The oldest story ever told?

What's the oldest story ever told?

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden? The myths of ancient Greece or the Pharoahs? Something from way back in Chinese civilisation maybe?

Actually, no one knows. But we do know the oldest story ever written

Traced into a series of twelve clay tabletsThe Epic of Gilgamesh was discovered in 1853 during the excavation of the ancient city of Nineveh in Mesopotamia. It's thought to date from 1300-1000 BC, although the oral version is believed to be much older.

The first half of this long poem is centred on Gilgamesh's quest to find and slay a monstrous ogre called Humbaba, a feat he pulls off with the help of his companion Enkidu. Mission accomplished, the heroes return home covered in glory, so much so that the goddess of love proposes marriage to Gilgamesh. (He turns her down - but that's another story...)

But overcoming a monster is not just the oldest story known to humankind - it's also one of the most popular. As Christopher Booker notes in his The Seven Basic Plots, it recurs in varying forms throughout history and across the cultures of the world. From Beowulf and the Minotaur, through Little Red Riding Hood and George and the Dragon, to Star Wars, Harry Potter and many, many more, there is something about this story shape that we seem to find endlessly compelling.

One theory is that the monster represents the fundamental loss of what we value as human beings - of freedom, hope, love and ultimately of life itself. And so we are destined forever to battle it.

Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that powerful opponents in conflicts are often dehumanised and turned into monsters. The USSR was the 'evil empire' for Ronald Reagan; the USA was 'the Great Satan' for Khomeni and bin Laden. For some, the perception of threat to everything they hold dear can be so overwhelming that the opponent who seems to pose it can only be a 'monster'.

All of which is why I think we need to employ this oldest of all stories in what is arguably the greatest-ever threat to all that humanity holds dear - climate change.

In fact, it seems we are not facing one 'monster' but several - or, if you prefer, one 'super-monster' with many different heads, like the hydra. Because if you add in all the threats looming on the horizon we need to battle with:

  • irreversible climate change
  • irreversible depletion of natural resources
  • irreversible environmental degradation
  • irreversible species extinction

Oh - and financial meltdown.

So serious is this perfect storm of challenges that some commentators - and count me in - are starting to talk about the end of civilisation as we know it. The age of scientific materialism that started with The Enlightenment has just about run its course and we are now looking at what it's spawned alongside its many benefits - a monster rising up from out of the deep. Like in Jaws...

The good news is that, in the recurring story of overcoming the monster, the monster is indeed overcome. There may be pain and struggle and sacrifice; confusion, loss and conflict. But eventually the villagers, the nation, the allies come together and - drawing on every ounce of their collective ingenuity and strength - they win. The monster is slain and the reward is a better life for all.

I believe we definitely can win, although we'll need a coming together of ordinary people on a scale never known before, across the entire globe.

But first things first.

Because there is often a period at the beginning of 'overcoming the monster' stories when the villagers don't really believe that there is such a thing.  It's rumoured to live on the other side of the hill, or in the forest or far, far away - if it exists at all. And many people don't think it does. They pooh-pooh the very notion - especially if they have a vested interest - and refuse to take it seriously.

Until it strikes. And then everyone takes it very seriously indeed.


The greatest story ever told?

I was invited to speak at a mind-boggling conference this week on climate change and its effects on health and security. Organised by the British Medical Journal in the plush London headquarters of the British Medical Association, it brought together medics, medical and other academics, senior military officers, researchers, figures from the world of business and insurance, and many others, including me.

The morning was spent scaring the bejeezus out of us. 

Presentation after presentation, from world experts in their fields, showed how the negative effects of climate change are not just the stuff of future nightmares - they're happening now. 

Especially significant was the contribution of Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti, the MoD/FCO Climate and Energy Security Envoy. That the UK Ministry of Defence regards climate change as an established fact, which warrants the appointment of a rear admiral to spread the message worldwide, should serve as a serious wake-up call to anyone who is still sceptical or unsure. Their US cousins, the Department of Defense, are if anything even more convinced.

Morisetti highlighted the forecast that climate change will have a serious negative impact on the UK - the idea that we'll simply be able to cast off 'Lifeboat Britain' from the rest of the world and enjoy the delights of growing chardonnay in the Yorkshire Dales is dangerously deluded.  We source much of our food from parts of the globe that will either be drying out or regularly inundated with flood waters, and increased competition for resources is expected to heighten political and social instability and the risk of violent conflict. The recent riots in England suggest we will not be immune.

