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John Hardy founded the Green School
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Conversations
1 April 2010

John Hardy founded the Green School

Interview by Kate Bezar
Photography by Jimbawan

Kate Bezar on John Hardy

In the mid-’70s John Hardy ended up in Bali. An art school graduate lacking direction, he became fascinated by the island’s jewellery-making traditions and began to work with local artisans to produce his own designs. Success didn’t happen overnight, but by 1992 his range was stocked in North America’s most prestigious department stores. One of the keys to its success is that John and his wife (read ‘right-hand woman’) Cynthia have done well by doing good: the John Hardy brand is internationally respected for its platform of ‘sustainable luxury’. Each piece is inscribed with the number of bamboo seedlings that will be planted to offset its impact. By 2007, John was ready to ‘retire’ so he sold the jewellery business and used the proceeds to fund a hugely ambitious project … a ‘Green School’.

Sited on over 20 acres, the ecological footprint of the school is close to zero; its buildings are made entirely from bamboo, local grass and mud bricks, the campus is powered by solar power, biogas, and micro-hydro power from the river, and an organic permaculture system, cultivated and managed by the students, provides a source of food and a sink for recycling waste. It’s about children experiencing the ‘physicality of greenness’. The school does not have any courses that focus specifically on sustainability because, simply by attending, students are living and breathing what it means to be sustainable. And that’s just the beginning.

This story originally ran in issue #23 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

KATE BEZAR: So you’ve been travelling a lot?

JOHN HARDY:
A little bit. I’ve been in Singapore a few times giving talks to the Singaporeans. I feel a little bit like Jesus among the Romans there.

You got a slightly odd reception?

No, no it’s fine. There’s a lot of good people there, but the way they live is pretty much unsustainable, so you have to kind of talk to them in a certain way.

Is there a fine line between letting them know that what they are doing is wrong or unsustainable and yet still encouraging them to change the way they are doing things?

Yeah. I met an aeronautical engineer there, a very unusual boy, from Australia actually. He didn’t want to go and join the Australian army in developing newer and greater ways to kill things, he wanted to do things that were interesting. I just said, “Get out now … Eventually even the hyena leaves the carcass of the elephant,” because he will be an old man and he will have changed two lines of the ridiculous building code there [in Singapore] and that will have been his life. It’s important for young people who want to make a difference to get to a place where they can make a difference.

Absolutely.

I’m from Canada and there’s no way I can make any difference in Canada because the Canadians are very committed to the same things as Australians which is big boxes of beers, mid-sized Chevrolets and the good life at the expense of their grandchildren.

But if that’s where change is needed most, isn’t that where you need to be?

I can’t be responsible for saving the terminal patients. I’ve got to find the ones that still have a chance.

But that’s writing off a huge percentage of the world’s population isn’t it?

Well, not of the people in the world, just of the wealth. It’s actually a tiny percentage of the people, a monstrous percentage of the wealth and a monstrous piece of the carbon footprint of the world … The exception is something like Indonesians burning the rainforest, which gives them almost as big a carbon footprint as the Americans … and they don’t even get to watch TV in double-wide recliners and cheer the team. Most Indonesians are still living very sustainably, it’s just what’s happening out on the islands that’s killing the world. Indonesia is number three biggest in terms of carbon footprint in the world.

Have you tried to have any impact or any discussions at high levels about that with anyone in Indonesia?

No. I don’t really talk to people, I just do things and let the things talk. There’s not much you can say. I mean, there are Westins all over the world where people have congregated and are talking about, talking about, talking about it … Just being in the Westin alone is enough to make you realise that nothing is ever going to happen through doing that because the Westin is no part of the future.

You’re talking about the hotel chain?

I’m talking about the Westin Hotel and its ilk with their giant polyester board rooms and meeting rooms. The amazing thing that I find though is, no matter where I go in the world they have the same ugly meeting room and dining room. I mean, to destroy the world and to save the world, the coal miners meet in the same room. It’s quite ludicrous. It’s a kind of ecumenical, ugly and unsustainable meeting space.

