Obama, Attenborough & A Birthday Chat About The World

By Chris Aldhous

September often seems to be the season of agenda-setting.

In the UK we’ve had a flurry of political upheavals followed by nervous policy floats ahead of the annual party conferences.

Summer, or what passed for it, becomes a distant memory; September may start slowly, but quickly enough we’re shaking the sand out of our shoes and the cobwebs between our ears and focusing on what the rest of the year might yield.

Welcome back to the working/worrying week.

Of course all eyes within our community are peering nervously towards those first two weeks of December and it now seems, post the summer break, that the time is ripe to start setting and managing expectations of what COP21 might deliver.

I don’t think any of us expected the Catholic Church to be one of those early agenda-setters, but nevertheless the Pope clearly had something to say on the subject. It certainly sparked some lively debate and did the one thing we all need to think about: it took the topic outside the usual community of climate change conversationalists and got the wider world to pay attention.

Of course the usual opinion-eaters and data-wranglers all rushed to the podium to snarl their rebuttals and caveats into the orchestra pit of microphones but this time it all seemed a little desperate and out of date. The Pope had engineered a seismic shift in the tectonic plates of the COP21 narrative and it was all those rabid deniers that now looked like they were building their arguments on very unstable ground.

A second set of pronouncements slipped out during the summer with a lot less media coverage – but for me they resonated more deeply for the very casual nature of their appearance: buried in the back end of a cosy birthday chat between an American President and the great educator/naturalist he grew up adoring.

I was lucky enough to encounter the conversation twice – once just channel-hopping between European crime dramas. The second time, deliberately searched out on iPlayer just to double-check that my ears had not deceived me in a moment of wish fulfilled delirium.

The TV programme was a short 30 minute celebration commemorating the 89th birthday of BBC naturalist Sir David Attenborough. The coup they had managed was persuading President Obama to invite Attenborough to the White House, to stroll along the porch and shoot the breeze about the stuff they loved.

It seemed spin and agenda-free, a genuine catch-up between two old friends who shared a similar passion for the wonders of the natural world.

The US President talked about growing up in the tropical fruit basket of Hawaii, glued to the early Attenborough wildlife documentaries that taught him how to unlock an appreciation of the bustling ecosystems all around him. Cue wonderful footage of the British naturalist scrambling across every conceivable terrain in his endless search to reveal the natural wonders of the ‘blue marble that we live on’.

In return, Attenborough invited the President to talk about the impact he had felt on visits to his father’s African homeland and how it had helped inspire him when mapping out the United States’ plans to move towards a cleaner fuel economy.

It was a mutual appreciation meeting of the highest order.

Then something happened in the last eight or so minutes. The pace picked up, words came thick and fast, no longer fuzzy with nostalgic memories, but rather steeled with clear purpose and intent. The focus got sharper and suddenly we were sharing a room with two highly motivated and passionate thinkers who were clearly determined to stare down the reality of climate change, the threat it poses to all that we hold dear – and brainstorm the practical solutions required.

Take for example this opening statement from Obama:

All too often we pose this as an economic development versus environment problem, rather than recognising there’s a way to marry those two concerns.’

Solutions need to be global, he insists, we’re all connected.

Attenborough takes the topic in a different but equally important direction, identifying the critical role of his own industry: ‘Mass media has a responsibility to connect urban populations to the natural world…the UN tells us that over 50% of the human population of the planet is urbanised, which means to some degree they are cut off from the natural world – and yet at the same time, mass media can inform those people as to what the natural world is…’

He continues to pursue this theme of empathy and connectivity: ‘Unless they understand the working of the natural world, they won’t take the trouble to protect it…that’s one of the roles the media should have, maintaining a link between the population and what goes on in the natural world…’

Both agree the importance of engaging with the younger generations, ‘Young people care – they believe humanity has no right to destroy and despoil…the natural world is part of their inheritance…’

Spirituality and mental well-being is another theme they both touch on, ‘Think about in all the world’s religions…when you’re seeking wisdom you go to great waters, you go up great mountain peaks, you’re in the desert – the amazement of the natural world and its powers is what speaks to what is deepest in us. People instinctively understand the natural world is where you go in moments of celebration and moments of grief…it is the greatest prop and stay to humanity’s own feeling for itself.’

This is powerful, unexpected stuff to be spilling out of a 30-minute birthday doc. We need to restore our sense of ‘agency and capacity’. We have to accept there has to be ‘an economic component to all this.

And finally, the appeal to what we all share, ‘an understanding, a gut-feeling that you understand the natural world is part of your inheritance, the planet on which we live, it’s the only one we’ve got, we’ve got to protect it.’

As you can  see, I patiently transcribed what they both said in these final exchanges and when I look back on those words I realise so many of them form the backbone of what we intend to do with artists before and during the Creative Factory at COP21.

The brief is simple: taking the reality of climate change and connecting it to new economic thinking, spirituality, empathy, childhood, Nature and art, to forge new means of engagement with a wider community of supporters, to inspire everyday activism and behaviour change, leading to the creation of a better world.

Now that’s a birthday wish we can all get behind.

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