Climate Change and Me

JOE STRUMMER BECOMES THE WORLD’S FIRST CARBON NEUTRAL CITIZEN.

I’d been really struggling to persuade big corporate brands like Virgin and BP to buy into the idea of Future Forests and going carbon neutral. I knew it was a brilliant and simple idea – calculate your carbon emissions and plant trees to offset your annual output. But, most importantly, I knew that getting huge, international companies to take the issue of global warming seriously was vital to well-being of the planet. I was ahead of my time, but I knew that this was a problem that wasn’t going to go away. I was a man on a mission and this part of the mission involved me persuading the corporate world to take responsibility for the CO2 that they were producing, in other words, their contribution to global warming. Their participation wasn’t an option, it was a necessity.

However, I had to face the fact that I was failing. For five years, I’d been talking my way into impressive board rooms – from BP to BA – and all the MDs had been suitably concerned and ready to sign up to Future Forests. I was always naively enthusiastic, I believed their desire to sign up to something that would mean they were going to positively contribute to the solution of global warming, was about to be proved. That they were going to put their money where their mouths were. But that never happened. Time after time, company executives would talk the talk, but never walk the talk. They were a group of eternal hedge-sitters. And it was driving me insane.

Then, two things happened which were to change the course of Future Forests and carbon neutrality. In a brilliant way. At last. It was June 1994, and I was getting on the train at Castle Carey in Somerset – where I’d lived for the past eight years with my partner, Caroline – on my way to London for more meetings as usual. When I sat down, I instantly recognised the grey-haired, bespectacled gentleman occupying the seat opposite me. I couldn’t believe it, here was one of the rebel heroes of my socialist past, sitting by complete chance, so near to me. It was Rodney Bickerstaff, the general secretary of Unison, the Uk’s biggest union which looks after 2.5 million public sector workers like nurses and social workers.

Inevitably, we started talking. Inevitably, I told him my story about how important the issue of global warming was right now, and that I had an idea which would contribute to the solution rather than add to the hand-wringing and scare-mongering that is often meted out by environmentalists. I talked wall-to-wall climate change to him for two and a half hours. I told him about trees and how important they were to me and the world, how they could absorb CO2 which was one of the main greenhouse gases responsible for global warming, and that if I could get companies to take on board the idea that they could offset their dangerous carbon emissions by planting trees, then at least we as a planet would be making some progress around climate change. I told him about Dr Richard Tipper from the University of Edinburgh’s Institute of Ecology and Resource Management, and his work in the field of carbon sequestration, and how he’d come up with a method of calculating the amount of CO2 that companies and individuals emitted, and what that meant, in terms of the number of trees that we would need to plant to offset it. I let him know that one individual in the UK emitted approximately 11 tons of CO2 annually and that this could be offset by planting five saplings.

To be honest, I wasn’t even trying to convince him, I was just telling him about something that I passionately believed in. Perhaps I also let into the mix, a bit of my frustration about other people’s lack of commitment to welfare of the planet, but it wasn’t deliberate. But, Rodney is a great bloke – we’re still friends – and he listened closely to everything I said, and then declared that he loved the idea of Future Forests. “That’s very interesting,” he said in his usual minimalistic, northern way, “I might be able to get a bit of publicity for you, but I can’t promise you anything.”

Frankly, I was thrilled that he’d taken me seriously.  I didn’t expect any instant results, I was thinking he could be a great contact in the future. But Rodney Bickerstaff is not a hedge-sitter. A few days later, he actually sent a mail-out to all his 2.5 members explaining about Future Forests and that it would cost £3 to buy one tree, and that way, they would be playing a part in combating the effects of climate change.

Two weeks later, bang, my letter box exploded with cheques from Unison members. I was bowled over with surprise and delight. For five long years, I’d been trying to get wealthy brand leaders to part with their money with very little luck. Now these lowly paid public sector workers were putting their faith in trees. I received several thousand pounds from individuals. So I opened a bank account for Future Forests and this was the beginning of its future. Further down the line, Unison itself went carbon neutral and that entailed £80,000 going towards our forestry projects around the world.

It was as if my father’s communist beliefs were coming back round into my way of thinking and value system. I’d been going down the entrepreneurial business route, now these union members were teaching me an invaluable lesson for my future. Little can become big and real support often doesn’t start in the corporate zone. Corporations are sheep and they need those with vision and sparkle to lead them into the fray.

Then, the next incredible thing happened which was to change the course of Future Forests. And this involved someone who had vision and sparkle in bucket loads, and was more than willing to lead everyone and anyone into the fray. My partner at the time, Caroline – who was head of special projects at Virgin Records – and I lived in a cottage just down the road from Glastonbury, and every year from the mid 80s, Michael Eavis who runs it, let us have a stand selling tree certificates. We’d sell them for £3 each and they went particularly well anywhere near the hot cider tent. In fact, every year, we’d sell around 1,770 certificates  which was, by pure chance, the right amount to offset the carbon emissions from the production of Glastonbury. It just worked out that way.

