Are rule breakers the surprising solution to climate change?

Before John Elkington came onto the scene, the thought of prioritising anything other than profit was an anathema to many companies. But then the Triple Bottom Line theory of People, Planet and Profit emerged – Elkington’s proposal to shake up the system and “provoke deeper thinking about capitalism and its future.”

Its purpose was to encourage companies to put the same emphasis on social and environmental concerns as they did to profits. But in 2018, he explained the need for a “recall”, writing: “Whereas CEOs, CFOs, and other corporate leaders move heaven and earth to ensure that they hit their quarterly profit targets, the same is very rarely true of their people and planet targets”.  Despite this, the theory still forms the backbone of a growing number of companies, such as those part of the B Corp movement.

Elkington, a major force in corporate responsibility and sustainable development, spoke to The Skylark about the biggest opportunity we have as a species to change things for the better. And more solutions, he argues, will be unleashed with a rise in female leaders and disruptors who aren’t afraid to defy the system as we know it.

I’ve spent much of my life working with business. People tend to assume that because business operates in markets, that markets are predictable and they’re linear and tend to behave in an ordered manner. But anyone who has studied markets and the evolution of economies realises that they are much more like ecosystems. You have periods of stability and periods of instability. I’ve been aware of that since I did economics in the late 60s. But I only did it for one year as it seemed to make very little sense by the way it was taught. It didn’t take into account environmental factors at all.

One of the thoughts I did come away with, however, was that the dynamics in our economies are very multi factorial and that there are these moments where things go extremely wobbly. Some of that is because of war or conflict, and sometimes it may be because of an external influence like weather and climate changing in unpredictable ways.

But the tendency is that our economies are largely driven by technologies. These technologies are created, we invest in them, they evolve, we build our societies around them and then the technology shifts. And when they shift, society and our activity moves as well.

On the threshold of the biggest disruption in our entire history

So, where are we? I think we’re heading into the mother of all U-Bends. We’re in a period where an old order is coming apart. This old order can be tracked back to 1944 when the architecture of the post second world war global economy was laid out. But since then, we’ve had a whole series of technologies coming in, particularly in the last forty years or so. I have felt for several years now that we are on the cusp of some sort of discontinuity.

We look out now and we see a landscape that is wriggling with new technologies, most of them digital in nature. They range from satellites and drones, through to autonomous vehicles, the internet of things, synthetic biology and so on. We have more of these technologies coming through than at any previous period in our collective history. So our technological landscape is primed for this transformation.

But I think there will be a cultural shift as well. Ordinary people are waking up to the fact that the world is interconnected in a way they could scarcely begin to imagine. A world where wildlife trafficking in Thailand is linked to wet markets in Wuhan, which link to infections in traders, then everybody, and then that goes global. Like climate change, many saw [Covid-19] coming in broad outlines and we should have responded but we didn’t.

So, we’re headed downwards. This is a period where people become increasingly confused and uncertain and fearful and angry. That’s where a lot of this recent political populism comes from. We’re headed downwards and undoubtedly there will be enormous pain as a result. I think this is going to be pretty gruelling at times.

Climate change, just to take one example, forces migration of tens of millions of people and suddenly you’re into barricades and walls and conflict. In fact, I think we may well see some form of major conflict. And the U-Bend for me is not like a recession. It is something that goes on for a much longer period of time than most people initially expect. We’ll be lucky to be coming out of the other side within 12 to 15 years.

John with his wife Elaine helping to release 30,000 eels into the River Severn in 2014 alongside the Sustainable Eel Group.

Now the upside is that this is a wave and it will come and we will come back up. And when we do, we’re coming into a transformed world. I was born an optimist. I don’t think one could do this sort of work without believing this world was improvable. I believe these periods of discontinuity are the biggest opportunity we have as a species to change things. In my mind, it is the opportunity to change things for the better.

We need more women leaders at every level in our society

One result is that we will start to see a difference in leaders emerging across every level in our society. Their view of what makes an appropriate, effective and sustainable solution will be quite different from the people they are replacing.

Look at Greta Thunberg. Suddenly, there is this 16-year-old girl, standing up and telling the world what it needs to know with a vision and acuity that is quite remarkable. That is an early indicator of where we’re heading next. We’re going to hear all sorts of voices from people we’ve never heard before.

It’s dangerous to generalise, but I believe we need more women leaders at every level in our society and in our economies. It’s often said that on balance men tend to be more instrumental, priding themselves on being able to think systemically. But women seem more aware of a broader world as part of their wiring and so when we talk about solutions, it is essential we continue to bridge the gender divide and bring women into the economy in a much more profound way.

“This is a wave and it will come and we will come back up. And when we do, we’re coming into a transformed world.”

It was fascinating that when Project Drawdown did their analysis of solutions to climate change, girls’ education was number six in the priority list. I don’t think it is coincidental that every country that is doing moderately well through this difficult time is likely to have a female leader. Societies that elect female leaders are more inclined towards a broader view of the world.

We have an opportunity now to wake up

We’re moving into a set of industrial revolutions which is off the scale greater and more complicated than anything we’ve gone through previously. But there will be all sorts of unintended consequences as we develop and deploy solutions.

We have to be incredibly alert to the weak signals as things start to go wrong. Some of the biggest crises over the last 60 years have actually been created by things considered to be safe at the time. Chlorofluorocarbons were the much safer alternative for refrigeration and yet they blew a hole in the ozone layer. We’re going to have unintended consequences on at least that scale.

Who we are, what we want to see happen, what we value, what we are prepared to protect: all of those questions are going to become increasingly important. As the evidence of climate change presses home ever more severely, it’s going to become very present in a growing number of people’s minds.

The question is then what do they do with it. Do we flash in anger? Do we attack people whose fault it is? Or do we over time accept that this is a set of unintended consequences. No one planned directly to destroy the biosphere or destabilise the climate. We have an opportunity now to wake up and, in a very short order, do things differently.

Innovation comes from the edge of the system

As a species, we’re too clever for our own good. We are very adept at creating crises that we are very inept at tackling in an effective way: plastic pollution, antibiotic resistance, obesity, space debris and the climate emergency. Diabetes is an invisible pandemic with a bigger impact over time than Covid-19. All of these so called wicked problems have characteristics that almost defy solution.

When we ask the question of how do we solve all of this, we’ve got to be able to step back from our own understanding of reality. It’s one of the reasons why in times of massive destructive change, innovation comes from the edge of the system. Here, solutions flourish because they didn’t operate to the standard rules or obey the systemic instructions.

I think that’s where we are. If you pay real attention to climate change, it is pretty bleak. The outcomes are outside of most people’s experience so they don’t want to think about it. But solutions help people think about those problems and provide a happier stepping stone to what is needed.

John Elkington’s latest book Green Swans (Fast Company Press, April 2020) is available now from all good book shops.

If you have been inspired by any of the issues in this story, then click here to explore how you can Take Action and be part of the solution today.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity – 3rd July 2020

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