That’s how I felt on Friday evening when I was invited to an event by the RSA. It’s organised by the ‘Profit With Purpose’ Fellowship network, which as a businesswoman and ‘FRSA’ I’m an enthusiastic member of. ‘Prosperity Without Growth’ is the title of the evening, of the speaker’s new book, and of the report the speaker, Professor Tim Jackson, published in 2009 with the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC).
“Great!” I thought, “This sounds amazing. I’ve been loosely thinking about the relationship between the economy and sustainability for a good few years now, and my suspicion is that we can’t continue with economic growth. But I don’t seem to read anything about this from people who know what they’re talking about, so maybe I’m just wrong. In any case, I don’t know how to pursue this line of thought any further. Perhaps this guy Tim Jackson will have some answers. I’ll go along and find out.”
But then I read on: “This event is kindly hosted by the Shell Foundation”.
Ah. Now what’s that all about? Are Shell supporting economic shrinkage all of a sudden? Are they concerned with the environment and global social justice all of a sudden? Have they come over all conflicted about Ken Saro-Wiwa and the destruction of Ogoniland and wish to make reparation for their previous bad ways?
Call me cynical, but I doubt it. I very much doubt it. I rather think their ‘support’ for the Arts, for the RSA, for this very event, are nothing more than greenwash. A ploy to distract their detractors.
Oh the highs and lows of ethical living! I’d snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
You know when something really gets on your nerves? To the point you feel you have to do something about it? Because you try to forget about it but it just won’t go away, and you realise it’s going to keep bugging you until you take some concrete step to change it?
I’m glad that I didn’t just sit there and sigh, huff and puff, rant at LongSufferingPartner and do nothing. I’m glad that I wrote to the RSA directly, and posted on their Fellowship Community forum, and on Twitter, and wrote to Professor Jackson and his publishers (the venerable and worthy Earthscan).
I’m glad I objected, publicly, vocally.
Because I’m not “motivated and impotent” as the average ecologically-minded person has been described. I’m motivated and I don’t believe I’m impotent. I believe that my actions have impact on the world, however small. And that there are millions think just like me.
The response from the RSA? “We set the PwP [Profit With Purpose] Network up because we were heavily concerned that the traditional businesses which have followed a profit driven approach have all too often been marginalised by criticism and judgement of their past and current behaviour. It has often backed them into a corner of defending their business practice, rather than encouraging them to open doors to creative and sustainable alternatives. It is why we decided that the role of this Network was to be inclusive to all businesses, to provide a safe space for them to share their concerns about their challenges and to dive into the creative skill of the RSA’s Fellowship to help them develop solutions to the social and environmental issues that they face.”
The response from Professor Jackson? Similar. “In principle I don’t object to talking to the ‘bad guys’. There’s no point only preaching to the choir, that’s for sure.”
I see their point. I happen not to agree – or rather, I agree to some extent, but we have to be really clear about where to draw the line. A personal line perhaps, of what one is comfortable to be associated with. An ethical line between appeasement and complicity on the one hand and the possible negative consequences or frustrating impotence of boycott, sanctions or protest. A line made all the more pertinent in these very weeks, when the issues of oil and human rights are on our screens every night as we follow the events in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya. A question that Professor Jackson surely grapples with in his research into Lifestyle, Values and Environment (his RESOLVE project at University of Surrey).
I have asked that the RSA and Professor Jackson reconsider the involvement of Shell and find another host. The Coop? Triodos Bank? Even M&S? Alternatively, perhaps they could offer some evidence that Shell are now ready to recognise their previous mistakes with honesty, and to behave in future with integrity and a desire to internalise their externalities, even where these go against their business model? Are Shell now prepared to fail, rather than succeed if others must pay too high a price? I’d be delighted to attend the evening if either of those two options were to happen.
You can download the full “Prosperity Without Growth” report, a summary and read comments here:
Transcript of an interview with the author (gives clear overview of key points):