Episode 317 – Supercharge Me with Eric Lonergan and Corinne Sawers

Eric LonerganCorinne Sawers‘We don’t compromise rigour and intellectual honesty, but we try to make it as accessible as possible.’

I don’t know what you and your life partner achieved in lockdown. Eric Lonergan and Corinne Sawyers wrote a book. 

They brought their complementary skillsets – Eric in economics and monetary policy, Corinne in climate and sustainability – and produced Supercharge Me: Net Zero Faster, a call to action for policy makers and individuals alike to embrace the challenge and indeed the opportunities of reimagining our world more sustainably. 

They also discovered a way of writing together that preserved those individual perspectives while creating a unified argument. And a lot of it happened over the dinner table… 

AUDIO:

VIDEO

Supercharge Me site: https://www.superchargeme.org/

Eric on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ericlonners

Eric’s blog: https://www.philosophyofmoney.net/

Corinne on Twitter: https://twitter.com/CorinneSawers

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

WriteBrained: A 28-day exploratory writing adventure: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=writebrainedcourse

Alison’s TEDx lessons article: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/my-tedx-takeaways-alison-jones/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club bookshop: https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/extraordinarybusinessbooks

Alison Jones: I’m here today with Eric Lonergan and Corinne Sawers. Eric is a policy economist and author with over 20 years experience in financial markets. He’s the co-author with Mark Blyth of the international bestseller, Angrynomics. And he’s written extensively on innovations in monetary policy and frequently contributes to The Financial Times.

Corinne Sawers has spent the last decade advising global business and governments on climate and sustainability. She’s co-founder of More United, a not-for-profit tackling tribalism in UK politics, well, somebody needs to frankly.

And together they are the authors of Supercharge Me: Net Zero Faster, which was recently published by Agenda Publishing.

So, first of all, welcome Corinne and Eric. It’s very nice to have you here.

Eric Lonergan: Very good to be here.

Alison Jones: It’s lovely to have two authors on the same mic in the same space. I can’t tell you what a joy that is for a podcast. So, well, let’s start off by the sort of the impulse behind the book. And you bring your different perspectives. Here it is, by the way, Supercharge Me, great cover.

What was the thing that made you think we should bring these perspectives together and write a book about net zero faster?

Corinne Sawers: Partly it was just lockdown and us spending far too much time together. Yes, far too much time together talking about the climate crisis. More sort of seriously, it felt like this very unique moment in time where over the last two, three years, the business community and finance community have really got serious about climate action.

It’s really been elevated to a board level priority and sort of the writing’s on the wall, you know, they recognize they need to transition. So that’s fantastically exciting and fills one with optimism because suddenly the momentum’s there. But alongside that we felt this frustration that things aren’t moving fast enough, the timelines are incredibly tight.

We have to essentially halve emissions in the 10 years between 2020 and 2030 to hit the sort of UN ratified goals. And that policymakers weren’t necessarily bringing their best goods to bear. There’s a lot of sort of fantastic opportunities here to create wealth and improve living standards. And so we just felt there’s a whole load of tricks being missed.

Alison Jones: And interestingly, although the pandemic created the space for you to do that, it also created a massive distraction on a global kind of business and economic and financial stage, didn’t it? So in that context…

Eric Lonergan: I think as well, one other thing is that we felt we had a very strong message. You know, and this is I think, a really important thing when you’re trying to write a book. Is the first step is to have something to say.

And we had a series of meetings with Lord Adair Turner over the last three or four years, and he’s been heading up The Energy Transition Commission in the UK. And in one of the meetings we said to him, ‘Look, if you were a dictator, and there were three things you could do, what would they be?’

Because one of our frustrations is that the environmental movement has been a movement without a manifesto. If Greta Thunberg was in power, what would she actually do? Well, we don’t really know the answer to that, at a practical level, other than the fact that she wants to reduce emissions, what would the actual policies be?

And Adair gave us such a succinct and clear answer, which was that if we make electricity sustainable and we get transport, manufacturing, home heating fueled by electricity rather than fossil fuels, emissions would fall by 75%. Now, suddenly that’s a really clear message, right? We need to make electricity sustainable and run everything off electricity. And that’s 75% of emissions.

