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NTU Sustainability in Enterprise

Matt Sisson

24 July 15 words: John Baird
"I can't change the world but I can play a small part in leaving it in a better condition than when I arrived"
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The Astronaut The Cake And Tomorrow by Matt Sisson


You examine the economic and environmental trouble we’re in and suggest imaginative ways of tackling it. Is it fair to describe the book as a creative non-fiction novel?
I think that’s fair. It’s written in a conversational style, and throughout the book I challenge the reader to use their imagination. If we can’t imagine what a solution a better world might look like, then we have little chance of getting there. So it is creatively written, but it’s also an invitation to take part in a creative process.

Your book came to my attention after landing on the EMBA shortlist. What do you make of the nomination?
I was really pleased, and surprised. Perhaps it shouldn’t matter however it’s a certain validation beyond your mates saying ‘it’s great!’ It’s helped me to realise I can write another one.

Are awards important?
They can be important, but strangely - they’re far more valid for up-and-coming first timers like me than they are for those who are already successful. Radiohead wouldn’t be that bothered about missing out on one of those NME Top 10 albums of all time pieces, nonetheless for a new young band to get Album of the week, that’s a big deal.

Every few pages we are treated to an Illustration. How did they come to be?
I’m not exactly sure, but I always wanted it to have pictures. I’m fortunate in that one of my very best friends, Matthew Kay, is an excellent illustrator. Thankfully he didn’t take much convincing.

With all the talk of national debt and spending cuts it’s easy to think the UK is broke but you argue we’re wealthy, with more than enough dosh to go around?
That’s right. We’re one of the wealthiest countries that has ever existed; we’re also one of the most unequal in the developed world. The wealthiest 1% own the same wealth as the poorest 55% put together. We have 1.6 million children in severe poverty and one million people using food banks. So there’s more than enough money, it’s just in the wrong place. We can have all the things I think a progressive, 21st Century country should have – free public healthcare and education, affordable housing and transport, and good jobs with good wages. We just have to decide to pay for it. That means taking money from those that have too much, and who haven’t got the foggiest what to do with it – other than to keep the score with their equally ludicrously wealthy chums - and putting it to a socially constructive purpose that benefits everyone.

How can we wrestle this wealth away from the 1% and into the hands of the majority?
On one level it’s not hard - we just need a government that is willing to take the difficult decision to implement a genuinely progressive tax system. On another level it is very hard, the filthy rich have so captured our political system that bringing about that kind of change will be a challenge. That said, it’s obviously possible. Far too often we’re told that solutions aren’t realistic or good but it just won’t happen. We’re basically told to take no for an answer and that pisses me off. Change happens all the time. History is full of examples of people and peoples who, against the odds, changed their societies and countries for the better.

Despite overwhelming evidence that climate change is real, man-made and dangerous, there are still doubters. Why is that?
Some people are worried about what it would mean for their world view. If you have a meritocratic perspective, then you won’t like being told that even if you’re super-successful you still can’t consume more than your fair share. You also won’t like being told that if we’re going to get through this as a global civilisation, then sharing, rather than competition, is a far more important social trait.

Technology is often cited as the answer to our environmental woes but you’re not a fan. You even suggest that greater efficiency can make things worse?
That’s right. There’s nothing wrong with technology, it’s a good thing but only if the benefits of it are shared equally. The basic thought exercise is that we’re already consuming far more of the Earth’s resources than is sustainable and we’re doing that without using anywhere near humanity’s total supply of labour, because lots of people are unemployed, or underemployed. So there’s no point in greater efficiency unless the benefits are shared more equally; otherwise we’re either just robbing more people of their livelihoods, or trashing the planet more quickly. 

We are a nation of shoppers, craving fads and fashions, queuing overnight for the latest gadgets. What’s caused our consumption culture and what can be done about it?
Advertising. It’s an entire industry based on making people feel shit and incomplete in order to create desire, which then goes unfulfilled because the product can never deliver. Rinse and repeat. Far cleverer people than me have nailed this. Hell and High Water by Alastair McIntosh comes to mind. What can we do about it? Start to regulate it far more tightly, and in some cases ban it all together. Some cities have completely banned advertising billboards. That’s an idea I would vote.

You suggest we re-examine what makes us happy. Have you a good grasp on the meaning of life?
I doubt it. I tend to live by the desire to do my bit. I can’t change the world but I can play a small part in leaving it in a better condition than when I arrived. For some people doing their bit rightly means just getting through life, day to day, focusing all their energy on themselves – they’ve been dealt such a shit hand. It’s important they do that and look after themselves, free from moralising. Some people have been given a great start and clearly should be doing an awful lot more. In the midst of all of that though, it’s crucial to remember to have fun, and do what gives you energy and joy. Miserable people don’t change anything. Close your eyes and try and visualise some of the great people in the world who we most admire – Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela – people like that. Chances are you’re imagining them with a smile on their faces. That Gandhi – always smiling.

Matt Sisson on Twitter

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