The World is on Fire: Breakthough Capitalism May be our Only Way Out

ElkingtonThe world must be in real trouble if even capitalists are beginning to call for “market revolutions.”

Peter Bakker, President of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, calls for a “revolution of capitalism.” What he means is that markets must learn how to value and manage multiple forms of capital, including the human, social and natural forms. Like-minded leaders include Sir Richard Branson (founder of the Virgin Group), Paul Polman (CEO of Unilever) and Jochen Zeitz (former CEO of German sportswear brand PUMA).

Old Order A Global “Suicide Pact”

We have been tracking this trend for some time. At our Breakthrough Capitalism Forum last year, speaker after speaker stressed that the inertia of that old economic order is now a massive constraint on the necessary system change. “The system is blind to potentially existential threats,” warned Jeremy Leggett, a leading solar energy entrepreneur. He argued that the current order is “dysfunctional almost to the point of being suicidal.”

Nor is he the only one to have reached this conclusion. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has also stressed that our economic mindset and models increasingly look like
 “a global suicide pact.” We “mined our way to growth,” he said. “We burned our way to prosperity. We believed in consumption without consequences.”

The UN, famously, is headquartered in New York. And more or less on the eve of America’s 2012new yorkpresidential election, Superstorm Sandy hit the country’s eastern seaboard and, most dramatically, New York City. One of the clearest voices for Breakthrough change as the scale 
of the damage became clear was New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“Our climate is changing,” he warned in his unexpected endorsement of President Obama just before the recent presidential election. He insisted that Sandy “should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

Unlike many leaders, however, he was able to report real progress in his home patch.

“Here in New York,” he said, “our comprehensive sustainability plan has helped us to cut our carbon footprint by 16 percent in just five years, which is the equivalent of eliminating the carbon footprint of a city twice the size of Seattle. Through the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group — a partnership among many of the world’s largest cities — local governments are taking action where national governments are not.”

Security Crises Forecast

As these issues are increasingly framed as security challenges, intelligence agencies—among them the US National Intelligence Council (NIC) — are forecasting systemic crises that sound very much like those heralded by environmentalists a few decades back. By 2030, Shell forecasts, we will need 30 percent more water, 40 percent more energy, and 50 percent more food than today.

By the same year, the NIC concludes, the world will be: “… radically transformed from our world today. By 2030, no country — whether 
the U.S., China, or any other large country — will be a hegemonic power. The empowerment of individuals and diffusion of power among states and from states to informal networks will have a dramatic impact, largely reversing the historic rise of the West since 1750, restoring Asia’s weight in the global economy, and ushering in a new era of “democratization” at the international and domestic level.”

Breakthrough Capitalists Call For Finance, Accounting Reboot

These trends provide the context for our new report, entitled Breakthrough: Business Leaders, Market Revolutions. It spotlights the work of the first wave of breakthrough capitalists.

Early breakthrough initiatives seek to address the systemic nature of many of our challenges, but most are as yet experimental, fragmented
 and not in clear line of sight for key decision-makers — often because they fail to provide short-term pay-offs in terms of jobs, revenues and taxes. Worse,danger and opportunityemerging solutions are often fiercely contested by incumbents, because they threaten their existing business models.

To drive change at the level and scale now needed, breakthrough capitalists argue the need for various forms of system change, including a rebooting of the fundamental financial disciplines of economics and accounting.

Rebooting Economics

If finance represents an economy’s bloodstream, think of economics as its genetic code.

Critics have described economics as everything from the “dismal science” (the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle) to a form of “brain damage” (Hazel Henderson, the sustainability-focused economist, who told us that she has often felt like an “extraterrestrial” among normal economists). But
 the discipline has been central to the success of capitalism.

The problem with conventional economics was underscored in the first auction of 2013 in Tokyo’s sprawling Tsukiji fish market. At a time when many oceanic fisheries are being pushed to the edge of collapse, a single Bluefin tuna sold for a record $1.67 million. The winning bidder said he wanted to give his country “a boost,” but the implications of such prices for already endangered tuna stocks are profound.

Turning Crisis Into Opportunity: Will Business Lead?

Among those working to reboot the science of economics is Pavan Sukhdev. His UN study on theclimate changeeconomics of ecosystems and biodiversity concluded that an annual investment of $45 billion into protected areas alone could secure the delivery of ecosystem services worth some $5 trillion a year.

Paradoxically, there is no better time than
 a major economic crisis to push forward disruptive new policy and investments, once people recover from their early panic. This argument is underscored by Dimitri Zenghelis, Cisco’s chief economist for climate change, and the man who led
 Lord Stern’s U.K. government inquiry team on the economics of climate change.

The inquiry concluded that climate change will become our biggest market failure ever. And as if that was not enough, Lord Stern announced early in 2013 that he had been wrong — the picture, he now concludes, is even worse than he had thought. We are now on track for an almost unimaginable 4oC global temperature rise.

“The world is on fire,” as WBCSD President Peter Bakker puts it.

He is himself a former CEO, of logistics company TNT, and before that, interestingly, he was the company’s chief financial officer. With governments too often failing to act, the question now is whether business can begin to fill the gap in a meaningful way?

The main message of the Breakthrough report: ultimately they will have no choice.

This article was originally published on CSRwire
John Elkington is Executive Chairman of Volans, co-founder of SustainAbility, blogs at, tweets at @volansjohn and is a member of The Guardian’s Sustainable Business Advisory Panel.