Saturday, July 30, 2005
Jodie Thorpe and Brompton cycle
Much of the week has been taken up with a process of strategic reflection with the entire SustainAbility team. We started with all members of the team bringing something that spoke to them of the future: among them, Seb (Beloe) brought his Brompton cycle, Geoff (Lye) a picture of his new granddaughter, Jodie (Thorpe) a piece of string (she spoke of the need to manage the tension, ensuring there wasn’t so much that it snapped yet making sure there was enough so that we could play good tunes) and Kavita (Prakash-Mani) a snow leopard (shown in the picture), which she linked to a whole mass of themes, from the fact that it was an endangered species to the fact that it was ‘Made in China’.
I took the Vertical Speed Indicator from my father’s shot-down Hurricane (see 25 June entry), arguing the need to recall the security side of our agenda – and the growing need for tools that tell us where we are in terms of the climb towards sustainability.
One of my other inputs was a survey of our Council, Faculty and a small sample of clients and partners, which provided a hugely helpful mapping of the trends, risks and opportunities for us through to 2010. We are now planning to evolve the survey into a twice-a-year fixture, with the results posted and debated on the SustainAbility website.
Thursday, July 28, 2005
Old (glass) bottle
Jeff Erikson (who runs SustainAbility’s Washington, DC office) and I boarded a river boat at Butler Wharf this evening and sailed east down the Thames, celebrating the launch of a new bio-bottle for Belu, the ethical bottled spring water. Aboard: folk like Anita Roddick of The Body Shop and John Bird of The Big Issue. Caught up with a fair few people from the social enterprise world.
Belu’s new bottle is made from a polymer, polylactic acid (PLA), produced by NatureWorks (http://www.natureworksllc.com/corporate/nw_pack_home.asp), originally a joint venture between Dow Chemical and Cargill. SustainAbility did a stakeholder engagement process for them some time back, identifying only one major issue with PLA in the EU market: it is produced by fermenting corn – and corn in the US in now generally genetically modified. Against this, the profits from Belu’s products are invested in clean water projects in the developing world. And Belu say they are thinking of an ‘offset’ policy, ensuring an equivalent acreage of non-GM corn is grown.
Then Jeff and I walked back across Tower Bridge to catch the Tube west. The river looked beautiful, as did the Gherkin, poking up behind the Tower of London.
Looking west, towards HMS Belfast
CODE TALKERS, PREGNANT AEROPLANES
If anyone wanted an example of the value of diversity – human diversity – they would be hard placed to find a better illustration than the amazing successes of the Native American ‘code talkers’ used by American forces in WWI and WWII. Have long been fascinated by the story, which was brought back to mind by today’s obituary in The Times for Charles Chibitty, a Comanche code talker who served in Europe from the landings on Utah Beach through the liberation of at least one concentration camp (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,60-1710775,00.html).
The code talkers used a language in radio transmissions which the Germans had no way of cracking. The bitter irony was that the US Government had for years tried to drive the Comanche tongue into extinction. Chibitty, too, was punished at school if he ever tried to speak his native language. One of the things I found most fascinating about the code talkers was the way they worked around the fact that their vocabulary had few words for modern warfare: they made terms up. When they wanted to refer to a machine-gun, for example, they spoke of a “sewing machine”. A tank became a “turtle” and a bomber a “pregant aeroplane”. Adolf Hitler was known as posah tai vo, Comanche for “crazy white man”.
Tuesday, July 26, 2005
Enormously saddened to hear yesterday of the death of Marek Mayer, one of the foremost environmental journalists of his generation. Richard Macrory’s obituary appears in today’s Independent. Richard quotes me to the effect that when I first recruited Marek to Environmental Data Services (ENDS: http://www.ends.co.uk) he failed to produce much copy at all for the first six months – but then went critical, like a nuclear reactor, and thereafter poured forth a steady stream of very high quality, highly critical and profoundly influential coverage of the issues of the day.
