Noted New Zealand environmentalist and entrepreneur Sir Rob Fenwick has a message: "When I look at what is happening around the world at the moment with the media coverage, action and public panic driven by the coronavirus, I am reminded again how blind humanity can be when it comes to crises that don't directly effect them.
"The threat of the coronavirus at the moment is not that different to the threats that our biodiversity has experienced every day with the threat of extinction," he wrote to me from his Waiheke home.
This is a poignant time for Fenwick, his family and many friends, and business colleagues.
The highly-regarded, successful Auckland-based director and board chair has been up-front: "I am (also) facing extinction," he wrote in the Listener.
"For five years, I have danced with cancer. I refuse to call it a struggle or a battle — I am dancing with the disease. We swing, we twist, sometimes we lift, and too often we step on each other's feet. But my determined dance partner will end our dance before I'm ready."
In what was billed as the environmentalist's urgent last message, he wrote: "Time is running out for me, and it is with profound sadness that I consider that time is running out, too, for our precious environment."
Fenwick's deeply personal message — also posted on his Facebook page — reverberated around the tight-knit business community this week at events ranging from Fraser Whineray's farewell from Mercury, to Air New Zealand's annual soiree at Parliament.
Whineray serves on the board of the Aotearoa Circle, which Fenwick co-chairs. At Air New Zealand, Fenwick leads its sustainability advisory panel, and similar panels at Fonterra, Waste Management and Westpac.
Fenwick is clear that the threats facing the planet will not be solved by governance, nor solely by passionate individuals.
"Business, with its massive network of investors, consumers, suppliers, staff and community stakeholders must be part of the solution — even if they have been part of the problem," he says.
"Sustainability is no longer something that we as individuals or corporate institutes should feel is nice to do. It's a must do. New Zealand must preserve its natural capital if it has a hope of surviving economically and that means all sectors, public and private, rural and urban, have to all pull together under the banner of sustainability."
In an interview conducted by email (at the time I was self-isolating from a mild influenza picked up in the US), he said New Zealand is trying hard but the world is doing appallingly and the "arrogance of the United States in maintaining its denial of climate change in the face of irrefutable scientific evidence" is one of the greatest disappointments of our time.
He's observed a rapid rise in awareness of climate change here: "The Zero Carbon Act was a sentinel moment in time when the country seemed to agree that there was a need for financial consequences."
He is also enthusiastic about the creation of the Aotearoa Circle, where a number of New Zealand's top CEOs from the public and private sectors channel their leadership into preserving what the New Zealand economy desperately needs, which he says "is the preservation of our natural capital".
"New Zealanders are innovators and we are recognised around the world for our work ethic. I see it as a great opportunity for New Zealand to combat some of these climate and sustainability issues. Innovation plays an important role in sustainability. We need to be exploring new and better ways to do things that maintain and restore our natural capital."
Fenwick's own entrepreneurial businesses have ranged from environmental companies to news media.
But he has also made an impact at the big end of town, not only as chair of some major companies, but also chairing sustainability advisory boards, what he calls "critical friends", to stretch the ambition of companies with their sustainability targets.
He says that while Westpac didn't have an overly significant carbon footprint, it has enormous influence though its lending book. "Its challenge was to decide whether it would be brave enough to use its power for good. Westpac took a vitally important leadership role in the Aotearoa Circle's Sustainable Finance Forum.
"Waste companies will always struggle to be on the right side of the green line and this makes the acknowledgement of their challenges more important. I have been impressed by how quickly Waste Management has tried to innovate recycling solutions from its existing infrastructure of collecting and transfer stations," he says.
"Of all the companies, Air New Zealand and Fonterra would seem to face the steepest mountains and they still have a long way to go in their sectors but they have continued to show this amazing ability and determination to innovate. Advisory boards need to relentlessly support this determination for innovation, even when it fails. In fact, most of all when it fails.
"If I had more time, that is where I would focus my efforts now — accessible sustainable advice to the masses."
Fenwick was to have been honoured at a dinner at the Northern Club to celebrate his achievements over three decades as a noted environmentalist and leader in corporate governance. But he wasn't well enough.
On Tuesday, Fenwick was recognised by the Institute of Directors (IoD) as a distinguished fellow for his outstanding achievements and eminent services to governance.
Michael Stiassny, a former president of the IoD national council, and Brent Impey, an IoD Auckland branch committee member, went out to Waiheke to present the award to him at his home.
The IoD citation says Sir Rob is an "inspiration to us for his vision and leadership, and his contribution to governance in public, private, charitable, Crown and iwi enterprises".
Dame Therese Walsh, Chair, Air New Zealand
"It has been such an incredible privilege to have Sir Rob work with us — and in doing so he has provided genuine critique on multiple dimensions of our sustainability agenda, from supporting the development of stronger strategic relationships to our response to the climate crisis, biodiversity crisis and to improving the sustainability of our supply chain and waste management practices."
Julia Hoare, chair, Auckland branch, Institute of Directors
"He is a humble, strategic leader who has dedicated himself to guiding New Zealand to be fit for the future. He is recognised in the business community as an amazing statesman championing sustainability and environmental change. He has led New Zealand businesses to strive for preserving New Zealand's environment and biodiversity. With his broad reach, he is making New Zealand a better place for future generations."
Marsha Cadman, Waste Management
"Sir Rob provided invaluable advice, feedback and encouragement in the development of For Future Generations, our sustainability strategy. He has encouraged us to set aggressive targets that talk to the outcomes or benefits of the programme of activity, rather than just detail what we are going to do. 'Better to set high targets to strive for, even if you might fail doing so', was his advice — which I think reflects his attitude to life."
Bridget Coates, Fonterra sustainability advisory panel
"The Fonterra sustainability advisory panel was established in October 2018 under the leadership and guidance of Sir Rob with an unrestricted mandate to advise the board and senior leadership team on the company's roadmap to a sustainable future.The panel acts as a critical friend for the Fonterra team, providing frank and honest feedback to management and bringing credible independent expertise on a range of strategic matters."