Story-telling on sustainability as urgent crises rise

I have written before about the Leaders Circles I host with my colleague Frank Kretzschmar, where the participants tell personal stories around a theme we select.

The topic of the last one I reported on was “Holding on to optimism – we can set an example”, and we certainly needed a dose of that optimism to reflect on our latest theme, “Now more than ever: sustainable living with heart and mind”.

Our invitation letter spelled out that as we continue adapting to the disruptive challenges of Covid, and as we struggle to handle other ongoing global issues such as inequality and climate change, we are more than ever obliged to look beyond tomorrow, beyond the next quarter.

Responsible leadership requires us to focus on sustainability, the introductory letter continued, suggesting this implies being fair to all key stakeholders.

“Short-term imperatives must be balanced with long-term aspirations, and we must figure out how to influence people to endure sacrifices today so we and those who come after us can prosper tomorrow,” we wrote, “All this in an increasingly unpredictable world, one where change keeps accelerating relentlessly.”

During our afternoon together several among us talked about feeling overwhelmed by global threats such as climate change, given both the scale and urgency of the issue and the refusal by far too many to adapt despite the fast-increasing severity of the disruptions it causes.

For even when crises like climate change or Covid or violent conflicts hit us, to whatever extent change is the only route through which sustainability can be achieved, too often the needed transformation is obstinately blocked.

Frank and I always search for appropriate quotes to display around the room that can inspire our storytellers, and among those we selected on this occasion was this one from nurse Terry Swearingen, a winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize: “We are living on this planet as if we had another one to go to.”

We also included Mahatma Gandhi’s observation that “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed”, and a Native American proverb which reminded us that “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”

The afternoon was far from filled with fatalistic dismay though, as we resonated with this wonderful assurance from anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Like when one participant shared that “when something in this world moves you, that’s when you can follow your passion and make a difference, doing what you can in your sphere of influence.”

Among us were a couple of peace-builders, one of whom talked about the need to embrace the Ubuntu message of “I am because we are”, and this in a contemporary world where the compassionate “We” has increasingly given way to the selfish “I” of short-term personal gratification.

If we are to build sustainable societies, the other peace-builder contributed, we must work at resolving conflicts, overcome bureaucracy and mend broken institutions – however hard this is to do. Which leads me to another of our quotes, from Gaylord Nelson: “There is a great need for the introduction of new values in our society, where bigger is not necessarily better, where slower can be faster, and where less can be more.”

We heard about professionalising family businesses so they can survive multiple generations; about keeping our hearts open during these times of Covid, being fair and empathetic to both our employees and our customers; and about ensuring our organisations promote the kind of trustworthy cultures that allow them to operate effectively even in these days of physical separation.

As our minds and spirits have been stretched by what the pandemic has thrown at us we have had to force ourselves to think beyond day-to-day issues, we heard, to engage with each other more deeply and to find new ways of coping.

Being a Covid survivor myself, I mentioned that I almost missed out on being sustainable a few months ago. But happily I am now back in action, relating to our final quote, from Peter Drucker: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

Passage through Palestine in eyes of my grandfather

In my last article I explained why it’s a good idea to keep a journal. I’ve been doing so for quite some years, at least hoping that my grandchildren will find something of interest in what I have written about.

I say this aware that in the 1940s my grandfather Robert Bischoff kept a meticulously written record of how he and his wife, plus their two children – one of them my mother Gaby – left their lovely home in Bucharest, Romania, in January 1941.

They decided to depart as anti-Semitic Fascist dictator Ion Antonescu had seized power there, and German troops were already present in significant number.

My grandfather wrote his journal in Romanian, and many years ago I took it upon myself to translate it into English. His text filled 38 typed foolscap pages, with very long sentences strung together in paragraphs that were also unusually long.

While Romanian was the first language I spoke after I was born, I never studied it formally and from when I arrived in Britain at the age of three I switched to English.

But I was fluent enough to take on the task, even with no dictionary and no Internet to consult at the time. What a labour of love it was.

For long, my grandfather – like many others at the time – was hesitating over whether the Romanian scene would increasingly make life unbearable for Jewish families like theirs.

At first he was more with the optimists, but eventually the situation deteriorated to such an extent that the decision to emigrate was made.

He worked under great stress over many weeks to obtain the necessary paperwork for the departure, not least the transit visa for Turkey and the entry visa to their final destination Palestine (before it became Israel), and finally they were ready to leave.

They travelled by train from Bucharest to the Black Sea port of Constanta; by boat from there to Istanbul; then on trains across Turkey and Syria; and next through Lebanon – by bus from Tripoli to Beirut and from there by car into Palestine, to Haifa and on to Tel Aviv, arriving on 19th January, eight days after leaving Bucharest.

The last entry in the journal is from November 1946, by which time Robert’s daughter Gaby had met and married my father Bruno, who had left Romania a few months after the Bischoff family, to rejoin Shell – for whom he had been working in Romania.

His journey was infinitely more precarious, in a small and flimsy yacht that for over 52 days took him and his fellow crew members to Cyprus and from where he managed to transfer to Palestine. (My father, as captain of the boat, kept its log – also in Romanian – so I have the full details of his adventure too… a story for another day.)

Robert found my father to be “a courageous young man and sure of himself”, and he was happy to see him marry his daughter. Now let me jump to March 1945, when I was born.

“I had the feeling that this would be an exceptional child, from all points of view,” my grandfather enthused.

“This feeling, and our exaggerated sentimentalism, make us see in him all that can be most beautiful in life. I could speak in detail about him, and there would be many pages to fill. If I were to do it I would have to devote a chapter separate from all the others, though sincerely speaking, I don’t even know if I would be able to put in writing what I feel in reality.”

He wrote about so much else in his journal, about the threat of a German invasion following the arrival of its army in Alexandria and the withdrawal of the British from Egypt – making him wonder if they should perhaps have remained in Romania; about the fragmented nature of local politics, with so many political parties – as is the case in Israel today; and about the poor state of education and nutrition.

Reading the journals again – thanks to my grandchildren having developed an interest in the holocaust – makes me wish I would have engaged more with both my parents and grandparents about their earlier lives. So you know how this is going to end: do so while yours are still around.