Charles Eisenstein is a charismatic American writer and speaker, who has a devoted following. I’m not such a fan, but I do recommend his new book, and I was impressed by his session at the Findhorn climate change conference (see my blog on this here).
In this book, he wisely highlights the risk that those most passionate about addressing climate change could alienate many potential allies. If we reduce all the issues in the world to one, and declare that nothing else matters, this is a fundamentalist view which doesn’t engage those concerned about other issues which are related, such as the loss of species and habitats, and many more.
He also points up the risks of focussing solely on climate change, carbon emissions, and technology. It’s quite possible to envisage a ‘sustainable future’ in which the ecosystems and other species have died, and humans live in air conditioned bubbles, on food grown hydroponically.
He comments, “We are in fact facing a very serious climate crisis. However, the main threat is not warming per se; it is what we might call “climate derangement”… caused primarily by the degradation of ecosystems worldwide.” Hence his top action priorities are about the health of ecosystems, ahead of emission reductions.
His distinction between complicated and complex systems is illuminating: “Modern reductionistic methods are well adapted to dealing with complicated systems”, i.e. which can be subdivided, have predictable responses etc. Whereas, “Bodies, ecosystems, … societies, and the planet are complex systems” – where “variables are dependent, causal relationships are nonlinear…”
The chapter on Regenerative Agriculture cites some impressive projects with remarkable results, such as Brown’s Ranch in North Dakota, and Ernst Gotsch’s Syntropic Agriculture work in Brazil. He comments on why regenerative agriculture is still marginal: hard to measure because multiple variables, hard to implement because it requires a lot of expertise, labour, tailoring to local conditions.
This book is well-researched, and gives a convincing critique of the blind spots in ‘climate science’. As he says, one of these is underrating factors which are hard to measure. In particular, carbon sequestration below ground, and by regenerative agriculture, could be a major contributor to progress, but is very hard to monitor.
This is not an easy book, for various reasons, not just the arduous nature of the topic. Charles repeatedly challenges readers to look for the blind spots and prejudice in their thinking. His writing style has a subtle whiff of superiority about it – you can imagine him as a university lecturer intimidating his adoring students.
This book valuably highlights our confused attitude to Earth’s ecosystems and other life forms: for example, in putting a monetary value on them, we continue to treat them as merely resources for human use. “If we are to preserve the things on this planet that are beyond price, we cannot rely on math to do it.”
Like many books on this topic, we’re not left with a convincing scenario for how change is going to happen. But I like Charles’ comment that “Without a bridge from the realm of metaphysics to the world of policy, we risk making the Story of Interbeing into a mere philosophy.” In his concluding chapter, he highlights 17 policy changes which he sees as priorities, here are the first four of them:
Promote land regeneration as a major new category of philanthropy: fund demonstration projects, connect young farmers to land, and help farms transition to regenerative practices. Provide public funding and government support for this transition as well by shifting agricultural subsidies away from conventional crops.
Institute a global moratorium on logging, mining, drilling, and development of all remaining primary forests, wetlands, and other ecosystems.
Expand the land protected in wildlife refuges and other reserves. When possible, enlist local and indigenous people in protection efforts to align their livelihood with ecological health.
Establish new ocean marine reserves and expand existing ones, with the goal of placing a third to half of all oceans, estuaires, and coastline into no-take/no-drill/no-develop sanctuaries.
How might all this happen? He doesn’t offer specific ideas, but believes more like Thomas Berry that a radical shift in consciousness can produce astonishing material changes. Let’s hope and pray that this happens soon.
I try to follow the climate change debate closely, and there seems too little well-considered exploration of how the business world can best respond to the current crisis. One reason may be that this looks like an impossible issue. There are massive vested interests, and many companies seem to depend on business models which are at odds with the systemic changes that the climate crisis needs.
Having spent thirty years in the world of big business, I have glimmers of hope that corporates can understand and respond to this fundamental threat to their business model: this is what I want to explore in this blog.
To make this more vivid, let’s put ourselves in the posh designer shoes of Steve Strong, Chief Executive of Flabster plc, a UK-based conglomerate in the food business. We join him on a Wednesday afternoon, but he’s wishing it was Friday evening. He’s being pestered for a “positive response on climate change”, by a large institutional shareholder, by a Guardian journalist, and by his daughter, who’s heavily involved with Extinction Rebellion.
