MetaCapital, sustainability and bottom lines

professional swimmer underwater after the jump in abyssAnyone and everyone connected with sustainability dives straight into a dizzying array of frameworks.

If you spend even a short time in this space (or for some like me, a career!) you’ll be swimming through terms, measures and concepts such as:

  • Corporate social reporting; Global reporting initiative; Ecological footprint
  • Triple bottom line: People, Planet, Profit
  • Zero impact, net zero; Environmental restoration, re-wilding
  • Dematerialisation; Industrial ecology
  • Carbon neutral, carbon positive; Decoupling

So how do we cut through? How can we turn all the deep care, passion, effort, insight, work and brilliance, associated with all these concepts, into transformational global fast change?

Will it help to go big – meta –  and what is the minimum set of concepts that will encapsulate sustainability? As simple as possible but not simplistic.

To do this the MetaCapital Framework measuresmetacapital-summary-figure 4 types of impact with 10 types of capital to produce 4 bottom lines.

That’s a lot to grab in a short blog post. However, MetaCapital is resonating strongly within organisations not only around sustainability. In part, what has been occurring with so many diversified views of sustainability is that people are mixing impact measures, the stock of something as well as flows (increases and decreases).

We clearly distinguish such parameters for a company’s finances – e.g. business plan, assets and liabilities, cashflow. In today’s world, we need to do this across multiple bottom lines, environmental, human and psychological capital and across the impact on individuals as well as groups – just to mention a few parameters. The developing MetaCapital framework has the potential to bring clarity to help us in this complexity.

For an introduction, watch Sean Esbjörn-Hargens explaining the framework’s background and its potential to the first MetaCapital masterclass.

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For a deeper dive into MetaCapital and the slides referred to in the video see metacapital.net.

For those new to meta-frameworks like this and/or integral theory quadrants see Beyond the boxes for some first steps.

 

Two Pauls – Ehrlich and Gilding – on transformation v’s collapse

Is there a sea change in our attitudes? Just as many people may not understand exponential growth and its consequences are we also missing another fundamental change – the underpinnings for a transformed society?

Paul Gilding has just made a case that climate change success is at hand. He says:

There are signs the climate movement could be on the verge of a remarkable and surprising victory…. [We’re looking at] the removal of the oil, coal and gas industries from the economy in just a few decades and their replacement with new industries and, for the most part, entirely new companies. It would be the greatest transfer of wealth and power between industries and countries the world has ever seen. ….

This time, the economics is playing on the same side as the environment. Just in time.

There’s plenty of technical corroborating evidence. Such evidence includes Los Angeles switching off coal powered electricity, China building more wind than coal power for the first time ever in 2012 and Ros Garnaut highlighting how Australian business is radically underestimating China’s commitment to low or zero carbon energy. However, be careful of any technical examples like this – you can’t necessarily extrapolate from a city or country case to a zero carbon society – there may be, for example, geophysical limits to global wind power.

Balancing the positive signs are the scales of our multiple challenges. On the physical side human emissions of greenhouse gas have locked in climate change. Culturally, our societies tend to focus on the present rather than ‘rationally’ accounting for future risk.

As Paul Ehrlich recently put it this is a huge stretch – hard scientific debate variously puts the chances of avoiding a collapse of civilization at 10 per cent (others may go higher).

We’re left holding simultaneously to seemingly irreconcilable and mutually contradictory perspectives. Thin chance v’s on the cusp of a transformation.

Funny thing is they are both true.

Picture: Paul Ehrlich Canberra March 21 2013 by Anthony Burton.

Heat

Australia is in the grip of “a once-in-20 or 30-year heatwave” with extremes over 40 degrees. Despite the heat, and the likelihood that there will be many more extreme events like this as climate change hits, the Australian media almost universally omits to mention greenhouse gas, global warming or climate change in its reporting. A quick search (1, 2 & 3) finds less than ten stories.

The consequences, of extreme heat, are usually mainstream media material. For example 370 people died from extreme heat in Victoria during the same week that 173 people died from the 2009 Black Saturday fires in the state.  The same report predicts that extreme heat in Melbourne could, without mitigation by 2050, kill over one thousand people in an event.

Numbers like these seem to be losing salience in with the Australian public, or at least our media.  The lack of reporting certainly enhances research that demonstrates fear won’t do it and views that “Our leaders and the community at large are still in denial (or studiously unaware) of the realities of global change

So what might do it? Beyond Denial: Managing the Uncertainties of Global Change from Australia 21 looks at this. In it:

Paul Gilding, the author of “The Great Disruption,” … argues that rather than a steady decline, the human world will, in the next one or two decades, experience shocks of such magnitude arising from our disordered economic system, climate change and peak oil, that they will call forth an emergency crisis response that will enable us to harness human ingenuity to craft a genuinely sustainable future for those humans who survive the shocks. 

There’s plenty more here but, of course, no simple solutions for complex entangled problems such as global warming.

Image: Sydney Morning Herald The Heat and Dry is On

2012 a perfect storm?

George Monbiot and Ross Gittins, an environmentalist and an economist, both have two related and compelling reveiws of 2012 trends.

Ross writes about Jeffrey Sachs’ evidence for “the four business gangs that run the US“. Sachs’s highlights how:

”corporate wealth translates into political power … into further wealth … Wealth begets power, and power begets wealth,” Part of this power “has played a notorious role in the fight to keep climate change off the US agenda” underwriting “a generation of anti-scientific propaganda to confuse the American people.”

