Six years ago, Samantha Cooper had a high-powered job in London’s Canary Wharf financial district and a hard-charging life to match it.
At 42, she was running a global trading team at oil group BP, rising at dawn and heading straight to the gym, checking emails all the way for any market-moving news.
To recover from her punishing working weeks, she would book last-minute flights to the Maldives, business class. Or fantasise about plans for an underground swimming pool at her second home in Kent. It was an exhausting, but addictive, way to live.
“There was always that feeling that I needed another year,” she says. No matter how much money and success she had, she adds, “you could always convince yourself that you didn’t have enough yet”.
By the end of 2015 though, it was Cooper who had had enough. After nearly 20 years of trading at BP, making money felt okay, but not great. She wasn’t spending time with her ageing parents. When she and her husband, a gardener, had friends to stay, she found herself worrying about when they would leave because she had so much work to do.
“I’d lost who I was,” she says. “My values were not in line with what I was doing.”
She decided to quit but, during a lengthy handover, had a stint at Business in the Community, a Prince of Wales charity backed by BP. There, she was confronted by younger people asking: “How can you work for a fossil fuel company?” Cooper, an Oxford chemistry graduate, realised that what she really wanted to do was work on tackling climate change.
By 2016, she had left BP. Today she does voluntary work for several environmental and social causes and is an unpaid director at Business Declares, a not-for-profit group that helps organisations trying to address climate change.
That puts her in an unusual sub-set of the global green campaign movement: executives ditching high-flying jobs in business or finance, often at the peak of their earning years, to fight for a safer climate.
It is hard to know precisely how many of these green defectors exist. Some who have made the jump say they know of only one or two beside themselves. Some have gone back and forth. Other dissidents think they are part of a widening trend.
He denounced his former industry in a widely-read essay this year that argued sustainable investing was like “selling wheatgrass to a cancer patient” and a “deadly distraction” from the urgent need to address climate change.
Fancy says he received “hundreds” of messages in response to the essay and the number who congratulated him for speaking out suggests many others share his views, even if they have not quit their jobs.
“The amount of people who have the itch to do that is significantly greater than the amount that we’re obviously seeing doing it,” he says.
For others, quitting a successful, well-paid business career has been far from straightforward.
“It took me quite a long time to get my head around it,” says Ben Tolhurst, who decided to jump ship after having an epiphany at Canary Wharf Tube station.
It was a morning in February 2019 and Tolhurst, who had just turned 49, had arrived for another day of work at Jones Lang LaSalle, the global real estate group, where he was managing director of UK property and asset management.
Like many others, he had noticed the unusually hot 2018 European summer, and the Extinction Rebellion protesters blocking London bridges.
But climate change had not figured hugely on his radar until he stepped off the Tube at Canary Wharf into nearly 20 degrees of warmth on what was supposed to be a winter’s morning. People looked happy. Newspapers reported beaches were busy and flowers were blooming early. But for Tolhurst, something snapped.
“I just stood there for a moment in time and I thought: ‘Is everybody mad, or am I mad?’” he says.
The realisation that a changing climate had probably brought the unseasonably warm day sent him into a frenzy of climate science research. He went vegan; resolved to stop flying and decarbonised his pension pot.
But it was not enough. By September 2020, he had resigned and embarked on a very different, but still very busy, life. As well as being a director at Business Declares, alongside Cooper, he is a non-executive director at Greentech, a group that helps new green businesses bring their products to market, and a business mentor at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. He also advises his local council on its climate emergency plan.
“I tell him to look after himself and not say yes to everybody,” says Andrew Medhurst, another green City dissident who ended a 30-year career with HSBC, Lloyds Banking Group and other financial institutions nearly two years before Tolhurst took the plunge.
The two men met in 2019 after Medhurst began working on what became Business Declares. “I went from a busy job in financial services to being a busy climate activist and as I look back now, I think that was a form of denial in itself,” he says.
Medhurst joined the Extinction Rebellion protest movement’s finance team after struggling at his London job with Nest, a workplace pension provider. “I could not reconcile encouraging young people to save money for a future that I was struggling to believe existed any longer,” he says.
This year he made another switch to work on Scholars Warning, a network of academics urging deeper discussion of the risk that climate change will cause societal collapse.
Many were influenced, as Medhurst was, by Deep Adaptation, a 2018 paper by British professor Jem Bendell that suggested climate change would cause such great crises that people should consider quitting their jobs or careers to prepare for it.
Bendell says he knows of at least eight people who have changed their working lives after reading Deep Adaptation, including two from the European Commission, but few came from the world of finance and business.
Those who have switched acknowledge they are fortunate to have the financial security to allow them to quit their jobs. To those who would like to follow suit, but fear the consequences, many say the shift is ultimately worth it.
“I did find it difficult for a while,” says Cat Jenkins, communications co-ordinator for the Deep Adaptation Forum, a global network inspired by Bendell’s paper. Based in the Isle of Man, Jenkins spent nearly 30 years in the offshore finance sector and says her identity rested heavily on being “the kind of person that has a big house and a big car and a big job title and respect”.
“Now I can say honestly that, although I earn a lot less and I have a much smaller house, I feel more secure and safer,” she says.
That is partly because she has better health, good friends and strong relationships. “But actually,” she adds, “I’ve found purpose.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021