Affirming the silence: putting the Earth first, starting with the Reef

‘What is the link between nature and accounting? I must confess, I do no know.’ So wrote accounting academic Ruth D. Hines in her 1991 note ‘On Valuing Nature’. Fourteen years later, in 2005, Hines vanished into legend. Her friends and former colleagues at Sydney’s Macquarie University have been unable to trace her. It’s said she now writes poetry and children’s books. Hines ended her 1992 essay ‘Accounting: Filling the negative space‘ like this:

‘There are no “conclusions” to this paper, to fill and close off the “negative space” of the Feminine or Yin realm, much less hard directives for future research … Unpopular though it may be, in the world at present, I wish to affirm the silence.’

Nick McGuigan

Nick McGuigan

Vanishing, affirming the silence, seem to me like sane responses to the trauma inherent in any attempt to link nature and accounting. I first read ‘On Valuing Nature’ while researching Six Capitals in 2013. It struck me as a provocative meditation. I reread it last month after being reminded of it by Nick McGuigan and Thomas Kern, rebel accounting academics in transit to Melbourne’s Monash University formerly based at Macquarie University.

I now think Hines’s writing contains some of the most important thinking I know on the problems that beset not only accounting but all human life on this planet. In the two and a half pages of ‘On Valuing Nature’ Hines thinks through questions I’ve been grappling with since 2008, the year I began to investigate the material underpinnings of the Renaissance which threw me into the turbulence of contemporary accounting, a world gripped by existential crisis and revolution.

The crisis is this: the vast work accountants do every day to measure the wealth of businesses and economies increasingly diverges from what most of us understand to be the most important wealth of the planet. Today accountants can capture only 16 per cent of this value. Or, in accounting-speak: ‘country-specific and global accounting standards are “irrelevant and meaningless” given that intangibles constitute over 84% of the value of today’s international corporations.’ So wrote Richard H. Kravitz MBA, CPA, from Wall Street this month in the CPA Journal, of which he is editor-in-chief.

And yet these appallingly skewed measures still direct the global economy—so no wonder it’s veering out of control, in a constant state of collapse. The missing 84% of value is in the living systems of the earth: ‘nature’ broadly construed, which includes not only the earth’s ecosystems but also us humans, our communities and all the wealth of our hearts and minds. Hines puts the conundrum like this:

‘Nature is excluded from accounting valuations. And how could it be otherwise? All in nature are interdependent: my little rain forest cannot be bounded and separated from the Rubber Tree. It depends on the Rubber Tree. As I do. People are part of nature, aren’t they? But accounting, like any language, names, bounds and thus separates.

‘To reduce [Rubber Trees] to a number or, worse, a money equivalent is likely to have even worse consequences than excluding them from accounts altogether. Nature can be given prominence in accounting reports without reducing it to a number. Quantifying our environment must inevitably further alienate people from nature.’

Hines continues: ‘It seems to me that the best thing I can do for nature, as a person who is an “expert” in financial accounting-speak, and thus its limitations, is to speak my love of nature; to call attention to the limitations of the planetary-wide financial accounting language, and to make an issue of refusing to speak of nature in this language of numbers. It seems to me that, if other “experts” in accounting around the planet were openly to speak out, in all kinds of forums, to all kinds of audiences, about the limitations of accounting, thus demystifying it and reducing its power to entrance people, this would constitute a powerful addition to a too-slowly changing planetary consciousness.

‘It is in the name of Net Profit, Budget Surplus and Gross National Product that the natural environment in which we all co-exist is being destroyed. Those who speak this language have more social power to influence thinking and actions than they perhaps realise, or utilise.’

When I was invited to write an essay for the latest Griffith Review reimagining economic orthodoxy based on my travels in accounting, I accepted because I wanted to explore this relationship between nature and accounting, and economics, whose language is written by accountants. As I mentioned here, last month I joined Julianne Schultz and other contributors to Griffith Review 52: Imagining the Future in a discussion at the National Library of Australia.

National Library of Australia, L-R: Brendan Gleeson, me (on screen) Libby Robin and Julianne Schultz

National Library of Australia, L-R: Brendan Gleeson, me (on screen) Libby Robin and Julianne Schultz

At the end of the session Julianne asked us to describe what an election campaign that was really concerned about the future and aware of global constraints might look like. For me such a campaign would put the Earth first, starting in Australia’s case with the Great Barrier Reef. Every other policy would follow from that base, the planet on which we depend for our existence.

For six years the question of the link between nature and accounting/economics has plagued my days and kept me awake at night. It’s leaked everywhere, including into this bookish blog, which curiously enough I also started six years ago. Startled by questions from accountants Nick McGuigan and Thomas Kern about language, poetry and art, and inspired by Ruth Hines, I’ve decided to affirm the silence, head off to contemplate ways of putting the Earth first, and return bookishgirl to its original purpose: blogging about reading and writing, about books I love and books I’m reading.

Stephanie Bishop

Stephanie Bishop

So what am I reading? While I was on holidays last week I devoured Stephanie Bishop‘s beautiful, award-winning novel The Other Side of the World. In a fantastic interview with Booktopia’s John Purcell, Stephanie talks about the genesis of her novel, how she teaches fiction writing (at the University of New South Wales), and how issues like postnatal depression are pathologized today rather than being understood as normal responses to radically changed circumstance such as having a baby. Next up I’ll be writing about Herman Hesse’s novel Narcissus and Goldmund. I’m also reading the third novel in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. More on Ferrante another day.

