Images from the New Frontiers website and YouTube

The curious world of New Frontiers

An upcoming three-day conference in Auckland aims to ‘envision our future’, but the Ed Hillary-branded event appears to feature some odd guests, including one who thinks astrology can explain important historic events, and a self-help guru who’s been labelled a fraud. David Farrier reports.

A new year, a new pricey three-day conference, this time courtesy of the Edmund Hillary Fellowship. “This is our moment to envision our future, work together and weave solutions to make an innovative, regenerative, and inclusive economy our reality,” announces the website for the New Frontiers conference.

The Edmund Hillary Fellowship (EHF) is the brainchild of two brothers from the US, Matthew and Brian Monahan, together with Yoseph Ayele, originally from Ethiopia, who is CEO and the most public-facing of the three. It came about through a partnership between the trio’s NZ/US networking organisation Kiwi Connect and the Hillary Institute, a leadership charity founded by Sir Edmund Hillary himself. In turn, EHF has partnered with Immigration New Zealand to select candidates for sought after “global impact” visas that allow them to live and work in New Zealand for three years, with a path to permanent residence. According to the Immigration New Zealand website, the global impact visa, which was launched in 2017, is aimed at people who have “the combination of relentless drive, skills, global connections, and desire to leverage the unique opportunities New Zealand offers, to build successful innovation-based ventures, and make game-changing impact on the world”.

New Frontiers was first held on the Monahans’ property in Whitemans Valley, Upper Hutt, in 2014. In a 2017 Stuff story, the event was described as “a kind of techie’s version of Nevada’s Burning Man. Think yoga, yurts, giant domes, composting toilets, campfires, more yoga, drum circles, dancing, vegan food and talking – lots of talking.” Previous attendees include American film director James Cameron.

“It’s either a beautiful gathering of like-minded thinkers or a weird cult, depending on your point of view,” the story adds, quoting a local as saying: “There’s some freaky-looking punters down there camping out in their domes, doing yoga and singing Kumbaya to the moon.”

According to this June 2019 story from Bloomberg Businessweek, Immigration New Zealand migrant attraction manager Matt Hoskin turned up at one of those early New Frontiers gatherings, and Ayele was “co-opted as a de facto immigration recruiter”. In 2015, according to the story, then head of Immigration NZ Nigel Bickle “visited New Frontiers and started a conversation about a new immigration programme. A year later, New Zealand’s government approved the introduction of the global impact visa.”

This year New Frontiers is coming to Auckland, to be held at Ellerslie Racecourse from 24-26 February. Each day has a different theme: climate, wellbeing and technology. Tickets range from $350 to $1500.

I was curious to see the sorts of people who would be sharing their knowledge. 

I’d always associated Sir Edmund Hillary with innovation and adventure, and the fellowship’s own website says it’s a “global community of high-impact entrepreneurs, investors and changemakers, collaboratively building new paradigm solutions to global challenges from Aotearoa”.

So I was surprised to see that one of the top-billed speakers wasn’t a mountaineer or acclaimed climate scientist, but the Tim Robbins-esque Tim Ferriss, author of the 2007 book The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, which launched a series of other “4 hour” books, including The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman. He’ll be speaking at the conference on day two, which is focused on wellbeing.

Last year, Forbes wrote about Ferriss’s success in a piece called “Tim Ferriss Is Everything That’s Wrong With The Modern World (And Why You Should Follow His Lead)”. The piece looked at how Ferriss became the kickboxing champion of the world basically by gaming it: 

Ferris researched the sport’s rules and uncovered a technicality stating that contestants who step outside the fighting circle three times are disqualified. Armed with this knowledge, he worked out how to wriggle his body in such a way to get his opponents to do just that.

Is Tim Ferris the best kickboxer in the world? Not even close. But he has the title. And in the age we’re living in, that’s all that matters.

Most serious martial artists would consider Tim Ferriss’s behavior to be completely dishonorable. Fortunately for Ferriss, most of us aren’t serious martial artists. The people who rise to the top are no longer those who accomplish truly great things, but those who figure out how to most attractively package their shortcuts and fake-outs.

In a Jacobin article from 2018, headlined ‘The Fraud and the Four-Hour Workweek’, Meagan Day argued that “self-help millionaire Tim Ferriss is a fraud, but his success says a lot about modern capitalism and its discontents”.