As with Carol Crashaw, whose memorial service Elaine and I went to on Friday, there was an odd cross-connect here between Elaine’s world and mine. She knew Sue Gee (later Marek’s wife) via Wildwood House, the alternative publisher she worked with in Covent Garden in the early 1970s. (TEST, where I then worked, was on the top floor of the same building.) And it was through Sue that we heard of Marek when ENDS was looking for new talent. He took over from me as Editor of the ENDS Report in 1981, three years after we (David Layton, Max Nicholson and I) started the company, while I became Managing Director.
A key enabler was the Churchill Fellowship (http://www.wcmt.org.uk/) I received in 1981, which enabled me to travel to the US – and meant that Marek and Georgina McAughtry (the first ENDS team member, later a Director) had to take over in my absence. I left the company in 1983 to start the progression of activities that would lead to the founding of SustainAbility in 1987. And have felt profoundly grateful ever since to both Marek and Georgina not only for taking ENDS off my shoulders but also turning it into such a thundering success over the years.
Sunday, July 24, 2005
As Elaine and I walked through the Swiss mountains last week, I would often take a look at the dung heaps and other decomposing mounds of agricultural waste in hope of seeing breeding snakes. No such luck. Then when we arrived in Little Rissington to see my parents a couple of days back, it was to hear that they had just found a large (for the species) adder in one of their compost heaps.
Can’t recall them being found so close in to the village before. But I do remember one very hot summer’s day maybe four decades ago when several of us walked up over the hill towards the RAF camp. There was a large field with a Cotswold stone barn along the way, which often sported a sign warning passers-by of adders. People tended to think it was a (largely unsuccessful) ruse to keep teenagers out of the barn. Then that afternoon, as we walked through the long grass, we saw adders and grass snakes curled up in pretty much every available nook in the hedgerow, sunning themselves, many intertwined with other snakes.
Saturday, July 23, 2005
Elaine, Gaia and I drove up beyond Lancaster yesterday to the memorial service for Carol Crawshaw, who died while we were on holiday. Born the same year as I, 1949, she was an American who decided to make her life in the UK. I first met her when we both did an M. Phil. at UCL, 1972-74, but in one of those coincidences that so often seems to happen, Elaine already knew her husband, Robert, because they worked together at Oxford University Press (OUP).
One upshot of our meeting Carol was that Elaine and I moved into a small room she had been occupying with Eleo Gordon (later a Director of Penguin); we came to impose on Eleo’s hospitality for two weeks and stayed – in a bedroom the size of a broom cupboard and a flat which wasn’t much bigger – for 18 months.
Denied the chance to work in the Department of the Environment because of her nationality, Carol became a leading light in English tourism. Ferociously intelligent, quite competitive (American sense of ‘quite’) and hugely effective, she was someone I liked tremendously and respected hugely. Robert did perhaps the most extraordinary tribute I have ever heard, although Blair’s tribute to Princess Diana also comes to mind. Carol will be sorely missed.
The traffic we encountered on the way up and the way back, to Little Rissington where we stayed the night with my parents, reminded us of why we so rarely use our car.
Thursday, July 21, 2005
LONDON FROM THE GHERKIN
Geoff Lye and I spend part of the day with Swiss Re atop the ‘Erotic Gherkin’, with mind-bending panoramas during lunch across London. Overcast, so hard to take photos that do justice to spectacle. While waiting for our meeting, I had bumped into Sara Fox again: she ran the construction project. It’s amazing how visible the building is: I caught sight of its top floating above the trees as I cycled across Hyde Park this morning. Taken to and fro in a silver Mercedes: just as well, as someone has been detonating – or mis-detonating devices – in the Tube and on at least one bus again.
Wednesday, July 20, 2005
DAY TO REMEMBER
Finished a 5,500 word chapter for a Canadian book on Tube, a chapter I’m doing with Jodie (Thorpe) and Seb (Beloe). (Strangely, she also has contracts today for authors’ signature on two other chapters we have written for other books.) With the Piccadilly Line still out, am using the District Line when I can’t cycle. While the trip takes much longer, one gets to walk – from Temple – through bits of London which one doesn’t normally see. Wonderful.
