John Elkington is an advisor on sustainable development and corporate responsibility, an area he’s been working in for almost 40 years. He is the author of 20 books on this topic, and he has given a remarkable contribution to shifting capitalism and business towards a more balanced and sustainable path. We talk about his new book called “Green Swans: The Coming Boom in Regenerative Capitalism,” we also talk about wicked and super wicked problems, exponentials, why he reads Chinese science fiction books, his visit with past guest Kevin Kelley and what he’s both terrified of and excited about in the coming ten to fifteen year.
Mark Bidwell 2:39
Hi, this is Mark Bidwell, welcome back, or welcome to the OutsideVoices podcast. My guest this week is John Elkington, who’s an advisor on sustainable development and corporate responsibility, and he’s been doing this for almost 40 years, as well as the author of 20 books on this topic. Meeting him reminded me of Margaret Meads’ quote, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world.’ This quote might well have been written with John in mind, given his remarkable contribution to shifting capitalism and business towards a more balanced and sustainable path. Now, in our conversation, we discuss his new book, “Green Swans,” we talk about wicked and super wicked problems, exponentials, why he reads Chinese science fiction books, his visit with past guest Kevin Kelley, and what he’s both terrified of and excited about in the coming 10 to 15 years. So here is John Elkington.
Mark Bidwell 3:46
John, great to have you on the program. You’ve just published book number 20, which is called “Green Swans: The Coming Boom in Regenerative Capitalism”. Why did you write this book, and who’s it aimed for?
John Elkington 4:00
Well, the simple answer to the question is I can’t stop writing books. It seems to be one critical part of who I am. But this particular book, it started out in a rather different vein, I was fascinated by artificial intelligence, as I suspect many of us are, certainly, I’m sure you are, but I was thinking about almost, how do you go from artificial intelligence to artificial wisdom? And then the reasoning for that was, we seem to be entering into a period, long predicted in some ways, where many of our problems, our challenges become systemic, so much, much, much harder to deal with, and part of what I was thinking with AI, and I went to see people like HP and DeepMind, and some of the people who were working in that sort of space, but I feel that many of the challenges that we now face are beyond the capacity of human brains unassisted to deal with and therefore we need technologies. Not the technologies will always save us, but we need technologies that amplify our capacity to just see what’s going on in the wider world, and understand the interlinkages between the multiple things that are going on at the same time, and then marshal our resources and conjure, hopefully effective and timely solutions. So that’s where it started. And then I had this moment where I suddenly remembered Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, “The Black Swan.” I went back to that and I thought, actually it’s interesting, because in a way, what he was talking about, not always, but the broad thrust was, every so often the things that come completely out of the blue, have an off the scale impact, which we don’t properly understand in the wake, and therefore set ourselves up to fail again. So these are crises, and very often they take us exponentially to places that we don’t want to go. So the question in my mind was, and in what circumstances and how might we head in the other direction, go exponentially towards solutions? So that’s where the green swan idea came from. And the coming boom in regenerative capitalism, I think for a lot of people would seem like a complete oxymoron. Then, you know, I’ve made a career out of oxymorons in the sense that capitalism is degenerative, certainly in environmental sense, often in other senses as well, how could it possibly be regenerative? And yet, I think it can be. And that was meant to be some sort of provocation, slight sting in the tail perhaps.
Mark Bidwell 6:29
And it was published, I think or you finished it in December of 2020, a month before COVID hit.
John Elkington 6:35
It actually was published in April 2020, so I finished it at the end of 2019. Although there was some mention of pandemics, the COVID wasn’t anywhere in view at the time that I wrote the book. And then, when it was published, it was more or less at the time when COVID was beginning to get a fairly unpleasant grip on the world.
Mark Bidwell 6:59
So if we get into the green swans, how would you define them? You touched on it a bit, but what’s your definition of a green swan?
John Elkington 7:06
But it’s been interesting. Since the book came out, I’ve had people sending me photographs of the business card from different parts of the world, or particularly places like Indonesia and the Philippines and so on. And it says, I am this person and I’m a green swan. And the intention really was never to say that individuals could be green swans, nor even that brands or companies could be green swans, and the plenty of people who’ve been basically saying, we’re green swans, Hallelujah. And the idea was, instead, the green swans were very often market or societal or political shifts. And therefore a company or an individual could play into those changing market realities, or political realities or whatever, but it wasn’t about individuals as such. But it’s interesting that the Bank of International Settlements has a slightly different take on green swans, where they say it’s only about climate solutions. And I always had a very different, rather more expansive definition, saying there are these things called the UN Global Goals, there are too many of them for any of us to properly remember, 17 of the Sustainable Development Goals, and 169 targets and all the rest of it. Now those goals go way beyond energy, climate related issues, so they’re education and health, transportation, all sorts of things. I feel green swans solutions apply right away across the goals. And they’re broadly no longer incremental, they’re systemic. Doesn’t mean that incremental change is now no longer needed, it’s where we all start, and it’s where most people most of the time, that’s the best they can do. But if we don’t think about the systemic side, we’re deluding ourselves.