The Other Side of the World

The Other Side of the World


Posted in Can accountants save the planet?, Luca Pacioli and Double Entry, Six Capitals, The Earth and environmental activism | Leave a comment

Imagining the future: Griffith Review at the National Library of Australia and other upcoming events

Tomorrow night at the National Library of Australia I’ll be talking with Griffith Review founding editor Julianne Schultz, director of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute Brendan Gleeson and historian of ideas Libby Robin in an event based on Griffith Review 52: Imagining the Future. The details are:

Thursday 9 June 2016, 6 pm–7 pm
Theatre, Lower Ground 1
National Library of Australia

UnknownMore information can be found here. If the essays Schultz, Gleeson and Robin have contributed to this new edition are any indication, the discussion will be lively and thought-provoking. (Robin’s essay, ‘A new ecology of creativity’, can be found on the Griffith Review website, not in the printed journal.) My essay is called ‘A new mother tongue’. The title is taken from the opening of a brilliant talk about economics by one of my favourite contemporary economists, Kate Raworth, based in Oxford, UK. She asks:

‘If you wanted to change the world, what language would you learn to speak? That’s the question I asked myself as a teenager in the 1980s, when the tv news showed pot-bellied children born into Ethiopia’s famine and a hole opening up in the ozone layer. I wanted to be part of changing that world and I thought I knew the language I needed to speak. I needed the mother tongue of public policy – and so I went to university, to study economics.’

Kate Raworth

Kate Raworth

Yes, economics is the mother tongue of public policy. But as Raworth goes on to say, it’s a deeply flawed language and ignores several extremely important spheres of life, notably: society and the environment. Raworth describes herself as a ‘renegade economist and development re-thinker. My passion is the rewriting of economics to make it a fit tool for addressing the 21st century’s social and ecological challenges.’

I see my Griffith Review essay as a first attempt to explore the ways in which the language of the new accounting paradigm I’ve been writing and talking about for the last two years can be brought into the sphere of public policy and political debate, adapted to macroeconomics. I will be speaking at several events this year with this same intention, including one in July, a forum which will discuss creating a Green Grid—of parks and open spaces—through Sydney, and one in August called ‘Building the New Economy’. Both events are in Sydney and I’ll be blogging more about them here in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, I look forward to imagining the future with you tomorrow night at the National Library of Australia. I hope to see you there.

The National Library of Australia

The National Library of Australia

Posted in book news, Can accountants save the planet?, Economics, Six Capitals, The Earth and environmental activism | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Why did we March Against Mike? Let me count the ways

March1Last Sunday some 5,000 people marched from Sydney’s Town Hall to NSW Parliament House to protest against Premier Mike Baird and the NSW state government. After Aunty Jenny Munro’s fiery Welcome to Country, MC Alex McKinnon took the stage. He said the people speaking at the rally didn’t have much in common on the surface but the actions of the Baird government had made them sit up and wonder: Whose city is this? (The speakers were former Leichhardt mayor Darcy Byrne, WestConnex Action Group campaigner Pauline Lockie, DJ Tyson Koh, Greens parliamentarian David Shoebridge and anti-coal seam gas activist, ‘FrackmanDayne Pratzky. Highlights from their charged and passionate speeches follow the pictures below.)

McKinnon called Baird’s government ‘morally bankrupt, causally authoritarian religious fundamentalists. People devoid of imagination, consumed by pettiness. This government doesn’t work for the people who voted for it but for the corporations who pay for it.’ It is a government so terrified of its own people that it makes protests illegal. This is about whether we live in a democracy or just the appearance of one. ‘The only thing more potent than their contempt for you is their fear of you. If we are smart, angry, persistent, their days are numbered.’

That pretty much sums up why I was there. The chainsawing of 31 trees on Anzac Parade earlier this month in the face of massive community protest knocked me over the edge. This is on top of Mike’s determination to build the WestConnex tollway, to amalgamate local councils, turn the Bay Precinct into another Barangaroo, support coal seam gas mining, maintain the lockout laws, forcibly remove pensioners from public housing in Millers Point, privatise disability services, build the bridge over Anzac Parade, destroy thousands of indigenous artefacts unearthed by the work on the light rail, give police power to jail protesters. The list goes on, as MC Alex McKinnon made clear: fine bike riders more than cars that speed through school zones, allow James Packer’s monstrous casino, close down women’s shelters. These 12 pictures speak a thousand words:













Highlights from the speeches.

Darcy Byrne, aka the real mayor of Leichhardt: Mike Baird is completely out of control. We will resist his rule. On 12 May in an autocratic act Baird got rid of 42 mayors and every councillor in the councils they represent. He plans to exterminate another 23 mayors. The only mayors that remain are in marginal Coalition seats.

With Casino Mike winter has come to inner Westeros. When he looks at our communities he sees dollar signs and development opportunities.

Let us not stoop to simplistic invective, because we have something Baird is afraid of: together we can stand up and make sure his government is abolished at the next election, in 3 years’ time, at the ballot box.

Pauline Lockie, introduced as ‘a big pain in the arse for the state government’: The $16.8 billion WestConnex tollway proposal is one of the biggest infrastructure projects in the southern hemisphere, if not the biggest. The Baird government’s own figures show it will actually make congestion on roads worse.

