Tuesday, August 28, 2007
After getting back from India, I have been taking a couple of weeks off, ahead of travelling to China – and at home, to avoid airports, particularly with climate-change-protestors apparently supergluing themselves to Heathrow’s revolving doors. And one thing I’ve been doing, alongside taking on board copy editors’ comments on the new book, with Pamela’s help from Australia, has been reading William Gibson’s new novel, Spook Country. He has long been my favourite contemporary sci-fi author (http://www.williamgibsonbooks.com/), though – as if often said – his books have gradually slid back into a mutated present.
Last night, Elaine and I went to listen to him at the Congress Centre in Great Russell Street, dropping off to see Gaia and Hania on the way, in their respective Soho haunts. A bit like tempting exotic reef organisms out of their lairs. By contrast, struck by the fact that a very high proportion of those turning up for the Gibson reading and interview were wearing black, though a fair few were exotic hybrids of one sort or another. His reading was so monotone that even I almost went to sleep. And when he answered questions, you sometimes got the sense he was trying to fend off the more obsessive elements of his following.
It struck me while reading the book – which I have almost finished – that there is a eerily steady, inexorable, unexceptional, highly detailed flow to the thing, broken periodically by astonishing insights and developments. Reminded me of walking alongside the Nile in Luxor, in 1975, looking across the steady northward flow of green-tangerine water, as the sun set in the west. And then, out of the blue, or green-tangerine, a pair of massive backs broke the surface in mid-stream, and disappeared – never to appear again.
As we walked across to the event, we passed through Bedford Square, where Earthlife used to be based in No. 37. Elaine also used to work for a publisher in the Square. And that set me thinking about Gibson’s ideas on “locative art.” At the moment London has its blue plaques commemorating famous people who lived in various buildings. But what if locative art (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Locative_Art) took off here?
But, as he said at the event, the advent of the cell phone in cities like London transformed them. People who used to walk through the city alone, could now do so in company via their phone. (He noted that when he first saw people on cell phones in London, he thought someone had upended an asylum, because of all the people walking around and talking energetically to themselves.) But what if we could tag every building we had ever worked or lived in, so that others could access our memories, commentaries and so on? If you couldn’t elect to access the memories, it would be like drowning in other people’s worldviews, or taking LSD. But if you could choose what you accessed, it could make walking through a city an astonishingly rich experience.
Gibson in full flow
Monday, August 27, 2007
Having decided not to post this photo, taken by Tell (Muenzing) over tea in the garden today, was persuaded to do so by Sam, who likes orange kurtas. This is one of two I bought when in Mumbai, withj help of Kavita (Prakash-Mani). I could get used to them. But Sam, to give the whole story, also says I look like a tipsy guru, so mixed blessings there. Still, I was clearly enjoying both the company and the weather.
Friday, August 24, 2007
ECHOES OF PHOEBE
Have always had a penchant for old ladies, so today was rather fun. Elaine and I took my mother across to see an old family friend, Bunny Palmer, in Icomb this morning. Striking how their friends have been dying off – though they were both in wonderful form today. Guy’s Farm garden not quite what it was, but still blessed with a glorious English charm. On the way out, we dropped into the old cookhouse, where a large oven used to cook for the whole village on a Sunday. The state of the roast very much depended on the length of the sermon. Also put me in mind of another much-lamented friend from olden Icomb days: Phoebe, the African parrot who used to hold forth raucously here – and hereabouts.
Thursday, August 23, 2007
Jane Nelson called me last Sunday to let me know Robert Davies (http://www.seeingthepossibilities.com/) had died. Now that the news is out, with an obituary in today’s Financial Times (http://www.iblf.org/media_room/general.jsp?id=123950), it’s time to add my small tribute to the towering heap.
I last saw Robert on July 5, at the IBLF event in the Kew Orangery on social entrepreneurs (see blog entry that day, where he is pictured in reflective mood). He was a passionate, consistent, highly proficient example of the breed – and, although our approaches were somewhat diferent, I have always felt that we were very much shoulder-to-shoulder in this field. Alongside people like Stephan Schmidheiny and Bjorn Stigson of WBCSD, Robert was a pathfinder in driving our agenda into boardrooms.
