“I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic, I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” Greta Thunberg is one of a vast cast of characters who appears in John Elkington’s seminal work, Green Swans: the Coming Boom in Regenerative Capitalism.
Her call to arms is taken up by the author, though given the scale of opportunities he sketches, maybe like ‘The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy’ it should be subtitled ‘Don’t panic’.
Elkington, described on the dust jacket as ‘The Godfather of Sustainability’, knows just about everyone, and tells us so. He confesses: “Over the decades, much of my work has involved getting into the minds of people in boardrooms and on the top floors of skyscrapers,” and there is no question that someone who has sat on seventy boards has a lot to say.
The Anthropocene epoch
His apparently universal presence in executive suites is easy to understand. Elkington is a first-rate communicator and a master of the ‘pithy phrase’. He is also one of what he describes as the “out of the box folk” – the futurologists who tell us what is likely to happen.
And the future’s going to be a bumpy ride. We have entered the ‘Anthropocene epoch', where for the first time our “single species has a global impact akin to geological forces."
Elkington warns of a “world in growing turmoil” where “crossing the two degrees warming threshold” will cause “climate induced societal collapse,” and a major crisis in capitalism itself. He quotes Irwin Selzer’s admonition that “the growing calls for systematic change …are too often ignored by capitalists who fail to hear the sound of the approaching tumbrils.”
And yet fear not. On this white-knuckle ride, the reader is taken by the hand by the author, and his meandering, almost folksy style is reminiscent of Warren Buffett delivering one of his annual general meetings. Elkington admits “a distinctly personal thread has run through this book.” This soothes our nerves - and thankfully we are spared Buffett’s banjo.
Impact investors are also given a lot to hope for. The title of the book is derived from the reference amongst investors to unforeseen dramatic events as 'Black Swans'. The central tenet of the book is that in future we will see 'Green Swans'. Elkington is careful to warn us against misusing this term to mean simply black swans caused by climate change. I must confess I have made that error myself.
Rather Elkington argues “A Green Swan is a profound market shift …(that) delivers exponential progress in the form of economic, social and environmental wealth creation.” And he means “exponential". He discusses “market opportunities worth up to $12 trillion a year (my italics) by 2030".
“Shifting to an exponential mindset is challenging” and much of Elkington’s most interesting observations are on the requirements of investors to make a “paradigm shift".
“The previous paradigm we all grew up with” is now suffering from “model drift”, “where a growing number of anomalies surface that current mind-sets struggle to spot and understand, let alone tackle." Elkington boldly asserts capitalism (and, rather worryingly, democracy) are in a period of “Model Crisis".
This is all very interesting, though at times I felt a little uncertain how exactly Elkington thinks that we will get “future fit”. In part this may be because breakthrough technologies are by their very nature difficult to predict.
Perhaps a more detailed discussion of the dramatic changes going on now in the market for electric vehicles would have illustrated his arguments better.
And of course, any book appearing in the middle of such profound social and economic changes is in danger of not quite keeping up. There is no mention of Covid-19 in this book, and it would perhaps be wise to read it in conjunction with Elkington’s recent essay published with the CDC, the UK’s development finance institution.
But ultimately you will come away from this book feeling more optimistic. Because Elkington gives us hope “rapid evolution of technologies is exciting and has the potential to tackle many of the central challenges we face in this century… a radically better future is already here or taking shape fast.”
Recent climate disasters frighten all of us. But perhaps reading Elkington’s book will help us conclude: 'Don’t panic'.