This article forms part of our Powering People and Change Project.
Let’s face it, the state of the world can sometimes seem utterly overwhelming and very dark indeed. But it is in these moments that we can all benefit from the deeply therapeutic effects of having a good old laugh about it all.
This month we talked with Oliver Hayes and David Powell, hosts of Sustainababble, a comedy podcast about the environment and a firm favourite here at Blossom. We discuss the path they both took to get involved in environmental work, some of the interviews they’ve enjoyed the most over the years and top tips on how to easily identify eco babble.
For those folk stumbling across you for the first time, how would you describe the podcast?
Dave: Well, I think we try to do a lot of things but mainly we try to talk about very serious things, like the collapse of everything and the fact there is only one place we can actually live in the universe and we’re ruining it, but whilst also recognising we don’t necessarily always have to be throughly miserable and earnest the whole time. We’re not trying to find the lighter side of this stuff necessarily, but at the same time we are trying to have a sense of humour about it all. Because you sort of have to right? Otherwise you’re going to go a bit peculiar I reckon.
Some episodes are quite in-depth interviews with some incredibly interesting people but often we just try to draw attention to bits of greenwashing that are out there or highlight people being particular bastards and call them out. There’s so few environmental podcasts who don’t take themselves massively seriously, so you can go listen to one of those if what you want is to he told how absolutely awful everything is, but we reckon there’s room to be a little silly every now and again.
Ol: And the flip side as well, you can easily go listen to plenty of stuff that will tell you how absolutely wonderful a new soap made out of 30% recycled socks is, and that’s probably fine, but surely we’re entitled to be a little cynical about that as well?
Dave: I guess the point is that none of us really know what we are doing. None of us know how to navigate environmental collapse because we’ve never really done it before, but there are all sorts of opinions you can have about what the definitely right thing to do is. Whether that’s smash capitalism, or sustainable consumption or green growth or behaviour change or whatever it is, but if you take a step back from it, what actually comes into view is a sea of confused little humans trying to make sense of just how messed up all of this is and how complex and terrifying it really is… and you’ve got to find that a bit funny.
So how did sustainababble come into existence?
Ol: We actually used to work together and I guess the podcast was born out of two things that used to particularly gnaw away at us at those jobs. The first was that publicly we had to pretend we had all the answers and that everything was black and white – ‘these guys over here are definitely good and these guys over here are definitely bastards’. Whilst internally you’d be thinking ‘maybe these guys are only actually 70% bastards and some of the things they say might not be total rubbish’. So really I think we just needed a place where we could admit to actually being as confused as everybody else and having the opportunity to explore that. And the other thing which Dave has already touched on was that everything we discussed during the day to day at work was incredibly earnest and humourless and we just wanted to be able to take the piss a little. That and one day we went to the pub and got exceedingly drunk and agreed to do a podcast!
So, as listeners to the show will know, you both actually work for environmental charities – what was the point at which you decided to follow that as a career? Was there a particular wake up call for either of you?
Dave: I’m not sure I have a very polished answer to that sort of question. There seems to be this thing you do in the environmental lefty world where you will tell a story of ‘self’, you’ll say ‘well what happened was I was out walking one day in the wilderness of the Himalayas and I saw a baby bird…’ you know, that sort of thing. But I don’t have any of that. I was in Australia after university….
Ol: How did you get to Australia then Dave? Pogo-stick yeah? Disgusting.
Dave: Well, that’s the thing, I didn’t remotely care about any of that stuff back then. Not really, not in a sort of day to day, doing anything about it sense anyway. But when I knew I was coming back to the UK it occurred to me that I would have to start working for the rest of my life, and the idea of just working to make rich people even richer didn’t really appeal. So I took a starter job at Friends for the Earth and worked up from there really.
Ol: I don’t really have a very interesting answer to it either I’m afraid. Really, it was just a thing I became gradually more and more interested in when I was at university. I actually studied music, well ‘studied’, basically played and listened to a lot of music for a few years. But I think if you end up becoming a campaigner, which technically me and Dave are in our jobs, you’ve got to have a default sense of injustice. I’ve never really properly been able to work out why but that fire inside of me was just there and I wanted to go and work for a green organisation. Unfortunately green organisations like to employ useful people with actual relevant skills, so I had to spend a few years working in other jobs before I eventually got taken on at Friends of the Earth.