Mark Bidwell 8:51
Yeah. And I’m curious, what were the people who sent their business cards actually doing, that said, they were green swans? I’m just interested in how they made a connection between your work and their work, and what sorts of things were they working on? Were these tech folks who are trying to build the next billion person company that positively impacts a billion people or…?
John Elkington 9:09
I suspect most of those people are a little bit too astute to have gone that route. Most of them tend to be intrapreneurs within industries or within companies who were fighting the good fight. And it might at one stage have been around energy efficiency, or it might be around human rights or anti-bribery and anti-corruption, those sorts of things. And, and you can say, yes, that work does address systemic challenges in different ways, but less the startup folk, the sort of the extraordinary innovators; more the people who are trying to change institutions or organisations. And I would be happier sticking the label on the likes of Elon Musk 15, 17 years ago, than the people who were picking on the business guys. I’d equally be happy to put it on somebody like Greta Thunberg, because in many ways, she is a one person Green Swan you might say, she has picked the world up by the scruff of the neck, and whether it’s at the UN General Assembly or whether it’s at the World Economic Forum, she has stood up as this sort of child effectively, and had world leaders paying attention to her and her agenda, that in a way is the embodiment in a way of what we’ve got to see happening in different areas of our collective lives.
Mark Bidwell 10:33
Yeah, yeah. And of course, if we go back to Elon Musk, the entry point to the conversation around AI, and then you touched on some of the exponential pieces of that. You talk about Singularity University and exponential technologies. It strikes me that humans are not wired to think exponentially, and they really struggle with it. And I suppose businesses, I was listening to someone talking the other day about how many of these new technologies are coming together and colliding in a positive way, and you got exponential upon exponential potential. And how does that play out in the terms of, I think you say we need a modern miracle, and you talk about corporations as externalising machines. Maybe we can get into some of the areas of exponential positive impacts, that gets you quite excited at the moment based on what you’re seeing. Because let’s bring some of this to life beyond the Silicon Valley buzzwords that we’re constantly fed.
John Elkington 11:30
One of the things that we did after the book came out, and it’s led by our CEO Louise Kjellerup Roper was to set up a Green Swans book club, and the most recent one of those, just earlier this week, featured Azeem Azhar of Exponential View. Azeem has just published a book called “Exponential.” And I read his newsletter update brief every Sunday, I won’t say religiously, because that has connotations, but avidly in a way. But for me, it started quite some time ago. I used to be fascinated by the thinking and work of Buckminster Fuller back in the 60s and 70s. I actually met him in Iceland in the late 70s. He talked about periods of ephemeralisation, as he would put it, where we learned to do spectacularly more with spectacularly less, and his geodesic dome was an example of how you enclosed space with much less materials. And then in 2005, I went south of San Francisco to meet Kevin Kelly ,and went to see him at his home. I’ve been fascinated by his books.
Mark Bidwell 12:39
He’s a previous podcast guest.
John Elkington 12:44
He’s one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever had the privilege to meet. His “New Rules for the New Economy,” whatever it was called, and before that, “Out of Control,” I found absolutely riveting. He was a founder of Wired Magazine and all the rest of it, and I read Wired and Fast Company and so on, and “Green Swans” was published by Fast Company Press. It’s all in that sort of space in a funny way. But when I talked to Kevin, what struck me was that much of the work that I had done to that point was trying to move the needle within the existing system. What if the existing system was simply not ever improvable to the point where it delivered the outcomes that we will need in the next few decades and beyond? And so I got to the point where I just thought, well, if what I’ve been doing all these decades is not fit for purpose, or at least the only part of the answer is a necessary, but not sufficient condition, what then do I and what then do we need? And in 2008, I split out of a company I co-founded back in 1987 called SustainAbility to set up a new entity that would give me the space and the oxygen to try things that I didn’t know how to do. And as you know, when you’re in a larger organisation, you’re constrained by all sorts of factors, processes. You’re putting at hazard potentially people’s livelihoods if you wreck the company by taking too big of a risk. So Volans was a bit of laboratory, a playpen. And right from the start, which is in 2008, we talked about system change. And at that stage system change was still very much something that if you talked to people about that agenda in business, they thought about people with placards out in the street, you know, change the system, change the system. And yet now, and you will have heard this and you heard it at COP26 and so on, business leaders are talking about systemic change. They recognise that not only is that necessary, the system is failing in some critical respects, but they also know that they can’t do all of this on their own. So that exponential element of Volans has been building in my brain for 15 plus years. That agenda now, and just to go back to your question, is on an accelerated curve itself. This exponential agenda is now increasingly talked about, if not always understood. And you said, the human brain is not particularly well configured to deal with exponentials. It is absolutely not. And that’s why I think we need quite often technology, particularly expert systems, AI systems and so on. But I think this particular moment in our collective history is the most exciting moment that I’ve actually lived through, at laleast in my working life. Part of the reason is, an old system is failing, and in those conditions, it becomes not only more important to build the next system or systems, but it becomes more possible, because it’s more the new technologies, new business models, the new mindsets, new cultures, the new economics in a way can break through because the old order has lost its capacity to rein them in.