If you feel like you don’t know much about WestConnex, or you don’t really understand what it’s all about, then I can assure you that you are not alone, and it’s not your fault. It’s part of a deliberate strategy by the Baird government to do everything it can to shut down transparency around this tollway, so that it can try to bulldoze as much of WestConnex through our city as possible before people realise the truth: WestConnex is a scam. Baird’s ultimate goal is to sell us out to his mates in big business.

The world is littered with roads that have failed to relieve traffic congestion. In fact, they’ve made it worse.

Every kilometre of this tollway will cost over $0.5 billion and yet it just duplicates roads we already have.

Paris, New York City, San Francisco and Seoul are not just not building roads like WestConnex – they’re tearing them down. And traffic gets better.

The Federal Auditor General is investigating the Turnbull government’s injection of $2 billion into WestConnex. Stopping federal funding to WestConnex is a great way to prevent it.

Tyson Koh, anti lockouts campaigner: I think this is almost unprecedented. This is not just about one issue but about a whole range of issues all directed at one man: the Premier.

Protesting the lockout laws is about access to our city. We are losing our city. The live music scene has suffered a huge blow. Who’s standing up for young people? Who’s standing up for bands? Not the Premier. Sydney’s so much more than casinos, highways and apartments. It’s about the spirit of its people. I’m asking Baird and his government to listen.

David Shoebridge: The real problem with Mike Baird is: where do you start?

His government has destroyed local democracies not just in inner western Sydney but also on NSW’s mid north coast. The Gloucester Council stood up to AGL’s Gloucester coal seam gas project – and then the Baird government sacked the council and appointed pro-mining John Turner to run it, and the Great Lakes and Greater Taree councils which are being amalgamated as the Mid Coast Council.

But people did not lie down. The Knitting Nannas stood up to the new administration run by a guy in the employ of a gas seam company, interrupting the first Mid Coast Council meeting last week.

His government has attacked TAFE. We will not let Mike Baird destroy TAFE, so to the PSA and NSW Teachers Federation, we are with you.

In one afternoon the chainsaws came down and destroyed the lungs of our city, the fig trees of Anzac Parade.

Police powers: we are at the risk of becoming a police state with laws like the ‘consorting laws‘ and new anti-protest laws which make it a crime for Knitting Nannas to stand in front of a CSG truck. Three weeks ago the NSW State Government passed ‘public safety order‘ legislation. These ‘public safety orders’ will last for the rest of your natural life, with no appeal to any court in the state. They haven’t started using these laws yet but the machinery is in place to turn this state into a police state.

Dayne Pratzky: I want to leave a legacy to our children and our children’s children [by preventing coal seam gas mining]. We need to occupy council meetings like we did in Forster. We have to bring the rest of the state with us with our hearts and minds. There’s no white knight. You are the white knight. We need to make sure these mongrels don’t occupy the senate in the next federal election.

As they say in Pratzky’s film Frackman: ‘Ordinary people have got to step up and become heroes.’


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Sydney Writers’ Festival 2016: the world according to Yanis Varoufakis, in conversation with George Megalogenis

Yanis Varoufakis (L) and George Megalogenis

Yanis Varoufakis (L) and George Megalogenis

Last Saturday night I went to see ‘rock star‘ economist and former Greek Minister of Finance Yanis Varoufakis in conversation with George Megalogenis in a session called ‘And the Weak Suffer What They Must‘ (taken from the title of Varoufakis’s latest book which comes from Thucydides: ‘The strong do as they can and the weak suffer what they must’). First, some clarification: this was no ‘in conversation’. Varoufakis held forth for almost an hour with a couple of questions thrown in by Megalogenis. Second, his focus was not the weak, but the strong who do as they can, the powerbrokers who run Europe and the global economy. And he was mesmerising.

Addressing the overflowing City Recital Centre, Varoufakis said he’d entered politics ‘smack in the middle of a storm’ – and so in his brief nine months as Greece’s Minister of Finance he’d had an experience of politics most politicians don’t have in 40 years. He opened with a story about Harvard economist Larry Summers, ‘the academic responsible for most of the damage to the global economy’. After Varoufakis became finance minister, Summers came to him and offered his services for free. He wanted to give Greece an opportunity to end its deep, awful depression. They met in Washington after midnight.

Summers said: ‘Yanis you made a very big mistake. You won the election.’

Varoufakis said: ‘The fact you offered your services to me means you haven’t read my last book, because I mention you on every eighth page as the Prince of Darkness.’

Summers said: ‘At least you call me a prince.’ He told Varoufakis that in politics there are two kinds of people, outsiders who feel free to speak their mind. The system very soon ejects them. And insiders, who get a chance to mingle with the powers that be and make incremental change. The price they pay is they can’t speak out. ‘What are you?’ Summers asked. ‘An outsider or an insider?’ An outsider.

Varoufakis recounted a conversation he’d had with ‘the highest person at the IMF‘, mentioning no names. Their discussions about resolving Greece’s debt problems – or ‘trying to find a modus operandi between two teams’ (Greece and the IMF), as he put it – went for seven or eight hours. Afterwards when they were having a drink she said: ‘Look Yanis, of course you are right. This program we’re trying to impose on you can’t work. But you must understand that we’ve invested so much political capital in this program and your credibility depends on accepting it.’

