This book review looks into Green Swans by John Elkington. I have not done many book reviews for a while, so I was looking forward to reading this as anything that John puts his name to is normally high quality.
John Elkington provides the following helpful explanation of what a green swan is:
“A Green Swan is a profound market shift, generally catalysed by some combination of Black or Gray Swan challenges and changing paradigms, values, mind sets, politics, policies, technologies, business models, and other key factors. A Green Swan delivers exponential progress in the form of economic, social, and environmental wealth creation. At worst, it achieves this outcome in two dimensions while holding the third steady. There may be a period of adjustment where one or more dimensions underperform, but the aim is an integrated breakthrough in all three dimensions.”
The next chapter is called Diving into Tomorrow, which I though was pretty good. In it John reveals the following eye opening figure, which took me by surprise:
“Who knew that the combined mass of the 23 billion chickens alive at any point in time now outweighs all other birds earth?”
In this chapter John provides more detail on his product recall of a management concept, which he performed on the triple bottom line in 2018. I think John should get a lot of credit for this. It is too easy to just layer management concepts on top of each other, without much visibility on whether this is actually leading to improvements. If more thinkers took John’s lead the world would be a simpler and better place.
The following chapter called Miracles on Demand was quite forgettable. But there was one quotation on fossil fuel subsidies that stood out:
“The world spent an appalling $4.7 trillion on fossil fuel subsidies in 2015, for example which grew to $5.7 trillion in 2017. China was ‘by far, the largest subsidiser’ in 2015 at $1.4 trillion, with the Unites States spending more on such subsidies than it did on its bloated Pentagon budget.”
For me, this made two things really clear. One is that the money is out there if it was required. The other is that attempting to solve a problem by subsidising the thing creating it is a recipe for disaster.
The next chapter called A Wicked World was what I considered to be the best in the book. If there was a consistent narrative throughout the book focussed on wicked problems and how they can be overcome, I think the book would have been better.
The sub section on the Anthropocene was particularly good, but I thought it could have been bigger and been the central focus. Whilst the timing of the Anthropocene is highly debated, humans are clearly having an outsized impact on the environment and driving a number of environmental trends in a negative direction globally.
This led into another chapter called Black Swan Capitalism, which had a good sub section on plastics. This included the following interesting statistic:
“By 2015 we humans had generated 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics, 6.3 billion tons of which had already become waste. Of that waste total, only 9% was recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% accumulated in landfills or the natural environment.”
A couple of chapters later, there was a good chapter called Getting Future Fit. In it there was a good line on the proliferation of management buzzwords within the field of sustainability:
“Still, there are times when I wonder whether we are building a modern-day Tower of Babel. As we worked through the early stages of our Tomorrow’s Capitalism Inquiry, the Volans team was repeatedly struck by the multitude of initiatives and languages in this space. Indeed, some business leaders use the very fragmentation of change movements as an alibi for no, or slow, change. Come back when you have sorted yourselves out, they say.”
This is something that I can definitely agree with. We don’t need more buzzwords or language changes, what we need is real change.
For me, the next couple of chapters were again quite forgettable. There was lots of information on each page, but it was hard to see where the overall narrative and storyline was.
In the chapter called Green Swans Take Off, there was a reference to Orsted, the Danish company that made a 180 degree turn from fossil fuel extractor to renewable energy giant. Again I thought the book would have benefited from more case studies on companies that have made such changes.
A little bit later on there was a chapter called Exponential Migrations, which I thought was pretty good. This would have been another angle, that if magnified would have improved the book.
John shares the following important insight:
“For the necessary market breakthroughs to happen in good time and good order, though, we must move way beyond incremental change, way beyond ‘change as usual.’”
I thought this was interesting and highlights just how much more there is to be done.
What you need to know
I have tried to highlight the positive bits in this book review, and there are quite a few good sections contained within it. But I will say compared to the high standards that John sets for himself based on his previous work, this was quite disappointing.
This is certainly not a classic. Message discipline is hard. This book felt a lot more like a book with information on sustainability, rather than a story that grabs you.
By comparison after reading anything written by Amory Lovins, I am imparted both with useful information and a belief that anything is possible.
After reading this I cannot say I felt the same.
If you have never read anything by John Elkington and you want to learn more about corporate sustainability in 2020, this is an accessible entry point.
Thank you for reading,
By Barnaby Nash
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