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Belief

Interview with Crispin Tickell by Joan Bakewell for the Belief programme, BBC Radio 3. Broadcast on 7 April 2004.

My conversation in this episode of Belief is with someone with a fine record of public service, both as a diplomat and top civil servant, as a former ambassador, and the UK's Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Sir Crispin Tickell served in the British Diplomatic Service in The Hague, in Paris, and as Ambassador to Mexico. He was private secretary to successive government ministers throughout negotiations for British entry into the European Community in the early 1970s. In the late '70s, he was Chef de Cabinet to Roy Jenkins, President of the European Commission. In the '80s he was at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and from 1984 permanent secretary at the Overseas Development Administration.

Then in 1987, he went to represent Britain at the United Nations. He's currently Chancellor of Kent University, and was formerly Chair of the Climate Institute. And it is in this latter role that it seems his true vocation resides. As far back as 1977, he published Climatic Change and World Affairs, a book that expressed concerns about the impact humanity is having on the planet, and that prefigured the engagement of countries and their economies with such issues. The environment and its problems remain central to his thinking today.

Sir Crispin, I rather indicate there that there has been this dazzling career. But throughout that, there's also been a real, fundamental commitment by you to a whole way of thinking about the planet.

I think that's true. As a child, I remember one of my nicest experiences was being lent a lion club for lunch by the then secretary of the London Zoo who happened to be a cousin. And so the, I brought lion cub home from the zoo to my house in a taxi, and I took it back at teatime. It was a very great experience, and for that reason it was something that I particularly valued. And this same cousin made me a fellow of the London Zoo in my, when I think I was 7 or 8 years old, which meant I was able to go in the mornings and play with the chimps on Sundays.

(Laughing) A formative influence, I'm sure ...

(Laughs).

Now you come from an Anglo-Irish family. Your great, great grandfather was T H Huxley - Aldous Huxley was in your background too. Now this is a legacy of seriously thoughtful, intellectual address, isn't it?

Well T H Huxley was in many respects one of my heroes. Aldous was as well. In fact I think if anybody had any influence on me during my adolescence, it was Aldous Huxley. And I remember going to lunch with him and he asked me what essay I was writing that day for my history teacher. And I replied it was about the relations between the Pope and the Emperor. And he sort of took a deep breath, and for about 15 minutes he spoke about the secular versus the spiritual power. And I really sat back, staggered by what I heard, because he illuminated every aspect of this immensely complicated and still continuing problem, and I found it fascinating. When I sat down afterwards to try and write my essay, I was hardly able to write a word.

(Laughs) Nonetheless ideas were clearly current in your home, in your family, your extended family.

Very much so, all the time.

And they haven't left you?

No.

Your mother converted to Christianity and then to Rome ...

Yes

... at a formative stage for you.

Well she, in the 1930s, she worked with Evelyn Underhill and was a strong supporter of the Church of England. But as she later said herself, 'All roads lead to Rome,' and in the end they did in her case, and she became a Roman Catholic, and so I became, this was again something of great interest, she never tried to persuade me to become a Catholic, but of course I became very much more aware of the underlying problems of Christianity as a result, because we used to discuss them at great length at home.

So you took instruction and became a Catholic, observing Catholic yourself.

Only for a very short time. I remember that the Jesuit who instructed me who was a well-known person called Father Martindale, whenever I came up against great difficulty he would put his hand upon mine and say 'Have faith my child, have faith.' But after a bit I realised that wasn't enough, and I didn't actually spend very long in the Catholic Church, because I was uncertain about its whole intellectual structure, and I still am.

Where did the doubts creep in then? Was this to do with fraternising with the chimpanzees? (Laughs)

(Laughs) No. I just thought it was a very, very unlikely tale, the Christian tale - it seems to me that you're piling improbability upon improbability. And it goes back much more than people I think realise, to the extremely unlikely story of the Fall of Man. Because if Adam and Eve had not fallen, or if symbolically people had not learnt what sin was about, then you don't need a Redeemer, and you don't need all the rest of the apparatus. And so a lot of it goes back to the Fall. And when I became interested in anthropology, this seemed to me an extremely improbable phenomenon, because I see humans as being like any other primate, gradually moving in a certain direction with evidently mutations taking place, and gradually becoming aware of philosophy and understanding and language and art and all the rest of it. But I don't see anything like a fall. If you don't have a fall, you don't need a redeemer. If you don't need a redeemer, then what is this nonsense about, about having to be sacrificed on the cross for humanity? Again, you then get into the question of was ... Jesus God, or wasn't He? And it seems to me again it's an extremely unlikely tale that He ever was. I've always wanted all my life, to sit down with Him and have a good conversation.

