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On the Sustainability (Volks)Wagon

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It happened — a build up you could say — over many years crafting skills and knowledge to reach a point, that was out of sight, in which there was a collision of worldviews, a flash point between horizons.


Gut feeling and tiredness pushed at the boundaries of my comfort zone and took me to unknown territory. I sat across the office table looking at my boss. He asked, “What is the matter?” I said, “This job; it is just not me.”


First, I made a call to my brother in Hong Kong, a proxy for my family values, knowing that I had to connect with them whether I like it or not.


“Hi.” I said, “Hello Mate.” He chirped back. There was a deep pause waiting between fault-line and failure. “I’ve left my job.” I told him, and went into some of the details. “Sounds like you’ve had a lucky escape, to be honest.” he said. “You are right.” I replied and in that moment, things moved on.


Back in 2012 the economy still nursed a hang over from the Global Financial Crisis and markets still felt fragile, but out of the chaos of the past five years something was emerging and that’s me or at least a different version.


I put a telephone call to my parents on hold whilst figuring out what comes next. I had no idea and the uncertainty was refreshing for a change.


It is something to do with sustainability, but where and how? I knew I was not about to go and travel the world and I knew I needed to do something with purpose. It became clear. I needed a why.


The why came to me two years earlier in Lancashire at Middle Wood Farm, a beauty spot tucked into a lush valley of the Pennine Moors. It was where I attracted the moniker “City Boy.” Funny, because I had never seen myself that way, but these cyphers from the edge see things differently. I was mixing with a crowd that had different eyes and ears.


There was Conrad the anthropologist from Cambridge and his cloud forest, Duncan the meditator from Plum Village, Fei the activist from Taiwan, Max and Ruby the urban gardeners — all held by the expert tutelage of Rod.


I would describe Rod as wise and quixotic with a warm sense of humour. He seemed a bit like a time traveller located in his place at home, Middle Farm, in that creaking atmospheric valley.


To get back to my story we had come to learn about permaculture — an integrated system of agriculture designed to live within nature’s limits and work with the soil, the land, the weather, the seasons and so on. It encourages diversity and fertility, they say the yield is infinite, and acts as a counterpoint to industrial farming techniques.


We woke up with Qui Gong exercises every morning taking in the four points of the compass, heaven and earth and limbered up our energies with this ancient system of exercise — it is the forerunner to Tai Chi.


As we grew accustomed to each other, Rod introduces more of the ‘old ways’ and some of the characters on the land; the river, the oak and the apple trees to name a few. The one character I would never have thought to get to know, not in a million years, was the one beneath our feet, the soil. He gave us a script to act out its play.


It starts with a narration, “Soil is an incredibly complex mix of mineral particles – silt, sand, clay, gravel and gases – oxygen, nitrogen, ethylene … water and organic materials — humus, leaf litter, dead insect bodies and living beings — bacteria, worms, insects, beetles, fungi and chemicals dissolved or otherwise.”


There it dawned on me — soil is a living system or to put it another way the mud is living — later I knew this type of personification as embodiment. It is a way to connect with and understand systems through the whole body and leaves a different imprint from a book or a play. Not better or worse, just another complimentary perspective.


Then two years later these memories jolt me into action, and I remember Rod saying, “It is called Schumacher University, a place where you can learn how and what you want to.”


Actually, it was called Schumacher College (after “Small is Beautiful” author E.F. Schumacher) and it was not in Austria, as I recalled but Devon, England.


I decided in an instant to go and I choose an MSc Holistic Sciences. This had breadth and depth in complexity, systems theory, ecology and organisational leadership amongst many other schools of thought, practices and techniques.


It taught many different ways of learning, communicating and embodying the dynamic nature of life. We dubbed it as “taking a lead in the midst of complexity” or “working live” between the edges of order and chaos. At times it was uncomfortable, but getting out of the comfort zone, and bad but reassuring habits, was what it was all about.


There I started to integrate my skills and knowledge into a purpose. It took a while to put it all together, with some false starts, and Climate Risk Ltd is the end result. It is making the connection between financial markets, human and natural capital for companies and asset managers of all kinds, helping them position in this complex and see it as a challenge and opportunity.


For many people and leaders there are difficult questions. Their wise counsel asks, “What does climate change really mean?” “Can I make a difference and what can I do?” “How can I adapt and compete in such a fast moving and complicated world?”


These are the very questions at the heart of change. The ones that prod at you are the same ones that help you on your way.


I bet Volkswagen wish they had answered those questions more profoundly.

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