To boldly go…exploring the Monetisation Frontier


“There’s no sense in being precise when you don’t even know what you’re talking about.”

John von Neumann

The Final Frontier…how should we communicate the value of multiple capitals?

Who among us can come across a concept called the “Monetisation Frontier” and fail to make a weak and gratuitous reference to Star Trek? Perhaps just me then.The final front-ear

But beyond the sci fi allusions, the concept of a monetisation frontier is becoming more relevant to sustainability with each passing day. Let me explain why.

For years, linking sustainability with concepts of price and value has been the goal of a myriad of initiatives, whether this be in terms of the value of natural environments, the value foregone implications for fossil assets in a carbon constrained world, the value created/ value at risk of work that I among many others played a part in back when the world was young and the new millennium loomed with hope rather than louring with the doom that now faces us all….

There are many dimensions of the sustainability value debate, from the evidence that supports the notion that less unsustainable companies (tending to be termed sustainable or responsible businesses) – an overview of the evidence for their financial outperformance can be found here – to the efforts to price environmental and social externalities (important things that are effectively ignored by economic and financial activity), to the development of wider notions of value – such as the development of multiple capitals concepts.

To date, these efforts have failed to stimulate the fundamental change in the nature and purpose of capitalism that they are intended to achieve. The reason why are pretty clear – the scope and influence of such initiatives are dwarfed by the scale of the edifice they are seeking to reform.

Metaphorically, they are like shooting an arrow at a castle wall and expecting the wall to fall down.

Economics and markets are fundamentally founded upon the price signal and the price signal is founded upon the ability of an issue to be monetized. This means that approaches to the integration of externalities that do not give rise to monetisation and therefore a change in the price signal might be fated (unless they are backed up by policy or regulation) to end up merely as potential factors for consideration (perhaps ignored) or aspects which hope to influence either accounting or institutional policies.

In the latter case such signals are by their nature weak as the essentially say ‘I know X behaviour costs $Y much, but if you really should take Z factor into account too!‘ rather than a situation where the price of a thing REALLY reflects its innate sustainability in the first place.


Multiple capitals – narrative or numbers?

 “Truth … is much too complicated to allow anything but approximations.”

John von Neumann

The multiple capitals approach seeks to conceptualise a series of value categories in addition to the traditional category of financial capital. The idea is that a consideration of the value derived from other categories – natural, social, human and manufactured capitals – should be integrated within decision making.

However the extent to which such additional concepts of value should be interpreted as literal price signals or more generally as telling us something which should be the subject of policy making (which may in turn give rise to price signals or changed market or investment rules which can be translated into price) is the subject of discussion and exploration at present within the worlds of accountancy, integrated reporting, business and policy making.


A mix and match approach

In the recently (November 2015) published ICAEW paper “Quantifying natural and social capital; guidelines on valuing the invaluable” Adrian Henriques makes the argument that accounting for multiple capitals should not focus upon a singular approach to description. He suggests that there are three distinct approaches to accounting for value which should and can be used as appropriate to describe capitals values.

Narrative accounting

This is where values and characteristics are described through the development of “stories”. These are intended to provide insight on value and its actual and potential implications, rather than to allow quantification (or translation through to monetisation). Narrative reporting has become an integral aspect of financial reporting. In the UK it is at the heart of the Companies Act 2006, which requires a “Strategic Report”. The Financial Reporting Council guidance on this type of report notes that “The purpose of the strategic report is to provide a company’s shareholders with a holistic and meaningful picture of a company’s business model, strategy, development, performance, position and future prospects.” Shareholders analyse this narrative and make judgements based upon it about the company’s capacity and likelihood of achieving its strategic goals and then assign value to those judgements.

In this context, narrative reporting of multiple capitals can (and to a small extent already is) integrated into an established and recognised approach. Though in my judgement adequate narrative reporting of multiple capitals would require a more fundamental understanding and disclosure of the capitals dependencies and vulnerabilities for a company than is generally taking place at present. The International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) has lead this agenda, placing multiple capital disclosure at the heart of their reporting framework.

Quantitative accounting

Quantitative accounting is more familiar territory for accountants and investors, it concerns the translation of aspects of qualities of capitals in terms of numbers, measurements (of output, profit, realisable utility, demand etc.) which can be analysed in terms of their value implications. Clearly, the methods used to undertake such translation are critical to the outputs which are generated, and can be subject to oversimplification or, more fundamentally, a misunderstanding of the nature of value inherent within a capital.

To take a simple and established example, the value of a forest ecosystem is not just the sum of the market price of its physical outputs such as timber or game. The true value of such an ecosystem is its capacity to produce such outputs plus its wider social (e.g. recreational, health and psychological) and ecological (carbon capture, air, water and soil services, species diversity) benefits.

Another example is a comparison of the relative value of the ecosystem services provided by mangroves versus the economic benefits of conversion of mangroves into shrimp farming in Thailand. This is simply and clearly illustrated in this study published by the World Resources Institute.

Monetised accounting

Monetisation, the translation of qualities directly into monetary unit values (in terms of cost, price etc.). These can then be used to either compare the value of differing courses of action, or (through economic analysis) to drive policy and behavioural outcomes. Rendering complex environmental and social qualities into figures is clearly contentious and potentially morally problematic for the simple and familiar reason that it can lead us to the position of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing! Nevertheless, monetisation has power (some might say a seductive one) as it fits comfortably into the economic/financial narrative which has become so dominant over the past decades.

Henriques (and Martin O’Connor – see section below on the Monetisation Frontier) notes that such an approach works best when there are well defined and functioning markets for the monetised issue/ service or product. Monetisation without such markets is either pointless or problematic, as it might allow exploitation without adequate valuation.

It is likely that the use of any one of the above 3 accounting approaches to the exclusion of the others will present an incomplete picture of the value of capitals. In his ICAEW paper, Henriques presents a set of guidelines for the use of differing approaches, with an emphasis upon (paraphrased and simplified by me):

  • Balance – of differing approaches.
  • Participation – of multiple parties affected and interested.
  • Relevance – the use of approaches appropriate to their context (e.g. monetisation should only be used alongside the existence of a functioning market).
  • Transparency – clarity upon what approach is used and why, what has been left out and which assumptions have been made.


The Monetisation Frontier

 “…if people suddenly cleared their minds of this cant of money, what would happen?”

H. G. Wells

The issue of whether a value concept should be translated into numbers (and price) brings us to the fascinating concept of the ‘Frontier of Monetisation’. Developed by Martin O’Connor and Anton Steurer and first published in International Journal of Sustainable Development (IJSD), Vol. 9, No. 1, 2006 in the article “The AICCAN, the geGDP, and the Monetisation Frontier: a typology of ‘environmentally adjusted’ national sustainability indicators”.

The monetisation frontier is a conceptual approach to categorising the threshold at which a matter crosses from being a policy issue to being a priced one (and vice versa).

The reason this concept is so central to the issue of whether price and value can properly reflect (and therefore drive) sustainability is that the world of sustainability seems rather confused at present as to whether it wants monetisation or not.

The Monetisation Frontier addresses this duality – essentially it considers two dimensions which are fundamental to the point and purpose of trying to translate sustainability into monetary terms:

  1. The extent to which monetary valuation can be scientifically meaningful, and;
  2. The policy relevance of monetary figures.

These aspects sometimes seem to be either hidden or forgotten in most discussions – which either focus upon the sacrilege of reducing nature and society to numbers (here is an example from us about valuing your Mother when selling her) or upon the absolute necessity of recognising that everything has to be valued if we are to prioritise it as important.


(The figure above adapted from O’Connor and Steurer. It was downloaded from The Forest of Broceliande, a virtual library of online teaching resources on topics of sustainable development and environmental issues.)

The Monetisation Frontier asks pertinent and still as yet unanswered (or perhaps wilfully ignored) questions about both the utility and desirability of monetisation. It suggests that there are some thresholds at which price monetisation becomes divorced from scientific legitimacy and also those where monetary figures stop being useful for telling us whether a policy is working.

Essentially – monetisation is most effective when it relies upon the lowest levels of generalisation and assumption.

Given both the technical, ethical and knowledge based challenges which it faces, it should be clearly recognised that monetisation is not the answer to the sustainability questions of our time, it is an answer to some of them, but by no means all.


Inputs change or System Change?

 “If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

Aldo Leopold

In the Environmental Valuation in Europe Policy Research Brief No. 3 (Series editors Clive L. Splash and Claudia Carter) Martin O’Connor suggests two ways that approaches towards monetisation can avoid the twin pitfalls of price signals either becoming divorced from scientific integrity or meaningless in policy terms.