Isn't the point about Christianity that it, it's the unlikeliness of the tale that makes it the great faith it is?

Well I don't think so is the answer - I simply cannot believe this extraordinary heap of beliefs. And when you compare it with other beliefs and other religions as I think we all have to do, you realise that in many respects, Christianity is one of the most improbable of the lot. It's very interesting - how can people believe all this stuff? How did people believe the other things that they believe? I think the human mind is an infinitely flexible instrument which is capable of taking on almost any set of beliefs - sometimes you dress them up in reason afterwards - but the emotional reasons behind any religion are the most important, and I think the rationalisation that takes place is, or is not improbable or implausible - and I'm afraid Christianity is among the most implausible.

And did you, how did you fill the, the gap that was left then, as, as a young person you'd been a serving Christian. Did you feel a, a lack of an explanation or ideology? And indeed, where does Christianity sit now in your world view?

I think it's a system of belief that I respect in the same way as I respect other systems of belief, and I find it a very interesting subject. I find it's rather enjoyable to discuss it with people. You'd be surprised how few priests and other advocates of Christianity are in fact willing to get down to the intellectual foundations and have a look at them, because they don't like doing it. But filling a gap - I didn't really feel a great gap, because I think the most important thing that we have is life itself, and when I start to look at the improbability of life and its manifestations since the very beginnings probably 4 billion years ago, I find that of such interest, that I feel very much at one with living things wherever they may be.

You went to Westminster School, you went to Christ Church Oxford, you had a first class honours degree, you went to the Coldstream Guards. This is main line, heart-of-the-establishment background. Did you accept its precepts? Did you grow up challenging them? Were you a rebel at any time or ... how did you take on board all that, that ... ?

I suppose I was rather a rebel at school, but let me say this, that I've always found that in order to persuade other people of something, and above all to put forward a point of view, you have to speak their vocabulary. And so whether I am an advisor to the Prime Minister, or successive Prime Ministers as I have been, I think it's very important that you should be able to express your thoughts in language that they can understand. And you can't do that unless you act from within. And so there's a choice for those who want to change the established order or to change the established state of mind. That is to shout at it, and wave banners and represent another point of view in a very stark form, or to try and understand the existing conventional wisdom, but gradually turn the conventional wisdom into new pathways. And I've always chosen the second course.

How soon in your life did you perhaps appreciate that your world view diverged then, from that of the orthodox view?

I suppose I've always been aware of the fact that my thinking is not always the same as everybody else's, but that doesn't worry me.

In what way is it divergent?

Well I don't think that people in the world, the curious world in which we live at the moment, very often stand back and think how very odd it is. After all, humans until let's say 6,000 years ago were behaving in a whole lot of different ways which are now totally incomprehensible to us. You then move from the hunter/gatherer to the agriculture, you then move from agriculture to cities, you then move from cities to the Industrial Revolution, and in all that we have retained many of the characteristics which were there 10,000 years ago, but have had to change. And here we are living at the moment, in a state of mind, which really goes back only 250 years, which was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and we don't look back, we don't compare our impulses, we don't see how ideas have developed during these unimaginably long periods of time, and how different we have become, although underlying it all is the basic, genetic and intellectual inheritance we have from the past.

You embarked on a diplomatic career that took you to The Hague, Mexico and, and Paris in the late '60s. Now things were happening across Europe in the late '60s, and indeed over in the States. But Paris was somehow a particular point of 'les événements', the rebellions and student revolts, workers' revolts in Paris. How did you experience that?

Well I was the political officer in the British Embassy in Paris, and my job was to report on French politics. And so I had to know all the politicians, and of course the events of 1968 were critical in all respects. And I witnessed all those events from within. Harold Wilson was then Prime Minister, and he required a report to be sent back every night, and I remember walking down the street which led to the Embassy, usually at about 11 o'clock at night, climbing over the barricades, going into the Embassy, sending off my report on the day's proceedings, and then going to bed, and then starting again next morning. It was very interesting, not least because of the insights it gave me on the political process and how people react to crisis. Some people came out of it very well, some people did not. So you saw the cracking up, huge fissures developing in a, in a very artificial structure. And looking round at our own society you realise how fragile in many respects it still is, and how something else could pull it out from, pull the rug from underneath, as for example, after any other form of intellectual or other earthquake.

