Tuesday, February 28, 2006
First day cycling in to the office in weeks, because of all the recent travel. Fairly icy wind in my face for much of the journey and, partly because I was carrying a fair amount of weight in my panniers, when I got in my legs kept wanting to give way. Still, a busy day soon took my mind of my gelatinous appendages. Starts with a call to Jeanne-Marie Gescher in China and then mutates into work on presentations for Washington, D.C., next week.
Then, around lunchtime, I head off for Old Street area, to Forum for the Future (www.forumforthefuture.org.uk). They have just celebrated their tenth anniversary and – like us – are in the throes of a strategic review. I had been asked by Peter Madden, FFF’s relatively new Chief Executive, to do a ‘provocation’ for their team, with their Cheltenham crew linked in by video. I found it a fascinating session, with considerable similarities between our teams – though we have generally tried to suppress growth, whereas they have been a little more inclined to embrace it. Turns out that our two organisations face many of the same challenges – and we end with an agreement to organise further exchanges.
Sunday, February 26, 2006
DAVID HALL & THOUGHTS OF POLITICS
Yesterday’s Times carried an obituary for David Hall, who I first met at the beginning of the 1970s, when I was getting into the town planning area at the UCL School of Environmental Studies – and he was with the Environmental Education Unit, publishers of the Bulletin of Environmental Education (BEE). But I knew him better through the Town & Country Planning Association (TCPA), where he had been a director since 1967. He went on to higher things in planning, while I got the hell out.
But the roll call of names mentioned in the obituary brought back those years in full force, people like Colin Buchanan, Derek Diamond, Michael Dower, Peter Hall, Desmond Heap, Peter Self – and, David’s chairman at the TCPA, Maurice Ash. And thinking about Maurice brought back a memory from later in the 1970s, when he co-hosted a dinner with author Gordon Rattray-Taylor (for whom Elaine had agreed to do some reseach for a book, but where I ended up doing the work because she found Rattray-Taylor difficult). I was then still working with John Roberts’ TEST and can’t quite remember why I was invited, though it may have been because of my writing at the time for New Scientist. In any event, the dinner was called to begin developing what eventually became The Green Alliance, designed to bring green thinking into the world of politics.
Though I did a ‘political salon’ on Wednesday evening this week in Portcullis House, Westminster, I have long avoided politics wherever possible, preferring the worlds of markets, business, science and technology instead. But increasingly I feel that we will need to plunge into politics if we are to keep the momentum going in the business world.
And that’s happening at the moment. Sam (Lakha) and I have been up to our eyeballs with many things recently, among them a campaign to dissuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer to do some sort of U-turn. On Friday, I was part of a lunch hosted by Raj Thamotheram of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), bringing together a number of people who have been working to stall Gordon Brown’s efforts to push corporate reporting back into the Stone Age – with his ill-judged, more-or-less-off-the-cuff decision to throw the CBI a bone by dropping the already-legislated Operating & Financial Review (OFR) requirement for large UK listed companies. A rather different set of actors from those who gathered to conceive The Green Alliance, but something of the same spirit.
I’m not a natural for smoke-filled rooms, or their smoke-free modern equivalents, but I think many of us were both shaken and stirred by the OFR misstep. And now, having never voted )or even contemplated voting) Conservative in my life, it’s amazing how the combination of some intelligent policy proposals for our issues from David Cameron, the new Tory leader, the intensifying stumbles of the current Government, and the extraordinary implosion of the Lib Dems into sleaze begins to divert one’s political thinking into alternative channels …
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
Fascinating day, where in addition to a very stimulating session with Sophia (Tickell) on SustainAbility’s evolving work in the area of social entrepreneurship, I had lunch with John May (who I first knew of in the 1970s, when Elaine was working at Wildwood House and John was working with Wildwood on The Index of Possibilities) and then, later in the day, a phone call with Dr Robert Grubbs. He is the Nobel Prize-winning chemist from Caltech who I share a Cleantech Venture Forum platform with in San Francisco in March (http://cleantech.com/documents/SF%20Forum%20IX%20Agenda%202%2015%2006.pdf). Given that I gave up chemistry, against all the advice of my long-suffering school, at age 14, we potentially made an ill-matched pair, but the conversation was great fun and highly informative. He and John could be at completely different ends of the sustainability spectrum, an extreme specialist versus a generalist, but both – from their very different perspectives – are zeroing in on sustainable technology. John blogs at The Generalist (http://hqinfo.blogspot.com/).