Dave: Actually this sort of question is what we often get asked more than anything else on our website – folk wanting advise on how to get involved in environmental work. So much so we actually wrote a little blog about it to try and help people who are trying to get started.
This will a tough one, but is there an interview over the years that has really stood out for either of you?
Ol: I think for me it’s probably the episode we did with Naomi Oreskes. If you’re not familiar with her work she’s an academic and author who has written pretty extensively about the phenomenon of climate denial. To be honest, I didn’t really know all that much about her before she came on the podcast but it was just the interview itself that was so great – I think perhaps it comes from being at the top of your field but there just seemed this total lack of performance from her, like she was totally relaxed and just herself. And herself just so happens to be a wonderfully funny, irreverent, naughty badass. We actually conducted the interview in a room quite high up at UCL in the centre of London and it was the same day as the climate school strikes, so literally the streets below us were teaming with climate activists which just added to this incredible feeling around it.
Dave: It’s a tough choice as we’ve had some incredible interviews over the years but I tend to find my personal favourites are with those people who aren’t super famous and our listeners might not necessarily of heard of before. We had a wonderful interview with the author Vybarr Cregan-Reid, to talk about his book Primate Change which explores how our modern environment is physically changing our bodies. It was just a gloriously free roaming fun chat and we also discovered how the treadmill killed Oscar Wilde…
Are we allowed to talk about that time you decided to not work for an environmental charity Dave? I have quite a few friends who listen to the podcast who also work in conservation or environmental charities and I know the show you did explaining your reasonings about it really struck a chord.
Dave: Well yeah, I think ultimately it just got to the point where in general I was just a bit knackered. It’s hard work this environmental campaigning lark. I managed to take a step back and realised that somewhere along the way I had just lost my connection to what I was trying to achieve. When you start out in the environmental sector you’re fulled by this burning passion to make change, but the longer you do it, the more you realise that what you’re dealing with won’t be fixed solely by a change in the law or by fixing some legislation, but the change needs to come in some innate human behaviour and the way in which we construct the economy. It got the point where I just didn’t know if I could pick my way through that anymore – it just seemed too big.
That was about 8 months ago that I decided to take a break from it all and it was definitely the right decision. Far too many people in our sector suffer serious mental health problems, it’s almost a culture of burnout really. Even when you’re not working you’re supposed to be, or feel obligated to be, worrying about this stuff and I just don’t know if that is the sort of thing you can actually really do forever. I don’t know, what do you reckon Ol?
Ol: I’ve definitely found some external developments just completely, entirely overwhelming to the point of anxiety and even panic attacks, and that’s not something I’ve ever really struggled with before. It was really disorientating. And I did take up the offer of a sabbatical a few years ago because it was getting to the stage where I just wasn’t really any use to anyone. I seemed to resent everything and was often far too quick to criticise, looking back I do think that was a kind of burnout and I just needed a rest. The thing that always brings me back though is that I know I’m at my most freaked out when I don’t feel like I’m doing anything about a problem. At least if I’m trying to navigate a path towards some sort of positive change it feels like I’ve got agency. I know I would feel much worse if I had a job that was totally unrelated to this field but I was still paying attention to the news and constantly freaking out about it.
This one might take a little unpicking but what are your views on whether or not a business can ever be truly environmentally sustainable?
Dave: I think in the long run we have to have, by definition, an economy that is sustainable – by which I mean if it isn’t sustainable then we can’t carry on doing it. But long before we get to the point of not being able to sustain it the worry is that we will have caused horrific, unimaginable damage in the process. Some people will probably argue that it’s alright if ‘company x’ is a bit dirty so long as ‘company y’ is really, really un-dirty and there probably is going to have to be an element of that but ultimately, there is always going to be some environmental impact in everything that you do. But the earth can cope with some environmental impact, it’s just a case of how much. Don’t get me wrong though, it is great to see businesses trying to take this seriously but you do ultimately need government to be setting the rules for it…
Ol: I think what Dave is trying to say is that we need to smash capitalism.