Well it's interesting, because you've been in various key moments at key places. The European Union, and the negotiations for that. Did you also then have a sense of perspective by virtue of the job you were doing?

I suppose that I did, I believed, and still believe that our right place is in the European Union, although exactly on what terms remains to be discussed. For example, I was very much in favour of developing the European Union, because I saw it as a counterweight to the great powers then exercised by the United States on one side and the Soviet Union on the other. The idea that we are always in the Western camp against everybody else I think is quite wrong. Europe has a particular destiny, a particular set of requirements and I think we can't afford to be pushed around by anybody. And for that reason on pure power politics alone, it's extremely important that we should be able to come together in Europe and set out coherent policies. That doesn't mean to say we have to adopt the Euro tomorrow. It means that in many respects mistakes have been made which should be rectified. One of the sad things about the British performance in Europe always has been we've entered everything too little and too late.

Well while you were leading this high profile life, you were also already concerned with the planet, and your book 'Climatic Change and World Affairs' was published in 1977, and really was seminal in both I think perhaps shaping up everything you've done since, and also in shaping up the political responses to climate change both in Britain, Europe, America and the United Nations. So where did this book come from?

When I went to Harvard on a sabbatical fellowship for a year off after struggling with East-West relations at the end of the Cold War, I wanted to do something completely different. And so I had before me two choices. One was to look into the question of human genetics, and whether there was anything in the way in which élites everywhere were formed, and the other was to look at climate. And the reason I was provoked into looking at climate was I had sight of some CIA papers, which showed that at that time the CIA were considering whether they should try and induce or withhold rainfall as a weapon of foreign policy. And I thought this was deeply shocking, so I thought it was worth looking at. And the more I looked at it, the more interested I became, so I underwent a course in meteorology at MIT, I went through a series of lectures on Astronomy at Harvard, I read all the literature that was available, and in those days it could be done in 3 months, and then I sat down to write my lectures and book, as it later became. And I think what is really quite interesting is that I did call for a Climate Change Convention. It came in fact, less than 20 years on, but it didn't quite take the form which I hoped it would take, although it did take some of the forms I hoped it would. And I still hope that some of the things that I was looking at in 1977 will come about. but we're still a long way off that.

You've said in various situations, and different contexts, that environment has a relationship to religion, and that religion has a relationship to the environment. Could you elucidate that?

Well the two are deeply intertwined and intermingled. Religion has got many interesting bases for it. If you look at it from the point of view of an anthropologist you can say that there are a whole lot of very specific reasons. One is that it gives communities a strong sense of togetherness, it also usually means of course, that you have to have someone you're against as well as something you're for. But it's an integrating factor in any group to have a common set of beliefs. It provides some measure of satisfaction to our curiosity about the world around us, and we can explain things in the way that religion can, can explain things. And of course with the development of science, religion tends to recede. You don't have to believe any more that a tree is particularly sacred. Or that a spring is going to give you eternal life. you can always push it further and further back, which is of course what has happened, although no-one can yet explain the Big Bang, or anything else of that nature, description. It likewise provides you with a lot of comfort, and it gives you solace at time of difficulty. And above all, it does a little bit to help your fear, people's fear of death, because you think that 'Why is it that the, the wicked seem to triumph and the virtuous seem to come to grief? Well you say 'It's OK we'll it'll all be settled when we're all dead. And then the virtuous will triumph and the evil will go gnashing their teeth into the outer darkness.' And so religion fulfils quite a lot of social purposes. There's also the point of view which has been expressed by Ed Wilson at Harvard, and I believe recently by others, to show that religion has been a, a kind of genetic element as well. A favouring of religion has been something in our genes, because of these various advantages that it brings. So there is a kind of genetic predisposition towards a set of beliefs, which can encompass all members of your tribe, your city, your community or your country.

Yes, but as a leading member of the tribe, you don't eschew these beliefs - so what do you believe the destiny of the planet and of mankind is?

