Philanthro-capitalism and Stubborn Optimism Join Forces to Break Mythical Barriers

“Does anyone else have a knot in their throat?” Christiana Figueras welled up as she walked to the microphone to deliver her keynote speech at the Ashden Awards at the Royal Geographical Society on 14 June. Wiping away a tear, she said “It is difficult to listen to these stories and not be overcome by the beauty the world brings forward.”

She was referring to the videos illustrating the pioneering award-winners’ work. (Watch them here.) Staggeringly, 1.3 billion people today are without energy and the Ashden awards celebrate initiatives that make a crucial difference in creating access to sustainable energy – in a way that lowers carbon emissions, develops clean, sustainable solutions for cities, and provides vital health and economic benefits.

The Ashden Awards were one of the most uplifting an inspirational, moving and enlightening events I think I have ever been to. Not just because of the stories told in the short videos about the inspirational initiatives that were awarded. Not just because of the heartfelt speeches by the international, diverse array of people collecting their awards. (Winners receive a prize fund of up to £20,000, tailored mentoring and support to help them expand – and a global platform to showcase their work.) But it was the keynote speech by Christiana Figueras that galvanised all the disparate pieces of information, and lifted my spirits and those of everyone present. It has been a while since I have felt so optimistic about the possibility of a better, healthier, more sustainable world.

Figueras is the former Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was a key architect of the historic Paris Climate Agreement. She brought together governments, corporations, activists, financial institutions and communities of faith, think tanks and technology providers, NGOs and parliamentarians, to jointly deliver the historic Paris Agreement on climate change. The agreement to limit future warming to below 2 degrees entered into force in less than a year: a record for the UN.

I went along because the event was organised by my great friend Mandy Duncan-Smith and Jo Walton for the past 17 years, and was expecting a good evening but I did not expect to be so awe-struck by the diversity and inventiveness of the winners – and the technologies they employed. You can see videos here: .

This year, they included Q-Bot: a robot that provides under-floor insulation. Floors let in cold draughts, and insulation reduces energy use. There’s no need for disruption because the robots gain access through a small hole in the floor and use clever on-board sensors to carry out the task with dazzling precision. Chargemaster develop plug-in points for electric cars, encouraging the uptake of the clean-air transport solution. Ecozen from western India make solar-powered container-style cold rooms to store crops at the point of harvest. Farmers can control the temperature and humidity with a smartphone app. They now also have greater control over distribution and can reduce the amount of food wasted due to a lack of sustainable power for refrigeration. Shuttl reduces commuter traffic pollution in India by providing private, air-conditioned buses. Pre-booking guarantees a seat. In Delhi the company has cut the 2.6 million car journeys that are carried out every year down to 1.6 million, saving between 2,000 and 3,000 tonnes of CO2 annually. MASS Design group helps meet the growing demand for buildings of all types in Africa. It has become a standard-bearer for architecture that meets the social and environmental needs of the community, using locally sourced materials and training local people building techniques, ensuring a sustainable legacy.

Sarah Butler-Sloss, who set up the awards had a vision back in the 1990s (“That’s last century!”, Figueras exclaimed), that everyone in the world needs and deserves energy – and has worked tirelessly to help make that happen. She initially gave grants to new initiatives but she was astute enough to realise that it would benefit small companies much more if she moved the endeavour into the awards-space. An award would allow them to access greater public support, as well as more investment from the financial sector – which they would need to up-scale. Christiana credited Sarah’s work with inspiring the invention of a new word: philanthro-capitalism, a term that encapsulates what her Ashden Awards do.

It is really exciting to see the commitment to the environment of entrepreneurs in such different areas of endeavour: in farming, the transport sector. And the building sector! It’s hugely inspiring to see that it is possible to retrofit, as well as be more responsible about new building, combining traditional materials and new technologies.

The work highlighted here doesn’t just improve access to and use of energy – it also affects women’s empowerment, health, and better cities. Figueras told the delegates: “I see each and every one of you as a concentrated cube of SDGs.” Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), aka Global Goals are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. And it certainly felt like a room filled with people with good will and dedication to the common good.

Figueras complimented the winners for a significant collective breakthrough. “We used to think that there were barriers to stop climate change. Tonight’s winners are breaking through those barriers – which can now be understood as mythical barriers. They no longer exist.”