This was 1994,  a week after meeting Rodney Bickerstaff, and my Groucho Club mate, actor and inveterate hell-raiser, Keith Allen who had been a Glastonbury regular for ages, was at the festival once again doing his own karaoke act. Hilariously, rudely, as usual. This particular year – in fact, Keith had been a great supporter of mine for a long time – he did something extra-special to help out, although I don’t think that was even the intention. Keith just decided to take us over to meet Joe Strummer who was sitting by a blazing campfire in his own little area.

For me, Joe is the equivalent of Nelson Mandela in the world of rock n’roll. Like Rodney Bickerstaff, he represented a special kind of committed rebelliousness that I loved and admired. As far as I was concerned, in the music world, he was the man. He had integrity, he had gravitas and he was willing to take risks. When I met him, he didn’t let me down.

Every year, Joe who used to be the lead singer with seminal late 70s rebel rock n’roll band (often erroneously labelled as punk because they were performing during the punk era) The Clash and by this time, had a band called Los Mescaleros – occupied a back stage area that became legendary, it was known as Strummersville. Joe always made it his own by putting up rebel flags, having a fire always burning, and there’d be graffiti and an eclectic group of musicians, artists and incidental arrivistes there. Julian Temple, the film-maker (Rock n’Roll Swindle, famously) might be there, Keith would be there, Bez from the Happy Mondays, perhaps, Ian Brown from the Stone Roses and anyone else who just happened to be. There was always an interesting group of Glastonbury itinerants at Strummersville.

It was mid-afternoon on the Friday of the festival, so it was the beginning, when I met him. He was sitting by the fire wearing a cowboy hat, and there was a 20something bloke lying out of it nearby. Joe spotting this bloke, stopped chatting, got up, went into his van, found a pillow, came out and put it under this his head. It was just a guy he didn’t know, but who needed help. It was the sort of random act of kindness that I came to associate with Mr Strummer.    

Of course, I told him all about Future Forests and how important it was that the world started taking on the idea of carbon neutrality, that people and organisations had to realise that this was a powerful way of taking responsibility for their own shit. Immediately, there was no reflective, am-I- going-to-take-this-bloke-seriously-moment – Joe said; ”What can I do?”

I equally quickly suggested that he could become the world’s first carbon neutral citizen.

Again, there was no hesitation. Joe punched the air with his hands and yelled; ”Let’s do it.”  It was a spontaneous gesture. And we did it. Future Forests’ scientific team later worked out Joe’s carbon emissions, looking at his life and his musical output, then they calculated how many trees would offset these carbon emissions, and trees were planted at Glastonbury Tor for him. When he died in 2000, we planted a memorial natural forest on the Isle of Skye for Joe.

Joe was down-to-earth and incredibly generous. He opened his address book to me, he also became a good friend. Joe was the leader of a tribe, and he let me join. We spent time with him on his farm in Taunton. He was receptive, gentle and he always cared about what other people felt.

Joe becoming the world’s first carbon neutral citizen made a magnificent difference. The music industry, bands, artists, individual musicians – there was a veritable stampede to sign up to becoming carbon neutral because of Joe’s decision to go first. He led that particular fray. Joe was a leader  – I can’t think of one other person in music that would have such wide-ranging effect – and I really appreciated his involvement.

But, as soon as he became a friend, I was also aware of not wanting to milk his friendship. However three years later, when Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus went carbon neutral, Joe, Carl Wallinger from World Party and actor and ex Spandau Ballet member, Gary Kemp all came along and worked the tills for Future Forests. They were selling tree certificates supposedly for an hour, but they enjoyed themselves so much, they stayed there for ages.

Typically, Joe had arrived in a cab, with someone I thought was a friend of his. Afterwards – it was great fun, people just could not believe that they were  being served by the great Joe Strummer – I put on a party at the Groucho Club to say thank you. As we were going in, Joe said goodbye to his ‘friend’. It turned out that this was someone that he’d got talking to, on the train coming up from Devon. That was a fantastic trait of his, anyone could become his friend, he was so humble and open.

That night at the Groucho Club was a memorable one. There’s a piano in the bar, so Carl Wallinger sat down and started playing, then Joe picked up a guitar and began to strum along. I had invited some of the managers from Tower Records along, and they were amazed. Carl Wallinger is one of the best piano players in the world, and then here was the legend, Joe Strummer, joining him. “This is my dream come true,” said one of these managers,”I went to work for Tower Records because I’m a music fan, but to have these two greats doing a private gig for us, it just doesn’t get any better.”

Fortunately, it did go on getting better and better for Future Forests. Now we had cheques from Unison members and the almighty support of Joe Strummer, there was no stopping us…