Mark Bidwell 16:07
Yeah, there’s a lot in there, but there’s a couple of things I just wanted to touch on. One was the leaders recognised. What came through, there’s a wonderful comment, I think you were speaking to Hugh Grant, the CEO of Monsanto, about how impotent he actually was. He’s got his shareholders, he’s got everyone, and in the lack of agency that he felt he had, that was striking, not because of what he did in the industry, we look to people as being able to lead us to the future, and, clearly business people, they have those constraints. The other thing that is interesting, and that’s touching on the book club thing, I think Gates recommended this amazing book called “Ministry of the Future,” I don’t know whether you’ve read it or not.
John Elkington 16:53
I have and I’ve heard Kim Stanley Robinson also talk at COP26 of it, in fact at a couple of sessions. I read it earlier this year, and I’ve been reading his books for a while. But that one particularly, I found absolutely riveting, and again recommended it left, right and centre. Just a sidebar note, Hugh Grant certainly has been in a leadership position at Monsanto, but the person I quoted in “Green Swans” was Bob Shapiro, his predecessor. The reason why I quoted what Bob said, we’d worked with him on genetically engineered crops and related foods for about nine months. And at the end of the process, I just decided that they headed for a brick wall in Europe. I flew to the United States to talk to Bob about that. And he just couldn’t hear, and quite some years later, I sat down with him for another book, and I was just saying, why didn’t you hear what we told you? And he said, well, because Wall Street had these ridiculous multiples on us and expectations and so on, so all sorts of things that we’re having to do, including getting our products into Europe, so we couldn’t afford to hear. But it was Hugh Grant who I came out of Bob’s office and bumped into in the corridor, who was then heading the food side of Monsanto’s operations. It turned out, he’d never even heard of the work that we were doing, the head of the food operation. So it was one of those moments, you suddenly realise, left hand doesn’t know what the right hand or the left hand part of the brain doesn’t know what the right hand part of the brain is doing. At that point, we decided to resign that relationship and to do it in public, because we’ve been engaging external stakeholders. Within a year after that, Monsanto hit a wall, a market wall in Europe, and in a way you can track back the later sale of Monsanto Tobiah, which has been a tragedy in its own. But to that moment, I’m not trying to over dramatise it, they misunderstood Europe as a market. They tried to do something that Europeans wouldn’t stomach, literally. That just didn’t simply damage them, it really damaged the European biotech industry at the same time. I just go through that because then Hugh Grant came in, and he’s embraced sustainability, as Bob Shapiro did, but they had a very particular and you might even say, if you were a critic, a self-serving interpretation of what sustainability is about, which was in their minds, certainly Bob’s was about a radically greater efficiency, but it’s not just about that.
Mark Bidwell 19:37
Yeah. The other thing that struck me, when I made this point about us not understanding what exponential really means is, unfortunately, I think that’s wrong now, because we just turn the television on and you can see exponential effects on the negative side playing out in front of us. That’s the depressing side of it, but maybe the next piece then is the problems. I was struck in the book about your definition of wicked problems and super wicked problems, because they were all bad exponentials if you like, but maybe you could just characterise what’s unique about today’s problems that didn’t exist, that’s different from when you started in your career, perhaps?