One thing I’ll never regret, Varoufakis said, is saying no to the IMF and not becoming an insider.

On 11 June 2015 Varoufakis was negotiating with Wolfgang Schauble, ‘the most powerful man in Europe’, for 120 minutes. He was struggling to explain that he wouldn’t become another European finance minister who takes more money from taxpayers. During the conversation there was one moment of significance, which came when at some point Varoufakis tried another tack. He said to Schauble: ‘I’ve been in this business for five months, your people are not in the state my people are. For 5-10 minutes can we take our finance minister hats off? I want to ask your advice.’ Schauble said OK. So Varoufakis asked him if he’d sign the deal if he were him.

Schauble looked out the window for three minutes. Each minute was a week. Then he said: ‘No. As a patriot I wouldn’t.’ He said but he’d imposed similar austerity packages on other European nations so ‘how can I let you off the hook?’ He agreed that it was terrible for the people of Greece but he was trying to control the Eurozone.

Then Varoufakis asked us: ‘Why are we all here on a Saturday night talking about Greece? For the last six years Greece has been making headlines over fears its debt crisis might topple Europe. If Greece is capable of destabilising Europe, let alone the world, then there’s something wrong with Europe, not Greece. It’s the equivalent of New England in northern New South Wales destabilising Australia. Why is Greece reflecting a distorted mirror of the European economy that has not managed to recover its stability following the global financial crisis? In Australia there’s an illusion that we’ve weathered the financial crisis. But everything that begins in Greece eventually comes to Australia. Remember that the Cold War began in Greece on the streets of Athens in December 1944.

He said the Bretton-Woods agreement of 1944 created a planned global economy for 20 years, with interest rates at 5% and fixed currency exchanges. That world collapsed because one of its pillars collapsed: American surpluses. By 1966-7 America had lost its surpluses. When the Americans realised their own plan wasn’t working they got out a hammer and smashed it. Americans are extremely pragmatic people. On the other hand, the European ship can be sunk and on the bottom of the ocean and still they pretend they can start the engine. He said America and Europe have very different approaches to solving problems:

In America 10 elites meet and ask how can we get out of this crisis? In Europe 300 people get in a room and ask how can we pretend this crisis isn’t happening?

Europe is the largest economy in the world and it’s capable of destabilising the entire global economy. Lots of European countries are running phony economies of high debt to GDP ratios. How can this go on? This is not a redemptive crisis like a regenerating bushfire. This is a crisis similar to 1929 – crises which pulverise the economy. Investment collapses, jobs are lost, incomes decline, taxes fall, social service expenditure rises, budget deficits rise.

Megalogenis then asked: What is the German motivation in this crisis? A psychosis? The need to be the most thrifty nation in Europe?

Varoufakis replied: I’m going to surprise you. There is no German. One problem I had with our negotiations was that there is no German person, there are myriad views, it’s a very complex situation. Really your question is: ‘Is the Eurozone a conspiracy or a cockup?’ I think it’s a cockup. Ideally the blue collar workers and engineers of Germany want it to be the factory of Europe – but they’re so good at making things that they need export markets. This requires planning.

The New Dealers (in the Bretton-Woods negotiations) understood that there’s no point castigating someone for being in deficit when you’re in surplus. The Marshall Plan was created by pragmatic Americans deciding to give Europe the money to buy their suff. It was a financial recycling mechanism: I give you my surplus so you can buy my exports. For this thinking to take place you need an elite that thinks globally, which America had. But the Germans do not want to rule the world, they don’t want to lead. They were burnt by the two world wars.

‘Europe’ is not a European design. It’s an American design. In 1945 there was a plan to deindustrialise German factories – but at some stage, after destroying some 700, the Americans stopped destroying them. America realised it needed a strong, industrialised Germany and a united Europe. The ‘Speech of Hope‘ by Secretary Byrnes in Stuttgart in 1946 wiped out the German debt (part of which was owed to Greece). This was a problem for France, which didn’t want to alter the original agreement to deindustrialise Germany. So Washington made a deal with France: Germany could be the factory of Europe but France could run Europe. Hence the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) is based in Paris. Hence French Christine Lagarde heads the IMF today. The French are good at producing good administrators. The Germans are not good at that, they are good at producing engineers. During those early postwar years America effectively oversaw the unification of Europe, which began as an industrial cartel, as its first name indicates: the European Coal and Steel Community. Cartels fix prices. Like OPEC. This is how Europe began, as an American-run cartel. This is the birth of the European Union.

With the ‘Nixon shock‘ of 1971 (notably his ending of the direct convertibility of the US Dollar to gold) Europe became an orphan – or, actually, America’s bastard. Europe was floating free. It was a disaster. The Deutschmark went through the roof. This led to an attempt to fix exchange rates in Europe.

Leading up to the global financial crisis, from 2001 to 2008 global income rose from the equivalent of 50 to 70. At the same time the paper economy (composed of the derivatives and other complex financial instruments that would scupper the global economy) rose from 70 to 788. Planet earth is simply not big enough to contain this overshoot – so the global economy collapsed.

Yanis said the response to this crisis – central banks printing money – was like giving cortisone to a cancer patient: it improves quality of life while the tumour does its dirty work underneath. He said 2016 will be the equivalent of the 1930s. The collapse has been slow in coming but it will come.

