Sunday, 4 March 2012

The Queen is Dead

The week started and closed with my contemplating, in very different ways, the importance of leadership.  Yesterday I, with some good friends, went to see two major exhibitions that are currently on in London – “Scott’s Last Expedition” at the Natural History Museum (which provides a multi-faceted insight into the lives and, in some instances, deaths of the early polar explorers), followed by “The Heart of the Great Alone” at The Queen’s Gallery beside Buckingham Palace – where are displayed some of the most extraordinary photographs and memorabilia from the Royal Collection.  In particular the haunting selection of photographs taken by Herbert Ponting, the first official photographer to participate in a polar excursion - who escorted Scott for the first part of the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition and taught both Scott and his men how to use a camera to record events after he had gone - which are so well constructed and powerful, with a luminosity that enables the viewer almost to feel that he is breathing in the icy air, that it is impossible not to be in awe of the photographer’s skills, especially given the equipment available at the time and the inclement environment. 

Both exhibitions are intended to commemorate the centenary of Scott’s tragic expedition, as well as providing a better understanding of the reality of polar exploration of the time.  The amazing achievements and hardships of the men are breathtaking, but I am most struck by the power of leadership and its ability to inspire others to endure suffering and to achieve outstanding feats in the most horrendous circumstances (including deliberately allowing themselves to die in a noble attempt to preserve Scott’s and their colleagues’ lives). 

Was Scott a good leader?  Even now, a hundred years on, he is a controversial figure – he can be viewed as a heroic figure who moved his men to accomplish extraordinary feats or else he can be seen as a misguided man who almost knowingly lead others to their deaths, partially due to his miscalculation of risks (the diet for the sledging party that tried to reach The Pole was insufficient to support men for more than a very brief period and the weather was significantly harsher than had been anticipated and yet the party still went forth) and partially due his overwhelming desire to achieve the national glory of being the first to reach the South Pole at almost any cost.  There is no doubt that Scott inspired his men – when it was clear that he and four others were almost certainly dead, Edward Atkinson, the man left in charge of Base Camp, chose to seek out Scott’s party rather than looking for another group of men, the Northern Party, who were also missing and who had a greater likelihood of survival.  The degree of Scott’s personal culpability remains controversial but his final writings have the ability to inspire, even a century on, partially due to the humanity that shines out from his words:

“Surely misfortune could scarcely have exceeded this last blow. We arrived within 11 miles of our old One Ton Camp with fuel for one hot meal and food for two days. For four days we have been unable to leave the tent - the gale howling about us. We are weak, writing is difficult, but for my own sake I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another, and meet death with as great fortitude as ever in the past. We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last. But if we have been willing to give our lives to this enterprise, which is for the honour of our country, I appeal to our countrymen to see that those who depend on us are properly cared for.
Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman.”

The death of Scott and his companions reminds me slightly of an incident I have experienced and witnessed closer to home.  I am an urban bee keeper with two hives in my central London garden.  The queen bee in one of my hives has died over the winter.  The workers that supported her have remained, but without a queen their deaths and the death of the colony are inevitable.

Despite the imminent demise of one of my hives, I am proud to be part of the global effort to restore bee populations – we need them: approximately one third of what we eat is pollinated by bees.  In the UK it is estimated that bees contribute around £200 million per year to the UK economy, through pollination.  The British Beekeepers Association has estimated that if we humans were to take over the role of pollination from bees in the UK, it would require a workforce of 30 million.  There are areas of the world where humans now have to undertake pollination by hand, rather than being able to rely on bees and other natural pollinators.  Sichuan Province in China is a case in point – it has been an excellent pear producing region for over 3,000 years, however when people there decided to expand pear production in the 1980s they felt the need to reduce insect pests that could damage the crop.   The excessive use of pesticides has killed off all the natural pollinators (including the bees).  Pears need to be cross pollinated to crop well.  So now the Chinese villagers are forced to climb through the trees each spring, dabbing individual blossoms with a brush made of chicken feathers, which has been pre-dipped into pollen, that they carry with them in plastic bottles. 

We need to learn from Scott’s mistakes, make a better assessment of risks and consequently take appropriate actions before we cause our own demise.  It is up to the leaders amongst us to be prepared to stand back from the day-to-day tasks and determine the route required to accomplish desired outcomes.  Positive results will only be achieved if the right action is devised and taken.  The pollinating insects will return to Sichuan, if pesticides are only used judiciously, and the current damage can be reversed.  I can use the strength of the remaining hive to create a new colony and a fresh start for the other.  Man’s ability to learn from mistakes, to plan and to inspire others to act must be the secret of our future success.  

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