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Intro: Hello, and welcome to The Good Council, the podcast of the World Future Council. In each episode, we’ll highlight current challenges and policy solutions. And we’ll also take you on a journey of inspiring stories. Listen in to another of our intergenerational dialogues from around the globe.
Annika: My name is Annika, I’m a consultant at the World Future Council. And in this episode, I’m speaking with Herbert Girardet, who’s one of the co-founders and former director of programs of the World Future Council. Herbert is a cultural ecologist, author and former filmmaker. He’s worked as a consultant to UN Habitat and UNEP and is a recipient of a UN Global 500 Award for outstanding environmental achievements. He’s also an executive committee member of The Club of Rome, an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, a member of the World Academy of Art and Science, a patron of the Soil Association in UK, and a visiting professor at the University of the West of England. In 2003, Herbert was the inaugural Adelaide Thinker in Residence, advising South Australian Premier, Mike Rann, on his government’s sustainability policies, and how to reduce Adelaide’s carbon footprint. Indeed, his advice was fully implemented.
Hello, Herbie, thank you very much for being here today. It’s a real pleasure for me to be able to have this conversation with you. And to be able to learn a little bit more about you and your work, but also the World Future Council. So, you’ll be taking us on a rollercoaster tour of your very interesting life, which you describe as a journey towards concern about future generations. So, let’s start in the beginning, you were born in 1943. That means the Second World War was still raging, and you were brought up in its aftermath. How was your childhood, and how did that shape the person that I’m speaking with today?
Herbert: Now, of course, I was too young to really fully understand what was going on in the world. You know, I was two years old when the war finished. But I mean, the effects of the end of that war were sort of almost instant. Certainly, there was a lot of people arriving from the east. I grew up in on the outskirts of a town called Essen in the Ruhr, which was the main industrial centre, and the main centre for weapons production as well actually, for the Second World War, particularly companies like companies like Krupp, and Thyssen [which] produced the guns and the tanks and so many other weapons that were used in the war. So we were sort of in a little house on the edge of town, and we had constant arrivals, from people would come from the east to escape the Russian invasion of Mecklenburg and other parts of East Germany. And so it was, our house is always full of people, all of them kind of in worries and concerns about what they’d lost and how, what the future might hold and that kind of stuff. But when I became sort of conscious, if you like, when I was three or four years old, I very quickly became aware where we were because from my house we could see the chimneys, spewing out smoke, on the edge of Essen of the factories that were producing steel and coal and so on, coal mines, and coal power stations. And so, I could every night, we could see the glaring sort of smoke of these chimneys, and the flames coming out of the steelworks—it was an extraordinary sight. And I was, I can remember even then asking, when I was maybe four or five, asking my father, where does all that smoke end up? You know, in the air? What, is it going to do to the air that we breathe? And there was no answer to that question.
And then a little while later, when my father got his first car after the war, and he switched on the engine and the smoke came out of the exhaust pipe and I asked him, where does all that smoke go again? From small rather than a large chimney like that. And, again, you had the answer to that question.
So, I was beginning to kind of think about these kinds of things, even as quite a young kid. And a little few years later, when we went down to the river Ruhr, and there was foam, white foam on the river, and dead fish in the river. And I was asking, why are these fish dying? And again, there was no answer to those questions.
So, there was kind of a bit of a concern about these issues fairly early on in my life and so in some ways, I could say that it’s continued throughout the rest of my life and has shaped my consciousness if you like, to this very day.
Annika: That’s very powerful. What was that like as a as a child to see all of these things that no one can explain to you? That must have been very unsettling.
Herbert: Well, it was a bit unsettling, of course, it was. I mean, of course, it wasn’t all, what life was all about. And we also had wonderful things going on. I mean, we were living on the edge of a forest. And I was always climbing trees, and I was always out in the garden, helping to grow vegetables and stuff like that. So, it was not all doom and gloom by any means. But I mean, that certainly, that was part of the story of my childhood experiences.
Annika: So, then you set out to study, right? And how was that like, being a student during the, I suppose, Cold War?
Herbert: I went to study in Berlin, and I was studying something I didn’t really want to study which my father imposed that on me, if you like, to study art history, I really wanted to study politics and sociology. But anyway, so it was, quite extraordinary to live in this walled city of Berlin at that time, as you know, has just been closed off from the rest of the world, by the Soviets and by the Eastern German government. So yeah, it was quite an experience living in Berlin. And at that time, certainly the kind of anger about the history of Germany was bubbling up in the minds of many of us. I mean, we were sort of the generation who were just been shaped by the post war experience, and asking questions about what, what has happened to this country? The Nazi history was just horrible, the more you were exposed to it, the city was still full of destroyed or damaged buildings that were gradually being reconstructed. So certainly the aftermath of the Nazi era was very much a deep concern for all of us in that generation. So we were the sort of, if you like, the rebellious generation thar was trying to make sense of the world, from this horrible history that just had just swept across Germany, throughout the Second World War and before that.
Annika: And what was that like coming to terms with what has happened?