Add to this a raft of warnings on interconnected health risks and by lunchtime I was ready to crawl back home and bury my head under the duvet.

I resisted the temptation not just because I was due to speak in the afternoon but because, time and again, speakers from stage and floor kept asking why the urgency of this message was not being heard by policy-makers or the public at large. In fact, post-Copenhagen and 'ClimateGate' the proponents of climate change have lost ground. The issue has slipped out of the news and down the policy agenda, aided by the financial crash and economic slump, even as the evidence continues to grow.  It was this question that kept me engaged as much as the chilling excellence of the various presentations.  

And as I listened a thought started to grow in my head - we have to tell a better story.

So far, the 'merchants of doubt' have managed to spin a tale of improbability, uncertainty and scepticism that has resonated with the unwillingness of very many people to accept what an overwhelming number of scientists are saying. The scientific message might be backed up with facts, figures, graphs and tables but, as Drew Westen explains in The Political Brain, when it comes to engaging with the public the philosopher David Hume was right - reason is a slave to the emotions. And the story that connects with the emotions - true or not - wins the day. 

My background is story-telling - screenwriting (I've actually written three TV disaster movies) - and I strongly believe that narrative is almost hard-wired into our DNA. It's how we learn, how we make sense of the world, and our personal story - the one we tell ourself about ourself - is what gives our life much of its meaning. 

To date, the story of climate change, as told by those who have the vast majority of the facts and figures on their side, is a story of loss; either total loss (the end of human life on this planet) or the loss of much of what we in the economically advanced parts of the world hold dear - air travel, carbon-hungry gadgets and the freedom to spend, spend, spend on whatever we like. No wonder the merchants of doubt find such an attentive audience.

To convince the sceptics, the undecided and the don't cares that climate change is real, man-made and very dangerous indeed we need a story that is deeper, richer and much more powerful than the one currently being told. Warning people, scaring people, is not enough - there has to be a happy ending, sunlit uplands beyond the approaching storm, that will motivate us all to take on the challenge ahead and keep at it over many years till a victory is won.

A tall order - but I have a few ideas...



Another war, Mr Cameron?

There's an old saying that if your only tool is hammer, every problem looks like a nail. 

So it's no surprise that in response to the riots the prime minister has just declared 'war on the gangs'. No matter that the UK's recent and ongoing record in the war department is lamentable - Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, to say nothing of the decades-old war on drugs (still going strong or, more accurately, wrong). An enemy has been spotted and lo, we're off to 'war'. 

A 'hoodie' was asked on television what he thought would be the reaction on the streets to the prime minister's declaration. His answer was a single word - 'War.'

What's particularly depressing is that a successful alternative to this 'war' already exists.

In December 2009 the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Conflict Issues hosted an event at Westminster to celebrate a youth organisation called Leap Confronting Conflict. They'd been voted Charity of the Year for their work in training young people in how to manage conflict without violence. Senior police officers and Parliamentarians, youth workers and young people, friends and supporters came together to mark Leap's achievement - but also to take stock and look to the future.  The plea was for government to share lessons learned with other parts of the country suffering from youth violence and the negative effects of gang culture - before it was too late...

The response from the outgoing Labour government? A funding cut. Programmes were axed, staff laid off. The amazing, transformative work of this organisation - and others like it - was pulled up short.

Which reminds me of another old saying - penny wise, pound foolish. 

It's all the more important, then, that the Coalition Government takes notice of an urgent proposal to tackle youth violence just published by two of the people behind Leap's success - Jenny Rogers and Jo Broadwood. 

Drawing on approaches already proven to work in the UK, they've put forward a four-point plan that is coherent, no-nonsense, very doable and, if followed, would produce massive cost benefits - keeping just 10% of young offenders out of custody would save £100 million per year.

