50,000 people march for the Earth: Global climate march 2015, Sydney

climatemarch1I’m back in Sydney from the fascinating and very thought-provoking World Forum on Natural Capital 2015 in Edinburgh (to be discussed here, later this week). So I was among the estimated 50,000 people from babies to grandparents who marched for the Earth in Sydney yesterday from the Domain down Macquarie Street (#peoplesclimate). Here’s some of what was said, followed by some pictures:

‘COP* 21 is the most important meeting of world leaders in our lifetime.’ For the first time cities and mayors have a role in the Summit. 51 percent of the world’s people now live in cities, which cover only 2 per cent of the earth’s surface but spew out over 80 per cent of its emissions. Clover Moore, Lord Mayor City of Sydney
*COP stands for the Conference of the Parties, the supreme body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

‘We cannot speak of climate change without acknowledging the devastating effect of mining on Aboriginal people and land.’ Reece Proudfoot, campaigner and Sydney Climate March 2015 organiser

‘Australia has to take seriously Indigenous conceptions of the earth.’

‘This is the beginning not the end.’

‘This looks like the biggest climate march this country has ever seen. It has come just in time. We are in danger of losing the Great Barrier Reef. We will lose that asset* if we don’t act today. We need steep cuts in emissions. Sadly there are no easy fixes for the climate problem.’ Professor Tim Flannery
*Here Flannery adopts the language of natural capital accounting which I’ll be writing more about when I cover the World Forum on Natural Capital 2015.

‘Watching this on tv tonight will be the CEOs and board members of the biggest companies [BOOS* from the crowd]. They know us as customers. Now they know you as protesters.’ Professor Tim Flannery
* I’ll be discussing what I see as the problem with this default position (opposition) when I write here about natural capital.

At the end of the speeches, performances, music in the Domain, Darren Percival and the Cafe at the Gateway of Salvation sang the civil rights song ‘Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around‘. The march was moving in every way. Here’s how it looked from the ground:











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World Forum on Natural Capital November 2015 – and Purpose 2015

At last, my first blog of the spring after a long winter of hibernation with my PhD. I’m off to the World Forum on Natural Capital on 23 and 24 November in Edinburgh. As its website says: ‘The World Forum offers a unique opportunity to hear the latest developments, learn from real-life case studies and connect with leading players to help shape the emerging dialogue’ on natural capital. I’ve written here about natural capital (and my ambivalence about it) several times and it’s going to be the focus of my trip to the UK.

I’m chairing a panel called ‘Putting familiar tools to better use’ with speakers Michael Beutler (Director of Sustainability Operations, Kering), Erin Meezan (Vice-President, Sustainability, Interface Inc) and Andrew Vaughan (District Manager, Tilhill Forestry). They’ll be talking about how businesses can modify tools they already use ‘to help manage natural capital opportunities and risks more effectively. This “quick fire” session will look at using existing business management tools, such as risk registers and balance sheets, to help new adopters rapidly get to grips with natural capital.’ I include the quote marks because I’m quoting the Natural Capital Forum. And also because I’m not totally comfortable talking about things like soil, air, plants, bees, ants, worms, all living things – the entire ecosystem of the Earth – in commercial terms of ‘opportunities’ and ‘risks’, and yet it seems this might just be how we must start to consider them. This is one reason I’m very keen to go to the Natural Capital Forum, to have a close look at what is going on at what I think is one of the most critical junctures of our times: the interface between business and nature.

And closer to home, I’m also going to Purpose 2015 in Sydney on 7 and 8 December 2105, where I’ll be speaking with some incredibly inspiring business leaders, like James Chin Moody (TuShare and Sendle) and Helen Souness (Etsy), whose work I wrote about in May. The conference will bring together people from ‘the kind of companies that solve problems rather than cause them. The kind that have a healthy bottom line, but also a healthy perspective on what the world actually needs.’ So it looks like I’m back in the business zone.

I plan to blog about both conferences, so stay tuned.