Herbert: Well, we kind of started to say can we build a new world? Can we create the new world? Can we simply kind of throw away all this horrible history and find a way of creating a sort of almost like a utopian future. And that certainly became very much part of the thinking of people, like I said. There was the new left movement, there was the beginnings of the Green Movement popping up, there was people like Rudi Dutschke, and my great friend, the German Jewish poet, Erich Fried, who was very close to me, and we were all constantly thinking about how can we make a different kind of world from the ruins of the disasters that happened to Germany in Europe just a few years before?
I moved from Berlin to London as a student. And I very quickly realized that what I had been asked to study—art history—was not for me. So, I basically I got out of university and became involved in living in Notting Hill Gate, which at that time was an extraordinary place. This really was the coming together, people from all over the world. I mean, lots of West Indians, a lot of people from Asia, from Eastern Europe and we were basically at that time really trying very hard to kind of come up with ideas for the future if you like. I mean, we did a lot of community action, we occupied buildings that were empty to turn into community centres. We were kind of holding film shows for, for trade unionists about how it could be like to have new people power establishing itself. And all sorts of amazing sort of activities. I was one of the people involved in organizing the Notting Hill Carnival, actually, in the late 60s so we had this wonderful experience of people from all these different backgrounds coming together with musical instruments and dressed up in extraordinary costumes parading through the streets of Notting Hill Gate, and basically telling the right wing sort of fascist who were trying to stop the immigration of people from all over the world to come into place like Notting Hill Gate: bugger off, we are going to determine what the future is going to hold rather than you writing bastards! It was very political time. And certainly, very creative. And there was, of course, all the coming together, often rock music and the Beatles were around and the Rolling Stones and all the other rock bands. So, on the one hand, there was a kind of cultural revolution was taking place, on the other hand, there was also a political process that was going on at the same time, all concerned with, what could the future be like if we only had a sense, if we only had the influence to shape it in the way that we were hoping we could do? Yeah, it was a very interesting, worthwhile time that’s still with me deeply today.
Annika: And what did you learn from all that time for yourself? And also, why did you even take that step to go to Notting Hill, to move to England in the first place?
Herbert: Well, Berlin was a very depressing place, because it was the walled city and I had been involved actually, in helping to build a tunnel under the Berlin Wall, with some students from the Freie University, in Berlin. And so my parents are getting very anxious about what was happening with my life and my rather rebellious ways of doing things. So they kind of encouraged me to actually move to London. But it was kind of in some ways, from their point of view, it was even worse than when I got involved. And all these rebelliousness in London, as well as. So my father, actually, basically, at that stage effectively disowned me and said, you get on with what you want to do. And, and so we were not in close contact for quite a number of years.
But then I actually got a job at the BBC as a newscaster at the BBC German service, broadcasting the news from London to the rest of the world, particularly to Germany, and so on and so forth. And also at that stage I had a young family. And so life then was partly rebellious, and partly very domestic at the same time. But always the question, what does the future hold? How can we create a world at this stage with young kids—can we create a world that these kids can actually thrive in rather than forever be burdened by history and by—pollution was becoming an issue at that time. The green movement was really beginning to spring up, particularly in the late 60s, suddenly the whole idea of creating a more egalitarian world and a more joyful world, but also a world that needed to really take care of the environment that we needed to have, to be healthy, to have a future. So all of that was coming together in the minds of young people like us. And it became a very creative, very productive time. I went back to the LSE then, to studied social anthropology, having met all these extraordinary people from all over the world who were living together and Notting Hill Gate.
For me, that became a stimulus to try and understand where we actually came from where we come from, in terms of human history. And so it was interesting to find out about African history, about ancient history, and through the eyes through the experience of leading reading about anthropology, anthropology, and all the various many tribal societies, who’ve been documented by anthropologists from this country, in Britain, but also from Germany and elsewhere. So that’s fascinating to learn about human evolution, if you like, the cultural evolution of tribes, like hunter gatherer tribes in Africa and the Amazonian tribes and the rainforests of South America and all of that became part of like the sort of instrumentation of my mind over the few years that I was at the LSE.
Annika: That’s super interesting. I’ve got many questions about your time in Notting Hill and the BBC, that must have been incredibly stimulating and an exciting time to be in.
Herbert: It was.
Annika: And I figure that when you then became a father and you had a young family, that must have been a bit of a turning point, wasn’t it?
Herbert: But it was, I mean, I didn’t stop being involved in all these kinds of activities. And my wife was sometimes a bit worried about what was going to happen next. But yes, I mean, basically the idea of the experience of having a young family, two kids growing up in Notting Hill Gate, and a house full of interesting, eccentric people in artists and musicians and, and politically minded people. Yeah. So, I mean, it was kind of a mixture of on the one hand, really making sure of young family and the well-being of our kids. On the other hand, if you like the well-being of the world all around us and so, that kind of, these two strands are always woven together and in various different ways.
Annika: And did you hang out often?
Herbert: Hang out, what do you mean ‘hang out’?
Annika: Like, did you did you spend a lot of time with them? Did you have any communal activities?
Herbert: Well, not so much in the house. But I mean, I was at that time involved at something called the People’s Association, where basically, we’ve taken over four buildings in Powis Square in Notting Hill gate, for the purpose of creating a community centre.
