Other Columns Gail

Cave man


La Gomera is an island paradise off the coast of Africa, more remote than the tourist hotspot of Tenerife with clubs and complete English breakfast. We stayed at the eco-resort Finca Argayall.

During siesta, there are only birds, waves, and the far away noise of the afternoon ferry. Underneath a rubber tree beside the pool, you see a volcanic cliff coastline, electric blue sea, pale sky, black rock beach and so much sun that you forget about the grey clouds of Rotterdam. Most visitors think seriously about how to stay longer. One way is to live in the caves. We heard about this at the ice cream shop. An old man with a big white beard, bronzed skin and a red string bikini walked into the cafe wearing a snorkeling mask. He was hard to miss, and a child thought he was a crazy sort of Santa Claus. It turns out he was Danish, living in a cave beyond the Finca.

There is something irresistable about caves. Dark, primal, adventurous. We decided that we had to see what that old man was up to. A few days later, we set out with our kids on the rocky walk towards the ‘Pigs Bay’, an almost untouched beach in a small jagged cove. Indeed there were caves. But no old hippie. Instead we met a young rasta couple who had lived in a cave for 3 days. They didn’t say much but looked like they were having a nice holiday. I took a look at an empty cave – tidy with rocks piled high to keep out the sand, bongo drum on a cotton mat, some jars with rice and salt, a few cave paintings and a cactus in a pot. It looked a bit like a yoga studio. When I looked to the view, it took my breath away.

Later I talked to Ian from London. He’d been here for 7 months. I asked him about the caves. Turns out he’d lived in one for four months: “Great way to get grounded. Makes life simple again when you’re far away from the bankers, just the waves and the lizards for company.” We also heard more about the near-naked Dane. “He comes in often. He’s a hippie with a visa card and a pension! He’s in Tony’s music video in that song about living in a cave …”

Later we saw him cycling through town, off to a party in the sunset, bare chest and rainbow shorts. Eccentric yes, but crazy – no.

Dr. Gail Whiteman, director, Sustainability and Climate Research Centre

To see music video:www.tonyreece.llun.net and Eco-resort: www.fincaargayall.com

Earth Day


It is intimidating to share an elevator with a 1,5 metre-wide white balloon filled with CO2. You just never know if or when it will burst. But that’s what I did on Earth Day.

22 April is Earth Day. In the Netherlands, this is not yet commonly known. But in 174 countries around the world, it is a day to celebrate the Earth’s natural environment. It is a day that Obama, Gore, and lots of other big names make announcements and start new eco-petitions.

What did we do at Erasmus University? We blew up 101 white balloons with CO2, and gave the largest balloon to Mayor Aboutaleb on his first official visit to the Woudestein Campus. The co2 extraction tool was designed by Patrick Kruithof and made from recycled material: an old windsurfing sail and a vacuum hose attached to a student’s Peugeot.

The event was organized by RSM Masters students to raise awareness that climate change is a top priority for business education. Each balloon had a string attached with a small note containing a “green” fact. Students handed these out to people leaving the T-building. Each balloon held 4.63 g of CO2.

The Mayor, Rector Magnificus, RSM Dean and members of the CvB and RSM Management Team joined our “grand finale” – where the Mayor helped to blow up the very big white balloon which held 555g of CO2. Students calculated that:

  • EUR’s annual emissions are equivalent to 3,750,755,940 small balloons of CO2.
  • RSM’s = 876,673,866 balloons.
  • Rotterdam city’s = 6,479,481,641,468 balloons
  • Shell = 160,475,161, 987,041 balloons!!!

(I don’t even know how to count that high).

Students followed the Mayor to his next appointment, up the escalator in the T-building carrying the big white balloon. It stayed on the 3rd floor until end of day, and then we wondered, what now? Should we leave it there alone, waiting to be burst?

No: that would send the wrong eco-signal. I said, “Let’s take it to the 7th floor. That’s a safe home ’til we figure out what to do with CO2.”

But the balloon was too big to fit through the elevator doors. I entered first, and then my students had to push and push and push while I held open the elevator. It occurred to me that if the balloon burst, I would be suffocated by CO2. Maybe this really was a crazy teaching moment.




Do you like taking risks? Do like skydiving or travelling to adventure-some places? Did investment banking appeal to you for the same reason? That is, before the crash?

The sociology of risk taking tells us that taking risks is a normal part of modern life. Research also suggests that some of us voluntarily take risks, that we crave situations where we can experience life in all its vivid uncertainty. Edgework is particularly intoxicating in the boundaries between chaos and order. It allows us to test our courage and skill in an otherwise dull world.

Stephen Lyng (2005) conceptualizes this type of “risk as a form of boundary negotiation – the exploration of ‘edges’.” This is what the crazed US journalist, Hunter S. Thompson, called ‘edgework’. Risk takers can find their edge in their personal life, at work, in extreme sports or criminal behavior. Despite different choices and motivations, edgework in any context seems to give people a powerful adrenalin rush and it is the “intensely seductive character of the experience itself” that makes it so addictive.

What are the sociological reasons for this behavior? People engage in edgework as a means of escape or resistance to everyday life and restrictive social controls. Some people also engage in risk-taking edgework because it is consistent with the institutional practices of certain kinds of work or culture. “Edgework is increasingly what institutions expect of people.” And this leads me back to the current financial crisis. Academic Charles W. Smith argued (before the crash) that “financial market traders may …be … a whole new breed of edgeworkers, striving to profit from their ability to navigate in turbulent global currents.”