Now then, you know, in both of our expertises, mine as an economist, Corinne in sustainability, we started to think that actually is a much clearer and addressable problem than is presented in the 30 books on climate change that we’ve read over the last 10 years. Particularly because we are blessed as a generation that the forms of electricity, wind and solar primarily, can actually be built really, really quickly.

So the answer is investment spending, which we can do really, really quickly. And we have, as we saw during the pandemic, the government can finance it. And so you’re building wealth, creating assets, which you can finance at very, very low cost. Now that is a totally different representation of the climate challenge on net zero, than we typically read about which is, oh my God, we’re all going to have to completely change our lives. It’s going to cost a fortune. There’s going to be huge increase in taxes.

Whereas this is actually saying, no, we just need an accelerated capital investment in our electricity infrastructure and then we can collapse emissions really quickly.

So we suddenly, the more we started to discuss this and think about it together, we just really wanted to get this book out as quickly as possible.

Alison Jones: There’s so much that’s fascinating there and thinking particularly about how the global energy crisis, the fact that suddenly we saw that we can do impossible things very quickly when we have to. And you’re right that there’s a sort of moment in time.

What’s interesting to me as well, as a publisher and as somebody who works with authors who have to present calls to action, is that when you’re writing about stuff like this, which is urgent, which is important, which has frustration behind it because it’s not moving. It’s very easy to sound shrill quite quickly. And to preach to the converted, to preach to the choir and you’re not particularly reaching the people who need to hear it.

And what you’ve just described is, it’s very smart in terms of communication strategy, because what you’re doing is reframing it, presenting it in a really practical way, as actually specifically, we need to do this and this is what’s involved.

Was that sort of consciously part of the communication strategy as well, just in how you reach people who won’t engage with it?

Corinne Sawers: Yes, absolutely. I think we, again felt sort of frustrated. This is a partly… we have to win hearts and minds as well, you know, to make some of the policies politically palatable that are required. And a lot of the narrative isn’t doing that. It’s presented, as we say, presenting it as we’re going to have to make huge sacrifices, we’re going to have to pause economic growth. Everyone’s going to have to stop going on holiday.

And that A, we don’t believe is true, and B is not a helpful communication strategy. So absolutely we were conscious there needs to be, I mean, there’s lots of fantastic economists and policy thinkers doing this. We’re not the first people, the Nick Sterns of the world and lots of American policy economists like Victor, you know, they’re bringing a very calm, fact-based and more positive case to the table.

Eric Lonergan: But also I think you know exactly what you identified, we tried to reflect in the way we’ve written the book as well.

Alison Jones: Yes, let’s talk about that, the dialogue piece, because it’s very striking as you read the book.

Eric Lonergan: Well, because our initial sort of early drafts, maybe you’ll say the first chapter or so, both of us had a tendency to use jargon and it was slightly hilarious because I would be saying to Corinne you’ve got to stop talking like a management consultant, you know, and she’d be like, you’ve got to stop talking like an economist.

Alison Jones: You can’t see your own jargon, can you?

Eric Lonergan: Truth is we were both guilty of it.

Alison Jones: I speak concisely, you use jargon? Yes. It’s sort of…

Eric Lonergan: That’s exactly right. So we were, and hopefully you got this feeling reading the book, but we made a huge effort and we were just really brutal with each other about going back over and over again and saying no jargon because we wanted to be rigorous and credible, which we think it is, but we also do want it to be accessible pretty much to everyone.

Alison Jones: But the dialogue achieves more than that I think, you’re right that it gives it, that there’s a sort of bracing saltiness to it. It is actually, it feels like two people talking, which is not what you normally get in a book. But it also allows you, I mean, I don’t want to say comedy, but there are some moments which did make me laugh. You said, well, why don’t we do that? Well, precisely. And it does feel like you’re kind of eavesdropping on a conversation.