Start with a session with the team on the latest issue of SustainAbility’s bi-monthly newsletter, Radar, following which I write a letter to the British Airways complaints department. Then off to Canary Wharf and ECGD, for the first meeting in my new role as Chairman of the ECGD Advisory Council. Main subject: corruption.
Then home, where I find a growing number of replies from our Council, Faculty and clients to an e-mail survey I sent out this morning, in preparation for SustainAbility’s away days next week. The two questions I asked were: What are the biggest risks for SustainAbility in the period through to 2010? And the biggest opportunities?
There was also an invitation to the 2006 World Economic Forum event in Davos. But the highlight of the evening came when I spotted that the third and final programme in the To the Ends of the Earth trilogy was showing on BBC2. Hadn’t seen the previous two, because we were in Switzerland. Benedict Cumberbatch, who played the lead role, is someone we know through a friend of the girls. I was totally blown away by his performance – and by the quality of the programme. A rising star.
Sunday, July 17, 2005
FOR BA, READ BALLSUP AIRLINES
Finally home, despite the best efforts of British Airways. How sad to see a great airline unravelling, as we now unquestionably are with BA. After decades of favouring BA, my experience of the last 12 months suggests an accelerating, spectacular spiral of decline in levels of service and quality in the UK’s national carrier. Nor is it just me: we heard the same message today from people from countries as far apart as Canada, the USA, Thailand and India.
Among recent symptoms, BA lost my bags on a flight to Melbourne, Australia. Nor was I traveling zoo class, as one Australian friend puts it: these days BA is just as ready to abuse you in Business Class. Yes Cathay Pacific mislaid the same bags a week or so later in Hong Kong, but they had a real excuse: they had to connect flights from Tokyo and to Beijing in the midst of a tropical rainstorm that had knocked Hong Kong’s airport for six.
Then, a week or so ago, BA added insult to injury by losing both our bags on the flight from Heathrow to Zurich. Now, adding insult to insult, they cancelled our flight from Zurich to Heathrow, and we were told we couldn’t be home for a further 24 hours, and would have to go via Paris.
And – at the risk of sounding like a Grumpy Old Man – as if that wasn’t enough to complain about, the customer service by BA at Zurich was scandalous. They didn’t announce they had problems with BA 717: instead, you had to pick it up from the screens. More or less at the head of the queue, we hoped to get a place on the other BA flight, 715, which (it hardly merits mentioning) was delayed by three hours, but like pretty much everyone else found this wasn’t possible.
No-one from BA turned up at any point to explain to the 50 or so people at the Transfers desk, who stood in line for many hours as they slowly processed a passenger every 30-40 minutes. Again there were no announcements or explanations. BA were very lucky not to have had a riot on their hands – and I wish their customer service people could have heard the ire among would-be passengers, some of whom would have been satisfied with just basic civility.
On current evidence, BA is developing something of a death wish. It seems hard to imagine, but I can now begin to see BA following Swiss Air into the vortex which ends in bankruptcy and forced rebranding. Any airline that takes the Union Jack as its emblem really ought to try harder. BA is in danger of becoming a national disservice.
Friday, July 15, 2005
Two images shot in passing, as we walked today, the first truly sunny day of the holiday.
A Six-spot Burnet, says Sir Geoffrey Chandler
Thursday, July 14, 2005
Elaine and I had a great breakfast session this morning in Vals with Murray and Dobrina Edmonds, who for many years now have helped us organise our missions to Australia and New Zealand – and, increasingly, Asia proper. We are already discussing the 2006 round, which will likely coincide with the international launch of SustainAbility’s latest Global Reporters benchmarking project.
Dobrina, me, Murray
Tuesday, July 12, 2005
ON FUTURE GENERATIONS
If sustainable development is about anything, it is about protecting the opportunities available to future generations. So the following sequence from James Meeks’ extraordinary book The People’s Act of Love struck a chord yesterday:
‘Who are you really?’ said Alyosha.
‘Destruction of what?’
‘Of everyone that stands in the way of the happiness of the people who will be born after I’m dead.’
