John Elkington on Green Swans, Covid-19 and green market shifts
In a viewpoint written exclusively for edie's Mission Possible 2020 report, Volans' chairman and chief pollinator John Elkington discusses a new "age of miracles" whereby the once impossible belief that sustainability could dictate market actions now becomes the core lever of an economic recovery.
There are moments in history when things long seen as impossible become not only possible but inevitable. We are in such a time.
Covid-19 is a clear signal that we have entered the “Exponential Decade”, but there will be plenty more such disruptions before we – and businesses that make it through – enter the 2030s.
You could say that we are entering a new age of miracles. But perhaps I should explain. It is human nature to dismiss or ignore what we fail to understand. And we are particularly inclined to do so when confronted with anything that threatens our sense of reality, our hard-won certainties, our identities. Too often, we dismiss ideas or information that cut across our current sense of reality as “crazy”.
This is as true in business and financial markets as it is in our day-to-day lives. So many of us still find it hard to get our brains around what Nassim Nicholas Taleb famously called “Black Swans”, events that can take us exponentially towards disaster. So, the idea that we might now conjure positive exponentials, or “Green Swans”, seems to stray into the realm of miracles. My favourite explanation of what a modern miracle might be comes from Charles Eisenstein of Yale University. He concludes that transformations of the sort now needed will be seen as miracles.
But he has a different take on miracles. Eisenstein’s view: they are events that seem impossible from an old worldview, an old story, but that become entirely possible within a new story. “A miracle,” he says, “is more than an event: it is an invitation.”
Consider yourself invited. My latest, twentieth book – Green Swans: The Coming Boom In Regenerative Capitalism – investigates areas where modern miracles are urgently required. They include so-called “wicked” problems such as plastics in the ocean, antibiotic resistance, obesity and chronic disease, space debris, species extinction and, sometimes called a “superwicked” problem, the climate emergency.
The book’s first diagram is one I have used in presentations for several years. My assumption has been that the world is headed into a U-bend of historic proportions, well beyond a single, normal recession. Instead, we are in a period where the established macroeconomic and political order goes down the tubes, while new ones begin to surface. As we head deeper into the U-bend, we enter the dark area, a time of maximum confusion, uncertainty fear and anger.
Meanwhile, like an X-ray, Covid-19 has illuminated critical fault lines in our societies, underscoring the lack of transparency in China, the wealth divides in countries as diverse as France and the US, and the different vulnerabilities of people of different ages and in different states of health.
It has also thrown into stark relief the incremental reflexes of politicians at a time when so many of our challenges are going exponential.
And the swans? Well, when Taleb launched the Black Swan concept in 2007, on the threshold of the 2007-9 financial crash, he was very specific about what he meant. A Black Swan, he said, is an event that comes as an immense surprise, has a major impact, and is often poorly understood and rationalised afterwards.
The Green Swan is a symbol of radically better times to come. Green Swans are profound market shifts, generally catalysed by some combination of Black or Grey Swan challenges and changing paradigms, values, mindsets, politics, policies, technologies, business models and other key factors. A Green Swan delivers exponential progress in the form of economic, social and environmental wealth creation.
Getting from here to there will be no trivial task, however. Times of disruptive change upend market and political pecking orders, creating social and political shockwaves which can last for decades, even generations.
As covered in more detail throughout this edie report, Green Swans worthy of the name will include: the rapid electrification of our mobility and transportation systems; the exponential evolution of machine learning and AI designed to help manage our businesses, supply chains and economies in the evolving Anthropocene; and the emergence of new behaviours, including the growing appetite for plant-based diets. Another example could be the EU’s €1trn Green Deal, designed to deliver an integrated set of economic, social and environmental outcomes in the face of the climate emergency.
These are themes we are investigating in our ongoing Tomorrow’s Capitalism Inquiry. And it is increasingly clear that creating the necessary conditions and incentives for such innovation requires a radical expansion of the current responsibility frame in which most corporate “sustainability” efforts operate.
Instead, we need a much more systematic focus on ensuring our economic, social and environmental systems are resilient and – where necessary – the subject of sustained, effective regeneration efforts. It is time for us all to step up – or get out of the way. As climate activist Christiana Figueres puts it: “This is the decade – and we are the generation.”
Mission Possible 2020
John Elkington has been described as the “godfather of sustainability”. He has co-founded four companies, including Volans, where he is Chairman and Chief Pollinator. He is the author of 20 books—the latest, just published by Fast Company Press, being Green Swans: The Coming Boom in Regenerative Capitalism. John has served as a member of more than 70 boards and advisory boards.
His words act as the opening viewpoint for edie’s Mission Possible 2020 report. This exclusive edie report explores how a green recovery from Covid-19 can be achieved across six of the UK's biggest industries: Utilities, Manufacturing, Construction, Retail, Hospitality & Leisure, and the Public Sector.
The 38-page report, developed in association with Centrica Business Solutions, is aimed at business leaders, sustainability, CSR and energy professionals who are seeking information, inspiration and advice when it comes to accelerating climate action in the 2020s. Download the report here.