Despite being humbled only months ago, edgework continues in the financial sector. For instance, we can see how firms like the Royal Bank of Scotland (now majority owned by the British taxpayer), seriously push the envelope by attempting to pay one billion pounds in bonuses despite its financial collapse. Old habits die hard, and exploring the edges of what you can get away with is to be expected if you are driven by the adrenalin of risky behavior in the first place.

It makes sociological sense to consider how the addictiveness of edgework created a strong culture that legitimized and encouraged this type of behavior, a culture that is resistance to change. In fact, the current turbulence reinforces the need for edgework and provides ample opportunity for new game playing. 

RBS was only brought back from the edge by public outcry and the new oversight authority of a government watchdog which said no. But saying no to certain behaviors won’t transform an edgework culture into a more prudent workplace. We need to address the sociological processes behind this behavior. We also need to recognize that some individuals like the adrenalin of edgework. Perhaps we can ‘encourage’ them to job-change, to find a new calling in extreme sports or a thrill-seeking social life. The financial sector needs to be left to the less edgy.

Closed by Credit


Last week in Rotterdam, a small organic store (biologische winkel) closed its doors for good. The shop, Marjolein Natuurlijk, was an interesting mix of healthy food, cosmetics, vitamins, and green household items. It had great selection, but not a great location: there was little walk-by traffic on Westblaak. So business was steady but not sufficient.

Marjolein was the type of small shop owner who projected a positive and progressive entrepreneurial spirit. Biologische products are better for you. But these products are also more expensive, and luxuries can be quickly cut when money is short. In the current economic crisis, bravery and optimism simply can’t counter balance insufficient revenue. Marjolein tried to get more credit, but the banks said no. And that was that. Closed by credit.  

It was the end of a dream for her. For me, it was also a symbol of the inequality of the times. Last week in the US, it was reported that Wall Street had paid out more than 18 billion dollars in executive bonuses last year. President Obama called such behaviour in the wake of huge government bail-outs: “the height of irresponsibility. It is shameful.”

In a televised BBC debate at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Jacob A. Frenkel, the Vice Chairman of the Board of AIG (which received more than 100 billion dollar in bail-outs from the US government) irritably brushed aside the allegation that people at the top had to be held accountable. When BBC reporter Nik Gowing asked disbelievingly, “So there’s no personal responsibility?” Frenkel answered, “At least as far as I’m concerned, there isn’t.” Laura Tyson, former Dean at London Business School and now a professor of Business at Berkeley University, tried to bridge the gap by arguing that it was a systemic failure, not a conspiracy. It didn’t make sense to look for villains.  

Of course, the financial collapse was not a conspiracy. But clearly, self-regulation in the financial markets really means no regulation. And no regulation means that there is a lot of unnecessary risk in the system. But certain people benefited by leveraging that risk and they’re not the same ones who seem to be paying for that risk now.  

Accepting that the old system failed paves the way for a serious overhaul of the financial markets. This is a good thing. But it doesn’t preclude some degree of individual responsibility. The system was created by individual and collective action. While people may not have intended to put the world economy at risk, we know that they did. And some are more responsible than others for this recklessness. Interestingly, Tyson said that business schools had focused too much on teaching the magic of quantitative models of financial returns and had forgotten to teach the wisdom to look beyond greed.

Of course this won’t help little shops like Marjolein’s. They don’t get big bail-outs like AIG. Yet unlike AIG, they are held personally responsible for their business mistakes. So last Thursday we went to Marjolein’s closing sale, gave her flowers as a thank you, and said goodbye.  

And it’s not easy to increase diversity in the workplace. We can see that at our own university in the Netherlands. 

While Ms. Magazine semi-humorously positions Obama as a super-feminist, he alone cannot change the world.  He has to inspire others to work with him, including those of us from other countries.  And his approach to diversity can us inspire us.  If you have a message for President Obama, go to this link and tell him what you think. Whether you’re a man or a woman, don’t be afraid to admit you’re a feminist.  You’re in good company. 



The International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) opens just about now.  It is one of my favorite activities in Rotterdam – hip, creative, shocking, fun, non-scientific.  Sure, I could be working, but sometimes I prefer to do nothing (I have written about this before).  And this seems to be a cyclical fact of life for many of us.  Each year, during the period of late January to early February, many professionals in Rotterdam are away from the office, away from the computer, sitting inside dark cinemas, watching, learning, feeling, thinking. 

Should the Vice-Dean (my boss) be worried about me?  Won’t this hurt my productivity?  Maybe, but sometimes scientific work has to stop in order to become something better. And a great way to paradigm shift is to enter the art world and see as many creative cross-cultural films as possible. 

The 38th International Film Festival Rotterdam opens on 21 January with world premiere of The Hungry Ghosts, a film by US director and actor Michael Imperioli (he was Christopher in the Sopranos).  A few years ago it was Brokeback Mountain.  But the best part of filmfest is not the mainstream films, but the unusual ones.  These are the things that can really make an impact.

