CAT TURNER INTERVIEW – IS THERE LIFE AFTER MONEY?

Cat Turner

When I met Cat Turner at a Friends of the Earth Basecamp, she was full of ideas and positive energy. But what I noticed most of all was her unusual combination of expertise in financial services and sustainability. I asked her about how she’d used these skills and worked with others to create a new Green vision for the Isle of Man, where she lives.

Leslie:  Can  you  describe  your  career  in  financial services – where your interest came from, how  you became involved and how it developed?

Cat: My career in financial services started out fairly prosaically. I finished my A-levels early, at age 17, and rather than going to university wanted to ‘start my life’ straight away, at least, that was how I saw it. So I got a job, and started studying for my degree and other qualifications in the Isle of Man’s financial services sector. At the time this was pretty much the only game in town as the Island’s an offshore finance centre.  I spent 30 years or so, in banking, investment, fund management, insurance/pensions and corporate and trust – this last means working with the ‘vehicles’ that businesses and wealthy people develop to plan their finances and minimise their tax payments. My focus was on developing products, and on compliance and regulation; for a while I was a policy adviser to the Isle of Man Financial Supervision Commission. I learned lots and was well rewarded, so I’m grateful for that. But it became apparent to me that I was working in a sector that felt wrong, morally, to me, and whilst on the face of it I may have looked ‘successful’ – highly qualified, high earning, high achieving – I became increasingly aware of a hollowness to it; what, in Alcoholics Anonymous, some people call ‘the hole in the soul’.  It wasn’t fulfilling some need in me. I tried filling that hole in the soul with more ‘achieving’, high spending, teaching, writing books – essentially, showing off. It didn’t work.

Leslie: How did  your interest  in sustainability  begin, grow and develop? What  have you learned from  those experiences?

Cat Turner 2Cat: There were two catalysts. One was becoming a mother. I’m a single mum with two stunning twin girls, 9 yearolds Lizzie and Catherine. You can’t bring life into the world and remain uninterested in what state that world’s going to be in. I felt compelled to leave the place in the best shape possible for them, in my limited fashion…. The second catalyst was that ‘hole in the soul’ I mentioned. I rather crashed and burned into a deep depression, which then spiralled into alcoholism. It was a shocking time, for the girls, those who care about us, and me. I had to stop working and took a couple of years to rebuild myself – alcoholism really is the ‘great remover’. But out of the wreckage came the possibility of something good. I realised I couldn’t keep working in offshore finance, degrading other countries’ tax-takes and helping the rich stay rich by creating what were, in essence, fictions, which is how I see many ‘tax planning structures’ these days. So in the couple of years that followed my initial alcoholic implosion, I focused on surrounding myself with people and projects that helped me build a new set of values. I wanted to live a life I didn’t need to be ashamed of. As part of that I began hanging out with people who had things to teach me about spirituality, morality, environment, community and connections. They included groups like AA, Permaculture, Friends of the Earth and so on. If I hadn’t been smashed to bits by alcoholism, I wouldn’t have met these people and made the journey to where I’m now – so I have that to be grateful to my addiction for that. These groups helped me recognise the importance of connection to oneself, one another and to nature. Out of that, my interest in sustainability grew. At first I wanted to turn my back on my 30 years in finance, seeing it as part of the root of my problems. But then I realised I could put what I’d learned to good use – both in terms of skills (teaching, writing, presenting) and in terms of technical knowledge about how the economy, power systems, and financial products affect our ability to live in a sustainable, connected way – and how we perceive ourselves and our place in the world. So whilst that experience wasn’t particularly good for me personally, I can be grateful that it have me some useful tools and insights.

Leslie: What do you write as an author?

Cat: I’ve written quite a range of things – from study texts for people in the finance sector (everything from land law to investment management qualifications), to works for Butterworths/Elsevier on fund structures, fraud risk management and corporate governance. I’ve written works for schools (14-17 year olds) on how to become financially capable. And now I’m working on a book about how the finance system could be re-tooled to serve a more sustainable society – I’m struggling a bit with it though, because when I started writing it I was focused on how the existing structures could be adapted, but it’s becoming apparent that something much more radical and people-focused is needed. I also write a weekly column (the Green Column), and a monthly page (the EcoVannin page) on sustainability issues – a couple of examples are here and here.