So I guess if you’re into that sort of thing, he could be the man for you. What he has to do with anything related to Sir Edmund Hillary’s legacy I have no idea, but, hey, he’s sold a lot of books, made a lot of money as an early investor in Uber, and has 1.6 million Twitter followers

Yoseph Ayele told The Spinoff that while it was yet to be publicly announced, Ferriss had been selected for the Edmund Hillary Fellowship, and therefore the global impact visa. Ayele said he believed Ferriss wanted to work in the field of mental health and addiction in New Zealand.

Looking at some of the other day one speakers, I came upon Kenny Ausubel, founder of an environmental organisation called Bioneers. Ausubel worked closely with Leonardo DiCaprio on The 11th Hour, the actor’s 2007 climate change documentary. EHF’s Matthew Monahan is on the Bioneers’ board of directors.

Ausubel’s latest project, mentioned in passing on the New Frontiers website, is a 10-part documentary series called Changing of the Gods, which appears to be about how important world events relate to astrology.

Looking a little further on the website of that “documentary”, I found Ausubel made another documentary in 1988 called Hoxsey: How Healing Became a Crime. He also wrote a book called When Healing Becomes a Crime: The Amazing Story of the Hoxsey Cancer Clinics and the Return of Alternative Therapies.

Hoxsey Therapy is a pseudoscience treatment for cancer which the US Food & Drug Administration banned back in the 60s, calling it “worthless and discredited”. 

Ayele emphasised that Ausubel was attending the conference to talk about his environmental work with Bioneers, not any of his other endeavours. “Kenny is coming to speak about climate solutions through his decades of experience in the environmental movement and work at Bioneers, and not about a documentary he independently made 20 years ago,” he wrote in an email to The Spinoff.

“Bioneers is a pioneer in the global environmental movement, and has been tested through time. The founders of the organisation are coming to New Zealand to share lessons from the global movements in climate action they are part of, to contribute to a timely discussion happening in NZ. There will also be other speakers bringing ideas for climate solutions from different angles.” 

Call me a sceptic, but I just don’t know if a man who’s into astrology and writes a book defending a hoax cancer therapy would be first on my invite list to a solve-the-climate meeting.

What makes it odd is that most of the speakers are impressive, and have important stories to tell. From the founder of Little Yellow Bird, which produces ethically made uniforms, to Hazel Heal, founder of Hepatitis C Action Aotearoa, many seem worthy and smart. Science communicator Michelle “Nanogirl” Dickinson is also in the mix.

When I started looking at the event, I tried to find a media contact on the New Frontiers website, but there wasn’t one. So I did things the old-fashioned way and sent them a message on Facebook. The next day they got back to me, saying they’d get back to me later that day.

With no word, I decided to write a sceptical tweet about it, because in my experience, sceptical tweets sometimes get answers.

Several minutes later I got an email from someone at the Edmund Hillary Foundation, asking if I’d like to attend. I wrote back clarifying that I didn’t particularly want to attend, but did have some questions for whoever was in charge of booking. 

Yoseph Ayele, co-founder and CEO of Edmund Hillary Fellowship, then wrote: “New Frontiers brings diverse and often divergent conversations that are happening around the world, with the goal of tackling pressing and highly interconnected challenges of our time, including the enormous climate crisis, rising inequality, global health, mass displacement, positive and negative effects of technology, and more.

“We’re providing a platform for these ideas to come together to share and collaborate on outcomes and solutions.”

The speaker selection for New Frontiers got me thinking about the other selection the Hillary Edmund Fellowship makes: of their fellows, one of whom, we now know, is Ferriss himself.

“Fellows are accepted into the programme through a competitive application process, with international Fellows receiving exclusive access to New Zealand’s new Global Impact Visa (GIVs).”

So the same organisation picking speakers like astrology fan Kenny Ausubel was also involved in selecting those who will then have access to apply for a special visa into New Zealand.

And while Immigration New Zealand is ultimately responsible for issuing these visas, they can only be issued to people who are picked as Edmund Hillary Fellows.

Ayele made it clear to The Spinoff that “the Edmund Hillary Fellows are selected with different criteria” to those selected to speak at New Frontiers. I’d like to think those criteria strike out “bogus cancer therapy apologists” and “astrology enthusiasts”. 

A line from The 4-Hour Workweek, the 2007 hit book of new fellow Tim Ferriss, comes to mind: “Expert status can be created in less than four weeks if you understand basic credibility indicators.”

We can only hope it requires a bit more than that to successfully apply for an Edmund Hillary Fellowship, a global impact visa, or a speaking spot at next year’s New Frontiers conference.

Additional reporting by Alice Neville


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