Can you imagine sitting through 6 hour film with no sound, only a collage of images from home movies from the 1970s?  Or sitting through a 90 minute movie that has no images, only a blank screen and various changing sound-scapes?  Well that’s the beauty of the IFFR – you can discover things that you would never find on the regular run of the Pathe. 

And not to be missed is the surprise film – a film that is, well, a surprise on the last Friday night.  Last year it was Lars and The Real Girl (fabulously shot very near the small town in Canada where my sister lives), and the year before it was a 3 or 4 hour David Lynch film “Inland Empire” with Laura Dern (I confess to only making it almost through two hours).

And what does it all mean?  What do any of these films mean?  Well I don’t think that really matters much.  It’s the absence of specific meaning, of any attempt at cohesive interpretation that makes the film festival such an extraordinary test of strength for an academic. As Susan Sontag said, “Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.”  Educated people always try to make sense of it all.  And if we stop and just watch as many beautiful crazy provocative films as possible, we might just learn to enjoy a different kind of ride to knowledge, happiness, and so on.

EM 10: To Tree or Not to Tree? That is the Question…


As Sinterklaas draws to a close, my sites are already focused on the next big holiday event – Christmas.  With exams done, grades marked, and conference papers submitted, we all need a little Xmas bling.  And what better way to show our holiday spirit than by honoring our sacred Christmas traditions.

This year, a vigorous debate is going on within our offices about whether it is more environmentally friendly to have a real Christmas tree or a reusable plastic tree on every floor of the T-building.  Maybe we can try to find organic trees with real roots and then replant them, or maybe even go tree-free this season.  It might sound trite but it’s a big building and each year we use up a lot of trees, and then toss them into the garbage (ok maybe someone recycles them, but who really knows?).

On the one hand, plastic trees mean that we don’t need to kill any trees, and we can just keep recycling the same old green.  They also have the added bonus of not needing water and not shedding needles.  Problem is that the plastic isn’t so great.  A handy eco-website tells me that “artificial trees are far worse for the environment than cutting a real live tree down. Fake trees are made from mainly non-renewable plastics; some containing PVC. The toxins and other nasty chemicals needed to create artificial trees make them a bad green decision. Additionally, real trees can be mulched or used for heat where as artificial trees cannot be recycled.”

Maybe we can learn from New York City – “MulchFest provides New Yorkers an opportunity to bring their Christmas trees to designated sites where they are ground into wood chips. The chips can then be placed in tree pits and gardens.”

The T-building could also choose to side-step the tree issue and focus instead on lights and decorations.  To be truly eco-virtuous, we should probably use LED lights or solar-powered ones. There are also eco-friendly Christmas decorations – recycled CD snowmen and recycled circuit board stars. Perhaps we could even ask our students to make Xmas decorations from old exams.

Last year, we opted for a real tree with roots at home.  We did have two or three home-made decorations but in hindsight this was not enough!  Anyway, we named our tree Simon and after the holidays, we packed him up and took him to our garden house.  He seemed pretty happy there for most of the year, and my kids liked seeing him and remembering that he used to be our Christmas tree.  Our intention was to dig him up and bring him home again, but this autumn all the needles fell out and soon he was a goner.  Still, we felt we had done what we could, although I forgot to try a tree-hug.  (My students may be surprised at this).

While I did not share this strategy with my eco-colleagues at work, it does remind me of the true spirit of Christmas: Lighten up and do your best.  Have a wonderful holiday.

EM 9: A year ends, a new year begins

2008 has gone by quickly.  As I look back, it’s been a great year for many reasons despite the financial crash.  While it’s impossible to reflect on 2008 and not think of the bonfire of the bankers, I don’t think this gloomy event is the penultimate moment of the year.  But as Shakespeare said, “Darkness has its uses.”  Certainly, the financial collapse helped us recognize that our lifestyle cannot be taken endlessly for granted.  It also taught us (once again) that greed is not good.

There were also lots of good things that happened, and I offer only a few.  Globally, the world rejoiced at the US election and Obama’s message of hope; Beijing hosted an amazing Olympics.  Scientifically, there were many breakthroughs including the launch of the Large Hadron Collider, and yesterday, astronomers found the largest-ever black hole in the milky way.  On the personal front, I spent the summer doing nothing, and I still have much ado about that.  At the university level, the EUR switched to green energy, and continued to teach, research and be merry.

So what’s up for 2009?  This is a big year in many ways.  2009 marks the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin (12 February, 1809).  Look forward to Darwin Day celebrations that express “gratitude for the enormous benefits that scientific knowledge, acquired through human curiosity and ingenuity, has contributed to the advancement of humanity.”  This is something to keep in mind later in December because 2009 is also the year of the Copenhagen Climate Summit, where the world will meet to decide what we will do post-Kyoto.  Maybe we can apply our human curiosity and ingenuity to advance a low carbon world. It’s a wish worth making.

Yes, the New Year is often a time for resolutions.  I don’t use resolutions to try to improve myself – although my family and colleagues may wish I did.  I use resolutions to try to refocus my efforts on doing more things that I think are fun, or interesting or soul-inviting.  I try to think back and remember what I liked to do spontaneously as a kid, and then try to do more of it.  I asked some colleagues at RSM if they had any resolutions.

While some clearly did not do this, or preferred to keep it quiet, I did get a few responses ranging from losing more weight, or getting more fit, to the realization that they were already perfect J.  One of my colleagues told me that she and her family write a list each year about what they want to achieve and then seal these in envelopes, opening them the following new year’s eve.

