It wasn’t rubbish at all


Heljä Franssila


‘When I was the speechwriter for the climate minister, all the speeches I wrote for the UN Climate Change Conferences sounded more or less the same: We have to act now. No more talk.’ This is how philosopher Kaspar Colling Nielsen started his speech for dinner guests at Copenhagen Contemporary, a cool contemporary art space on the island of Refshaleøen last Thursday.

Under the elegantly dimmed lights set in a former industrial hall, the philosopher spoke to the guests of the Nordic Foundations Conference about the alarming slowness humankind is showing in taking action on the climate crisis. During the day, when Colling Nielsen was following the conference programme, there had been lots of talk about how we all know what should be done to put a stop to the ever accelerating climate crisis, but we are struggling to get anything done. Unlike the Nike slogan, we just don’t do it.

When listening to Colling Nielsen, I could not help noticing that he had built his talk by using the speech structure of Saint Augustine (354-430). The formula goes like this: in the beginning, the speaker depicts a frightening scene of Hell’s flames to the audience, and in the end, he promises a salvation, which is available to the listeners if they’ll take up the suggested path to a better life.

Basically, the Hell’s flames we heard Colling Nielsen telling us about, are the flames we all daily read about from the news. The Thwaites glacier in West Antarctica will fall into the ocean in a decade. Some years ago, the people of Mozambique suffered first from the drought, and then they got so much rain that a new lake the size of Copenhagen was born. Colling Nielsen suggested the war in Ukraine can actually be the first war caused by the green transition, as Putin may have understood that Russia cannot go on living on oil and gas. With the war, he may be seeking the power of controlling the global food prices instead. 

As for the salvation, Colling Nielsen encouraged the listeners to understand the power the foundations have in their hands to solve the climate crisis. He had calculated that the foundations represented in the room could easily cover the costs of the green transition in the Nordic countries, if they wanted to. 

It is terribly complicated to change everything, the philosopher said in a sad, serious voice. In fact, it is the biggest challenge humankind has ever faced. 

After the speech, my dinner party smiled at each other and quickly turned to another topic. It was a good speech, it was said, but quite provoking! Later, I heard from my colleagues that someone at another table had huffed: ‘What rubbish is this!’

The thing is: it was not rubbish. Quite the opposite. These comments reveal to me that at least some Nordic foundations are still lacking a sense of urgency, and this is something very worrying.

It was a wise decision from the Danish organisers of the conference to choose the ESG principles as the main theme of the meeting. (ESG is a set of standards measuring a foundation’s impact on society, the environment and how transparent and accountable it is.) It was equally wise from the organisers to invite Colling Nielsen as well as Kirsten Brosbøl, former minister of environment and CEO of 2030beyond, to the conference, and let them shake us foundation professionals out from our complacency and conservatism. We need to listen to people who dare to test and question our work.

Undeniably, foundations already do a lot for the environment and for society, but when we are facing a crisis of this magnitude, we have no other choice but to keep on challenging ourselves. Outside the conferences, in our daily work, we should ask again and again ourselves and our boards: What more can we do?

And then we must just do it. 

Heljä Franssila, Kone Foundation

Comments (1)

Tine Wickers

Well put, Heljä. It is good to challenge ourselves. We can all do more, as foundations, as societies and as individuals. Thank you for attending and this blog. Kiitos! :)

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