Did you move to Bali because you felt you could have a greater impact there than Canada?

No, it was strictly the weather. The weather in Canada is unfit for man or beast.

Really? You just decided to pack up and go to the other side of the world for a bit more sunshine?

Well, in Canada you’ve got 250 days a year that are good for suicide. There are a few days in the winter where it’s really cold and clear and it’s beautiful … and a couple of days in the fall. The summer is mostly just a gigantic disappointment when it’s cold and raining every weekend. After a while you just kind of open one eye and go, “How terrible is the weather?” It’s certainly great on those three spring days where it’s just beautiful, but the price you have to pay for the ‘changing of the seasons’; they call it, romantically, changing from worse to worst … Anyway, that’s just kind of why I left; I couldn’t handle the weather. I’m basically driven by beauty. I look out on these rice fields every day and I think, how could I be so lucky as to have these rice fields to look at and for them to be full of people growing food? Certainly not as sustainably as they were, but pretty sustainably.

This story originally ran in issue #23 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #23 of Dumbo Feather

When you left Canada were you designing jewellery? Had you already started that or was that something that came after you moved to Bali?

No, no, I didn’t have any skills when I came here. I’d graduated from an arts school. I was really dumb.

I mean, I was dyslexic and they didn’t have dyslexia when I was at school, so I was just dumb.

The smart ones all went and worked for the Government or the school system for their entire lives and now they’re retired in the double-wide lazy boy reaching for their diabetes medicine, trying to figure out what’s on TV. I’m just really happy I didn’t follow that path. I didn’t really even have that choice; I couldn’t pass the exam to become a fireman, let alone a doctor, or lawyer, or Indian chief! My father knew I wasn’t stupid, but when I brought home the report card he used to try to figure out ways to motivate me to apply myself because he knew I wasn’t stupid and I’m not really stupid, I’m a little bit retarded but …

You just think differently.

It was kinda tough to get his signature on the report card. I tried to convince him that the Christmas report card came out in February. That didn’t always work. He was never physically abusive, but he was really disappointed I was such a failure and I just wanted to live somewhere far away from him.

You did graduate eventually?

I did; I graduated from art school which is about the only place I could have really graduated from. The idea thing people liked there so I got good marks.

Did your teachers at high school encourage you to go to art school?

No. They didn’t even know what art school was. I went to business school first and they had a design school in the same polytechnic as the business school. So I went to the design school and was really lucky that I met the guy who ran the art school. He thought I was a little weird and said, “Why don’t you come to the art school?” So I went to the art school.

And then you ended up in Bali.

That’s the story. I was just lucky … I always say I walk under a hole in the sky where the ideas fall out. It’s very hard on the people around me because I have way too many ideas for any human to ever get done.

Is that harder on them than on you?

Well, I kind of live with it, but it’s like the work is never done because …

There is always more.

Fortunately I married Cynthia, who has been rebelling recently, but she actualised so many things … I would have just been a funny guy on the side of the road with funny ideas if it wasn’t for her. We started together with six workers in a kitchen in Bali.

In a kitchen? Making jewellery?

Not really making, but doing the business. We worked with artisans – that was the magic of being in Bali – Balinese artisans are just amazing. Indonesian hands in general are just amazing. When you go to some place like Thailand that has been basically completely ravaged by the American story, the Western story, you just want to cry that the man in the forest no longer knows how to put together a forest hut. Instead, he’s dragged cement beams from the city that were thrown away by some contractor and is putting up something that looks like a slum. The Balinese though, still build all their festival temples and all their cremation stuff all from bamboo, and they do it really beautifully.

So they haven’t lost those skills just yet. Are they in the process of losing those skills?

Well, I do look out the corner of my eye when I get down to Kuta Beach and, instead of making temporary structures out of bamboo and grass, they’re starting to make them out of that horrific system they have in Australia with snap together steel beams. It’s just really scary. I’m a little bit in denial about that.

So you and Cynthia grew the jewellery business into a fairly successful one, would that be fair to say?