The first barrier used to sound something like: ‘There’s no solution to climate change, there’s nothing we can do, it’s too expensive, it’s too complicated, it’s too late anyway, there’s nothing we can do about it.’ But thanks to these small companies that are making a difference, those days are gone. That mythical barrier has disappeared, because we do have solutions, we do have innovations, and they are here to be used and to be up-scaled. And what an array of solutions, from the UK to India to Rwanda to Nigeria to Kenya – what a diversity of solutions! They show that it is possible to use financial technology, hard technology, as well as soft, social technology to address climate change in a timely fashion. It seems that maybe the carbon constraint has actually been the impetus for a huge amount of innovation. So: hurray for constraints: they are not a barrier, but an impetus.

The second barrier was the idea that there was an unsurmountable stacking of imperatives. For Figueras the basic imperative is always a moral one. “How is it possible that we have done this to the next generation, that we have got 1.3 billion people without energy? There is a moral imperative to change that.” But on top of that, the award-winning initiatives have shown that there is a technological imperative. Because they are actually developing the technologies that can address the changes. On top of that, there is the financial imperative. Capital is beginning to shift – in part as a result of the Ashden Awards – from dirty technologies to clean technologies, and it is beginning to shift at scale, which is what is needed. Finally there is the policy imperative. We are beginning to see policy shifts. “How blessed are we that we are all alive in the moment in the evolution of humankind when we can do the morally right thing; the financially profitable thing; the technologically advanced thing; and be able to put them all together into coherent packages that are actually addressing climate change. That is a privilege, my friends. Our parents didn’t have that, they didn’t have the tools. We do. And with every privilege, as we know, comes a responsibility to use all those tools in an intentional way.”

The third mythical barrier that these innovators are helping to break down is the attitude of doom and gloom around climate change in relation to what is known as ‘the tragedy of the commons’. The term, originating in social sciences, describes a situation in a shared-resource system where individual users act independently, according to their own self-interest, which is contrary to the common good of all users. This individual, self-interested behaviour results collectively in depletion or spoiling of that resource.  Figueras pointed out that what we have seen today is that it is not so much the ‘tragedy of the commons’ but actually ‘the opportunity of the locals’. Because there is nothing top-down about the projects we saw at the Ashdens: they are all from the bottom up. They are all solutions that speak to the conditions in the areas where they were developed, in their local client base. “How wonderful to be able to understand what the needs and interests are where you are working, and respond to them.” This, Christiana pointed out, is very much in the spirit of the Paris Agreement, which was also not a top-down, but a bottom-up collaboration, where everyone brought their contribution to the table. The agreement, and this process of arriving at a concensus, underlines the fact that “all incentives, technologies and policies need to be aligned across all levels: from the local to the sub-national, to the city, to the state, and to the federal government”.  Somewhat ruefully she pointed out that in the whole of the world, there is just the one exception. One government did not sign up to the Paris Agreement, courtesy of Donald Trump.

Finally, she decided, it was clear that we, the audience, were “all fantastic stubborn optimists. What do I mean by that? I call myself an optimist, but I don’t refer to the kind of optimism you get from reaching your goal and then sitting down. I am talking about the optimism that is not the destination, but the start of the journey. And that is where all of you are.

All of you know that there is not a single achievement in the history of humankind that has been won if it started with defeatism, if it started with pessimism. That just doesn’t work. It is only if we engage in these fantastic journeys, whether it be at the local level or at the global level, and everywhere in between, it is only if we start with optimism, and we inject the entire process with that confidence, that trust, and the radical collaboration that comes with it, that we can move forward. Why do I call it stubborn? Not only because I was designated as stubborn when I was 3 years old but because I have realised that it is very, very good to be stubborn as long as it is for the common good. We will always have to confront challenge, but we all of us have to remain stubbornly optimistic.

“This is it!

“Climate change is absolutely the most challenging and deeply revolutionising challenge that mankind has ever faced. We are going to address it in a timely fashion. But we are not going to do so unless all of us join in a very powerful family of stubborn optimists, a family – to which I invite you all.”

I went away with a spring in my step and a renewed belief in the potential for change.

