Watched <a href=" http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/panorama/7200749.stm” target=”_blank”>BBC Panorama for the first time in ages this week. Fascinating programme fronted by Alex James, best known as bassist with Britpop sensation Blur, who made headlines recently by revealing his former cocaine habit had cost him around a million pounds.In the film James travelled to Colombia to expose the terrifying social and environmental cost of the growing European cocaine market for middle class kids, fuelled by rich and famous celebs snorting it on camera at every opportunity. If you ever thought taking the white stuff was glamorous, watch this film. From contract killings to the destruction of rich natural habitat, the whole industry is ruining lives across Colombia, not to mention the lives and relationships destroyed by over-indulgence here. It’s horrible to think of all these ‘eco-celebrities’ stuffing this vile stuff up their noses whilst fronting campaigns about saving the planet. And apart from the murders, wanton destruction of forests and general social misery it causes, do watch the scene when they show you how they make the drug. The bit when they add kerosene and then sulphuric acid is particularly good. Alex James is now a country farmer, and hasn’t touched a line of coke for a long time. He looks good on it too. When the film ended, I thanked my lucky stars that cocaine was one bad habit I’d been spared. And that for all the talk about the PR industry being full of coke-heads, I have yet to meet one.
In Dubai today for a Weber Shandwick PR symposium, which included a big sustainability element. Very good attendance from across the region, from local UAE clients to representatives from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iran. Gave my now well worn presentation, ‘CSR: Recipes for Success’. Lots of reaction, which was encouraging. It was fortuitous being here just after Monday’s big energy futures summit in Abu Dhabi, at which the Prince of Wales appeared by hologram to keep his carbon footprint down. Perhaps I should have done the same today! The prospects for CR are mixed here – obviously the manic pace of growth (towers practically shoot up in between lunch courses) poses big questions about the environmental fallout. But, as in China and India, there is a growing appetite for sustainability. Not least because the all important government machine is starting to talk about it. The oil here will soon run out, and the search is on for replacements. It’s too early to say how successful the green movement will be here (NGOs have little presence or traction), but the Masdar project with its heavy WWF involvement, could become a beacon for the future. ‘Green’ is the last word you think of to describe this place today. It has the feel of an ecological time bomb. But by 2050, who knows? It was amusing to hear participants bemoaning Dubai’s lack of recycling, the prevalence of plastic bags and the desire for big powerful cars for non rural journeys. Just like somewhere else I know – Britain.
There aren’t many living people in the world I would describe as heroes. Across politics, business, media, the arts, and even the environment, very few individuals excite my imagination or lead me to think world progress is really possible. Still fewer persuade me that they themselves can bring about that progress. So it was warming to read on Guardian Online just now that Daniel Barenboim has become the first Israeli in the world to be granted Palestinian citizenship. This is of course in recognition of his inspirational work with young Arabs and Israelis, divided by political conflict but united in making great music, through the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. I was once lucky enough to hear them play at the Proms – a performance that rivalled any long established great symphony orchestra. In a TV documentary, Barenboim once explained the parallels between listening to each other in conflict and the need to listen to each other when playing to make a great sound. His argument is simple – if we can have a dialogue when we play music, which we must for it to sound good, surely it will be easier to do so when we are arguing about borders and statehood. Music can bridge divides that words cannot. Barenboim has already done enough for the world through his genius as a pianist and conductor. Not to mention his brilliant Reith lectures last year. But the way in which he has harnessed his talent to foster understanding in the Middle East makes him a giant in my book. Yet here we all sit, watching reality ‘talent’ shows invade our TV every night, when a pioneer like Barenboim is out there giving people a future. Victoria Beckham, a woman of no definable talent, musical or otherwise, changes her hair and it’s front page news. If only people knew what they were missing!
Here’s some fun on CNN about ‘Mileage Maniacs’. No, these aren’t road rage loonies or joy riders, but people who hack into the onboard computers of their own Toyota Prius to trick the engine, thus using even more battery and less fuel in the hybrid synergy drive system. As well as clever computer trickery, check out the ‘big toe’ driving technique (is it legal?!) which ensures that fuel consumption of the already efficient hybrid is cut still further. As a Prius driver myself, I don’t think I’ll take the green lifestyle quite this far (being a luddite, the car would probably only drive in reverse if I tampered with it). But a good plug for green (and cheap) driving nonetheless. And much better to hack into your own Prius than hacking everyone else off in your big gas guzzler.
Before you ask, I was aware that the new Tata Nano car was being launched as I wrote my optimistic blog post about India and sustainable development. I know many environmentalists are horrified by the prospect of such a cheap car hitting India’s roads and today’s Independent front page is dedicated to asking ‘Can the World Afford this Car?’So I just re-read what I wrote yesterday, and I still stand by it, because despite the horrific pollution across the country, I still believe that countries like India and China, who will feel the effects of our climate crisis before we do in the West, have the potential, spiritually, culturally and intellectually, to grow sustainably. Or at least a lot more sustainably than Europe and America have shown themselves to be capable of so far.The truth is that we are not in a position to lecture India about sustainable transport policy. Nor is it our right to deny 1.3 billion Indians affordable transport that allows them to avoid cramming 4 passengers without helmets (sometimes with small children) onto dangerously rusting scooters. Anyone who has been on an Indian road, large or small, will know what I mean. It’s interesting that Western NGOs like Friends of the Earth have been diplomatic in their criticism, rightly pointing out that it’s only by leading from the front that we can start to win the right to teach developing nations about sustainable development. And as I said yesterday, my money is on India getting there faster than we have (although the Tata car only does 65km/hour).
