Saying “Yes” shouldn’t be this hard…

This month we start what we hope will be an ongoing relationship with New Scientist Live, who have invited us (in the form of The Space Shed) to host and co-curate their new ‘Performance Stage’. As well as performing our own shows How I Hacked My Way Into Space and How To Save the Planet we’ll also be hosting workshops like Nanoinvasion, How To Speak Gorilla, a storytelling session from our good friend Maddie Moate, a book reading and science quiz by TV legend Konnie Huq as well as opportunities to ‘follow the speaker’ from the main stages and ask them questions including – neuroscientist and author of The Gendered Brain Professor Gina Rippon, our long time quantum physics collaborator Professor Vlatko Vedral, environmental scientist Professor Jacqueline McGlade and Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden! Plus LOADS more including when we switch over to DJ mode on Friday night for the inaugural New Scientist Live After Dark event.

All of which is VERY exciting. And obviously, this is a great opportunity for us as a company – there will be 40,000 people coming through the event over the four days and it really is one of the UK’s biggest science expos where we will reach a (relatively) huge number of people with our work and values. We get on with and have massive respect for all the people that we’ve met and are working with to create an inspirational set of experiences to a wide, general and family audience.

All of that said, from the outset there was a significant issue that we couldn’t ignore and wanted to consider deeply before committing to taking part… the events’ headline sponsors are BP and BAE – companies whose values we really don’t share. Quite the opposite.

For the sake of clarity and in case anyone reading this is unclear on quite how unethically these companies have conducted themselves over decades, then it’s worth (re)stating here that BP were among the oil companies who, in the 1970’s were alerted by climate scientists that they employed, to carbon emissions and dangerous planetary warming caused by burning fossil fuels and their business model. In 1989, a group of big business including Exxon, BP and Shell formed the Global Climate Coalition to cast doubt on climate science and lobby against efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. BP continue to fund lobbying activity to oppose action on carbon emissions reduction and as recently as 2015 were identified as the company most obstructing climate policies and carbon cutting initiatives in the EU. The group spends about $500m (£351m) on biofuels, wind and solar power, about 3% of its annual $15bn-$16bn capital expenditure. Which would be heartening if it hadn’t also announced that in 2019 it is planning to spend more than ten times that ($5 billion) on new oil and gas fields. It is widely considered by scientists that all production from new oil and gas fields is incompatible with reaching the IPCC climate goal to limit warming to 1.5 degrees.

As for BAE… start with this article describing how BAE denies it has any responsibility to investigate Yemen atrocities whilst it continues to sell weapons (unlawfully) to Saudi Arabia, who is leading the coalition driving the political and humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

And so our initial response was one of disbelief (that a publication like New Scientist with a track record of reporting on climate change and recently signed up to the Covering Climate Now initiative could take BP as a sponsor) and sadness – that (because of the extreme mismatch in values between Unlimited and the events sponsors) we would therefore not be able to take part.

But it just didn’t feel that straightforward to make this a clear and a hard “No”, for the following reasons:
• by saying “No”, I worried that we would potentially achieve nothing – as a small organisation, literally no-one would hear or care about our ‘hard’ stance.
• from the outset, conversations had pre-emptively recognised that the sponsors could be problematic for us and we were already having a very honest conversation about the difficulty of us taking part because of that – and that this felt like it was probably being fed up the management levels and could (maybe) affect future choices about sponsors
• we would only sign a contract that agreed to us having final approval on all speakers – so we don’t end up with people representing companies or organisations we don’t share values with in the Space Shed. Or if we do, it’s because we’ve invited them in to challenge them on their positions.
• we would not sign a contract that has any clauses not allowing us to be critical of the event sponsors
• we would continue to be openly, actively critical of these companies both before, during and after the event

While we were being offered a fee to take part, we are also in the extremely privileged position (as an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation) where we don’t need the money – this was an additional and unexpected opportunity that wasn’t factored into our business planning or annual budget – so the money is (helpfully) not a clinching factor in our decision making. And as a registered charity, we obviously operate on a strictly not for profit basis.

The above is what I had discussed and agreed with my team and Board of Directors. But even with all that said, we still recognised the negatives and risks that remained:
• NSL *could* simply ignore our ‘red lines’ about being associated with their sponsors on marketing materials and comms (they haven’t – they’ve been extremely conscientious and made great efforts to protect us in this way)
• BP/BAE could simply appropriate our “Save the Planet” message as part of their involvement with the event
• reputationally among our peers and colleagues, the nuance of the above is easy to dismiss and we could be blacklisted by existing/potential partners
• regardless of whether we need it or not, we’re still taking the money – so doesn’t that mean we’re still (even indirectly) benefitting from BP+BAE’s profits?

And so I wrote to a wide range of colleagues, friends, mentors and activists for advice – outlining all the above and asking:

We’re wondering if we can make more of a difference by staying engaged with the conversation than removing ourselves from it?

