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In November last year, Sir Ian Blatchford, the director of the Science Museum in London, warned that the arts world risked being “eaten alive by its own piety”. Now authors are set to do the same thing to the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Climate activist Greta Thunberg, set to be the festival’s main attraction, cancelled. She accused the festival’s lead sponsor, the asset manager Baillie Gifford, of using its support of the arts to “greenwash” its reputation. An open letter from 50 writers, including the novelists Zadie Smith and Jessie Burton, has called on the festival to seek another sponsor.
The charge, such as it is, against Baillie Gifford is that two per cent of their total investments were in companies that make at least five per cent of their money from the oil and gas industry. The asset manager’s extensive sponsorship of literary activities, including a series of festivals and the Baillie Gifford prize for non-fiction, was considered by the signatories to be exculpating the investment giant for its role in greenhouse emissions.
Yet, even advocates of divestment, a flawed and self-defeating strategy, cannot seriously propose that these figures should make Baillie Gifford beyond the pale. As the Ferret’s own analysis shows, Baillie Gifford’s share is beneath the average for its peers. The asset manager added that 5 per cent of its clients’ funds is invested in companies “whose sole purpose is to develop clean energy solutions”.
Baillie Gifford and the festival rightly refused to bow to pressure. More leaders also need to emulate Blatchford and call out unreasonable demands from outside and from their own staff. But the festival is in a uniquely difficult position. Without the support of novelists and writers, the gathering cannot go ahead.
The tension between the arts and its founders is older than capitalism: from the ancient world to the Medicis, artists have relied on the support of what we would now call philanthropists. They have also often chafed against the ethical questions that this raises.
It is only right and welcome that authors use their influence to campaign for political and social change. And it is entirely fair to scrutinise the environmental consequences of what businesses and individuals do. But, no reasonable definition of greenwashing can set the bar as high as it has been for Baillie Gifford.
If the asset manager’s money is not clean enough for protesting authors, then whose is? The idea that Baillie Gifford’s money is greenwashing but literary prizes and festivals have a large source of available funds is a fiction worthy of any of the signatories’ work. In practice, the letter-writers’ demands mean nothing less than the end of the literary scene as we know it.
The demands are particularly frustrating because it comes, in large part, from authors who do not rely on the festival circuit or on literary prizes to promote their work or to make a living. In a world without the Edinburgh International Book Festival, signatories such as Ali Smith or Zadie Smith will still enjoy large audiences for their work. But lower-profile authors and debutants, who rely heavily on the boost in prominence that winning a prize or attending a literary festival can bring, will suffer as a result.
If the authors wish to argue that there is no such thing as an ethical sponsor under capitalism — the inescapable conclusion of the argument against Baillie Gifford — they are welcome to do so. But they should consider whether that argument will result in, as Blatchford warned, the arts world burning itself up in its own piety — and doing nothing to meaningfully help the cause of net zero either.