Lily Cole: “We need to collaborate and we need to listen”

Environmentalist and author Lily Cole discusses the role of optimism, collaboration and diversity with UN High Level Champion for Climate Action, Nigel Topping. By Climate Champions | May 3, 2021

Nigel Topping: I thought I’d start by asking how you first became interested in climate change.

Lily Cole: When I was modelling a lot, as a teenager, I found myself in this strange, privileged, position where I was being asked by lots of different charities to support various causes. I’m quite curious by nature, and I’ve always cared about social and environmental issues, but I went on a bit of a journey, trying to understand the world and what the different issues are and the work of different organizations and charities. Through the process of doing that I worked with different organizations and I travelled a lot. It became very quickly clear to me that the environmental situation we were in, that we’re still in, was terrifying. I mean, forgive me, you’ve been in the climate movement for a long time, so maybe it felt mainstream to you, but 15-18 years ago, it felt somewhat niche compared to the movement today. And I think that’s a point of optimism we can discuss.

When I was a teenager, it seemed still somewhat sidelined; a cause amongst a list of causes. And as soon as I thought about it, and looked at it, I wondered how can this be sidelined? I mean, this is our only home. This is our ability to survive as a species. And every other issue, whether it’s animal rights, human rights or children’s rights will be negatively impacted – and is already sometimes being negatively impacted – by an unhealthy environment. It feels like the rug underneath everything else.

The other thing that very quickly struck me was how illogical it was to separate out business from philanthropy. The social business movement was somewhat nascent then but I was very quickly interested in how business can be used as a force for good. Of course, charities have an important role to play, but what I quickly started doing was putting the energy that I would have put into philanthropy or activism into business and trying to align those things.

You’ve used the word optimism several times, and that’s a really important idea for you – and for me. I think anyone who’s an activist has to be an optimist; you have to have the belief that you can change things. Can you tell us more about your book and about the importance of optimism?

I wrote the book for a few reasons. But one of the main things I was thinking about when I approached it was just how much positive momentum I was seeing behind different really important movements and trends.

It felt like so much attention, media focus, was – and is – often put on the state of alarm. Of course, this is important. It’s important that we understand the science, we understand the problem. But I felt like it was equally important to recognise that there are tonnes of solutions, there are tonnes of activists, entrepreneurs, politicians and people trying to solve these challenges. And by focusing on the potential solutions, we are more likely to see them manifest, and show how all of us can play a role in helping different solutions come into fruition. I suppose I was trying to capture reasons to feel hopeful. Because I think there are many.

I’m really intrigued about your book’s idea of wizards and prophets. What do you mean by this?

I borrowed this terminology from a book by Charles Mann called The Wizard and the Prophet, because I was looking at a wide spectrum of solutions and ideas. The reason I did that is because I think the problem that we’re facing is so complex; the idea that any single person, organization or company has the answer is deeply problematic. But also, because it feels like our society is becoming increasingly polarized around different important debates when we actually need to come together, and we need to collaborate and we need to listen.

Lily Cole. Credit: Patricia Imbarus

By virtue of that approach, I needed to embrace all the different environmental types of thinking and activism. And Charles Mann’s terminology, the wizard and the prophet, captured for me the wide spectrum of interests and solutions that you find within the environmental landscape. There are those who think everything will be fine, because we’ll invent some techno fix that will put sulphur in the sky, or will extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or we’ll just get loads of green electric cars, for instance. And then, on the other end of the spectrum, we have those who say we need to be vegan and buy less stuff, simplify and connect with nature. And historically, for many years within the environmental community, there’s always been that tension. In my book I was trying to capture those range of views, because I think all of them are important to listen to.

The last quarter of the book looks at Indigenous communities and completely different ways of operating societies, and how we might take inspiration, or learn, from them when it comes to understanding our social relationships and our relationship with the planet.

We have the opportunity to learn from Indigenous communities, to learn from communities that are more “prophet” like, i.e those that have a deeper understanding of their natural environment, have different value systems, but also marry that with the amazing benefits that technology has given us – and not be dismissive of that and try to bring the best of different worlds together.

