Power and glorification

Stephen Sykes | 12 years ago

The Independent on Sunday recently published a list of the UK’s leading environmentalists. The list makes fascinating reading, not just for the predictable controversies of who’s in/out/overlooked but, also, as we shall see, as an indicator of how deeply and widely environmental thinking has penetrated the government, business and public sectors. Don’t swallow it whole, though – as an authoritative power list, it is limited.

Before we look at the list, we should try to preempt those Doubting Thomases (self included) who tend to be sceptical about lists of so-called leading figures from any walk of life. Listings of this kind lack validity if the method by which they are drawn up is not transparent, if selection criteria are not objective, or if those who make the selections are not appropriately qualified. Well, in order to select and rank the UK’s top environmentalists, the IoS appointed a panel of four journalists, two of whom are employed by the IoS (the environmental editor and an assistant editor, who presumably appointed themselves), and one of whom was previously a journalist at The Independent (Nick Schoon, now editor of the ENDS Report). The fourth judge was Alex Kirby (freelance environmental journalist, formerly the BBC’s environment correspondent for 10 years).

There can be no doubt that it was an experienced, albeit not distinguished, panel, drawn as it was from just one corner of the environmental world: the press. No doubt strong on the subject of environmental policy-making and on identifying individuals who hit the headlines, the panel lacked experts on environmental/carbon technology, engineering, regulation, campaigning, design, investment, consulting, law, marketing and business. It did not include environmental academics or philosophers, or lay people who might know of an environmental champion who is making a difference in their city or region. One further limitation of a panel made up exclusively of journalists is that they might feasibly be keen to keep their lines of communication/influence open at the highest levels. In this regard it is notable (and rather concerning) that there are so many politicians on the list – twice as many as there are environmental scientists.

Journalists were expressly excluded from the list. This decision is understandable, given the constitution of the panel. However, looking at this rationally, some journalists would surely merit inclusion on (and high up) the list. There are many examples of brave, determined, pioneering journalists who have taken great efforts, over many years, to raise awareness of all manner of environmental issues and abuses. John Vidal at The Guardian, for example, has been writing with great passion, eloquence and accuracy about global environmental matters since 1995. The journalist George Monbiot is one of 20 ‘notable environmentalists’ appearing on Wikipedia under ‘Environmentalism’.

Let’s now recall that the IoS list is meant to identify ‘environmentalists’. Without meaning to be too lawyerly, we really need a working definition of an environmentalist so that we know one when we see one. An environmentalist is one who advocates that change is needed in public policy and personal behaviour so as to achieve the sustainable use of resources and the protection of the environment – and these advocates follow this up with concrete, consistent, sustained action to demonstrate that they practice what they preach. The IoS judges were given a fitting remit: ‘to identify [100 people] who [are] really making a difference in Britain, either directly or by altering public perceptions, rather than those who make most noise’. How did they fare? Did they get it spot-on, or are there any egregious cases of mistaken identity?

The names on the IoS list fall, largely, into the following categories: activists/campaigners (17); scientists (10); politicians/political advisers (21); broadcasters (2); business people (14); celebrities/artists/writers (11); charity and public-body players (17); academics/thinkers (5); and a ‘miscellaneous’ pair of aristocrats, ie: the Prince of Wales and David de Rothschild.

Some observations. The biggest grouping is made up of politicians and their close advisers (21/100). At a time when confidence in politicians and their ability to make a positive difference is at an all-time low, it is disappointing to see so many of them featuring on the list. The second most numerous category is of activists/campaigners and people from the third sector (17/100). Looking at it together with the lists of environmental scientists (10), academics and thinkers (5), and perhaps the Prince of Wales, readers may conclude that they are reading about some of the most talented and most committed environmentalists in the UK.

It is encouraging to see a significant number of business people included on the list (13), though one would perhaps have anticipated that these would be men and women who give their environmental credentials as their essential, defining characteristic, and only secondarily see themselves as, say, a banker/venture capitalist/lawyer.  It is doubtful that, for example, Sir Stuart Rose of M&S would see himself in this light, even though he is credited with M&S’s Plan A, its ‘business-wide eco-plan’; the same goes for Lord Adair Turner. Furthermore, one might have expected to see on the list more business people working in the UK or globally in businesses such as environmental consulting, renewable energy and sustainability consulting.

The judges’ call shows that the Establishment is alive and kicking, even if it is turning a light shade of green. The IoS list includes six Lords, a Dame, and six knights of the realm. Academia and environmental philosophers are well represented: there are nine Professors on the list, and several PhDs. Thought leadership – and hence the contribution of academics, communicators, broadcasters and thinkers – is very important at a time when the relatively new ideology of sustainability is becoming embedded into what we do and how we think.

Finally, there are some surprising omissions, namely the UK professionals who are managing some of the world’s leading environmental consultancies, businesses that provide advice daily in relation to sustainability, carbon reduction and environmental protection. John Alexander (ERM), Stuart McLachlan (WSP Environment & Energy) and Ian Bailey (Environ) go about their work diligently and expertly, disseminating know-how and good practice.

So, there are some serious questions here about the validity and status of the IoS list. If it is to be an annual feature in the IoS, then the broadening out of the panel beyond the confines of environmental journalism will be very important. Looking harder for leading figures within the environmental business sector will also add to the credibility of the list.

About the author

Stephen Sykes

Stephen is an entrepreneur. He has built businesses in the following sectors: data, insurance, remediation and consulting.  With a background in environmental law, Stephen is the Chair of the UK Environmental Law Association, director of the Castle Debates and a Visiting Fellow at Birkbeck's Centre for Innovation Management Research.