Last week, a new scholarship programme, Forum for the Future, produced its first graduates whose mission is to plant the environmental creed at the heart of British organisations. For a year they have had the benefit of expertise from Jonathon Porritt, Sara Parkin and Paul Ekins, leading lights in the British Green movement, who are keen to pass on their 30 years of experience. "We want people to get into the mainstream, not simply be Greens standing on the sidelines," says Helene Tammik, who administers the scholarship. "We want to work with businesses in partnership so they recognise for themselves the importance of a new approach."
So the scholars spent much of their year on month-long placements inside big organisations, learning how to influence them. One produced a training film for local council officers, so they understood the environmental policies already in place and could develop them further. Another went to the Department of the Environment to write a briefing for ministers on what was being done at a local level to meet international environmental promises. Tesco recruited a scholar to develop a response to those calling on the retailer to reduce food miles - the distance that food travels before it reaches the consumer. The World Development Movement asked a student to draft a submission to the Government on the Scott Report and its implications for arms sales to repressive regimes. Those on media placements wrote for newspapers, including one who penned a front page article for the Financial Times on business sponsorship of endangered species. Paddy Ashdown took one scholar on placement in his office, as did the editor of Wildlife magazine.
"It was a whirlwind. We went on a grand tour of British society," says Alison Pelling, who sat in on ministers' briefings at the Department of Transport, took part in discussions at the marketing department of Hydro- Agri, a big fertiliser producer, and spent a couple of days at Radio 4 working on the Today programme.
Sarah Willis, 25, a geography graduate, worked with the Halifax Building Society. "They had not given much thought to environmental issues, so I had a clean sheet to help them develop a statement of intent." She has recommended that there should be a board member responsible for the environment, to help manage better, for example, the mountains of paper such an organisation generates. She also encouraged the Halifax to think about its mortgage holders in a different way, providing loans, for example, to those who want to improve energy efficiency.
"We learnt on our placements," says Ms Willis, "the importance of learning to speak in the same language as a particular organisation uses. Otherwise, they can become confused about the meaning of sustainable development. It is also important not to swamp people with a sense of crisis over which they are powerless. You need to give them a positive message and explain how they can make a difference."
Richard Murray-Bruce, 23, an English graduate now looking for a job in the City, sat in on a meeting of the Labour Party's National Executive Committee when Tony Blair laid out his General Election strategy. He also worked at Wessex Water, helping them identify environmentally sustainable indicators for their transport. So he was charged with discovering the pollution and energy consumption involved in certain types of transport, data that could be taken into account alongside the traditional cost considerations. His main project was on ethical investment of pension funds. "The key discovery for me," he says, was that finance drives a lot of decisions by politicians and businesses, but it is largely invisible. We need to do a lot more work to help the financial community understand the environmental impact of their decisions."
Studying styles of leadership is an important part of the course work. "We are not looking for the traditional top-down leadership," says Helene Tammik, "but ways of getting consensus, working in collaboration. There is a lot of emphasis on self-development. We look at what attributes the leaders of the future will need - humility, modesty, a gentler way of doing things. We get the scholars to assess themselves. We hope that at the end of the year we have encouraged them to become more self-aware."
With six of the 10 months spent on placements, the rest of the time is devoted to course work, including ethics, ecological economics and the science of sustainability. "They need," says Helene Tammik, "to understand, for example, the Second Law of Thermo-dynamics, namely that you can neither create nor destroy material, you can only change its form. So, when you are in the boardroom of ICI and asked what is sustainable development, you will need to be able to give a good explanation with plenty of facts."
The course is free to successful scholarship candidates, who also receive a pounds 6,600 bursary to cover living expenses. Each place, however, costs pounds 21,000, covered by donations from charities, the Department of the Environment and founding corporate partners including BT, Body Shop, B&Q, Tesco and NatWest. Graduates receive a new qualification, Master of Professional Studies, from Middlesex University, equivalent to an MPhil.
Places for this September have already been allocated. Selection for 1998 will be made next March and applications will be accepted from November. The second year of the scholarship includes a place sponsored by the Mackintosh Foundation, which has been allocated to a Shakespeare scholar. An odd choice? Not according to Ms Tammik. "Sustainable development is for people from all disciplines. We want people from every walk of life. Someone, for example, might become a famous film producer, get the message out to a wide audience and be just as important as someone writing policy papers for the Government"n
Forum for the Future is based at 227a City Road, London EC1V 1JT. Fax: 0171-251 6268. Applications should be accompanied by an SAE.