  1. Embed violence prevention programmes in schools and their localities within broken communities and those vulnerable to youth violence
  2. Tackle gang activity using a multi-agency approach in localities where police intelligence indicates a serious gang problem
  3. Create community-led Rapid Response Networks in areas affected by the recent violence and areas judged to be vulnerable
  4. Set up local enquiries in areas affected by rioting and violence, formed from trained local youth who have demonstrated leadership in challenging circumstances, supported by community elders and specialist youth workers

This last suggestion will help inform any national enquiry called to address the underlying causes of the rioting, ensure that local voices – especially those of youth – are heard, will give local residents confidence in youth as positive agents of change and will create a needed outlet to defuse local tensions.

Taken together, the Rogers and Broadwood strategy could help lay the foundations for a lasting transformation of some of the UK's most troubled communities. As they say at the conclusion to their proposal:

The resources, experience, energy and willingness to tackle the problem of alienated youth are at hand. The challenge now is to find the leadership that will bring them together at scale to transform the criminality and violence into purposeful community efforts.

It's peace leadership that's needed, Mr Cameron, not another war.


Responsible Business? Or profit? Or both?

“In my early days as a nonprofit fundraiser, I used to think that corporations have a moral and ethical obligation to donate.  After all, donating money was the least they could do to fix decades of discriminatory hiring practices and inadequate working conditions...” says Bunmi Akinnusotu (of a global health and human services organisation) in her recent blog Businesses Exist to Make Money, Not Further World Peace.

Corporate giving and volunteering work were what ‘responsible business practice’ meant until as little as a decade ago.   Those were the days when it was quite acceptable to be donating sometimes not very large sums of cash to a charitable cause or a humanitarian initiative, while continuing to conduct business operations in a way which didn't necessarily consider sustainability a priority.

But things are changing…  Companies are increasingly waking up to the fact that they are no longer allowed to get away with regarding responsible business as an isolated concept; a superficial ‘do-good’ exercise which bears no relation to the way the organisation conducts its business.

As the recent Business in the Community report: The Business Case for Being a Responsible Business says: “A divide is emerging between those that embrace sustainability-driven strategy and management, and those that don’t.”

With increasing interest from the media and society as a whole, it is becoming easier to distinguish the mere window-dressing of superficial altruism, from a genuine ethical concern, where a company is mindful of its impact on society and the environment and acts accordingly. As Akinnusotu says: “… philanthropy alone does not make a company responsible.”

However, it is not all about this divide, nor about what companies are not allowed to get away with any more.   It is about recognising the benefits of being responsible; seeing the business case for integrating environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors into core operations. It is about “brand value and reputation, creating a loyal workforce, operational effectiveness, risk reduction and organisational growth”, which then of course translates into “direct financial impact and further business opportunities” as the BIC report summarises.

All this also applies to multinationals and the world of international development. As Graham Baxter from IBLF writes in BAfA’s report Business partnerships for development in Africa: "We have reached a tipping point in the way business sees its relationship with the developing world.  A growing number of businesses, from large multi-nationals to small-sized start-ups, are moving beyond philanthropic, risk-mitigating CSR focused activities, to find new ways to do business that benefit both the poor and their core business.  [...]  We are also seeing donors and governments recognising the new opportunities and a growing willingness to work with business across a wide range of issues and geographies, helping to share the risks, supporting progress to create stable and well functioning regulatory environments which business needs to flourish...”

To give a helping hand to these companies, and to spread the word to others, there is now an increasing number of self-regulatory codes, such as the UN Global Compact, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, the Principles of Responsible Investment, the Kimberley Process, the Equator Principles… The list goes on. The number of signatory companies to these initiatives grows each day; and of course there are new ones in the pipeline as well, such as the Principles of Sustainable Insurance.

So how did we reach the tipping point? What convinced those businesses who changed their attitude, to make the shift? What made them sign up to the self-regulatory principles?

As the BIC report says: ”…to help those [businesses] currently at an earlier stage of the journey, we need to provide the proof – the argument and numbers – that show why and how responsible business practices build successful organisations, to help them define those materially relevant to them.” 

The report reveals the results of their survey which shows how the Co-operative Group’s ethical policies reversed customer attrition, how M&S’s ethical model increased productivity, how Dow’s new energy consumption programme saved them billions of dollars.

What a wonderful piece of work by the BIC.  A necessary study to show everyone campaigning for this cause, how essential it is to understand that commerce is about making profit and that the only way forward is to make a business case for change…  And to show businesses that there is no trade off between revenue, environment and people...  

