A work of fiction: news from the coalface – part 1

11th January 2024


Disgraced environmental consultant, Peter Lovebrother, is another month nearer retirement…

Reading the term ‘greenhushing’ in the February/March 2023 edition of Transform, I was transported back to an uncomfortable contract with a rural county council in the early 2000s. As their de-facto head of environment, it was my role to develop and launch what would become their perpetually unpublished environmental strategy.

I was a passionate, pragmatic and ambitious consultant – I still am, irrespective of what you might read online – but back then the environmental professional ploughed a lonely furrow (many still do). Nevertheless, this was a new role in a department of one, and I had jumped at the opportunity to make a difference.

After a predictably gentle induction day, my director abruptly changed tack on day two and I found myself invited to an increasing number of cross-departmental meetings. As the week wore on, it became clear that despite my sustainability expertise, I had really been appointed to corral and persuade a bitter tier of middle-managers to join the highly publicised but inactive Environmental Steering Group (which, by the way, I was to set up ASAP).

This was the era of the 'great restructure', and I began to understand that the chief executive considered my ‘neutral’ post a potential Trojan horse: new recycling bins and tree-planting initiatives were enduringly popular with council taxpayers, and therefore hard for management to oppose. This shower of corporate confetti could help camouflage her more unpopular planned reforms.

By Friday I had spent more time in the windowless kitchenette considering my options than dealing with the environmental issues I thought I had been employed to tackle.

Oh, for a lunchtime yoga session! But this was 2001 and the idea of being paid to undertake a wellbeing session would have seemed absurd.

In need of fresh air, I decided to explore the council's dilapidated estate. At the far end of the (enormous) staff carpark, a lorry-load of abandoned gravel was rapidly re-wilding, and among the flourishing weeds (Cirsium arvense, digitalis purpurea, impatiens glandulifera – in rude health despite a rainless spring) I noticed the bold shoot of Lycopersicon esculentum 'Alicante'. Endozoochory in action! I flushed with excitement and took a photo; this was the sort of light-hearted but informative item that would sit well in the Go Green section of the Council newsletter.

Back at my desk I began to think more politically – because you must, if you are to survive in these big organisations – and realised my story could serve a deeper purpose. The comms team had asked me to respond to a combatant email from a campaign group, which criticised the council’s decision to fell a small area of ancient woodland. The resulting space was to become an overflow car park for the hospital’s inundated oncology wing, which raised a facetious question – did the protesters want less cancer, or more woodland? With this in mind, I drafted an uplifting article about the surprising resilience of ecosystems.

The rest of the afternoon was spent analysing gas and electricity consumption data: thanks to a disconcertingly dedicated but recently deceased member of the maintenance team, meter readings had been taken without fail for the last nineteen years and could now be used to interpret long-term trends in energy use. This was environmental consultancy in action – the kind of useful, practical work I always hoped to do.

As colleagues waved their goodbyes at 17:01 I was still engrossed, unusually happy to stay late. At 18:39 I emailed a summary of energy saving opportunities to my director (over 30% – who could say no?) along with the text about the wild tomato plant and photo, cc’ing the comms team.

On Monday morning an email from the chief executive was waiting for me:

Peter, I want the council to save energy as much as the next person. Always been clear about that. I’ve even got my own tomato plants, would you believe. But we don’t want to raise expectations unnecessarily. If we say publicly that we’re going to reduce our energy consumption by 30%, what happens when we build a new leisure centre? How do we navigate that one? And this gravel you’ve been photographing – is that not a fine example of the Council’s poor management and wasted resources? Do you see? We’d be setting ourselves up for failure. Better to keep quiet and see how we get on, no? Thank you, Peter - it’s great to see you settling in so quickly. No need to reply to this.

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