I spent Christmas and New Year touring India (or as much of India as you can tour in sixteen days) with my girlfriend and mum. It was greatly exciting to be in a country I had wanted to visit ever since seeing Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi aged ten. Not to mention India’s prime position in the sustainable development spotlight as its population and economic growth continue to explode. The sub continent’s green challenge is well documented here in the West, but I had not appreciated just how prominent the environmental agenda is in India itself. No tour guide failed to mention global warming and its impact on water supplies (I don’t think we saw one river that hadn’t dried up). And for all the noise, congestion and bustle of Delhi, I was stunned to see that every single auto-rickshaw now runs on Compressed Natural Gas (which has made a hugely positive impact on pollution levels I’m told). As London contentedly parades its tiny trial fleet of fuel cell buses, it’s worth noting that all Delhi’s buses have been converted to CNG for some time. All vehicles proudly bear the slogan ‘World’s Largest Eco Friendly CNG bus Service’). And given the vast numbers of people crammed into and hanging off the buses, the carbon footprint per passenger is probably almost nil.
Just like Europe and the USA, companies are keen to ride the bandwagon (if not the buses). A variety of green ads adorn the domestic terminal at Bangalore Airport. I’m not entirely sure that the phrase ‘Eco-friendly Miners to the Nation – Spreading Happiness’ from the country’s largest iron ore producer would pass muster with the UK Advertising Standards Authority (who’ve just upheld a Friends of the Earth complaint about a BBC World TV ad proclaiming Malaysian Palm Oil as ‘sustainable’), but it’s interesting that the company feels the need to say it nonetheless.
Reading the newspapers everyday was also revealing. Just as many articles and leader columns about climate change, carbon offsetting, clean energy, the growth of the organic food industry and corporate responsibility in The Times of India, The Hindu or the Indian Express as we find on our European breakfast tables every day. That was a truly pleasant surprise as well. Please don’t misread this as an assertion that India is on track to be a sustainability icon, or a green and pleasant pollution free land. Nowhere are water scarcity, the impact of climate change, extreme poverty, unsustainable agriculture and over-fishing more apparent. Pollution is everywhere, as is the daily waste of a country on the move towards ever vaster consumption levels. And systemic corruption always threatens to scupper any noble political or commercial progress. But national, state governments and big business are at least moving these issues fast up the agenda in a way that is not often reported here. The prospect of clean technological development (India is a global tech leader after all) and this superpower as a force for good in the world is a real one. Sitting in Bangalore Airport, I felt the same as I did in China last year – these emerging giants may have further to travel down the green path than some European countries, but their culture, appetite for change and technological expertise means they might just get there faster than we did in the West, with all our dithering and political fudge. They will get there even more quickly if we don’t make them the dumping grounds for our own wasteful excesses by sending them all our rubbish. I don’t really want to live in a country that exports rubbish, be it in container bins or on television. There were the usual green gripes you get on holiday. Irritation with the (gorgeous, sorry but it was) Kerala hotel that plastered its bathrooms with brass signs saying ‘protect our planet’, pleading with guests to hang towels up on hooks for re-use, and firmly encouraging us to use water and energy sparingly. Yet short of hiding your towel in your suitcase, no matter what time you returned from the pool you would find it replaced with a clean one. And it’s hard to save water when the bathroom basins have no plugs and the loo flushes for around 20 minutes at even the tiniest flick of the flush. And try saving energy when they turn your air-conditioning system down to 5 degrees on full blast all day when you’re away from your room. Anyway, all these points belong on the feedback form (I have never visited a country so into feedback forms). And the truth is, most hotel chains are no better in Europe or the US. When I saw the resilience, courtesy, spiritual wellbeing, work ethic and calm diligence of the people I met across five different States, I couldn’t help thinking that for all the chaos, dirt and noise, if there’s one place on earth that might one day be a mammoth green pilot light for the rest of the world, India is it.
Happy New Year. Just returned from Christmas holidays in India (some green anecdotes on that trip to follow soon along with some pics) to see the great new Innocent Drinks TV ads featuring Carlos from the Rainforest Alliance! As always, no one beats Innocent in their straightforward, humble and engaging sustainability language. It’s a model multinationals are falling over themselves to replicate. But as Jonathan Greenblatt, founder of ethical water brand Ethos Water said when we spoke on a panel together in Boston a few weeks ago, the big challenge is to be truly authentic, which doesn’t always sit easily with multinational corporate culture. Cheap copies of brands founded on sustainability don’t really work, because unless the core values are there to underpin a marketing strategy, people see through it. I’ve been lucky to get to know the founders of Innocent a bit through their commitment to the Rainforest Alliance, and they are proof that the most successful entrepreneurs of the 21st century will be those who apply their personal values to their business practices, day in, day out. They’re good fun to have a drink with too, as I discovered after the Rainforest Alliance Gala in New York last May. Take a second to sit back and enjoy the new ad.