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Riff on Footprints

We intended Footprint to be a one-off. The two-day public environmental conference was held in June 2018 and was intended to cross-pollinate ideas for action on environmental sustainability. This encompassed a host of different areas—law, religious groups, politics, enterprise, literature, activism, art, and more. The event was scrabbled together on a shoestring budget, bringing speakers from all of these areas who generously gave their time to present their work and ideas. Attendees joined in the discussions and brought their own experiences to share and we were delighted at how the event was animated by everyone who was there. The enthusiasm was such, in fact, that Footprint did not stop in 2018, but was taken on by an entirely new working group that formed at the conference itself. Footprint’s founders, Sarah Mercer and I, stepped back and in 2019 the event grew enormously with an expanded programme of outstanding speakers, a change of venue to Durham Town Hall, and a much larger attendance. The hard work and enthusiasm of the new convening committee took the conference further than we had imagined it could go and has now made it an annual event. Although it had to be cancelled in 2020, it went ahead online in 2021 and preparations will start shortly for 2022—I hope to see you there! The name ‘Footprint’ has some quite clear associations; in particular, the idea of ‘carbon footprint’, a concept popularised chiefly by BP to focus responsibility for carbon emissions on the individual consumer, springs to mind. It conjures the idea of personal impact, perhaps even of guilt. It is a term laden with an idea of damage, of human life as a vandalistic force, irreconcilable with the interests of the planet: in this sense, all one can do is try to reduce our impact. This idea of the term is important: humanity, every day, is doing unimaginable damage to the world around us. The footprint of (particularly, wealthy) life vastly outstrips the capacity of the Earth to regenerate the pillaged resources. This year, Earth Overshoot Day (the symbolic day each year upon which humanity exceeds the Earth’s sustainable capacity) will fall in just a few weeks’ time: July 29th, a full five months earlier than in 1970. Keeping this in mind, how about a different reading from this old trope? Footprint was supposed to be a one-time event, but the enthusiasm it generated carried it on further than we had expected: one footprint bred many footprints. We found, to our surprise, that not only did people find the event itself inspiring, but that many chose to take on that idea and develop it. Once planted and nurtured, such ideas can grow, blossom, and propagate; when we lay new footprints, the best outcome is for others to follow, come alongside, and ultimately continue on ahead to take ideas onwards and out of sight. This is the positive idea of a footprint I suggest we think about: what tracks can one start out upon that might go further than our efforts can take them? Footprint (the event, that is) has always centred around ideas for positive action, avoiding doom-mongering and encouraging people to take the reimagination of the future into their own hands, asking not only ‘what can we fear for?’ but ‘what can we hope for?’—not only ‘what harm do my feet do?’, but ‘what good can they do?’ A workshop technique called ‘postcards from the future’ (where participants envisage a good world as it could look in a few decades time and ask what they can do to start that journey) has become a staple of the conference programme. What becomes clear in this kind of workshop is how creativity breeds creativity. In terms of ‘footprints’, when you set out on any new path—laying new footprints—you don’t only gain a better idea of the route you have walked, but you also promote the idea of exploration per se. Taking a step to scout out new ways of living helps everyone around you to believe that other ways could exist—that there are other paths to be explored. Footprints are at the heart of environmentalism: they can help us understand the damage we inflict, the role of systems outside our control in our impact, and the vast differences in the sustainability of ways of living around the world. But they also can help envisage what journey we each are stepping out on: what change are each of us a part of? From governments and institutions, we can demand greater courage by planting footprints that show we were there—in the halls of power, in the voting booth, and on the streets. From each other, our diverging footprints can nurture a different courage: the courage to imagine a better world. So be aware of how you tread and the power your footprint has to create great harm; seek to explore ways in which your footprint can not only reduce harm, but do good; and if you do not fear the wilds, you may well find that you have many more people than you expected walking before, alongside, and behind you.

Originally published on The Corporate Law Journal, 2021

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