Richard Smith: Don’t look up. Look inwards and outwards.

by | Jan 19, 2022 | Uncategorised | 10 comments

Heard the one about the comet hurtling towards Earth but no one cares? Quite possibly you have. Don’t Look Up, now streaming on Netflix, has become that rarest of things: a film or programme about climate change that’s both got people talking and doesn’t feature Sir David Attenborough.

People I’ve spoken to are split on Don’t Look Up. Some say it’s great that it satirises our collective indifference to global catastrophe and gives voice to the despair felt by scientists and environmentalists as they try to get their voices heard.  Others say it raises the issue and a few laughs while failing to inspire action. 

I’ll be honest: I’ve not yet seen it. Quite possibly both perspectives are right.

But actions to fight climate change, both large and small, are most definitely what we need. How many actions? We’ve pinned our hopes on precisely 50,000.  In 2016 my colleagues in the Environmental Sustainability Team created 10,000 Actions, an award-winning platform which encouraged staff to commit to doing something to fight climate change. In 2022 we’ve upped the stakes considerably and are hoping that the combined might of our students and staff will achieve five times the impact of the original.

Stop reading this right now and go to 50,000 Actions to log your commitments. We guarantee there will be many things that you can pledge to achieve to make the world a better place. 

Still reading?  Fine, visit the website in a couple of paragraphs or so, because here’s a little on the kind of action you can expect on climate from our University centrally this year.

In 2019 our University committed to achieving zero carbon emissions by 2038 and within our carbon budget – that is, our fair share of the remaining carbon which can be emitted if we want to limit warming to no more than 1.5 degrees.  This is no small task but the time to deliver is now. For the past few months we’ve been working on exactly how we’re going to achieve this. It won’t be easy and it will be a significant financial investment, but we are committed and we intend to share more detail on what we’re going to do as soon as we can – beginning with an invitation to all colleagues to join an online discussion on how we will achieve our goal on Thursday, 27 January, noon – 1pm.

We’re also working on a new Environmental Sustainability strategy which will reflect all our work in this area, including teaching and learning, research, partnerships and operations.

So, I hope, this will be the year we ramp up efforts to slow down or even deflect that comet (the metaphor only works so far I think).   

There’s no question that the impact of our University becoming zero carbon will outweigh whatever planet-friendly efforts any of us can make as individuals. That doesn’t alter the fact that we need change everywhere, both individually and corporately.  So please, don’t look up at the fictional comet or down at your feet.  Look inward to see what you can do yourself and outwards to how you can inspire, lead the change and hold others (including the University) to account.

And then log whatever you’ve decided at 50,000 Actions.

Richard Smith, Head of Environmental Sustainability


  1. Adam Hurlstone

    The mission of the FFSL: To promote happiness and peace around the world by bringing out the best in humanity and living in harmony with nature.

    Tag line: Look up to see further

    It would be great if its first co-deans could be Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai –

    • Richard Smith

      Hi Adam. Many thanks for the time you’ve taken to think about and post these comments. There are some exciting and innovative ideas here. I cannot promise anything but I will certainly have a look at them and share them with colleagues. I hope to drop you a line too. Thanks again.

  2. Adam Hurlstone

    The second part of my vision is that this innovation must all be crowd funded or from charity/philanthropy. The first goal will be to raise £1 for every person on the planet and then to establish a Faculty of Sustainable Living on each inhabited continent. The outputs of the Faculty must be instantly accessible without strings and belong to everyone, not to governments or corporations, because we need to set an example, we need to mobilize all the talent of all the world, and we need to do this urgently. We could get influencers, alumni and politicians to adopt our cause: Please give £1 to save the planet. Every £1 will be spent on finding a solution. A similar model can then be used to finance the manufacturing of any resulting technology/products with an emphasis on rolling this out synchronously around the world (not like with COVID vaccinations).

  3. Adam Hurlstone

    While there are risks in early adoption, there are greater existential threats if engines of innovation are reactionary. We are at a threshold, arguably we have crossed over; and in less than 50 years humanity will change beyond recognition: either we will have perished or all but gone under, or we will have learned to live sustainably and built a fairer global society. Scholars have always been there for humanity and their contribution is now needed more than ever, together with visionary leadership.
    Rather than being a follower, we should set the pace and do something truly historic.
    The University of Manchester should be the first carbon neutral university in the world using knowledge and technology created here.
    We should reach £100 million pa in research income into sustainable living. This will require risking our own investment in this area.
    We should create a Faculty for Sustainable Living fostering a multidisciplinary solution to the problem and recruit the/empower our own finest scholars–forget project diamond! How about Project Save the World?–in science, economics, geography, psychology, art to create the solutions and implement them first here: AI to manage energy use, solar cell cladding built from graphene, affordable and scalable fuel cells, heat pumps and energy storage solutions, culture, policies and nudges to lead people to sustainable paths of consumption adopted by our staff and students, paradigms other than profit to incentivise industry. Our University should be a show case for how the climate problem can be tackled.
    Along with research, we should create the first undergraduate and graduate degree programs in Sustainable Living.
    Along with the risks there are great opportunities in being a pioneer: by being leaders, we could corner investment from government and industry and blaze brightly as a beacon for humanity. Because if we don’t find a solution to this the greatest of challenges to face mankind, everything else will be futile. What is the point finding cures to cancer and Alzheimer’s or solving social injustice when society is wiped out.

  4. Geoff

    A quick and exciting partial fix would be for the University to purchase a large area of farmland, and plant a woodland on it. I say this as offsetting will have to form the backbone of our neutrality (those concrete/steel bunkers we love to build won’t be offset by ‘smart’ lightswitches alone). The land would become an asset, meaning value has not left the accounting system. And the trees would be us offsetting our collective emissions, rather than simply buying carbon credits to be accredited too someone else’s land (and thus having no control over it’s future destiny). We already own such land in Cheshire, and maybe this could also be planted up? The benefits to carbon storage, biodiversity gain, and staff moral could be huge. Plenty of influential firms/individual are already doing this: could we be so brave to apply such a simple solution?

    • Richard Smith

      Hi Geoff, thanks for the comment. This is a complex topic with strong opinions on either side. I can assure you we’ll look into it thoroughly as our plans progress.

  5. Adam Hurlstone

    We need to guard against creating a comfort blanket to hide under as the environmental asteroid/juggernaut/tsunami hurtles towards us. The type of collective response now required to evert disaster is radical and generational and will require much personal and societal sacrifice and rebalancing, with the broadest shoulders having to carry the biggest burden. Cutting resource use and emissions in developed countries helps but not when the consequence is to divert these processes elsewhere, where the energy production is less green and the environmental degradation and human exploitation even greater.

    • Richard Smith

      Hi Adam thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree. We’ll continue to check that any actions we take which appear positive don’t have negative impacts elsewhere.

  6. Jon

    Great article – our individual contributions (lifestyle, consumption, carbon footprint, personal travel and leisure, energy use, sustainability) all resonate within the 50k Actions theme – always better to be ahead of the curve ! Great words to keep us thinking about making individual differences.

    • Richard Smith

      Thanks for your support Jon!


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