From an upbringing of good habits, there grows a lifetime of good judgements. If the resounding noise of parental reminders to turn off light switches and take out rubbish bags sinks into the young mind, the assumption is that over time these reminders will become second nature, ingrained in the psyche of the responsible adult that child is to become.
This education in personal responsibility should also be at the very heart of the business practices of all independent businesses. In a dissertation written twenty years ago, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury elect, posed the question of whether or not a company can sin. He argues that industries must make clear their standards by adopting an ‘ethos’ through which they declare the standards they hold themselves to through their speeches and actions. Mr Welby’s business experience in the oil industry leads him to focus on this area of industry in particular, and indeed, the recent adversities befalling BP provide a strong example of an industry in which the directors and shareholders of a company are called required to accept culpability and keep abreast of rapidly altering situations requiring individual judgement to devise an effective mode of response. The prospect of plummeting share prices is a sure way of guaranteeing the full attention of the company and the realisation of feasible and practical solutions to not only disasters, but also to the prevention of such incidents by responsible planning and running of such industries.
While Tony Hayward may not have presented a figure of tact and transparency to the media, imagine the unpleasant alternative: that the government had nationalised the oil industries and they themselves were at the centre of the massive clear-up operation – BP have recently been ordered to pay an historic $4.5bn penalty on top of further clear-up costs – and were charging the tax payer for the cost of these incidents and the employment of high-cost ‘experts’ to advise on solutions. Such was the wish of politicians such as Anthony Wedgewood-Benn, who, in a speech at the Labour Party Conference in 1980, promised that Labour would gain powers to nationalise industries ‘within days’ if elected. His suggestion that such nationalisation would implement ‘industrial democracy’ in effect threatens to infantilise growing industries by denying them the individual responsibility and development of a particular, company-based ethos that governs their actions.
This issue of personal responsibility versus governmental jurisdiction can be applied to another scenario, namely the environmental responsibilities faced by property developers today. The green regulations placed on building projects can, when left entirely in the hands of a central authority, become unrealistic or absurd. The government’s intention to ‘green the city’ in the lead up to the 2012 Olympic Games meant that projects such as the Elephant and Castle Strata tower, built with three integrated wind turbines, was hailed as un succès fou in terms of ecological design. However, complaints mounted by residents about the noise of the turbines as well as the mere 8% energy yield coming from the substantial cost of construction have caused the building to increasingly be seen as a prominent monument to the costly and unreliable projects endorsed by governmental bodies. Thanks to feed-in tariffs offered by the government, the profitability of such projects is not directly related to their success; rewards are often handed out for installing solar, wind, or hydropower energy generators regardless of the eventual sustainability of the scheme.
The lesson that can be taken from such failures is that a return to local, personal responsibility is a more likely way to achieve success – to get big results, you have to think small. The existing Menier Theatre has taken on this principal to great effect. The minimal amount of heat from the theatre lights that escapes its insulation serves its own subsidiary purpose, namely to heat the soil of the roof garden above in order to provide an ecosystem that allows for early blackberries, blackcurrants, gooseberries, and herbs for its restaurant, as well as greenery all year round. Although seemingly a humble form of recycling, this use of excess heat is used in a way that is both reliable and sustainable, not designed to fulfil governmental quotas but rather as a response to a particular issue identified by those ‘on the ground,’ the inhabitants of the building itself.
The Menier Theatre has always been aware of its identity as a private limited company successful in building restoration rather than the kind of lottery funded enterprise wished for by theatre directors such as Nicholas Hytner. With this in mind, the ‘investors’ of the theatre and its Gagarin Square extension bought a small plastics recycling plant in Essex several years ago. It has yet to make a profit but through processing some 25 tons of plastics every week, the investors have learnt that recycling by rote is still a black art. This young industry is like a wild west set where the prairie barons are holding councils to ransom and the smaller unregulated recyclers are like ‘Okies’, seemingly scratching a living. However as E.F. Schumacher put it, ‘Small is Beautiful,’ and the science of recycling is being learned at small plants where pollution can be no worse than the stinks from a thousand school chemistry labs. Fortunately, Gagarin is not downwind of Southwark Council’s latest treasure, the huge Veolia Integrated Waste Management System on the Old Kent Road, which has already caused local residents to move house and worry about their children’s health as a result of the fumes escaping the plant.
We do not need a Chinese lantern effect in Southwark.
By starting small and being modest enough to allow oneself to be taught, these harmful effects of ignorance can be eliminated.
Gagarin Square will be designed to use expensive resources such as electricity, heat and water as economically as possible. It seems likely there will be separately identified piles for use with heat pumps.
However it will not succumb to fad-based economics either, in its theatre productions – Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to ‘The Damien Hirst Show’! Act 1: The story of the unlucky shark that met Damien - nor will the Menier join recent theatres like the Hampstead and the St James designed by committees to be run by committees. These theatres often run to 20% capacity at a horrifying cost in electricity, wages and, irredeemably, to reputations. The new Gagarin Square Theatre will be designed to run to capacity. Its “mother lode” the Menier Chocolate Factory averages 90% capacity, with most shows sold out.
When attempting to come up with environmental solutions, humility is crucial. At a time when information about recycling methods, sustainable energy, and environmentally-friendly building techniques are changing and developing rapidly, we are still at a stage where individual responsibility and the devising of particular solutions on a small scale is preferable to rolling out grandiose plans which have yet to be fully tested. Roof gardens may provide less impressive monuments to green construction than ‘state of the art’ skyscrapers, but the fruits they bear are frequently far more real and wholesome than the prophesied bounties of government quotas.