These are:

  • Changing the system boundary – shifting the dividing line between the economy and its external environment by bringing stocks of social or natural capital into economic monetary accounting. This would mean that accounting procedures would focus upon changes in natural capital and value them either from the supply side (scarcity costs, restoration and reparation costs) or the demand side (willingness to pay to maintain the asset).
  • Adjusting the economy itself – a primarily policy-derived approach where the sustainability performance characteristics of production and consumption are clearly specified through performance standards. In this scenario changes in natural and social capital states are not reflected directly in monetary terms, but are translated in policy terms which then give rise to monetary impacts.

In essence the two approaches reflect a much wider dialectic that has been at the heart of sustainability price and value debates for a long while. Should we try to translate environmental and social issues directly into price (or price adjustments) or should we redesign the economy so that sustainability value is more fundamentally hardwired into the origination of price in the first place?

I have written extensively on this “choice” between two paths over the last 4 years, and persist in coming down on the side of the latter; that we need to reconceptualise the function and purpose of the economy so that it innately gives rise to sustainability.

However, the former approach – the monetisation of currently unpriced capitals – overwhelming appeals to many, partly because it doesn’t rely upon a redesign of the system as a whole, just an adjustment of its functioning.

This may be more appealing, but will it really deliver the outcomes that our species and our planet requires. Can simple pricing of capitals produce sustainability?

I would say that it cannot, most significantly because pricing complex social and natural capitals is much more complicated than pricing conventional capitals.

In addition to the challenges raised by Henriques and O’Connor there also 2 fundamental reasons why translating multiple capitals into a comparable metric such as money is flawed, not to say impossible within in our current economic model.

1.        The dependency challenge

When one capital depends upon another – such as in the case of financial capital (and all others) deriving from natural capital – then reducing each to a number for the purposes of assessing trade-offs ignores the fact they are not equal – that one can only exist with the continued presence and health of the other.

2.        The value hierarchies challenge

Fundamental dependencies indicate a value hierarchy. Using a comparable metric like money as a way to put things on a level playing field makes sense, but only up to a point. Such an approach would be fine if the things we were comparing were truly comparable. However, the environment is something we can’t do without.

Revolution through evolution?

The multiple capitals concept, and the intent behind it (to put a range of sources of value alongside the pure financial) is a radical one. If successful it would represent a revolution in economics and finance, and could give rise to a truly sustainable economic system.

However, this revolutionary endgame is currently buried under a rather evolutionary, incremental, approach.

The current economic system is structurally designed (though perhaps not intentionally) to functionally ignore issues of existential importance and therefore is unable and uninterested in driving sustainable behaviour. Its sole success criteria is a de-facto measure of the acceleration of unsustainability (growth through GDP measure).

Given this, for sustainability advocates to decide that the way to tackle that system is to do nothing about the direction of overall travel other than a little price adjustment just doesn’t seem to have much chance of success.

It’s like saying that the best way to tackle a river flowing in the wrong direction is to scoop out the occasional bucket from the stream and carry them to where we want to go, rather than engineering a diversion of the course of the river itself so that it reaches the required destination itself.

Some frontiers are not there to be crossed, but to be recognised and explored. The Monetary Frontier is a very valuable tool in reminding us that there is a point at which monetisation doesn’t help in delivering sustainability, and where price signals do not tell us anything useful for assessing direction.


Contact Terrafiniti

Sliding into simplicity – hiding from a complex world

“It doesn’t matter how conclusively you prove anything, if the person to whom you prove it can’t accept your proof emotionally, it’s still false. Not-real.

H. Beam Piper

In praise of simplicity – sing a simple song

Followers of simplicity delight in seeing the world in black and white. You are either for us or against us, a capitalist or a socialist – with little space for shades of Fiendish simplicitygrey.

Such a binary approach of course appeals at it allows us to label, categorise, align and dismiss according to our lights, our socialisation and our worldview.

Admitting that nearly all opinions can be seen as wrong from another perspective, and that this truism applies to our own views as well as those of others, is rather hard to swallow.

Of course this is why science exists, as a method for pursuing knowledge based upon agreed principles and generally accepted levels of evidence. As Thomas Hobbes said “Science is the knowledge of consequences, and dependence of one fact upon another.”

The trouble with the scientific method, however, is that it can bring inconvenient truths. Perhaps this is why recent years have seen a populist growth in the mistrust of science and expertise in favour of the seemingly robust dependability of ‘good common sense’.

Isaac Asimov recognised this very phenomena years ago when he noted “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.‘”.

Say it aint so…

This problem is well illustrated by ‘false equivalence’ in news and wider broadcast media – which tends to present two sides to every story. The apparent ‘balance’ arises from argument rather than the reliability of evidence or legitimacy of different standpoints.

These are the results of ideological attachment rather than legitimate logic, the fact that a truth is uncomfortable doesn’t make it wrong. Ideology that prevents us from questioning orthodoxy and developing our understanding of the world isn’t there to make us happy, it is there to hold us back. Thomas Paine rather acerbically summed this up more than 200 years ago when he said To argue with those who have renounced the use and authority of reason is as futile as to administer medicine to the dead.”

I have seen web conversations where, in response to overwhelming examples of personally stated experience of a phenomena, someone will join the debate saying ‘I can’t believe that X situation is really that bad, it doesn’t seem feasible that so many people would have had that experience’. This is reaction not based upon logic but upon sentiment, upon the fact that it is inconvenient for them to recognise a new truth because it would require them to consider, reflect and perhaps change their own behaviour. It is easier to doubt a newly received ‘truth’ than to accept and assimilate its implications.

Put simply, we like things (broadly speaking) to be the same, we like to feel comfortably familiar with things as they are….that is of course if we innately benefit from the status quo.

Those working to change unexamined inequity face an uphill challenge. The status quo is unequal, as the inertia of privileged position is normally strong and frequently actively defended.

Change goes fast, change goes slow

“In every respect the burthen is hard on those who attack an almost universal opinion. They must be very fortunate as well as unusually capable if they obtain a hearing at all. They have more difficulty in obtaining a trial, than any other litigants have in getting a verdict. If they do extort a hearing, they are subjected to a set of logical requirements totally different from those exacted from other people. In all other cases, burthen of proof is supposed to lie with the affirmative.”

John Stuart Mill

The difficulty of changing entrenched positions poses a huge problem for those seeking change for sustainability. We have to do more than prove that capitalism is flawed, we have to prove it far beyond any levels of proof required to maintain the status quo.

Witness the seismic changes in financial markets over the past two decades. The Big Bang in the UK, and the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in the US allowed banks to effectively act on their own behalves with customer’s money and to compete with them for profits in the same pool. Such deregulation also facilitated the rise of hedge funds, whose only goal is riding the volatility of the market, and ushered in innovations such as automated trading, which effectively suborn any human judgement of purpose to the cold logic of algorithms.

These changes have changed the logic and purpose of markets beyond recognition (in addition to nearly bringing the global economy to its knees). Where was the public discussion and acceptance of these changes? There was none.

Decisions are made all the time which change the purpose and direction of systems, why should changes to a more sustainable way of doing things require such debate, such levels of proof and a half-hearted adoption over decades?

Reinventing the Weal – Exploring the Commons (Part 2)

Weal (definition): Noun, 1. (archaic) prosperity or wellbeing (now esp. in the phrases the public weal, the common weal)”



Part 1 of this post provided an overview of the theories of Garrett Hardin and Elinor Ostrom. This part explores the ideas of other commons thinkers and proposes some of our own.


Beyond Hardin and Ostrom – alternative and developing approaches to commons problems

Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

Albert Einstein

In addition to the analyses and solutions of Hardin and Ostrom, there are a number of other prominent commons theorists who have proposed new approaches and structures likely to support the health and longevity of common pool resources. Steering WealThese include (but are not limited to) the following:

Michel Bauwens, Founder of the P2P (Peer to Peer) Foundation (focusing upon knowledge commons) argues that egalitarian networking is a new form of relationship that is emerging throughout society, and profoundly transforming the way in which society and human civilization is organised.

Burns H. Weston and David Bollier, whose 2013 book “Green Governance: Ecological Survival, Human Rights, and the Law of the Commons” proposes a synthesis of environmental protection based on broader notions of economics and human rights and on commons-based governance.

Tommaso Fattori, whose “Towards a Legal Framework for the Commons” proposes both structures and processes by which governance and access to commons might be achieved, whilst securing their health and longevity.

The Global Commons Trust suggests the notion of ‘commons rent’ in the context of a nested system of commons trusts, under which there are three essential levels, so that:

  • Government shifts its primary emphasis from issuing corporate charters and licensing the private sector to approving social charters and open licenses for resource preservation and cultural and social production through commons trusts.
  • Commons trusts exercise a fiduciary duty to preserve natural, genetic and material commons, and to protect, create or regenerate solar, social, cultural and intellectual commons, yet may also decide to rent a proportion of these resource rights to businesses.
  • Businesses rent the rights to extract and produce a resource from a commons trust, creating profits and positive externalities through innovation, competitive products and services, and adjustment of the market to the actual costs of resources.