And this from a character who merits a place in The Silence of the Lambs. Then we walked up into the mountains today and simply looking at flowers like the pair shown below, from the Sempervivum (everliving) family, put it all in perspective. And the milk churns? Well they reminded me of the eternal cycles of life and death growing up on farms in Northern IIreland in the 1950s.
Monday, July 11, 2005
CHEZ ST JOHANNES BAPTISTA
A time of stone and water. The new thermal baths at the Hotel Therme, Vals, which we are using at least once a day, are constructed in the most beautiful stone. Perhaps not incidentally, across the valley there are several quarries where they periodically blast stone from the mountains. On our first day, as we walked along the valley’s opposite flank, there was a big rolling bang that could have been thunder or a Swiss airforce jet breaking the sound barrier, but then a plume of dusty smoke rose from the flank of a nearby hill.
This morning Elaine and I walked up the mountain behind the hotel to a small chapel dedicated to St Johannes Baptista. Last time we came across his trail was in Damascus, where his reputed head is reputed to lie in a small chapel inside the unbelievably beautiful Ummayad Mosque. The little chapel here, though, is every bit as dramatic, with spectacular views across the valley to a tumbling waterfall – albeit in peripheral vision you can’t help spotting the large factory in which the local water is bottled under the ‘Valser’ label.
Elaine and chapel
Chapel and waterfall
TERROR IN A TUBE
Some thoughts stimulated by the 7 July London Transport attacks follow. They will be edited when I get back to London.
Now terror comes in a Tube. And terrible though the events of 7 July were, and not for a moment wanting to discount the long-term effects on the physical and mental health of survivors and of the families and friends of the victims, it has to be said: whatever the ultimate death toll, London got off relatively lightly this time. There will be other attempts on mass transit systems like London’s Underground. Some will succeed, on a much greater scale.
So-called ‘asymmetry’ in the distribution of political and military power more or less guarantees further growth in terrorism-related activities. In parallel, the war in Iraq, right or wrong, is proving to be a highly fertile breeding ground for future generations of terrorists – or freedom fighters, if you prefer. As a child exposed to the internecine hatreds and tensions of places like Northern Ireland, Cyprus and Israel, I was forced to recognise early that the sort of hatreds currently being stirred have been around for generations – and will continue to cascade through the generations.
Meanwhile, modern terrorism increasingly finds itself in a ‘target-rich’ environment. Consider these simple facts: Demographic trends are driving huge numbers of people into the world’s burgeoning mega-cities. There they are best served by mass transit systems. At the same time, the weapons of terror are getting ever-more powerful and portable. Some people are perfectly happy dying alongside their victims. And even where they are not, there are plans to install cell phone systems in subways, systems of the sort that helped trigger the Madrid bombs.
There are many implications of all of this, not least because – in contrast to London’s Blitz and V-weapon ordeals of the 1940s – it is much less clear these days where the bombs are coming from. Who now do we blame? Who do we begin to mistrust? And who do we expect to provide solutions? I expect increasingly high-energy links between already volatile areas like security, identity and human and civil rights.
Are there links to sustainable development? Yes, indeed too many to list. But here are a few. Democracy, in its various forms, depends on at least a degree of trust among the peoples living alongside one another – and our definitions of ‘alongside’ are being continuously stretched by entities like the EU, by overseas travel and by the Internet. Capitalism, in its various forms, depends on ‘low friction’ access, mobility and transport systems, implying a minimum of traditional security intrusions. And our capacity to think long term, always in precariously short supply, is little helped by concerns that we may not survive the journey to work.
Several of the e-mails I received in the aftermath of the bombings expressed total surprise about what has just happened. That fact itself should surprise us. Let’s be clear: this was inevitable. The twenty-first century will see more such attacks. Their sophistication and scale will grow. So will the casualty lists. ‘Big Brother’ solutions will be proposed and, I fear, citizens will often accept constraints on their civil liberties that would once have seemed unimaginable.
Few skills are as critical in ensuring a sustainable future as the art of foresight. We cannot afford to be taken totally by surprise in terms of mass transit security, but many people will be. Even less can we risk being surprised by the enormously greater scale of the environmental, social, economic and political shockwaves that will follow the sorts of climate change now thought inevitable in the coming decades. But, again, many of us will be.