Varoufakis said he felt proud to be European last September when Angela Merkel welcomed refugees into Germany. It was a moment of solidarity between Germany and Greece, who both welcomed Syrian refugees. But after being lambasted by her own government and people Merkel allowed the Austrian government to start closing borders.

‘We don’t have a European Union any more,’ Varoufakis said. His next remark received spontaneous applause and a standing ovation from many in the audience: ‘The European Union is bribing the autocratic leader of Turkey to allow Europe to violate international treaties.’



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Sydney Writers’ Festival 2016: Jonathan Franzen on ‘My Reading Life’ from Dr Dolittle to Kafka, Pynchon and Paula Fox


Yesterday I was down at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on one of those wildly beautiful blue autumn days for a very bookish morning. First I was ‘in conversation’ with Batman-loving Heidegger-reading philosopher Damon Young about his new book The Art of Reading, a philosophical meditation on reading in six virtues (curiosity, patience, courage, pride, temperance and justice). It’s also a portrait of the reader as a young man whose tastes range from Sherlock Holmes and Star Trek to Henry James, Virginia Woolf and Nikos Kazantzakis, from Aristotle to AJ Ayer. Young became ‘A Reader’ aged 11 thanks to Sherlock Holmes. He writes in The Art of Reading: ‘It was with the junky detective that I first became aware of myself as something powerful: a reader.’ I love the idea of a reader as something powerful: as that absolutely essential person required to bring words on a page to life. In one of my favourite passages in the book, Young quotes Virginia Woolf to convey the wonders of a reading life:

‘But just as important is the world this labour [reading] offers … This is why Virginia Woolf, in ‘How Should One Read a Book?‘, portrayed God as a little jealous of literary souls. “Look, these need no reward,” he proclaimed to Saint Peter in Paradise. “We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.”‘

Damon Young in full flight

Damon Young in full flight

Then I went to hear Jonathan Franzen talking to Tegan Bennett Daylight about ‘My Reading Life’. I wasn’t planning to write about it (I’m trying to take a holiday), but I was so captivated by Franzen’s tales from his reading life that I started scribbling notes. Having had very little reading life in common with Damon Young (although we share a passion for Jane Austen’s Persuasion, whose heroine Anne Elliot sits with Batman at the zenith of Young’s literary pantheon), I was astonished to find how many bookish loves Franzen and I shared, starting with a weakness for talking animals that began with Dr Dolittle and continued with Peanuts. Interestingly, our tastes diverge when at the urging of his then-fiancee (Valerie Cornell) he gave up reading the Great American Novelists, notably Pynchon, in favour of novels written with more heart than head, mostly by women. More on that below.

Tegan Bennett Daylight + Jonathan Franzen in the velvet darkness

Tegan Bennett Daylight + Jonathan Franzen in the velvet darkness

Franzen said his much older siblings left home when he was still in primary school so he sought companionship in books, encouraged by his parents who weren’t readers but saw books as a means of worldly advancement. (He said this backfired on them when he decided to become a writer rather than the scientist they’d Harriet_the_Spy_(book)_coverexpected him to be.) He loved Peanuts and the Narnia books because they were about people doing bad things who suffered from ‘inescapable guilt’. In the Peanuts comics Lucy behaves badly and Charlie Brown and Linus feel guilty. (Guilt is big for Franzen.) He said children have a natural craving for violence in a meaningful moral context, as in the Grimm’s fairy tales, and the books that really endure are not sweet, but those that recognise that people are bad. Harriet the Spy was an important book for him. It made him want to become a writer and it made him want to move to New York City. He said there are a lot of writers in America who became writers because of Harriet the Spy.

At high school he loved science fiction, possibly because he’d been ‘shunted into science’ by his parents and sci fi reconciled the thing he was supposed to be doing (science) with what he loved (reading) and wanted to be (a writer). He read Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov – ‘white guy mid-20th century sci fi’. When asked what ‘shunted into science’ meant, he said he’d read biographies of Thomas Edison aged 10 and wanted a chemistry lab like Edison. So his parents gave him a chemistry set and his father built him a chemistry bench. He went to college to study physics but foundered on indeterminate calculus. So he decided to switch to literature.

His parents wouldn’t let him study English – he’d have to pay for himself if he wanted to – so he studied German, which they saw as a good, productive language [laughter]. He fell in love with Goethe and in his last year of college he ‘got religious’. That is, he read the moderns – Mann, Rilke, Kafka and others, and Nietzsche ‘who loomed over all of them’ – and realised there were so many more levels to writing than he’d ever guessed, there was a lot more to texts than he’d ever get. He struggled with an Emily Dickinson poem and after four days realised it was ironic. Before then he’d thought of writers as like Michael Crichton, with an office and flying around the world first class.

He said the modern German writers were ‘very funny’. There is comic relief even in Rilke. Humour is closely related to despair. Kafka read ‘The Trial’ out loud to his friends and they were all in stitches, laughing so much that he had to pause for them to calm down. Franzen called Kafka ‘a Jewish comedian’. He said:

‘This is not a game, guys. Kafka wasn’t writing this to be famous, he was writing this because his life was a mess. He was struggling with himself, his father, his Jewishness, modernity, technology, struggling with his shame and anxiety. It’s not religion, but it maps onto what religion does. Here was a religion that made sense to me: literature.’