Annika: Really fascinating. That must have been—and you say that time still lives with you, and you probably think of it quite fondly, don’t you?
Herbert: I do, I go and visit people there still even though I don’t live there any longer.
Annika: Among all the other things that you’re doing, you’re also a poet. Right? You recently wrote a poem called “Sacrificing Tomorrow Today”.
Annika: And I think it’d be really lovely if you would do us the honour and read that out loud.
Okay, I’ll try and do that. Sacrificing Tomorrow Today:
1 Hey folks, aren’t we having fun
roasting the Future alive,
in a furnace of ancient oil:
To burn ever more means to thrive.
2 Let us sacrifice Tomorrow
on the altar of Now and Today.
Tomorrow is there for disposal,
so why not just throw it away?
3 Steal our grandchildren’s future:
As long as we can do our living.
Taking, and taking some more,
and let’s not bother ‘bout giving.
4 Why not just get rid of Tomorrow,
we are good at playing this game.
Why care for some unborn child,
with no face yet, and no name?
5 We’re roaring into the unknown
in a souped-up luxury car,
and when we have arrived there
we’ll soon find out where we are:
6 Let us lie on a palm-fringed beach,
sipping cocktails and champagne,
with not a care in the world.
It’s so cool: we will do it again.
7 Let’s smudge our little planet
with plastics, poisons and oil,
let’s light some more forest fires
and then flush away the soil.
8 So now, what else can we do
to make our Future die
a fiery, premature death?
Are there other ways we can try?
9 Let us sacrifice Tomorrow
on the altar of Now and Today.
Tomorrow is there for disposal,
so why not just throw it away?
Annika: Thank you very much. There’s nothing like hearing it straight from the author, from the poet. Incredibly powerful—I’ve got goosebumps. What was your inspiration for it? It’s very topical, of course. And what would you say is the message?
Herbert: Well, when you look around the world today, I mean, wherever we are, we are really basically stealing our children’s future; doing that through all the activities that I’ve just listed throughout the poem, whether it’s rain forest destruction, whether it’s climate change, whether it is biodiversity loss, whether it’s what we’re doing to the oceans, in terms of plastics, whether it’s all the other ways in which we are consuming the planet. And basically robbing the future. And this is really obviously, one of the key themes that we also then focus on when we started founding the World Future Council in 2007. Basically the concern about what are we going to do, if you’re going to carry on like we are today, in terms of the lives of future generations? So these are issues that I’ve been very deeply concerned with for a long time.
Annika: Exactly. And that brings us, as you mentioned, directly to the World Future Council, which again, as you said, you founded in 2007, together with Jakob von Uexküll. What’s the story there? Obviously, you’ve spent your entire life wondering about pollution and where the fumes come from. And that then culminated in this organisation that you found them together. How did that come about?
Herbert: Well, I’ve been involved in a predecessor to the World Future Council. In London in the 80s, I got together with various people who are working in the sort of environmental field and in the sustainability field. And we called it the Council for Posterity. And that was basically just to get together people saying, well, we cannot carry on like this stealing the future in the way we are clearly doing. So that was just if you’d like to get together people but without any funding, or any major sort of support of any kind, or any publicity for it, really. But anyway, that certainly, if you like, was kind of the predecessor to the World Future Council, which came about much later.
So that, Jakob and I at that time, met around this particular theme of “Earth Emergency: Call to Action”. And then he said, well, he had the idea of trying to create a council of future generations—the World future Council, which was an interesting and exciting title. So, we basically tried to see, okay, how can we work together on this? And so, we did, we basically said, okay, let’s try and conceptualize an organization that really stands for something that is different from what has already been done by other environmental organizations, specifically focusing on the need to understand what the impacts on future generations are and how we can address them. And that’s what we set out to do.
It became very quickly apparent that we have to kind of find some innovative ways of doing that. So one idea was to say, okay, I’ve been working with the UN Habitat, that’s the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, on what we call best practice initiatives; how cities that are suffering pollution effects or that are suffering from loss of industries or whatever, and find practical ways in which to turn them around. And so, we’ve compiled this for UN Habitat, compiled together a list of initiatives in cities around the world, under the label of best practices. And it became very clear to me that just best practices per se, is not a sufficient concept if you really want to stimulate change in a deeper sort of way. So I suggested let’s focus not just on best practices, but on best policies that bring best practices about.
So when we first started the World Future Council, I managed to find a researcher with very, very bright young guy called Miguel Mendonça. And we asked him to put together a first brochure called Policies to Change the World. And he did a brilliant job. And he compiled a whole load of different initiatives on various aspects of the policies that really make a difference or could make a difference. So including wind turbine cooperatives in Denmark, the German renewable energy law, congestion charging in London urban transport solutions, on particular public transport initiatives in Bogota, and elsewhere in South America, urban agriculture initiatives, participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre in Brazil, eco-labeling of products, circular economy initiatives, plastic bag levies, mine ban treaties and various policies that have been introduced in one part of the world that we thought we could highlight and publicize. And in that way, by drawing attention to them get other cities and other countries to adopt them. And so that’s where we first got this idea to really focus on policies to change the world rather than just best practices. And that’s obviously being the kind of special quality, special aspect of the work of the World Future Council ever since.