No doubt the Bush administration’s skeptics will express great ‘surprise’ when climate change really gets its claws in. So let’s spell it out. The evidence suggests that we are our immediate descendants will live in an increasingly unstable natural environment. Unstable natural environments mean unstable economies. Unstable economies mean unstable societies. Unstable societies create perfect breeding grounds for future rounds of insurgency and counter-insurgency. And – this is where the cycle becomes particularly vicious – such conditions make it increasingly unlikely that effective strategies will be developed for ensuring stable environments.
We owe it to the victims of New York, Madrid, Baghdad, London and a growing list of cities, towns and villages to ensure that we consciously and effectively work to break this vicious cycle – rather than using their deaths as an excuse to accelerate it.
Sunday, July 10, 2005
We walk slowly, thoughtfully this afternoon in the drizzle and rain, along the river bank. The mountains wear swirling boas of cloud, the peaks winking in and out of view. We pass an algally challenged pond around which there are signs suggesting the presence of salamanders and the like. The thing looks rather like an aquatic version of the abandoned mini-golf course a little further along the same bank, but the grass around the pond and nearby marshy ground is alive with froglets. Restorative.
Saturday, July 09, 2005
Apparently carvivorous caterpillar pretending to be a curled-up leaf
The death toll in London continues to mount: 49 last time I looked. And it’s getting closer: one e-mail today mentioned someone in an organisation we know who was in the King’s Cross area and has now been missing for three days. But, though it’s terrible to say, it could have been infinitely worse. The investigators are now saying that the bombs may have been the work of local terrorists, because they weren’t particularly sophisticated. At some point, someone is going to have a sophisticated go.
With e-mails continuing to come in from places like Wales, California, Nepal, China and Japan, from people wondering how we are, we feel an umbilical connection to the news events, but are also trying to unhook to some degree.
So a day of swimming and walking around the man-made lake above Vals. Wonderful flowers and wildlife, including a vole which briefly communed with Elaine. Am also reading – and hugely enjoying – a new book by James Meek, The People’s Act of Love. Published by Canongate, where Gaia’s great friend Francis Bickmore works. She was completely taken over by it. Francis, who is credited in The People’s Act, was the man who found the original submission for The Life of Pi in Canongate’s ‘slush pile’.
This evening, Elaine was so tired that she hovered between consciousness and sleep throughout dinner, despite the fact that we were served such things as Vallser Hay Soup and Olive Oil Ice Cream. The hay, which is being gathered into the small barns here between the rainstorms, smells heavenly. Wouldn’t easily have thought of making it into soup, but it worked wonderfully well.
Friday, July 08, 2005
SWIMMING IN THE RAIN
Not quite Gene Kelly, but last night – at the end of a day in which mobile phone calls and e-mails poured in literally from around the world asking how we (family and SustainAbility team) were – Elaine and I went swimming in the thermal pools here in Vals. Swimming in the rain. There are many pools to choose from – indoor and outdoor pools, Fire Pool, Ice Pool, Flower Pool, Flower Pool and so on. This was around 23.00, in the outdoor pool, with the raindrops kicking up reverse images of themselves in the luminous water. The pool was illuminated from underneath, which made the swirls kicked up by one’s feet look like boiling liquid crystal.
The waitress earlier this evening, from East Germany, near Dresden, asked whether we were from London? Told that we were, she expressed her sympathy. After what the RAF and USAF did to Dresden during the latter stages of WWII, this struck me as particularly big-hearted. Perhaps coincidentally, just down the slope from the hotel and on the way to the river, we pass a Trabant on our walks, a squat reminder of the very different world that intervened between 1945 and 1989.
Thursday, July 07, 2005
The first we knew of the London bombings – Elaine and I have just arrived in Vals, Switzerland – was when Gaia called to say she and Hania were OK. Extraordinarily touching how many e-mails I have had today from different parts of the world to check whether we and the team were still among the living. Answer, on all counts so far as I can determine, is yes.