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle

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From economics + accounting + ‘saving the planet’ to poetry and novels: a little monkishness till November

This weekend I’ll be at the Women of the World Festival in Brisbane, which looks fantastic. I’m speaking on Sunday morning in a session called Mother Earth: Women Saving the Planet with four amazing women: Senator Larissa Waters; sustainable farmer Lynne Strong; founder of Nomads Palace, Sam Cook; and GetUp’s Anne Coombs, who’s chairing the panel. Here are the details:

10.30-11.30, Sunday 21 June 2015 Mother Earth: Women Saving the Planet
The very name ‘Mother Earth’ conjures the truth about our planet and place on it. At a time when its future is threatened, what will it take to ensure the survival of the Mother Ship? There are many women whose lives are dedicated to this task – and their approaches are varied and perhaps surprising, and call on skills and knowledge which are much broader than waving placards in front of bulldozers. Who are these women? How did they come to be involved in this important work? What are the pressing challenges in their special fields? And how can we help them to make a difference?
Venue: Room 360, Building Y, Queensland University of Technology, Gardens Point campus, Brisbane

And then I’m going to leave questions of accounting, economics and ‘saving the planet’ behind until November, to work on the novels of Alexis Wright and Kim Scott for my PhD. And to read more poetry. I’m missing poetry like water in a desert.

But first, to wrap the economics and planet-saving posts for a while, comes the news today that Pope Francis has called for action ‘here and now’ to tackle climate change and halt the ‘unprecedented destruction’ of ecosystems.


Also, there’s a new film called The True Cost about the way the fashion industry is destroying its workers and the planet, which looks like required viewing. Executive director Livia Firth says she first became aware of the true cost of our global fashion industry in 2009:

‘I went to Bangladesh in 2009 with Lucy Siegle and for the first time in my life I saw the impact of what I was wearing was having miles away from me. It was like having someone throw a bucked of iced water on you … Today, as Lucy puts it, “brands, retailers and consumers have all become fantastically adept at divorcing fashion from the very fact that it has been made by an army of living, breathing human beings with resources which are depleting the environment”.’


And last on the economics front, an update on two books I mentioned here in April:

1. The Economics of Good and Evil: The quest for economic meaning from Gilgamesh to Wall Street by Czechoslovakian economist Tomas Sedlacek. So far I’ve read only the first three chapters, which are:

Introduction: The Story of Economics, From Poetry to Science
1. The Epic of Gilgamesh: On Effectiveness, Immortality, and the Economics of Friendship
2. The Old Testament: Earthliness and Goodness

And so far, so good. It’s uneven and sometimes feels poorly translated, but there’s enough original thinking and provocative teasing out of the economics contained in these religious texts (the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Old Testament, so far) to make me very keen to return to it in November. The idea is a brilliant one: to reconsider economics as the cultural phenomenon it so evidently is and to examine its emergence in the myths and religions of the ancient world, and their manifestation in the economic thinking we’re more familiar with today. Or, as Sedlacek puts it, ‘to look for economic thought in ancient myths and, vice versa, to look for myths in today’s economics’.

2. Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? I mentioned I was reading this book at the end of April. Based on the title, blurb and first few pages, I was very excited by the prospect of reading it. For anyone who might be interested, unfortunately for me it did not live up to its promise.

Which might be the perfect moment to turn to poetry. Thanks to a beautiful poem by Seamus Heaney, ‘The First Words’, which Alexis Wright chose as the epigraph for her extraordinary novel Carpentaria, I discovered this poem by Heaney called ‘North’. It got under my skin.

I returned to a long strand,
the hammered curve of a bay,
and found only the secular
powers of the Atlantic thundering.

I faced the unmusical
invitations of Iceland,
the pathetic colonies
of Greenland, and suddenly

those fabulous raiders,
those lying in Orkney and Dublin
measured against
their long swords rusting,

those in the solid
belly of stone ships,
those hacked and glinting
in the gravel of thawed streams

were ocean-deafened voices
warning me, lifted again
in violence and epiphany.
The longship’s swimming tongue

was buoyant with hindsight –
it said Thor’s hammer swung
to geography and trade,
thick-witted couplings and revenges,

the hatreds and behind-backs
of the althing, lies and women,
exhaustions nominated peace,
memory incubating the spilled blood.

It said, ‘Lie down
in the word-hoard, burrow
the coil and gleam
of your furrowed brain.

Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light.

Keep your eye clear
as the bleb of the icicle,
trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known.’


Posted in Economics, Novels, poetry, book news, poetry, Six Capitals, The Earth and environmental activism | Leave a comment

Rock Stars of the New Economy II, or Benefit corporations Q&A – and WOW Brisbane 2015

So now, as promised, I’m concluding last week’s post on the benefit corporation (the new generation corporation which is changing the world) with the highlights of the Q&A session which followed the talks by benefit corporation maestroes Rob Michalak of Ben & Jerry’s, Etsy’s Helen Souness and James Chin Moody of TuShare and Sendle.