That makes total sense. Because there is a tendency to talk as though you have to choose one side – because often people are in camps, right? I love the idea of, rather than having those as camps, having them as inputs into a kind of mashed up solutions set which recognises that they both have value.

This morning, I went for a walk and was chatting to my mum. I was looking at the bluebells and she was saying that when you mix together species in gardening the outcome is much better, you get hybrids. So, for evolution to work well you need diversity.

Yes, and for society to work well also. We know, for instance, if you want a good company you’re much better off having diverse genders, diverse lived experiences and different intellectual backgrounds so you don’t get groupthink. Diversity is important in so many ways – for resilience, for thriving and for ideation. Because if you all had the same lived experience, you’re unlikely to be sparking off each other. In a way that’s partly what [Gonzalo Muñoz, Chile’s High-Level Climate Action Champion] and I are charged to do. What we’ve noticed is that the work on mitigation, in other words the Race to Zero, often tends to get very technical quite quickly. But the really interesting area, I think, in terms of the wizards and the prophets, is resilience – how we make communities resilient. This is about ways of being, ways of governing.

What are you exploring in that space?

There’s a tendency to have a camp of wizard solutions and a camp of prophet solutions. In the world of resilience, my observation is that this conversation is more led by grassroots organizations, including Indigenous peoples. But there still seems to be a huge gap between the big businesses and the grassroots. What [the Climate Champions] are trying to do is figure out how can we bring those two groups together so that this uniqueness, which [mitigators and adaptors] bring, is harnessed without being swamped by the other side. Then we can drive scale and deploy the resources of multinational companies whilst ensuring that the grassroots aren’t swamped by the size and the power of the businesses which need to listen to the context specific wisdom of the grassroots’ organizations.

I’m curious to hear from you how you feel in the run up to COP. How optimistic are you?

I’m feeling really optimistic about the shift in momentum towards zero. Everyone’s agreeing that zero is the goal. That wasn’t the case a year ago. You’ve now got all the G7 countries committed to zero and all coming up with their 2030 plans in line with this. And yet, when you add up all the plans, we’re still not going fast enough. I do think it’s a question of whether we can ratchet enough, fast enough. But it is going in the right direction.

What’s your hope of an outcome of COP?

The first is that the multilateral system is seen as thriving. As you know, what’s being negotiated is a relatively detailed Paris rule book but it matters: transparency, reporting, trading. The other thing is significant increased momentum at the national government level. We see that now with, for example, the UK, Japan, the US, Canada, all of Europe. Hopefully, we’ll see more from some of the other big economies like India, China, Australia and South Korea.

I also hope that this COP is remembered as a moment of action and solidarity. For action – we must see raised ambition, but with real evidence of things happening. So, it’s not just talking about what people are going to do, but what people are committed to and what they’re doing now. Because this is the decade of action. All of our work on Race to Zero is not about 2050 targets, it’s about what’s being done in the next five years.

And then solidarity, in other words what are we doing together to address climate justice issues, particularly for resilience and finance. We also need to ensure there is a sense of global solidarity around vaccines by the time we get to Glasgow. If not, it will make for a difficult backdrop. Because it means there’s a lack of justice in another realm – and the justice element is at the heart of the geopolitics of climate change. I feel positive about mitigation, but we need to spend more attention on justice issues – resilience and finance.

It’s been fantastic speaking with you, Lily, and we haven’t even talked about the fashion industry, which would be really interesting.

My line on fashion is: sustainability is totally coming into fashion, which is great. It’s what we want.

It’s my line to every business person I talk to, whatever industry you’re in: it’s coming. In fact, it’s probably already here, and if you’re not aware of it, then you’re probably too late.

Fashion is interesting, because fashion isn’t just clothes, fashion is our mindset, right? And sustainability is genuinely becoming very fashionable. I think that says a lot about the culture shift we’re going through.

Yes, nice point. Good point to end on, Lily. Thank you so much.

This is an extract from an interview which took place on April 26. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Who Cares Wins: Reasons for Optimism in Our Changing World by Lily Cole (Penguin Life ) is available now.


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