It is very easy, isn’t it, I mean, it’s not just the jargon, it’s the facts you have to present, the arguments you’re marshaling, it’s very easy for it to become quite abstract. And I thought that the dialogue piece, it also very nicely solves the problem that a lot of collaborating authors face of the first person plural which sounds quite dead, doesn’t it? You know, we believe this, it sounds almost like you’re trying to sort of be the Queen or something. So it allows you to keep your voices.

Eric Lonergan: And it’s worth saying like how we actually did it.

Corinne Sawers: Yes. So it was also a very efficient process. The way we actually drafted, did the first draft of the book was sat dictating into our iPhone. You know, we’d say, okay, where do we, we decided on the structure and we’d already talked so much about it, that we knew the themes and the arguments. We’d sit down and say, okay, we’re doing the chapter on the individual today and sit down for three hours and record ourselves.

And we’re then left with, you know, obviously a huge mess that needs incredible editing and total rewriting, but it was a great way to force a first draft.

Eric Lonergan: So it is a recorded dialogue in that sense, obviously then edited and tightened but we had got into this habit that we wouldn’t have any conversations about the book unless we were recording them.

Alison Jones: I can just imagine, oh, if only we recorded that, that was great. What did you say again? Yes, I can…

Eric Lonergan: That’s right. So we just started to be like, immediately Corinne would start on something and I’d go, okay, we’ve got to record this.

Alison Jones: Which I imagine is hilarious because halfway through dinner, if you just happened to start talking about it, everyone scrambling for the recorder, that is really, really funny.

What do you think it makes possible for the reader in terms of just engaging with the concept?

Corinne Sawers: So a few different things. One is where intentionally we think there is an optimistic case. But we’re intentionally steering away from that sort of doom-laden pessimism. Because we think this is an optimistic story in both that we can address it and a whole load of good will come from the restructuring of our economy that is required to meet the climate crisis.

 So we certainly kind of intend and hope that readers take that away. And I also hope it’s a nice balance of very accessible, anyone can read it, but learning. That you’ll learn a bit about the environment, about how the business sector’s addressing it, about monetary and fiscal policy. Yes, I mean, that’s the least interesting thing.

Eric Lonergan: What they learn about interest rates. But you know, I would hope that when you read it, you know the answer if anybody says to you, what do we need to do? That anyone who reads the book knows exactly what we need to do.

Alison Jones: Well, you say anyone who reads the book, sorry,

Eric Lonergan: Yes, well, there’s just one other point is we do talk in the book about simple maths.

 We kind of separate the problems of the challenge of transitioning our economy into problems with simple maths, mini Musks and herding sheep. And what we mean by that is the simple maths ones are really where we have the technology. It’s about the economics and the policy, get the numbers right and we can make it happen, like is happening in solar and offshore and onshore wind and, and lots of these other areas of investment.

Then there’s mini Musks where we mean, maybe we don’t need many more Elon Musks, but we need lots and lots of innovation and really great R&D. And then we talk about herding sheep, which we would put ourselves into this category, which is most human beings.

And the way we think, we’ve got a very, very realistic view of corporate behaviour, political behaviour and human behaviour. And if you look at all of the literature in social psychology, you know, it starts with a small minority, it’s a small minority of very motivated people who tend to change our perception of norms.

And most of us will only change our behaviour if the change is an economic saving, is pretty easy to do or if our friends are doing it. So we respond to what we perceive other people to be doing. So we do address this, we go through the different, you know, what should companies do? What should individuals do?

And for individuals, we kind of say, You know, don’t worry about whether you’re using a dishwasher or washing by hand. If you want to have an effect here, you have to become an activist. And actually the power of activists today is pretty extraordinary. Whether that means, you know, pestering your local MP, or it just means going on Twitter and re-tweeting stuff from Greenpeace or calling out companies who are not giving full information about what they’re doing or their products don’t live up to their promises.

I mean, it is amazing and we give lots of examples of what 20 motivated individuals can actually achieve. So hopefully everybody should come away very well-informed and with greater clarity. If you’re a policymaker, you have a manual here of the policies and if you’re an individual and you really want to do something about it, you know, we address that as well.

And hopefully just give you conviction in how much power you can have.