John Elkington 20:19
Well, these sorts of problems track back a long way. In fact, I was talking to a colleague earlier today, there was a sort of film crew here, and there’s a Canadian woman, she was talking about asbestos. As you know, there’s a town in Canada called Asbestos. So there was a period when that was the miracle material, and people didn’t understand the health consequences. When they did, the industry continued to fight its corner, but nonetheless, asbestos finally, was consigned to the dustbin of history, and lead, and mercury and all of these different sort of toxins like cadmium, and so on. So we’ve had to fight these regular battles, but those were simple by comparison to some of the things that we’re now facing. And the first, I think, challenge that was symbolic of that new order was probably the stratospheric ozone hole issue with CFCs, and so on. And suddenly, we were impacting the globe in ways that some scientists understood, but most people really struggled with. And now with things like climate change, and with the drastic loss of species around the world, it is one of these catastrophic facts that really haunts me, that since I was 21 in 1970, the world has lost 68% of its wildlife, just almost over two thirds of the wildlife has disappeared under my watch. And I came into this as an environmentalist wanting to conserve and rebuild biodiversity. You said a moment ago that you think we’re better at exponentials now than we were. I’m not sure about that. I think when people do sit down and watch the television, what they’re seeing is a slice of an exponential reality. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they understand the underlying dynamics. It’s as true of me or friends or family, or whatever it is, as it is of people who are not in this space. And if you take something like migration, people are suddenly riveted by a story of around 30 refugees drowning in the channel this week, and what they’re not seeing is that will be millions of people in relatively short order, that what we’re seeing now is almost dribbles of people coming across the Mediterranean and across coming out of the Central and South American region, trying to get desperately into North America. Yes, a fair amount of that is still economic refugees wanting to improve their lives, and what’s wrong with that? But the climate signal is increasingly in that. The Syrian war started to some degree with water problems. So these stresses, these conflicts and so on, I think are going to really accelerate. Now, most people sit down and watch the news, what they’re actually seeing people struggling in the water or whatever it is, they’re seeing life jackets, they’re hearing about pregnant women and children, and they’re sort focusing on that, the human story, rather than the systemic crisis that we’re now facing. And then also, the way in which politicians are or are not addressing that. So to your question about wicked and super wicked problems, not my definition, these definitions have been in the scientific literature for a while, but the difference is wicked problems, and I dig into a number in the book, and there’s things as diverse as antibiotic resistance, the spread of chronic disease, fast food is one factor alongside lack of exercise and many other factors that are driving obesity around the world, which is then linked with chronic diseases, particularly things like diabetes, and there are countries like Mexico where it’s just gone absolutely berserk, with the implication over time that the cost of affording insulin, supplying insulin to people will crash public healthcare systems. This is something that companies like Novo Nordisk, big supplier of insulin, globally has been agitated about for some time. Space debris, just in the last couple of weeks, we’ve had the Russians blast one of their own space vehicles to pieces and put something like another 3000 pieces of debris into orbit around this earth. And in the book, I talk about the way in which we are all assuming, certainly Elon Musk and people like him are assuming, that we’ll be able to get off this earth and become a multi-planet species. Well, not if we continue to behave like the Russians have just done. And I was in China when they blasted one of their satellites out of space and that again put 1000s of pieces of debris. As you know, you need a tiny flick of paint to damage a satellite. So those are wicked problems. When it comes to super wicked problems, and even wicked problems have this capacity that they seem to almost resist solution. If you look at the COVID-19, again, the variant that just popped up in South Africa, when I last looked 50 mutations, 30 of them on the spike, which is where we target vaccines, two of those, from memory, link to vaccine resistance or avoidance, and so on. So super wicked problems are things like the climate emergency, that somehow as a species, we can see our future ahead of us, but we seem to be absolutely paralysed, we seem to be completely unable as a political species to address the challenge in a sufficient scale and with sufficient urgency. It’s just saying that the old pollution problems were serious enough, and the science was often astounding. You think about Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, synthetic pesticides and insecticides, nobody really knew that this was going to blow populations of wild birds out of the air, and that it would accumulate in marine mammals systems to the point where whales and so on started starting to become sterile. People didn’t know that, but again, once they knew it, the industry side of things fought back viciously and tried to tarnish Rachel Carson’s reputation. So this is an ongoing series of battles, but it’s actually about to get, I think, really vicious, because the scale of the industries that are now threatened, coal, oil, natural gas, all of these things are huge. And a lot of them are centered still in the United States, where the lobbying industry, as you know, cut its teeth on protecting tobacco. It continues to do what it’s always done.
Mark Bidwell 26:58
I was reading the Engine #1 deck, going after Exxon, or just by not going after, just flagging some of the challenges. It’s frightening stuff. It’s Friday afternoon, I’m assuming to find some things to get some glimpses of opportunity, or at least some optimism. And Kevin Kelley writes beautifully about why optimism is often misunderstood, and then we should be more optimistic. But I suppose the media doesn’t. You can’t sell TV slots on or ad slots on optimism. A couple of things that I took out from the book about the economic tools, DCF, discounted cash flows, and I suppose it’s ultimately about time horizons and we can talk about short term versus long term, but why is DCF such an enemy, or what can be done? If that was a tool, how would we use that tool?
