Businesses Joining The Regenerative Economy Embrace Tomorrow’s Economics — And Politics

What are the seeds — the ideas, the tools and the mindsets — that we should be tucking away in our minds now to carry us from the old, degenerative world into the new, regenerative one?

John Elkington’s review of Paul Hawken’s latest book on Medium:

It is all too easy to forget how our worlds are constructed, our realities evolved — and how precarious they can be as a result. Our lives, communities and economies rest, indeed they increasingly teeter, atop invisible rafts of assumptions. Things we have long taken for granted, stopped thinking about.

Among other things, we assume that the world as we know it is the world as it is; that it will continue long after we are gone; and, indeed, that it is knowable by creatures such as us.

True, indigenous cultures have demonstrated that it is possible to know particular versions of their worlds well enough to thrive for hundreds, even thousands, of years. But now we are waking up to the fact that the world as we thought we knew it is not the world as it was, is or, indeed, will be.

Some of us are also beginning to understand that the consequences are likely to be profound, indeed existential. Living with that knowledge is not easy, indeed Kermit’s long ago lament springs to mind: “It’s not easy being green!”

More than most human “life-forms,” business struggles to understand and bridge this gap between perceptions and reality. It assumes away problems as an intrinsic part of what it does. Life is certainly simpler as a result, but earlier civilizations have often found that the gap between perception and reality can sometimes open to such an extent that human realities are swallowed entirely.

Reality distortion

For all their talk of “stakeholder capitalism” and “net zero” by distant dates, most big businesses — and most particularly their investors, boards and CEOs — assume that they can impose their own versions of reality on the rest of the world. If they are really successful like Apple’s Steve Jobs, they are praised for being the center of their very own “reality distortion fields.”

But magic can have its downsides. Think of the dysfunctional “country” of Facebook, with its 3 billion “citizens”, whose unintended social and political consequences demand new impact measurement scales. Listen to the vidence of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen.

Or, in the wake of the tornadoes that tore through six U.S. states late in 2021, recall the Australian weather forecasters forced to expand their mapping colors to capture the increasingly rampant effects of global heating.

Reality is pressing in with ever-greater intensity, with even the flawed COP26 climate summit this year signalling that Big Coal’s time is up — however much the Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison may once have brandished lumps of the fuel in the nation’s house of representatives, insisting it was the fuel of the future.

Not of any future we want to be part of, many people are deciding.

Over decades, I have watched the world run through an A-to-Z litany of pollution catastropheres. Asbestos, biphenyls, CFCs, dioxins … in each case, boards and C-suites brandished their own increasingly problematic products, technologies or business models as they argued that a world without them would see jobs disappear and economies collapse. Time and again, they have proved wrong.

All around, the evidence builds that the future will be a very different country. A place where things are done very differently indeed.

A world, in fact, where Paul Hawken’s book Regeneration would be on the reading lists of every major business. For decades, his books have powerfully shaped business perceptions and priorities. But this is a big book in multiple senses. Few business leaders will read in a single sitting or even holiday. Indeed many will struggle more to dip into key sections, but a growing proportion will ask subordinates to go deeper and report back.

Seeds of tomorrow

When you do dig into the book, there is huge richness of content and a constant succession of mind-popping insights. One searing story half-way through his latest book, sub-titled Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation, wouldn’t let go of my brain a few weeks back as my high-speed train closed the gap between Madrid and Barcelona. Publishing

It haunted me because it was horrible, because it was fascinating and yet, ultimately too, because it was uplifting. It involved a cameo appearance by a woman, a slave, and as such an insignificant atom in the cosmos of capitalism and empire at the time.

In retrospect, empires brought untold wealth to countries like Spain, Portugal, Holland and to my own country, Britain, with the resulting wealth helping to form many of today’s best-known businesses and institutions. But it is all-to-easy to forget the unspeakable human toll.

That story that stuck like a burr. In a section exploring how Black people were among those pioneering regenerative farming in America, Paul spotlights a Ghanaian Krobo woman. Kidnapped in 1740, she was “placed in chains on a ship, and sent to an unknown land by an unknown people for unknown reasons.” Yet, somehow, she had the wit “to hide seeds in [her] hair to hopefully be planted somewhere, someday … if [she] survived.”

As it happens, Barcelona — where my Renfe train soon arrived — is now among the cities removing statues of former slavers, including one there commemorating Antonio López i López. He was a Spanish marquis and businessman who died in Barcelona in 1883, his wealth flowing from the sweat and blood of slaves in Cuba.