Leslie: You moved from Oxford to the Isle of Man. How has that changed your life?

Set up for the first of 7 Christian Aid Week fund-raising Big Brekkies in Cat’s kitchen – kettle’s on!

Cat: I was very small when I moved to the Isle of Man, so my formative years were really spent in an island community of (now) around 87,000 people. It’s a beautiful place, with an amazing environment but its economy has for the past few decades been geared towards offshore finance, and latterly, increasingly, online gaming – not the most sustainable or responsible of industries. They contributed to around 30 years of economic growth, but have led to an over-dependence on these industries, and some social problems. There’s a widening equality gap and a need to diversify into more meaningful jobs that make a more positive, fairer contribution to a changing world. So the fact that I was raised in the Island meant I had a different experience, and different opportunities, than I might have had if my family had stayed in the UK. I’ve had the chance to travel a good deal, both for work and pleasure, but having the island as a base has been very centring.

Leslie: What is Ecovannin, and your role in this Isle of Man organisation?

Cat: Ecovannin is a partnership between thee of the Isle of Man Government’s departments, and three green groups based on the island. It aims to bring about more sustainable behaviour on the island, for the benefit of the environment, community and economy. We’ve initiated projects in everything from better business practices, the set-up of a community garden, and wellbeing initiatives around the island.

Leslie: Could you describe what you’re doing about wellbeing, green lanes and biodiversity in the Isle of Man?

EcoVannin chair, Muriel Garland, at a launch event.

Cat: In terms of wellbeing, EcoVannin worked with Friends of the Earth in the UK, and the Network of Wellbeing to bring a week of Wellbeing Workshops to the Island. They were absolutely tremendous! Dr Larch Maxey of NOW helped us run the programmes, giving people the chance to reflect on and share ideas about what really makes for a good life in our community. We also presented to our parliament, stressing the need to measure and focus policy on what matters to their electorate. The workshops in Ramsey, Douglas, Port Erin and Peel were jam-packed. The mix of people who came was heartening – business people, entrepreneurs, the retired, concerned parents, the comfortably-off, and people on low incomes or wrestling with difficult circumstances. It was also great that local authority representatives took the time to come to the public meetings, and participate with their constituents. Over the week, around 500 suggestions were put forward – on what ‘wellbeing’ means generally and more specifically on how we can make the island more conducive to a good life. The themes that people chose to group suggestions included: environment democracy/politics community food transport arts, culture economy and many more. Interestingly, most fell under community and environment. Even those under the headings of economy, politics or business had a strong social/environmental element. They included: ‘More equal, fairer society’; ‘Renewables’; ‘The chance to influence decisions that affect us’; ‘Awareness among powers-that-be that climate change has potential to spoil everyone’s quality of life’; ‘Economy: balanced socio-economic group with families, singles and retired people sharing the same community’; ‘More affordable fresh local food’ and ‘Free places to sit and socialise – not library (no talking) or coffee shops (expensive).’ When we presented to our parliament, the Tynwald, Dr Maxey asked members what they thought made for wellbeing. After a long silence, one member said: ‘Money’.  That may have been intended ironically, to be fair, but interestingly at these jam-packed public meetings, not one suggested ‘money’. The nearest was ‘fairer taxation and welfare’ and ‘support independent businesses’. We’re still working on how to share the 520-odd suggestions that were made, as the groups identify ideas and projects they can help make happen. Let’s hope their representatives are listening!

Coronation Community Park Project

In terms of green lanes, I’m a founder member of a group called Green Lanes Our Heritage, and we campaign to try and get protection for our fragile green lanes and greenways, many of which have suffered terrible damage at the hands of off-roadsters. Our website’s here: and in recent months we’ve been focusing on taking people – including government officials – to view the damage for themselves, and liaising with them directly on action plans for change. These fragile, beautiful, often hugely historic ways are part of our cultural heritage and we don’t want them lost to future generations – we’d like to see the same types of protections as many ways have in the UK. And biodiversity? Well, as then co-ordinator of Isle of Man Friends of the Earth I was privileged to serve on our island’s Biodiversity Working Party, working with government and other interest groups to propose a strategy for compliance with the Convention on Biodiversity. It was a lot of work, but well-worth it – provided it gets implemented properly! So we need to keep the pressure on to ensure that times of austerity don’t allow our decision-makers to de-prioritise it as too ‘green and fluffy’.