Let’s use the elastic rules of fiction to imagine that somehow Steve calls me in as a consultant for advice. Here are the main issues I’d explore with him.
1.It’s not just about carbon
Steve, I know that the simpler the issue, the easier you can respond. But most worthwhile experts will tell you that the rapidly mounting crisis is not just about carbon emissions. It’s about the related collapse of ecosystems, and global food failures related to both.
What you can do: accept publicly that this is a crisis, and set a three-month deadline to assess the risks holistically and propose a strategy. Do this with a mix of your own best people and outside consultants. This commitment puts Flabster on the line, but will play well with your critics. As part of this assessment, see if there are existing networks, codes and initiatives which can guide you, speed progress, and give you credibility: for example, check out www.sciencebasedtargets.org and www.wemeanbusinesscoalition.org .
Whilst I don’t know the details of your business, Steve, I can at least give you a few guesses on some of the main issues your team will need to consider:
Get current information on ways climate change could directly impact your business within the next few years. Check out the views of Jem Bendell on Deep Adaptation, including climate change impacts on food supplies. Get someone to read the latest IPCC reports. Check out reliable websites like www.carbonbrief.org and www.aldersgategroup.org.uk
Minimising carbon emissions at every stage of your production process, including raw material supplies and transport, right through to your deliveries to customers. Where carbon emissions can’t be eliminated, setting up offsetting or sequestration, with the aim of making your business zero emissions within a few years.
Understanding and rectifying both present and past environmental impacts from your products, e.g. palm oil supply, investing in projects which restore or replace ecosystems you have damaged.
Either eliminating raw materials with a clear record of environmental damage, such as palm oil, or only using suppliers who can be verified as environmentally sustainable. Understanding how production of your raw materials may impact on the food supplies and livelihoods of the population of those countries. If your production does impact them, providing demonstrable support for their food security, e.g. by regenerative agriculture.
The lonely view from Steve’s office
2. It’s not just about developed countries
It’s evident that those who did least to create climate change are already suffering most, and that will continue. You will be held to account globally: you can’t ‘solve’ your problem in Europe by offshoring it to developing countries.
What you can do: As part of your three-month review, truly understand your current impacts globally: partly by dialogue with NGO’s you might see as hostile, such as Greenpeace or WWF. Ask your review team to understand the principles of regenerative agriculture. Talk to your major suppliers (e.g. for sugar, palm oil) about their potential responses to climate change, and how you could support them.
Realise that there can be business benefits in being the progressive pioneer in your sector. Unilever is a good example in several food sectors. Committing to a regenerative supplier code within, say, two years may well have a cost impact, but could gain you market share with consumers, and support from some investors, e.g. the growing ethical sector.
3.There’s a lot of understandable scepticism towards business
Steve, you and I know that there’s been a lot of greenwashing, smokescreening, and even deliberate deceit from parts of the business world around these issues, for decades. As an example of the current scepticism towards big business, see this blog from Professor Jem Bendell, a leading advisor to Extinction Rebellion.
What you can do:Understand the concerns in Extinction Rebellion and other activist groups about the business world. Be honest about past shortcomings. Make tangible commitments, and invite activists to hold you to account for them. This needs bravery, but there are potential payoffs in market share and future credibility.
4. These changes will need support from your stakeholders
Most of your stakeholders will already realise that this is a time of massive turmoil and uncertainty: they are probably worried and confused, and you may find a variety of different preferences and responses when you consult them. For example, some may already be advocating radical change as the best business response, whilst others may cling to a view that you can just do what you already do, only harder.
What you can do: Firstly, find your own sincere passion for this radical change. If that’s hard, talk more to your daughter, watch the Attenborough documentary,go and visit deforestation sites. Second, seek support from your top team and all your staff: you’ll almost certainly find this is readily available. Third, explain your strategy fully and positively to ethical funds. Highlight to current shareholders that your strategy should enhance share value by widening demand for shares, and protecting longer term profitability.
5.This will affect profits
It’s likely that the extra costs of a progressive strategy will kick in before the potential benefits. What you can do: Be upfront about this with shareholders. Explain that it’s the least bad option given the scale of the crisis. And realise that this is what will give you credibility with the climate activists and keep them somewhat off your back.
