I am delighted that so many of you have been able to join me here this evening in this inspiring building. It is a remarkable masterpiece and I do want to start by congratulating the whole team who have brought Edwin Pugin’s work back to life, in a way that must have seemed almost impossible to a small local charity when they started in 1996. In fact, I remember visiting this site some two years ago as part of a rather inadequate effort to encourage their valiant labours. Now, of course, the restoration of the monastery is driving the regeneration of the whole Gorton community, so I do hope all those concerned feel immensely proud of what they have achieved.
I don’t know about you, but I find that just being here lifts my spirits and makes me feel that anything is possible, which is just as well because I want to spend a few minutes talking about an even more ambitious initiative! As many of you may possibly know by now, I am currently on a week-long tour of the country, drawing attention to a project I launched here in Manchester in February. Project START takes as its starting point (if you will excuse the first of many intentional and unintentional puns) that mankind is in deep trouble.
Our actions are changing the Earth’s climate, perhaps irreversibly, and we are consuming the natural resources that sustain us at a rate that cannot continue for long. Put simply, we are – right now – causing serious damage to our own life-support systems, and time is running out to do something about it. None of this, I suspect, will be new to you. You have been bombarded for years by increasingly strident and doom-laden messages from every direction: from scientists, from politicians, from environmental groups, from film makers and the Media and, yes, from me too! And that’s the problem. Knowledge of what is wrong is greatly outstripping any efforts to put things right. Yet all the talk about what needs to be done tends to be couched in terms of what we need to stop, reduce, cut or otherwise avoid.
This overwhelming emphasis on negative messages, whilst not at all surprising or inappropriate given the immensity of the problems we face, is getting in the way of finding and adopting solutions. START does not attempt to play down the gravity of the situation – far from it – but it looks for ways to encourage positive actions from the great mass of people who would all do their bit, if only they knew what they could do and how much difference it would make.
I spoke in February about my Great-Great-Great-Grandfather, Prince Albert, and his Great Exhibition, which took place not long before work started on this monastery. Prince Albert and the Royal Society of Arts saw that by showing people the future in an exciting way they would not be afraid of it, but would instead see the advantages it could bring. The challenge today is different, but I believe the approach is as valid today as it was then. START is about showing people, in a straightforward but inspiring way, the things they can start doing, one step at a time, which will not only improve their lives, but also help our one and only inhabitable planet to sustain us all.
During my tour I have seen some truly remarkable examples of what can be achieved when people really start to look at things differently. Who would have thought that Newcastle City Council would start to install beehives across the city, or that almost every green space (and some that weren’t originally very green at all) in Todmorden would be turned over to start growing vegetables, maintained by volunteers and picked by all?
There are some common themes emerging, many of which I have encountered over the years while travelling up and down the country with my Business in the Community programme. The first relates to the people who make things happen. They know their communities and they know how to mobilize them behind good ideas. Business in the Community calls them ‘community entrepreneurs’. They are positive people and they believe in the art of the possible, even when others see only the impossible. They also have scant regard for convention, precedent, normal working hours and most forms of rules and regulations! The sort of people, I must say, I have a great deal of time for, because they get things done.
The second theme that I see emerging is a focus on compelling, positive stories. To put it simply, telling good stories that will catch the imagination of everyone who hears them. And that probably means not mentioning either sustainability or biodiversity, important though they are! You really don’t need to know anything about the biology of bees or ‘ecosystem services’ to know that having a whole lot more beehives in Newcastle has to be a good idea, nor do you need a degree in either nutrition or soil science to know that having fresh vegetables growing along the streets of Todmorden is good for everyone.
The third and final theme I want to mention is ambition. However small the starting point – and, of course, most good initiatives start from small beginnings – there is an underlying passion that says ‘we can change the world and this is how we are going to do it’.
It is, of course, hard to change the world if you don’t first change your mind. I’ve always rather loved Einstein’s barbed definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results!”
The solution to this problem is perhaps to remember what that other eternal optimist, the Lord Buddha, always taught, that “with our thoughts we make the world.” How we see the world dictates how we behave towards it. So perhaps one good start would be to widen our perception a little, to see how we really fit into Nature’s extraordinarily waste-free, energy-efficient system, so that we realize we are as much part of Nature’s processes as everything else. If we do this, if we see that we are also Nature, then we really begin to feel the impact of what we do in a more profound way – that what we do to Nature, we do to ourselves. If we limit her capacity to sustain herself, we also limit our capacity to sustain ourselves too.
