Incremental improvements to the status quo won’t save the planet; we all need to be braver, says Nick Hughes.
It’s not often I read a book that stops me dead in my tracks but George Monbiot’s Regenesis proved an exception to the rule. In it, the journalist and environmental campaigner argues that farming is the world’s greatest cause of environmental destruction and sketches a vision of a new future for food and humanity.
It’s a polemic intended to provoke strong opinions (and the content of my Twitter feed over the summer suggests it was ‘mission accomplished’). For my part I found the analysis of the problems created by our current food system compelling in large parts, but was left rather cold by the proposed fix – a farm-free future in which people are sustained by eating microbial proteins produced via novel fermentation technologies.
But it was a passage in which Monbiot let rip against what he indelicately called “micro-consumerist bollocks” that really struck a chord with me. Monbiot argued that instead of the systemic economic and social change we need to avert environmental collapse we have instead “sought to address our existential crisis by attending to minutiae, such as changing the gut microbes of cows, so that they produce slightly less methane, or tweaking farm subsidies to allow a few small corners to be planted with trees”. These, writes Monbiot, “are the agricultural equivalent of trying to prevent catastrophic climate breakdown by changing the cotton buds we buy”.
This passage resonated strongly with me because it’s a sustainability paradox I’ve been grappling with for some years now: by prioritising incremental improvements to the status quo over systemic change are we actually doing more harm than good?
First some context (and in the interests of full transparency): between 2014 and 2019 I worked part-time for the conservation charity WWF leading a project of work with the catering company Sodexo. The work focused on embedding the principles of sustainable diets into Sodexo’s food business – principally a shift away from meat towards vegetables, pulses and wholegrains. I felt at the time – and largely still do – that it was important work. It was a slow burn and there were challenges with operational delivery, scalability and measuring impact, but at the time ‘flexitarian’ eating was only just entering the mainstream food lexicon and the way the market has since moved to embrace plant-centric eating (or at the very least start setting future targets for the proportion of plants on menus) suggests we were in the vanguard of a shift towards caterers offering more sustainable meal options.
So far so positive. But then I read a Monbiot column in The Guardian published over the summer and the nagging doubts resurfaced. In it he argues that “the theory of change pursued by most established green groups is entirely wrong”; in essence, there’s not enough time to change the system “so the only realistic approach is incrementalism”, exemplified by my WWF work with Sodexo.
Historically, I’ve sympathised with the idea that NGOs exist in a virtuous ecosystem whereby some – like Greenpeace – play the role of agitator by making corporations publicly confront their negative impact, leaving others – like WWF – to work collaboratively with the business to fix the problem.
These kinds of corporate/NGO partnerships are popular across all industry sectors including food. The business gets expert support and a green halo from working with a trusted partner while the NGO gets a vital revenue stream and a real world example of the policies and changes it is advocating for.
It’s a win win scenario. Or is it? These partnerships may have some lofty goals in isolation but they rarely if ever challenge the business to uproot its existing business model. For all the marginal improvements they might deliver, if corporate/NGO partnerships act as a barrier to systemic change by creating a false impression of ESG adequacy are they ultimately doing more harm than good?
I’d love to say I have the answer. In truth, my position oscillates between ‘yes’ and ‘no’, depending on my mood (which in turn is often determined by an article or book like Monbiot’s). Research published earlier this month showing that multiple climate tipping points could be triggered if global temperature rises beyond 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels (we are currently on track for 2-3°C) put me in a ‘glass half empty mood’, coming as it did on the back of a summer of global heatwaves, droughts and floods.
It should seem obvious to anyone paying attention to the science that we are not going far and fast enough to avert dangerous climate change. But is there a danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Is some change not better than no change? Moreover, systemic change won’t come from individual businesses, it will come when a complex network of governments, institutions, civil society, communities and citizens combines to alter the rules of the game. What alone can businesses do but improve the way they operate within the context they operate in?
Perhaps the answer is that we all need to be braver, including businesses and the NGOs and the consultancies that help shape their sustainability ambitions. If business models can be changed then change them; if targets can be made bolder then embolden them; if big companies can use their influence to advocate for deeper, structural economic and social change then use it.
Incrementalism may have seemed like the solution a decade ago, but it is beginning to feel desperately insufficient now that the light on the environmental dashboard is flashing red.