6. You need to face the emotional impact for you and your staff
The climate crisis and its implications are so big that it’s understandable for anyone to feel alarmed and even overwhelmed by them. This is one reason, why, even now, so many businesses are not facing the issues. The wisest experts on this topic such as Jem Bendell, highlight the emotional impacts of the situation, and the need to come to terms with these somehow before we can respond coherently and constructively. This is pretty certainly true for all of your staff, and all of your families.
What you can do: As a leader, you can do great service to your people and your business by being honest about your own emotions in this situation, and enabling your managers and all your staff to do the same. No doubt your Company already has a variety of support systems in place for its people: you need to get members of your team to understand the specific issues and processes which are relevant here, and make them available throughout the organisation. Also recognise that your own need for support is a valid one.
7. Governments may be too weak to hold a level playing field
Over the years, Steve, I’ve read many books on how to ‘solve’ the climate crisis. A common idea is that when things get bad enough governments will step in and put the economy on a wartime footing. If all businesses have a fair regulatory context imposed on them it could help. But do you think that’s likely when most governments these days are weak or right-wing?
What you can do:Don’t wait for government, don’t depend on industry agreements. Be bold enough to take the initiative, with support and using existing frameworks and networks as discussed earlier.
8. It may get worse before it gets better
I realise that Flabster plc is only just starting to feel pressure about climate change: do you think this will escalate or go away? My view is that the huge rise in public awareness in recent months and the success of a grassroots movement in catalysing this, will soon move on to a desire for action.You may soon find some businesses targeted by protest groups, and product boycotts being declared. Often these will choose their issues based on limited knowledge, and the choice of target companies can be arbitrary.
What you can do:As part of the three-month review, look at your vulnerabilities, i.e. which issues might activists target you for? As you start to put a constructive strategy in place, on the lines above, invite the activist groups to talk to you. This alone is likely to reduce the risk that you’re targeted.
An offer to businesses
If any business leaders read this, I’m offering an exploratory conversation free of charge. I have a Harvard MBA, twenty successful years as a manager and director of large businesses, and ten as a consultant. I also have an excellent network of individuals and organisations equally experienced in the corporate world. I can offer a catalytic setting for strategy retreats at Hazel Hill Wood, the 70-acre, off-grid woodland centre near Salisbury: see www.hazelhill.org.uk. Feel free to contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org, or look at my website: www.futurescanning.org
The rapid rise in awareness of the climate change crisis since summer 2019 has been remarkable, and so are the causes. The Swedish teenager Greta Thonberg has been an extraordinary catalyst, leading to the school strikes. And grassroots movements like Extinction Rebellion from the UK and Sunrise in the US have had remarkable impact.
Awareness is a great start, but what action is needed, from who? I’ve just returned from a major international conference at Findhorn Foundation in Scotland, so this blog is sharing what I learned there. People from 50 countries attended; we had expert views from Jonathon Porritt, Vandana Shiva, Charles Eisenstein, and the late Polly Higgins. We also had the moving presence of several indigenous elders from across the world, speaking of their people and land in turmoil.
So far, the average global temperature rise is only about 1OC, but the impacts of this have been far more severe than most scientists predicted. We’re now seeing exponential not linear deterioration and knock-on effects such as methane release from under melting ice. To non-scientists, the difference between 1.5OC and 2.0OC of temperature rise might not seem significant, but it is, and probably even more so than we can foresee. One example is impacts on food and water supplies: this needs more assessment in light of recent climate data, but you can see an overview of current info here.
You can see the urgency of this crisis in the recent David Attenborough documentary for BBC TV, which predicted that on present trends, the global rise will be 3OC to 6OC by 2050. And at Findhorn we heard that if all the ambitious pledges at the Paris 2015 climate summit were fulfilled, we’d still have a 3.5OC rise.
There is a clear consensus among experts that the situation is desperately grave, and that we have little time left to redeem it: at best ten years. Some elements of the solution are clear, especially cuts in carbon emissions. However, there are varying views on priorities, and how change is achieved.
Charles Eisenstein’s take
To keep this blog coherent, I’ll focus largely on the views of one Findhorn keynote speaker, Charles Eisenstein. He’s a youngish American who calls himself a social philosopher, but he has a fair grasp of the science too. His latest book is Climate: a new story.