Alison Jones: Yes, and how supercharged you are.

One of the things that really struck me was that range of readers that you have in mind. So there is the policymaker, you know, at that real professional engagement end, and then there’s just somebody going, I don’t really understand the arguments about sustainability and is it even possible? And you’ve got something for everybody in there.

Now that’s a great strength of a book, but it’s also quite challenging because it’s very broad. How are you actually using it now in terms of how you get people engaging with it? And, I mean the book is a great starting point for understanding the arguments.

What do you want people to do with it and how do you enable that?

Corinne Sawers: Yes, and it’s a great question. I’ll just start by saying, we did have quite a bit of feedback from, you know, the various, our researcher who was helping us and various people who read drafts, saying, you know, this is a risk. I don’t think… you need a more focused audience. You’re trying to speak to too many segments. But we kind of stuck to our guns and thought, we know it’s a risk, but we want to write something that’s very accessible, but we also think we have some ideas in here for the policy experts and business leaders who really know the space inside out. So I think we did take a bit of a risk on that.

In terms of how we’re using it, we really are, you know, our goal is to influence policy. You know, that is the goal.

So we are targeting as much as we can, influential groups, think tanks, you know, MPs in various countries, and actually writing more specific blogs, where we go into more detail on some of the policy ideas as a way to kind of build that audiences conviction and understanding of the policy ideas.

Eric Lonergan: I think that’s right. So, you know, we’ve got, at some level we are trying to sort of have plans for each of those different areas of the readership. We are trying to promote the book as widely as possible. So, we are doing, you know, we were just in Dublin, we did a kind of live podcast at one of the theaters on a Saturday night. There were a lot of, how can I put this politely, but fellow Irish people who’d had a few drinks and that was not a hardcore policy audience, but, you know, we wanted them to get engaged.

So we want everybody to get engaged, but then clearly our messaging and the framing we use has to be very different depending on the audience. So, that was more about storytelling and anecdotes that may bring out points that are more interesting and that will resonate. But then as Corinne said, we’re also doing blogs. We’re also directly engaging with policymakers. And we’re trying to be involved with activists as well and try and help that framing and just give people more confidence that this is something we can succeed in doing, and we can have an impact.

Alison Jones: It’s a really interesting model because you’re right, the received wisdom is that a book should be written for quite a tightly defined audience. It can have secondary audiences, but there’s a sort of, you know, key primary audience. And that is a great way to do it. And another thing is to write what effectively is a manifesto really, you know, it’s that kind of thought, it’s a big thought piece and build out from that different strategies for the target audiences that you have.

So I think just articulating that is quite interesting. If somebody feels that they don’t want to narrow it down, they do want to keep the broad focus. And that’s kind of an alternative way of thinking about getting the message out.

Eric Lonergan: It’s probably also just worth mentioning Corinne that the structure, so the book was about 20% longer in terms of the main text. And then what we decided to do is just take a lot of the more technical arguments and put them into endnotes. Some of the endnotes are like evidence-based, citing numbers. And we reworked one chapter in particular an awful lot, which is about interest rates.

We don’t want to put any readers off, but you know, we tried to make it where it starts to get technical and you’re talking about what Central Banks do and stuff. It’s really important that people get their head around this stuff, because we have organizations like Central Banks. And if you look at, for example, what happened during COVID, you know what all of these Central Banks did pretty much saved our economies.

But it is a real challenge, both as a human being to make sense of what on earth are they doing because this is not something that most people understand or engage with day to day. And then as a writer to convey that in a way that people can understand and engage with. But that is really important that we do try and understand this stuff because we’re talking about hundreds of billions of financial resources being used and there’s issues of democratic accountability.

We really made a huge effort and reworked an awful lot, some of those chapters, to kind of get that balance right. Where we think again, we don’t compromise rigour and intellectual honesty, but we try to make it as accessible as possible.

Alison Jones: And of course, endnotes give you a sort of container into which you can put stuff that some people will find fascinating, other people just don’t want to be bothered with.

So again, it’s thinking about the texture of the book. Yes, really interesting.