Well mankind is a very small part of an enormous natural system. You can argue that in some respects, the proliferation of humans is a malignant maladaptation. When I was born in 1930, there were roughly 2 billion people. There are now 6.2 or 6.3 billion people, and the number is still rising. If the multiplication of that basis had been of rhinoceroses or swallows or something like caterpillars, we would be scared stupid. As it is ourselves and we all have relatively short life spans, we've got used to it, and so we don't think it's so amazing and indeed there are still people who say you need to breed more for the sake of this or that short term problem. So in my lifetime I've seen these amazing changes take place, and I find that that is very alarming. And so when you look at this maladaptation, and see what we're doing to the planet at the moment, you have every cause for alarm. And I believe fundamentally that all human society as we now know it has got to take some fairly substantial changes of direction.

On an even larger scale, you have written this, in the past. 'Seen from space, we are no more than mites on the skin of the earth, and inside as well out ... as outside, and inside us as well as outside us are countless billions of mites, all profoundly connected in mutual dependencies.' That's sort of to see it with the eye of God. Does that scare you?

It doesn't scare me, because I'm used to it. But I think it's very useful that people should be able as it were, to take a space man's view, and look at the earth and this very small animal species, which is proliferating upon it. We sometimes forget that how very, very small the little, kind of skim over the atmosphere, the skim over the surface of the earth is the little bit we inhabit. It's tiny. The atmosphere is a mixture of swirling gases of an unstable kind, and in this atmosphere of unstable gases, we are among the millions, possibly hundreds of millions, of organisms living there. Indeed I think we forget out mutual dependencies because after all, every human being in a sense is a walking zoo. We are composed of bacteria, our cells contain symbiotic relationships with the past, we are ourselves not entirely independent - we can't breathe, we can't digest without the help of bacteria. We are indeed living zoos, walking zoos, talking to other walking, living zoos who are the other animals, or indeed the plants, which move more than you might think. And they're all in a sense, very strongly connected with us. And so we have to see ourselves in a state of mutual dependence, both within ourselves and as we look out from ourselves. We're all in the system of tiny, fragile creatures, living on the tiny surface of a very big planet, itself as a planet in a solar system which is on the edges of a galaxy looking out at galaxies that stretch - billions of them - in every direction past the eye and possible knowledge of men.

Sir Crispin, having given us such a vision, you nonetheless have remained committed to doing something about the outlook we have, and the damage we're doing to our planet. Would you use the word, is the word 'crusade' acceptable? Do you see yourself as a crusader?

Well crusader's a dirty word, because it involved the efforts of Christians in the Middle Ages to expel the believers of another religion from holy places that they regard as holy as the Christians do. So I think I'll try to avoid the word 'crusade'. But I do believe very strongly that the only way to bring about change is for people to change their ways of looking at things. And so I certainly believe that it's very important that we should look differently on the earth.

You persuaded Mrs. Thatcher to go to the United Nations and address them about the planet.

I think I persuaded Mrs. Thatcher of the importance of climate change and she took it up in a famous speech at the Royal Society in 1988. She came to the United Nations in 1989 and gave a speech on it. She attended the World Climate Conference with me in attendance in 1990. And certainly that aspect of it she was always very strong about, and being a lady of strong character and the only scientist in her cabinet, she indeed felt that this was something that she could contribute. Indeed I remember an all day meeting with her ministers, in which we discussed nothing else. So she grasped this issue, but of course it isn't the only issue. Climate change is linked with a lot of other ones, perhaps the other four main ones are human population increase, which obviously has to stop before very long, the destruction of the land surface of the earth, and the disposal of wastes, the use and availability of fresh water, and one that is particularly dear to my heart is the way in which we are destroying other living organisms without really understanding the result, and breaking up the endless chains of being that are around us all the time, without understanding what's going to happen.

Who do you blame for this? Do you think that human capacity to understand these things is simply lacking, or are we wilfully ignoring things? Are we also in some profound way at one with animals and nature? We love landscape, remoteness, we try to cherish these things. Where does the balance lie?