Annika: That’s a Yeah, I mean, as you say, that’s a very innovative idea—hasn’t been done before, the focus on policies specifically. But a very innovative aspect, a unique aspect about the council, is the council itself, right? The composition of about 50 members from all over the world, your life has already been marked by getting to know very interesting people from all walks of life. And how did you then bring together all of these 50 members, obviously, slightly different maybe back then than it is today. But still…
Herbert: Well, I mean, you did it partly because Jakob had already been running other initiatives such as Right Livelihood Awards, and so they had been giving prizes, and special recognition to people from many different countries who’ve been doing excellent, extraordinary outstanding work, as well and with my network of people involved in the work that I’ve been doing, for the United Nations, about other organizations. So, we basically put together a provisional list of people who we thought we could invite, and we were very successful in really getting amazing people on board to became the core of this council that eventually ended up as you know, with 50 members, and that’s obviously, some some people have died in the meantime, others have decided not to stay involved. But we have a wonderful global line-up of people who are really outstanding in their own particular areas of work.
Annika: And what was that like just feeling this incredible momentum of brilliant people around the world trying to work for one cause?
Herbert: What I mean, Now, of course, not just working for one, cause they all have their own particular initiatives in their own localities on their own countries. But certainly, the idea of bringing together people around this theme of what can we do to ensure a future for this planet, that was obviously something that galvanized all of them in their own particular ways. And that’s obviously still the kind of main focus or the main concern of everybody involved in the in the Council. But I mean, it’s also a very difficult initiative to try and issue because future generations can’t speak for themselves. They’re not born yet by definition, so to be advocates of future generations, it’s not an easy task, particularly because when you try to speak to try governments and persuade them to really take these issues much more seriously, they say, well, there’s no votes in future generations. Why should we concern ourselves with people, not just be to be born in 50 years, or 30 years from now, but maybe a few 100 years from now? And that’s certainly become a very difficult thing to persuade politicians to take seriously, because their concern is to be re-elected, and often re-elected just for three or four or five years. So long term thinking is not very easily embedded in the existing political system of our countries or around the world. So that’s certainly been very difficult thing to persuade people to do. So certainly, when it comes to advocates for future generations, there’s only a very few countries that have embedded a future generation spokesperson in their own parliament. We’ve tried very hard at the World Future Council to do this. But the only place that has actually still has a future generations advocate, it’s actually Wales, were I happen to live for the last 20 or 30 years. And they have a Well-being of Future Generations Act and a Future Generations Commissioner. And we were hoping to be able to install similar commissioners in other countries. But that’s been quite an uphill struggle so far. A couple of countries like in Israel, and in Hungary, that has succeeded, but those people have come and gone, they are no longer there. So, Wales currently is the only place in the world, which actually has a Future generations commissioner.
Annika: Very interesting fact I didn’t know! What work does that Commissioner do?
Herbert: She is a lady, she’s basically in charge of scrutinizing every decision taken by the Welsh Government, which of course is not as powerful as the UK government as a whole, but has still got quite a few significant roles to play within the within the life of Wales. So, she scrutinizes every decision, every policy decision taken by the Welsh Government, or in the by companies in Wales, making new investments or trying to build new housing developments, whatever, new road developments say, okay, this particular project is going to affect the lives of people in the future in ways that is going to be detrimental for them. So one recent success was a major road extension to kind of further increase the capacity of a motorway leading from England into Wales, was stopped by this Commissioner, because she said, this is ultimately going to pave over very nice farmland areas, forest would have to be cut down, and so on and so forth. So let there be a little bit more congestion even in the future. But never mind that, as long as we don’t keep paving over and putting tarmac on green landscapes in South Wales. So that’s one of the kind of examples of a Future Generations Commissioner stopping a development that they would consider to be detrimental to future generations.
Annika: And the work of the World Future Council, as you described, it is similar to that, of course, what do you hope that the World Future Council might achieve in trying to make the world a more just and peaceful and sustainable planet?
Herbert: Well, it’s a big order, a big, big, very tall order, of course. I mean, it runs contrary to so many of the trends that have defined the late 20s, and the first the first decade of the decades of the 21st century, I mean, everything from reliance on oil and coal and gas as a basis for our livelihoods, of course, is of key importance to us. So I mean, one of the great success stories we had at the World Future Council was actually to introduce policies that first been adopted in Germany and before that, in Denmark: feed in tariffs for renewable energies, to speed up the introduction of solar and wind and wave power. And in Germany that was achieved by the coalition government, around the turn of the century, the social democrats under Schröder together with the Green Party, and the Green Party insisted they will not allow themselves to be involved in this coalition government unless there was going to be significant new initiative on introducing and speeding up renewable energy. So that ended up as a Feed-In-Tariff policy that we then said, Well, this is not just important to Germany, but why not introduce it in the UK as well and we succeeded with that. The World Future Council together with other environmental groups managed to persuade the government of Gordon Brown in 2009, to introduce Feed-In-Tariffs for solar and wind power in Britain, as one of the major successful policy initiatives we had, ever since the founding of the World Future Council. And so many of the solar roofs you see on the walls, and on the roofs of British houses, stemmed back from having had that success with feed in tariffs in the UK. I also managed to do the same in South Australia when I was working, not so much with the World Future Council, but independently as a consultant there to try and turn around the city region in South Australia in 2003, so that’s been a very major success story there as well.