Discussion of the work of these organisations and practitioners and others can be found at Share the World’s Resources, the Global Commons Trust and a range of commons challenges and solutions are succinctly and clearly explored in the paper “Sovereignty, Sustainability and Natural Resources: The Limits of the Law” by Sam Adelman of the University of Warwick.

In addition, the International Journal of the Commons provides a fantastic essay by Lee Fennell (University of Chicago Law School) revisiting Ostrom’s work 20 years on “Ostrom’s Law: Property rights in the commons” and exploring its implications for property rights and law. In this piece Fennel coins what he calls “Ostrom’s Law” which states that “A resource arrangement that works in practice can work in theory.


Reinventing the Weal – common good without total privatisation or global government?

“The same energy of character which renders a man a daring villain would have rendered him useful in society, had that society been well organized.”

Mary Wollstonecraft

In our Earth IPO experiment (and in fact in all of our Towards 9 Billion ideas) we have had, as part of our informal design principles, a ‘no black helicopter’ rule. This means that we wanted to try and explore global issues and solutions for the future of the planet without suggesting the imposition of antidemocratic private approaches or totalitarian global rule.

Nevertheless, the challenge of global commons management, of delivering for the common weal, preserving and rejuvenating the natural processes that sustain our species and millions of others in the face of global scale problems, requires levels of planetary thinking and responses that are currently almost entirely absent.

As part of our work exploring new approaches and solutions we have, over the last few years, produced a number of ideas or highlighted the ideas of others that offer partial or full (ish) solutions to common pool resource challenges, all of them avoiding the black-helicoptered threat of global government or (almost – there is one example below) private ownership of everything.

They are assembled and briefly described in the following table.

Concepts/Tools Description/Definition
Establishing new Trade Law – the Rights of Future Trade A concept proposed by Terrafiniti for International Trade Law to include an explicit presumption of sustainability and stewardship as fundamental principles of enterprise, to enshrine and protect the birth right of all humans to partake in activity which brings them reward, security and the use of their physical and cognitive abilities in perpetuity. This is based upon the contention that current unsustainable trade and enterprise represents a restraint of future trade.

Planetary Limits based investment strategies A translation of the concept of planetary limits (e.g. as described by the 9 Planetary Boundaries) into sustainable investment practice; that investments would be considered viable if the company or endeavor under consideration develop and utilise products and services which innately strengthen or reinforce the Boundaries.
Capitalism with a point and purpose A proposition made by Joss Tantram for there to be a clear, articulated goal for capitalism. The actions of individual investment and corporate actors could be judged (and therefore value assigned) according to a judgment of their contribution towards that goal/ actions to undermine the achievement of that goal – in the same manner that investors currently (theoretically) analyse company strategy and prospects.

Planetary Going Concern Principle An idea suggested by Joss Tantram to expand the scope of the existing accounting principle of going concern, which is “the assumption that an entity will remain in business for the foreseeable future.” If the principle were applied to the planet, a clear assessment of the risks to the planetary enterprise might be more clearly understood.

Systems investors based stewardship “Systems investors/systems players” are investment entities such as sovereign wealth funds, pension funds and other large market actors whose holdings represent percentages of the overall planetary asset base. Such entities are so large that they are not only exposed to individual company failures, sectoral risks and also risks to the stability of the financial system as a whole.

Given this exposure, the challenge for systems investors could conceivably move from making judgements based upon the opportunities and risks for individual companies and sectors but also to a focus upon the challenges faced by the global financial system as a whole. To paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke “At scale, and over sufficiently long periods of time, private interest should be indistinguishable from the common interest”.

Common Good Cartels Private interests with controlling collective influence over global or strategic resources acting in concert for the long terms viability of those resources – for their own ‘common self-interest’.

Note: whilst this suggestion breaks the ‘no black helicopters’ rule highlighted above, it should be noted that, if you are large enough to see the limits of your power, then it is possible that you may wield that power with enough care such that you continue to hold it….it’s just a thought!

Changing the rules of money Reconceptualising the relationship between money and value to prioritise longer term thinking, e.g.:

1. Introducing “demurrage” – a reverse interest rate, a cost levied for holding or owning money for a given period.

2. Developing “Long” and “Short” money – short money would have a use by date and be spent on day-to-day things, Long money would be more suited to infrastructure investment and projects with a long term or common-good payoff.

A Global Commons Trust An expansion of the current phenomena of Commons Trusts to be global in scope. Rather than regarding a commons as a source of profit, commons trusts determine their preservation value (the actual worth of passing on what we have inherited to future generations and allowing this stock to be replenished and restored) through the full participatory choice of community members on whether or not to spend this commons capital. Commons trusts thus are based on the preservation of common resources and the resilience of the system that manages and produces them — not on the assets of the commons that may have financial value in the marketplace.
Common Heritage of Man Principle An ethical and general concept in international law. It was first introduced in a speech to the UN by the Maltese ambassador Arvid Pardo in 1967. It establishes that some localities belong to all humanity and that their resources are available for everyone’s use and benefit, taking into account future generations and the needs of developing countries. When it applies to areas and resources within national jurisdiction, exercise of sovereignty is subject to certain responsibilities to protect the common good. It is intended to achieve aspects of the sustainable development of common spaces and their resources, but may apply either more strongly or beyond this traditional scope.

Hard Laws – Ecocide Ecocide – proposed by Polly Higgins – has been defined as the missing “5th Crime against Peace”, with the argument of its proponents that it should have the same status in international law as other recognised crimes against peace of Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity, War Crimes, and Crimes of Aggression.

Ecocide is defined as “The extensive destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished.

Entropic Valuation – Energy Economics based upon thermodynamic optimisation A suggested approach to understanding and valuing the fundamental life-time energetic performance of solar derived energy sources. A concept developed by Joss Tantram and Sean Grunnet Cuthbert, Entropic Valuation provides a way of assessing and therefore pricing the total efficiency of a wide range of energy sources. The approach asks “How many solar kilojoules (kJ) have gone into this storage media in order to obtain 1 kJ of usable energy from it?” This ratio can then be used to assign a nominal price to the results.

Energy is a commons issue for several reasons: primarily because it is a pre-requisite for any human activity and is an ‘engine’ of life itself; secondly, because our current unsustainable use of scarce and dirty hydrocarbons gives rise to systemic impacts on the health and viability of natural systems and; thirdly, because differential access to energy gives rise to social inequity. We believe that new approaches to connecting the physical performance of energy with systems of value and priority have a role to play in a sustainable, equitable future.

Abundancy economics An approach to the derivation of price (and value) which focusses upon the abundance of a resource rather than its scarcity and values abundancy as more valuable to meet the needs of a large global population. It essentially values scalability rather than exclusivity. Under this approach, enhanced value would be assigned to the use of materials and production processes that inherently avoid or otherwise manage the challenges of scarcity, prioritising technologies and behaviours which deliver either natural (e.g. biologically-based) or managed (e.g. through closed loop stewardship) abundance.

Usufruction for global commons Development of the concept of usufruction to apply more explicitly to global commons/ as a way of framing corporate license to operate.

Usufruction is a right that one party may obtain in a property owned by another, normally for a limited time or until death. It is the right to use the property, to enjoy the fruits and income of the property, to rent the property out and to collect the rents, all to the exclusion of the underlying owner. The usufructuary has the full right to use the property but cannot dispose of the property nor can it be destroyed.


All of the above examples would require exploration and development to become potentially useful and some might have to be used in concert rather than on their own. Nevertheless, we feel that exploring new ways to hard-wire the protection of common resources into humanity’s systems of value and prioritization is likely to become ever more important as we test the boundaries of our finite planet.


Common good for a constrained world

Delivering global scale change without manifest global control will only likely be achieved through a combination of changing the purpose of human systems alongside the development of structures that legislate for the preservation of common wealth and health whilst also delivering equity and sovereignty for people across the world. Such changes cut across systems of law, economics, human and non-human rights.

Many approaches to global commons suggest ways that we could achieve such a change, though they have huge implications for the current workings of national sovereignty, law, financial markets, and the ownership structures of capitalism.

Changing the nature and purpose of capitalism is clearly proving rather difficult. Less than 10 years after the largest crash for almost 100 years and capitalism’s function and processes remain the same as before it happened, and seem to be merrily carrying us towards another one.

Systems that benefit powerful and well-resourced parties tend to be quite good at resisting calls for meaningful reform or redesign. However the lack of success so far in reforming capitalism for a sustainable, equitable purpose does not mean that the task is less necessary.

Recognising the limitations of our world, and of the systems that developed in times where we could effectively ignore those limitations, should spur us to re-imagine and renew systems and structures which are no longer fit for purpose. Using human ingenuity to balance the preservation of global commons with the generation of equitable common wealth should not be beyond the wit or grasp of our uncommonly creative and capable species.