Saturday, February 18, 2006
Hania came home this evening and we watched George Clooney’s film Good Night, and Good Luck (www.clooneystudio.com/goodnightandgoodluck.html). Set during the early days of broadcast journalism in 1950s America, the film chronicles the conflict between television newsman Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Brilliantly shot, with the sumptuous black and white cinematography reminiscent of that seen in films like Key Largo, released the year before I was born (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0040506/).
The storyline revolves around the very public feud that develops when the Senator responds by accusing the anchor – Murrow – of being a communist. The acting is brilliant and the drama intense, but to my mind the film doesn’t really capture the intensity of the climate of fear that developed during the era of McCarthyism, a period when Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall (stars of Key Largo), among others, took extraordinarily brave stands against McCarthy.
That said, I can see the film doing well, because it underscores the paranoia and self-defeatingly vindictive mind-set of the current Bush regime – and appeals to the Hollywood sense of the media saving the world. And it underscores the dangers of allowing the fearful and narrow minded to redefine the meaning and rules of democracy.
Friday, February 17, 2006
Part of me was still spooling in across the Atlantic, having arrived back from Toronto this morning, but we had been invited out tonight by Steve and Sandar Warshal – to The Gate vegetarian restaurant in Hammersmith, and then on to see The Counterfeit Stones (www.counterfeitstones.net) at the Riverside Theatre.
Had no idea what to expect, having never seen the band, The Bootleg Beatles or anyone else of that ilk, but like the rest of the capacity audience I soon found myself doing at least three things simultaneously: (1) jigging up and down energetically, even if not quite getting to the point of dancing down at the front; (2) appreciating how well the Counterfeits have learned to mimic The Stones; and (3) recognising what a truly great band The Stones have been, even if it’s hard to remember much original that they have done in the past 20 years. Though I’m now addicted to the Ronnie-Keef axis, this show reminded us – despite all we now know about what a bugger he could be – how crucial Brian Jones was to the early music and look, with his multi-instrumentalism, his exotic taste in chemicals and, above all else, his beautiful hair.
The Stones make it into my as-if-Desert-Island-Discs (see http://johnelkington.com/inf-music.htm), with Jumpin’ Jack Flash – whose opening chords were playing on the cafe jukebox in 1968 when I was first introduced to Elaine by Frankie Crowe.
Thursday, February 16, 2006
Warned last night that Peterborough was due for an intense ice storm last night and impassable conditions this morning, I was delighted to find the town car waiting at 08.45 and, while the snow meant that the journey back to Toronto, York University and the Schulich School of Business took two hours rather than the normal hour-and-a-half, we managed to tuck in comfortably behind a convoy of eight snowplows bombing along at a quite considerable rate, given the conditions.
Spent the bulk of the day with a longstanding friend and colleague, David Wheeler, who these days is Director and Erivan K Haub Professor in Business and Sustainability at the Schulich School of Business, York University, Toronto. In parallel, he is the Founding Director of the York Institute for Research and Innovation in Sustainability – a strategic initiative of York University embracing all ten faculties (http://www.sustainableenterprise.com/people/davidwheeler.html). Also a member of SustainAbility’s Council. Met a wide range of his colleagues and students, and did an invigorating afternoon session with a cross-section of the Faculty and MBA/PhD students, in which I presented our thinking and work. Great fun – and highly stimulating. Indeed, after a period of many years where I found surprisingly little of interest in much of the university world, a bunch of schools are coming on like gangbusters – with Schulich very much in the forefront.
One of the snowplows near Toronto, where it was thawing already
Wednesday, February 15, 2006
Early this morning, I ducked across by cab to Peterborough’s Canoe Museum (www.canoemuseum.net). Created by Kirk Wipper, this is the largest collection of canoes, kayaks, paddles and related artifacts in the world. Taxi driver who took me hadn’t been, taxi driver who collected me hadn’t been, and nor had a number of other people I talked to during the day. What a treasure they’re missing! Few things are closer to the Canadian soul than the canoe – and I have always adored both canoes and kayaks, as much as anything else as objects of design, as sculpture. Wonderful example of beautiful forms following functions. Among the books I bought: The Canoe: A Living Tradition, by John Jennings, and Algonquians, Hurons and Iroquois: Champlain Explores America, 1603-1616, by Samuel de Champlain.