Annika: Yeah, I mean, incredible success stories and something to be very proud of, I guess! You mentioned a little while ago, of course, the difficulty in trying to achieve so much change, and that it’s a very tall order. Have you ever lost hope, looking at how the world is structured, and how we’re still continuing, walking down the beaten path of destruction in a way, while we technically have solutions and ways to be more regenerative. Have you lost hope in that sense?
Herbert: When you see daily reports about melting ice and burning forests, and eroding solids or plastics in the ocean, so certainly, the continual onslaught of these news from around the world is very disheartening, indeed, of course. And so certainly, particularly regarding climate change. We are, of course, in a very difficult situation now and I mean, the trends are still in the wrong direction. Even though on the positive side, we are reading daily news about new initiatives on speeding up renewable energy—renewable energy has become cost effective. That is a remarkable and amazing new development has taken place in the last 20 years or so. And so certainly, now we are seeing a very significant initiatives and speeding up of wind and solar and tidal power elsewhere around the world. But there’s still more investment from and financial support, policies, support from governments around the world for fossil fuel energy. And until that changes, the trends are still gonna be in the wrong direction.
And the worrying thing is, of course, it’s not just energy development in countries like the United States under Trump, all the fracking that’s been going on there. That’s not being slowed down to some degree under the new government in America. But then there are poor countries, for instance, Ghana, Mozambique, they’ve both had oil discoveries and gas discoveries in recent years. So are you going to tell them now, okay, stop all that, switch off all the other pumps and only go for renewable energy? It’s not going to happen. So certainly, I have a hard we tried to say, okay, from now on, there’s not gonna be any more coal or gas or oil development on the planet, it’s only going to be renewables—it’s still an incredibly tall order. So this is just one of the examples of where you say, okay, meanwhile, the impacts on the climate are so horrendous and so scary, that however hard we try, we are not going to speed this up sufficiently to turn the global picture around fast enough. So we already have about 1.2 degrees above the pre-industrial levels of temperature on the planet. And the world community says it must go one, beyond 1.5. It remains to be seen what happens at the conferences that are going to be held, particularly in Britain, in Glasgow at the end of 2021, and whether that’s going to further speed up the introduction of renewables.
But even if he did, that, you still have a problem of carbon sequestration: twice as much carbon as is being pumped into the atmosphere is actually being absorbed by the biosphere. And that’s the critical issue today. So instead of replanting, and regenerating forests, when you look at what’s happened in the Amazon, where more and more of the rain forests are being cut down or burned down in order to produce soybeans, and, and gold mining and timber for urban development elsewhere. So things are looking fairly grim, I have to say, but I wish I didn’t have to say that because, I mean, I’m at heart a very optimistic person, but by and large, when future generations are gonna ask us: what have you done to really speed up change? For the moment, the answer has to be not enough. Not fast enough. We have not been influential enough at this stage, but we can only hope to continue to make a difference.
We cannot give up in my view, and I’m certainly not willing to do so myself.
Annika: So you’re still hopeful?
Herbert: Yeah. I mean, we have to be realistically helpful. And, obviously, there are other aspects of all this. Human numbers are enormous, unprecedented. Human impacts related to that also huge. So, it’s not just—there is often a discussion about, the problem of the world are human numbers. But it’s human numbers plus impacts that really convey where we are going on the planet. And so for the moment, the picture is looking pretty scary, I have to say.
Having said that, I mean, I’m just embarking on a new book on these issues. So I’ll certainly try my best to be optimistic, yes, as much as I can, because I just feel—I mean, I have children or grandchildren, and so on and so forth. You know, we just cannot give up and let the world fall to pieces all around ourselves.
Annika: So what would you tell people in everyday life? What can they do? Do you have any advice for them?
Herbert: Well, obviously, there’s a lot we can do at the level of personal action. I mean, obviously, the question of plastics, in our daily lives is very hard to deal with. And so certainly, there’s a lot of initiatives on conscious [consumption], aware awareness raising in consumerism. And that is very important. And certainly, we have seen a lot of stuff going on in this area, more people obviously, rely on less—there’s a quite a trend and less meat consumption moves towards more vegetarian or vegan living. That’s a significant trend in in the developed countries, certainly no doubt about that. But the issue really is, personal action can only go so far. I did a book after we did this TV series Far from Paradise with my colleague, John Seymour, we were kind of quite concerned, what we’ve been filming over these three years, this goes back 30 years now in the late 80s. So we did a book called Blueprint for a Green Planet, which was all about personal action to change the world and for a major international publisher. And it came out in 15 language editions around the world, which was great. And, but it was also, when we finished writing the book, I tried to persuade the publishers: Okay, so it’s all about personal action but what about collective action. And they were very unwilling to allow us to have a chapter in the book about collective action. Because ultimately, it’s not good enough, just us going to the supermarket and being more conscious in the way we choose things. We need to ultimately influence government policy on what type of products we should be allowed to buy, and what the impacts will be of these products, whether it’s the chemicals going into the production process or, beyond that, the chemicals in the food production systems, pesticides and herbicides and so on. So, ultimately, individual action only goes so far, which is quite right for the World Future Council to have chosen to go for policies to change the world. So that is certainly still the critical issue today.