My profuse thanks go to Ian Christie of the University of Surrey’s Centre for Environmental Strategy, for allowing me to see his amazing overview of common pool resources challenges, “Managing the Commons -theory and practice”, produced for the Centre for Environmental Strategy’s Ecological Economics Module and to Sam Adelman of the University of Warwick for being kind enough to let me refer to his work. As ever, all errors are mine.

Reinventing the Weal – Exploring the Commons (Part 1)

Weal (definition): Noun, 1. (archaic) prosperity or wellbeing (now esp. in the phrases the public weal, the common weal)


Value without ownership? Global Commons and the problems of property


“Show me a first-generation fortune and I’ll show you a successful partnership between a talented individual and society’s invisible venture capitalist, the commons.”

William H. Gates, Sr.

Capitalism, by its very nature, is dependent upon property; the right to access or use the products of property owned by someone else (usufruct), or the ability to makeFree Wealing use of common property (the commons).

Where something lacks clear ownership, or where there is shared (or common) ownership, capitalism struggles to compute its value adequately, often meaning that it is either considered as a “free good” or is inadequately priced.

This does not mean that the unpriced object or objects in discussion do not give rise to value. For instance, the existence of air is one of the reasons why combustion works, does that mean that a substantial part of the profits of automobile companies should actually be paid to a local or global atmospheric fund to ensure the continued supply of fresh air? Perhaps it should!

Rather, that the existence and maintenance of that un/underpriced object does not appear either as an asset or as a cost (required to ensure its continuing existence) on a balance sheet. This situation frequently results in the degradation and possible destruction of the asset, undermining its ability to give rise to value.

As I have previously explored thorough the metaphor of trying to get a good price when selling your Mother, the fact that something is priceless should not equally mean that it is worthless.

The wicked problem of free goods and sustainability is a long explored one. Many approaches to developing sustainable economics and capitalism seek to price all such free goods (classified in economic terms as “externalities”) such that their value is included in economic calculations and decisions.

Common Weal – From free goods to common resources

Free goods are a property of the resources that give rise to them. These resources are known as ‘Common Pool Resources’ or, more simply ‘commons’.

Recognising the value of commons to our global economy in such a way that encourages their continued health and existence is perhaps an even bigger and more contentious challenge than the already difficult one of pricing environmental and social externalities.

Historically, economic value has generally been allied to ownership and property rights. Global commons, which are resources owned by no-one but benefitting many (through their productivity, ecosystem function or resource richness) are facing a series of pressures; from impacts upon their function, to the possibility of ‘land grabs’ and resource based conflict. It is frequently argued that the challenges facing global commons represents a market failure and that threats to them are either inevitable or can only be remedied through privatisation.

This is because to a large extent common pool resources are the birthright of every human being. Under conventional economic and capitalist theory, the only way for them to be adequately valued would be for them to be owned in some way, whether by governments (notionally in trust for their citizens) or by private interest. Under the latter scenario, the resource could be valued as it would be considered as an asset either capable of being sold, or of giving rise to continued revenue.

Is the only way for our birthright to be valued for it to be sold to someone else?

This is the sort of question that Terrafiniti has been exploring as part of our Earth IPO (Initial Public Offering) thought experiment, which is seeking to discover the capability of our current systems of value, law and finance to evolve such that they might deliver a sustainable and equitable world as a natural outcome of their existence.

The project, in partnership with the global law firm Herbert Smith Freehills and with the input of a range of professionals with an array of expertise and experience has been designed to discover the challenges that would be faced by our current systems of value if, as a species, we decided that sustainability and equity were worthwhile shared ambitions.

As part of this exploration Terrafiniti has developed an overview on the concept of Global Commons and its associated theories. In addition, I have included suggestions of our own on how to place the protection and growth of global commons at the heart of humanity’s systems of value and priority.

I thought that it might be useful to share this overview with our Towards 9 Billion readers, so here it is!

A quick primer on Commons

What are they?

Global Commons (or Common Pool Resources) are resource domains to which all nations have legal access. They may comprise land or other resources with great value and no owner, or resources of critical importance and benefit to many people – ‘stakeholders’.

Commons resources are capable of being degraded or destroyed through over-use, but also of supplying effectively indefinite benefits. They provide the ‘fertile ground’ which allows the existence of life, and of complex, interdependent social and financial systems.

Examples of global commons include the atmosphere, outer space, the High Seas (beyond territorial waters), Antarctica and International Institutions (such as the UN, the World Bank, IMF and the WTO (World Trade Organisation).

Local and scale-limited examples include literal commons such as Wimbledon Common (where the Wombles live) and the New Forest in the UK (where common rights exist/are granted), Government owned forest/land/seas (common ownership) and social infrastructure (roads, schools, hospitals etc.).

Commons are therefore resources themselves, geographic areas giving rise to resources or benefits of some kind or properties arising from the existence of resources that may have multiple beneficiaries.

Commons and commons rights (the right to have access to a commons resource or to benefit from the productivity of a commons) have long been the subject of moral, ethical and economic debate and discussion. The central theme in many of these discussions is that of the challenge of whether ‘open’ access to commons resources inevitably gives rise to their degradation and destruction.

Commons tragedies

The challenge which commons pose to us and which we pose to them was perhaps most famously framed by Garrett Hardin in his 1968 paper in Science, “The Tragedy of the Commons”. This used the metaphor of herders grazing cows on a literal common; describing a situation in which individuals acted independently and rationally according to their own self-interest. The herders continued to add more animals to achieve greater returns, eventually depleting the asset of grass in the process. In Hardin’s view, only mutual coercion or imposition by the state could prevent the destruction of the land.

However, there are competing views on whether ‘open’ access to commons inevitably gives rise to their degradation. Most notably, the Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom pointed to many examples of successful commons stewardship. In these examples a key part of maintaining the sustainability of the resources in question arose from a clear social compact; that those individuals accessing benefits knew and understood that they had social obligations towards other commons users. Transgressors of these social rules could be subject to a range of social penalties, including ostracism and the formal removal of rights.

Ostrom argued that there are 8 ‘design principles’ required to sustain common pool resources:

  1. Define clear group boundaries.
  2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.
  3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.
  4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.
  5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behaviour.
  6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.
  7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.
  8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.

Hardin and Ostrom – on opposite sides?

Hardin and Ostrom are often considered to be the yin and yang of commons theorists, although it is worth pointing out that in some respects they each highlight the same truth; that certain strictures and structures are required to ensure the long term health and viability of common pool resources.

Hardin explored a number of solutions, from state control of commons to: “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected” (page 5 Col 1, The Tragedy of the Commons).

As a generalization however, Hardin’s analysis is frequently interpreted as calling for a privatisation of the commons, as a way of forcing stewardship though ownership, as follows:

We must admit that our legal system of private property plus inheritance is unjust—but we put up with it because we are not convinced, at the moment, that anyone has invented a better system. The alternative of the commons is too horrifying to contemplate. Injustice is preferable to total ruin.” (Page 5 Col 1, The Tragedy of the Commons).

A key challenge which could be raised to Hardin’s arguments is not that his analysis is wrong when it comes to many common pool resources, but that the specific example of cows grazing common land is actually one where history and precedent presents many examples of just the opposite of his predicted tragedy taking place. For example, here is a link to one such in Switzerland. In addition, Ostrom and many other commons theorists pointed out that many common pool resources do not allow unrestricted access, but that access is restricted to specific rights holders.

However, there are also many global commons which do conform to the ‘free-for-all’ as described by Hardin, and which are likely to succumb to the tragedy that he describes. Resources such as air, forests and the high seas (and the functions that commons resources give rise to, such as; soil formation, nitrogen cycle, weather regulation, water purification, oxygen generation and species diversity) have tended to be considered as effectively limitless and, as such, are liable to be in danger of degradation if we do not develop structures or agree rules by which their health and viability can be assured.

Part 2 of this post explores the work of commons theorists who have built upon the work of Hardin and Ostrom, in addition to highlighting some of the ideas we have developed and identified which I believe have a contribution to make to the sustainability and longevity of our global commons.


My profuse thanks go to Ian Christie of the University of Surrey’s Centre for Environmental Strategy, for allowing me to see his amazing overview of common pool resources challenges, “Managing the Commons -theory and practice”, produced for the Centre for Environmental Strategy’s Ecological Economics Module and to Sam Adelman for being kind enough to let me refer to his work. As ever, all errors are mine.

Rejuvenative innovation – building a flourishing future


Rejuvenative (definition): “To restore to a former state; make fresh or new again.”

Our Towards 9 Billion blog is almost 4 years old. Lightbulb momentsOver that time we have produced, at least once a month, commentary, analysis or big ideas on topics ranging from energy, physics, economics, natural philosophy and the promise and perversity of the human condition. With our Towards 9 Billion E-book series coming out this year, which collects together our thinking and analysis, this blog provides a short overview of one of the key themes of Towards 9 Billion – the need and hope for innovation towards a sustainable, equitable future.