Had to go around at some speed, because of other commitments, but this really is one of the most rewarding museums I have been to. And the links to the opening up of the country are made very clear with exhibits on the portage era. When opening up my Tapscott-Lopes Lecture this evening, I noted that it’s all-too-easy to think that the current generation of environmentalists invented environmentalism, yet even a few moments in this museum underscores the fact that there were environmentalists and conservationists of extraordinary stature way before the Boomers came along.
I also said that, for an environmentalist, I have always had a peculiarly developed taste for technology, partly because of an early fetish with 1930s and 1940s aircraft, but also partly because of areas I have got involved in like renewable energy and biotechnology. Thankfully, at least in my case, canoeism and kayakism is the technology fetish that dares speak its name. But I also noted that it – if you see humanity as a disease of trees, as we have been described at least once – then you could view canoes as a key vector that carried that disease into a new world. That said, the uses of wood here are enough to persuade at least some trees that the sacrifice was worth it.
Photo: Bill McLennan
The museum was a wonderful reminder, too, of one of my favourite sculptures, The Sprit of Haida Gwaii, an 18-foot cast bronze sculpture by Bill Reid featuring an extraordinary cast of mythical animal and human figures busily paddling – or being borne along in – a dugout canoe (http://www.dfait-maeci.gc.ca/can-am/washington/services/haida-en.asp). Have spent ages hovering around it in Vancouver airport at various times.
Flew in from Miami, as the Beatles once put it, yesterday. Not BOAC, but American Airlines. From the Bahamas to Toronto was an interesting climatic jump, with the snow increasingly apparent for the last leg of the flight. Then followed by an hour-and-a-half town car ride out through the burbs and then through darkening woodscapes to Peterborough. Fascinating day today at Trent University (http://www.trentu.ca/), founded in 1964, motto ‘The World Belongs to Those Who Understand It,’ where I give the annual Tapscott-Lopes Business and Society Lecture this evening. Earlier in the day, I did a lunch with Faculty, then a 2-hour afternoon session with a broad spectrum of students and some Faculty members.
The first Don Tapscott-Ana Lopes Business and Society Lecture in 2003 featured Don, speaking on ‘Integrity and Trust in a Transparent World,’ based on his book The Naked Corporation. The book explains how the new era of transparency has caused a power shift toward customers, employees, shareholders, and other stakeholders. Although I had spoken to Don (http://newparadigm.com/) by phone in the past, this was the first time I had met him and his partner, Ana Lopes.
She is a member of Trent’s Board of Governors and in 1995 founded a communications company to help clients reposition their companies in the digital economy. Ana was Premier Bob Rae’s Executive Assistant from 1992 to 1995 and, as a leader in Toronto’s Portuguese-speaking community, helped to found Abrigo – a counselling service for women and children, and a shelter for women from across the city’s immigrant communities.
The second lecture, last year, featured Jim Hill, CEO of Cherry Hill Digital (http://www.trentu.ca/news/daily/archive/040304jgriffin.html).
The yellow has been controversial
A science building surges forward like a destroyer
Monday, February 13, 2006
Weirdly, on the day that the death of Jaws author Peter Benchley was announced, we were out in a boat, in fairly bleak conditions, sailing over one of Grand Bahama Island’s reefs – looking down at the wreck of a tug and at sharks, though these were reef sharks (see bottom photo, below) not Great Whites. Interestingly, Benchley later became a firm convert to conservation – including the conservation of Great Whites (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/13/books/13benchley.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&pagewanted=all&adxnnlx=1140296428-SZ7Muqg+Kv4qOIZCZosUog&oref=slogin).
Saturday, February 11, 2006
PIRATES, WRECKERS AND SPONGERS
Spent much of the morning ambling around Freeport, where we find ourselves at the ‘Our Lucaya Beach & Golf Resort’ – because that’s where the BIFMA International (www.bifma.org) conference was held and it was easier for me to stay over and write ahead of a trip to Toronto on Tuesday, rather than flying back to London. This afternoon I also spent much of the time reading, inside or in the sun on the beach. One of the books I read was Paul Albury’s The Story of the Bahamas (Macmillan Education 1975), which cast that ‘Our Lucaya’ tag in a very different light. The native Lucayans – who were, by all accounts, an attractive, healthy, welcoming people – were pretty much wiped out by the incoming Spaniards, who used them for slaves. Eventually the Spaniards turned to African slaves, arguing that they were worth 4 or 5 Lucayans, but by then an entire race was extinct.