31u5VgW7VkL._AC_UL320_SR210,320_Gravity’s Rainbow is also massively important to Franzen. He said he doesn’t have much regard for Harold Bloom’s theory of the world, which he divides into strong poets or weak poets – ‘people would go to Bloom to ask if they were a strong or weak poet’ – but he, Franzen, wanted to be a strong poet, hence Pynchon. He had a sense Pynchon would be a problem. He read it entirely alone in Berlin where he went after college on a Fulbright scholarship. He said it was not smart to be reading Pynchon then. He had a psychotic breakdown and Pynchon totally took over. He felt sick. He dreamt about Pynchon. Pynchon was in his head. His letters home to his fiancee became more and more like Pynchon, endless sentences, excessive, arrogant, aggressively sexual. She wrote back: you can be with me or you can go with him, I don’t want you to write to me like that. He was mortified ‘because I hated not pleasing anyone, still do’. So he stopped. He said he was lucky. He ‘stopped being a boy writer – like try to connect with people rather than show off to them’. He stopped reading Pynchon – although he ‘really likes’ The Crying of Lot 49, which was a book Pynchon disavowed. He said ‘Pynchon is funny – and the writer who’s funny can’t be all bad’.

He said he and his generation, like his friend David Foster Wallace, had to overthrow those Great American Writers like Pynchon, critique what was wrong with them, which was partly a feminist critique. It was also that they wrote books of the head not the heart. If books are about connections between human beings why would you be all head?

51i4CZJI-DL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Bennett Daylight asked Franzen what he was reading when he was writing The Corrections. Paula Fox. He discovered short novels. After Kafka, Paula Fox was the writer who most changed his life. ‘She was writing about everything, but it happened in just one weekend.’ He also likes Christina Stead (‘but not so much formally’), Alice Munro, Jane Smiley’s short novels. The problem with American postmodernism was a terrible gigantism. If you were taking on the world you had to get bigger and bigger. He loves Elena Ferrante. Reading her tetralogy – the ‘Neapolitan novels‘ – was a complete, enveloping experience. He took them on a 2-month book tour, thinking they’d last the whole trip, and read them in two and a half weeks. He loves devouring book after book in a series like Ferrante’s. He reads little and slowly and is always looking for the next recommendation, ‘the books you read in those endless summers’.

Franzen reads some non-fiction. He was ‘blown away’ by Changes in the Land, an ecological history of New England by William Cronon. It gave him the idea for his second novel, the idea that the landscape was always altered, changed. He read Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atom Bomb when he was writing Purity. He mostly reads non-fiction when he ‘desperately needs to get information so he can make things up better’.

independent-peopleAnother significant book for him is Independent People by Halldor Laxness, ‘one of the great novels of the 20th century, a life-changing book, an Icelandic novel’. He called Laxness – who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 – ‘the most famous Icelander between Eric the Red and Bjork’. He’s brilliant because he maps all of Iceland’s history onto the crisis of modernity. Franzen called it ‘a novel about sheep farming’. Bennett Daylight called it ‘a novel about a man who imposes his will on a family’. Franzen said they’d have to spend 15 minutes after the session arguing about that.

When asked what books he recommends Franzen said: The Man Who Loved Children. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. Dostoyevsky. Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma. When asked what his reading indulgence is he said: ‘TV. I like a great serial drama on TV. It’s a kind of novel.’

Tonight I’m off to see former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis in conversation with George Megalogenis. If Varoufakis seizes my imagination in the way that Franzen on books did, then I’ll be blogging his session ‘And the Weak Suffer What They Must?‘ here, so stay tuned.


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Charlotte Wood’s ‘The Natural Way of Things’ wins the 2016 Stella Prize

IMG_0077Last night I was out and about in bookish circles for the first time in months (such things are possible now my PhD is off my desk). It was thrilling to be at the Opera House on a sultry Sydney evening for the 2016 Stella Prize announcement. The room was absolutely packed and full of love for the Stella Prize and all those involved with it, especially the winning author Charlotte Wood and the five shortlisted authors, as well as the Stella’s incomparable MC Julia Zemiro (who said among other things: ‘Sharing our stories is to my atheist mind the meaning of life’), Executive Director Aviva Tuffield, guest speaker Claudia Karvan, and judges Brenda Walker, Emily Maguire, Alice Pung, Geordie Williamson and Suzy Wilson.

Charlotte Wood (L) with judge Brenda Walker

Charlotte Wood (L) with judge Brenda Walker

Charlotte Wood won the fourth Stella Prize for her universally acclaimed novel The Natural Way of Things. The shortlisted books were Six Bedrooms by Tegan Bennett Daylight; Hope Farm by Peggy Frew; A Few Days in the Country: And Other Stories by Elizabeth Harrower; The World Without Us by Mireille Juchau; and Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger by Fiona Wright. Charlotte has called her fifth novel ‘a dark, bleak book about girls imprisoned and trapped and reviled’. The Natural Way of Things was described in this week’s Guardian as a ‘feminist, rage-filled novel‘. I’ve not yet read it (PhD) but I’ve read all Charlotte’s other novels and she’s an extraordinary writer, her words ring true, and a profound thinker. All of which was evident in her rousing and characteristically generous acceptance speech, a rallying call for writers and artists in ‘a new dark age’. Particularly moving was her declaration that she would be keeping all her $50,000 prize money and the reasons for it (see below). Everyone who cares about art – and perhaps especially those who don’t much value art and the people who make it – should read Charlotte’s speech. Among other things she said:

‘But all this measuring and grading, in any case, is not an artist’s job. Our energies must be dedicated, purely and simply, to the work itself – returning again and again to the writing room and the blank page, defying the cold logic that says you are only worth what you earn, or what others think of you. Showing up to that blank space with curiosity and courage is an exercise in the greatest freedom we can know – intellectual freedom, to explore your obsession with something nobody but you cares about, to pursue your own strange thoughts and dreams, to climb right inside your own dark wormhole of fascination and stay there.’