Nor am I simply pointing fingers outward here: without too much digging I have found slavers in my family tree and in my wife’s.

And while onetime slaving nations may pride themselves on having ended the murderous trade, the uncomfortable fact is that more people are now enslaved globally than at the peak of the Atlantic slave trade.

Following abolition, and deprived of both enslaved peoples and the income derived from the trade, capitalism morphed and mutated. It evolved new forms of exploitation — of fossil fuels, for example, and of a growing spectrum of resources, natural, human and social.

Down and out

Focusing for a moment on natural resources, I still find it existentially shocking that we have lost at least 68% of the planet’s wildlife since 1970.

Nothing to do with us, many business leaders and investors will insist, but anyone with a supply chain — particularly in the food sector — will be complicit to some degree, whether or not they choose to know it.

And just as ending slavery proved to be intensely political, with vested interests and sunk capital fighting back for decades, even generations, so will be the shift from degenerative to regenerative forms of value creation.

Witness what happened at the COP26 climate summit, where some 500 fossil fuel sector delegates outnumbered delegates from any single country. The result was evident when, at the very last moment, the phrase “phase out” was dropped in favor of “phase down.” But the evidence suggests that “down” will shift to “out” soon enough.

One question that taxed my brain as I worked through the book was:

One such thought sees the regenerative economy as already here, in pockets. Sector by sector, geography by geography, Paul shows where it can be found — and there is a continuous pulse of examples of what is being learned along the way. Overall, the effect is immensely encouraging.

Making business sense of regeneration

When I asked Paul what single thing has most surprised him in developing the book, he answered:

“The rate at which regeneration was being taken up worldwide, from the largest food company in the world, Nestlé, to networks of farmers, reforesters, growers, producers, clothiers, architects, homebuilders, fisherfolk, and more.”

And when I asked him to flag the most important lessons he draws from all this for business leaders, he replied:

“Once fully grasped and understood, business leaders understand that regeneration is intensely pragmatic. They see that the road we have been on to extractive degeneration is ending soon. Pivoting to regeneration in a meaningful step-by-step process fulfils their mandate to invest in the future in order to actually exist in the future. This means a business economy that creates more life that it takes.”

Both Paul and I have spent several decades breaking into the boardrooms and C-suites of major corporations and helping those we found there to see new political — market — realities.

Along the way it has been striking to see how those most successful at playing today’s games by today’s rules fail to see how different tomorrow’s games and rules will be. Too often, they are betrayed by their expensive educations, their reality bubble experiences, their narrowly competitive instincts, and, crucially, their financial incentives.

We tend to see such people as powerful, masters of all they survey, but often they see themselves as hemmed in by past decisions, by competitors, regulators and financial markets, by activists and events.

Even so, all of this can work well enough when business-as-usual conditions apply. But when they begin to break down, as they are doing today, the result can be disaster for leaders, for their organizations and industries, and — ultimately — for all of us.

Those unfit for the new order are reassigned, retire wounded or die. Their business and industries struggle on, or go extinct. But we have also seen real leaders experience breakthrough moments, where they wake up to very different realities, challenges and opportunities.

Paul himself has helped drive a series of epiphanies among business leaders, most famously in the case of Interface CEO Ray Anderson, who described reading Paul’s book The Ecology of Commerce, as “a spear in the chest.” By Anderson’s own account, he suddenly woke up to the reality that future generations would see business leaders like him as eco-criminals, people who knew the consequences of what they were doing but pressed on regardless because their job was to follow market orders.

More recently, Paul helped Walmart CEO Doug McMillon imagine a regenerative future for his giant retail company — a vision and commitment McMillon laid out in this filmed speech late in 2020. Top teams in business, including boards and C-suites, increasingly sense that they have a tough decade ahead of them. If they don’t, they should be shown the door.

In addition to the accelerating disruption of incumbent industries by insurgent technologies, business models and brands, there are challenges like deglobalization, seismic demographic shifts and now decarbonization.

Success will depend on being able to think wider, deeper, longer and diferent. Elon Musk, whatever you may think of him, has shown how that can work — and, as part of his own mental regime, Musk devours books. Bill Gates, too, makes regular book recommendations.

Regeneration should be on all such lists — and required reading at every one of the world’s business schools. As my afterword for the book’s EU and Commonwealth edition concludes:

“Paul Hawken’s brilliant book reminds us of what an extraordinary privilege it is to be alive today. It is a time of transformation, a time when a tide of innovation is beginning to sweep away the old, degenerative order. Now it is up to us to build a truly regenerative economy. Are we — are you — ready to step up?”

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