When the Spaniards first arrived in Haiti, which is where the Lucayans are thought to have originated from, there were perhaps 300,000 Tainos. Sixteen years later, only 16,000 were still living. By 1550, there were thought to be less than 500. Today there are none. Believing that the Spaniards were from another world, many Lucayans were easily lured aboard the slaving ships with promises that they would see their relatives in heaven.
The book is also a rich mine of interesting stories about piracy, wrecking and the sponge industry. The best known pirate was probably the infamous Edward Teach, or ‘Blackbeard’, though the region was also home to women pirates who managed to grab their fair share of notoriety – among them Anne Bonney and Mary Read. Another period of the area’s history I remember reading about in the early 1960s was the blockade-running ventures of the US Civil War and the rum-running of the Prohibiton era. Indeed, as we flew in from Nassau, it was hard not to see many of our co-passengers as today’s equivalents of rum-runners. A sense of concealed menace, of dark undercurrents running beneath the brightly lit, cocooned world of the tourist.
Because Elaine’s father was raised in Barbados, we have long taken an interest in this part of the world. And sponges were another link, featuring heavily, soggily in the bathscapes of our early years. Like many other industries on these islands, the spongers had periods of fantastic profitability, but then overtaxed their natural resource – and, though they later learned to farm sponges to some degree, industrially made alternatives were soon ousting the natural products. I was always fascinated that the sponges we used as children were once living animals. Among the types of sponge traded from the Bahamas, apparently, were the wool, velvet, reef, hardhead, yellow and grass varieties. The names conjure up one of many worlds that once existed here – and which have been largely forgotten in the rush to quarry the latest resource, tourism.
As we walked around Freeport, we saw evidence of a more recent industry, big game – or deep sea – fishing. Many of the boats moored in the harbour were obviously designed to go after fish like the marlin, increasingly endangered, and it was hard not to see them as killing machines in the process of doing themselves – and their owners – out of a future. Their fishing chairs (photos below), from which the wealthy catch big fish with the aid of technology that would have been unimaginable for the likes of Ernest Hemingway, reminded me of electric chairs. But maybe that was just wishful thinking?
Elaine and local flora
Reflection of moorings
High tech sharks
Fishing chair 1
Fishing chair 2
Friday, February 10, 2006
Lunch today was on the beach, the tables and chairs sinking into the white sand, and with a fair old trade wind blowing. You had to hold your salad on your plate to stop it ending up in Cuba. Under heavy cloud, and with a man trying to take off on a parasail and bouncing across the stacked chairs and tables, we found ourselves sitting opposite one of the two main speakers for the afternoon, John Perry Barlow. Had known of him (http://homes.eff.org/~barlow/) for years, particularly as a lyricist for The Grateful Dead, as a long-time contributor to Wired magazine, which I used to adore, and as co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (http://www.eff.org/), which campaigns for free speech in cyberspace. But had never met him. Turned out we had a shared interest in comparative religion, among other arcane subjects, and things took off from there.
He was probably a bit of a shock for the audience, though he soon had my brain geysering. One of his early observations was that when he is living in the Chinatown area of New York, one of the bars nearby is home to a large mobster or enforcer type who has a “genius” son. So every time John turns up, the guy brings out his son, and the question the boy asked John about furniture was something along the lines of: “What would chairs look like if our legs bent the other way?”
Like the Indian industrialists I met there a few weeks back, Barlow hates government with a will – as do many folk from where he lives, Wyoming. And the feeling is mutual, as his blog (http://blog.barlowfriendz.net/) underscores, particularly his post-Burning Man experiences last year (http://barlow.typepad.com/barlowfriendz/2004/12/a_taste_of_the_.html). But when it comes to multinational corporations, he’s a little more conflicted in terms of government’s role. Viewing them as a higher form of human life, but one with an enormous stake in the next two quarters, not in the future, he sees they need regulating and reining in.
One of the issues he talked about – and it had some of the audience shifting in their seats – was intellectual property, a term he described as an oxymoron. He noted that The Grateful Dead had been early entrants into the open source and content-for-free world, deciding to allow their fans (Deadheads) to record their concerts, which generally produced better music than their recording sessions. The result was a a huge boost in their popularity, although he noted that while they could fill just about any stadium, one reason was that – so loyal were the Deadheads – that the band pretty much trucked a large part of the audience along with them.