BIC’s is only one of a handful of such studies.  We need many more like it; to show the tangible benefits, real-life stories and case studies as proof.  And more importantly, all the resulting arguments need a currency sign attached to them!


World peace through, er, insurance...?

Many years ago, when I was a callow youth not long out of college, I found myself in a private interview with Peter Walker, then Minister for Agriculture in Mrs Thatcher's first government. 

I was not there willingly. My dear old dad, worried by my conspicuous lack of success as a writer, had arranged the meeting without telling me, and on the slenderest of pretexts - Walker and I had gone to the same school, albeit more than twenty years apart. Quite shamelessly, he was hoping the old school tie would work its magic and I was there mainly to avoid another family row.

The irony was that Walker had been labelled a total duffer at school, so much so that he'd famously left at 14 with no qualifications. No one expected to hear any more of him. 

But Walker had other ideas.  He went into the City, made a fortune and rose through the ranks of the Conservative Party to become a member of Ted Heath's Cabinet - the world's first-ever environment minister, no less. A decade later he was in the Cabinet again under Thatcher.

The conversation started quite well. 'I see you're interested in politics,' he said brightly, pointing to the Politics A' Level on the CV my dad had kindly sent him. I nodded. 'What party?' he asked, an expectant smile on his lips. 

'Probably the Greens,' I said. 

'Ha!' he barked. 'Well, you'll never become prime minister that way!' Very true.  'So what do you want to do, then - as a career?'

'Um - writing, drama, that sort of thing,' I mumbled. 

'Ah...' he said, his smile fading as the penny dropped that father and son were at odds. There was an awkward silence. 'Ever thought about insurance?' he suggested. 'Wonderful career, insurance.' It was how he'd made his fortune, after all.  But the word froze my blood. Insurance? How - well - boring could you get?

And how wrong could I be?

Because now, I think insurance has the potential to play a significant role in helping bring about world peace. More importantly, the UN thinks so, too. And even more importantly, so do a growing number of major players in the field.

Two months ago the UN Environment Programme’s Finance Initiative kicked off a year-long, worldwide consultation on how to develop sustainability principles for the insurance industry. First stop was Johannesburg. The Latin American leg has just concluded in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Next stop is Guelph, Canada, followed by somewhere in the Middle East/North Africa (exact location TBC, for obvious reasons); then Auckland, Munich and Tokyo.

The aim is to launch the finalised 'UNEP FI Principles for Sustainable Insurance' in June 2012 at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, which will mark the 20th anniversary of the 1992 ‘Rio Earth Summit’.

Involved so far are companies like HSBC Insurance, Munich Re, Tokio Marine – and many more.

So what’s it all about? And why has it changed my mind about insurance? Which, let’s face it, isn’t a subject that often gets the blood pumping. 

Well, in the exquisitely corporate lingo of the UNEP FI website:

As a consequence of globalisation, the general public expects businesses to behave responsibly and be accountable for their actions, which includes minimising their environmental and social footprint. While this footprint is relatively small for the insurance industry, due to the nature of its operations, headline risk has nonetheless increased. Through its financial services, the insurance industry enables most of its corporate clients’ extractive, manufacturing and distribution activities. Some of these activities can lead to ESG risks and challenges.

Which translates roughly as ‘The insurance industry is looking hard at no longer covering business investments that lead to environmental, social or other damage.’

The implications of this could be massive. Whether and at what price we can get insurance coverage is a major factor in what we actually do.  For example, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to build a new house on the south Florida coast simply because few insurers will cover the risk – and those that do ask prohibitive premiums. How many of us would drive uninsured?

Flipping to the positive, it’s quite probable that before long insurers will start to reward, through lower premiums and excesses, companies that can demonstrate they adhere to Responsible Business practices on human and labour rights, transparency, the environment and conflict sensitivity.  All of which will help make the world a better place. In the words of Fernando Moreira, CEO of HSBC Insurance Brazil and Board Member for Latin America and the Caribbean on the UNEP FI Insurance Commission:

Insurance practices which routinely consider environmental, social and governance issues reduce risk and uncover new business opportunities. Equally, such practices build a more resilient insurance industry that can better serve its clients and contribute to environmental, social and economic sustainability. 

So apologies, Mr Walker. Insurance is a wonderful career – especially if you want to save the world…