But beyond personal action, I think what I’ve started to focus on above and beyond urban and urban focus, which has been my focus for many years, is beginning to look at the need for reframing economic systems. There is a particular concern is the fact that the prices of products that we pay today, many of the externalities of the environmental externalities that we cause through our consumption processes are not included in the price of products. So for instance, if I buy a litre of petrol and the petrol station in the UK today, I pay 1.30 pound so per litre. But in reality, the environmental impacts if they’re fully priced into the, into the price of the petrol I buy, it should probably be five or six or seven pounds if included air pollution, and its impacts locally within our cities, or regional impacts, or indeed, the wider impacts on climate change. Once you factor all that in, which is now possible, I mean, economists are doing this kind of work, the price would have to be three or four times higher than that. That would, of course, change the way we move around in our vehicles, fundamentally, and we would no longer drive to the extent we do simply because it would be too expensive to do so. But unless we get serious about reframing the economic parameters of our behavior patterns, we are really not going to make the changes that are necessary. I mean, it’s good news to hear that there’s a very strong move towards, electric transportation based on renewable energy and hydrogen, what people started to call green hydrogen, all that is underway. And there is certainly, significant new trends underway on the planet. But they tend to be initiated in the richer countries, whereas the poorer countries still want to catch up with the lifestyles that we constantly conjure up in our television programs that they see all over the world. So the kind of trends towards following the patterns that we have set in Europe and America and Japan, and increasingly in China. That’s where, we are still setting bad examples that are being followed across the world. And that really is the critical issue now, to try and change the way in which people behave themselves, as you know, in terms of their consumer patterns all over the world, rather than just in the richer countries.
Annika: I’m wondering how we can get people to follow this movement. And you mentioned, for example, setting bad examples, how do we change that? All of that requires so much effort from literally every single member of society—and that’s an enormous challenge.
Herbert: Well, I mean, a lot has happened. I mean, it’s certainly true to say that if the environmental movement hadn’t happened, things will be even a lot worse today. I mean, there would be virtually nothing happening on renewable energy, for instance. There would be even more forest burned down by now, they would have been even more paving over half of landscapes. So certainly, I mean, the huge, global environmental movement that we’re all part of, has made a difference, even a significant difference. But the scale of the challenge of humanity’s impact on the on the environment, is also enormous these days. And really, the trends without a doubt, are sort of going in the wrong direction. And I mean, we must absolutely not give up. But I mean, it’s clear that, particularly regarding climate change there’s so many feedback loops already underway now. Such as melting of ice, and I mean, the major impacts on the water cycle, on the carbon cycle, on the nutrient cycle on the planet, is one of the things that I’m writing about at the moment the big cycles, the flows of resources and matter through the planet, all being in one way interrupted through our human activities. I mean, the water cycle—for instance, take the Amazon, I mean, deforestation, I spend a lot of time doing documentaries in the Amazon in the late 80s. At that time, it was still 90% intact. Well, I mean, now it’s about 75% still there. But as the deforestation takes place, is also the moisture in the atmosphere gets reduced more and more and more. And that’s certainly a trend that affects the water cycle, particularly in that part of the world. But I mean, there’s certainly feedback loops underway now, for instance, in the Amazon, that are beginning to factory effect nearby, or cities further downstream, such as San Paolo. San Paolo is now beginning to run out of water, because the streams and the rivers running in the environment are being affected by the loss of moisture from atmosphere in the Amazon.
Take nutrient cycles, I mean, we in our cities, take for granted a daily supply of food from farmland across the world. So we consume the food and then the sewage ends up being flushed into the sea, together with the fertilizers that we use in order to replace the fertility that we take from farmland. So for instance, the most striking example is the Mississippi River, where the combination of millions of people living along its banks with their sewage, and the fertilizers rolling off from farmer ends up in creating this vast dead zones in the Mississippi Delta. There’s now 500 dead zones of this kind across the planet. So that’s the interruption of the nutrient cycle.
And then the carbon cycle, obviously, the deforestation across the planet is resulting in ever greater rate of reduced capacity of forests and marine ecosystems who absorb CO2, so we are acidifying the oceans, because of the surplus of CO2 being pumped, absorbed by ocean life. So these cycles are all in one way being interrupted. And so certainly we need to, not just in Policies to Change the World, but meta policies to change the world, that really make people aware of policymakers, and particularly also at the UN level, that is not just good enough for one individual country, to do a little bit of tweaking in terms of its policies. But ultimately, the fundamental impact of humanity on the global environment needs to tackled by more forward looking, more bolder, policies that really deal with the cycles of nature and how we interrupt them.
Another cycle that’s being buggered up at the moment is the Gulf Stream, which kind of makes environments in Northern Europe liveable effectively. It’s being interrupted by the melting of ice in place like Greenland, that is, in turn causing changes to the flow of the Gulf Stream, which will ultimately have a very long-term effect on Northern Europe, and parts of America. And so that’s another example of a cycle in nature, being messed about by human activity. So we need to, in some ways, move beyond the national policy initiatives that the World Future Council has so far been advocating and to look really at the global picture of humanity’s impact on the wider global environment, and dealing with that at a much higher level than we do at the present time.
