Sunday, 25 September 2011

Shouting At The Rain

I had a weird dream last night about the Minotaur – half man half beast rampaging its way through the dark and complex labyrinth of tunnels under the palace of Knossos.  Remnants of the dream have lingered – betrayal, loss, omissions and subterfuge – it could be a metaphor for the current troubles in Greece, the Eurozone and the world as a whole (or perhaps it was simply too much cheese for supper!).  So this morning, whilst regaining my perspective, I reminded myself of the Greek legend and found elements I had forgotten – when Theseus comes to Crete to kill the monster and hence prevent the on-going sacrificial deaths of Athenian maids and youths, both of King Minos’ daughters fall in love with him.  Ariadne, the elder, is well-remembered for supposedly helping Theseus through the maze by giving him a ball of twine to follow to retrace his steps.  On his return to mainland Greece, Theseus abandons Ariadne on the Island of Naxos and returns home with her sister, Phaedra, who subsequently becomes his wife.  I had forgotten that prior to his departure, Theseus had promised his father that, if he survived the ordeals in Crete, he would fly white sails on his ship to indicate that he was safely returning on board.  His omission caused his father so much distress from the thought that his son had died, that it drove him to suicide prior to the ship reaching harbour.  It is both a Greek tragedy and also an illustration of the fact that Man is slow to learn, often inconsiderate and clearly has not changed much over the centuries.

We need to find a way of learning from our mistakes and the errors of others, or else, as Rob Jones, the leading L&D expert, once said to me, we are simply
shouting at the rain when we should be finding an umbrella”.
Rob’s neat phrase states a lot – it emphasises the fact that it is up to each individual to take responsible action when in a difficult situation and it stresses the futility of words when deeds are needed.  Churchill made a similar point in a speech to the House of Commons on 12 November 1936, as clouds darkened over Europe:
“The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.
We in business are familiar with cause and effect – cunning Reward strategies and incentive schemes are devised that rely on the rationale behind the theory, as indeed are innovative training and development programmes and ways of attracting customers.  The big retailers have become so proficient at predicting shopping trends through cause and effect that within hours of a forecast barbeque provisions are available in the aisles as sunny weather is predicted and the number of soups and comfort foods on the shelves increase when the temperature drops.  It is this basic consumerism of Western Society and similar expectations now occurring in the Developing World that has got us into the current global predicament.  Each of us has contributed in a way.  We search for credit cards, mortgages and loans with the lowest APR of interest rate, we expect a return on our investments be it the deposit rate in our savings account or a growing pension pot – it is not surprising that banks were prepared to take significant risks with the money they held, as they were (and indeed still are) under pressure to provide what their customers demand, as well as covering their own overheads and providing a return for shareholders.

Few of us think when we buy beans or asparagus in the shops about the environmental costs of getting these goods to us.  In addition to the air-miles required to deliver out-of-season produce to demanding consumers, the actual cultivation of these vegetables, often grown in countries such as Kenya or Peru, can take its toll on the local environment (agricultural irrigation in Kenya has had a significant impact on water levels in lakes such as Naivasha, the primary fresh water resource for a significant local community, as has the leaching of chemicals into the local water system).  However, there is a contrasting argument to the carbon footprint of food production – countries such as Kenya or Peru tend to rely on manual labour rather than tractors and hence have a less heavy carbon footprint in production terms, and nurturing the crops provides much needed work/income for local people.  In addition, at certain times of the year it is better to buy imported goods than locally produced ones.  We, the consumer, expect year-round availability of the goods that we like, for example apples.  If UK apples are to be provided throughout the year they would need to be stored in refrigerated units – the impact of ten months’ refrigerated storage is greater than the carbon footprint impact off flying in Gala apples from New Zealand.   However, all of the above illustrations miss the point – the cause of the problem is the consumer demand for out-of-season produce, rather than the carbon footprint, which is an effect.  If we were content to eat what is in season and wait for the availability of once a year of crops such as asparagus, we could have a much more positive impact on the environment.

As some of you know, my eldest son has just returned from travelling in Asia, prior to commencing at university (yes I am aware of the carbon footprint created by his trip).  While he was in Laos he visited an amazing waterfall out in the rainforest near Luang Prabang – a beautiful spot for a secluded swim if you happen to be in the area.  Just near the falls is an enclosure, a sanctuary for rescued Sun Bears.  They are wonderful creatures – a bit like the children’s book character Paddington - but dark, their pelt is almost black, with a golden crescent in the fur across their chests.  The Sun bear is one of the most endangers bears.  They are hunted for their gallbladders, which are used in Asian medicine, and their meat is popular.  Much of their rainforest habitat has been destroyed by logging and farming and the logging roads provide easy access for hunters.  War and military action in the region has also destroyed the land on which they live and has equipped would-be hunters with guns.  Little is known about the Sun Bear and its role in the eco system, but there is no doubt that Man’s actions have caused the rapid decline in its numbers over recent years.  The ultimate impact of their loss has yet to be seen.

The cause and effect see-saw is visible in so many of our current predicaments – economic, social, political and environmental.  We seem to lurch from crisis to crisis, with increasingly briefer periods of apparent calm and plenty in between.  As our numbers increase and our ability to communicate swiftly around the globe enhances, the lulls between the crises get shorter – this may be in part due to viral reactions such as have recently been seen in dealing rooms around the globe, as well as the speed with which the Media can transmit information – there is more than a little truth in the phrase that “When America sneezes the world catches a cold”.  Prior to the Industrial and Technological Revolutions, the impact we had on the world around us was sustainable – there were only about 500 million people on the earth in 1650.  The Industrial Revolution and development of Science and Technology, especially of Medicine, together with the colonisation of new lands has led to a terrifying population explosion, reaching 1,000 million in the mid nineteenth century, 2,000 million at the beginning of the twentieth century and over 5,000 million now.  Clearly, if we continue to expand in numbers at this rate we will be the cause of our own demise when there is insufficient land, food and water to sustain us.

Some tough decisions will need to be made very soon to ensure that there is a stable future ahead of us, not just in the Financial Markets but in the wider world in which we exist.  There are bulls and bears in many forms that need to be taken into account.  We must become smarter at understanding the effects of our actions and be prepared to take steps to stop the causes of harm and imbalance.  As my mother, daughter of the man who co-invented the Iron Lung, keeps telling me “prevention is better than cure”.  At the risk of sounding radical, we cannot rely solely on our politicians to do the right thing, even if we have elected them.  It is clear from recent history that many politicians are driven by matters other than their citizens’ best interests.  Each of us has to be accountable and prepared to act to resolve the issues around us.  Only if we take responsibility for the things within our remit can we ensure a positive future for ourselves and the generations to come.  There is no point yelling; we know what action we have to take in our own lives to shelter from the rain.

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