There was clear personal strain in some of the battles he fought. I well recall him coming across to discuss the pressure he came under from parts of the food industry when he insisted on putting obesity on the IBLF agenda a while back. But, whatever the pressures, his approach was admirably summed up by the title of his website and blog, “seeing the possibilities.”
When Elaine and I had breakfast with Robert in Davos earlier in the year, he projected confidence that he could shake the cancer. Having seen so many people succumb in recent years, however, I can’t say I have been particularly optimistic. Still, whatever our condition in life, the last paragraph of the Alison Maitland and Sarah Murray’s FT obituary summed up a key lessons that Robert drew from his own journey: “Our lives are too short not to share what and who we know so the world can profit and the journey to sustainability can be shorter.” Typical of the man – and a model for all those still pursuing the path.
HILL HOUSE GREENING
Am often told that my lifestyle isn’t nearly as green as it ought to be. True, but – for better or worse – my generation’s influence on my parents’ household has been considerable. My father long ago gave up insecticides and switched to biological controls, including getting grandchildren to hunt down caterpillars. Some of the plantings of greens in the garden behind the barn are like lacework, thanks to the depredations of the caterpillars that survived.
Another question that has taxed us briefly in recent days was whether it’s better to have creepers on a house or not, with some seeing them as damaging to stonework, while others argue that they protect walls against rain and other insults. Looking back at the family photograph albums, which show the house since we moved in almost 50 years ago, in 1959, it strikes me that the greened version of the exterior is way more pleasing than the way it was it looked more or less bare. The last photo: wild strawberries by the front door.
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
IN THE VALLEY
Caroline drove us down into the valley this afternoon to a friend’s house with a gaggle of children, to swim. Victoria plums ripening on the walls of the garden – and memories of when, as teenagers, we used to fish and swim in the nearby Windrush. Then back up the hill. The sliced fruit are part of Caroline and Tessa’s preparations for a forthcoming party of theirs.
My mutated piece on India’s impending ‘Third Liberation’ now appears on the openDemocracy website (http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/globalisation/institutions_government/india_sustainability), whose format and topicality is a wonderful example of the breed.
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
On our way down to Little Rissington today, we dropped off in Oxford to see Geoff Lye – and discuss SustainAbility futures. After lunch, we walked across to Green College, where Geoff is now partly based, and he showed us the Observatory. A different world.
Monday, August 20, 2007
The first in a series of mini-video-interviews on the subject of corporate social responsibility and sustainable development can be found at http://www.bigpicture.tv/videos/watch/00411460f. The filming was done by Marcus Morrell of Big Picture TV, motto ‘Talking Heads, Talking Sense.’ I’m certainly the first here, but it’s for viewers to judge on the second.
Saturday, August 18, 2007
INDIA’S THIRD LIBERATION
On August 16, the day after India celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of its Independence, I found myself standing alongside Niraj Bajaj as we watched the figures on the electronic displays at Mumbai-based National Stock Exchange go from bad to worse—and playfully calculate how much poorer he was as the head of one of India’s largest business houses as the global market correction roared through. Later the same day, on the other side of town, he chaired a session hosted by the Indian Merchants’ Chamber—of which he is President—at which I gave the keynote in support of the Chamber’s centennial year theme of inclusive growth in the context of globalization. My simple message was not entirely comfortable: India faces a far bigger market convulsion before the country reaches its centenary (http://www.imcnet.org/aboutIMC_news.asp?newsid=134).
In his introduction, Mr. Bajaj noted that the ‘Triple Bottom Line’ concept, which I launched in 1994, now offers a means of helping India, Inc. to come up with answers to the challenges that Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh had raised in his Independence Day speech. Before explaining how the TBL approach can help, however, I stressed that the world’s second most populous country is now embarked in its third great liberation process since the end of the Second World War. And the third is likely to be greater than either the first and second taken together.