Annika: Moving on a bit to not future generations, but current young generations, young people. What do you think about the current youth and their activities and political and civic engagement?
Herbert: What’s so that’s enormously exciting what’s going on there. I mean, basically, of course, there’s always that one name, Greta Thunberg that comes to mind in this context. But she was just the kind of one person who kind of stimulates millions of young people around the world saying, you are stealing, you adults, you older people, are stealing our future. Stop it. Do really make a change. And that is really a fascinating new development. When we first started the World Future Council, we obviously immediately thought, how can we not just speak for future generations, but how can we get young people themselves to speak for their own future. And that is something that will be found quite hard to initiate, actually. We started a campaign of young people writing postcards to policymakers at some of the G7 conferences. But to be honest, we didn’t get very far, partly because there was so many young people, all write their own little postcards, and ultimately, there was no spokesperson, not one face, if you like, for the world to kind of focus on and so certainly, when Greta Thunberg in her extraordinary ways, came along herself and said, okay, I’m not going to carry on with the status quo, I will demand rapid change in the world. This is an extraordinary, highly, incredibly powerful new development. And the interesting thing in this country—in Britain—is the increasingly coming together between very young voices and very old voices, particularly David Attenborough the famous TV presenter with all these wonderful programs about the planet, The Blue Planet and Life on Earth, and many other programs for the BBC. He’s kind of teaming up now with as a 94-year-old man, with the 18 year old Greta Thunberg and her and her compatriots, and say, jointly, the very old and they’re very young: come together and we’ll make a difference, we will, we are determined not to let the planet fall into total decay. So this is an extraordinary important development. And then, of course, the Extinction Rebellion coming together with that as well. So all of that is very heartening and very important, it’s just a question of: can it be effective enough, fast enough in order to make the really significant difference that we now need on the planet? But it’s very exciting.
Annika: And we also try the sort of intergenerational dialogue you just mentioned?
Herbert: Yes, quite!
Annika: This is also part of a series that we’re doing with, with old and young, so to say. And now of course, the World Future Council has stepped up the game, and also has its own Youth Forum in that way.
Herbert: Which you are actively involved in yourself, good for you. That’s brilliant.
Yes, I mean, I think clearly, the World Future Council has picked up on this trend and started doing something alongside what Greta Thunberg and others are doing. But I mean, we need to double and triple that this initiative, in my view, and anything I can do to help, I will be happy to do so.
Certainly, it is interesting that obviously, all those young people are now talking about their own generation, and maybe the jobs and the livelihoods and the reducing the pollution of the planet, in terms of their generation. But, again, the important thing for an organization like the World Future Council is to think much further ahead, not just five or 10, or 20 or 50 years, but we have to be begin to mimic what tribal societies have done in the past, which is talk about seven generations—at least—from today. And beyond that, given the fact that the human impacts are so enormous, our impacts today will affect generations maybe 50 generations from today, in terms of the impact we have today. So in terms of campaigning, we need to have—think beyond what is happening with young people today, but really, way beyond that, into this fairly distant future. And that’s certainly a particularly hard task to try and implement.
Annika: Yeah. So, in light of all of what you just said, obviously, pointed question, but do you think young people play an important role in the future?
Herbert: Young people are playing a crucially important role. And I think we haven’t probably seen the full, the full manifestation of that just as yet. Because as young people get more informed which is obviously happening increasingly, through social media, in particular, about the sheer severity of what we are doing to life in the future. Without a doubt, they will raise their voices even more loudly than they already have, I think we are going to see a lot more powerful stuff coming from young people in America. The inauguration of Biden, that young poet? What’s her name again?
Annika: Amanda Gorman.
Herbert: Gorman! Yeah, I mean, that’s yet another very powerful voice. She’s about to publish her first book of poetry. So certainly, all of that put together all the initiatives that we are seeing right now, whether it’s existing established environmental campaigning, whether it’s initiatives at the UN level, I mean, certainly, the UN hierarchy, you start talking very loudly, very clearly about the deep concerns about climate change. But all of that needs to be reinforced even more vigorously, by young people making demands for change, and deep change rather than shallow change, which is typically what tends to happen. I mean, there’s good stuff happening in many places, just in the last few days, you’ve heard about campaigners within companies like Shell and BP and Exxon, basically saying you have to change the policy of, of these energy focus companies in ways that really prioritize renewable energy. So that’s certainly was stimulated to some extent by young people, the making demands of decision makers, but we still need even more of that, in order to make the real difference as needed.
Annika: And also in that same vein, obviously, the judgment by the German constitutional court also focuses on that and the concern about future generations and the impact of what we’re doing today on what they will one day experience. So we really see this rise and increase in, as you say, young people having their say, and make their voice heard very strongly. But do you have maybe any piece of advice for young people? You’ve sort of mentioned already the outlook into the future even more.
