Literary Greenwashing in Edinburgh

The overwhelming sense of corporate capture that pervades Edinburgh in August is not new. But the sleepy cultural event has been punctured (however briefly) by the departure of Greta Thunberg from the Book Festival after revelations from The Ferret magazine.

Greta Thunberg has pulled out of her Edinburgh International Book Festival event because of sponsorship from Baillie Gifford, who “invest heavily in the fossil fuel industry”. The climate activist issued a statement saying:

“I am unfortunately unable to attend the Edinburgh Book Festival. As a climate activist I cannot attend an event which receives sponsorship from Baillie Gifford, who invest heavily in the fossil fuel industry.”

“Greenwashing efforts by the fossil fuel industry, including sponsorship of cultural events, allow them to keep the social licence to continue operating.”

Last week The Ferret revealed that Baillie Gifford, the lead sponsor of this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, had billions of pounds invested in firms that profit from oil, gas or coal. The Ferret calculated that Baillie Gifford had approximately £4.5bn invested in companies involved with oil and gas, and up to £670m in companies involved in the sale and mining of coal.

Greta Thunberg had been due to speak at an event called It’s Not Too Late To Change The World at the Edinburgh Playhouse.

The incident has punctured the air of self-congratulation around the uber-bland programming of the Book Festival. Even the festival’s director Nick Barley’s response reeked of confusion.

“In applauding Greta for standing by her principles, we too must stand by ours,” he said.

“The Book Festival exists to give a platform for debate and discussion around key issues affecting humanity today – including the climate emergency. As a charitable organisation, we would not be in a position to provide that platform without the long-term support of organisations such as Baillie Gifford.”

This was tantamount to admitting that a liberal literary festival couldn’t survive without the patronage of a company heavily invested in fossil fuels.

But it got worse. He continued saying: “We strongly believe that Baillie Gifford are part of the solution to the climate emergency. They are early investors in progressive climate positive companies, providing funds to help them grow. While they acknowledge there is still work to do, we have seen them make rapid progress throughout our 19-year relationship.”

The hint that Barley’s festival was guiding Baillie Gifford’s actions was a stretch of the imagination beyond any novelist’s wildest dream, and the idea that having billions invested in oil gas and coal in 2023 made you ‘part of the solution to the climate emergency’ is extraordinary.

Over the last few years a growing coalition of activists and artists – including interventionist groups like Liberate Tate, Reclaim Shakespeare Company, and Shell Out Sounds – have been calling out big oil’s sponsorship of Britain’s cultural centres. They felt that, in the context of climate breakdown it’s morally absurd for some of Britain’s most high-profile places (such as Tate Britain, the National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum, and the Royal Opera House) to be sponsored by BP. Now this argument has arrived in the Scottish capital.

Thunberg’s departure will leave many at the Book Festival confused and distraught. The sense of earnest contentment, studied frowns and endless fun for the chatteratti have been over-taken by accusations of greenwash.

Hilariously one of the ‘themes’ of this years festival was ‘Climate Positive’. The festival website tells us: “Despite the alarming evidence of global heating, many refuse to despair. Greta Thunberg is among them, and her activism has inspired people worldwide. She joins us at the Edinburgh Playhouse for a special event on 13 August. This year’s programme also features other amazing writers who offer an energetic call to action and ideas about how humanity can, and must, step back from the brink.”

This is one of those moments when truth is stranger than fiction and the festival’s posturing-without-meaning has been exposed. Will there be calls for Baillie Gifford to withdraw sponsorship and how will the whole edifice cope with such a tragedy?


Comments (10)

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  1. Stuart Swanston says:

    To paraphrase Charlie Chaplin’s observation on “Show Business”, if the publishing business was not a business it would be called, “publishing publishing”.

  2. Sash says:

    Baillie Gifford has sponsored the Book festival for 19 years – before the term ‘greenwashing’ existed!

    1. John says:

      This is 2023 when the overwhelming consensus amongst climate scientists based on the overwhelming evidence is not only that the use of fossil fuels is and has been a major factor in climate change but that we need to switch as rapidly from possible from using fossil fuels to help avoid some of the worst effects of climate change.
      This is the difference from 19 years ago which you could only have missed if you were living under a rock for all that time.

