Biofuels, or the Perils of Leadership

There is a cartoon from the Far Side Gallery that I find horrible and hilarious in equal measures. It depicts a small band of explorers walking single line in the jungle. The chap at the front – presumably the leader – has just come to a very sticky end, horribly impaled on a trap made of two bamboo pitchforks. The (very darkly) comical element of the cartoon is that further down the line, one of the other explorers turns to the guy behind him to whisper “And THAT’s why I never walk in front!”. Look it up if you haven’t seen it, it’s a moment of pure genius in a small black-and-white square.

Thankfully, my own experience of the cost of “walking in front” wasn’t anything as tragic. It happened back in 2007, during what was still early days in the shaping of the Big Biofuels Debate. In fact, having recently joined the nascent BP Biofuels business, it was my very first public speaking engagement on this particular subject; the Biofuels Expo & Conference in Newark, dubbed at the time the biggest biofuels event in Europe (I don’t know if it was…).

My message to the Industry on behalf of BP was simple: “We believe in biofuels, we are going to invest big in your sector BUT it is absolutely critical for biofuels to be sustainable. Demonstrating sustainability, and gaining full societal acceptance as a result, is the #1 success factor for this industry. Don’t think that you can get away with hype and bull*** for much longer.”

The message was lofty – if not exactly a revelation – but more than anything, it felt right. In my mind, here I was siding with the environmental lobby and speaking out for better standards, more rigour, and ultimately a better world. What happened next took me down a peg in spectacular fashion.

A little group of food-not-fuel protestors appeared at the back of the marquee, walked purposefully towards the stage and, before any of us could realise what was happening, executed a carefully-rehearsed plan. A lady, presumably assuming I must be hungry, graciously planted a large cream cake in my face. A bearded fellow quickly attached himself to my lectern using a large padlock around his neck, while somebody else started an extremely loud alarm. Total mayhem! The event security team did of course add to the chaos by attempting to manhandle the protestors – the last thing I would have wanted in the circumstances. The whole scene was immortalised in a picture – and actually, I am secretly glad that it was – where my bemused, creamed face is lovingly framed in the BP logo. Talk about “picture perfect”!

The paradox of course is that if the protestors had stopped to listen to what I was saying, they may have found more to agree with than they ever imagined. But I’m sure the action had been planned for days, was targeting BP specifically for maximum impact, and realising that I was saying something vaguely supportive would have been a massive anti-climax to the trigger-happy group.

A few hard lessons were learned that day. The first one at a personal level is that, when one speaks in the name of a big organisation, especially one as controversial as an oil company, a certain fraction of the public will stop seeing you as a human being worthy of simple common decency. It’s scary, but at the same time it comes with the territory for anyone who decides to (figuratively or literally) go on stage. The Perils of Leadership, indeed. The second lesson we learned is not to assume that folks were actually willing to listen to what we had to say. Quite a hard message when you work in a technology-based, engineering-rich organisation where facts rather than emotions are driving most decisions. In retrospect, although I didn’t know it at the time, this was my first experience of conflating two narratives about the “Right Thing to Do” regarding biofuels.  One driven by logic and science, full of nuances, hard to explain and frankly rather boring. The other one, the emotional narrative of the anti-biofuels lobby, with the hugely impactful pictures of starving children and decimated orang-utans. With the benefits of hindsight, it was never a fair fight.

Commentators these days often talk about the “post-truth culture”, where (I shamelessly copy Wikipedia) debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy. Perhaps, that unforgettable day in Newark, I experienced one of the very early manifestations of the post-truth culture. Or – let’s be fair – perhaps a disaster was averted by this and similar actions, because who knows; the world *might* have been running blindly into a future of unsustainable, out-of-control biofuels growth; in which case my temporary discomfort was a very small price to pay, and I was indeed – albeit unwittingly – a small part of making a better world.

Not that the cake was bad, mind you; it tasted rather nice, as I licked my glasses clean of the worst of it. I shudder at the thought of what else could have been thrown in my face. So let me finish with a thought of kindness and… yes, gratitude, I suppose – for my attackers who chose a yummy cake instead of something much, much worse. If any of them are reading this, kindly let me know how much I owe you for the cake.

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