Rob Michalak answered a question about the 2001 takeover of Ben & Jerry’s by multinational consumer goods corporation Unilever: did this compromise Ben & Jerry’s social mission?

Michalak said that to deal with this possibility, Ben & Jerry’s had made an acquisition agreement with Unilever for perpetuity which created an agreement for what he called ‘a super B Corporation’. It allowed for Ben & Jerry’s to own its Social Mission while Unilever owns B&J’s Economic Mission. Ben & Jerry’s created an independent board which could legally challenge Unilever if it took Ben & Jerry’s off their social mission. Michalak called the acquisition agreement ‘a super agreement, a kind of innovative detente, the first in the world’.

Michalak said the acquisition brought together a company with progressive vision (B&J’s) and one with global scale – and no one knew how that would work together. He praised the vision of current (since 2009) Unilever CEO, Paul Polman, noting Polman’s criticism at the 2015 World Economic Forum of quarterly reporting (because it encourages short-termism in an era when decisions should be based not on profits over the next three months but on the wellbeing of future generations). Also, according to Michalak, Polman has been to Ben & Jerry’s Vermont headquarters twice since he’s been CEO of Unilever – and given ‘it’s very hard to get to Vermont’, this is amazing.

In answer to a question about making his business global, James Chin Moody said yes, he wanted to, and that: ‘It no longer matters where you are. What matters is when you are.’ Which I thought was an extremely neat distinction to make in a global economy which is, according to Moody, no longer about place but about timezone. He said Perth is perfectly positioned to take advantage of this shift, because it shares a timezone with about one third of the earth.

Helen Souness said that marketplaces are virtuous circles: the more buyers you pull in the more sellers you pull in the more buyers you pull in the more sellers … and etc. She said Etsy is ‘globally local’.

Replying to the question ‘Is there a conversation with government from B Corps?’, B Lab’s executive director Alicia Darvall said that they’re having informal conversations with the Australian government; they’re talking with Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade about collaboration. And she cited San Francisco as an example of supportive government: there are some 180 benefit corporations in San Francisco and they’re given a 3-point bonus in the tendering process. She called the legislative reform which is spreading through the USA to create a new legal form to allow benefit corporations (in 27 states to date) ‘game changing‘. B Lab Australia is looking closely at the legal situation here and would similarly like to create a new legal form in Australia for benefit corporations. (This is an extremely exciting possibility.)

James Chin Moody said that certain government bodies won’t talk to you unless you become a non-profit, or are a non-profit. In this way, he said, local government can influence the governance structure of an organisation. He said the culture in Australia is too black and white: it understands either profit or non-profit organisations, but no mix of the two, such as the hybrid benefit corporation. Moody likes benefit corporations because they can ‘have a foot in both camps’. In Australia we need to realise that it’s ok to do good and to make money.

When asked how she and Etsy have built such a good work culture, Helen Souness said: RECRUIT good people in the first place. And make sure they stay close to their community. Souness said when she was interviewed for her job at the Etsy HQ in Brooklyn, NYC, the Chief Financial Officer asked her what she made (presumably her existing wage in dollar terms). To answer, Souness showed the CFO what she made (her own craft creations) for her daughter. I like her style.

And here are the parting remarks from the rock stars of the new economy:

Rob Michalak: ‘It’s cool to come to work every day and say, What are we going to solve today? It’s a puzzle.’

James Chin Moody: ‘Can you narrow your purpose right down, measure it, and align your business model with it?’ His purpose, narrowed right down? To get rid of landfill.

Helen Souness: ‘Let’s get away from the short term. We must make decisions for the long term.‘ As an example, she cited her former company, the employment business Seek, which during the GFC lost 50% of the jobs it had to fill – i.e. 50% of its business – but instead of cutting its own employees in accordance with conventional short-term thinking, it kept its staff on. Seek realised its people were where its value lay. It made no redundancies during the GFC. This is the sort of revolutionary approach to thinking about value – revolutionary because it takes account of value other than financial value, aka the bottom line, money – that I think the new ‘six capitals’ accounting paradigm might (MUST) make possible.