Rejuvenative innovation…beyond stasis

“We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.

R. Buckminster Fuller

Different outcomes require different means. This truism is at the heart of the sustainability challenge. Can we solve the problems of tomorrow with the tools of today?

What new approaches, mechanisms and technologies are required and will evolve in responses to the challenges of resource scarcity, consumption pressure, biodiversity loss and the emerging cracks in our current economic and market systems?

At its heart sustainability is about innovation: of our ways of understanding and responding to the world; of organising ourselves; in the invention, development and deployment of new technologies and also, perhaps most crucially; in our systems of production and distribution. Whilst the future may well see a flowering of wondrous sustainable technologies, it will also need to feature new ways of conceiving of the point and purpose of enterprise and economics, we call this “Rejuvenative innovation”.

At the levels of manufacture and production this innovation is rejuvenative technology and rejuvenative enterprise; technologies and initiatives whose impacts innately add to the quality and quantity of life on this planet.

Many of the seeds of a sustainable future already exist and whilst new things will undoubtedly be required, many of the techniques, concepts and technologies we need are potentially available for use, if we can prioritise, develop and value their contribution to a successful future on a physically constrained, populous planet.

The idea of Rejuvenative Enterprise and technology draws upon and builds from a number of sources, – it is majorly influenced by Amory Lovin’s (et al) Natural Capitalism, The Natural Step, Cradle-to-Cradle and biomimicry/ bio-facture concepts, combined with our own thoughts and experiences over the last 20 years.

In addition, beyond what already exists, we also point towards new and as yet undiscovered approaches to natural manufacturing that are currently more sci fi than sci-reality.

Abundant thinking

“Probable impossibilities are to be preferred to improbable possibilities.”


Rejuvenation of our technology must be accompanied by a rejuvenation in our approach to economics and value. A key element of this is the idea of valuing abundance rather than focusing our conceptions of value upon scarcity.

Where price is based upon scarcity, it will always be more valuable to pursue ever scarcer supplies of a given resource, because the price of that resource will be driven higher and higher by the conventional laws of supply and demand.

Basing price on abundance (i.e. the likelihood of a resource being capable of providing utility to the greatest possible number of the world’s population) seems to be a more valuable and sustainable approach for capitalism then eternally pursuing ever decreasing traces of non-renewable resources.

Such abundance can be either natural (e.g. biologically based) or managed (e.g. through closed loop stewardship).


Terra sapiens – evolving to a truly planetary species

 “Human nature is hung in the balance; our behaviour driven by selfishness & our desire to cooperate to ensure survival”

E.O. Wilson

Sustainability also poses a fundamental challenge to the genetic and social capabilities of our species, requiring a perspective shift from the interests of our family and friends, to those of our communities, nations, regions and ultimately all members of our species. The development of truly global thinking will challenge the way we conceive of those we care about and how we do so, requiring the conceptualisation of true global citizenship.

At the heart of this challenge concerning human capability and capacity is the question of the limits and capability of our species’ sapience. It is not intelligence per se which is important, but ‘sapience’ – having or showing great wisdom or sound judgment.

Our species certainly has much to prove to demonstrate that we have the wisdom or judgment required to achieve a sustainable world.

Moving from Homo sapiens to Terra sapiens must be rooted in a clear eyed understanding of what we are as a species, our capacities, weaknesses, shortcomings and strengths. Recognising the biology and psychologies which drive us is a vital aspect of driving the sapience we need for a sustainable future on a populous planet.

New challenges, new opportunities

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

This blog explores these and other challenges by posing questions about our intelligence and capacity for sustainability and defining and suggesting new ways of conceiving and categorising those fundamental elements of sustainable technology and value that we believe will be essential tools for building a sustainable world.

We suggest and explore the idea of social utility as a fundamental metric for social purpose, arguing that an examination of how companies give rise to social quality and capacity will be those most valuable and sustainable over the long term.

We explore how abundance might be placed at the heart of price, how the technologies that will deliver a sustainable world might be categorised in terms that investors can recognise and explore the limitations and opportunities our species faces in responding to the power and responsibility we have in creating planetary level change.

The rejuvenative revolution is about hope. Hope for our future and hope for the evolution of our systems of production and value, whilst recognising the limits of both our knowledge and our capacity to act with wisdom and judgement in the face of global challenges.


Coming soon – Towards 9 Billion book series

We are packaging a range of our writing over the last few years into a series of short, free E-books, to be available in 2016.

T9B Book 4 - The Rejuvenative Revolution

Here are just some of the kind things people have said about our work:

“Building a sustainable future will take evolution and revolution, mixing what already works and challenging what does not. Terrafiniti’s Towards 9 Billion creates positive, playful ideas which help us describe and drive a future where we and our planet can flourish together.”

KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz; Founder, Chief Executive, Sustainable Brands

“Terrafiniti’s Towards 9 Billion initiative raises powerful questions, and some equally powerful answers. Their sharp thinking combines a rational approach to analyse in a subtle way the wicked problems of our complex and rapidly changing world, for the common good of present and future generations.”

Alain Ruche, Senior adviser to the SG of the EU External Service (EEAS)

“Terrafiniti’s Towards 9 Billion is a creative approach for putting people and the planet at the heart of value. By pushing the boundaries of our thinking it poses serious questions and argues that the seeds of the future may already lie within our current, unsustainable approaches.”

Jeremy Nicholls, Chief Executive, Social Value UK

Sowing the seeds of a sustainable world?

Just as plants and animals broadcast seed and progeny in vast numbers in the hope that some will survive and flourish, we hope that our ideas might have the chance to do the same; to find receptive places in which to thrive.

We hope that our writing and the books might play a small but useful role in imagining and building a future fit for people and the planet.

If you would like to be notified when they are published please get in touch.


Contact Terrafiniti

From the stars…post-scarcity economics & energy as a human right

“Economic activity is impossible without external energy inputs. Energy is a prerequisite for all economic activity…Despite these facts, traditional economists do not include energy inputs in their macroeconomic production functions.”

Hannes Kuntz

The currency of life

Energy is the currency of life, it is transformed from one form to another (down an irrevocable pathway of dispersal) every nano-second of our lives.Christmas Star over Bethlehem

All the achievements of any civilisation and indeed all human existence across history have been bought with energy, whether it be in the form of human muscle, animal power, water, wind, fossil fuels and nuclear sources.

Energy is a spectre at the economic feast, it is a constant overhead of any activity. Any true conception of economics should really be less about profit, loss and the performance of money and more about the quality, utility, availability and safety of energy.

A burning issue

A focus upon the performance and availability of energy has become even more (if that were possible) of a burning issue as the Paris Agreement, which emerged from the Paris climate conference in December 2015. Delivering the Agreement requires a clear trajectory away from dependency upon fossil fuels.

Only one law of nature

“The idols and false notions which have already preoccupied the human understanding, and are deeply rooted in it…will again meet and trouble us in the instauration of the sciences, unless mankind, when forewarned, guard themselves with all possible care against them.”

Francis Bacon

The behaviour of energy in systems is described by the laws of thermodynamics, perhaps the most fundamental expression for the frame for physical existence. Indeed Sir Arthur Eddington said of the 2nd Law: “There is only one law of Nature—the second law of thermodynamics—which recognises a distinction between past and future more profound than the difference of plus and minus.”.

You cannot break the laws of thermodynamics, approaches to value and prioritisation which ignore them (like our current economics and markets do through their emphasis upon perpetual growth) are doomed to be constrained by them at some point. You cannot have infinite growth within a finite system.

Thermodynamic metrics?

Cognisance of the physical thermodynamic laws which govern our existence should be at the heart of economics and policy. However, a key challenge is that these get pretty complicated quickly, and it is not meaningful or appropriate to set a simple ‘target’ for how to better align with them


Understanding real time energy

A requirement for truly sustainable energy utilisation is a focus upon ‘live’ or ‘real time energy’ – the transformation of received energy into material manufacture or process power without significant time (i.e. the “live” use of solar wind or water power or the years-to-decades required for biomass rather than the millions of years required for coal, oil or natural gas) or aggregation intermediation.

This could include learning from how matter is shaped in nature and how plants grow through the incremental use of a massive number of tiny inputs. This is a very different to the use of energy in our current paradigm which does the exact reverse; valuing only concentrated energy and effectively ignoring small and disparate inputs.

Making the best use of real time energy – utilising the vast abundance of insolation our planet receives every day will take two key changes:

  1. To develop modes of energy utilisation that benefit from small inputs, and;
  2. The consolidation and storage of small inputs to mimic the concentrated energy of hydrocarbons and nuclear sources.