John Elkington 27:56
Let me just say something which is, you asked me about wicked and super wicked problems which means someone delves into problems. But I actually see problems on the scale that we now face as a gift, in the sense that our species tends to rise to existential challenges better than it often rises to the ones that seem to be peripheral to its current interest. So I think again, in the next 10, 15 to 20 years, you’re going to see, almost despite what’s not happened in COP26, extraordinary innovation and scaling out of new solutions, and so on. Because in a way, this has become something that people in general sense is coming down the pike at them and their children. And they used to think that this is for our grandchildren, they now recognise it’s for them, it’s going to happen in their own lifetimes. So I am an optimist. You couldn’t work in the space if you didn’t feel that things were improvable. But it’s just I’m often stunned by how long it takes to get something that to me seems perfectly obvious. Except that political leaders used to be business leaders, I would have said, but they’re increasingly getting it. There’s a thing that underpins my optimism, which is when I was 14, a very long time ago, I read a book which transformed the way that I saw the world. And it was the “Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas Kuhn. It introduced the notion of paradigm shifts, it came out in about ’62 or ’63, I read it the following year. And what it said was that these really profound shifts in our sense of where we fit into a wider universe takes 70 to 80 years to come to fruition. Well, if you think about the work of people like Jim Lovelock, in the late 50s, early 60s, Rachel Carson and so on, environmentalism and sustainability, then all of the things that have added on since then, that’s about 60-65 years. So I think the next 10 to 15 years are just going to see the world going into an extraordinary accelerative curve, not always in the right direction. People will seize on the energy for their own purposes, including populist politicians and so on. But I do think this is a time to be not mindlessly optimistic, but to know that we can actually make this work if we decide to make it work. And then to your point about discounted cash flow, and I should just start at bit of the conversation with a public health warning. I went to university first turn around to do economics, I gave it up in 1968 after one year, because what I was being taught seemed to have absolutely nothing to do with what was going on with social and environmental problems at that stage. So I’m not exactly illiterate in economics, but sadly the economists I most liked at that time, were loathed by my professors. People like Nikolai Kondratiev, Joseph Schumpeter, they both talked about cycles of investment and disinvestment, sort of waves of innovation and no booms and crashes. There have been people like Gordon Brown who said, we’ve ironed all that out is, it’s not going to be a straight line into the future. I don’t believe so, I think our psychology dictates these sorts of patterns, and I think we’re now going into a U-bend, where an old order comes apart, and it doesn’t instantly reconfigure itself into the new order., It takes a good 10 to 15 years for that to crank through. But if you’re dealing with people who are on the upcycle element of all of that, how incredibly exciting is that? I love working with innovators, entrepreneurs, some of the people who, whether it’s impact investors or whatever else who are playing into that space. So discounted cash flow is a betrayal, and it works perfectly well if you’re operating in a system that is just cranking along, where you understand the system, and it’s not going to change that much over time. But basically, as the name is, it’s basically discounting the future. It’s saying, let’s imagine that a pound spent now, what the value is going to be over a period of time? And we’ll just run that down, it’s a mathematical exercise. But what it doesn’t, what it completely fails to grasp or help ordinary people grasp, is the fact that there are these systemic crises, largely created by the externalities, that the costs of industry and others impose on the wider world, and they build. And discounted cash flow is absolutely, not only blind to that, but it blinds anyone who uses those sorts of techniques. That’s why I’m agitated about that, but there’s a guy at Aviva Investors, Steve Waygood, who first introduced me to the logic that I articulated in the book, and I quote him at some length there as well.
Mark Bidwell 32:48
Coming back to the book “Ministry for the Future.” What I found so interesting about that was one, that it took you through a vision of hell that appeared to be playing out in real time on the television. But then it’s actually the two things. One is, it came to BIS or these kinds of supra-governmental, supranational organisations. They started to take control of the situation, they price carbon, but the other thing that was interesting, and that was ultimately, that combined with a number of other tools like geoengineering, was what he used to take the narrative to a more positive ending. But the other thing that struck me was that there was so much resignation. People started playing outside the system, and they use tools like terrorism to actually make change happen. And it was such a powerful book for me, partly because I’m pretty new to the ideas, but more importantly, that I’d never had a glimpse of what some of those solutions could be, beyond the technical solutions that you read about, wind farms and regenerative energy. So for me, it was just a very powerful way of looking at the world and getting a glimpse of the future. But of course, bringing it back to ECF, which was called Ministry for the Future, and that’s why I touched on that. The other thing that struck me was carbon. Mark Carney talks a lot about the importance of carbon. Is that part of the solution set, do you think or not?