My personal favorite was this one: “I do them [resolutions] throughout the year so I’m very hard on myself!  For example, today I managed to be nicer than I usually am, basically because someone was nice to me first.  What happened was a little boy warned me that it was very slippery out on the road and I was on my bicycle.  I met him on a bridge and I would have probably fallen flat on my face if he didn’t tell me to be careful…When I arrived close to the university, there’s also a very slippery part and someone had already fallen and had a nose bleed.  Someone else had already stopped and was helping them.  And that is when I did something I don’t usually do.  I also stopped and inquired if everything was ok.  Normally, I try to avoid any kind of social interaction if it’s not forced upon me.  Resolutions are good in the sense that you try to do something rather than avoiding.”

I liked this story because it seemed to sum up one of Aesop’s classic tales: One good turn deserves another.  Wise words for a new year.

EM 8: Partners in…what?

If you google the phrase “corporate partnerships”, you’ll find over a million hits.  Corporations are partners with just about anyone these days – HIV/AIDS patients in Africa, actor Matt Damon, homeless people in Bristol, schools, the World Economic Forum, the United Nations, and probably Joe the Plumber.


So what exactly is a ‘partner’? Merriam-Webster online tells us that a ‘partner’ is “one that shares,” “two persons who dance together”, or “two or more persons who play together in a game against an opposing side.”  A partnership in business is “a relationship resembling a legal partnership and usually involving close cooperation between parties having specified and joint rights and responsibilities.”  Partnership can also be a fancy way to say ‘sugar-daddy.’  But Jeffrey Sachs, a renowned economist from Harvard and now Director of the Earth Institute, says it is more than that: “We want real engagement. It is not about the money per se: it is about the partnership. The value of these corporate partnerships is the expertise and global reach and management skills that can come from this.”

The rhetoric on the street (and on corporate websites) is that global crises are turning companies into a kind of superhero partner. For instance, “The United Nations is eager to increase its partnerships with the private sector, particularly given the escalating number and scale of disasters as a result of climate change,” said John Holmes, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, “We need to bring together all public and private capacities – global, national, regional, and local – to respond to the needs of growing numbers of vulnerable people.”

But are companies really interested in helping vulnerable people?  Are they, like Superman or The Incredibles, driven by an intrinsic desire to make the world a better place?

Dr. Noreena Hertz (author of ‘The Silent Takeover’ and ‘The Debt Threat) is currently a Visiting Professor at RSM.  She recently tackled this question at the 2nd annual Max Havelaar lecture on campus.  A recognized expert on globalization, Hertz said that corporate partnerships may add value to international development efforts, but they would never alone be “sufficient.”  In fact, great care had to be taken so that Super-Hero Firms don’t re-focus development efforts on only those areas which are potentially profitable.  Hertz warned, “I can’t imagine a corporate partnership on soil erosion in Africa.”

Then again, the World Wildlife Fund reports that it already has a partnership with Coca-Cola to reduce soil erosion on the Yangtze River in China.  Superhero altruism?  Perhaps, but this is also an example of managing the bottom line and a super responsible reputation – Coke has faced criticism for using too much water in its bottling plants in the Yangtze basin.  In the meantime, the soil still erodes in Africa. 

EM 7: Obama Girl

As I write this column, there are 5 days to go.  As you read it, the winner has already been announced.  The US election has taken up a lot of my attention over the last few months, and I’m not even American.  But like many foreigners, it’s obvious to me that US politics are both entertaining and internationally relevant.  What happens in the US affects the world.

Yesterday I was given a pink Obama T-shirt from a colleague on a recent visit to Washington. While it’s not the same kind of shirt worn by Obama-Girl herself (see youtube), it certainly is a collector’s item.  Barack Obama is one of the rare examples of world leaders who can gather support across wide divides.  Not only will Obama get votes from Democrats and many Independents, but he now has support from key Republicans.  There is even an official website of the Republicans-for-Obama.

With 5 days to go, it looks like McCain will have to work hard to win even in his home state of Arizona.  Without the benefit of foresight, it’s hard to know if Obama will really be able to challenge Republican control over states that Bush won easily in the last election.  But we can hope.

In the meantime, the name calling escalates as the end comes in sight.  Yesterday, McCain called Obama “Comunismo,” linking him to Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.  Earlier, Sarah Palin said he was “palling around with terrorists.”  But with endorsements from former Secretary of State Colin Powell (Republican) and financier Warren Buffet (the richest man in the world), it’s hard to see him as either a terrorist or communist.

Of course, name-calling can be funny. Sarah Palin showed that she could laugh at herself as “Caribou Barbie” during the comedy show SCTV.  But are attack ads a good political strategy?  Past research shows that they work in the US.  But experience during this campaign shows that name-calling can’t make up for poor economic performance and dissatisfaction with the state of the nation.  And this is where Obama wins on public opinion at home and abroad.  European polls suggest that many of us name him as our favorite candidate, as does the Russian press.

A race is never over until it’s over.  Until then, I will be wearing my pink T-Shirt, with the thought, yes we can!

