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Interview with Harriet Lamb

Harriet Lamb has been CEO of climate solutions charity Ashden for two years having previously served as CEO at peace-building organisation International Alert, and prior to that leading Fairtrade in the UK and internationally. Harriet’s latest book, From Anger to Action, Inside the Global Movements for Social Justice, Peace, and a Sustainable Planet, will be published in June. The life-long campaigner will be in conversation at this year’s virtual Dulwich Festival with Mercury-nominated folk musician, Extinction Rebellion activist and conservationist, Sam Lee, who has recently written his debut book, The Nightingale.

You’ve been a campaigner all your life, where did that desire to change the world first come from?

As a child I read Gerald Durrell who wrote: “Man is sawing off the very branch on which he sits.” I wrote that out in my childish round handwriting and that thought stayed with me. I have been lucky enough to have lived in India and from Indian campaigners, I learnt that you have to tackle social and environmental issues together. And I have been sustained in all my campaigning, by inspiring people and initiatives across the world who are, often against great odds, achieving change and showing the way to a kinder, more equal way of living that is in tune with nature

You talk about tackling the world’s ‘four fires’, can you explain what these are?

Currently there are four fires raging in the world – the climate emergency, highest ever levels of inequality, of conflict, of numbers of people forced to become refugees or internally displaced. And they are all connected – so, for example, global warming is often causing people to move, for example to find grazing for their cattle, and that can be one of the factors leading to conflict, which then forces people to flee. So too, we have to find solutions that address these issues together, for example finding solutions to the climate crisis that also address inequality – such as Repowering in Brixton who put solar panels on social housing and are seeking to tackle fuel poverty so people have warmer homes, lower fuel bills – and have a lower carbon footprint.

Do you believe that the global pandemic has had any positive effect on these four areas?

A friend of mine who had COVID said it attacked all his body’s weak points. In the same way, COVID deepened existing inequalities within and between countries. However, across the world COVID was a wake-up call – we cannot continue consuming as if there are no limits. We need to learn to live within the resources of this one, beautiful but fragile earth. People discovered that with a new urgency and freshness, alongside the strength of caring, of community, of neighbourliness – of all that is good about community. Let’s hope that we do indeed make bold choices now – to grow back in a way that creates a whole new norm, that is much more in tune with our communities and with the natural world.

You have dedicated much time to working with refugees, can you tell us about your recent successful community sponsorship scheme?

South East London is a wonderful place to live – from the Dulwich Festival to the strong sense of people’s interest in helping shape the living alternatives, that show how life can be different. One example is Herne Hill Welcomes Refugees, a group of neighbours who, through a Government scheme, have sponsored one refugee family to join our community and hope very soon to be welcoming a second family. As a group you take on the responsibilities to find a house at housing benefit rent, to find schools and doctors, dentists and English classes – all that is needed to help a family settle. In this way, you can directly help some people while also sending a wider message to Government that we want to welcome people in their hour of greatest need. And along the way you have so much fun and meet so many wonderful neighbours!

You’re currently trying to include sustainable energy on the education agenda, how is that campaign progressing?

The Let’s Go Zero campaign, in a large coalition led by Ashden where I work, is flying along, especially as dealing with COVID becomes less all consuming. Schools can sign up to commit to reach zero carbon by 2030 by taking action from reducing food waste to encouraging wildlife back into the playground or learning to grow vegetables. Schools are already doing so much – and this campaign can help them take the next step, the next step, while calling on the Government to give them the support and funding they need. We are hoping to build up to the COP26 climate change talks in Glasgow this November when the UK wants to take a leadership role – so how better than by responding to the calls of young people for serious action on the climate.

What aspect of your career are you most proud of?

That has to be building up Fairtrade from an idea that everyone laughed at or dismissed as for the fringe, to today when the FAIRTRADE Mark is recognised by nine out of ten people in the UK and is a strong global movement uniting smallholder farmers and workers with consumers as we seek to change how we grow and trade our food. We have to value our food and farmers much more and be ready to pay a fair price for the tea and cocoa, coffee and bananas that we all enjoy, so that farmers can feed and educate their children – and care for the environment properly. We’re still only in the foothills with a mountain to climb in changing how we produce and buy food –  but as the leader of a coffee farmer told me, quoting an ancient Mayan Indian saying: “Many little raindrops falling in the mountains make the mighty rivers flow.”

What was the inspiration behind your second book ‘From Anger to Action: Inside the Global Movement for Social Justice, Peace, And a Sustainable Planet’?

My co-author Ben and I had been thinking for a while about telling the amazing stories of all those people who are creating the living alternatives, or are protesting against injustices – and how they are shifting the landscape of what change is possible. Our media focuses obsessively on the Westminster bubble and yet so much social and economic change is forged by community groups – campaigning on tax justice or putting solar panels on school roofs – and we wanted to highlight their stories too.

Do you believe that the book’s publication next month may be timely, given that we have all had a year of slowing down and reflection on the bigger issues at hand during lockdown?

Absolutely – it’s a time for all of us to rethink our priorities, at home and on the global stage. We are also concerned about the rise of populism encouraging people to turn their back on multilateral global solutions to the issues we face. But we have learnt with COVID that we are all so interconnected. We cannot turn our back on the war in Syria or the climate crisis hitting Bangladesh now; rather we have to redouble our engagement globally and work again to find the new multilateral solutions to issues such as climate change or to support refugees and build peace. Sadly we don’t have the answers but we do try in the book to address the issues at stake.

Looking ahead to next month’s event with Sam Lee, what did you make of his debut book?

I LOVED this book and I thoroughly recommend it to everyone. It’s easy to read and beautifully illustrated, moving between naturalism and music, to history and folklore.  Through the tale of one bird, he brings out so much that is wondrous about nature and so much that is under such threat. He writes: “The Nightingale’s song of rebirth had become a requiem” because, within thirty years there will be no more nightingales in this country – unless we change now. And Lee also talks about the Extinction Rebellion protests that he has joined, including organising a deeply moving singing of A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square – in exactly Berkeley Square – in a reimagining of the song, inspired by a sense that together we can change the world.

How powerful do you think is Lee’s use of the elusive bird to promote awareness of environmental issues?

The fragility of this shy little bird, with its reducing numbers in this country, symbolises so much that is at threat with our loss of biodiversity. Yet the bird has such a beautiful and powerful voice. Let’s hope people stop, listen to the song and all it represents and that inspired by this bird, we all redouble our efforts to help preserve our wildlife, to reduce pollution and chemical use, to reduce the destruction of wildlife’s habitats. What is wonderful about Sam’s music and singing with the birds, is the joy that makes us all feel alive. So that’s a very inspirational way to be drawn to caring for the environment. There’s so much sadness about the loss of biodiversity – but coming to the issues through music is very motivational.

Many have commented on their encounter of birdsong during lockdown; What did you discover over the past year?

Sitting out in the garden over the long spring and summer evenings, I watched every day for the pair of tawny owls nesting in a tree in our garden. The male call is the traditional hoo-hoo or twit-twoo but the female makes a sharp ke-wick. I love them! And of course the fact you don’t see them very often, makes it all the more exciting when you catch a blur of soft brown feathers swooping by in the gathering dusk.

The Nightingale – Sam Lee and Harriet Lamb in Conversation
10th May at 7:00PM
For more information, click here.

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