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Book review: Green Swans: The Coming Boom In Regenerative Capitalism.

Date:30 November 2021
Green Swans
Green Swans

Book review: John Elkington. Green Swans: The Coming Boom In Regenerative Capitalism. New York, Fast Company Press , 2020.

By Bram Piersma

Most people agree that climate change is upon us. Most people would agree that we as a species should make radical changes in the way we live, to safeguard a sustainable future. So why aren’t we shifting gears as fast as possible? One of the major issues is that our economic and political systems are inherently rigged for the exact opposite, systemic breakdown. This is how John Elkington describes his view on the era that we as a species recently entered, the Anthropocene. Elkington is one of the key figures of the sustainability movement. He is the founder of several businesses and thinktanks advocating corporate social and environmental responsibility and he has widely published on green consumerism and sustainable development. Back in 1994, in one of his most influential works to date, he came up with a frameworks for sustainability, the so called ‘Triple Bottom Line’ (1994). It portrays the idea that a business can be managed so that it not only focuses on making money, but also improves people’s lives and regenerates our biosphere. However, he believes the transition toward a sustainable future is not moving as fast as it should. So, how can we design and drive exponential sustainable system change, he asks. With Green Swans, John Elkington once again delivers an intriguing book that tries to answer this question by discussing both the history and the future of capitalism and democracy in relation to sustainability.

 The book starts with an explanation of the ‘Black Swan Theory’, described by former option trader and writer Nicholas Taleb in Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007). A Black Swan is “a rare event, characterized by its extreme impact and its retrospective (though not prospective) predictability”. Instead of often having negative consequences, Elkington explains, Green Swans are characterized by bringing about positive radical changes in the way our world works. According to Elkington, Green Swans boast “exponential progress in the form of economic, social, and environmental wealth creation”. Examples of sectors with a Green Swan trajectory are electric vehicles, smart grids and battery technology. The book is divided into three parts. The first part, ‘The Black Swan Blues’, paints a grim picture about the past, present, and near future by providing numerous anecdotes on how we as humans have changed and still change our world for the worse, focusing on the multitude of problems that underlie systems such as capitalism and democracy. The second part of the book, ‘Black Versus Green’, describes how slowly, but surely, the Anthropocene paradigms are shifting towards a greener future, and highlights the role of markets and business in this coming revolution. The final part, ‘New Pecking Orders’, sketches Elkington’s vision on how we can incubate and hatch Green Swan trajectories and at the same time eliminate the Black, resulting in a net positive Triple Bottom Line. Below, I succinctly discuss each part.

In ‘The Black Swan Blues’, Elkington starts off by describing the current predicament we are in: “our world is headed into a historic U-bend”, a crisis where the current macroeconomic and political orders will drown and others will submerge. We live in a world full of wicked problems, that have “innumerable causes, are tough to describe, and do not have a right answer”. Even worse, we are now served with so-called super wicked problems, where time is running out, there is no central authority, the people trying to solve the problem are also causing it, and finally, the current political systems are inherently incapable of proper action. Examples of these super wicked problems are plastic oceans, carbon dioxide induced climate change and the obesity pandemic. As many business leaders agree that we are nearing the brink of what our biosphere and societies can withstand, the 2020s will see radical scientific and economic changes at a pace we have never encountered before, Elkington predicts.

Part 2 of the book, ‘Black Versus Green’, focuses on key characteristics that separate Black from Green and how to spot them. Elkington says that we must not forget that any current or future innovation or solution is neither completely Black or Green (or any other colour for that matter). It is not unheard of that innovations are initially heralded for their capacity to change for the good, but will prove to have unexpected negative consequences. The current shift to electric cars, for example, turns out to be, at least for the time being, a Green Swan that sports black feathers, as their batteries require raw materials such as cobalt― and 70 percent of the world’s cobalt originates from the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the poorest and most countries on the planet, Elkington explains.

