Conservation | September 2, 2017

Taking the long view in Provence

The team at


A week ago only, I walked across a two-thousand-year-old bridge in the town of Vaison-la-Romaine in the South of France, in search of memories from an increasingly distant youth.

The bridge was built by the Romans in the first century BC to support trade activity around the river. Today it’s used by cars and pedestrians alike, a major tourist attraction and is still an important link between two parts of the town, a medieval village on the south bank crowned by a 12th century castle ruin, and the “modern” part of town on the plain (which also hosts many Roman ruins).

I had come looking for memories, and I found them. But on the old stomping grounds there was plenty to make one ponder the present, the meaning of resilience, sustainability and impact.

Human folly

Twenty-five years ago, the river, not much more than a big trickle in summers, rose dramatically following heavy rains. The shocking flood took the lives of 37 people and damaged a number of commercial buildings and housing downriver. It turned out many of those buildings had been built without permit in known flood zones. For its part, the bridge stood.

Naturally there was anger. The merchant class was railed for its short-termism, all the more easily because the bridge provided the perfect foil, the perfect counterexample, a monument to engineering, planning, long term thinking and resilience.

There are regular, repeated echoes of arguments about resilience and unpreparedness, and matching emotions. This week, the business press points at the lack of adequate flood insurance coverage in Houston. Elsewhere, some bemoan the lacking stormwater infrastructure in India.

Resilience matters. It’s now considered a key educational component for children, an important characteristic for organizational leaders. Cities around the world collaborate on shared learning and improving the resilience of their infrastructure.

Resilience is not just the strength to withstand storms. It entails adaptability, malleability and perseverance. It’s inextricably linked to making and creation, the what of resilience. Beyond sheer survival instinct, the structures, businesses, communities, economies, society merit long term care, because they matters to us as societies and humans. There is no need for resilience without people and institutions who are simply building things. They are driven by an incredible will to survive and exist and create and make things worthy of that care.

This hints at folly: in Vaison, in spite of the recent history, the flooded zones are still constructed. They will be so as well elsewhere, in other settings, when regulators don’t care, turn a blind eye, or are too busy, or where there are none, and often simply often for lack of viable economic alternatives.

Stewards and makers

This is a familiar setting for those working in the sustainability and impact world. There are the stewards – who care about preserving what’s valuable, and the makers, who create things that are valuable. They are distinct character traits (although they can be found in the same person), they are often distinct economic actors , the large institutions applying longterm thinking on sustainability and ESG versus the entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.

Much political thinking in the capitalist world, and much of the sustainabilty thinking, is about finding the right space for and between these two forces. The trick is to know that they may not be borne by the same people or institutions. The VC can prioritize stewardship and resilience, like an institutional investor, but that is not its essence, and that ultimately that may guide its choices. The institutional investor will think about building and outcomes, but ultimately it is a fiduciary and that also will guide its choices.

It struck me, on my first visit to Vaison in a quarter of century, how little seemed to have changed, in landscape and urban development, in pace of life, even in people’s appearances. I was certainly more oblivious to this as a youth, yet Vaison-la-Romaine and its surroundings in Provence are of astounding beauty, the at-once rugged and lush landscape shaped by thousands of years of winemaking and agriculture, on the fringes of the Rhone Valley, where fertile flatlands meet the drier foothills of ever rising mountain ranges, away towards the Alps. Gigondas or Rasteau are stone throws away. So is the Mont Ventoux, of global Tour de France cycling fame. Aside from wine, the region produces amazing peaches, apricots, strawberries, and, without contest, the best tomatoes I’ve ever eaten.

The economy is a different story. Unemployment hovers near 15% regionally, the economy seasonal — driven by agriculture and tourism. The region is also one of the strongholds of the political far right in France, with Front National candidates regularly scoring above 25% at local elections.

Emmanuel Macron only won in the department by a 6.9 percent margin in the Presidential election runoff — versus 32.2% nationally. There was a time earlier this year when some grew concerned that the national-populist trend begun with Brexit and amplified with Trump’s election might sweep Europe as well. Reality proved them (us) wrong, and Macron’s election provided a breath of energy to the broad swath of defenders of varied liberal social and economic values across the political spectrum.

France and the United States have well known shared values, history and founding modern philosophies (blink twice if you know Lafayette, Tocqueville, Roosevelt or Kennedy), and stark cultural, geographic and demographic differences. As someone who straddles the cultures, I often can’t help but feel that in all their frequent opinion discordance, the two are just quarreling cousins beset by mutual jealousies. There’s more to it of course, and that’s a story for another day.

It’s tempting to set Macron and Trump in contrast, to say they are opposed in everything. After the election, editorialists quickly got taken by bouts of nationalistic moral superiority. These are strong feelings but in this instance, one can hope history proves them somewhat right.

The French result wasn’t nearly as close as the American one. And while a Le Pen election didn’t happen, let’s not forget how much concern it raised, and many people in France have long been convinced that a far right populist victory is only a matter of time.

Both winners are men who won against women. They are men who, each in their own way (one is fairly disastrous so let’s not draw the comparison too far) have taken on the role of the strong man, one straight out of the Playboy Mansion, the other fond of gracing us with Top Gun moments and openly claiming a Jupiterian approach to the presidency.

These gender angles are all the more interesting in the light of analysis that connects voting choices with profound fears of loss of control in an unsettling, some say VUCA, world. Did various old familiar and conformist male stereotypes cut it to some as reassuring figures?

Gender lenses

Which takes us to back to sustainable finance. Gender questions are not a new theme for sustainable minded folks (they are one of our core themes at ImpactAlpha), and are partially addressed by SDG №5. Gender, both in the sense of women’s role in society, as well as in terms of perception and social norms, may very well be a defining issue of our time, though there is also a case to be made that it always was and one way or another always will, as Shakespeare illustrates.

Questions of gender, for example, are omnipresent in the quest for more renewable energy. This is observed both in industry labor shifts, with women making up a larger proportion of the workforce in renewables than in traditional commercial energies, but also for the three billion people that rely on collecting traditional fuels such as wood or agricultural residue, traditionally the responsibility of women in many societies.

They are also omnipresent in business, with raging conflicts about women in technology, in political or economic leadership positions. The recent Google Memo shows how strongly these questions of sex and gender are linked to social perceptions.

One of the traditional views puts women in the role of the stewards and men in that of the makers and builders. This tradition is being upended by social and technological changes and long term moral and philosophical trends. It’s possible that the resurgence of the strong man model in western societies may in the future be seen as the last ripples of a past era -at least for a while.

In Vaison, I am the same person, in one of my dearest surroundings, and also a world away from my life in New York. I think about what takes people away and apart, and what brings them together. I think the Global Goals, for example, bridge many political views.

This would be a good thing. The road is long and investors, businesses and politicians cannot ignore this multi-secular evolution. This is the thing about some long term trends: they just won’t go away.