  3. Wul says:

    “As a charitable organisation, we would not be in a position to provide that platform without the long-term support of organisations such as Baillie Gifford.”

    Nick Barley’s statement above is exactly the same lie that Rishi Sunak came out with on his visit to Scotland this week; “We need the oil & gas companies to keep drilling in order fund our NHS and public services” [I’m paraphrasing]. “Only the super-rich can help us, we are helpless/powerless without them” I hope Nick Barley enjoys being in such slippery, lying, mealy-mouthed, supine company.

    Sunak didn’t mention that all UK oil and gas reserves are given away to private companies at a massive discount (paid for by us), sold to the highest bidder on international markets (war is just great for business) and then bought back at a vastly inflated price by UK consumers. Scots pay a bit extra on top of course, our penalty for being closer to where the energy is produced.

    We (the public) get perhaps an eightieth of the tax revenue that Norway gets from it’s oil, and then we pay an extra premium to buy back our own natural resources from the war-profiteering pals of Sunak and his family.
    The money thieved in this and other commons-stealing schemes could put a hospital, train station, clinic, school, ferry terminal, bank, post office, community centre and industrial estate in every village in Scotland and still have plenty left over for an International Festival every Friday night.

  4. mark leslie edwards says:

    if ye’re looking fir summin daecent tae read the last place ah’d look is that fkn festival

  5. greenergood says:

    I think it’s great that Thunberg pulled out of the Book Festival – she, especially with her background, has every reason to do so, not only because she believes the sponsor is a master of greenwashing, but also because the right-wing press would then slag her off mercilessly for appearing at a gathering sponsored by a greenwasher. They’d have a field day caling her a hypocrite! BUT, there are many people, especially young people, who were looking forward to seeing her; she is an inspiration to so many. Is there no Edinburgh City Council group, or any other environmental organisation, or Green Party group that would take up the slack and find a venue in Ednburgh – or even Glasgow or elsewhere – for her to appear? I know it’s Edin Fest time and venues are at a premium, but either find a place now, or just honour tickets after the Fest, for her to speak/be interviewed/etc. I know the fight against climate change needs more than major personalities, but she _is_ important in terms of mobilising young people.

  6. SleepingDog says:

    I have mixed feelings about the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which I’ve attended several times over the years. On the one hand, there is a greater assembly of ideas than any other place I’ve been. And there are critical voices. I was able to buy the first two issues of Royal Descent from Blackheart Press before the series mysteriously disappeared, I presume pulped. And it appears to be genuinely international. Yet there are forces and influences that temper, dampen and defang. In my experience at least. The philosophical edge is blunted in the audience participation. The apparently politically-subversive turns out to be mostly lurid smut or otherwise shunted into safer channels. That is not so much of a problem if you can read between lines, follow up leads and hints and authors afterwards, formulate the unspoken questions, and have the resources to follow up on whatever inspired you on the day. I both enjoyed the atmosphere and yet worried about its possible detachment. Poets are not the kinds of problem-solvers we need.

  7. Snowcat says:

    As former employee of Baillie Gifford, I was vocal about their greenwashing – to my own detriment. When Extinction Rebellion held a peaceful protest outside their offices in January 2020, they took a heavy-handed approach , calling in the police and treating young climate-conscious people like criminals. Employees inside were made to feel as if we were under attack by violent protestors and were told and not to engage with them , whereas in reality the protestors just wanted to have a productive discussion. There are many genuinely good people in that firm who really want to bring about positive change. However they are in the minority and either get drowned out by some old-school financial waffle or the dinosaurs . Every time an incident like this occurs, they put out a small statement hoping things will tide over, and they always do. In these statements, rather than only focusing on what they say, it’s also important to gauge what they don’t say. Note that their statement in this case only talks about their investments. (which are mostly public knowledge). They make no mention of who their clients are, as they are under no obligation to disclose it. INEOS was one of their big ones during my time there. Don’t even get me started on the enormous difference between their diversity and inclusion statements and the reality of what occurs there- that will open another can of worms. Bravo Greta!

  8. mark says:

    He left me a large rucksack full of notes for a proposed Encyclopaedia of Scottish sell outs. & it was only after 3 days sifting thru I realised these were only the notes for volume one of what when ye think about it, was a project of almost infinite scope.

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