Herbert: One, I think we need some funding to find new ways of challenging governments and companies in courts. I mean, a good friend of mines started an initiative on Ecocide, in Britain some years ago [Polly Higgins]. And she is sadly no longer with us. But I mean, that kind of initiative saying, basically the fact that we are now damaging ecosystems in ways that are almost the same as concentration camps for nature. This is something that we need to really draw attention to that we are, we are killing nature, nature has a right to exist. And we need to find legal means by which to assert that viewpoint, in new ways and more radical ways than is currently the case. So far, I haven’t heard about any major court cases concerning ecocide, for instance, the removal, the wholesale removals of large areas of rainforest, for instance. But certainly, we need to really secure significant legal initiatives in this area. And we are certainly going to have a lot more of that in the years to come. I’m sure people, young people in particular, will take pick up this particular baton and run with it. But that’s certainly something that I think the World Future Council could get stuck into in new ways.
Annika: Is there anything that you would ask of young people today? Is there anything that we can ask of them at all given that they are already inheriting a planet that’s less than habitable than it was decades ago?
Herbert: Well, the problem is you asking young people, these kind of questions is, basically, they are not the cause of what was happening on the planet. They’re only inheriting the damage and the processes are causing these distractions taking place. So certainly, they have a moral right. I think the morality of what we’re doing on this planet, the ethical perspectives need to be brought out even more strongly, I think. I mean, I recently did a lecture called “The Arrogance of Humanism”. We human beings somehow seem to think that we are the Lords and masters of this planet, and we only one species against millions of millions of species, I think that perspective for young people to realize that we are really in need to profoundly rethink the ethical perspectives of how humans live on this planet, that needs to come to the fore even more strongly than is currently the case. So there’s legal issues, they’re challenging economic systems, and the externalities are being refused to be incorporated in the price of the products we pay are the ethical perspectives. All of this needs to be brought together in a vigorous new way, above and beyond where we already are, in terms of our campaigning initiatives.
Annika: You are a role model in that sense, having done this all your life, and you’ve done so much to just work on passing on a healthy and sustainable planet, to our children and grandchildren. In a sentence, what is your hope for future generations?
Herbert: Well, above all else, we need to think about not just sustainability, but we need to think about regeneration.
That is the critical issue now. That’s something that I brought into the World Future Council some years ago, that we really need to think about regenerating nature above all else as our top priority. I mean, rain forests in particular, this is the critical issue, but I mean, we are rewilding farmland, changing the way we kind of look at the way we supply ourselves with food, now relying on a much less meat-based diet, looking at the oceans in particular, where thers is this is disastrous impact in the way. Certainly, young people need a big picture. And the more we could find ways at the World Future Council to help provide them with the big picture, and then the entry points about how to change the picture. That is such an important thing today. It’s so difficult for young people to say, okay, we are victims of you older generations. Now, what can we do to make a change?
I certainly think the kind of stuff that Greta Thunberg and the World Future Council’s young people’s initiative [Youth:Present] have done is a good starting point. But ultimately, we need to, of course, get into education, much more than we are at the present time. I mean, I think school education really hardly gives kids any kind of sense of the big picture of how we live in nature and how we relate to it, and what the future holds. So, certainly, kids also need to demand from their teachers about really understanding where we are at this moment in time. So that certainly would be another thing to emphasize in this conversation.
Annika: Okay, big question coming up, what is your hope for your legacy and the World Future Council’s legacy for future generations?
Herbert: Well, basically that the World Future Council will have been seen as an organization that has really changed the global perspective of people, in terms of the need for policy change in particular. But beyond policy change, also, philosophical and ethical change. I think policy change is great. But ultimately, the deep underlying issues of how we conduct ourselves as a civilization needs to come into the picture, even more than that is currently the case. And I’m certainly trying my best to contribute in some perspective on that issue. And that’s certainly what I’m going to be doing in my new book I’ve just started working on called Planet Change, I call it planet change rather than climate change. And that’s certainly what I will try and contribute intellectually, if you like, to the work of the World Future Council, and beyond to also the other organizations that I’m also working with. So, it’s not just only about policy change—that is very, very important—but it’s about change a sentiment, it’s about change of ethical perspective, his change of the kind of outlook of civilization, at this moment in time, that’d be really badly in need of.
I mean, going right back to the beginnings of where we as a civilization come from, which is the Bible where in the Old Testament, it says, we are masters of nature. And basically, we should subdue nature, to the human will, that is no longer adequate as a concept. And certainly, that’s, I think, a starting point in terms of making bigger becoming a little bit more humble as a species than we currently are. And so certainly, I’d say, all of that needs to underlie the work of the World Future Council, in the years and decades to come. And if I can make a little contribution to that, I’d be very happy to do so.
Annika: Thank you very much for this very interesting conversation. I’ve learned so much. And it’s been an absolute pleasure to have you. Thank you very much.
Herbert: Pleasure, pleasure.
Thank you for listening to this week’s episode. We hope you enjoyed this inspiring conversation, and will tune in again for more next time. This podcast is brought to you by the World Future Council, a foundation that identifies develops, highlights, and disseminates future-just solutions for the current challenges that humanity is facing. To support our work, Find us at www.worldfuturecouncil.org as well as on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and, of course, in our next episode.