So, ladies and gentlemen, what has all this got to do with you? Well, let’s start with the fact that you are all leaders in your communities. Nice though it is to see you all, that is the reason why you were invited to be here tonight. You are all leaders in the North West. Between you, you have the capacity to make your region a leader in starting to do things differently; to provide a beacon of hope both locally and nationally. So I do encourage you to seek out and nurture your community entrepreneurs (some of whom I know are here tonight); to help them to construct and communicate compelling stories about what they are doing; and to harness their ambition, not just to get started, but to grow and keep growing.
I would also, if I may, encourage you to take a few risks. I do understand how difficult that is, especially when public money is involved. As I say, we can’t go on doing the same things and expect to get different results. We need a step change in sustainability and that is surely going to require us to embrace things that are currently regarded as, at best, ‘alternative’. I well remember – and this is a true story – that The Manchester Guardian once wrote, in a way that implied my eccentricity had finally gone one stage too far, that I had installed a ‘strange engine’ at Kensington Palace. It was in fact a prototype recycling bin for glass bottles. That was a good many years ago, but need I say more? I could, actually, say the same about the reaction to my reed bed sewage treatment system at Highgrove nearly twenty years ago – but I won’t!
If we turn to the bigger picture for a moment, I know that for many of you economic challenges will be uppermost in your thoughts. You might well think that the challenge of achieving sustainability can be put off for a while. But, ultimately, the state of the world’s economies depends on the health of the global environment, and not the other way round. Fixing broken economies is certainly going to be difficult enough, but starting to come up with the sustainable solutions that will stand the test of time is arguably even more important. It is also unequivocally urgent.
I do want to keep tonight’s focus on the positive, and on starting to do things differently at the local level, but just bear with me for a moment while I quote a short piece from something called the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which was one of the largest scientific reviews ever undertaken of the state of our planet. The authors said:
‘If natural systems were well understood and behaved in a predictable way, it might be possible to calculate what would be a ‘safe’ amount of pressure to inflict on them without endangering the basic services they provide to humankind. Unfortunately, the living machinery of Earth has a tendency to move from gradual to catastrophic change with little warning. Such is the complexity of the relationships between plants, animals and micro-organisms that these ‘tipping points’ cannot be forecast by existing science.’
No rhetoric there, just a calm and sober warning of the real dangers we face. And have we not just seen this in action, in Pakistan and Niger; in China and Russia? Nevertheless, and with those words ringing in our ears, I do believe there are grounds for optimism. History shows us that human ingenuity is boundless and, if directed at finding the right kinds of solutions to the correct challenges, I have no doubt that we can meet what are sometimes regarded as seemingly impossible goals. Saving the rainforests, curbing greenhouse gas emissions to sustainable levels, restoring fisheries, tackling poverty, establishing more sustainable urban communities and building 21st century industries using new technologies can all be achieved. If, fundamentally, we recognize that we have a much deeper relationship with Nature’s processes and patterns than we have been led to believe – that her cycles and her limits are part of us – then not only can we decide to do something positive, we will also have a more comprehensive and deeply anchored outlook for the job in hand – to build the common purpose in our schools, businesses and at home that is necessary for us to succeed.
We really do not need – as is sometimes suggested – to choose between, on the one hand, protecting our planet’s life support systems and, on the other, creating jobs and building a stronger society. We can be really revolutionary and really positive and combine the two – by building new models of economic development that reflect the urgent need to live off our planet’s income rather than digging into Nature’s rapidly depleting capital. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is where START comes in, because doing things differently is going to require a mass effort involving the whole of humanity. It has certainly never been done before, but then we have never before faced such a challenge – and nor have we had such tools at our disposal to communicate the many things we can all do to address it.
I said at the beginning of this talk that START is a hugely ambitious project. I hope I have convinced you that it is also immensely worthwhile. There is a daunting amount to do if it is to succeed, but the monks who drew up the plans for this monastery no doubt thought the same, as I am sure did the group who set out to restore it to this glorious state. They both succeeded and, with your help, START will too.