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#54 John Elkington: a lifetime of corporate sustainability and the rise of the Green Swans

#54 John Elkington: a lifetime of corporate sustainability and the rise of the Green Swans

John Elkington has been at the forefront of environmental research, advocacy and writing since the 70’s. He launched a consulting company called SustainAbility, long before the term had become the buzzword that it is today.

A lot of his work has been in corporate sustainability, helping companies adapt and innovate amid environmental and social change.

He’s a writer, a speaker, and a provocateur. And he’s just published the book of the year, Green Swans.

The book riffs on the concept of Black Swans, popularized by Nassim Taleb. But instead of representing unexpected catastrophic events, Green Swans represent an opportunity, for positive change.

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On this episode…

John had a lot of wisdom to share. We discussed:

  • The seismic shifts occurring in 2020, and the prospects for the decade to be one of huge change, “The exponential decade”.
  • Why incumbent industries resist change, even when they can forsee their own demise.
  • The importance of government to legislate for clean-energy.
  • And the sad reality that government’s may need to pay big dollars to keep fossil fuels in the ground (akin to how the slave-trade was ended).
  • Change comes from the edge of systems, disruptors aren’t going to be found in big-multi-national companies.
  • Is the human brain capable of dealing with a challenge like climate change? Or should we use artificial intelligence to take-over where we have failed?
  • John’s early years, and how he quit economics to pursue environmental management.
  • His work in corporate sustainability, and his role as ‘the grit in the oyster’, to drive change in organisations, where there are incentives to stick with the status-quo.
  • The power of science-fiction to predict the future. And the rise of Chinese sci-fi as the most prescient looking-glass.

My key takeaway this week…

Change happens gradually then suddenly, and right now, we’re on the precipice of a new world-order.

Breaking down old systems is never easy, but the cracks are starting to show.

The leaders of tomorrow will come from the edges, they will be names we’ve not yet heard of, who will lead us to a new future of renewable energy, impact measurement and regenerative systems.

Good Future’s Good Books

Green Swans

By John Elkington

The Three Body Problem

Cixin Liu

I would go for a category, and we’re seeing science fiction come back. Part of it is coming from China. And just as when the US was in the ascendency you had a huge outpouring of science fiction. Now we’re seeing it come from China and other places.

I would recommend good science fiction, and one that’s talked about a lot is William Gibson, I’ve read almost everything he’s written.

Either science fiction, or history. I think it was Mark twain who said, ‘History may not repeat itself, but by god it rhymes’. There are these patterns, and if you can get your head around some of that, you might be able to see where the future is headed before others do.

The first one (Chinese Sci-fi novel) I read was The Three Body Problem. And at the beginning you wouldn’t think this would give you an insight into China, but over time as I read more I suddenly began to feel how different China is, how it thinks, and about its own future. And the trouble that’s going to get us into in future. It doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed.

But I’ve spent plenty of time in China, and the Chinese have often said they’ve studied the rise of Prussia and don’t want to go there, in the sense of two world wars. But I think that’s where we’re headed, and that’s not to say the next world war will be anything like the previous two. It’ll be cyber and robotic and drones. But perhaps that will be where it start, like with Dreadnaughts. I think we need to understand China far better, and we need to understand how to understand a culture that, as it becomes more ascendant, wanting to bully the world. And I think that’s incredibly dangerous.

But paradoxically it’s one of the countries I’m most interested in.

Links

SustainAbility

Volans

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