The balance is always difficult to attain whatever you do, and of course it was many times in the past, it has been upset as well. I think people have rather tended to forget, when they look at the woes of the present world that since the last Ice Age, which ended only 10,000 or so years ago, there have been something like 30 urban societies, all of which have collapsed, principally for internal reasons, partly for environmental reasons, partly for all the other things that human beings can do to each other. And so we are the inheritors of a civilisation, which is probably as feeble and transient as the other ones. And we have to realise we have to study the mistakes that others have made, and we have to try and correct those we have made. And I think that the whole point was set out very clearly in a conference of scientists, some 1500 scientists got together at Amsterdam in the year 2001, and they tried to sound a clarion call which on the whole was ignored. But the main points they made were these - first that the earth, the impact of humanity on the earth was creating a situation which was unprecedented. We have to understand the past, but we have to recognise that the way in which humans have behaved means that it's all new. Therefore we need to have new policies. And the second conclusion that these scientists reached, which I believe to be very strongly true, is that carrying on as we are, the 'business as usual' system is not a serious option. We have got to change our minds, and we've got to change it as soon as we can change our minds. And so using the point I made to you before, about using the vocabulary of the present to try and push people in a different direction - that is what I've been trying to do and still try to do.

And doing it very vigorously. Do you ever despair?

No, because I know that I don't regard myself as indispensable. There are many other people who feel the way that I do, and when I go, there will be others who will do the same, because it seems to me a logical conclusion to reach, that if you study these things, that is the way in which you realise that human minds have to change. Bearing in mind that it's not only very difficult to change people's minds, but that something totally unpredictable may come along. If you go back 20, if you go back just 10 years, who would have believed that information technology would've taken the role that it now has taken? It's completely unpredictable. But there are other things that are unpredictable as well, and I think that one must always expect the unexpected. But what I'm quite sure of, is that as we go at the moment, it has to change. And if, the longer we delay the change, the worse it's going to be for our heirs and descendants.

One of the major roles you had was of course, was British representative at the United Nations. Now the United Nations is a global organisation, actually attempting to do something about the state of the world in its grander claims. Did that leave you feeling that it was going to succeed? Are you an optimist about the capacity of organisations to help the planet survive?

If we didn't have the United Nations, we would have to invent the United Nations. And since it does possess the loyalty of nearly every, single country on the, the earth, it's something that we should value much more than we do value. It's interesting to see that after the mess created by the Americans by their invasion of Iraq, they're now suddenly finding that they want the United Nations back again. Because you can't do things internationally without the United Nations. I would like to see it changed in a variety of ways. There are lots of paths for development it has not yet chosen. When I was in the Security Council I remember once proposing that we should set up a kind of environmental arrangement by which if one country damaged the interests of another through abuse of the environment, it would be a case that could be brought to the Security Council. But this caused a number of people's hair to stand on end, and nothing came of it. But I'd like to see, for example, the development of a World Environment Agency to balance out the World Trade Organisation, because commerce is only one of the aspects of human activity, and it needs to be counterbalanced by respect for the environment, and respect for other living creatures.

Your engagement with all these issues and your high profile place among the counsels of the world, is a very public and external affair. What about the internal life that you lead? When you put your head on the pillow at night and close your eyes, who do you perceive yourself to be, and what is your relationship to mortality and purpose in life?

I suppose as we get older, we all have to contemplate the prospect of death, and I certainly do that. But since I don't believe that I personally matter all that much, and I'm part of the living tissue of life, I suppose it doesn't intimidate me as it would if I thought that everything depended on it. I don't expect an afterlife. The only afterlife I shall have is those parts of me, which are part of the human zoo that I referred to, will probably take up residence in other people, or in other plants, or in other, in other forms of fertility. My body will contribute to the continued life on earth. And eventually of course, life on earth will come to an end, because the sun will eventually expand, and the earth will be pushed out of its present orbit, further away. And the, the sun as a red giant, will absorb nearly everything there is and perhaps in another galaxy, in another solar system, in another star system, life may arise again. Of course we don't know why life ever started.

But do you think humanity will destroy itself before that point arises?

I hope it won't, but I think humanity, whatever it is, has a limited life, because, because we are part of a living system, which is, is not going to survive for ever. But and the role of humans in it is questionable, so long as we behave as we do. As I said, we're a bit of a maladaptation, because we are taking the niches occupied by other living creatures, we are destroying other living creatures for our own purposes, and we are therefore rather like a, you can argue that the, the role of humans in the life system is like some species that has got out of control. It's like some disease that has taken over. And usually these things correct themselves sooner or later. I hope they'll correct themselves with humans still there, but I think that they will correct themselves.

Sir Crispin Tickell, thank you.

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