Post scarcity – Energy as a human right?

“Should you find yourself in a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is likely to be more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.”

Warren Buffett

As the common denominator of any activity, the demand for energy has risen as population and consumption has increased. With an overwhelming dependence upon sources of energy with significant destabilising effects upon natural systems and human health, this relationship is clearly unsustainable, and has led to some initial attempts, mostly (though not exclusively) through pricing carbon, to limit the ‘use’ of energy.

However, rather than pricing energy to limit its use, a truly equitable and sustainable world would instead collect, store and distribute plentiful renewable energy as a birth-right and for free. This takes us towards the idea of energy as a free good, and by proxy, a human right. What possibilities for humanity would be opened up if access to abundant and clean energy were a birth-right, rather than an obstacle to achieving a decent quality of life?

This idea is not a new one, it is perhaps most extensively explored in science-fiction, where the precondition for truly “post scarcity” economies such as those explored in the Star Trek Universe and in Iain M Banks’ Culture novels (among many others) is more or less unlimited access to clean and safe energy. Under these scenarios, freely available energy equals high degrees of social and technological freedom.

Could we take steps towards such freedom in the real world, not just in worlds of speculative fiction?

The main challenges to freeing up access and rights to energy presently lie in two dimensions:

  1. The relationship between energy and environmental and social impacts. Where energy sources are dirty, scarce and risky, expanding their use is neither feasible nor wise.
  2. The relationship between development and energy – of course, as noted above, nothing happens without energy moving from one state to another. There is, however, huge scope for changing the intensity and wastage relationships between a given unit of energy and a given unit of productive output or financial value.

There is huge scope to evolve the type and efficiency of the energy that we depend upon. Whilst we are challenged by the inertia that ties us to energy technologies and support infrastructure, there are also existing and emerging energy technologies capable of fulfilling our energy needs and wants with radically different environmental and social implications.

Here is an interactive map of a possible country-by-country sustainable energy mix for the planet to fulfil its energy needs with 100% renewable energy.

Energy as a human right is starting to rise up the agenda of development thinkers and organisations. Indeed access to energy is also a foundational requirement or precondition for the achievement of all of the UNs Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the specific focus of Goal 7.

Going beyond the idea of energy access for all, we believe that energy itself should be free. Competition for energy undermines freedom of choice, action and ingenuity.

What could we achieve together if our ambition was not defined and constrained by the impacts of our energy use or its safety and scarcity?

Energy should set us free, not constrain our potential. Turning away from dirty, scarce and dangerous towards clean abundant and safe energy is the challenge we must overcome to succeed and prosper as a species on our small, energetically blessed planet.


Coming soon – Towards 9 Billion book series

We are packaging a range of our writing over the last few years into a series of short, free E-books, to be available in 2016.

What is sustainable energy? Towards 9 Billion e-Book

Here are just some of the kind things people have said about our work:

“Suspect the future’s going to be very different? Unsure how multiple economic, social and environmental forces will collide? But too little time to explore? Well treat yourself to a Towards 9 billion e-book. Short, sharp, accessible insights on what the future might look like and how you should prepare for it.”

Mike Barry, Director – Plan A, Marks & Spencer plc

“Terrafiniti’s Towards 9 Billion book series asks the important questions that lie beneath the accelerating chaos of systems no longer fit for purpose. We ignore them at our peril. They provide insightful analysis and innovative solutions which help us see reality of the challenge, and the hope for change, through a clear lens. I hope these important contributions are widely read.”

John Fullerton, Founder and President of Capital Institute

“With this series of e-books, Terrafiniti continue to not only pose the most important questions of our time – namely, how do we sustain and thrive on a planet of 9 billion people – but also propose some fantastic ideas as to how we might do just that. A must read for anybody interested in where the planet is headed – and finding solutions to our most pressing challenges.”

Jeremy Leggett, author, environmentalist, activist and solar pioneer

Sowing the seeds of a sustainable world?

Just as plants and animals broadcast seed and progeny in vast numbers in the hope that some will survive and flourish, we hope that our ideas might have the chance to do the same; to find receptive places in which to thrive.

We hope that our writing and the books might play a small but useful role in imagining and building a future fit for people and the planet.

If you would like to be notified when they are published please get in touch.

Contact Terrafiniti

Absolute beginnings – the rise of sustainability context

Are you paying attention?

“For me context is the key – from that comes the understanding of everything.”

Kenneth Noland

Sustainability is innately all about context. Pretty much anything can be sustainable if the circumstances are right or the scope of assessment is too narrow. Sustainability as it is Crate Expectationsmostly commonly understood nowadays could be cynically defined as “an activity that someone or something hasn’t stopped you doing yet”.

Sustainability is a vastly abused and misused term. In politics and economics it tends to mean that something financially ‘washes its own face’ over the short to medium term, rather than something is capable of persisting in perpetuity.

Sustainability is contingent. If it was located in outer space, you might consider a leaky nuclear reactor to be sustainable. Located up the road from your house though? Maybe not.

The judgement of what is sustainable is fundamentally contextual, and the only true context we should be interested in is that of the planet.

Almost all of the ‘sustainability’, CSR and environmental management efforts of the past few decades have been relative in both nature and intent. They are based upon the idea that reducing impacts relative to previous ones produces either sustainability itself or delivers progress on a pathway to sustainability (sustainable development).

Of course, without context, such assertions are impossible to prove. Who could possibly say that a company reducing its fossil fuel use by 10, 20 or even 30% is sustainable without first figuring out what a sustainable use of fossil fuels would be, in the context of the planet as a whole?

This is where concepts such a planetary boundaries, critical thresholds and context-based sustainability analyses come in. These either focus upon thresholds in environmental quality beyond which we might risk significant ecological instability, or upon types of behaviour that can be classed as sustainable because they do not disrupt the functions of natural (or possibly also social) systems.

Such approaches are intended to go beyond relative judgements, to place behaviour in an absolute context.

Whose context is it anyway?

“Sometimes your greatest strength can emerge as a weakness if the context changes.”

Harsha Bhogle

Contextual analysis is not a new thing. Hordes of strategic managers swarm out of MBA programmes every year, trained in the orthodoxy of strategic analysis and ready to join teams of similarly driven people in the companies of the world. Strategic analysis is the lookout in the crow’s nest of the ships of capitalism. Yet sadly, most of them still spy the horizon with blinkers on.

A plethora of whizzy analysis tools purport to allow the identification of strategic issues, risks and threats. However, all too frequently in practice their scope and vision is narrowed by a lack of understanding or recognition that the context they need to encompass is far larger and more complex than they are willing to admit. Systemic, contextual or existential risks can only be identified through an understanding of the proper scope of context. This context is the planet and the planetary systems upon which our life and health depends.

Responses to this perspective problem are in development, approaches to quantifying physical planetary limitations upon activity are emerging and being slowly explored by companies and policy makers. These include the nine planetary boundaries, doughnut economics and context-based sustainability.

From a reporting perspective, context based sustainability has received a boost with its inclusion in the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) report “Raising the Bar – Advancing Environmental Disclosure in Sustainability Reporting” (November 2015) which emphasises a fundamental requirement for companies to undertake strategic contextual analysis and also to contextualise their performance.

Approaches to the categorisation and quantification of the natural resources that support the functioning of natural systems are also being established, alongside tools that support individual companies and countries to place themselves and their impacts in the proper context. These include multiple capitals, ecosystem services, and natural capital accounting.

Knowledge and numbers

“Every man is a damn fool for at least five minutes every day; wisdom consists in not exceeding the limit.”

Elbert Hubbard

Sustainability of systems, societies and people on our finite planet is absolutely impossible without a recognition of the need for contextual understanding and contextual responses.

However the challenge for true sustainability context to become a defining strategic factor remains a significant one for two key reasons.

Firstly, because assessing legitimate “share” is difficult in a complex and interdependent world and, secondly; because in some respects context only requires us to pay attention to what we already know, that we urgently need to focus upon developing the capability for sustainable production and valuation processes.

Context tells us just how urgent that need is becoming.


Coming soon – Towards 9 Billion book series

We are packaging a range of our writing over the last few years into a series of short, free E-books, to be available in 2016.The Elephant is the Room - Towards 9 Billion Book 3

Here are just some of the kind things people have said about our work:

Big ideas for massive challenges: Terrafiniti’s Towards 9 Billion provides a wide range of solution-oriented perspectives on the prospect – often seen as daunting – of accommodating 9 billion people within the remits of our one planet.

David Nussbaum, Chief Executive, WWF-UK


“The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries highlights the scale of the challenge humanity faces. Terrafiniti’s Towards 9 Billion is a fount of refreshing ideas for surmounting that challenge, imagining economics, finance and enterprise for a flourishing future.”