To conclude this benefit corporation evening, here’s a few of the socially-minded businesses in the audience or mentioned on the night:

Australian Ethical Superannuation, which had just won Fund Manager of the Year
Bread & Butter Project, Bourke Street Bakery, which ‘reinvests 100% of its profits in baker training and employment pathways for communities in need’
Conscious Capitalism Australia (‘Conscious Capitalism is a philosophy based on the belief that a more complex form of capitalism is emerging that holds the potential for enhancing corporate performance while simultaneously continuing to advance the quality of life for billions of people.’)
StartSomeGood, a crowd funding organisation dedicated to social change projects
Good on You, which rates brands based on their impact on people, animals and the planet. Their aim is to make it easier for you to know the ethical nature of every brand, starting with makeup and clothing.

In other news, I’ll be in Brisbane on 20-21 June for WOW Brisbane 2015. I’m on a panel called Mother Earth: Women Saving the Planet on Sunday 21 June which sounds fascinating. I hope to see you there.

And then I’m heading into intense writing mode, so I’ll be blogging here only sporadically. I’ll be out and about again in November, when I’ll be in London with Six Capitals and in Edinburgh for the World Forum on Natural Capital 2015.

See you in the spring.

Winter roses

Winter roses

Posted in Economics, Other news and marginalia, Six Capitals, The Earth and environmental activism | 2 Comments

Rock Stars of the New Economy: B Corps and Rob Michalak, Helen Souness + James Chin Moody unplugged at UTS’s Dr Chau Chak Wing Building

Last Thursday night I went to hear three ‘rock stars of the new economy‘ speak about their businesses, which are all benefit corporations, a new corporate form which is changing the world. Benefit corporations are for-profit businesses which must make a positive impact on society and the environment (and in the USA are legally obliged to do so). The rock stars were speaking at UTS’s striking new Dr Chau Chak Wing Building designed by Frank Gehry (see below). They were Rob Michalak (Global Director of Social Mission for ice-cream giant Ben & Jerry’s), Helen Souness (Managing Director Australia & Asia of online craft and vintage marketplace Etsy) and James Chin Moody (CEO & founder of giving community TuShare and of Sendle, Australia’s first carbon-neutral parcel delivery service, who was formerly known as James Bradfield Moody, as featured on the ABC’s New Inventors.)

They were electrifying.

Inside UTS's new Gehry building

Inside UTS’s new Gehry building

First up we were welcomed by Suzanne Benn, Professor of Sustainable Enterprise in the School of Management at the University of Technology (UTS) which hosted the evening. Introducing her subject and the big buzzword of the evening (and of our era) – sustainability – she said it’s a highly contextual thing. Sustainability relates to a discipline or an industry sector, a business context. In 1999 when she was first teaching at UTS, they realised they needed to do something about corporate sustainability and introduced the idea in their business classes. She said in those days students would stand up and walk out when they heard the word ‘environment’ in an economics class. But sustainability belongs in economics classes not only because there’s a moral imperative for it, but because there’s a business case for it.

You can’t survive in business unless you’re good at collaboration – and so UTS is launching (this week, so stay tuned) the Hub of Sustainable Enterprise. It will have two key areas of research:

1. The circular economy, which is about extending the life of resources material, energy and intellectual. About reusing.
2. The sharing economy, not just through organisations like AirBnB and Uber, but the general idea of sharing rather than owning. She said there’s a huge economy developing in this area.

Benn said the future of sustainability looks really interesting in all its multiple dimensions and interdisciplinarity. She quoted Paul Polman, the avant garde CEO of Unilever, who said that sustainability is pushing us to innovate. And the fact we have a ‘not very supportive government’ in Australia means we have to do more ourselves.

Alicia Darvall, executive director of B Lab Australia & New Zealand, then introduced the first speaker, Rob Michalak of Ben & Jerry’s. She said that the three rock stars would be speaking from the point of view of 2030 about why they had become benefit corporations and how this had contributed to the success of their enterprises.

Rob Michalak

Rob Michalak

Rob Michalak said that what Ben & Jerry’s did was include the people on the margins of the economy. The business started in 1978 in Burlington, Vermont, with two guys wanting to be part of the community. Ten years later, in 1988, they wrote their mission statement with a social purpose. Their mission has three parts – Product, Economic, Social – which are all of equal importance, hence their horizontal representation across the screens above. All parts must thrive equally.