EM 6: To Rotterdam with love, from Al Gore 

400 is just a number but it’s a pretty hefty price to pay to hear one man speak.  But for Mr. Al Gore, the only number that matters is either 350 or 700, or both.  In his keynote speech on 14 October at the Aalsmeer Event Centre, Gore had a lot to say about climate and credit. And to Rotterdam, he sent a punchy postcard from the edge.

In front of a well-heeled mostly business crowd, Gore said to be wary of the faulty logic that lay underneath both the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the impeding “sub-prime carbon crisis.”  “Only a long term perspective reveals the true nature of the reality we face.”

$700 billion to Americans doesn’t just represent the initial bail-out request for the financial crisis.  Gore explained that “it has two other meanings for Americans.  It is the cost of the Iraq war and the annual cost that the US pays for foreign oil.”  700 is a big number resting on very shaky ground.

350 is another number that is having a hard time.  NGOs tell us that “350 is the red line for human beings, the most important number on the planet.”  350 parts per million is the estimated cap by which we should limit the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  If we don’t, Dr. James Hansen of NASA says that we will cause Irreversible damage to planet earth.  Last year, the world emitted 387 ppm. 

But Mr. Gore said solutions exist.  And that’s where the postcard to Rotterdam took centre stage.  Admittedly, Gore may have stumbled over the city’s name (calling it “Rottenburg” in his opening), but he was clearly in touch with key events shaping the future of our city.

He made up for his faux-pas, when he told us the tale of ‘what’s wrong with Kansas?’ Based on a popular US book, Gore told the story of how the state of Kansas first accepted and then eventually rejected new coal power plants because the governor finally realized that the technology to make it clean was not yet ready on the scale that was needed.  Gore said “it is an illusion that clean coal is something that exists, that it is ok to burn coal because it will soon be clean…” and blasted “…the irresponsibility of building new coal generators with the pretense that we are very close to having the technology to capture carbon.”

He warned it was again an example of faulty, short-term logic.  Many in the audience saw the parable for Rotterdam, which is committed to a 50% reduction in co2 emissions and, at the same time, has agreed to the construction of major new coal plants.  And Gore hammered the point home.  He challenged Rotterdam specifically, and Dutch society in general, to a major shift in our energy infrastructure.  He said to commit to 100% clean energy within 10 years, and to say no to ‘not-yet-clean’ coal. 

Over 1000 students received an afternoon training session on how to use his slide show from The Inconvenient Truth.  For more information on Gore’s new campaign of a similar Dutch campaig.

EM 5: Serving Up Poison

In fairy tales from around the world, we learn early that drinking or eating poison is probably not a good idea.  Think of Snow White – a wicked queen gave her a poisoned apple and she fell asleep for a long, long time until the dwarfs and a handsome prince helped her out.  In Vietnam, there are similar tales where a master saves his servant from drinking poison.

Despite cultural differences, the moral to these stories is common: watch what you eat or drink, especially if evil people are jealous of you, and if you do make a mistake, then trust in your loved ones to help you out.

But in reality, it’s not clear if ‘good’ will triumph over ‘evil.’  And it’s not at all clear that the motivations of people to serve up poison really have anything to do us personally. 

Here are three recent examples: In China, a very popular brand of milk, Sanlu, has been accused of adding melamine – a toxic substance used to make plastic – to artificially increase protein levels in milk.  While this increased Sanlu’s sales, Chinese babies by the thousands have had kidney problems and some have died.  It is not isolated to one company.  The scandal has spread to over 20 companies in China and also many multinationals like Cadbury chocolate, Unilever, Nestle, Heinz and Tesco (the UK supermarket chain) recalling products.  The head of China’s quality control board resigned, the head of Sanlu will face criminal charges, along with several farmers.

Japanese consumers have more than just imported milk from China to worry about.  A toxic rice scandal has also rocked the country last month, when Mikasa Foods admitted that it sold 400 tonnes of inedible rice (which should be used for fertilizer and glue) to hundreds of companies who make rice-based alcohol like sake and shochu.  The toxic rice also ended up in rice crackers and as food for more than 100 hospitals, old folks’ homes and schools. Asahi Breweries (the biggest in Japan) recalled rice products to the tune of $14 billion dollars.  The head of one company that purchased the toxic rice committed suicide, and thousands of Japanese officials are under investigation.

And to break through the myth that this is an Asian-problem, let me offer a story from Canada.  In August, Canadian deli meats, commonly used in sandwiches, were contaminated with the listeria monocytogenes bacteria.  17 people died, and the Canadian procedures for food quality and safety were found to be defective.  The Ministry of Agriculture recently faced calls for his resignation after he tastelessly joked this month about “death by cold cuts.” 

But it’s no joking matter.  How can we trust the global supply chain to stop serving up poison?  Corporations aren’t doing this because they’re jealous of our Snow-White good looks.  They’re serving it up because it makes more profit, and is hard to track.  The moral to this story is that consumers have to demand more from companies and government agencies.  Make this point clear on World Food Day (16 October). 

EM 4: How would Einstein deal with bullies?

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius, and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.” Like most of Einstein’s advice, this is easier said than done.

As a social scientist, I confess at the outset that I enjoy complexity. The world appeals to me most as a non-linear system: the richness of even the simplest social encounter can be worthy of a play by Samuel Beckett. At the same time, Einstein (as always) presents sage advice. When we make things bigger than they are, we let power take centre stage.

