Black, Grey or Green: What Sort of “Swan” Is COVID-19?

Volans/GreenBiz 2020
Sustainable Development

"One reason I am so happy to be part of the BMW Foundation’s Responsible Leaders Network is that the systemic crises we now face demand that we come together in new ways – most obviously, perhaps, across nationalities, but also across the divides of language, discipline, class, gender, and age." John Elkington, authority on corporate responsibility and sustainable capitalism and bestselling author, considers COVID-19’s implications for tomorrow’s capitalism.

No matter how energetically I Google, I can’t find the source of a line I thought I heard a decade or two back. It ran something like this: “To be born into a time without challenges is to be robbed.” Maybe I made it up, but it distils something I believe – that generations exposed to existential challenges live their lives in a different, more intense way.

It would be hard to argue, at least in that sense, that those of us alive today have been “robbed.” COVID-19 may dominate the world news, but it is just one of a whole series of increasingly existential challenges which, taken together, reflect the failure of earlier generations – including my own – to detect them in good time, analyze them in good faith, and tackle them in good order.

Wicked and Superwicked Problems

My latest, twentieth book – Green Swans: The Coming Boom in Regenerative Capitalism – investigates some of the common characteristics linking such “wicked” problems as plastics in the ocean, antibiotic resistance, obesity and chronic disease, space debris, species extinction, and, sometimes called a “superwicked” problem, the rapidly evolving climate emergency.

"The 2020s seem set to be what we have called 'The Exponential Decade.' It is time for us all to step up – or get out of the way."

John Elkington

One reason I am so happy to be part of the BMW Foundation’s Responsible Leaders Network is that the systemic crises we now face demand that we come together in new ways – most obviously, perhaps, across nationalities, but also across the divides of language, discipline, class, gender, and age.

And the clock is ticking. Like an X-ray of our world, COVID-19 has highlighted key fault lines in our societies, underscoring the lack of transparency in China, the wealth divides in countries as diverse as France and the United States, and the different vulnerabilities of people of different ages and in different states of health. It has also thrown into stark relief the incremental reflexes of politicians at a time when so many of our great challenges are going exponential.

As I said at my seventieth birthday party in June 2019, which spiralled into a conference for over 100 people, I believe that the next 10-15 years will be the most exciting, challenging and, at times, dangerous of my entire career. I first sensed this coming some years ago. Indeed, for several years I have been using versions of the following diagram to indicate where I think we were – and could be headed.

Volans

Enter the Swans, Black and Green

But where did all the swans come from? Well, as I have tried to get a grip on aspects of this disrupted future of ours since announcing the “product recall” for my 25-year-old “triple bottom line” concept, I have been inspired by the work of Lebanese-American author, risk analyst, and former options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

When he launched the Black Swan concept in 2007, on the threshold of the 2007-9 financial crash, he was specific about what he meant. A Black Swan, he said, is an event that comes as an immense surprise, has a major impact, and is often poorly understood and rationalized afterwards. Interestingly, he has insisted in recent weeks that COVID-19 is not a Black Swan.

My assumption, as illustrated in the diagram, is that the world is heading into an unforeseen U-bend of historic proportions. The way I see it, this is well beyond a single, normal recession. Instead, I believe that we are in a period where the established macroeconomic and political order goes down the tubes, while new ones begin to surface. As we head deeper into the bottom of the U-bend, we enter the period of maximum confusion, uncertainty, fear, and anger.

"I believe that we are in a period where the established macroeconomic and political order goes down the tubes, while new ones begin to surface."
John Elkington

And the further I have dug into the relationships between capitalism and democracy, both in disarray, the more sustainability has looked like the natural bridge between the two, focusing as it does on intergenerational equity and balanced, inclusive, and environmentally sustainable value creation and distribution over extended timescales.

So, what might Green Swan outcomes look like, and how might we best co-evolve them? The Green Swan is a symbol of radically better times to come. Getting from here to there will be no trivial task, however. Times of disruptive change upend market and political pecking orders, creating social and political shock waves that can last for decades, even generations.

Green Swans are profound market shifts, generally catalyzed by some combination of Black or Grey 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.

This Is the Decade

Green Swans worthy of the name will include: the rapid electrification of our mobility and transportation systems; the exponential evolution of machine learning and AI designed to help manage our businesses, supply chains, and economies in the evolving Anthropocene; and the emergence of new behaviors, including the growing appetite for plant-based diets.

Happily, in a time likely to be plagued by a growing number of Black Swan challenges, our work suggests that Green Swan solutions often rise – phoenix-like from the ashes of Black Swan disasters. But while most Black Swans emerge unbidden, Green Swans must be worked on and invested in over extended timescales.

John Elkington at the BMW Foundation & Toniic Retreat "Serving the Planet through Financial System Change" in Paretz, 2018. Marc Beckmann

So, another still-evolving example could be the European Union’s just-announced $1.09 trillion Green Deal, designed to deliver an integrated set of economic, social, and environmental outcomes in the face of the gathering climate emergency.

Creating the necessary conditions and incentives for such innovation requires a radical expansion of the current responsibility frame in which most corporate “sustainability” efforts operate. We now need a much more systematic focus on ensuring our economic, social, and environmental systems are resilient and – where necessary – the subject of sustained, effective regeneration efforts.

The 2020s seem set to be what we have called “The Exponential Decade.” It is time for us all to step up – or get out of the way. As climate activist Christiana Figueres puts it: “This is the decade – and we are the generation.” Whatever our age.

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