In 2012 Ben & Jerry’s became a B Corp, which is a benefit corporation certified by B Lab, a non-profit organisation founded in Philadelphia in 2006 which pioneered the new legal corporate form. It was one of the first – and most high-profile – businesses to do so. Michalak said that a lot of B Corps didn’t tank during the global financial crisis because people stuck by them. He said they’ve tried to do the numbers on social purpose – to demonstrate quantitatively how a business’s social purpose favourably impacts the bottom line – and although they’re yet to prove the correlation, they know social purpose is valuable financially. Perhaps because their business is about ensuring that ‘all the stakeholders throughout the value chain prosper as we prosper’.

Helen Souness

Helen Souness

Helen Souness was up next. She said Etsy‘s mission is ‘to reimagine commerce in ways that build a more fulfilling and lasting world. We are building a human, authentic and community-centric global and local marketplace.’ Etsy now has over 20 million active buyers. Pointing to the image behind her – Mr Grit, the huge Etsy owl which sits in its DUMBO, Brooklyn, NYC, headquarters – she said ‘His collective unconscious is coming out of his head.’ For her this is emblematic of the creativity of Etsy, its work and the people who do it. Everyone is creative.

She said it was ‘really fun’ to think about the success of Etsy in terms of its B Corp nature from the point of view of 2030. She said she thinks in 2030 ‘we’ll see the economic impact of what we’re doing is extraordinary.’ At the moment, about a quarter of their people are making their entire income by making (clothes, jewellery, furniture, etc) or curating (vintage goods). Etsy has opened a global market for creators. To make a living as a creator requires courage, emotional support and practical help. Starting out in business is incredibly challenging, and Etsy provides the support and practical help. Etsy takes a cut of only 3.5% from its creators, which according to Souness is the lowest take in the market, so the ‘Etsy economy requires enormous help to make this possible’. Etsy is booming in developing and regional economies; today a third of Etsy Australia’s sales are regional. And over 90% of Etsy’s creators are women, and over 90% of them work from home.

Souness said that part of their social impact is ‘the way we operate as a community, we’re all about people (not about e-commerce)’. The business operates through teams, small, self-managing groups of Etsy sellers. Sometimes the groups are global on the making or business side – like the group interested in the trending fad for mid-century German ceramics – and sometimes local. It’s a collaborative model not a competitive model. One example of a successful local Etsy group is the Brisbane-based BrisStyle, which began with eight people in a coffee shop and has grown to a collective of over 350 members with an annual report and an office space (BrisStyle HQ) provided by the Brisbane council. There are 350,000 people collaborating around the world in this way.

Etsy has become an educator in selling online and craft entrepreneurship programs. For example, in manufacturing towns where the economy has slumped but there are still so many people with ‘making skills’, Etsy lobbies to make doing small and micro business less stressful in regulatory and other terms. (And in 2014 Etsy took the ‘maker movement‘ to Washington.)

Souness spoke about the connections that develop between people – makers and buyers – through Etsy, so you see meaning in what you’re buying. For example, she bought a pussy willow brooch and the woman who’d made it told her it was made from an actual pussy willow she’d found in an Oregon forest and turned into a wax model to make a mold to cast the brooch. Such connections make Etsy like an old-fashioned market. It’s about thinking locally and knowing the provenance of our stuff. Etsy also stays very close to what their staff are doing, for example, through Eatsy Food, which serves employees lunches twice a week, bringing them all together to eat and talk.

According to Souness, Etsy became a B Corp for all the above reasons (social mission etc) and also for transparency and accountability, for ‘the way it made us measure our environmental impact’, which is essential when you served around 40,000 meals in your office in 2014. She said in 2030 Etsy would look back and be incredibly grateful for that transparency and measurement brought by being a B Corp.

Etsy’s Australian headquarters are in Melbourne, where there are now 40 B Corps – versus Sydney’s 12. One dynamic and exciting B Corp pioneer driving the new business model from Sydney is James Chin Moody, whom Souness introduced by saying that he was ex CSIRO and ‘used his big brain to disrupt and reimagine how a sharing economy works’.

James Chin Moody

James Chin Moody

For me Moody was especially thrilling. Why? Because his business not only doesn’t create stuff. It is designed to reduce waste. Given that I don’t care for stuff beyond the essentials of life – and am obsessed with minimising garbage and appalled by the amount of needless stuff the global economy is programmed to generate (‘free’ foam reindeer antlers in shopping centres at Christmastime?!), this was pure music to my ears.

