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1 December 2021

Rachel Kyte Q&A: “My carbon footprint is a source of deep discomfort”

Rachel Kyte on the legacy of Aneurin Bevan, dreams of teleportation and what the Girl Guides taught her.

By New Statesman

Rachel Kyte was born in Aylesbury in 1965. A former CEO of Sustainable Energy for All and special representative of the UN secretary-general, she is now the dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, Massachusetts.

What’s your earliest memory?

Playing pretend grocer, delivering items from an old disused van in the yard at my grandparents’ cottage. I sold empty cereal boxes and tins.

Who are your heroes?

When I was young the Girl Guides gave me all kinds of opportunities: to play music, travel and make friends for a lifetime. It was a remarkably effective leadership training programme and the leaders and band masters were heroes. Now, my heroes are the women I know who plug away making change; women providing off-grid electricity in Sierra Leone, or taking part in the decades-long struggle for legal abortion in Mexico, or reaching an agreement of 1.5°C of warming as the world’s climate goal. They are too many to mention. I hope they read this – they know who they are.

What book last changed your thinking?

Parag Khanna’s Move made me think more deeply about a new era of migration, forced by climate change, and how to make migration a dynamic force in sustainability.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Aneurin Bevan. In the founding of the NHS and the protections he put in place to keep it from being dismantled in its first 70 years, he was able to launch something that, in his words, “lift[ed] the shadow from millions of homes”. We need that scale of life-changing ambition now to make everyone’s life better with a clean energy revolution. Our son’s middle name is Aneurin – it means a “man of honour”.

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What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

The poetry of Mary Oliver.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

The late 1920s, in Germany at the height of Bauhaus, shuttling between Dessau and Berlin.

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What TV show could you not live without?

If Ted Lasso was in The Great British Bake Off tent I would be riveted.

Who would paint your portrait?

Paula Rego. I saw her recent exhibition at the Tate Britain. The strength she portrays in her paintings of women is breathtaking.

What’s your theme tune?

“Walls Come Tumbling Down!” by the Style Council.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

“‘No’ is a complete sentence,” which I follow infrequently.

What’s currently bugging you?

The woodpecker pecking on the side of our house. Lying in bed it sounds more like a pile driver.

What single thing would make your life better?

Emissions-free teleportation. Having worked internationally for years, and with family on the other side of the Atlantic and friends spread across the world, the carbon footprint wrapped up in my social and professional identity is a source of deep discomfort. I will have to wait until quantum mechanics makes my dream come true.

When were you happiest?

The last time I was walking our dog on a beach.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

Town planner. We have to design sustainability into the way we live.

Are we all doomed?

Not if we pull together, get excited by competence, and vote accordingly.

[see also: David Thewlis Q&A: “When would I like to live? Any time before all this nonsense began”]

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This article appears in the 01 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The virus strikes back