Leslie: You’ve been in financial services and the environmental movement. What do you see as the differences/similarities in how people operate in these areas? Do you see any universal patterns of  human behaviour based on your life experience?

A willow ‘living shelter’.

Cat: The differences are that the financial services industry – in general, this is – tends to work on what it CAN do, without much consideration for whether it ought.  There are aspects of it that lend themselves to keeping people enslaved in competitive consumerism, debt, and so on. Even the laudable Sustainability Development Goals, as they apply to finance, have some applications that seem more geared to creating consumers and customers, than they do towards solving the problems of inequality. Of course, that’s not the case throughout the system – there are beacons of ethical behaviour – but in the long term we need a considerable re-engineering in how humans transact with each other and the environment and a focus on ways of sharing, not always with the expectation of recompense.  Generally speaking, the environmental movement has better evolved values in terms of human interactions and responsibility, and it’s these values we need to transfer to our financial / economic systems. In terms of similarities, they’re both ecosystems, with their mechanics and participants – and very complex ones at times. So systems thinking can help understand each of them in similar ways. For example there are valuable parallels to be drawn between the various Circular Economy models, where wastage and inputs/outputs are valued and made use of. But there’s an intuitive, spiritual dimension to much (though not all) environmental endeavour. That connectedness doesn’t yet infuse the thinking of many people involved in the financial world – let’s hope we can change this!

Leslie: What gives you hope, and why?

Cat: The indomitable ability of people to find solutions. The fact that some things are as awful as they actually are – whilst things are just uncomfortable, people will be cynically weary, shrug and put up with them. You have to get to a real state of intolerance to say ‘enough!’ and energetically challenge the system. So whilst it’s painful to see the damage already done to many people’s lives, perhaps this is the shove we need to push through to a real revolution. As Khalil Gibran so over-quotedly said, ““Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding”. I suspect without that pain, we’d not make the changes that are needed. In AA we sometimes call it the ‘gift of desperation’. My lovely daughters, who constantly amaze me with their big spiritedness and generosity – my little Lizzie has me tearing out my front garden so we can plant fruit and veg for needy passers-by to share – she remembers what it was like when we were surviving from the local food bank, and doesn’t want others to do without fresh food. And the people I meet at places like Friends of the Earth’s Basecamp (where I met you, Leslie!) – people who don’t give up, won’t give up, want to and do make a difference, and remain resolutely true to themselves.

Two environmentalists at the Friends of the Earth Basecamp. Cat Turner on the left, from the Isle of Man, Vesna Sokolovska on right, from Montenegro.

 

Next week: an interview with gifted international author Joel D Hirst in, MAGIC REALISM – A WORLD VIEW.

ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:

  1. front-cover-heavens-rageHeaven’s Rage is a memoir and a collection of lyrical essays. In brief: ‘Heaven’s Rage is an imaginative autobiography. Reporting on feelings people don’t usually own up to, Leslie Tate explores addiction, cross-dressing and the hidden sides of families. Writing lyrically, he brings together stories of bullying, childhood dreams, thwarted creativity and late-life illness, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
  2. front_300Purple is a coming-of-age novel, a portrait of modern love and a family saga. Set in the North of England, it follows the story of shy ingénue Matthew Lavender living through the wildness of the 60s and his grandmother Mary, born into a traditional working-class family. Both are innocents who have to learn more about long-term love and commitment, earning their independence through a series of revealing and closely-observed relationships. Purple is the first part of the Lavender Blues trilogy. You can read more about/buy Purple here.
  3. front180Blue tells the story of Richard and Vanessa Lavender, who join a 90s feminist collective sharing childcare, political activism and open relationships. Boosted by their ‘wider network’ they take secondary partners, throw parties and observe the dance of relationships amongst their friends. But finding a balance between power and restraint, and handling shared love, proves difficult… Blue is the second part of the Lavender Blues trilogy. You can read more about/buy Blue here.

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