Charles challenges the obvious question, ‘How do we humans survive?’, and prefers the question, ‘What kind of earth do we want to survive on?’ He sees a high risk of a techno-fix future, where the ecosystems have died, and a few billion privileged humans live in air conditioned bubbles with hydroponic food and carbon extraction machines.
In his keynote at Findhorn, Charles listed his top four action priorities as:
Protect any ecosystem which is still largely intact, and the people native to it, e.g. the Amazon, Congo basin.
Repair damaged ecosystems, especially through reforestation and regenerative agriculture.
Stop the creation of toxic waste (insecticides and much more).
Major reduction in carbon emissions.
I support his priorities, because recent experiences tell me that the forests are crucial in this crisis. The most shocking, surprising part of the Attenborough programme for me was the continuing scale of deforestation globally, and his statement that 30% of all emissions are caused by this (presumably including forest fires).
One of the important points in Charles’ new book is the risk of climate activists falling into a fundamentalist, single-issue mindset which is likely to alienate many in the mainstream. I agree with his view that it’s better to start form the concerns people already have, and gently show how these relate to climate change.
The Forests are Crucial
Meeting Haru, a young tribal leader from the Amazon rainforest, brought this crisis vividly to life, and left me both deeply upset and deeply determined to do what I can for the forests. This is the focus of another new blog, which you can see here.
As I expected, one benefit of the Findhorn conference was clarifying the differences of opinion about the climate crisis. One of these is about levers of change: I’d sum this up in the scenarios below:
Grassroots movements like Extinction Rebellion will grow in scale and militancy, and will actually lead the changes needed.
Governments will move to a ‘wartime’ approach, take charge and manage the change.
Large sections of the business world will recognise the dangers and initiate a radically new approach.
Please pause for a minute, take a few breaths: ask yourself which of these scenarios feels plausible to you? We need wholescale, systemic, disruptive change which will be hard for all of us. You can see why some experts believe it’s already too late, and we should prepare to adapt to system collapse: for more on this, see my blog on Jem Bendell.
My sanguine view on the three scenarios is that none looks likely: it will take an abundance of miracles and it needs to involve all three of the categories above. The capacity of governments to lead is what depresses me most. As Jonathon Porritt says, we’re afflicted with despots or dithering just when we need powerful visionaries.
I led two workshop sessions at the conference. One was on my Future Conversations project: this offers resilience skills plus information on climate change and other issues to disadvantaged communities. And I led a session on the importance of vision and consciousness alongside tangible action, including the work of Thomas Berry. For a 3-minute video interview with me from the conference click here.
One of the heated issues in the climate movement is whether to seek dialogue with the business sector, or ignore and override it. Neither approach looks promising. The systemic changes we need will fundamentally threaten the profits of many large, powerful businesses, who can fight back ferociously. One of my commitments from Findhorn is to explore dialogue with corporates. As Paul Hawken wrote years ago in The Ecology of Commerce, the issues are so big that we need the power of business to address them.
Another juicy topic of debate at Findhorn was the relative priority of practical action versus vision and beliefs. I’m a strong believer that both are vital, and I like Charles Eisenstein’s call for “a bridge from the realm of metaphysics to the world of policy.” When I hit despair about the future, as I often do, I turn to Thomas Berry, author of The Dream of the Earth and other books. He writes movingly about change needing to start at the level of dream, vision, myth, and how humans need to see themselves as “a species among species”, part of the living, feeling Earth. For my blog about Thomas Berry, click here.
An issue which was vividly highlighted at Findhorn is how those who’ve done least to cause climate change are already suffering most, and this will continue: not only humans, but all the other life in their ravaged ecosystems. Hearing direct from indigenous leaders was gut-wrenching.
I was especially moved to hear Mugove Nyika from Zambia talk of the terrible combination of long drought plus cyclonic storms which has caused total crop failure in large areas of Southern and Eastern Africa. To help his project, go to www.seedingschools.org
If you’re wondering what you can do, I suggest you go beyond what’s easy or obvious. What Greta and XR show us is that individuals and grassroots movements can have a big effect. And alongside action, try picturing frequently a verdant, loving world where all forms of life flourish together, and pray for this to whatever you believe in.