Kate Raworth, Creator of Doughnut Economics and Senior Visiting Research Associate, Environmental Change Institute, Oxford University


Towards 9 Billion addresses the critical issues that face our planet in the 21st century, from business and economics to sustainable energy and technology. I love its wide-ranging intelligence, lucid prose and interdisciplinary approach to scoping a new economics for our age.

Jane Gleeson-White, author of Six Capitals: The revolution capitalism has to have – or can accountants save the planet.


Sowing the seeds of a sustainable world?

Just as plants and animals broadcast seed and progeny in vast numbers in the hope that some will survive and flourish, we hope that our ideas might have the chance to do the same; to find receptive places in which to thrive.

We hope that our writing and the books might play a small but useful role in imagining and building a future fit for people and the planet.

If you would like to be notified when they are published please get in touch.

Contact Terrafiniti

Truth and reason – Natural philosophy for sustainability

“We should remember that there was once a discipline called natural philosophy. Unfortunately, this discipline seems not to exist today. It has been renamed science, but science of today is in danger of losing much of the natural philosophy aspect.”

Hannes Alfvén

The new natural philosophy?

Natural philosophy was, put simply, the antecedent of what we now know as science. Before the codification of science and sciences as aligned but separable disciplines for A different way of looking - Copyright J. Montalbettithe study of the world, its causes and effects and underlying principles, such study and exploration was called natural philosophy. This can be defined as the philosophical (the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence) examination of nature and the physical universe in order to understand the ways in which they work.

Natural philosophy still has much to tell us, not as an attempt to re-brand science to an older label, but because of the activities of the natural philosophers of history have resonances and implications which might be of value for those of us seeking to explore and stimulate sustainable change.

Whilst natural philosophy has a history dating back thousands of years, it played a significant role in the European Renaissance in developing the intent and principles of what we now call science.

In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries such figures as Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton were as much Natural Philosophers as they were mathematicians, chemists and statesmen.

What has natural philosophy got to do with sustainability?

 “Read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted… but to weigh and consider.”

Francis Bacon

Firstly and most literally, natural philosophy is essential for sustainability because it is about science, and the need to be able to provide evidential proof of the way that our physical existence works. This is at the heart of any efforts to demonstrate that given courses of behaviour have cause and effect relationships that we may conclude have better and worse implications for the future of (our) life on this planet.

Secondly, and more avowedly philosophically, because the Renaissance philosophers were involved in a task with many parallels to the efforts of sustainability advocates now. They were comparing the observations and findings that arose from their natural philosophical investigations against the orthodoxy of what was considered to be “truth” in their time. This has a direct parallel to the work of many sustainability advocates, who explore whether the truisms and “laws” of economics and markets can be proved through evidence or whether they are in reality orthodoxies which do not stand up to scrutiny.

Thirdly, because philosophy is a critical component of navigating change, and in understanding why change is welcomed or rejected.

Why don’t facts change the world?

“Stuff that the public won’t believe aren’t facts. Being true only makes ’em worse.”

H.G. Wells

The third point is a key one in many discussions of sustainability. It is often a strongly held belief of environmentalists that facts alone have the ability to create change, that the “truth” has the ability to drive a shift from unsustainable to sustainable outcomes.

Indeed in my previous life in an NGO, it was possible to come across the attitude that time spent upon understanding why and how changes takes place (starting from the perspective that all behaviour arises from both custom and reason and is therefore innately complex in origin and in resistance to change) was a waste of time. The real way to create change, I was told, was to get people to read the latest study or set of scientific data, and that would itself drive change.

This is based upon the truism that the “truth will set you free”, however, if the truth contradicts your worldview, it can sometimes be easier and less stressful to either simply ignore that ‘truth’ or to find a truth of your own to provide competition.

Philosophy is intended to make sense of the world and it is just as important to explore and understand how things that may not make sense from one perspective might make sense from another. In situations like these, understanding what may look like irrational behaviour from one perspective but intensely rational from another should be the subject of philosophical, psychological and sociological inquiry, not just the province of the physical sciences.

To some extent, the idea of a new natural philosophy, a natural philosophy for sustainability, is seeking to emphasise that the science that has taken us for far in explaining the world around us must recombine with its philosophical component in order to play a role in delivering the future we want.

Sustainable change requires many components, facts are just one of these. Change occurs through a complex mix of factors, of which “truth” can often take a back seat to tradition, fear, self-interest and both psychological and economic investment in the status quo.

Understanding the range of reasons behind why change either does or doesn’t take place is a critical element of supporting and driving sustainable change, just as the physical sciences are in helping us understand both how the world works, its limits and trends. Combining these two dimensions of investigation and knowledge are essential, a Natural philosophy for the 21st century.


Coming soon – Towards 9 Billion book series

We are packaging a range of our writing over the last few years into a sNew=Natural-Philosophy-T9Beries of short, free E-books, to be available in 2016.


Here are just some of the kind things people have said about our work:

Big ideas for massive challenges: Terrafiniti’s Towards 9 Billion provides a wide range of solution-oriented perspectives on the prospect – often seen as daunting – of accommodating 9 billion people within the remits of our one planet.

David Nussbaum, Chief Executive, WWF-UK


“9 billion people living within ecological limits requires us to rethink and redesign our human systems so that they are in tune with natural systems. To do this we need both critical thinking and generative solutions that are rooted in purpose, inclusivity and creativity. Towards 9 Billion e-book series is an important contribution to humanity’s great transition for living thriving on planet earth.”

Jen Morgan – Co- Founder – The Finance Innovation Lab


“To all who are disenchanted by the lack of a coherent global approach to achieving sustainable development, take heart. Drawing on a vast array of theory and practice from systems thinking and natural law to finance, economics, literature, philosophy and corporate behaviour, Terrafiniti’s Towards 9 Billion helps us navigate the path to an uncertain future. Read and act on their work now or prepare for subsequent regret that you did not recognise them as geniuses of their time.”

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Sowing the seeds of a sustainable world?

Just as plants and animals broadcast seed and progeny in vast numbers in the hope that some will survive and flourish, we hope that our ideas might have the chance to do the same; to find receptive places in which to thrive.

We hope that our writing and the books might play a small but useful role in imagining and building a future fit for people and the planet.

If you would like to be notified when they are published please get in touch.



Biodiversity – there is no wealth but life

Why we need a world with more life in it now.

I tore myself away from the safe comfort of certainties through my love for truth — and truth rewarded me.

— Simone de Beauvoir

The good news is that there is probably more biodiversity (types) of life on earth than we currently know or even imagine.

The bad news is we are killing it off very fast.

What is biodiversity?

The term biodiversity (a contraction of ‘biological diversity’) was coined in 1985 and popularised by biologist Edward Wilson in 1988 in his book of the same name. Given that the term is only 25 years old, it has gained remarkable traction in everyday life.

Together with Natural Capital, biodiversity is one of the current buzz words in corporate sustainability. Businesses actively engaged with sustainability realise that single issues such as energy use, climate change or workers’ rights are interrelated with others such as water use and biological diversity. As extended scrutiny further illuminates the nether regions of value/supply chains, complex impacts and inter-dependencies are uncovered.

In practice, biodiversity is in trouble in reality and as a concept. The term is very difficult to define, potentially ranging as it does from genes to entire ecosystems. There are two main approaches to categorising biodiversity, the functional and the compositional (as suggested by Callicott et al 1999). Functional approaches consider ecosystem and evolutionary processes, while compositional approaches look at organisms in terms of their populations, species, taxa and other groupings.


Chinstrap penguins, Baily Head, Deception Island, the breeding area for 200,000 chinstrap penguins. Polar regions have low species diversity and high abundance – that simply means there’s not very many different kinds of animal but when you find them there’s a lot of them. There’s also an interesting story behind this picture. The penguins here have been lying on their nests incubating eggs, you can see their dirty fronts. They are hungry and have walked up to 2 km to get to the sea. They are torn between hunger (and the need to get into the sea to fish) and the danger of entering the sea first where they may be eaten by patrolling leopard seals. They shuffle and run down the black volcanic gravel beach, vying to stay at the rear or middle of the group, while carefully scanning the sea for possible threats. The white specks are wind-blown foam from the waves – not snow. Photo: © Dominic Tantram 2006.

The complexity of the term biodiversity means that it is often poorly understood in wider society. But this reflects a wider malaise; in many ways we have lost view of our connections – and dependencies upon – the natural world. Most people view biodiversity as something of nebulous but rather removed value, rather than a way of interpreting the ecosystem which provides us with life. We see ourselves apart from nature rather than as an intrinsic part of it.

This disconnect, in both perception and behaviour is having massive and perhaps unprecedented impacts upon our ecosystem.

What’s the problem?

A range of studies suggest that by whatever measure we use biodiversity is in rapid decline. Uniquely among other species, humans have had a dramatic and globally reaching negative impact upon the number of and abundance of many species.

