Nature matters

Nature matters

Many years ago now I was blessed with great fortune. Alone, I stood less than 50 feet from a wild African elephant and watched as she calmly consumed the leaves of some bauhinia bushes.

I had no phone or camera to capture the image but I can see her now in every detail. Strangely it only takes a moment of contemplation to also feel what I felt then — awe, respect and humility in equal waves.

Not everyone can sidle up to elephants but there is evidence from around the world that nature is a part of people’s sense of self and an integral part of what constitutes well-being.

This is not so easy to feel in our increasingly virtual world where success is a synonym for well-being and measures of progress are mostly economic.

We report the monetary economy and use its growth as a core indicator for doing well individually and collectively. As Judith Schleicher and Bhaskar Vira recently point out, even the alternative measures of poverty and well-being still ignore the environment and there is growing evidence that people are typically poorer when they do not have access to nature.

The rhetoric here is that it is the poor who suffer most from this failure to account for nature, especially those who depended on nature for a living. And the implication is that this is somehow immoral or at the very least unfair.

We have also tried the valuation and commodification of nature in an attempt to squeeze nature into the economic metrics — capture the externalities and we can balance the books.

But both of these arguments miss the point.

The solution is to reconnect the billion or so people who are doing well out of capitalism, particularly the tiny percentage of these people who are appropriating most of the economic wealth, to what I felt on that sunny afternoon in the Zambezi valley when the elephant connected me to the truth.

Only then will nature matter.

You can still download my ‘How to love nature when you live in the city’ tips free from Smashwords.




Whoops, no more Pleistocene

Whoops, no more Pleistocene

You may not be aware of this but we are living in a new geological epoch. It is called the Anthropocene.

This is actually quite momentous because there have not been many epochs to date; just eight in 66 million years. On average one every 8 million years. So to be alive when one starts is remarkable.

Epochs are a subdivision of geological time used for more recent periods of geological that are well defined by the fossil record.

This brand new one has our name on it. Geologists have decided that the Holocene has ended because humans have altered enough global processes in the oceans, land and atmosphere to warrant a new epoch. This is a big call.

Remember that the earth is huge and we are small. The volume of ocean water alone could swallow us all in an instant and may well do this to our coastal cities. So to say that humans have done enough in a little over 10,000 years — before this time there were only a few of us wandering around doing what other mammals were doing — to create a new geological time period is remarkable.

Global atmospheric, ocean and landform generating processes altered by a single species of primate. Really?

Of course, the division of the distant past into discrete periods is a human invention, a way to section geological history into units to make life easier for geologists. It helps them explain unfathomable lengths of time and to generate details that high school students must memorise. No surprise then that we chose to name one after ourselves.

It is the ultimate recognition of our success.

Human ingenuity and skill are now so pervasive it has changed the way the planet works. We have become the ultimate ecosystem engineer. It is a proud and, dare I say, noble achievement. As the bible says “take dominion” and this we have done.

We have fulfilled our own prophecy.

What went wrong?

I was just browsing through a few stats for this blog. Pretty depressing really.

Take a look at annual viewing numbers.

Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 10.18.59 AM

Nice slow but steady growth in views and visitors, until a cliff.

Admittedly I took a breather and failed to post anything through most of 2016 but numbers were already on the rocks by then.

There is a similar problem with my LinkedIn articles.

Clearly, if you want people to read your ideas you need to do a lot more than write them down.

Any suggestions?

Maximising shareholder value

Maximising shareholder value

Any sane historian would have to admit that the wealth generated from the industrial revolution has come at an environmental cost.

Forests converted to paddocks, wetlands drained for suburbs, coal mined and burnt into the atmosphere, not to mention the supply chain infrastructure criss-crossing the landscape to feed and house everyone. The more perceptive would also see the trend as ongoing, boring into the environmental fabric that delivers fundamental human services. Development has done more than create smartphones.

The entrenched requirement to maximise shareholder value — it is usually illegal for company directors not to do this — ensures resources are exploited and costs externalised. And the legality neatly justifies these outcomes.

Except that value to shareholders is time bound.

Suppose that shares in a company have generated a consistent dividend of 7% per annum for a decade. These are not spectacular returns but a solid delivery of shareholder value over time. Inexplicably over the next few years, the dividends tank and the share price goes south too. The directors pull out all the stops to maximise shareholder value and their fiscal reporting says that they have done everything possible. It’s just that they maximised a very small amount of value.

A second company returned 4% on shares over the same ten years. Not so good. However, shares continue to return 4% for the next decade and the decade after that because the directors chose not maximise value. Instead, they maximised longevity in returns. They optimised shareholder value for the long haul… and went to jail for breaking the law.

If you invested $1,000 in each company, reinvested your dividends and chose to liquidate your overall value after 30 years, which company made you the most money?


Post script — It would seem that shareholder primacy is the formal term for some of this concept and people are questioning if it should still be the purpose of corporations

Leadership for the environment

Leadership for the environment

Be curious and humble

Be courageous and confident

Kat Cole, the 30 something president of a $1 billion brand believes that great leadership requires just these four key qualities.

Makes good sense.

Curiosity is essential for anyone leading the way along new paths into unknown territory. It implies a willingness to learn and anything genuinely new always supplies a steep learning curve.

Humility is self-restraint, self-understanding, awareness, and a good sense of perspective meaning that it is not about me. This is a true leadership quality.

Courage seems obvious. Someone must be the first to step out into the unknown to take on the curve.

Confidence is contagious. It energises those who have it and everyone they meet. It is a powerful attractive force that gathers and holds people together to deliver more than the sum of the parts.

There are few leaders who do not have these qualities. Absence or even a shortage in any one of them and a would-be leader couldn’t move forward and bring others along.

What do these qualities mean when it comes to environmental leadership?

Anyone with a smidgen of interest in the natural world usually has some curiosity. Variety, the unusual, and the strange are present in everything from trees to termites, and not even Sir David has seen it all.

Stand close enough to a wild elephant to hear her stomach rumble and humility will cascade over you to wash away your awe. Put a spoonful of soil under a microscope and the life teeming across your vision should make all your first world problems melt away. Once seen for what it truly is, nature can humble the mightiest ego.

They don’t call them environmental warriors for nothing. There is a fight on that demands courage enough to stand against convention and take on the reality that modern living exploits nature. It is hard for even the simplest sustainable action to be easier or cheaper than business as usual.

So far, so good as we can expect that most environmentalists are curious, humble and courageous.

Confidence is a feeling of self-assurance usually arising from an appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities — the expression of self-belief.

Now here I would argue that environmental leaders have a problem. Many are strong, articulate and outgoing individuals for sure. And they are often passionate, sometimes fearless, advocates.

But these traits are not confidence.

Confidence can be very hard for environmentalists because at some level they all participate in the actions that exploit resources. They drive cars, fly in aeroplanes, consume the products of commercial agriculture and feed their dogs. They live a life that they know contributes to most environmental problems.

Only true narcissists can overcome such incongruity to be truly confident. Normal folk cannot overcome the flaw and appear fake or overly aggressive.