Yeah. It was completely driven by the product. It was product people wanted. Young jewellers always come and ask me, “How can I do this?” and I always say to them, “If I can’t recognise your jewellery, then you haven’t done the job. If I’m unsure whether it’s Jo, Mary, Bob or Alice you really haven’t done the job. It has to look like you and then people will start to understand that it is you, and if it is good, if it is wearable …” My best days were days when women came up to me and said, “John I bought this bracelet three years ago on my birthday and I haven’t had it off my wrist.” Unfortunately we never cracked the Australian market because, between punitive tariffs, VAT, and the weak Australian dollar, there was nothing to do there.

So it was primarily sold in the US and Canada?

The USA. To Canadian’s, very little. In the USA, it was great. Cynthia and I filled the jewellery business with an incredible team of people and a lot of support over 20 years, but when I turned 57, I decided it was probably time to move on to other things. Cynthia and I sold our shares in the business and decided to change the way we were living. The big thing we’ve done most recently is founded a school, The Green School. I believe that the only difference between making the world work and the world not work is what happens on graduate recruitment day. People go to school, then they go to college, they get their degree and then they get recruited, if they are really smart. The school system, especially in the world of science and engineering, never gives them any clue that they should be making a choice on recruitment day. If graduates actually said to the recruiters, “What’s your environmental record? Are you adding to or taking away from the possibility for sustainability on the planet? Are you adding to global warming or are you mitigating it? Are you dealing in really nasty materials?” we might be able to make a difference. Instead it’s, “What’s your product? Oh, you make guns? Oh good, I can have a really big bungalow! I always wanted a bigger bungalow.” It’s us. It’s not them, it’s us.

When did you get a sense that education was the answer?

Well, they say if you get them green by nine years old … It’s something that needs to be studied by smarter people than me, but we have that ability as humans to be really indoctrinated in certain directions. As much as a non-church attending Catholic will tell you he is not going to be screaming for a priest when he finds himself in two pieces on the motorway, he will be. I’m a Presbyterian; the Presbyterians were really bad at it, and, in fact, they really missed the boat. They forgot how to nail people and get them to be Presbyterians forever, but many religions are very good at that. I guess we just need to somehow give children the possibility of choosing.

I’m not saying indoctrinate them or anything, but give them the possibility of making a choice. If nobody went to work for Dow Chemical tomorrow, what would happen to the world? We’d have less plastic rubbish in the hypermart … It’s just a matter of choosing.

What led to the idea for the school? For getting children ‘green’ early?

Shopping.

Shopping?

Shopping for schools.

For your own children?

Yeah. I have four kids and the first two went to boarding schools. The second two are still nine and 13. We would go to schools and ask them, “What do you stand for?” and they’d reply, “Oh, we don’t stand for anything. We’re going to give your kid an education so they can get the biggest bungalow possible.” I felt like saying, “Don’t you understand that the bungalow mania that we’re in, and the consumer mania that we’re in, is going to ruin, if not in their lifetime, then in their children’s lifetime, the world.” It seems to be such complacency on the level of, “We’re going to have our bungalow and that’s tough.” If you’ve got kids … I mean, Al Gore ruined my bloody life. I’d done well in the jewellery business and was going to retire and have a happy time chasing white balls around the place. I hadn’t done that since I was young, but I thought maybe I’d try that, not to mention that those white ball-chasing places are some of the most disgusting, environmental disasters known to mankind. I mean, golf is practised by the right wing and is absolutely a poison heap. Anyway, Al Gore said, “This is what’s coming,” and I thought, if there is anything, any small thing, I can do to mitigate this for my kids, my grandkids and my great grandkids, it’s my job to do it before I go. I’m not going to be here forever. I’m turning 60 this year, so it’s time to go for it. Bamboo is the perfect thing for a man who is 60 because if I live to 67 I’ll see bamboo forests that I’ve helped to plant.

Not only that but you’ll see a generation of kids go through your school, which will be amazing.

Well, we’re looking to create a green vortex.

Talk me through that.