Moody, who trained as an electrical engineer, is concerned with the amount of waste we generate. He wants to reduce landfill. Speaking from 2030, he said the average Australian household threw away $1000 worth of food in 2015. And how efficient was a car in 2015? People from the audience guessed, starting from around 40% efficient. No. In 2015 a car is 1.5% efficient. Some 85% of the energy it uses turns to light and noise. Only about 10% of that energy actually moves the person.

When he was working at the CSIRO Moody learnt that resource efficiency regarding waste would be the big driver of the new economy. In 2015 he did the sums: people used to (in 2015) live with huge amounts of stuff in storage. A lot of stuff had inbuilt expiry dates because: people grew out of it; it was media used once only (here Moody gave storing a book as the example of media waste, which bookish types who read and reread might not consider so wasteful); people buy stuff like kitchenware and phones and store it in the attic when it’s no longer used; it goes out of fashion. But despite all this stored stuff, only 5% of 100 billion useless stored items ever made it into a second pair of hands. So they (Moody and his colleagues at TuShare, presumably) asked themselves a ‘great question’: why is it that 95% of stuff isn’t finding its way into a second pair of hands? Because it’s too hard. There’s too much friction in the system.

Moody looked into his bin. The bin cost $5. Most people thought it was a bin. But Moody et al realised it was $5 user interface to a billion dollar business. The reason these things weren’t being recycled is that it was too easy just to throw them into the bin. This insight led to TuShare.

They realised that the easiest way to recycle this stuff was not by selling, renting, bartering or trading it. The easiest way was by giving. Because you don’t negotiate with a bin, you just toss stuff into it (aka you give stuff to it). So he built a giving market, which in turn built ‘social capital’ – people feel good about giving, they feel generous and get satisfaction.

But this new giving marketplace had one big problem: it’s really hard to get stuff from one place to another. They needed to find a way to deliver door-to-door. And the transport system had to be online, tracked and affordable. They needed to work out how to shift stuff for less than $10. And then they found another huge pile of waste: empty trucks generated by ecommerce. The trucks that deliver the goods bought online had massive idle capacity on their return journeys. So Moody et al decided to fill that space. And they did. By using this space, in 2015 they could shift 10 kilos of stuff door to door anywhere in Australia’s major cities for $10 and anywhere in the country for $17. And so a second business – Sendle – grew out of the primary giving business, TuShare. Moody et al had created a sharing economy and a logistics economy. They now provide a logistics service for the circular economy.

And Moody realised something else while he was at CSIRO, which is why he made his businesses B Corporations: in the new economy business needs to have a purpose. And benefit corporations are designed for a clear purpose of one sort or another. (His purpose: to reduce landfill.) He found value was beginning to shift. Since the industrial revolution value had shifted from commodities (such a agricultural produce) to products (the mass production of the factory era) to services to experiences (the airlines were the first to realise the value of experiences). Value has continually recomposed itself. So what do experiences recompose themselves into? MEANING and PURPOSE. According to Moody, who explains this in detail in his 2010 book The Sixth Wave: How to succeed in a resource-limited world.

B Corps are driven by purpose and meaning. Moody realised that the more his businesses fulfilled their purpose – reducing landfill – the more value was captured and created. It was a virtuous cycle. Speaking from 2030 (when benefit corporations have become the norm), Moody said ‘Can you believe in 2015 they actually had things called propriety limited corporations?’

TuShare and Sendle became B Corporations because B Corps are about meaning and purpose.

And here the presentations ended.

This is the longest blog post I’ve ever written (and I like to keep them short), so I’ll also stop here. But after the presentations there was a fantastic and incredibly inspiring session of questions and answers, which I’ll save for another day. But to give you a taste of it, the three rock stars posed the following questions which the audience was asked to ponder in groups for ten minutes before the Q and A:

Rob: What can we do better together than we can do alone?

Helen: How is your business connecting to its community?

James: What is the true purpose of your business?

And after the whole event, we all stood round talking and eating Ben & Jerry’s choc fudge brownie ice-cream. The room was buzzing. (For some reason, perhaps because I’d become too absorbed in the talk, I forgot to take a photo of James Chin Moody while he spoke. He’s the guy beneath the yellow sign in the pic below.)

After the event

After the event

And here are more vistas from the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building last Thursday night.