We’re wondering if that’s naive?

We’re wondering if it would make any difference to waive all our fees?

We’re wondering if we should simply say no? Even though that doesn’t feel… useful.

We’re already in deep conversation with our board and amongst ourselves. I’ve spoken to some ‘experts’ already including Culture Unstained and I’m hoping that you (as a trusted and valued friend, colleague, collaborator) can help us work through this in the most rigorous and positive way possible. Any thoughts/opinions/experience/advice you can share would be hugely valued.

With much love and respect, Jon

And the responses were overwhelmingly and invigoratingly thoughtful, generous, passionate, informed and (encouragingly) supportive. I’m not going to share all of them here, mostly because they were written quite personally and I’d rather those people had the opportunity to reframe their thoughts for this public context if they’d like to contribute them in the comments. That said, there are a few anonymised extracts in particular I think it might be useful to include here:

“Being loud and clear about your intentions; doing your excellent, entertaining, and creative work on a big stage; and using appropriate opportunities to make your reservations or critiques clear, is a justifiable course of action. So is sitting this one out, if that’s what you decide. So could be, for example, reinvesting any fee in a relevant charity, or dedicating it to a specific Unlimited-led event or initiative that responds to the problems BP and BAE bring into the world.

Personally, I absolutely loved working with you because you were an artist willing to be bold and speak in a way that conventional ‘science communication’ does not (cannot?). You could have declined our tender on somewhat similar grounds to those you’re raising here. I’m really, really glad you didn’t, and I think that the scientists you engaged with, the audiences who came, our own team, and the sector professionals and other science communicators I’ve shared my experiences with since, would have been poorer for it.”
Which was very reassuringly encouraging. We are also clear about any surplus from the fee for this work (after paying the freelancers we work with and direct cash costs incurred) is used to go directly into our UNSA/Space Shed projects focussed on climate change.
“Mainly, I think that refusing to be involved would have an impact – it would send a message up in New Sci much more than the discussions you’ve been having. You might well get press, but even if you didn’t, I do think it would have impact. From working at orgs like this, not being able to book the people you want or collect the art you want is the biggest problem. It’s basically stopping you doing your job. Plus, impacts from things like this are rarely instant – at first you think “meh, why did I bother” but it gets under people’s skin and builds momentum and you were there at the start (even if it’s rare anyone gives you credit). That doesn’t mean you should refuse the gig, just that it would have an impact. Don’t underestimate that.”
Which is REALLY important (and quite moving) to be reminded of. In a week when this tweet has gone viral…

…it remains of huge value to be encouraged that one person (or organisation) can make significant change.*

I’m also extremely grateful to Chris Garrard of Culture Unstained – mostly for the brilliantly tireless work that he and his colleague Jess Worth are doing generally, but specifically for the amount of time and thought and care he offered me as we navigated this. Unlimited Theatre is signed up to the Oil Sponsorship Free commitment and I was going round in circles trying to work out how any of us can be entirely unhypocritical when everything is so connected and, as one of my most trusted collaborators wrote “…all money is dirty in our system in one way or another. There’s no point not living because the system you live in is fucked, you have to make compromises to stay alive and change the system. It’s very complicated. Maybe we should make a show about it?”

Chris brought his experience and thoughtfulness and extended contacts to the conversation and wrote:

“Signing up to the commitment to be Oil Sponsorship Free – but working with New Scientist Live – would be consistent. The requirement is, as you/Unlimited have done, to raise concerns with those you are working with, as per:

‘We do not take any oil, coal, or gas corporate sponsorship for our cultural work. We call on our peers and institutional partners to refuse fossil fuel funding too.’ “

And that is the process we’ve been through in order to do something as simple as saying “Yes” to an opportunity. I hope that by sharing this, it might be useful to other companies of artists or cultural organisations. And if it’s useful, I’m very happy to speak in person if you’re facing a similar issue and would benefit from a conversation about our experience.

I also hope it is of use to commercial companies and events who (we understand) rely on sponsorship to achieve the things they do.

  • We really are exited to be working with New Scientist Live in such a positively collaborative relationship where we feel truly valued as partners – it’s not often the case that these partnerships feel so positive. And I hope that as part of that relationship, the senior leadership team and board at New Scientist Live will allow me to ask them to consider our call, and the call of millions of other people in the world, to refuse fossil fuel sponsorship in the future. The future of our species and our planet is too important to allow them to continue operating in the way that they are.

Jon Spooner
Artistic Director and Chief Executive, Unlimited Theatre
October 2019

  • * the person who offered me this advice is the same person who sent me to Deborah Solnit’s wonderful Hope in the Dark – the untold history of People Power and which I highly recommend to anyone – particularly if you’re feeling hopeless about whether or not we can change anything.