did not say was “use Pear’s soap” to prevent a cholera outbreak’. ‘In real life,’ Sutherland added, ‘you can solve through persuasion what you can’t achieve through compulsion.’
Alec Marsh attended the Creating the Future Conference, hosted by Weatherbys Private Bank, at the IET on 1 October