We’re not incrementally increasing the literacy of 125,000 children over 12 countries, which is kind of what people do. Instead we’re very small; we’ve only got 125 kids and some day we’ll have 450. Twenty per cent of them are Balinese on scholarship. If we can take these kids, who come from 27 countries, into a relatively conventional education in a very green context … We’re giving them their ABCs because the mums and dads demand that, and that’s fine, I don’t want to turn out people that are crossways to the world, but we’re giving them that education in a very green place. After a few years, especially if they are young, formative years, of being in that green place, when their mummies and daddies take them back to a square box some place in the world that’s been built by the same contractor who built the jail, they are going to go, “Just a minute. This is not where I want to learn.” We hope to get the Balinese kids too and get them to the best environmental and green institutions on the planet. It’s a long, five, six, seven, fifteen-year deal. It takes longer than growing bamboo.

How long have you been going so far? When did you take your first students?

One year and four months. It’s growing. We have people from all over the world coming to live in Bali and put their kids in the school.

People are moving to Bali so their kids can go to the school?

Absolutely, from all over the world. Mind boggling. They just go, “Let’s try it. Let’s try it for a year.”

At the moment is there more demand than you have places at the school?

No. We’re looking for more kids. Green School is not for everyone. We haven’t had a terrific amount of success with the people here in Bali who send their kids off to Australian schools in grade six. There’s thousands of Balinese that send their kids to Australian schools and they have been a tough group to influence, but we’re getting people coming from all over the world: Japanese, Russian, Scandinavian, German and French people, it goes on and on. They just see the school and go, “That’s where I wanted to go to school, but I never got to.” It’s great.

Does it still require a lot of input from you or have you managed to step away a bit more?

The school is in the hands of some very good educators like a guy named Ronald Stones (known as Pak Ron) who ran the British International School in Jakarta and the Tanglin Trust School in Singapore. He runs the academic part of it and I have quite a bit to do with the green part of it … and I created the physicality of it.

Which, by all accounts, is quite something.

I’m so happy. It’s beautiful. I mean, think about it. Where did your ancestors come from, England?

England, Scotland, France.

Well, think of English people counting beans and making gruel in the 13th Century. Getting them into the idea that there was something bigger than beans and gruel in the world was difficult when all they could smell was the gruel, but when they built those 13th Century cathedrals and they got the people into those cathedrals, then the people knew there was some higher power. They were in awe. Same with the Buddhists and the Muslims and the Hindus … They all built these places that demonstrated there was something bigger than beans and gruel. Our school doesn’t have a religion – it has many, many, many religions in it – but it does put people into the world of awe. I remember visiting Princeton University, which is in New Jersey, and I just wanted to stay there; I wanted to enrol and learn something. It was so beautiful, I just wanted to be there. That’s the idea of the Green School: from the classrooms, to the washrooms, to the change rooms, all the rooms, we made them beautiful.

Of course that’s the designer coming out in you as well. Did you ever doubt that you could make this happen? It’s a pretty ambitious project.

I had no idea. It’s nuts. It’s like being eaten by a duck. It’s such an incredible thing.

You know, you’re in it, and it’s moving, and it’s like being in an airplane; you’re sitting up there and you’re thinking, how can this bloody thing fly? It’s wonderful.

Did you and Cynthia come up with the idea together and work on it as a team?

Oh yeah. She has all the skills I don’t, which is a lot.

Obviously she shares the same vision as you?

It’s not the same, but most of the time we agree.

Apart from the fact that she’d like you to slow down, soonish?

Yeah, she gets crazy with me sometimes.

It’s not just the school that keeps you occupied these days, is it?

Well, the bamboo company is very challenging.

I really believe bamboo is the future, but it’s like converting the Irish to wine.

It’d be a very big job to convince the Irish that they should drink wine instead of whisky.

Is your first challenge converting the Indonesians?

The governor came the other day and he loved it. He was so supportive. I said to him, “When you build your next building, think about bamboo.” We’ll see. The physicality of what we’ve built here from bamboo speaks volumes. Everybody who comes goes, “I had no idea.”

Where did you get a sense of bamboo’s full potential from?