The first was the process of achieving liberation from British rule, finally achieved at horrendous cost in 1947 as the Partition process literally tore the country apart. It was fascinating in recent weeks to see the media—both in India and the UK—explore the rights and wrongs of it all. Suffice it to say that the seismic aftershocks of Partition will probably still be shaping our world in 2047.
The second liberation saw the iron grip of the state gradually prized away from the levers of economic power, as India struggled to catch up with the processes of liberalization, privatization and globalization from 1991. Again, the seismic shockwaves are still working their way through the country’s economy—and will continue to do so for decades to come. But among the beneficiaries of the new order have been some of the leading business people I met during my week in Agra, Delhi and Mumbai.
And the third liberation? Well, if the first broke the stranglehold of the British and the second that of the state, the third will have to simultaneously achieve a triple-whammy—breaking the stranglehold of poverty by bringing the benefits of a modern economy to the more than 250 million of India’s billion people trapped below the poverty line, while protecting the country’s natural environment.
Apart from the pollution and natural resource degradation that are such a striking feature of today’s India, there is also now the growing threat of climate change. Indeed, among those who spoke at the IMC event was Shailesh Haribhakti, Managing Partner & CEO of the leading financial services firm, the Haribhakti Group. Himself a past President of the IMC, he now chairs the Chamber’s committee on global warming.
The scale of the social challenge facing the country was underscored by the Prime Minister’s speech, in which he argued that economic, social, political and educational forms of empowerment are crucial to the nation’s future—alongside effective efforts to tackle the growing range of environmental issues, notably global warming (http://www.hindu.com/nic/pmspeech070815.htm). Like China, however, Indian leaders have often argued that global warming is not India’s problem, given that it “only” contributes a few percentage points of global greenhouse emissions. Indeed, I had heard a senior retired environmental official make exactly that point in Agra earlier in the week, at a business leaders programme organized by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII).
There I found myself working alongside people like Professor Stuart Hart of Cornell University’s Johnson School, where he holds the Samuel C. Johnson Chair in Sustainable Enterprise Management (http://www.johnson.cornell.edu/faculty/profiles/Hart/) and Professor P.D. Jose of the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore (IIMB). And the mood among the business leaders taking part was distinctly more engaged than it would have been a few short years back, which is just as well, since the country’s second liberation means that a growing share of the responsibility for tackling India’s sustainability (or rather unsustainability) issues will devolve to business. One key factor in that changing mood has been the work of the CII-ITC Centre of Excellence on Sustainable Development (http://www.sustainabledevelopment.in/), under the current chairmanship of ITC Chairman Y.C. Deveshwar.
ITC, which originally stood for the Imperial Tobacco Company, is a company that splits me down the middle. On the one hand, it is like an Indian version of Philip Morris, though the proportion of its revenues derived from the sale of tobacco products has fallen to around 47%. On the other, ITC is increasingly well known for its extraordinary successes in such areas as social forestry—exactly the sort of the ventures that the Prime Minister would like to see more of.
In his speech at the CII event, Mr. Deveshwar accepted that the company’s profile put it in a difficult place. But he stressed ITC’s commitment to “achieving Triple Bottom Line benchmarks is key to our resolve to contribute to the national goal of sustainable and inclusive growth.” The same messages were blazoned over a number of pages in the Independence Day edition of India Today. Among the achievements he reported were the facts that ITC has been a “water positive” company for five years in a row and “carbon positive” for the last two years. It also aims to achieve “zero solid waste,” having recycled over 90% of its solid waste during the past year.
Although such statements are encouraging, it is very clear that—despite a profusion of NGOs—India still has some way to go in developing the sort of civil society organizations that play such a key role in monitoring and challenging business in the developed world. WWF, which also took part in the CII event, is now calling for a Sino-India “axis for business sustainability,” to ensure that the transformation of the global economy proceeds on increasingly sustainable lines (http://assets.wwfindia.org/downloads/wwf_report___indian_companies_in_the_21st_century.pdf). Certainly there is growing awareness that this will be one of the defining issues of the twenty-first century, a point underscored forcefully during last year’s World Economic Forum summit in Davos.