John Elkington 34:07
It has to be. And I think one of the systemic failures of economics as we’ve practiced it over the recent decades has been that it hasn’t had any form of pricing on many critical resources, including carbon. A colleague and friend Paul Hawken, in his new book “Regeneration,” and in prior books, like “Drawdown,” has talked about carbon as this exquisite molecule. It has this love of all sorts of other molecules. It’s in this frenzy of recombination out of which has come this hugely complex set of chemicals that we rely on for our lives and livelihoods and all the rest of it. So I think we’ve got to come at carbon, not just as an enemy and as hostile, but as something that is intrinsic to life. You’ve got all these net zero commitments being made by companies. I’m not against them, but they all assume that the carbon is just going to be squeezed out of their supply chains and out of their operations. I think that is slightly naive, and one of the things that struck me about “Ministry for the Future” was that, you will remember, but we’ve just had COP26, Kim Stanley Robinson, the author, had things beginning to move in the right direction by, from memory, COP58, that’s quite a period of transition, and you’re right, the ministry of the title, and almost the central figure in all of this does, at a certain point, talk about and you assume start to be active in terrorism, where people start to assassinate the CEOs of some of the problem industries. Now, if you had no grasp of history, you might assume that that would take us quite quickly in the right direction. But I had friends in the 60s who were part of terrorist groups, I didn’t know that at the time. One of them went to prison for 10 years for trying to blow up British government ministers. She’s now dead, but I look back at that period as a complete diversion from true change. And the reason was, the terrorist outrages if you want to put it that way, strengthened the hands of ultra conservatives and the security forces, and so on. So although it’s nice to play with the idea of these things, that they have big downsides and risks associated with them. But I think that will happen. The sense of outrage and betrayal among young people, and not just on climate change, but that’s probably the biggest one of the lot, will build, it is building, and I think it’s gonna be very dangerous if that really starts to get into its stride. I think we’ve got a fairly narrow window in which to engage or reengage the younger people and give them some confidence that, rather than the political classes being corrupt, and the business leadership class being incompetent in these critical areas, that there is some considerable hope that we can get this round, if everyone gets in behind this in the right way, in the right timing. That’s all. And I continue to believe that, but in the face of the evidence, that is actually an optimistic statement.
Mark Bidwell 37:09
I was thinking, sitting down with two of my children at dinner tonight, and I know they’ll continue to ask questions about what’s going on. And it’s very difficult to give answers, you can give them the blind optimism but actually give them the facts to support that. Because from their perspective, we continue to fail. And I don’t have a role, I’m a voter, of course, and that’s about it. But if you were with us, where would you be pointing to for pockets of optimism?
John Elkington 37:38
You’re talking about your children, and thanks to them over your head for putting the pressure on, because in the conversations I’ve been having with business leaders in the last 18 months, two years, that dynamic has increasing impetus and increasing impact, CEOs have been saying to people like me. Now I’m getting from the breakfast table for my children, I’m getting it from our interns, I’m getting it from the talent that we’re trying to recruit. So there’s pockets of the future where you can already see things bubbling up everywhere. They’re all around us. And in certain sectors, they’re more conspicuous than others. So the electric vehicles and all of that activity would be one very obvious example. But if listeners, your audience haven’t come across the work of RethinkX, based both in Silicon Valley and the UK, I really recommend their series of studies initially on transportation and the ability that was global. Secondly, on cattle ranching and dairying that was in the United States. Then one, globally again, on energy and another one on finance, and then one on humanity’s capacity to understand and drive and achieve systemic change. Incredible work, but there’s the model that sits at the heart of it, as you all know, which basically erupts into the future, such that if you just take the cattle ranching and dairying thing in the US, likely the forecasts from RethinkX on something like 60% of the animals on American farms will disappear over the next 25 to 30 years. Now, if you think about the political dynamics that got Trump into power, with blue collar people feeling that their livelihoods are threatened, and you think of the millions of people depending on agriculture in the US, if you think about Elon Musk and his truck and other people’s autonomous trucks as well. What is it, 2.5-3 million Americans are tuckers? The political dynamics are horrendous, and yet, and yet, and yet, I think what will happen as a result of that is a different set of leaders will emerge to tackle those crises. I don’t so often see our current leaders suddenly having these sort of road to Damascus experience, conversion experiences and coming out transformed and able to deal with the new system. I think we’ve just got to bring younger people through as fast as we decently can, but not dump the whole of this in their laps. This is a multigenerational, an intergenerational challenge. And the older people, I’m a baby boomer, I’m 72, I’m in some ways terrified of the next 10 to 15 years, but incredibly excited, because I think we’ll see change literally go off the scale. But the older people tend to be in many countries wealthier, much better networked, they have a political influence. They vote, which younger people tend to be disinclined to do. So this has to be across the generations. And it’s that part of things which I find more interesting, fascinating, exciting than almost any other part of this.
Mark Bidwell 40:46
Well, to be fair to my children, one of them is vegan, the other one is vegetarian, and these are for good reasons, for reasons of animal cruelty there. They talk about the implications of how many chickens, I had Jim Mellon who does a lot of work in agriculture, and some of the statistics he was putting out in terms of 90 billion chickens a year slaughtered or something. The numbers are staggering, and people are voting, we might think we’re doing a good job, I’d say I’m not going to dump on EasyJet for a couple of weeks, to give it a break. But they’re taking real steps, there is positive green shoots in terms of how the next generation is behaving, I think.
