‘Green fugitives’ give up high-flying careers in business and finance

Six years ago, Samantha Cooper had a productive job in London’s Canary Wharf financial district and a life that could hardly be matched.

At 42, she’s running a trading team at oil and gas group BP, wake up at dawn and head straight to the gym, checking email wherever they are for any news on market movements.

To recover from weeks of punitive work, she will book last-minute flights to the Maldives, business class. Or daydreaming about plans to build an underground swimming pool at her second home in Kent. It’s an exhausting, but addictive way of life.

“There was always the feeling that I needed another year,” she said. No matter how much money she has and how successful she is, she adds, “you can always convince yourself that you don’t have enough.”

However, by the end of 2015, Cooper was the recipient. After almost 20 years of trading at BP, making money feels fine, but not huge. She doesn’t spend time with her elderly parents. When she and her husband, a gardener, have friends to stay, she finds herself worrying about when they will leave because she has so much work to do.

“I have lost who I am,” she said. “My values ​​don’t align with what I’m doing.” She decided to quit but during the lengthy handover she worked at Business in the Community, a Prince of Wales charity supported by BP. There, she faced young people asking “How can you work for a fossil fuel company?” Cooper, a chemistry graduate student at Oxford, realized that what she really wanted to do was tackle climate change.

By 2016, she left BP. Currently, she does volunteer work for a number of social and environmental causes and is an unpaid director at Business Declares, a nonprofit group that helps organizations trying to tackle climate change. climate change.

That puts her in an unusual subgroup of the global green campaign movement: executives giving up high jobs in business or finance, often at the peak of their earnings years, to fight for a safer environment.

It’s hard to know exactly how many of these green fugitives exist. Some people who have made the leap say they only know one or two people next to them. Some have come back and come back. Cooper says she knows of at least one person who left BP to work with ShareAction, a responsible investment campaign group, but was persuaded to return. Bernard Looney, who has promised a greener agenda since becoming BP’s chief executive in 2020.

Other dissidents argue that they are part of an expanding trend.

Tariq Fancy, who said: “I think the numbers are going up until 2019.

He denounced his old industry for a The essay is read by many people this year argues that sustainable investment is like “selling wheatgrass to cancer patients” and a “deadly distraction” from the urgent need to tackle climate change.

Fancy says he’s received “hundreds” of text responses to the essay, and the number of people congratulating him who has spoken out shows that many others share his views, even if they haven’t quit their jobs.

“The number of people itching to do it is significantly larger than the number we are seeing,” he said.

There’s one thing that makes it a little easier for Fancy to leave a big job in finance: he’s done it before, in 2012, when he left the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, where he’s currently working. Research new credit strategies. He went on to found Rumie, a digital learning nonprofit group of which he is the executive director.

For others, giving up a successful, well-paid business career isn’t easy.

Ben Tolhurst, who decided to jump after the epiphany at the Canary Wharf Tube station, said: “It took me quite a while to figure it out.

It was a February morning in 2019 and Tolhurst, who had just turned 49 years old, had come to work an extra day at Jones Lang LaSalle, the global real estate group, where he was the director of wealth management and UK property. This is one of the big corporate jobs for Tolhurst, a senior executive-turned-management consultant at businesses including telecoms group BT and outsourcers Serco and Capita.

Like many others, he has noticed the unusually hot European summer of 2018 and Extinction Rebellion protesters blocking London bridges.

But climate change didn’t show up on his radar until he stepped off the Underground in Canary Wharf into what was likely to be near 20C temperatures on what was supposed to be a winter morning. Everyone looks so happy. Newspapers reported bustling beaches and early blooms. But for Tolhurst, something happened.

“I just stood there for a while and I thought, ‘Is everyone crazy, or am I crazy?’,” he said.

Realizing that a changing climate might have led to an unusually warm day led him to engage in climate science research in a frenzy. He was a vegetarian; determined to stop flying and decarbonize his pension pot.

But it’s not enough. “Being directly employed in a company is not something I can do anymore,” he said. “So I felt I had no choice but to leave.”

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In September 2020, he resigned and embarked on a very different but still very busy life. Also a director at Business Declares, with Cooper he is also a non-executive director at Greentech, a group that helps new green businesses bring their products to market, and a business advisor at the Leadership Institute Sustainability Cambridge. He also advises his local council on climate emergency planning.

Andrew Medhurst, another Green City dissident who ended a 30-year career with HSBC, Lloyds Banking Group and other financial institutions nearly two years before Tolhurst said: “I told you. Take care of yourself and don’t say yes to everyone.

The two men met in 2019 after Medhurst began working on what became the Business Statement. They have a half-hour virtual coffee session every fourth Friday that Medhurst says he recommends to help Tolhurst avoid the pitfalls he encounters.

“I went from a busy job in financial services to a busy climate activist and looking back now, I think that in itself was a form of denial,” he said. speak.

Medhurst joined the Extinction Rebellion protest movement’s finance team after struggling in London with Nest, a workplace pension provider. “I cannot reconcile encouraging young people to save money for a future that I am struggling to believe will last much longer,” he said.

This year, he moved on to work on Scholars Alert, a network of academics urging deeper discussion of the risk that climate change will cause social collapse.

Many people have been affected, like Medhurst, by Deep adaptation, a 2018 paper by British professor Jem Bendell argues that climate change will cause crises so great that people should consider giving up their jobs or careers to prepare for it. .

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Bendell says he knows at least eight people who have changed their working lives after reading Adaptive Deep, including two from the European Commission, but a few from the worlds of finance and business.

Those who have transferred admit that they are fortunate to have the financial security that allows them to quit their jobs. For those who want to follow suit but fear the consequences, many say the change is ultimately worth it.

“I have been struggling for a while,” said Cat Jenkins, communications coordinator for Deep Adaptation. Forum, a global network inspired by Bendell’s paper. Based on the Isle of Man, Jenkins has spent nearly 30 years in offshore finance and says her identity lies mainly in being “the type of person with a big house, big car, big position and being respected.” “.

“I can honestly say now, even though I earn a lot less and I have a much smaller house, I feel more secure and safer,” she said.

That’s partly due to her better health, good friends, and strong relationships. “But actually,” she added, “I found purpose.”

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