If such countries fail to get their act together in time, we are likely to see the mother of all market corrections. While I was in India, the new broke that the boss of a Chinese factory supplying toys to Mattel had hanged himself as the US company was forced into a massive product recall, following the discovery of unacceptably high lead levels in the paint used in some toys. Such problems, though, are likely to pale into insignificance if and when problems like global warming go into overdrive—and the business community is seen to have dragged its feet as other parts of society tried to mount an effective response.
One of the questions at the IMC event in Mumbai asked what I felt about the 1984 Bhopal disaster. Although I believe that Union Carbide was initially culpable, and that Dow Chemical—which bought Union Carbide’s Bhopal assets in 2001—failed to fully grasp the way that legal, financial moral liability regimes are morphing around the world, I also conclude that various levels of Indian government were to blame for the totally shambolic handling of the aftermath of the tragedy. This is an agenda that my colleague Geoff Lye explored in a recent report sparked by a number of visits to Bhopal, The Changing Landscape of Liability (http://www.sustainability.com/insight/liability.asp).
The changing agenda is easily illustrated by the shift in the work SustainAbility itself has been doing in India. To begin with, the clients were non-Indian companies (like Ford of India) wanting to test their local policies and operations against emerging local concerns, or companies like BT (http://www.sustainability.com/insight/article.asp?id=153) and Norwich Union that have been offshoring call-centre and other operations to India, wanting to assess the responsibility of the relevant operations and relationships. Increasingly, however, there is a sense that Indian companies themselves will be in the market for help in shaping their strategies, performance and accountability mechanisms in areas covered by the Triple Bottom Line agenda.
As one result, we are planning to establish our first emerging economy market office in India next year. That said, my experience in the country as it embarked on its seventh decade of independence leaves me in no doubt that if we are to succeed, we will need to mutate our own business model. A daunting challenge, true, but one that growing numbers of businesses will need to tackle as the impact of the emerging economies increasingly determines the shape and direction of the global economy. And this time the judgment on how we performed will not be made just by the investors and shareholders who have been closely monitoring recent market corrections but by the hundreds of millions of people still excluded from today’s mainstream economy—and, most fundamentally of all, by future generations of Indians and non-Indians alike.
Thursday, August 16, 2007
Arrived in Mumbai yesterday, Independence Day – and the 60th anniversary of the 1947 liberation from British rule. Day started with a session with Hindustan Unilever, followed by a lunch with the top team at the National Stock Exchange, where I had to speak, then – after a slight detour to the shops with Kavita – an evening conference at the Indian Merchants’ Chamber, where I was the plenary speaker (http://www.imcnet.org/aboutIMC_news.asp?newsid=134). Session chaired by Niraj Bajaj, IMC President. Very lively discussion afterwards, after which we had dinner with Rajni Bakshi (author of Bapu Kuti, and a member of SustainAbility’s Faculty) and Shailesh Haribhakti, Managing Partner & CEO of the Haribhakti Group, a leading financial services firm. He had been at the National Stock Exchange lunch, introduced me at the IMC event this evening and leads the Chamber’s work on global warming.
View from my hotel bedroom in Mumbai
Sculpture at Hindustan Unilever
Flowers at the National Stock Exchange
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
AGRA AND THE BLACK TAJ
Flew in to Delhi on Friday, getting to the Habitat Centre hotel at around 01.00 on Saturday morning, then up at 04.30 for trip by train to Agra, with Kavita (Prakash-Mani) and colleagues from the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). Disorientating, shocking experience of wading through the still-asleep bodies of the poor in the railway station, with rats picking their way here and there, and then standing on the station while the dawn gradually lit the sky. Then, once on the train, the Shatabdi Express, through tent shanties into open countryside, with – at one point – a couple of wild peahens making their way past rice paddies in the middle distance.