She gave a list of five reasons to write, including: ‘To make something beautiful. Beauty does not have to mean prettiness, but can emerge from the scope of one’s imagination, the precision of one’s words, the steadiness and honesty of one’s gaze.’

And in this new dark age into which she often feels we’ve entered, ‘we need art more than ever. Art is a candle flame in the darkness; it urges us to imagine and inhabit lives other than our own, to be more thoughtful, to feel more deeply, to challenge what we think we already know. Art declares that we contain multitudes, that more than one thing can be true at once. And it gives us a breathing space – a space in which we can listen more than talk, where we can attentively question our own beliefs, a place to find stillness in a chaotic world. I hope that my novel has provided some of those things: provocation, yes, but also beauty and stillness.’

She concluded: ‘As you also know, some recent winners of various literary prizes have also shown extraordinary individual generosity, in publicly donating portions of their prize money to crucially important social causes – a move I admire and absolutely respect. But tonight I will not be following in those footsteps. I’m going to keep this prize money. Not just because it will afford me the only thing every writer really wants, time and mental space to work, but because I want to stake a claim for literature as an essential social benefit, in and of itself. I would like all writers – especially those here tonight and most especially women, who so often put their need to make art behind the needs of others – to remember what I rediscovered on that bleak day I mentioned earlier: to create art is itself an act of enlargement, of enrichment and affirmation. To write well is to light that candle in the darkness, offering solace, illumination – and maybe even the possibility of transformation – not just for the writer but for the reader, and for our society itself.’

Given I’ve spent most of my time since 2008 reading, writing and thinking about crude economic measurements and their failure to consider the things that really count, being in a room of bookish people was an absolute joy and Charlotte’s words pierced me down to my soul. THANK YOU Charlotte Wood. THANK YOU Stella Prize and all involved with it. It’s good to be back here.

L-R: Mireille Juchau, Peggy Frew, Fiona Wright, Tegan Bennett Daylight and Charlotte Wood.

L-R: Mireille Juchau, Peggy Frew, Fiona Wright, Tegan Bennett Daylight and Charlotte Wood.

Aviva Tuffield

Aviva Tuffield

MC Julia Zemiro

MC Julia Zemiro

Posted in book news, Novels, Novels, poetry, book news | 2 Comments

Purpose as compass, guiding star, anchor, rudder: Purpose 2015, a conference in sixteen pics

Sally Hill & Yvonne Lee from Wildwon, creators of Purpose 2015

Sally Hill & Yvonne Lee from Wildwon, creators of Purpose 2015

For the last two days I’ve been immersed, overwhelmed, inspired, altered, repurposed, connected – actually, it’s really hard to find the right word for what it was like to be at Purpose 2015, a two-day conference held in Sydney’s Darlinghurst filled with exceptional people (many from Melbourne) all doing good business. The conference said: ‘Let’s do good business together. It’s 2015 and the future belongs to business with purpose.’ Aptly enough, it was run by the game-changing ‘meaningful experience agency’ Wildwon (founded by the super inspiring Sally Hill and Yvonne Lee), and their many extraordinary partners and supporters. Wildwon is exactly what it says it is: a meaningful experience agency. Everyone I talked to (and I talked to a lot of people, it was that kind of event) was having a meaningful experience. Wildwon is also a certified B Corporation, which are purpose-driven socially and environmentally aware corporations – the rock stars of the new economy.

The Wildwon team (minus the many fabulous volunteers)

The Wildwon team (minus the many fabulous volunteers)

I’ve been thinking of ways to describe the experience of this conference since yesterday morning when the best MC ever (yes, superlatives all round) Matt Wicking asked us to describe with a simile how we were feeling. Like an electrical storm, an atom bomb, immediately came to mind. I felt my brain was exploding with new ideas and people and connections. But storms and bombs are so destructive. So just as well I was sitting next to people who had gentler more receptive responses than mine. One said she felt like a sleepy pussycat, content but tired from taking so much in, just absorbing it all; another felt like an underground stream burbling away deeply.

Matt had a way of making rousing introductions, pithy summaries, witty asides, soulful insights. Oh, and he also wrote and sang a song. Unique in my wide experience of conferences and MCs. More about Matt’s song at the end. (Among his many talents he’s a musician.) In the meantime, here’s one of his asides that made us laugh. When thinking about the meaning of ‘purpose’, he said he sees purpose as a compass or guiding star. Abigail (Forsyth) sees it as an anchor. Someone else spoke of it as a rudder. Clearly we’re all at sea. (Which is after all pretty much what life is.)

Here’s Purpose 2015 in a few words and pics. With more to come in 2016. (Everyone mentioned below is inspiring and their work exemplary, good for the planet and everyone on it, so check them out.)