Even though as I write the death count stands at 33, I can only say it’s a relief that it isn’t way higher. I have been expecting an attack on the Tube for years, indeed have often warned of the danger. But what to do? Even now we know of the risk, what are those responsible for running the Underground to do? In the end, we are going to have trade off freedom of movement against the risks of terrorist attacks. But it does make me think that (post Madrid) Elaine’s constant concerns about ever allowing cell phones to be used on the Tube are well placed.
Interesting to ponder the 21st century prospect. As more and more people live in mega-cities, which are best served by public transport, particularly mass transit systems like the Tube, the risks of terrorist mass murders grows almost exponentially. Can’t help but think that the Tokyo sarin attacks, the Madrid bombings and now 7/7 are just the stuttering beginnings of a long-running saga.
Tuesday, July 05, 2005
Wildlife, of sorts, abounds even in London: last night, for example, I was woken by the screaming of foxes and this morning I awoke to the shrieks of the parakeets that are taking over the skies here. Even the vile lamprey has taken up lodgings a few blocks from here in the Thames, which is a sign of a clean river, apparently.
Someone who did a great deal to drive forward the conservation and environmental agenda, Gaylord Nelson, is obituarised in today’s Times. He was 89. I first heard of him many years ago via Denis Hayes, who I saw again a few weeks back in Seattle. They had worked together on the first Earth Day in 1970. “The reason Earth Day worked,” Nelson is quoted as saying, “is that it organised itself.”
Well, up to a point. The organisation may have been catalytic rather than command-and-control, but it worked wonders. I still recall the extraordinary enthusiasm of the young team in Palo Alto who helped Denis organise the 1990 Earth Day, which went truly international for the first time – and for which I served on the international board. Sad, though, that Nelson died in the wake of yet another series of Republican roll-back of so many of the environmental advances he and his colleagues had achieved.
Monday, July 04, 2005
FREEPLAY RINGS NASDAQ’S BELL
Among other things, am continuing to work on the book on social entrepreneurs with Pamela Hartigan of the Schwab Foundation (www.schwabfound.org). Interesting to see that on 28 June, in New York, Kristine Pearson, executive director of the Freeplay Foundation (www.freeplayfoundation.org) and a Schwab Foundation social entrepreneur, participated in the ringing of the opening bell at the NASDAQ Stock Exchange in Times Square, along with a group of ten Tech Museum Award laureates. Meredith Taylor, president of the Tech Museum, singled out the Freeplay Foundation’s work in Africa with orphans to illustrate the importance of technology benefiting humanity. The picture is of Kristine on the giant NASDAQ plasma sign. The Foundation is linked to Freeplay, run by Rory Stear, another Schwab Foundation social entrepreneur.
Sunday, July 03, 2005
8 MEN IN A ROOM
Spent several hours writing articles for Nikkei Ecology and Grist, but for most of the day I watched the London Live 8 concert agog. To my mind, the Sixties bands pretty much blew every one else off the stage: The Who, the reformed Pink Floyd, McCartney and U2. And Sting, with his “We’ll Be Watching You,” with the G8 leaders in the background. But maybe that’s just age. I was also impressed by Madonna, Joss Stone, Annie Lennox and – though I don’t like their music – Velvet Revolver. Now we shall see what effect all of this has on the “eight men in a room” next week. But hats off to Geldof: what an extraordinary achievement.
Saturday, July 02, 2005
CYCLING AROUND LIVE 8
Cycling home last night, through fitful drizzle, I joined a number of cyclists cycling around the edges of the Live 8 concert area of Hyde Park. Would have been up in Edinburgh this weekend for SustainAbility’s G8 event, but we had a board meeting today. Sophia (Tickell), one of our non-executive directors, was wearing the white band. If any readers haven’t yet signed up for the Live 8 campaign, it’s easy to do at http://www.live8live.com/whatsitabout/index.shtml.
When I got home, Gaia and Hania had cooked a dinner in celebration of my recent birthday, and among their presents were two CDs by Madeleine Peyroux. Careless Love, in particular, is extraordinary.