Posted in Economics, Other news and marginalia, Six Capitals, The Earth and environmental activism | 4 Comments

‘Writing the world back into existence’: Helen Macdonald and ‘H is for Hawk’ at the Sydney Writers’ Festival 2015

SWF1Yesterday on a perfect autumn afternoon I was at the Sydney Writers’ Festival to hear Helen Macdonald talk about her extraordinary book H is for Hawk. I can’t remember the last time I was so excited to hear a writer speak about a book at this festival. (Well I can, actually, it was in 2010 when Raj Patel was here to talk about The Value of Nothing, but they are such different books the comparison is kind of meaningless.)

As I sat in the sun waiting for the session, I wondered: what more can Macdonald possibly give of herself and her story because she seems to have poured it all whole into her book, which is part biography (of a hawk, of her photographer father, of writer TH White), part memoir of grief and loss, part love story and part ‘love song’ (Macdonald’s phrase) to the scrubby fields around Cambridge and other English places. But thanks to searching questions from Caroline Baum and a few from the audience at the end, and to Macdonald’s own easy openness and poet’s way with words, she gave so much more.

Helen Macdonald (R) in conversation with Caroline Baum

Helen Macdonald (R) in conversation with Caroline Baum

Here’s what I scribbled during this captivating conversation before a packed room. First up, Macdonald told us she now has a parrot called Birdoole, who’s cuddlier than her goshawk Mabel but attacks her more and flies off with her computer keys.

Baum then asked her what she’d been like before this book, before her father died, before her goshawk Mabel. She said she’d studied English at Cambridge University and then did a Masters of Science because she wanted to work on how people saw the natural world and why they see it the way they do. She was thinking about what she wanted to do next, because she didn’t feel she fitted into Cambridge, and was thinking of becoming a writer. And then out of the blue her father died.

UnknownShe’s been obsessed with birds her whole life. As a child she’d fold her arms behind her back in bed, attempting to sleep like a bird. She’s worked in the Gulf States, hanging out with Bedouins trapping falcons, working with them to encourage people to trap tame birds not wild ones. She said falconry became an important part of Middle Eastern identity and culture, it’s an Emirate sport, and Bedouins are obsessed with football and falconry. She told funny stories about her surprising affinity with these men from a completely different world, united by their love of birds and the shared language and lore of falconry. They called her Helen of Arabia and told her that in the Muslim world it’s believed that falconers are chosen by Allah at birth, he points them out and declares their destiny. So Allah must have pointed to a small corner of Surrey and said ‘There, that’s a falconer’ when Macdonald was born.

Mabel was the first and only goshawk Macdonald has trained although she had her first kestrel, a falcon, at the age of 12. She said training a goshawk is not about having power over a bird but more like learning to be very polite to something to impress it, so it respects you. I found this such a moving observation, about the practice and power of politeness, and the stories the book tells testify to the extreme care Macdonald took to attend to and care for the bird. It is, overwhelmingly, a love story between a woman and a goshawk. Or, as Macdonald calls Mabel, ’30 ounces of death in a feathered jacket’. ‘I did love her,’ she said.

Apropos of humans’ tendency to anthropomorphise animals, she said that the whole point of her, Mabel, was not for her to become human but for Helen to become hawk. She was trying to make herself a bird, which is the opposite of anthropomorphising. Speaking of the name Mabel, she mentioned the tradition of calling hawks by the softest, cutest names because this goes with the best fliers and hunters, hence Mabel. In the lore of falconry, if a bird’s given a fierce name it usually spends its time roosting on a fence. She said ‘Mabel’ is a great word and it also means love in Latin.

When asked if she’d been inspired by the poetry of Ted Hughes she said no, but that she did love his poems, like his wonderful poem about thrushes, because he uncovers the actual animal beneath the accretions we give them. She said she also tries to do that.

She spoke about the delicacy of writing about her father and his death, of her mother’s response to the manuscript. She said that if her mother had been uncomfortable in any way, she would not have published it. When she finished the book she printed it out and sent it to her mother. Her mother read the first few chapters and could read no more. Macdonald waited anxiously for her response, which eventually came several months later. Her mother rang to say that she’d finished it. Her verdict? ‘Don’t change a bloody word.’ How right she was.