Some things seem simple: if the energy in the room is not good, either work to change it, or leave for an entirely new room. Of course, this presupposes individual agency – that you can leave the room (or lecture hall or office), and that another option is open to you. Of course there are structural factors that constrain our behaviour. But our belief in complex social relations also constrains this choice. We stay, even though we don’t like it, because we think that we have to fit in or face some form of social punishment.

This gives bullies power. Research indicates that one in three people personally experience workplace bullying at some point in their life. In the US, studies suggest that the number may be even higher: Fifty percent of people are direct targets or have witnessed this behaviour with others. That means that right now, in this university and in other organizations across the globe, people are wrestling with this very issue.

Workplace bullies employ “a combination of tactics in which numerous types of hostile communication and behavior are used”. Workplace bullies have often been victims themselves, usually as children. This behavior is learned and may be the only way they think they can get what they want.

Regardless of what they do or why they do it, bullying behavior negatively affects the bottom line – companies and other organizations can lose millions in terms of lost productivity. It also makes us unhappy.

So what to do when faced with such situations? Again Einstein provides a clue.  While genetics may determine genius, we all have access to courage. Admittedly, workplace bullies can seem invincible because they work within the rules. But if we take a step back and simplify things, we may find the gem of Einstein’s genius.

Just say no. No I will not be treated this way. No I will not watch others be treated this way. Don’t be another intelligent fool: Stop the interaction.

EM 3: Building Resilience

After a long summer of doing nothing, I jumped at the chance to fly to London and do something new. 

Now, I love London.  Even when it rains, I love London.  But what I love even more is a chance to meet with some of the world’s brightest people as they discuss how to move the world to a more resilient place.

Resilience is an interesting idea.  To be resilient is the ability to withstand shocks and rebuild when necessary.  We admire resilient people because they have demonstrated the ability to bounce back from adversity.  They have faced the unexpected and risen to the occasion.  Resilience isn’t built by avoiding risks, but by successfully rebounding from crises.

Crises often seem scary.  But world renowned ecologist C.S. Holling encourages us to see it differently: “During such times, uncertainty is high, control is weakened and confused, and unpredictability is great. But space is also created for reorganization and innovation. It is therefore also a time when …individual people have the greatest chance of influencing events.”

Resilience can also be used to describe a society.  A resilient society is one that effectively deals with the credit crunch, Hurricane Gustav, political upheavals in Georgia or Zimbabwe, and especially climate change.   While most of us may prefer security, status, and comfort, science and experience have shown that the world is unpredictable. 

How can education contribute to resilience?  That was the focus of the London meetings. 

In the coming years we need to teach people new and more resilient management skills. 

Resilience is not something we are born with.  It’s a trait we learn to develop over time.  It takes courage and humility to embrace the unknown.  Resilience emerges when we recognize that the only thing certain is uncertainty. 

A university based upon the principles of resilience is one that builds students’ capacity for learning and adaptation, embraces self-organization and diversity.  Such a place has no place for boredom or ego.  Indeed, resilience is lost when an institution is closed or inflexible, when it encourages the unsustainable use of resources, or has a never-ending focus on efficiency.  Self-organization means that students, faculty and staff all have the responsibility and space to create novel learning environments. 

And perhaps most importantly, a resilient person (or planet) must have ‘slack’ time to learn from mistakes and to experiment.  Letting go of our need for control lets us discover new ways to adapt and transform turbulent times.  The flip side of crisis is opportunity.  The challenge for faculty like me is to learn how to teach this kind of excitement.

More information on the Resilience Alliance.

EM 2: The Value of Doing Nothing

Sometimes professors are like students.  They like to do nothing.  No assignments.  No work.  No pressure. It’s a beautiful feeling – doing nothing much in particular. 

I confess that I had forgotten all about doing nothing.  That is, until my holiday when we went to a Canadian cottage near Algonquin Park, a famous outdoor wilderness area 4 hours north of Toronto. Unlike the cultural busyness of big cities, the Canadian north offers a lot of “nothing”.  No film festivals, no theatre openings, no clubs, no internet, no TV.


To be fair, cottage country isn’t really filled with nothing.  You can get satellite TV and internet if you really want it (although I recommend against it).  It just isn’t filled with the usual distractions or work obligations that permeate my life.  Instead, Canadian cottage areas are filled with deep lakes, deep woods, moose, bear, wolf howls, sunsets and mosquitoes.  Daily life is filled with long periods of time relaxing in the natural environment, and just living.

Spending a few weeks or a month doing nothing has a lot going for it.  It lets a person leave everyday demands behind.  That’s certainly what I found.  Doing nothing gave me the time to catch my breath and forget about research, conferences, teaching, email, and answering my mobile phone.  I just switched it all off. 

And then I remembered how much I enjoy solo canoeing, BBQing, and night swimming, let me sit back and enjoy seeing my 6 year son learn to kayak or my 4 year old catch frogs.  Doing nothing gave me the time to catch up on sunshine, hiking, water sports, yoga, laughing, feeding the ducks and drinking wine with friends and family. 

The best part about doing nothing is that it lets you have the time to do lots of everything else.  For me, this was close to bliss.

Now that the school term is about to begin, my new-found art of doing nothing will probably have to be revised.  But I remain convinced of its benefits.  So the tricky part will be learning how to keep a little bit of nothing within my hectic work life. 