George covers 2012 as “the year we did our best to abandon the natural world“:

Governments have now begun to concede, without evincing any great concern, that they will miss their target of no more than 2C of global warming this century. Instead we’re on track for between four and six degrees. To prevent climate breakdown, coal burning should be in steep decline. Far from it: the International Energy Agency reports that global use of the most carbon-dense fossil fuel is climbing by about 200m tonnes a year. This helps to explain why global emissions are rising so fast. 

Australia however may have bucked some these trends (ironically as the world’s leading coal exporter). Australia’s Environment Minister Tony Burke, perhaps a little optimistically, points out “in 2012 we returned the Murray Darling to health, became the world leader on protecting the oceans…“. Australia also introduced a carbon price in 2012 and, within the context of what Sachs and Monbiot outline, this is genuine progress.

What is different? Leadership perhaps? A more civil society? An economy that still supports a broader environmental debate? Regardless of the fact that we are clearly far from a successful sustainbility shift on the scales needed (e.g. see Beyond Denial: managing the uncertainties of global change) are there some pointers to come from Australia’s 2012? It’s not easy to generalise from such trends so comments welcome!

Image: Giant fish made entirely from discarded plastic bottles. Rio, UN Conference on Sustainable Development.

World in Transition, a Great Transformation

Looking at climate change and sustainability challenges it’s clear that individual action, our actions, are necessary. However we struggle when faced by scale and speed – a fast and revolutionary global shift is needed. How can any one person make a difference?

The German Advisory Council on Global Change puts individuals at the heart of a radical new ‘business basis‘.  They say:

“individual actors can play a far larger role in the transformation of social (sub-)systems than the one that has been accorded to them for quite some time”

The council, a scientific advisory body to the German government, in its beautifully written 400+ page report (World in Transition: A Social Contract for Sustainability) rest the prospect of a ‘Great Transformation‘ on 4 pillars:

  1. knowledge (evidence) based, 
  2. individual actors and change agents, 
  3. a proactive state (governments) and, 
  4. establishment of effective global governance. 

We’ve seen unsustainable societies – such as the USSR, communist eastern Europe, Libya and Egypt -fall in recent times. Today’s unsustainable global carbon society could be similar but we have to actively plan for our future.

The council compares our the change we’ll undergo to only two in human history – the neolithic (farming)  and the industrial revolutions. The difference is it requires consious guidance rather than the evolutionary change seen during these previous revolutions.

This ‘Great Transformation’, then, is by no means an automatism. It very much depends on ‘organising the unplannable’ if it is to succeed within the available tight timeframe. This is unique in history, as the ‘world’s great transformations’ of the past were the result of gradual evolutionary change.

And the Council’s take home line? It “has reached the ultimate conviction that the great transformation into a low-carbon society is not just necessary, but really feasible.”

More Love, Less Loss

We struggle with the word biodiversity. While deeply insightful and meaningful it’s a whole system, a new word, a multifaceted problem and anything but ‘cute and cuddly’.

So it’s highly refreshing to see Futerra take up the challenge of communicating this and generating positive action:

Imagine the incredible complexity that makes up life on earth, bottled up for mass appeal. What if the word ‘biodiversity’ represented not just a set of scientific concepts, but emotions of awe and wonder? Could biodiversity communications then trigger worldwide action to protect it?

We believe so. We’ve explored the psychological evidence to find out what actually drives people to conserve nature. We’ve taken a critical look at today’s biodiversity messages to see whether they align with the emotions of the people they are aimed at. And we’ve combined these with the principles of branding, not simply logos and slogans, but a coherent set of values and promises which will trigger action. The results are both provocative and exciting. They challenge us to deliver a new nature message.

Branding Biodiversity argues we’ll take action out of love. More Love, Less Loss. Back this up with the reasons for action ($s) and there’s a story for change.

There’s a lot that back this up such as Fear Won’t do It, the gap between knowledge and action and Futerra’s earlier Climate Change work.

A transformational society

This blog has been very quiet while I’ve been reaching into the evidence. In my work at the Environment Institute, University of Adelaide, there are an array of outstanding scientists. The evidence produced by this work is transformational. However, at the same time we simply – individually and collectively – do not act in our own self interest or on evidence. That is don’t act on this evidence at anything like the rate that would make rational sense.

There are many obvious environment examples from climate change to species survival but, money is often cited as the answer for why such action does not occur. This is something of a paradox as we will also ignore risk free financial returns that is actions we can take that will make us a profit. These are often profits that also create positive environmental outcomes.

This paradox challenges the idea of humans acting “rationally“, to maximise profit. New economics writer Eric Beinhocker recently summarised this succinctly. He “does not accept the orthodox theory that has dominated economics for the past several decades that humans are perfectly rational, markets are perfectly efficient, institutions are optimally designed and economies are self-correcting equilibrium systems that invariably find a state that maximises social welfare. Social scientists working in the new economics tradition argue that this theory has failed empirically on many points and that the 2008 financial crisis is only the latest and most obvious example.”

If you accept that humans often don’t act in a rational financial manner it’s then a small step to also challenge the idea that we’re not acting on environmental evidence simply because of the cost. And to start looking for a decent map of what creates effective action from evidence.

Effective action from evidence, and the lack of it, is the focus of the next few blog posts.

Image: Earth from above by Yann Arthus-Bertrand