Corinne Sawers: I am aware some people will find, people who do know this space, will find the book frustrating because of us trying to sit on two stools or what’s the phrase.

Alison Jones: I think you normally fall between them. That’s the problem.

Corinne Sawers: Yes, exactly, exactly. We’re trying to be very accessible and lay out the kind of the first principles of the problem and how to solve it. So for people who work in this space, I know all this, you know, then there’s other bits which will be new to them in terms of…

Eric Lonergan: Well, I would also, you know, just in the spirit of disagreement and dialogue, The thing I have been really happy by is a lot of people who are experts in the field have gone, you know, I actually didn’t think about it like that. I mean, one area for example, is that of carbon taxes. I’ve just been amazed how many people have come up to me and gone, I thought all the economists were in favour of carbon taxes. Whereas our view is, yes they play a role, but they’re not the main game.

And you know that even amongst specialists and experts I think there’s stuff there for the experts to maybe pick up on too.

Alison Jones: The thing, as well as that often a book like this is valuable to another expert because it helps them explain things to the people that they’re working with. So there’s a sort of secondary purpose behind it as well. So if you can articulate something better than they could, then they may have understood it, but that’s still valuable.

Corinne Sawers: I have to admit this concept of EPICs, extreme positive incentives for change. We cottoned onto the fact that this theme came up time and time again in the success stories in climate. That there had been extreme, positive incentives, usually subsidies that drove kind of the expansion and collapsing cost of solar and wind where there’s pockets, where EVs have really kind of dominated the share of new car sales. And we were sort of trying to work out how to package it. And first we called them RPIs, radical, positive incentives. And I remember sitting at our kitchen table and saying, well, how about, how about EPICs. You know, and thinking, no, that’s too silly no, one’s going to take that seriously.

Now we’re seeing it in print, you know, in the FT and The Economist. And it’s so surreal but I do hope, we really have focused on how do we make these ideas accessible and something someone can grab onto. And if we have achieved that I’m really, really proud.

Alison Jones: It’s wonderful when you coin a phrase and then start seeing other people using it, you know that you’ve named something that needed a phrase and people didn’t have a phrase for it. The role of an author, isn’t it? That’s wonderful.

I’m going to ask you both for your best writing tip. Now it’s interesting, I’m not quite sure whether you’re going to give me one kind of as collaborators or individually, but if there’s people listening, who have what they feel is, you know, they’ve got that same sense of opportunity and frustration. What would you say to them to how to get started?

Corinne Sawers: Well, if you want to write something impactful. I mean, we’re talking kind of business books, non-fiction, as much as possible base it in what you’re doing in your day-to-day life, and the challenges, the practical problems or the intellectual problems that you’re seeing people butt up against. So making it as relevant as possible.

You know, we really, really based everything in what we were seeing in our working lives and how policy makers are thinking this through. So just kind of relentless focus on relevance, I suppose.

Eric Lonergan: The golden rule, I think for me is concentrate on what you have to say. Which I know sort of sounds quite obvious, but I would literally, because there’s no point in writing anything, unless one has something to say.

So be really clear in your own mind what it is you want to say. So what is it that you disagree with or are arguing with, or trying to say, and just get that down and just don’t worry about researching it. Don’t worry about whether it reads well, just make your, say what you want to say, maybe on two sides of A4, and that then is the structure of your book.

Alison Jones: Yes, and there’s nothing like actually speaking to someone to help you articulate that. You sort of did it organically, but if you haven’t got somebody locked down with you that you can talk to about this stuff, then find someone.

Eric Lonergan: Yes.

Alison Jones: Brilliant, great tip.

And I always ask people for a recommendation as well. It doesn’t have to be a business book. It often is. As there are two of you, you could have two recommendations, that’s absolutely fine. You’re not allowed Supercharge Me, sorry, but what book would you recommend that listeners should read?

Corinne Sawers: I’ve actually brought mine. I did stick to the business book world, it’s called How Remarkable Women Lead by Joanna Barsh and Susie Cranston. And this was actually given to me on sort of my first day of work at McKinsey, many, many years ago. And the reason I rate it is, to my point earlier about writing tips, it’s based on hundreds of interviews with senior women. You know, across the business world.