This summer I learned a lot from nothing.  And that seems to be the mark of a good summer holiday. 

Obama Girl 2

Obama Girl 2


The Obama inauguration was a beautiful moment in time.  I watched it together with American, Dutch and international friends, in an elegant flat in a diversely cultural part of Rotterdam.  We brought our young kids to the party and our youngest son had talked all day to his teacher and friends that he was going to Obama’s party.  He kept asking me, ‘Where is Obama?’, and then I realized he was confused because Obama only showed up on TV.  When you’re 4 years old, going to a party for Obama means you’re going to his house for cake.  It was hard to explain to him that we aren’t that glamorous.

I admit to being an Obama fan, and I suppose some of that has rubbed off on my sons.  I even ordered a commemorative poster.  For me, this is doubly weird because I never order anything commemorative, and I usually don’t proclaim myself as a ‘fan’.  But Obama is the type of person who inspires crazy optimism.  And this is not just any poster.  I ordered the controversial Ms. Magazine cover shot of Obama in a superman pose, taking off his shirt to reveal him wearing a T-shirt saying, “This is what a feminist looks like.”

The poster provoked commentary because for some feminists, the cover shot of Ms. Magazine should always be a woman.  With this sort of narrow logic, a cover shot of Hilary, or Michelle, or even Sarah Palin, is more inspiring.  I disagree. 

Obama is a self-proclaimed feminist.  Of course, as soon as anyone says they’re the F-word, there are immediate critiques of this position.  Maybe Hilary Clinton would have appointed more women than Obama has — but the feminist agenda is not a sacred oath only possessed by the female gender.  Feminism is a practical ideal about working towards equality and freedom from discrimination.  We need women and men to change the world. 

Journalists and political analysts like to talk about the first 100 days.  In the first 100 days a leader is suppose to make his or her mark.  The Obama/Biden team ran on “the strongest platform for women’s rights of any major party in American history.” They’re expected to start making their mark on women’s rights within the first week.  Clinton is already confirmed as Secretary of State. We’ll have to see what else they do it. 

And it’s not easy to increase diversity in the workplace.  We can see that at our own university in the Netherlands. 

While Ms. Magazine semi-humorously positions Obama as a super-feminist, he alone cannot change the world.  He has to inspire others to work with him, including those of us from other countries.  And his approach to diversity can us inspire us.  If you have a message for President Obama, go to this link and tell him what you think. Whether you’re a man or a woman, don’t be afraid to admit you’re a feminist.  You’re in good company. 

Credit D.U.M.P.


Buying Eastpak backpacks at D.U.M.P. in Rotterdam Centrum doesn’t seem like an obvious academic moment. But I assure you that an academic can find theory anywhere. Recently, during the voorjaarsvakantie, I spent some time shopping for my kids, who needed new binders, backpacks, and costumes for the school play.

D.U.M.P., like many shops in the centrum, had a large sale, 50 percent discount, on all items. Since my kids go through rugzakken quickly (ripped, filled with mud, spilt with milk; lost), I thought I would go for a better quality pack that would be able to withstand more dirt and more washing. The Eastpak brand is expensive and attractive – a hip khaki orange Junior-sized pak costs 60 euro. They look great but the price seems high for a 7 year old. But with 50 percent korting, I mind less if they lose them.

I bought one and then later went back for another (my 4 year old likes to have the same as his brother). The girl at the cash register had long black and purple hair, various nose and face piercings, and was very friendly. “It’s such a great price,” I said with enthusiasm. She agreed, “Ja, it’s a great brand.” Out of vague curiosity, I asked her why everything was on sale. “Failliet,” she said. I looked confused. “Alles moet weg. We’re… how do you say it in English?” She paused and then found the word, “Bankrupt.” I looked surprised. “Are all your stores going out of business then?” “Yes,” she said, “The one in Amsterdam, den Hague, and Rotterdam.” “That’s a shame,” I said, suddenly not so happy at my bargain shopping.

“It’s this credit thing,” she continued, “all the stores are closing and we’re all fired… And where am I going to get another job?”Neither of us knew the answer to that. She looked panicked for a moment and then laughed it off. I wished her good luck. As I left, I realized I was a member of the recession-proof tribe, a sizeable group of those who still had jobs (and savings) and were actively taking advantage of lower retail costs.

Spending a little because you still have it is not a bad thing. If we all stopped spending that would only make things worse. But it is sobering to experience the widening gulf between those that can buy, and those that can sell only until the credit dump finishes them off.



We all like (good) surprises. In the last two weeks, I have been surprised by many small things:

  • An unexpected invitation to guest lecture at a design university in Germany (pleasant but puzzling: why design?)
  • A free massage in the T-building (very pleasant)
  • A mouse in my house (I screamed — how cliché!)
  • Students finally stopped coming to my office to ask for extra marks for BAB 22 (wonderful)
  • A Masters student submitted a draft thesis after I had not heard from her in nearly a year (pleasant)
  • My offshore investments have started to increase (excellent news!)
  • The possibility of meeting the new mayor of Rotterdam (exciting but stressful)
  • An invitation to Beijing (anxious – how can I find the time?)
  • The fact that my older sister finally joined Facebook (unbelievable!)
  • The fact that my younger sister might visit Rotterdam before she flies off to the Sudan (happy and anxious)

Some weeks, my list of surprises is shorter and more serious – surprises can bring unexpected bad news like market crashes, layoffs, political intrigue, or bad medical news. For companies, surprise is also a standard fact of business life. But since we all know that surprises happen, I wonder why we don’t offer our students a course on Surprise? Karl E. Weick, at the University of Michigan, thinks this would be a good idea. Managing surprises well is a characteristic of resilient organizations – those that can’t, may fail.

