Growing numbers of executives are quitting blue-chip jobs to work on tackling climate change.
By Pilita Clark
Six years ago, Samantha Cooper had a high-powered job in London’s Canary Wharf financial district and a hard-charging life to match it.
At 42, she was running a global trading team at oil group BP, rising at dawn and heading straight to the gym, checking emails all the way for any market-moving news.
To recover from her punishing working weeks, she would book last-minute flights to the Maldives, business class. Or fantasise about plans for an underground swimming pool at her second home in Kent. It was an exhausting, but addictive, way to live.
“There was always that feeling that I needed another year,” she says. No matter how much money and success she had, she adds, “you could always convince yourself that you didn’t have enough yet”.
By the end of 2015 though, it was Cooper who had had enough. After nearly 20 years of trading at BP, making money felt OK, but not great. She wasn’t spending time with her ageing parents. When she and her husband, a gardener, had friends to stay, she found herself worrying about when they would leave because she had so much work to do.
“I’d lost who I was,” she says. “My values were not in line with what I was doing.” She decided to quit but, during a lengthy handover, had a stint at Business in the Community, a Prince of Wales charity backed by BP. There, she was confronted by younger people asking “How can you work for a fossil fuel company?” Cooper, an Oxford chemistry graduate, realised that what she really wanted to do was work on tackling climate change.
By 2016, she had left BP. Today she does voluntary work for several environmental and social causes and is an unpaid director at Business Declares, a not-for-profit group that helps organisations trying to address climate change.
That puts her in an unusual sub-set of the global green campaign movement: executives ditching high-flying jobs in business or finance, often at the peak of their earning years, to fight for a safer climate.
It is hard to know precisely how many of these green defectors exist. Some who have made the jump say they know of only one or two beside themselves. Some have gone back and forth. 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 go back by Bernard Looney, who has promised a greener agenda since becoming BP’s chief executive in 2020.
Other dissidents think they are part of a widening trend.
“I think the number is increasing,” says Tariq Fancy, who until 2019 was global chief investment officer for sustainable investing at BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager.
He denounced his former industry in a widely-read essay this year that argued sustainable investing was like “selling wheatgrass to a cancer patient” and a “deadly distraction” from the urgent need to address climate change.
Fancy says he received “hundreds” of messages in response to the essay and the number who congratulated him for speaking out suggests many others share his views, even if they have not quit their jobs.
“The amount of people who have the itch to do that is significantly greater than the amount that we’re obviously seeing doing it,” he says.
One thing made it slightly easier for Fancy to walk away from a big job in finance: he had done it before, in 2012, when he left the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, where he had been working on new credit strategies. He went on to set up Rumie, a digital learning non-profit group where he is chief executive.
For others, quitting a successful, well-paid business career has been far from straightforward.
“It took me quite a long time to get my head around it,” says Ben Tolhurst, who decided to jump ship after having an epiphany at Canary Wharf Tube station.
It was a morning in February 2019 and Tolhurst, who had just turned 49, had arrived for another day of work at Jones Lang LaSalle, the global real estate group, where he was managing director of UK property and asset management. This was one of a series of big corporate jobs for Tolhurst, a management consultant-turned-senior executive at businesses including the BT telecoms group and outsourcers Serco and Capita.
Like many others, he had noticed the unusually hot 2018 European summer, and the Extinction Rebellion protesters blocking London bridges.
But climate change had not figured hugely on his radar until he stepped off the Tube at Canary Wharf into nearly 20C of warmth on what was supposed to be a winter’s morning. People looked happy. Newspapers reported beaches were busy and flowers were blooming early. But for Tolhurst, something snapped.
“I just stood there for a moment in time and I thought, ‘Is everybody mad, or am I mad?’,” he says.
The realisation that a changing climate had probably brought the unseasonably warm day sent him into a frenzy of climate science research. He went vegan; resolved to stop flying and decarbonised his pension pot.
But it was not enough. “Being directly employed in a corporate was not something I could do authentically any more,” he says. “Therefore I felt I had no option but to basically leave.”
By September 2020, he had resigned and embarked on a very different, but still very busy, life. As well as being a director at Business Declares, alongside Cooper, he is a non-executive director at Greentech, a group that helps new green businesses bring their products to market, and a business mentor at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. He also advises his local council on its climate emergency plan.
“I tell him to look after himself and not say yes to everybody,” says 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 took the plunge.
The two men met in 2019 after Medhurst began working on what became Business Declares. They have a half-hour virtual coffee every fourth Friday that Medhurst says he suggested to help Tolhurst avoid the pitfalls he encountered.
“I went from a busy job in financial services to being a busy climate activist and as I look back now, I think that was a form of denial in itself,” he says.
Medhurst joined the Extinction Rebellion protest movement’s finance team after struggling at his London job with Nest, a workplace pension provider. “I could not reconcile encouraging young people to save money for a future that I was struggling to believe existed any longer,” he says.
This year he made another switch to work on Scholars Warning, a network of academics urging deeper discussion of the risk that climate change will cause societal collapse.
Many were influenced, as Medhurst was, by Deep Adaptation, a 2018 paper by British professor, Jem Bendell, that suggested climate change would cause such great crises that people should consider quitting their jobs or careers to prepare for it.
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Bendell says he knows of at least eight people who have changed their working lives after reading Deep Adaptation, including two from the European Commission, but few came from the world of finance and business.
Those who have switched acknowledge they are fortunate to have the financial security to allow them to quit their jobs. To those who would like to follow suit, but fear the consequences, many say the shift is ultimately worth it.
“I did find it difficult for a while,” says Cat Jenkins, communications co-ordinator for the Deep Adaptation Forum, a global network inspired by Bendell’s paper. Based in the Isle of Man, Jenkins spent nearly 30 years in the offshore finance sector and says her identity rested heavily on being “the kind of person that has a big house and a big car and a big job title and respect”.
“Now I can say honestly that, although I earn a lot less and I have a much smaller house, I feel more secure and safer,” she says.
That is partly because she has better health, good friends and strong relationships. “But actually,” she adds, “I’ve found purpose.”
“The authors of this book have courage to recognise the reality of our time and face the uncomfortable facts of climate calamity. The theme of this book is indeed scary. But it’s full of bright ideas for how to transmute both fear and difficulty into kind and wise ways of living and working. The thinkers, academics and activists who have contributed to this book embody the wisdom to adapt to this unprecedented catastrophe. They also show the practical ways and means to live and act with the imagination and resilience. Not everyone would agree to these radical ideas but everyone needs to know about them. So, I recommend this book to all.”
Satish Kumar, Editor Emeritus Resurgence & Ecologist and Founder, Schumacher College.
“This book is the “red pill” of our times- offering neither certainty nor confirmation of any story you may be holding about where we are heading, in the face of so many colliding crises. What it does offer is togetherness in our insecurity and frameworks in our unknowing, for coming to terms with and making sense of these times. I look forward to both “deep adaptation” and “collapsology” entering mainstream discourse, so that we might then imagine creating together, as our current paradigm crumbles.”
Gail Bradbrook, co-founder, Extinction Rebellion.