So it’s incredibly concrete and grounded. And it was the basis for an effort called The Centered Leadership Project, you know, focusing on accelerating female leadership. And so much of the principles behind it and what that centered leadership project teaches resonate with me because they really are around, they focus more on the kind of the true psychology of focus on your strengths, your strengths will be, you know, what really elevates you and delivers impact rather than your kind of development needs, so to speak.

You know, focus on what nourishes you and gives you energy, both in your personal life and your professional life. Just a lot of things that might sound quite basic, but actually a lot of leaders, whatever gender, need reminding about what makes good leadership.

So I read it very early in my career and it informed a lot of how I think, and I think also gave me courage to really see myself as an integrated whole, in terms of my personal self and my professional self. Which might be more the norm now, but 15 years ago, it felt a bit like you couldn’t bring your whole self to work, you know?

Alison Jones: That is a real trend recently, isn’t it? But it’s a welcome one, I think.

That’s brilliant. Well, I didn’t know the book, so thank you. I’m going….

Corinne Sawers: Yes. So it’s, as I say, it’s not that new, but I think quite timeless.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. Thank you, Eric. Do you want …

Eric Lonergan: I’ve now got my week’s reading sorted.

Alison Jones: Excellent.

Corinne Sawers: You’re going to lead like a remarkable woman.

Eric Lonergan: Try to lead like a remarkable woman. That’s a good challenge.

Mine, I thought long and hard about this. Most of my favorite business books are really boring, so I’m not going to recommend those. But I think my current favourite is The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success by Mark Jaccard, who’s a Canadian kind of policy, business economist, and it’s just a really, really brilliant book on so many levels, he knows so much. He’s on the IPCC so the, or an advisor to them, so that, you know, the international body for climate change. And yes, we learned so much from it.

Corinne Sawers: Can I tell an anecdote, well, this is a book we both read and rate very highly in our research for the book.

And it sort of felt like Jaccard became sort of a personality in our lives, you know, and we also for some reason, he’s Canadian, for some reason we decided he was Australian and we kind of gave him an Australian accent and we would say, ‘what would Jaccard say, I dunno, what do you think he’d say?’

And we kind of debate what Jaccard’s view on it would be. And he really became a personality in our lives, I think because we fundamentally respect his experience, his approach on this. But it really got quite out of control. And given he’s not Australian at all and I don’t even know where that came from.

Highly recommend the book.

Alison Jones: One of the sort of exploratory writing exercises that I often do with people is, you know, who do you read? Who do you listen to? Who really inspires you? And get them to coach you. I mean, they have no idea they’re doing it, but you know, you’re sort of writing down, they would say and so on, and I love the fact that you can co-opt somebody into becoming your mentor, even when they have no idea what’s happening.

Corinne Sawers: That’s really, really great. yes, so we sort of did that with Jaccard, I guess.

Alison Jones: And gave him a new accent along the way. Brilliant.

So if people want to find out obviously more about Supercharge Me, but also about the work that you do, kind of beyond that and individually and together, where should they go?

Corinne Sawers: I mean, the main thing is the blogs where we put them up both on superchargeme.org, which is the website for the book and the blogs. And Eric’s longstanding blog philosophyofmoney.net. And then Twitter, Eric’s much more active on Twitter. Eric loves, loves getting into arguments. I’m more non-confrontational.

Alison Jones: Twitter is the place to be, right.

Corinne Sawers: I find Twitter a bit overwhelming. I don’t like everyone sort of shouting at each other. But I force myself to be a bit more proactive on it to promote the book.

Alison Jones: Great.

Well, I shall put the social links and well link, I won’t drag you in if you don’t want Corrine. And those two blogs up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com along with obviously the link to buy the book.

And I wish you every success with it. It’s a great book. I learnt a huge amount and it just feels really timely.

Eric Lonergan: Thank you so much.

Corinne Sawers: I really appreciate the support and it’s been a really great conversation.

Eric Lonergan: It’s been terrific. Thank you so much.

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