Richard Smith: I was a flop

Richard SmithI give a lot of talks, probably far too many. Sometimes they go well. Sometimes they are awful. A recent talk I gave was a flop. I failed to deliver what the audience wanted, and I was exposed as a fake.

The event was at Madingley Hall, Cambridge University’s sub-Downton Abbey conference centre. I was talking to 40 people from healthcare, many of them doctors, on a course about leadership for sustainability. The talent and the commitment in the room were immense. I was the last talk of a long day, just before dinner. Ideally I would have delivered wisdom, inspiration, optimism, wit, and actionable steps. Unfortunately I didn’t manage any of them.

I probably would have done a better job if I’d delivered a talk and then answered questions. I then would have set the agenda. But instead of a talk I suggested that we do a “goldfish bowl.” This is a process where the subject, me, sits with five people in a circle in the centre with the other 35 sat in a wider circle around the inner circle. The subject is there to be dissected, like a dogfish. The assumption is that the dissection will produce something useful: if the subject is a leader then the audience will learn about leadership, through both the successes and the failures of the subject. The people in the inner circle ideally have read a little about the subject. They question him for 15 minutes or so, and then the people on the outside comment on what they are observing, perhaps suggesting other parts to dissect. There might be several iterations of this.

I’ve done this three times before, with mixed results. My motives in suggesting it were both noble and ignoble. The noble motive was that I thought the audience would appreciate a different form from the traditional PowerPoint with questions. My ignoble motives were that I wouldn’t have to prepare and that it would be more interesting for me as everything would be new, I wouldn’t have to plough through my familiar material.

Although I was told later that a complaint about the course is that it’s too much about sustainability, particularly climate change (or climate disruption, as I prefer to call it), and too little about leadership, we launched in our goldfish bowl straight into sustainability. How could people, particularly those in healthcare, be made to care more about sustainability? You’re a journalist, what are the messages that will get through to people? How can we get politicians to take climate change seriously?

These are hard questions. I didn’t have convincing answers.

I trotted out one of my set pieces. To make change happen you need three things: a burning platform, a sense that we have no option but to change; a vision, perhaps not fully formed, of what we might move to; and a plan of what we will do today to move towards the vision. If one of the three components is missing, then change doesn’t happen. All are essential, and I’ve been part of many attempts where one was missing and change didn’t happen.

What then, people asked, was a vision of a better future? I began to gabble about a project to write Act III of solving the problem of climate disruption. Act I lays out the territory, introduces the characters; Act II shows things going wrong; Act III is the resolution, ideally in this case a positive one. In the project to write Act III we have got as far as collecting accounts of what it might look like, mostly written by economists and environmentalists. We want to collect them on a website, but the big challenge is to create an Act III that speaks to people powerfully. This needs a novelist, screenwriter, or poet.

What might Act III look like, the audience asked me.

The closest I’ve come to seeing an Act III was in Juliet Schor’s book Plenitude. I have written about it but couldn’t remember all the features.

“You spend less time in paid employment but more time with people and your community. You make things and grow things, but in a high tech way. You don’t just grow lettuces for yourself, you grow lots using sustainable technology. You sell them. You have a business. This is not a poor world. And you are a “real materialist,” not in the sense that you try to fulfil yourself through collecting material possessions, but rather that you understand all the resources that have been needed to create the thing.”

Actually, I wasn’t that coherent. The ideas had to be dragged out of me. I don’t have a clear vision of Act III, and I’m not wholly convinced by Schor’s vision.

Then came the crunch. “What are you doing to make the world more sustainable?”

“Well, I’ve written a lot. I wrote about climate change or global warming, as we called it then, in the BMJ in 1996.”

“But what have you done? How have you changed.”

I start to stumble. “I used to belong to the Green party in the early 80s. I collected wastepaper in Wandsworth, but after a while I couldn’t see the connection between collecting wastepaper and creating a better world. I quit. I measured my carbon footprint. It wasn’t too bad apart from all my flying. But how can I do global health without flying. The planes will go anyway.”

“So you’re not going to change until others change. Is that it?”

“Well….better to light a candle than live in darkness, you mean?”

“Why couldn’t you grow more lettuces?”

As I write this the morning after my flop, I think of Gandhi’s “Be the change you want to see.”

“I do write a lot, but I recognise that that’s not the best way to change the world. It’s part of the process of the change, but it’s never enough on its own. If you want to make change happen better to be a politician than a journalist.  Indeed, writing is probably a device to make me feel better. I don’t change my lifestyle, but I write about the need to do so.”

You’re a fake, the audience thinks. Some small consolation is that probably some of them are too.

I feel the need to confess. “I have written, recently, about my biggest contribution to countering climate change would be to die. Then I’d produce no greenhouse gases [after cremation, I might have added], and at the moment the contribution I make to countering climate change, some words scattered here and there, doesn’t outweigh the carbon I consume.”

Things got worse. Those who lead on climate disruption have to be optimistic, maintain a positive view despite being faced with lots of evidence of things getting worse. “Martin Luther King didn’t say ‘I have a nightmare.’” The thinking, probably right, is that people won’t be scared into changing, they need to be enticed. Hence the importance of an Act III that is plausible, compelling, and attractive.

“Are you optimistic?”

The awful thing is I’m not. I start to prattle. “We know that all species are gone eventually. Cockroaches will outlive us. Our evolutionary flaws are selfishness and lack of imagination, both of which have advantages in that they stop us being overwhelmed by all the pain and injustice in the world. I read a lot of ficton. The novels tell me a lot about human frailty.”

“How might things play out?”

“The first intergovernmental reports on climate didn’t mention health. Then we thought about more malaria and dengue fever and deaths during heatwaves. Now we know the big effects will come from starvation, water shortages, extreme weather events, mass migration, and wars over resources.”

“Thanks. Can’t you give us a positive message?” I hear exasperation. I sympathise.

I try again. “Well if we worked less, put more time and energy into our relationships….I’m going to work on Act III. We’ll pull together material that others can use to produce a compelling picture. I don’t have the talent to write a good novel about Act III, but I could perhaps write a bad novel….”

So, I think on the train going home the next day, perhaps a bad novel can be my legacy.

Competing interest: RS had his expenses paid, but with his Senior Rail Card and Freedom Pass they didn’t amount to much. He was not paid but was given a meal, several glasses of house red, a night in a room with four windows, and a book on climate change, more than he deserved.

Richard Smith was the editor of the BMJ until 2004 and is director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative.