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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.