Solitaire Townsend: Can Changing the World Make You a Happier Person?
An interview with Solitaire Townsend
Sometimes all the bad news can feel like too much to bear. California is on fire, Venice is flooding, and every day there is some new report revealing how the climate crisis is actually much worse than we thought. Yet for entrepreneur and sustainability expert Solitaire Townsend, pessimism is never the answer. For almost two decades, Soli has been leading with optimism; in 2001, she co-founded Futerra, one of Britain’s first sustainability agencies, which combines “the magic of creativity and the logic of strategy” to help companies and individuals work towards a sustainable future. She is also the author of The Happy Hero, a book about how helping the world can actually lead you to a happier life, and a forthcoming book called How To Survive Saving The World, about the importance of self-care in our age of activism. Talking to Soli, you can’t help put a smile on your face, even when you’re discussing things as dire as global warming and wildlife crime. Below, we discuss the psychology of giving back, why this year has been a global tipping point for climate activism, and Soli’s ongoing quest to practice what she preaches.
What is Futerra, and what is a change agency?
We deliberately created the term ‘change agency’ in order to bust out of the pre-existing boxes. We didn’t want to be like anything that currently existed. As a change agency, our goal is to make the world a better place, and to change some of the crazy unsustainable practices that currently exist into things that are sustainable, practical, profitable, and valuable.
Psychology shows us that positivity is more likely to drive action.
How do you do that?
The tools that we use to do that are logic and magic. Logic is a deep subject knowledge of some of these challenging issues around circularity, about climate change, around poverty alleviation, around youth culture. We have a deep knowledge of the science, the politics and the practicalities, and we have the ability from a logic perspective to actually create some of the answers, just like a Deloitte or McKinsey-type consulting firm would do. Then we've got the other side of it, which is the magic. That's the storytelling, the visual identity, the branding, the semiotics, the emotion of change — kind of similar to an ad agency or creative agency. The reason why we put them together is that facing the change that is required calls for both.
Can you give me a recent example of where those two tenets came into play?
We worked with the United Nations on wildlife crime, including terrible issues around the sale of rhino horn and the sale of endangered species internationally. There are terrible images you can show of wildlife crime — animals with their feet missing, rhinos with their horns missing. And a lot of those campaigns have been going on for a very long time. The Wild For Life campaign that we did with the United Nations was actually about gaining a deep understanding of the real negative impact of wildlife crime: who does it and how it works. But then on the ‘magic’ side, we also realized that just showing the horror isn't going to engage people. We've got to get people to actually feel a connection to the natural world. Hundreds of millions of people participated in our Wild For Life Campaign, including people like Jane Goodall to Gisele [Bündchen]. They all filled out a survey to find out which of these threatened animals they most relate to. And that helped foster a really tight connection between individuals and the wildlife that is threatened. It was a huge campaign that combined a deep understanding of the issues with an understanding of the emotional connection that needed to come along with it.
I think there can be a certain fatalism in people’s thinking when it comes to climate change, like feeling the problem is so big and existential that there’s nothing an individual can do that will actually I make a difference. But you are very opposed to that kind of thinking.
Yes, and there are two good reasons why Futerra is so focused on the positive. One is that all the psychology shows us that positivity is more likely to drive action. We are more likely to take action that we think will work than we are to take action that we think is doomed. The secondary big reason is that we ourselves as individuals have been doing this for 20 years. I have seen so much change in my time doing this. I have come from the days when, if you talked about biodiversity, people thought that was a cup of washing liquid. I’ve come from a time when global warming sounded like a nice idea because ‘maybe it'll be a little bit warmer for us in the summers.’ I see how fast change is possible, because I've been doing it for a long time. I've seen how people are changing how they eat, the massive rise in veganism and non-dairy milks, the rise of recycling.
But don’t these personal contributions, like eating less meat for instance, still feel somewhat insubstantial in the face of such an epic crisis?
You are one in seven and a half billion; the expectation is that you do one in seven and a half billion’s worth of the heavy lifting. Action that you take as an individual actually has a huge impact. The carbon that was there is not there, the waste that was there is not there. The second point is the signal it sends. So as we change – people flying a bit less, people eating a little bit less meat – you have no idea the knock-on effect that has on companies. People saying they don’t want plastic straws anymore is a huge reason we’re now getting commitments from the EU and the UK government and others to end-single use plastics. Governments don’t do things until people change their perceptions. By changing your perceptions and changing your behaviors, you're sending this massive signal. You're also becoming part of a community of millions of people who are doing the same thing right now.
I feel like this year, particularly with Greta Thunberg and all the youth climate marches, there's been something of a turning point, at least in the public rhetoric and enthusiasm around climate activism.