Tomorrow’s economy, he predicted, will be more about relationships than property, with value turning out to have an increasingly powerful link back to familiarity – hence the the benefit of the underground market in Grateful Dead concert tapes. Fans then felt they wanted the ‘totemic’ CDs, even if the tapes were generally better.
Extraordinary man – and someone I mean to follow up, not least because if his efforts to ‘wire’ the South. He even got involved in a project to wire Timbuktu, on the basis that – to paraphrase – “if you can wire Timbuktu you can wire anywhere.” One of his phrases that sticks in my mind – though it’s one I’d heard before – was that a key responsibility for us all is “to be a good ancestor.” That’s the very stuff of sustainability, done right. Later, as we chatted after his session, another delegate came up and the two of them compared their Japanese shoes. So I asked them both to bare their (Japanese) soles, which they did – though sadly I only caught John’s.
Thursday, February 09, 2006
Arrived in Nassau yesterday in the middle of a downpour, then took a Dash 8 to Grand Bahama Island. Elaine has come along for the ride, on BA Air Miles, but sadly we are both still suffering from congested ears because of the ‘flu I was wrestling with through Davos – and the unpressurised trip up to 14,000 feet on the Dash 8 causes more distress than did the entire transatlanic ride, I suppose because that flight was pressurised.
Am here to speak at the annual conference for US furniture manufacturers. Followed on from Clyde Prestowitz, who was a key trade negotiator when US-Japan trade relations were at their nadir, and recently pubished a new book, Three Billion New Capitalists: The Great Shift of Wealth and Power to the East. Clyde’s messages were forceful, hard-hitting, among them that the US is now on financial life support from China and Japan – and that the dollar will need to devalue by between 50% and 75% to restore some sort of balance. While this could well mean the repatriation of some furniture (and other) manufacturing to the US, the economic, social and political impacts would/will be dire.
Much of my presentation, sadly, went over the audience’s heads at something like 30,000 feet. One very intelligent woman even challenged me later as we got into an elevator as to whether there was such a thing as global warming? The industry is struggling with some of these issues, including how to break up and recycle prison furniture, an area in which they have trials running. But there is a real concern about moving from safety, health and environmental issues to wider sustainability approaches, not least because of the social equity dimensions – which makes these people, and most American business people, profoundly uneasy. And, meanwhile, President Bush assures them that climate change isn’t an issue.
Monday, February 06, 2006
Elaine and I recharge our batteries by walking around Richmond Park this afternoon, partly – I have to admit – to give the car a chance to recharge its battery on the way across. We use it so little that the battery (which is relatively new) keeps failing to start the car. Beginning to wonder whether we could do without a car: they can be expensive pests. As are the parakeets that continue to build their numbers across London and its environs, the expense being calculated in the impacts on other bird species that the parakeets dispossess from their homes and habitats. But they are still a stunningly attractive – if raucous – addition to the landscape.
Saturday, February 04, 2006
CLAWED FROG FUNGUS
If any one class of animals brought me to environmentalism, it was frogs – largely in Northern Ireland. Have been reading for years about possible reasons for the worldwide decline in frog numbers, among them climate change. Now a piece in today’s Independent (Michael McCarthy, ‘Pregnancy test may have spawned deadly frog fungus’) offers a possible root cause, or at least contributory factor. And the story underscores how interrelated things are getting in a world of more and more people doing more things and travelling more often.
Researchers at South Africa’s North-West University think that the international die-back in many species of frogs can be traced to the spread of the chytrid fungus, itself spread by the trade in African clawed frogs from South Africa – they were used in pregnancy tests from the 1930s through to the 1960s. The grisly fact is that a possibly pregnant woman’s urine would be injected into a clawed frog and, if she was pregant, the hormones would stimulate the frog to spawn within hours.
Some of the exported frogs were released and some escaped into the wild. The fungus, it transpires, can move quickly through water and can jump from one from one frog species to another. Apparently, scientists believe that the fungus is to blame for the diappearance of the golden toad of Costa Rica, and at least two-thirds of the 110 species of harlequin frogs from South and Central America. Nor is climate change blameless. In some parts of the world, shifting temperatures have made water conditions perfect for the further spread of the fungus.
Photo: Dong Lin, Californian Academy of Sciences