Part of the reason I went along was to network and do some more thinking and talking about an event to mark the 30th anniversary of the founding of Media Natura. Some of the old guard have been gloomy about the potential for effecting change. But after this evening, I feel pretty stubbornly optimistic that there is still much that we can do.


Hamlet at RADA: Undone, unravelled, unfazed

The only indication that this is where the hottest ticket of this year, for one of the most exclusive theatre events is happening, is a modest sheet of A4 paper hung on the glass-fronted building. It reads: “HAMLET. Doors open one hour before the performance.”

No posters, no production photos, nothing else.

There’s no need: the 3-week run of Hamlet with Tom Hiddleston in the title role and directed by Kenneth Branagh, staged to raise funds for a new-build RADA theatre, is sold out.

Ever since opening night the press has clamoured for the production to be streamed live in cinemas so that a wider audience can see it. There are no plans to do so, and this adds to the tingle of privilege and excitement one feels walking into the tiny horse-shoe shaped auditorium that seats a mere 160,  knowing that you are one of the lucky few to bag a ticket. Even at £95 a throw.

This excitement at being at an exclusive super-star event is enhanced by the sheer physical closeness to the actors. If I reached out my hand, I could touch them. But from the moment the play starts, the actors touch me, emotionally. Hiddleston is magnificent: his range stunning. The excellent, diverse ensemble cast shines and Branagh’s direction throws fresh light on the emotional complexities of the play.

Two particular aspects of the production deepened my understanding of the dramatic possibilities of the play. The first was the emotional vulnerability Hiddleston brought to the role of Hamlet.

As the lights come up Hamlet sits centre stage at a small piano and tentatively picks out a half-remembered bluesy tune of such melancholy sweetness that it feels as if he hesitates to play the notes for fear they will evoke too much unbearable pain. Quietly mellifluous, he half-sings, half-speaks the slow, grief-filled words as they come to him, as if from far away.

And will he not come again?
And will he not come again?
No, no, he is dead;
Go to thy deathbed;
He never will come again.
His beard was as white as snow,
All flaxen was his poll.
He is gone, he is gone.

When he sings these last words his warm voice thins and cracks and tears wet his cheeks – and we keenly feel his fragility, his loneliness, his vulnerability. Shakespeare didn’t write this scene – he has us meet Hamlet for the first time in a scene characterized by brittle hostility – and I was struck by the boldness of beginning the play with what appeared to be entirely new material. But the feelings with which Tom Hiddleston imbues this song creates in the audience an empathic alignment with Hamlet’s state of mind, and this forms a bedrock of understanding that informs all that follows. When he is spiky or enraged, vengeful or cruel, we know the emotional devastation that underlies it.

I felt deeply affected as Hiddleston deftly moved through changing states of mind. When he meets Polonius he’s reading Matt Haig’s brilliant Reasons to Stay Alive, the book that like no other shows the complex thought-patterns and fluctuating mindsets that are ongoing underneath the dull exterior of depression, whilst also reminding us of the possibility of recovery. Indeed, when Hamlet engages with death beside Yorick’s graveside, he comes to life. He bounces delightfully off Ansu Kabia’s light comedic touch as the Gravedigger.

The second revelation was the genesis of Ophelia’s madness in her relationship with her father Polonius. New light was thrown on Ophelia’s character for me, not only through Branagh’s incisive direction, but also Sean Foley’s brilliant work as the oily, obsequious Polonius. The verbose character loves the sound of his own voice and has often become tedious to watch for that very reason. But Foley finds the humour in the role and makes us love to loathe him. Importantly, the insights that this production provides result from the way Foley’s Polonius engages with his children. I want to expand on that a little.

Ophelia’s brother Laertes’ injunctions as to how his sister should comport herself in his absence are rife with florid sexual references and double-entendre-laden warnings, whilst he himself tucks away a packet of condoms to show her what he will be up to whilst away. Then Polonius arrives to bid his son farewell – and presses a large carton of condoms into Laertes’ hands, in a way that demonstrates parental sexual intrusiveness. Polonius too talks to Ophelia in queasily intrusive sexual overtones.

