Getting the jump on a White House weasel

The recent rise in populism — as evidenced by the election of Donald Trump as US President and the triumph of Brexit — demands an “overdue reconfiguration” of the sustainability industry, says Volans’ John Elkington.

Long tailed weasel in white
A long tailed weasel that is not in the White House. Sociopolitical events of late are prompting soul-searching within the sustainability community. Image: Bryant Olsen, CC BY-NC 2.0

How wrong can you be? Years ago, in mounting disbelief, I watched a weasel in the Alps, behaving as if possessed by demons. So weird were its antics that I concluded that it must have a virus in its brain or an acute form of epilepsy. Only later did I discover what had been going on. 

This, it turned out, was a weasel “war dance”, designed to mesmerise prey like rabbits. Now the 45th President of the United States of America is performing the exact same routine and we are the rabbits—recall Donald Trump’s antics before and after what he insists was the best-attended Inauguration Day Parade ever.

Many sustainability experts assume that we’re on a straight-line trajectory to the achievement of our global goals by the 2030s. As an example, a Japanese automaker recently took me through a slide deck on their environmental strategy out to 2050 and every trend headed inexorably upward, invariably in straight-line projections. Dream on, I said.

The world is experiencing the accelerating collapse of the latest Kondratiev economic cycle and the beginning of an increasingly exponential transition to the next one. That means that we are in one of those periodic U-bends in history where pretty much everything shakes loose, socially, economically and—as we increasingly see—politically.

 One of the books I have been savoring in recent weeks is Thank You For Being Late, by the incomparable New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. As his own website sums up his conclusion: whether we are nation states, businesses, communities or individuals, we must learn to be: “… fast (innovative and quick to adapt), fair (prepared to help the casualties of change), and slow (adept at shutting out the noise and accessing their deepest values)”.

That slow bit resonated. It also reinforced my excitement about three events we were co-hosting in Washington, D.C., Düsseldorf and London to get a sense of how the sustainability agenda must be reconfigured for this new age of populism. These events were early attempts to channel Friedman’s conclusion that in an “age of accelerations”, we owe it to ourselves and to the future to periodically hit the pause button and reflect on what we think we are seeing.

The Washington, D.C., event was sparked when the World Resources Institute (WRI) read—and liked—our latest report, Breakthrough Business Models, produced for the Business & Sustainable Development Commission. Their question: could we help pull together a group of leaders to consider how to respond to the new business environment? 

United Nations Global Compact’s executive director, Lise Kingo, took part in the event. The Compact may be determinedly apolitical, but many of its corporate members are spooked by the new normal. Kingo noted in her comments the needed to restore trust in globalisation by giving a “human face to markets”, ensuring that businesses connect with people, communities and wider social agendas.

WRI CEO Andrew Steer probed the wider political context in his Stories to Watch 2017 session preceding our joint event. The big question, he said, is whether the disruptions signalled by the Trump administration, by the Brexit process and by looming national elections in the EU are merely “speed bumps” for progress toward a more sustainable, equitable world, or whether, instead, they signal a much larger retreat?

Participants in our ‘Breakthroughs in Tomorrow’s Markets’ event were in no doubt that the world was shifting on its axis. But there was also a sense that, despite the huge risk to earlier achievements, these unlooked-for disruptions could herald—indeed trigger—an overdue reconfiguration of the sustainability industry.

Our Düsseldorf session was hosted by Covestro, and the spotlight this time was on the potential for a new business-led movement focused on “carbon productivity”. The idea is that instead of viewing carbon as a demonic substance, we should think more carefully how to use this extraordinary element to the best effect.

Today’s populists may seem all conquering, but when they collide with global realities, more than sparks will fly.

First introduced in 2008 by the McKinsey Global Institute, the concept has catalysed new thinking at Covestro, where they are now experimenting with a modified version of the well-established business metric, Return on Capital Employed (ROCE), focusing on the Return on Carbon Employed. If business generally can learn to treat carbon in the same way that it treats financial capital, our economies could move towards sustainability at a much faster pace.

Our third January convening was in our own offices in London. The theme: how does the sustainability agenda—and industry—need to evolve in the age of populism?

Apart from a sense that we are all still in some degree of denial, two key issues surfaced during the evening. One revolved around the tensions between the global and local dimensions of the sustainability agenda, the other around the question whether we should all accelerate to warp speed, responding to every Trump tweet, or step back, exploring and communicating the bigger picture, and taking a degree of comfort from the fact that extremes tend to revert to some sort of norm.

Which brings us back to weasels. I take some comfort from the story of the stone marten (a type of weasel) that found its way into the world’s largest machine, the Large Hadron Collider, with zillions of volts in play. The animal briefly knocked out the power to the Collider, but paid the ultimate price. Its semi-incinerated corpse can be viewed in a museum in Rotterdam.

Similarly, today’s populists may seem all conquering, but when they collide with global realities, more than sparks will fly.

John Elkington is chairman and chief pollinator, Volans. 

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