John Elkington 41:24
No, totally. I’ve been a vegetarian for 45 years, and we’ve been forced, just recently, we live in London, and there’s the new Ultra Low Emission zone thing, which just happens to capture our part of London. So for 45 years, I’ve had a car or we’ve had a car, we no longer have one, and I’m beginning to experiment. I think that an interaction between consumer choice and public policy and corporate action can be extremely powerful if it operates in the right way. I think the dietary shifts in younger people are immensely exciting, because it indicates a number of things. One is that they’re beginning to understand some of the dynamics here, and maybe it’s an emotional switch on to start with, but over time, they will get messaging and information around more and more of this. But also, it’ll give them experience of agency, that they will see, again over the next decade and some, a really major shift towards synthetic protein, alternative protein, whatever we call it. I went to a dinner the other evening, which is called a disruption dinner, where we were served everything from synthetic tuna to meat made out of cellular biotechnology. And some of those products could do with an evolutionary spurt, but already, they’re pretty good. And the more of us who pile in and buy in that space, the quicker those technologies, and that’s the crucial point. They are technologies, they will evolve, the price point will come screeching down in sector after sector, and that’s absolutely critical to RethinkX’ work. That’s again, why I say this is such an exciting time. But again, what applies to food or energy also applies to the weapons of terrorism and so on. For Kim Stanley Robinson, maybe that’s a good thing. I don’t think so, I think we face on the security front, some pretty large hazards and problems as well. But again, we can get on top of them if we decide that’s what we want to do.
Mark Bidwell 43:18
John, this has been fascinating. We’re almost out of time. I’ve got three final questions and I’ll link those documents into the show notes. I will personally look forward to reading them, and I’ll make sure that we get them out. But first question, what have you changed your mind about recently?
John Elkington 43:35
I think one of the things that I’ve changed my mind about, it’s the expectations, it’s the sense that, whether we like it or not, there is an unraveling of a geopolitical system that we’ve all grown up in, since 1944, Bretton Woods and so on. And that economic and geopolitical order had all sorts of assumptions built into it, but broadly, it operated moderately well much of the time. I think that’s starting to decompose, you’ve got the Chinese trying to set up their own rival global institutions and so on. I used to think that we’d be able to rely on the UN and I’m not sure, ff you take it 10 to 15 years into the future. That’s absolutely true. But I suppose the biggest thing in the work that we do, that has shifted in my mind, and it’s accelerated over time, but probably started 10 years ago or so, is this idea that working with individual companies and improving their understanding and their performance, and optimising their impact and all the rest of it, that’s used to feel like the key salient in all of this and at the time it was, because people just, in the citizen movements, hated business, didn’t want to engage, and business really was quite dismissive of that lot as well. I think we’ve made a huge amount of progress in that space. So for a Walmart, I have no love of Walmart, that CEO Doug McMillon last September 2020, to declare he is now determined to make Walmart a regenerative company. That’s a signal that things are changing in that world. But what I suppose has become clearer and clearer to me is the idea that this is systemic, it is about markets, and markets are not God given, they’re social constructs. They may evolve over time, but we decide as a species what we will allow or not allow. I think we are at a period now where we need to manipulate engineer change, shift markets in ways that are beyond most people’s expectations or understanding. And I suppose that’s an area where I have changed my mind. How we do it is still somewhat of an open question, but you can see the pockets in policy frameworks that are starting to shift things in the right direction. What’s the second question?
Mark Bidwell 45:52
Second question is, where do you go to get fresh perspectives, especially when facing tough challenges?
John Elkington 45:57
I read a huge amount. Every so often, I fall out of love with science fiction, but since the early 60s, I’ve been reading science fiction and then it goes in waves. There are times when it seems incredibly relevant, and now the science fiction that I find seems incredibly relevant. Partly that’s Western science fiction, and it is people like Kim Stanley Robinson, but it’s also Chinese science fiction. And I think there’s very often link between a culture and economy, a society that feels is absolutely about to own the future.
Mark Bidwell 46:33
John Elkington 46:34
There’s a guy called Liu Cixin. He’s written quite a number of short stories and novels, one of which is called The Wandering Earth, that’s been made into a major film. There’s somebody I know in the United States, David Brin, who is a science fiction author and he’s written all sorts of books, “The Postman” and a range of other things, and he’s quite widely connected into the world of Chinese science fiction as well. So that’s one place I go for inspiration. Another is, every so often, and quite often it’s when I’m writing a book, but not always. I’m inclining to do it again next year, I go off on walkabout, and I go and talk to people at the cutting edge of whatever field they happen to be in to get a sense of what is latent already in today’s world, what might come through with growing force and impact and hopefully beneficial over time. That includes activists, includes policymakers, includes entrepreneurs and innovators and investors. But also very often it’s included science fiction authors. So for example, in 1983, I sat down with Frank Herbert, who is dead now, but his book went into the film Dune. Paradoxically, because I’ve been traveling, even though it’s come out already, I haven’t seen it yet. I’m really, really keen to do so. Because, I think, more than any other single science fiction author that I have read, particularly I’ve encountered, Frank Herbert understood ecology. He was somebody who deeply, deeply cared for what he saw happening in the world around him, and then projected that into the future. So there’s two of the areas that I would turn to. Otherwise, nature. I just love being in the natural world, and it’s a form, I don’t meditate, I don’t say that with a great pride, but I don’t, but being in nature is pretty much the equivalent for me.