Watching the Balinese. South Americans have also done quite a lot in bamboo. Very inspiring things. Linda Garland, who is like the mother of bamboo, did a terrific amount to promote the ‘green’ treatment of bamboo with borax. Bamboo was traditionally eaten by the powder post beetle, but the thing about the borax treatment, which is a natural salt from Salt Lake City, is that it doesn’t kill the beetle, but it gets diarrhoea and then goes away. So it’s a very, very good treatment.

Was that not readily available in Indonesia before?

The problem was that nobody knew about it. In the old days they would just nuke the beetle, but, as we’ve discovered in our agriculture, there is no future in nuking the natural world.

If your big plans for bamboo come to fruition, I guess you’ll need a lot more craftspeople around who know how to work with it?

Well, as the rainforest goes away there are literally millions of workers that are displaced. They used to be tearing the rainforest down lickety-split and making furniture out of it and selling it to the West. Now they’re being hit with a double whammy because they are running out of trees and some countries, like America and Europe, are looking for Forest Stewardship Council certification on all the wood that they buy. That’s going to put tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of guys out of business. The Balinese are also cutting down all the trees as fast as they can.

Before those regulations come in?

Well, they are cutting them down because they can’t get rainforest anymore.

They can’t get rainforest anymore?

They can but I think the Chinese are sucking it all up, straight out of the rainforest. It used to be available at the local lumber yard and now it’s either too expensive or unavailable so the Balinese are going out and cutting down every tree that has a 30-40 centimetre diameter. A huge amount of it is being used to build those happy timeshare bungalows that our cousins from the south come and buy in Bali. For every one of those horrible, concrete timeshares, they’ve killed a hundred trees making the form work for it. It’s just crazy. The good news is that the grandmas get the leftover wood and cook with it so it isn’t completely wasted. When we went to build the school, we needed someone to build it, so we created a little company called PT. Bambu which built the school and all the furniture that’s in it. PT. Bambu has an incredible future and has several jobs in process for building sustainable hotels. The idea of a sustainable hotel is very simple: you are going to spend a lot of time in a concrete box; you are probably living in one, so why take a holiday in one. The vibration of concrete is counter-productive to a satisfied life. In the hotels we are working on, the furniture is made from completely sustainable, borax-treated bamboo. It really is an incredible future. We also have a little NGO which has planted 20,000 seedlings of timber bamboo and I have another 60,000 to plant. Those 80,000 seedlings will create a huge amount of timber starting in five years and then continuing for the next 500, it is just a matter of getting the clumps established. Bamboo comes up like a train. The species dictates how big it’s going to be and then you have to wait three years to cut it while it turns from a grass into a timber which is actually harder than teak.

Is sustainable tourism something you’re also interested in?

‘Sustainable’ tourism … It’s a funny word, because tourism is pretty well unsustainable. People come to see stuff that is different or amazing and they trample it so badly that after a period of time there is nothing to see except a trampled culture, a trampled field or a trampled island. So, I don’t know if there is anything sustainable in the tourist business. Hotels, for the most part, are just giant pigs gobbling up large amounts of international cash and handing the garbage to some guy who dumps it over somebody else’s fence. So, our idea was a sustainable hotel, Bambu Indah, a tiny little hotel with seven rooms. It is wooden; it is vibrant; it is good.

There is an amazing Minang house in the centre of it made from black bamboo and it is run by a young woman from Sumatra named Danti who will give you an experience you just won’t get from many other places in Bali, or in the world. The food is beyond comprehension; it has been reported to be as good as any food in Bali. Real Balinese food is extremely hard to get, probably because the Balinese are almost excessively polite. When the first tourists came from Australia, the Balinese realised they could never ever give them anything authentic to eat because their taste buds were attuned to porridge and tap beer. That made the Balinese vary their own incredible food and diversity, and produce jaffles and fried rice and other such nasty business for the tourists to eat instead. At the school, we also want to build some satellite campuses for universities around the school where they can send their architecture students to learn about sustainable materials and have a curriculum that gives them a chance to understand options other than more concrete; or how, in the concrete they do use, they can become much wiser.

