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The Elkington Report

The ultimate prize is a healthy Earth

A new breed of prizes seek to inject large sums of money to advance big ideas.

Space prize

GreenBiz photocollage

Did you see the media coverage of the recent exchange among Britain’s Prince William, the Queen’s grandson, and space-going billionaires — among them Elon Musk of SpaceX, Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin?

The issue was whether it makes sense for our species to invest scarce resources in new rounds of "moonshots," as America did through the 1960s, or whether they might be better invested in what William calls "earthshots," as in the first crop of Earthshot Prizes.

Forceful arguments are on both sides, of course, with space travel giving us a better sense of how rare our small blue planet is in this universe of ours — and with most people rocketed into space so far coming back transformed. This is the result of the Overview Effect. As Apollo 11 astronaut Mike Collins explained: "Oddly enough, the overriding sensation I got looking at the earth was, ‘My God, that little thing is so fragile out there.’"

So, I see huge benefits in shooting rich people into orbit, given that many will come back thinking differently about our world and about how to run their businesses and investments. But it is also striking how many wealthy people are buying not just space rides but also homes in distant places such as Patagonia and New Zealand, to ride out what some see as the coming storms as the climate and biodiversity emergencies bite more painfully.

They can see how fragile the future is — and some are getting ready to run away from it.

I see huge benefits in shooting rich people into orbit, given that many will come back thinking differently about our world.

Others, such as Musk, insist that we must colonize places such as Mars to ensure the survival of our species in case an asteroid strikes Earth. Musk, the risk-taker behind $1 trillion-and-counting electric-vehicle maker Tesla, says the ultimate prize is the survival of humankind as a "multi-planet species." In that sense, at least, the Earthshot Prize is more modest, focusing its effort on making our relationship with our current planet more sustainable — and, in the process, helping evolve tomorrow’s regenerative economy.

Prizes are nice to win, of course, but sometimes receiving a prize gives you pause for thought. So, for example, when I recently heard that I had won one of two 2021 World Sustainability Awards, my initial response blended surprise and delight. I had no idea I had even been shortlisted by Shu-Kun Lin’s MDPI Sustainability Foundation, based in Switzerland, so the news came out of the blue.

And I was happier still when I learned both who had already won the award and the identity of my co-awardee this year, Jianguo "Jack" Liu. Liu is a leader in systems integration and sustainability, which involves the integration of ecology with social sciences, policy and technologies for understanding and promoting global sustainability. Among other things, he holds the Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability and is University Distinguished Professor and founding director of the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability at Michigan State University in the United States.

Given the huge influence that Carson’s books, including "Silent Spring" and "The Sea Around Us," had on my own thinking, this connection was a particular thrill. But even more interestingly, Liu has translated many research findings into effective policy and management systems for global sustainability, especially in China.

For those who haven’t come across it, the World Sustainability Award was established in 2017 by the MDPI Sustainability Foundation. The aim: to encourage new initiatives in sustainability. It is given to researchers or research teams that have made "an outstanding academic or societal contribution to sustainability in general, or to a sustainability-relevant issue in particular."

All good, but why was I in the spotlight? The judges, apparently, had focused on my introduction of the triple bottom line concept back in the 1990s. This, they concluded, has "become a gold standard within the field of sustainability. Notably, it has been used as the benchmark for the development of global initiatives such as The UN Global Compact, the Global Reporting Initiative and the UN Sustainable Development Goals."

No mention of the fact that I had launched the world’s first "product recall" of a management concept back in 2018 when I argued the need to recall the triple bottom line, or TBL.

So was my award misplaced? Maybe, maybe not. Thinking things through after the recall, I concluded that the main problem with the TBL framework had been that many businesses have seen it as part of an incremental responsibility agenda, happily trading off one form of value against others. But the original intention was that we should develop integrated, systemic solutions creating multiple forms of value, simultaneously.

That’s where research needs to be directed. Indeed it is no accident that leaders in all sectors are talking of the need for greater resilience in our businesses, supply chains, economies, political systems and the biosphere. And the best way to do that is to regenerate them. Exactly the sort of innovations spotlighted by this year’s Earthshot Prize, as it happens.

My award came with $50,000 in prize money, which we have gratefully invested in our Green Swans Observatory. But true scaling of breakthrough solutions is going to need radically bigger sums — and, in that spirit, each winner of the Earthshot Prize over the next decade will receive $1.16 million to help them scale.

This first crop of awards will be a real shot in the arm for a better future, but COP26, to which so many of us are headed, will succeed only if political leaders can ramp up the available funding from millions to billions — and sketch the path to a future where we invest the necessary trillions.

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