So what does a true Green Swan look like? Elkington brings up the ‘Future Fit’ movement as a fitting example. This organisation advises that society must “empower market actors to recognize and reward the right kinds of action”, by changing how we define and create regenerative business value and wealth. Elkington explains that this process starts by coming to terms with the fact that a business does not operate in a vacuum, but can only prosper when society prospers, which in turn depends on a healthy biosphere. By forgetting the concept of ‘shareholder value’ and moving further then ‘shared value’ toward so called ‘system value’, markets and businesses naturally steer toward a regenerative society. This means that we need to align and integrate the values of business, society and the environment. So how do we make markets and businesses Future Fit? It all starts with a clear destination. The Future Fit Foundation preaches that leaders develop clear long-term goals. By analogy, we did not get to the moon by setting out to climb Mt Everest, and putting of the next step after we’ve reached the summit. Bold long-term goals and vision is what catalyses breakthrough thinking, but that alone is not enough, says Elkington. Subsequently, the Future Fit Foundation links the organisation with their corporate social responsibility team to put these plans into practice. Additionally, according to the CEO of the Future-Fit Foundation, Geoff Kendall, we can’t wait for local and national governments to turn the wheel. Setting examples and actively lobbying is the fastest road to regenerative markets and economies. In his words, “For these leading companies to be screaming from the rooftops for that new regulation to come in quickly, so that their bet is more likely to pay off.” A real life example comes from the pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk, a front runner in regenerative business and a true Green Swan, according to Elkington. Novo Nordisk was the first large company that formally embedded the Triple Bottom Line in their business strategy. They realized that social and environmental issues are crucial for the long-term sustainability of the company, and challenged their shareholders to focus on the horizon instead of short-term gains.

The final part of the book, ‘New Pecking Orders’, discusses the (technological) potentials of our near future and how to nurture them. Many advancements may prove to evolve into Green Swans, whereas others may not. So how can we make sure that the coming innovations steer us toward regeneration instead of pulling us down into a world ridden with Black Swan characteristics? Elkington urges us to rethink the major economic and political systems that rule the markets, and we should embrace pioneers such as economists Mariana Mazzucato and Kate Raworth. The book finishes with a sort of personal Green Swan manifesto and calls out to all, in which he provides five points of advice on how every individual can work towards radical and regenerative change. 

I think the message the book tries to convey is a bold one. Nonetheless, the way the author does so, to my mind, is not wholly effective. Let me explain why.  First, I find it intriguing that Elkington portrays Black Swans to be purely negative, whereas they can also have positive consequences, e.g. the development of the internet. Second, the book is filled with interesting anecdotes, but at a certain point I get tired of listening to another meeting at such and such board room. Third, the writing style. Sometimes it feels like Elkington addresses me as if I were an elementary school pupil, while other parts of the book dive deep into the material and I struggle to keep up with the technicalities of the story. Finally, I find it hard to follow the storyline, in part due to the abovementioned choices for style.

Despite these shortcomings, I do think this book is a worthy read for anybody with an interest in sustainability and its related topics. Let alone the myriad examples of front runners in the field have broadened my view. That having said, in a way, Elkington did a great job in collecting the stories of dozens of leaders and visionaries in the realm of sustainable development. Moreover, instead of just coining a fancy new term, Green Swans actually builds on earlier established methods and theories from renowned visionaries such as Nicholas Taleb, Thomas Kuhn, and the Natural Step movement. Finally, as per Elkington’s words, he is a short-term pessimist, but “a qualified long-term optimist”, a characteristic embedded in his writing and that evidently runs like a common thread through the book. 

All in all, Green Swans is an interesting book that deserves to be read. Just don’t expect the reading to be without struggle or frustrations from time to time.  

 Bram Piersma is a lecturer Science and Society at the Faculty of Science and Engineering. He develops, coordinates, and teaches a variety of courses that focus on the interconnection between science and society, from the macro to the micro level. He is also a lecturer within the University minor on sustainability, ‘Future Planet Innovation’.

https://www.rug.nl/staff/b.piersma/

Further reading

Curry, A. and Hudson, A. (2008). Seeing in Multiple Horizons: Connecting Futures to Strategy. Journal of Futures Studies 13(1): 1–20.

Eccles, G. R. and Klimenko, S. (2019). The Investor Revolution. Harvard Business Review, 97, 106-116.

Elkington, J. (2018). 25 Years Ago I Coined the Phrase “Triple Bottom Line.” Here’s Why It’s Time to Rethink It. The Harvard Business Review.

Elkington, J. (2017). Saving the Planet from Ecological Disaster Is a $12 Trillion Opportunity. The Harvard Business Review.

Mazzucato, M. (2020). Mission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism. Allen Lane.

Raworth, K. (2017). Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. Random House Business.

 

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