A work of fiction: news from the coalface – part 2

13th March 2024


Disgraced environmental consultant Peter Lovebrother is another month nearer retirement…

The World Economic Forum has said that the cost-of-living crisis is the ‘greatest short-term risk facing the world and threatens to undermine efforts to tackle climate change, which is the biggest long-term risk’. Kill me now!

Yet, although we live in difficult and confusing times, I still believe there is light in this darkest of tunnels (helped by the reflective sheen of its polished ground granulated blast-furnace slag lining and consequent BREAM Infrastructure points). My faith in the indomitable human spirit remains.

I’m no stranger to tough conversations – ask my therapist – but there are times in our working lives when we environmental professionals are pushed to the very edge of our comfort zone. Like ships in fog, these pivotal moments appear unannounced to thrust us into a liminal place where we are forced to consider who we really are and what motivates us. Do we capitulate, to be crushed like snails underneath a corporate giant, or stand up for what we believe? For me, this test arrived in the shape of a much-needed fire door refurbishment programme.

The day began with a puncture on my way to the office. A long-term cyclist, I’m a proficient repairer with over forty successful patches to my name - but that day the rain, a mild hangover and a pervasive sense of futility manifested themselves in complete disregard for due process. Rushing, and bent double in an unsightly posture on the narrow pavement, I ignored the childhood training from my mother and did not wait long enough for the glue to cure before applying the patch. As I reinflated the tyre, the muffled gunshot turned heads and confirmed the repair had failed. I stood tall and swore loudly at the sky. Pigeons clattered away and a group of office workers crossed to the other side of the road.

I arrived at work with filthy hands and wet socks, having missed the monthly team meeting. This one was unusually important; I had been due to submit my proposal for a new recycling contract and rebrand. It had been the focus of my work for the last month, and I was proud of it. Better waste separation across our sites, facilitated by two hundred new bins, would consume most of my annual budget, but it made financial sense and represented the kind of innovative thinking our Director wished to see.

In need of a coffee and a moment to compose myself, I was instead ushered by a colleague into the monthly repairs and renewals meeting – not in my calendar! - chaired by the affectionately-known ‘PBT’ (pit bull terrier). I’d only met Terry once, when he’d announced to no-one in particular that sustainability ‘was a really key focus for the department going forwards from now on’. I’d bridled at the tautology alone.

The R&R meeting was a raucous and uncomfortably old-school affair – inevitable when you over-fill a meeting room with white middle-aged men, many of whom have seen active service. A primordial locker-room scent rapidly displaced any remaining oxygen, fuelling old rivalries and the fierce protection of plumbing, decorating and signage budgets. Terry’s recent addition of a ‘green’ agenda item had intensified matters, worsened further by my naive conflation of capital and revenue spend at the previous meeting.

An hour later we were still floundering on the second of fifteen agenda items, with three quarters of an hour lost to a fraught yet enjoyably rude discussion about a persistent blockage in the toilet adjacent to the CEO’s office. After failing to confirm who was responsible for organising the necessary repairs, and more importantly which budget code the work should sit under, an exasperated PBT slammed his hand on the table and the meeting lurched to the next item.

Discussion turned to the fire doors in our largest building, and I switched off entirely to focus on extending an asymmetric doodle at the top of my notepad. After several minutes, the phrase ‘budget cuts’ lifted my head. Terry’s PowerPoint slide beamed a photo of a fire door hanging lop-sided from its hinges, prompting much tutting and teeth-sucking from the audience. He advanced the presentation, and I was dismayed to see my new recycling logo appear. It didn’t take long to join the dots.

Sitting in the pub afterwards, a mixture of devastation and anger coursing through me, I composed a robust email to my acting manager. Cleverly – I thought – I utilised Greta Thunberg’s “Our house is on fire” Davos speech to illustrate the point that although fire safety is important, a fire door is not much use when the outside of a burning building is hotter than the inside. Reiterating the predicted scope three emissions savings achieved by my proposal, and their contribution to reducing global temperature rise, I resigned.

Sometimes you have to nail your colours to the mast.


You can read part one here: A work of fiction: news from the coalface – part 1 - IEMA

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