And she talked about her father, with whom she had a great affinity and a similar temperament. They spent hours together watching. He loved aeroplanes and was an aeroplane spotter – when a plane flew overhead during the session she said if her father had been there he’d be racing outside to see what it was. His powers of observation made him a great photojournalist. (Among decades of memorable photographs, he took the famous balcony kiss between Princess Diana and Prince Charles on their wedding day.) She told a story about the snobbery and hierarchy of spotters: bird spotters look down on dragonfly spotters; fungus people look down on moss people, moss people look down on liverwort people. Speaking about her solitary watching child self, she said she wasn’t an unhappy child, she just liked to watch, to disappear through watching.

She said you never get over a big loss – and told us never to say ‘you’ll get over it’ to anyone who’s experienced a loss. She said you become a different person, your whole architecture changes, you never get over it. Her father’s death made her realise we’re not here for very long. We’re here and then we’re gone. His death and the hawk’s doing its natural killing each day brought home to her: mortality.

With Mabel she was not trying to control death or have power over killing, as Baum suggested. Her agency was gone. The hawk was the superhero, she was the sidekick. She felt no power over death. She called falconry a willed loss of control, one that involves a lot of preparation, a lot of skill, to get to the moment of loss of control: to have the hawk on a fist and let it go.

Falconry done well is a very enlightened relationship between human and animal. In Shakespeare’s time falconry was like football, everyone used its language and metaphors.

Writing the last sentences of the book Macdonald’s eyes filled with tears. She realised then it was grief work and this was a goodbye. She wrote a lot after her father died, ‘writing the world back into existence’. Her memories were incredibly clear of the time around his death, of the time just before he died and for a year afterwards, the year she flew the hawk. This extreme memory meant she wrote the book all in the present tense, ‘no past, no future, all now now now’. With grief you become hyper-vigilant. The year ramped up her senses, being with the hawk made her see the world in a very complicated way. She didn’t just see a general picture of a landscape as usual. Instead she was attuned to wind direction, cover, animals, she started to get intuitions about the landscape through things the hawk taught her. Like the hawk she was absorbed into the landscape. She was no longer an observer.

She wanted nature to be a place of escape. And it was, but she went too far. But she said ‘The wild can be human work.’ She said she was well – had come out of her deep depression – when she started writing the book. It took her five years to get to be able to write it. She had to wait until she could see herself in the story, as a character: ‘it was really interesting to work with myself as a character’. She wrote the book because she ‘wanted to explain how grief was for me’ – and if that helps anyone (because it’s being used by grief counsellors) then that’s amazing.

The film rights to H is for Hawk have been bought by Lena Headey, Queen Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones, which needless to say Macdonald is utterly thrilled about.

When asked about the countryside around Cambridge, Macdonald said it was not conventionally beautiful, it’s flat, scrubby fields. She said she wanted the book to be a kind of plea for wild places. She wanted to take a piece of farmland (an organic farm where she flew Mabel) and write of it with love, ‘sing a little bit of a love song to it’.

She’s done this and more.

Helen Macdonald is giving the closing address – On Looking at Nature – of the 2015 Sydney Writers’ Festival on Sunday night. There are still tickets available. I urge anyone who even half likes animals, words, pieces of farmland and wild places to go.



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Tulips and blossoms bursting from their seams: Manhattan and Brooklyn in May

I’m just back from a fantastic trip to New York City where spring was bursting forth after a long winter. Here’s how it looked, from gardens, murals and flamingos in Brooklyn to the New York Public Library and Renzo Piano’s new Whitney Museum of American Art.



Here’s a mural in Brooklyn by the community group Groundswell. As its website says, Groundswell was founded in 1996 by a group of New York City artists, educators and activists who believed ‘that collaborative art-making combines the sanctity of personal expression with the strength of community activism’ – and produces unique and powerful artworks. Nineteen years later, they’ve created nearly 500 murals, including this one celebrating women’s work and education.


Nearby in Brooklyn is the fabulous Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club complete with wall-to-wall flamingos in the bathrooms.





From Brooklyn to Manhattan …


And in Manhattan, the New York Public Library, where I spent some hours. This is the beautiful Map Room.


And this is the original Winnie the Pooh et al.


And last but definitely not least, the brand new building housing the Whitney Museum of American Art. Designed by Renzo Piano, it’s in the Meat Packing District between the High Line and the Hudson River. How can a building both resemble an ocean liner and shipping container – and be light as air? It is truly breath-taking.







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