When Ophelia comes to her father for comfort after a shocking encounter with the grief-stricken, anxious Hamlet, Polonius offers no containment to her, but rather amplifies her confusion and distress by insisting that the prince was expressing “the very ecstasy of love”. Rather than recognize that Hamlet’s grief over his recently deceased father troubles him, Polonius convinces Ophelia that she is the cause of the madness: by rejecting his love. Thus he imprints on her that her sexuality is damaging.

He does not comfort her – in fact,  even as she sits distraught on the ground, he neglects her state of mind entirely and excitedly rushes to the King and Queen to tell them all about his new, titillating discovery. In Shakespeare’s original version, he goes alone, but Branagh has Polonius take his daughter with him. The shame and embarrassment to the poor girl to hear her father read Hamlet’s love letters out loud is palpable and we see her begin to fragment. This worsens as the royal couple gratefully accept Polonius’s reasoning that Ophelia’s sexual appeal is to blame for Hamlet’s “hot love” (her father’s lasciviously uttered phrase sees Ophelia cringe); that she is the cause for his descent “into a sadness, then into a fast, thence to a watch, thence into a weakness, thence to a lightness, and, by this declension, into the madness wherein now he raves.”

Polonius’ description of Hamlet’s decline serves as a template for Ophelia’s own descent into madness later on, but this particular scene reminded me powerfully of Freud’s Dora: as in her case, here too, parents and long-standing adult friends of the family blatantly connive to use and abuse a fragile teenage girl as currency in maneuvers that are designed to paper over the cracks in the adults’ own complex and unscrupulous sexual relationships.

Kathryn Wilder’s Ophelia’s slight, waif-like frame betrays how little she wishes to ‘take in’, and one can easily see why. Her father’s thoughts turn by default to her sexual collateral, and he is persistently sexually intrusive. This is combined with emotional neglect of her when she is disturbed: he walks away from her and disregards her when she is in distress. He meets her with misrecognition of her lived experience, and tells her that her perceptions are incorrect, whereas it is actually he who consistently misreads the emotional temperature. And he is manipulative: when he, Claudius and Gertrude plot to lay a trap for Hamlet, with Ophelia as bait, he makes her complicit by having her present, and therefore guilty – yet at the same time it renders her even more powerless.

The innocent and loving intimacy that exists between Hamlet and Ophelia appears to be the only affectionate relationship in her life, and one which is firmly rooted in genuinely felt reality. When Hamlet turns against her, that too is lost. When he roughly rejects her, he too misrecognises her intentions, her very essence; and he too says one thing when he feels another. This misrecognition is what undoes her.

In previous stagings, Ophelia seems to ‘just go mad’, and her madness seems inexplicably sexual in its origins and utterances. When she is mad, she sings of flowers and these are often played as sexual metaphors. But this production highlights a potential other, deeper cause. When she sings, she sings the very song that Hamlet started with. It caught my breath when I recognized the words, and it sparked my imagination. Perhaps she’d heard him sing this sad song, once? Perhaps they’d sung the song together? It reminded us, the audience, of their lifelong friendship with each other; it links her to him in a way that shifts our thoughts to her distant history. The link to the song amplifies that both youngsters lost not only a father but also each other: their friendship, their comfortable closeness, and their hopes of love.

The elements that Branagh and Foley have highlighted in Polonius’ way of being with his child, shed light on why Ophelia’s internal world would have been so fragile, so as to fragment in the way it does. It is the first time I have noticed the profundity of this constellation.

The play features many different ways of relating, notably between Hamlet and his friends, who in this production are all women. Rosacrantz and Guildastern convey the immediacy of the camaraderie between fellow students, which warms the cockles of the heart but quickly unravels in adversity. His friendship with Horatia on the other hand strengthens as time goes on: she has the capacity to listen, to recognize, and above all, to bear his experiences, unfazed. This listening relationship, in which someone can digest what you divulge to them, and think about them with you, is one of the most valuable relationships in life.

I feel privileged to have been at this performance, not because the tickets were like gold dust but for the sheer joy of being present at such a thoughtful creative process. The lack of press and the small scale of the place make for a safe space in which the players can explore the story and the feelings that arise from it. The absence of ego and of external pressures provides a sense of  freedom and breathing space.

I was deeply moved by Hiddleston’s Hamlet. Branagh’s direction has thrown new light on the characters’ storylines by enriching the chains of association, and there are stand-out performances by the whole ensemble.