That shift has been coming for decades, particularly as we are seeing the first generation of young people in many places around the world who have had environmental education all the way through their school years. You also see many of these climate impacts now genuinely being felt for the first time, instead of being something people think of as happening in the future. I also think if it hadn’t been Greta, it would have been someone else. Young people care about climate change and Greta is the spokesperson for that, but she didn’t get young people to care about climate change. Suddenly a whole bunch of kids who have been worried since they were ten years old are now 16 or 18, and they have voices.
You wrote a book called The Happy Hero: How To Change Your Life By Changing The World. What does it mean to be a happy hero?
The reason I wrote The Happy Hero is because there is this massive secret in this change movement, which is that trying to make the world a better place is really, really good for you. Getting out there and doing something every day in your own life – with your friends, in your community, in your workplace, in a small or big way – is going to make you happier, healthier, and will make you live longer, and there’s a lot of fantastic psychology that proves this. We even have research showing that the more in service you are to issues beyond yourself, the less respiratory infections you get. And that’s because when we do something which is good for others, our bodies flood us with endorphins and dopamine. That’s called ‘the helper’s high.’ The Happy Hero talks about this feedback loop which is basically the more positive and optimistic you are, the more likely you are to take action, and the more action you take, the happier you’ll become.
What was your own journey towards climate activism and becoming inspired around these issues?
I was a hardened optimist by the time I was 13. I came from a really challenging background, the worst kind of poverty you can get in Europe. And I had a whole set of issues myself. I was dyslexic, I was anorexic, I was an at-risk child, full of fear and rage, and anger at the world around me and how people were treated and rich versus poor and all of that. And then I saw a flyer on the school bus when I was 13 saying that a nuclear processing company was proposing to build a nuclear waste storage facility near where I lived. And that was just it for me. I was like, Are you fucking kidding me? There's no services around here, there’s violence, there’s already dumping. Something gripped me and I was just like: I have to do something about this. So I talked my parents into taking me to some of the meetings, even though they were so busy and working multiple jobs, and they got involved too. I was so passionate about it. We fought, we fought, we fought, and I gave up my weekends, my evenings, and then we won. The company lost the right to dump the nuclear waste there, and in fact anywhere else in the UK as well. And I was like, Right, that’s it. You see something that's wrong with the world, you go out there, you believe absolutely that you can change it, you work really hard to do so, and it's gonna work. And I’ve been burning with it ever since.
There is this massive secret in this change movement, which is that trying to make the world a better place is really, really good for you.
Are there ever times that you do feel disheartened or down and if so how do you get yourself out of that place?
Every day. Every day, there will be a new piece of research, a new piece of news, a new example of people’s horror to other people or awful behavior by businesses. Every day I get scared and upset. I literally got flown by an oil company out to the deep Amazon to show me an oil rig pumping oil out of the jungle. So not only do I see what everybody else sees on the news, I see worse. But what I have access to, which very few other people do, is that I can see the hundreds and millions of people who decided to do something about it. Not only do I work in an office full of people committed to making change, every day I’m in contact with thousands of people around the world who are similarly committed. Every day I hear a story about how change has happened. And I'm putting my money on peoples’ abilities to make a difference. That’s what I'm betting on. If there was one team trying to make the world a worse place and one trying to make the world a better place, I feel like every year there’s slightly more people on my team.
In terms of like your own personal self-care, do you have a wellness practice?
Yeah, I do. I'm actually working on my next book, and it's going to be called How To Survive Saving The World. When every day you're working on climate change or ending sex slavery, or alleviating poverty or circularity or wildlife crime, stopping work is really difficult. It's really difficult to say, Oh, yeah, I'm going to go home and watch a soap opera now. So despite my optimism, despite my positivity, there was a point a couple of years ago where I worked myself into a position of being really, really unwell. I got myself into a state of genuine concern by my doctors and my family, and my overall health was dreadful. And so I took a long hard look at myself around working on recovery and also working on resilience. I realized that this is not a sprint, it's a marathon, so how am I going to make myself happy? And that’s when I officially read my own book.
In my own book, I try to give people permission to enjoy and feel good about what they've achieved. And I realized I wasn't doing that for myself. I was constantly berating myself for not having done enough. So I started putting time aside every day to acknowledge what I've achieved, what I managed to do, and the change that I have been able to make. I realized that I deserve to be a happy human as well as a happy hero. Since then, I think I think I've become a better leader, I think I think I've become a better change maker, and I’ve definitely become a better family member. It has actually fed my optimism. The next decade is going to be the decade of change we have to solve this, and we’re going to have to look after ourselves while we do it.