We have been in Agra for the 1st CII Business Leaders Programme on Strategies and Leadership for Creating Sustainable Organisations (http://www.sustainabledevelopment.in/). (Professor) Stu(art) Hart of Cornell University led off the first two days, Kavita and I the second two. Some of my conclusions on the basis of the experience will be covered in a later posting (‘India’s Third Liberation’). One early highlight: watching Kavita as the only woman in a late-night game of cricket behind the hotel, as bats (the winged variety) flew around overhead – attracted by the insects drawn in both by the spotlights and by the audience. Women seemed to be bitten a good deal, whereas I seemed to escape. Then dinner, where the food was exquiste. But can’t get the country’s yawning social divides out of my head.
One the Monday morning, around 06.00, some of us took off to see the Taj Mahal (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taj_Mahal), which I found profoundly beautiful and moving, in multiple dimensions. One of the most extraordinary moments was when our Muslim guide sang the call to prayer inside the tomb – and the echoes trailed off into eternity. The echo was so perfect that you could almost see the decay equations hanging in mid-air. Had promised Sam (Lakha) that I would reflect on her parents, who came here on their honeymoon, and did so as I watched tiny tadpoles wriggling around in one of the ornamental ponds.
I had loved the notion that Shah Jahan had planned a black mirror-image of the Taj for the opposite side of the river, in which he planned to be buried, but Wikipedia concludes that this was a myth. he ended up alongside his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, in the Taj itself.
Not quite the Express: old Japanese locomotive in the the grounds of the The Mughal
Spot the mongoose pair below the pipes
Kavita prepares to play near-midnight cricket, with bats flying overhead (not shown)
Fish watch us having dinner
Outside the Taj
Stu Hart in green
Thursday, August 09, 2007
TIM – THE COMPANION PIECE
A companion piece to the photograph of my mother, Pat, which I posted on 23 June is this picture of my father, Tim, signing yet another round of Battle of Britain prints. You can see it in his eyes. But it strikes me that the image is an interesting bookend to the earlier one.
Not sure what I would have made of him in the flesh, but the obituary of Lee Hazlewood in The Times a day or two back (actually on 7 August) was a reminder not only of his glorious (“immortal”, The Times says) song These Boots Are Made For Walkin’, recorded by Nancy Sinatra, but of his sundry other claims to fame. What I hadn’t known about him until I read the obituary is that he also wrote one of my favourite songs from the 1950s, 1956’s The Fool, recorded by Sanford Clark. Found it on the iPod this evening and played it in honour of Hazlewood’s passing.
Am watching the crab apples turning red in the garden, as I wait for Demon to come back online after yet another excursion. Working at home today, have been wildly productive, despite the number of times the broadband connection has crashed. Even so, there’s a strange sense of suspension at the moment. Now that the book is in the busy entrails of Harvard Business School Press, I’m finding myself wondering what the next one will be about. I should know better. But something else to think about on the flight to Delhi tomorrow.
Hopefully, will be good to rest the brain for a few hours: the last week or so has been fairly frantic, with other writing tasks, developing an Environment Foundation conference for October on the theme of democracy and sustainability, working on a new project I’m hoping to get off the ground in the realm of private equity and venture capital, and meeting a steady stream of people passing through the office, all on top of more than the usual crop of office dramas. Have myself playing guitar a good deal in the evenings, to decompress, and reading several books – notably finishing Al Gore’s The Assualt on Reason a few days back. A stunning diagnosis, prognosis and prescription for the ills that ail American politics currently.
Sunday, August 05, 2007
GORE & HAWKEN ON IMMUNE SYSTEMS
Have been reading Al Gore’s new book, The Assault on Reason, in recent days and finding it wonderfully provocative. Interesting that both he and Paul Hawken (Paul in his new book Blessed Unrest) use the metaphor of the human immune system for the political challenge facing us: Gore because the Bush Administration (alongside other, deeper-seated factors) has been busily undermining US democracy, Hawken because he optimistically sees civil society organisations worldwide ramping up to the challenge of providing a global political immune system.