Setting the scene at the Eternity Playhouse

Setting the scene at the Eternity Playhouse

The opening plenary was ‘Reshaping capitalism and redefining success in business’, facilitated by Alicia Darvall of B Lab Australia (the home of the certified B Corporation), featuring Matt Perry of Conscious Capitalism Australia and Felicity Ford of the Future Business Council. I also spoke.

Then there were four talks run concurrently (here’s the program). I went to ‘Measures beyond money’ which featured Matt Bell, Climate Change & Sustainability at Ernst & Young Australia; Josi Heyerdahl of WWF Australia (who spoke a lot about natural capital); and Stuart Palmer from Australian Ethical Investment. It was facilitated by Matt Wicking.

Matt Wicking, Mat Bell, Josi Heyerdahl and Stuart Palmer

Matt Wicking, Mat Bell, Josi Heyerdahl and Stuart Palmer

Next I went to ‘More for less’. It was run by Candice Quartermain from Circular Economy Australia and featured Malcolm Rands from ecostore; Jason & Kim Graham-Nye from G Diapers; and Clinton Squires from Interface. (Yeah, not a great pic.)


Clinton Squires, Kim Graham-Nye, Candice Quartermain, Malcolm Rands & Jason Graham-Nye

The closing plenary of Day 1 was led by Karen James from On Purpose Hub and featured James Chin Moody from Sendle; Simon Griffiths from Shebeen and Who Gives a Crap; Mark Daniels from Social Traders; Suzanne Boccalatte from Boccalatte; and Ben Burge from Powershop.


Simon Griffiths, Suzanne Boccalatte, Ben Burge, Karen James, Mark Daniels & James Moody

Day 2 opened with ‘Stories that started with purpose’. Three pioneers in purpose-driven business told stories about their inspiring lives and the evolution of their successful businesses: Damien Walsh from Bank Australia, Audette Exel from Adara Group and Abigail Forsyth from KeepCup. It was moderated by Matt Wicking.

Matt Wicking, Damien Walsh, Audette Exel and Abigail Forsyth

Matt Wicking, Damien Walsh, Audette Exel and Abigail Forsyth

Here’s Audette in action. She set up Adara 18 years ago to ‘unleash the power of business and make money for the disadvantaged’ – which, as she said, is an ‘incredibly complex place to be in’. The people on the slide behind her are heavyweights of high finance who’ve just signed on to back Adara. As she said, she’s ‘changing the world one investment banker at a time’.

Audette Exel

Audette Exel

Next I went to ‘Values-led leadership’ facilitated by Sarah Fortuna from the Centre for Workplace Leadership at the University of Melbourne with Jason Clarke from the Minds at Work Centre & the Centre for Sustainability Leadership; Jirra Lulla Harvey from Kalinya Communications; and Stuart Palmer from Australian Ethical Investment. This talk was in The Commons and it was crowded and I was right up the back, so again, not the greatest pic, but you get the idea.

Jason Clarke (imagine him at the left), Jirra Lulla Harvey, Sarah Fortuna & Stuart Palmer

Jason Clarke (imagine him at the left), Jirra Lulla Harvey, Sarah Fortuna & Stuart Palmer

Next up with the excellent title ‘Shit, did we just interrupt the green conversation?’ were The Unfuckers Caroline Shields and Vanessa Morrish.

Vanessa Morrish and Caroline Shields

Vanessa Morrish and Caroline Shields

Then suddenly it was the closing plenary: ‘Meaningful work’ with Jason Fox from Making Clever Happen, Kyra Maya Phillips writer & author of The Misfit Economy, Sarah Fortuna (as above) and Michael Bradley from Marque Lawyers.

Sarah Fortuna, Michael Bradley, Kyra Maya Phillips and Jason Fox

Sarah Fortuna, Michael Bradley, Kyra Maya Phillips and Jason Fox

Here are Michael, Kyra and Jason in action. I’ll be blogging more about them and about all the talks and speakers mentioned here in 2016, so stay tuned.

Kyra Maya Phillips, a writer speaking with her hands, thinking on her feet

Kyra Maya Phillips, a writer speaking with her hands, thinking on her feet

Michael Bradley, a lawyer who embraces, trusts & gives

Michael Bradley, a lawyer who embraces, trusts & gives

Jason Fox, a self-described introvert being extroverted on a stage

Jason Fox, a self-described introvert being extroverted on a stage

And then Matt Wicking did his thing – which was to sing a song he’d written inspired by the sentences below. He said ‘I had another introduction in mind initially but wrote this one backstage just before coming out. Sometimes the right thing comes to you from the blue.’

1. We are not simply machines, computers, rational decision-makers.
2 We are human animals, part of and indivisible from the rest of nature.
3. We are emotional, intuitive embodied beings.
4. We make sense of the world through story, through metaphor.
5. Music is a form of magic. We have forgotten how important it is. And how powerful.
6. My purpose: to bring my whole self to everything I do – my head, my heart and my hands. And to help others doing good work in the world to do the same.
7. Given all of that, when Wildwon asked me to perform a song as part of my MC duties here at Purpose, I could hardly say no. (Song: Cape Grim by Matt Wicking)

Matt Wicking singing the conference

Matt Wicking singing the conference

Sally Hill saying her many thank yous

Sally Hill saying her many thank yous




Posted in Can accountants save the planet?, Six Capitals, The Earth and environmental activism | 1 Comment