A few years ago I was at a residential conference with the Royal Society, where we were discussing sustainable future technologies. During a coffee break I was loitering near the pastries (obviously), and struck up some awkward conference small-talk with a fellow attendee. We exchanged observations on the last session, and then I saw his eyes flick down to my name badge. There was an intake of breath, and he sidled away without a word.
My badge had my name, and the old name for this website: Make Wealth History.
I’d already read his badge. He was a director at Rolls Royce, manufacturer of aircraft engines and the world’s least efficient luxury cars. I had no problem talking to him, but he wasn’t going to be caught talking to me. To someone working at Rolls Royce, I can understand how Make Wealth History is going to sound like an affront. That conversation, and others like it, was one of a whole tangle of reasons why I re-titled the blog last year.
I mention it because in some ways the incident is a microcosm of the situation environmentalism finds itself in at the moment. The green movement in its modern form is a product of counter-cultural grassroots action, a reaction against the ecological destruction of industry. Fifty years on from its cultural emergence, it’s a much broader phenomenon. It has moved from the fringes towards the centre, to the point that governments can make declarations of climate emergency and set net zero climate targets.
For some, that’s a sign of success. The arguments are being won. For others, it’s a sign of appropriation, the old enemies co-opting the language of the movement. People begin to qualify their remarks, talking about a ‘mainstream environmental movement’ to distinguish between those who are working with corporations and those who still take that outsider point of view.
These are old debates and I don’t want to re-hash them. Greenwash and co-opting are real things that we should be alert to, but what I want to highlight is that if Britain and the EU have net zero carbon targets for 2050, everyone has to get on board and work towards carbon neutrality. It means companies like Rolls Royce will have to go net zero. So will airlines, oil companies, big agriculture and extractive industries that have been the traditional foes of the greens. McDonalds and Coca Cola will have to sort themselves out. They’re all going to have to fall in line if they want to continue doing business in the region.
In the past, there were corporations who were open to change, and those that fought to oppose change. That remains the case in many parts of the world, and of course multinational corporations can move polluting activities elsewhere. But I’m interested in how more robust climate targets change the picture. In some ways it settles the debate. They’re going to have to change.
Companies that are established in Europe aren’t going to want to pack up their operations and surrender their market share. They will adapt, and find commercially viable ways to operate on a low carbon basis. And this is where it potentially gets interesting: as they identify, test and adopt those low carbon ways of working, they may end up using them elsewhere, and making them global policy.
For many greens that I know, the assumption is that corporations are not to be trusted and are not part of the solution. Fundamentally, it would be better if they didn’t exist, and so there’s little point in talking about their transformation. But I can’t see them closing down or being forced out of business any time soon. And while many companies continue to use their power to thwart environmental controls, a growing number are facing up to the need for change. Net zero will involve everyone – including people environmentalists don’t like.