The Elkington Report

Confessions of an agitated agitator


I have been thinking, rethinking. Hard. Long. As deep as I can go.

Indeed, a close colleague even suggested last year that I consult a psychiatrist, urgently. Why? Well, from long and close observation, she had concluded that I was deeply disturbed.

Willing to try anything once, I duly trotted off to London’s Harley Street to tap into the wisdom of a psychiatrist who, at least from the online menu, looked sympathetic. And after several sessions, I was forced to admit that my friend was right — but not, I think, in the sense that she originally intended.

Like any human being, I am shot through with psychological flaws. Way more than I care to admit. But the more I trawled these murky waters, the more I concluded that my agitated state of mind also reflected deeper "disturbances in the field," in the world into which I was born.

I arrived in 1949, one year before scientists now say the Anthropocene started — although some argue that it started in the 1600s, when Europeans went to the Americas, collapsing indigenous populations, spurring rapid reafforestation and sucking huge quantities of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, changing the global climate.

In any event, like most of us, I am a creature of this new geological epoch, of a world profoundly and increasingly shaped by a single species, our own. And it is a world whose state increasingly agitates me.

Back in 2015, a bolt of lightning illuminated a wider landscape for me that most people remain sublimely unaware of — or indifferent to. I saw the extraordinary Great Acceleration charts generated by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme. It was like seeing the lab results identifying a condition you have suffered with since, in this case, birth.

In chart after chart, the trends went exponential from 1950. Some exponentials were encouraging in terms of human welfare, among them growth in real GDP, in foreign direct investment, telecommunications and international tourism. But many were much less welcome, including exponential deteriorations in such areas as greenhouse gas emissions, tropical forest loss and ocean acidification.

Not that this came as a huge surprise. In 1978, I had done an environmental forecasting study for Herman Kahn’s Hudson Institute, with Kahn best known for his work on America’s Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) nuclear weapons strategy. The nature and scale of our 21st century challenges were already clear then, 40 years ago.

Indeed, the more I worked with capitalism, the more I concluded that it had evolved its own MAD genome, unwittingly undermining natural systems in ways that guarantee its own demise.

As I dug into the evidence flowing from initiatives such as the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s Planetary Boundaries project, I came to wonder whether the global sustainability industry that I had helped pioneer was itself showing signs of insanity.

Insanity, they say, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

That’s why we were delighted to try something different with the United Nations Global Compact. In Project Breakthrough, we have worked to bridge between incumbent corporate responsibility and sustainability strategies and the growing band of insurgent approaches pioneered by the likes of the XPRIZE Foundation, Google’s X and Singularity University.

Candidly, though, there is so much inertia in the system that progress is proving to be dramatically slower than it needs to be. That’s a key reason why we must focus our attention on influencing and shaping emerging industries — particularly those driven by digitalization, including autonomous vehicles, the internet of things and synthetic biology.

Then a few days back, I was talking with the thoughtful woman who is helping the Volans team hone its thinking and communication skills to deliver my dream of "more impact, less effort." At one point, she invited me to explain my role in life. I ran through some labels slapped on me over the years. They included "Babelfish," "Greenpeace in pinstripes" (this from a Greenpeace director) and "grit in the corporate oyster."

"Ah," she mused, "you’re an agitator."

Mention the word "agitator" to most people and they picture black-cloaked anarchists lobbing bombs at grand dukes, or they picture anonymous hacktivists beavering away in their Vendetta masks. But having spent nearly 20 years of my life working with the biotechnology industry, a different form of agitation promptly came to mind.

If you are designing an industrial fermentation process, with cells feeding on and growing in a broth, you need various forms of agitation to bring the cells, nutrients and oxygen together. The agitators here can include propellers or carefully directed streams of gases.

Similarly, my role often has consisted of bringing unlikely ingredients into the ferment of modern capitalism. The ultimate goal: not to fine-tune single-bottom-line capitalism but, as coach and "vampire" Umair Haque encourages, to replace it with something radically better.

Initially, our focus was on connecting business and activist NGOs, including Greenpeace. Then, we began to pull in social innovators and entrepreneurs. Now, as in Project Breakthrough, we embrace those working on exponentially scalable solutions to sustainability problems.

As we limber up for the 2020s, I am oddly — some might conclude irrationally — confident. No matter how bad the macroeconomic and geopolitical context may become, and I believe that we are only at the beginning of our biggest global system disruption to date, history suggests that such times can see coherent, positive change agendas gain way more traction than in "normal" times.

Like it or not, capitalism, markets and business will remain central. All forms of agitators are needed to ensure that they are appropriately shaken and stirred. Indeed, that’s why we have launched our "product recall" on the Triple Bottom Line. Tomorrow’s capitalism must focus on multiple capitals, not just financialized capital, on new forms of valuation and on next-generation measures of impact.

To spur this process forward, we need a new science of business and financial agitation, focusing on how to bring the best ideas, science and solutions to decision-makers at the point of need and maximum utility.

A key first step will be to upgrade capitalism’s genome, perhaps with a "Triple Helix" approach of economic, social and environmental regeneration. But the decision that ultimately will matter most, as I once heard it framed, is whether we choose as a species to treat our home planet as if we intended to stay here.

While some may move to the moon or even Mars, I hope to stick around for a bit. I no longer will stop by Harley Street, instead working to harness my agitation to generate real world change. Watch this space, as they say.