Dave: I’m not sure that is what I’m saying actually…
Ol: No, I totally agree that without governments setting meaningful rules we aren’t going to have an overwhelmingly sustainable set of businesses in our economy. But more than that, there needs to be a genuine attempt to operate in a way that is consistent not just with those rules, but with the very idea of trying to have as little impact as possible and that’s different to doing everything you can just to meet the minimum requirements of the regulations or ticking whatever you need to tick in order to get your B Corp status or whatever. But it’s a cultural thing – you need everyone involved in the production line to genuinely care about being sustainable, not just be able to market their company as a sustainable business and therefore pick up the green pounds.
Dave: I think this actually brings together parts of the last two questions actually. I think a lot of the problems with how I had begun to think came down to scale, the magnitude of the problems we face. But when you start to think a lot smaller and think what can this company actually do, not necessarily tormenting itself with getting every single thing precisely right but just trying to do the best that it can, at the very least we’d buy ourselves a considerably larger amount of time before things got really bad. And I am optimistic that things are changing, just look around the world right now and what’s happening. There is a new generation of people who want to do business differently, who want to do economics differently.
Top tips you’ve developed over the years for identifying eco-guff and babble?
Ol: If it looks like babble, smells like babble, and tastes like babble, it is almost certainly babble…
Dave: If it quacks like babble…. No, real sustainababble is when you have a company that is doing a thing that is green, Amazon buying electric vehicles for example, that is massively dwarfed by the fundamental business model that they have. So undeniably when Shell is planting trees all over the place that is a good thing, but an oil company, for as long as it’s business model is oil is never going to be a green company. If your business model is dependent on you selling 6 million plastic bottles of shampoo to people every year, you are never going to be a green company. Basically just look for what the company actually does and don’t be suckered in by a slightly greener version of something you don’t need in the first place or where you are being pushed to buy a thing.
Do you think recent events with Covid-19 will have brought home some of the urgency we need in making changes? Are there things we can be hopeful for in 2021?
Ol: I think during the spring and the summer when most of the world was in the first lockdown we saw the veneer of the high individualistic and frantic lifestyles we normally live fall away pretty quickly. And it revealed we are actually much nicer, more collaborative, more compassionate people than we are often told we are.
If we were on the podcast I’d have to klaxon this next statement, but there’s a thing called the ‘value perception gap’ where you ask people what’s important to them and more often than not they say things like family, community and being happy rather than success or wealth. Then if you ask what they believe other people value they say ‘other people are total bastards who just want to be rich’. And obviously those two things can’t both be true. What’s interesting is that all the research that was done during lockdown showed that this perception has started to fall away as we began to show more compassion towards others and help each other out. I definitely think that is connected to an awaking in environmental awareness because you can’t dissociate those two things. Caring about the living world and other creatures and the future of humanity is all connected. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little worried that what we’ve seen is capitalism letting its guard down temporarily and its going to come back at us very hard, but there might have been enough of a pause on the treadmill of nonsense that perhaps some of those changes are permanent.
Dave: Yeah I’m supremely optimistic about it. I think once something has been uncorked it can’t simply be corked again. As a society we have given ourselves permission to talk about climate change as a thing that is happening and there were some obvious expressions of that through Attenborough and the climate strikes. Even look at the opinion polling of young Republicans in America, the majority now think that climate change is real, that green energy is good, not as much as Democrats do but certainly more than old Republicans. After all the final counts have been done and the dust settles a little I wouldn’t be surprised if climate change has been one of the deciding factors in the recent elections.
The fact that we have got through this Covid pandemic thus far and environmental concern is still a priority is incredibly optimistic. The fact that governments around the world are putting environmental plans at the heart of what they do is really good, and the fact that Trump is not around is also massively important just as a kind of narrative for this whole thing. It’s becoming the start of the social norm.
You can find out more about Sustainababble and listen to episodes here.
Or you can read previous editions of the Powering People & Change Project here.