That’d be fantastic. I take it that anyone can come and visit the school at any time, is that right?

Basically. We have two tours a week, but if you have kids, or a special interest, call us and we’ll look after you.

And kids don’t have to enrol for their entire schooling, they can just come for a year or a semester, is that right?

Yeah. At this point. We don’t have a waiting list yet so we’re pretty friendly. We’re looking to see how it will work. Julia Roberts is here in Bali at the moment, and although we don’t have any confirmation she’s going to put her kids in the school, we have made a formal offer to create the possibility of her children having an experience they wouldn’t otherwise have, certainly not in Los Angeles. They’re producing (a film based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel) Eat, Pray, Love. It’s the big news at the moment and it is all over the island. It’s probably the biggest film ever produced in Bali. I think every old healer is going to be very busy once this movie comes out and the Brazilian boys will be run off their feet! I am a little bit afraid because once it comes out there will probably tens of thousands of unloved Americans heading around the world to eat in Italy, pray in India and love in Bali. There is probably a sufficient number of old men from rice paddies that can become wise men and New Age healers given the right script, but I do worry that there is a limit to the number of handsome Brazilians around, and they may be totally worn out by the number of women who will come here wanting to fall in love with a Brazilian!

As well as Hollywood movies, do you worry about the political climate in Indonesia and how that might adversely affect your projects?

I don’t really because there is nothing I can do about it. It’s going to be somebody else’s part.

Has Bali changed your life philosophy or the way you approach life?

Completely. In Bali there is a lot of stuff going on; you never burn a bridge. In the West, we professionally burn bridges; it’s like a bridge-burning culture.

They have karma here and it works.

People are very, very careful not to burn a bridge, and it’s good.

So what’s the big plan from here?

Green Schools one through ten.

Ten schools?

Yeah.

All in Indonesia?

No, they can be anywhere. We’re just trawling for people who want one now. We’ve got a lot of interest from a lot of countries. Every country needs at least one, just to be a balance to all the non-green schools.

To set up these other schools do you envisage taking the model that you’ve developed and …

Making it local. We’re into local building. I mean we wouldn’t build it out of bamboo in New Zealand, for example, because they don’t have a lot of bamboo; we’d build it out of whatever they’ve got. Maybe we’d just make the whole thing out of sheep shit.

Sure!

While we’re on ‘shit’, the great thing is that the Dutch are getting rid of cow poo. Everybody in the world is just dumping cow poo in the nearest ditch going, “Oh it’s just cow poo”, but now the ditch is not going to take it any more. In Holland first, and hopefully America second, they’re going to gasify it to run generators instead. Who knows? If I could tell you I’d be a smarter guy than I am. If I could tell you whether we’re just on a long, steep, hill down, it would be really scary. I hope that we’re not.

You hope that it will plateau at some point?

I’m afraid that we’re over the plateau, that’s my problem. That’s my fear, that we’re on our way down and there’s nothing we can do at this point to make enough of a difference.

Past the point of no return.

Now, I don’t want to dwell on that because if you go there you might as well just crawl into a hole and move to New Zealand [both laugh – Dumbo Feather’s editor has just moved to NZ]. You know the other sad thing? Some of the most powerful people on the planet are soccer players who influence the lives of tens of millions of young men all over the planet. Soccer s played by everybody. Yet those players are not allowed to stand for anything more than the little orphanage around the corner from their house. It really is a scandal. I had Magic Johnson’s lawyer here, and he was telling me that the day that Johnson came out and started talking about AIDS, because he was HIV positive, Nike, Gatorade and all the rest of these corporate monsters cut off his advertising revenue. That day. I guess one of the great things we can hope for is if those companies got a little smarter and figured out if they let the boys that they’ve got their logo stuck on speak about things that are important for the world it would be a great platform. It would be enlightened. We’ll see.

Kate Bezar

Kate Bezar started Dumbo Feather—and is a living legend, simple as that. Read all about her and the kernel of an idea that became a magazine.

Photography by Jimbawan

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