Mark Bidwell 48:35
Wonderful, wonderful. And the final question, how has a failure set you up for future success?
John Elkington 48:41
One of the school reports I remember, I was 11 I think at the time, I still got the report, not because of that one, just my parents kept my reports, basically said John sets himself low standards and consistently fails to achieve them. I don’t know whether this was something that was allocated to a particular student each year or whatever, but when I think back to what I was doing at that stage, I was always reading around the edges of subjects. I was much less interested by what I was being taught. So if I was being taught history, because I was brought up in places like Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Israel and so on, I was fascinated by religious wars, I was fascinated by civil wars, not because I wanted to go there, but they were like X-rays of societies. The American Civil War, for example, you can still see that so strongly in today’s politics in that country, and it leads you to ask the question of whether they are headed to another proper civil war. At the moment, you of course say No, I mean how could they, but then very often, before these sort of outbreaks of conflict, people say exactly the same. In terms of failures, the worst failure I had was, I think 1986, where I was on the board of a foundation Earth Life doing spectacularly good work. And then I just began to get this agitation that something was wrong with the numbers. I’m numbers blind, so not the perfect board member at the best of times. I pulled in a Chairman from mainstream industry, And he and I were, it wasn’t my foundation, there were founders, but Peter came in and we worked together for five months, and everything we looked at got worse. It’s always a sign that things are much worse than you imagined they might be. But at the end, there was a meeting where people came together, and some of them were owed hundreds of thousands of pounds, that the foundation eventually went down to the tune of something like a million pounds. By the end of the three year session where I thought the founder would be lynched, people were saying, how much more money do you need, but by then it was too late, he just had this extraordinary charisma. But it was like a neutron star, there was so much good work going on in that organisation, it’s sprayed out through the wider world. And I took a lot of that into SustainAbility when we set up that organisation in 1987. It’s now clear to me what happened, but at the time, it was existential, it was catastrophic. This is not what we wanted to happen. And for 10 years, I didn’t talk to the founder, because he felt I’d betrayed the organisation. I think it would have gone down, no question about it. Now, what I was trying to do is try and make sure it was a reasonably good order. So I suppose if I’ve learned a lesson from all of that, it was maybe a mistake. It’s that all of the organisations I have built since then, three of them, all of which still exist, they’re all smaller than the market would naturally have had them. And I’ve done that because of that guy, if we went from 4 people to 44 in 18 months, and then boom, and 44 is not a big number, but it does need processes and so on. So I think that probably was the worst thing that’s happened to me. And I benefited immensely from the work that we were certainly doing, because I’ve ridden those opportunities forward. And I’m not always sure that I’ve learned the right lessons, maybe I should have gone for scale, or maybe I should have gone for much bigger organisations, but with Volans, we’re about to start scaling a little, but still with that basic sense of being around in the long term is more important than just growing things for the sake of doing that.
Mark Bidwell 52:25
And that works equally well at the planetary level as well as the business level of course, right?
John Elkington 52:32
Well, yes, except if the problems are so great that we have less than a decade now a window of opportunity to get this sorted, then there is an argument for saying we should grow as fast as we can, because we’ve got to bridge this divide. But I just suspect that argument, or at least I’m suspicious of that line of argument. And I think there are all sorts of ways of having an impact way beyond the scale of your actual numbers, whether that’s the team size, or annual revenues or whatever, by picking the right types of work, working with the right sort of people and getting over time, not always as experimental, but the right sort of outcomes.
Mark Bidwell 53:15
Yep. John, this has been fascinating, wonderful, very helpful for me to learn more about your work, and hopefully, for my audience, because, as I said before we came on, a number of them are in leadership positions, and have some leaps and difficult choices to make in the future in terms of how they allocate their time and their money. So thank you very much for that. You gave an email address in the book, I don’t want to misquote it, but if people wanted to get in touch with you, how should they be doing that?
John Elkington 53:43
The email is [email protected]. And I answer every email. Alternatively, I’m on LinkedIn, I accept most of the invitations there. There’s some quirky ones as well. And I’m quite fairly active on Twitter as well. I love conversations, so always trying to open out the boundaries of the reality bubble that I live in.
Mark Bidwell 54:09
And we all live in. Yeah, absolutely. Thank you very much for your time, much appreciated. And good luck, I look forward to reading about your new book when that comes out. Sounds like you’re still working on it for next year.
John Elkington 54:20
Well, Mark, thank you, and thank you for the interest. Thank you for linking me up with your audience. I’ve tried twice to write this 21st book. It’s stuttered twice, I’m hoping the third time is lucky, so that’ll be over the Christmas and New Year period, I suspect. Thank you.
Mark Bidwell 54:36
Thanks very much.