The problem is that most of us, including business executives, look for things that confirm our expectations about the world. We try to make behaviour routine and predictable – if we know the way the market runs, then we can maximize our return. The problem is, the world is much more uncertain. And that means we have to learn how to manage uncertainty and surprise. Can we learn to do this better? Weick and Sutcliffe give this advice: “You’ll probably know when something unexpected happens because you’ll feel surprised, puzzled, or anxious… Trust those feelings. They are a solid clue that your model of the world is in error. This is one of those rare moments when you can significantly improve your understanding. If you wait too long, normalizing will take over, and you’ll probably be convinced that there is nothing to learn.” Start by paying more attention to daily life – what surprises us and why? How do we react to surprises? What does that tell us about our mental models of the world? You may be surprised by what you find. I am.

Hidden Garden

Lying down under a tree is not a normal kind of lecture. It’s more likely to be the best part of skipping a lecture.

Yet in my Masters course Companies in Ecologies, Patrick Kruithof (from the Moment Company) did exactly that: He asked thirty business students to lie down under a tree at the nearby Arboretum Trompenburg. They were instructed to be silent and to breathe in, count to one, breathe out, count to two, and continue in this way. Students did this exercise for eleven minutes and then looked at their surroundings and made notes, photos and a drawing. After a half hour, we met for a “de-brief” on sustainability, trees, and experiential learning.

Inevitably someone asked: “Why would we do this in a business course? What’s the meaning of this exercise?” (Ok. I asked that question. I wanted to see what students would think of this experimental Monday). Someone suggested that it made us look at natural resources – in this case trees – in a different way. Another answered, “Because we never do this kind of thing in a business school.” Interesting, but is that a valid reason?

Einstein once said, ““No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” Certainly sustainability and the climate crisis need innovative ideas. If we want to teach students how to deal with these issues, we have to take Einstein at face value. For Erasmus University, the trick is to change levels of consciousness within an educational setting.

Over the last four years, I’ve organized this course in a beautiful outdoor location — the Arboretum Trompenburg, a hidden garden just five minutes walk from the university. We go there to discuss real-world business cases: e.g, on the reasons why Starbucks coffee wastes water, etc. This is combined with external speakers and visits to corporate offices.

Conceptually, these lectures could be taught easily within our regular classrooms. But I want students to think outside the box, and for me, that means outside the normal classroom.

Surprisingly, almost none of my students knew of the Arboretum in advance despite its close proximity. Yet each year they unanimously agree that our unusual ‘classroom’ adds a lot to their educational experience – it energizes and changes the way students look at sustainability problems.

Arguably, an outdoor classroom will help you get a better suntan. But the Arboretum can also have a lasting impact on our minds.

A Bird’s Life


An old saying tells us that we don’t know what we have until it’s gone.  And if you work on the west side of the T-building (or eat lunch in the 4th floor cantina), you may have noticed that there were birds nesting on our green roof. 


It’s taken some time for the roof to really become green.  It started slowly but now is filled with grass, moss, even purple and yellow flowers.  Green roofs can reduce heat loss and energy consumption.  But surprisingly they also attract wildlife.  Over the last month, RSM faculty, staff and students have given me numerous reports of a nesting ‘Scholekster’ family (Oystercatcher in English). 

“These birds are being very innovative.  Why are they on the roof?  They’re seabirds!”

“I’ve spent a lot of time watching them, or thinking about them…”

“They’ve really adapted to the environment that is available to them, like the city foxes in London.  The rocky moss roof becomes the beach for them and the insects become the crustaceans…”

“Of course I’m busy working, but I think there were four chicks.  We could see them hopping about.”

“When the chicks hatched, we handed out beschuit met muisjes…”

“We told them [on another floor] that they’re our birds because we watch them the most!”

“They are so loud…you are reminded of them constantly!  But it’s nice to be confronted with nature in such an urban environment.”

“I went on holiday for two weeks and I’d been watching them everyday up until then.  It was the first thing I did when I got back, to look out my window, and they weren’t there!  It was a huge disappointment.”

To those of you that aren’t busy watching these RSM birds, you might think there is nothing really special here, and maybe this is just a time-waster.  The Oystercatchers are common in Europe, and we’re a business school, not a zoo.  We’re not even a unique location: The University of Bergen has a nesting pair since 2005, complete with live webcam coverage (see http://tjeld.uib.no/about.php ) 

But they are ‘our birds’.  Environmental psychologists call this ‘attachment’ – the process by which people become attached to nature.  And clearly this happens even in a business school.  Today when a colleague and I walked outside the cantina looking for signs of life, we felt sad.  We could not find the birds, just the bees buzzing about.  Who knows what happens in a bird’s life – maybe they were eaten by predators or fell.  But it is nice to know they could come back.  Now all we need is a webcam…