Many scientists have suggested we are entering the sixth great extinction, a man made loss of species at rates equal to exceeding other great global extinctions we can see in the geological record. Current extinction rates are between 100 and 1000 times the ‘natural’ background rate. Some have suggested this new epoch should be called the Anthropocene.

What is causing this decline? There are a number of interrelated factors, often grouped under the acronym HIPPO (increasing in importance from left to right).

  • Habitat loss – the loss, destruction or large scale disturbance and modification of habitats through clearance for agriculture or development or through fire, modifies ecosystems and removes space and opportunities for species to live.
  • Invasive species. Human actions, primarily through trade, or development and population of uninhabited areas helps move plants and animals deliberately or accidentally into areas where they have no inherent predators or other control mechanisms and where consequently they disrupt and damage local ecosystems.
  • Pollution – the widest form of pollution impact is through greenhouse gases causing global warming and moving climate ‘envelopes’. Other types of pollution including industrial chemicals, oil spills, plastic particles and pesticides interfere with physiological and biochemical processes and poison and weaken organisms and their ability to successfully reproduce.
  • Population – or more precisely the impact of human populations as a driver of the above impacts, is growing as consumption and the related production impacts grow, requiring land use change, land for growing food and further disturbance.
  • Over-harvesting occurs when stocks/populations of species are harvested at a greater rate than they can replenish. Different wild fish stocks provide key examples.

Why is it a problem for us?

People, companies and governments often tacitly acknowledge the importance of biodiversity but struggle to make it a priority. Like many other environmental issues this at least in part due to the complexity of the issues and their possible solutions. While there is a crisis with respect to geological and evolutionary timescales this is more difficult to understand and translate into human timescales.

To put it simply biodiversity is a metaphor and an indicator for the natural vitality of life on earth. And earth is our habitat – our only home. Something is going very wrong with where we live and we need to take more notice and (more importantly) more action.

Despite studying the biology of our planet for several hundred years (at least in western science) we still know woefully little about what other life we share the planet with. We still don’t really know how many species there are on earth. The table below headlines what we know using the (normally maligned – but not in this case) Rumsfeld framework:

Known knowns 1.2 million species
Known unknowns 8.7 million species*
Unknown unknowns Whatever doesn’t fit our models and assumptions

* eukaryotes (single or multicellular organisms, their cells have a membrane bound nucleus). Nature 2011

These estimates suggest that a staggering 86% of land species and 91% of marine species remain undiscovered. A further, more worrying, implication is that given the accelerated extinction rates of the Anthropocene, it is highly probable that we are causing the extinction of species before they have been discovered.

Not just for nature lovers

OK – so it’s complicated and we know that our knowledge has gaps, but why does this matter? The main problem outside the field of ecology is one of value – and management. Biodiversity at some level (a level we are struggling to fully understand) is vital to life on earth and we need to value and protect what is important.

It also has another critical dimension – biodiversity loss is generally irreversible.

Because of its importance and the fact that the main pressures upon biodiversity stem from industrial production processes, poverty, globalization and social injustice, the solutions must be enacted by a far larger group than biodiversity savvy ecologists or biologists.

Biodiversity & ecosystems – bridging the knowledge gaps

Because we don’t even know how many species there are, it is difficult or impossible to assess how much diversity we can lose while maintaining the ecosystem services we rely upon for survival.

Our knowledge is incomplete; biodiversity encompasses the twin components of unknown variety and unknown value.

Yet despite this lack of knowledge we understand some important principles:

  • We share our origins, DNA and environment with other species – they are part of our ecology/we are part of theirs’.
  • Our ecological understanding is incomplete; we don’t yet know what the implications of modifying species abundance and distribution globally will be on the operation of ecosystems and the ‘products’ and ‘services’ they provide to us.
  • Species provide a valuable genetic resource, to support viable populations of species and for human exploitation.
  • Removing species from earth now and for the future represents a massive future ‘opportunity cost’

The ecosystem approach has been developed as a model and a metaphor to help build understanding of, and provide a framework for, the value the environment has for humans. This is of course vitally important, after all it’s us that’s causing all the damage. However, this is a very anthropocentric view and should be recognised as such.

The arguments above are utilitarian and based upon enlightened self-interest. Some argue that biodiversity, nature also has:

  • an intrinsic value, apart from human existence and values; and that
  • humans have a stewardship responsibility, based upon our unique position of power and/or a spiritual/religious basis to preserve and maintain life.

Whether justifications reside in either or both of these categories, there are compelling practical and moral reasons to act.

The need for dramatic action

We need a more sophisticated approach to our understanding of biological value, more strongly related to its intrinsic ecological value and to its functional value to us as a species. We are likely to need ecosystems with what may currently be described as perhaps low to medium biodiversity that provide us with food, fuel and other materials. In densely populated landscapes such as Europe, these will provide a range of benefits to humans and the natural environment. They are likely to offer more niches, structural and spatial heterogeneity than current intensive agricultural systems – and hence greater biodiversity. They are likely to be more resilient to climate and other disruptions while providing greener, more pleasant, places to live for us and the other species we share the landscape with.

However, we have no idea if this approach goes far enough. To paraphrase E. O. Wilson from his UK address at St Paul’s Cathedral (2014):

We are playing with the very stuff of life without understanding what it is or its value to us or the rest of life on earth”.

To meet long-term sustainability and human development goals we will need to grow more food and further develop industrial supply lines based upon biological inputs rather than less sustainable mineral based inputs.

Perhaps it’s time to return to E.O. Wilson and his conclusions based upon a lifetime of study and contemplation. His vision and solution is clear, if ambitious. He suggests that half the world should be available to humans and the other half to the other 8 million species. At first this sounds unbelievably radical and hugely impractical. But it is based upon sound logic (“never has the precautionary principle been more important”) and provides an inspiring vision. If we want to meet long term human development goals we must do so on a healthy planet and one that we can share with the other 8 million plus species of unknown future value to us and the stability of our ecosystem. We have to reinvest in our home and our integral place within it rather than considering ourselves utterly apart.

Money talks – the dark secret of the sustainability event circuit

“…almost all fortunes are made out of the capital and labour of other men than those who realise them.”

Lysander Spooner

Do you have to Pay to play?

If you are a sustainability practitioner and attend events on the topic – do you know the approach those events take to recruiting speakers, and do speakers have to pay to play? Money-talks-hereDo you know which experts are on stage because of their marketing budgets and which are there on merit?

If you don’t, I suggest you try and find out. A number of events have a policy of giving speakers slots based upon direct payment, or for associated sponsorship. The speakers at such events have paid for the privilege of sharing their wisdom.

Is there really a correlation between the size of marketing budgets and intelligence and experience? If there is, it would rather fly in the face of logic and common sense.

Here is an anonymised and wilfully exaggerated exchange I had recently with a conference sales person:

Organiser: “Hi Joss, we’d love to get your feedback on our fantastic event, see below for details.” [Below were included details of an entirely average and predictable line up of corporate names and representatives with little or no track record of innovation or the merest hint of interest in their sustainability practice].

Organiser “We still have some speaker slots, sponsorship opportunities and other things [with dubious and unprovable Return on Investment] we are sure you will be as excited about it as us!

Me: “Thanks for your message, we do quite a bit of work in the area and would love to contribute. If you want an insight into our thinking here is an example of some our analysis we published free earlier in the year as an example. However, we don’t pay to speak.

Organiser: “Sorry, we are only looking for speakers as part of sponsorship packages at present.

Me (publicly): “Thanks for the clarification, goodbye and good luck.

Me (privately): “##@}****^%!!!” [Starts to write this piece].

The above example is a relatively transparent one. Another instance occurred after a topic and slot had been discussed and many emails exchanged to secure my input at a conference, when it then transpired that I was expected to pay a fee for the privilege (through paying registration). I felt this was underhand. I refused to pay and in the end managed to contribute at zero spend (though not zero cost).

Are pay-to-play events good for the audience?

I can’t really see how they could be. Why would your best chance to getting access to useful information and expertise be by going to events that are based upon the willingness of the speaker to pay for the chance to share their knowledge? Why would the best insights correlate with the ability to pay?

Or have we forgotten that wisdom and wealth aren’t inextricably linked?

Money talks – there are a number of mainstream, recognised sustainability event organisations whose business model includes paid-for speaker slots. Just to clarify, the speaker pays the organiser, not as the naïve among us might have thought, that the organiser would [gasp] pay the speaker for sharing their expertise.

Are they valuable for the speaker?

The economics of a speaking gig for the likes of me can be tenuous at best, even when there is no money exchanged in any direction.

The complex ROI (Return on Investment) calculation for a would-be speaker (paid or unpaid) consists of the following questions:

  • Any good presentation takes time to write and rehearse, let alone deliver. Is there value for me to invest time and effort to speak at an event?
  • Can I spare the time?
  • Will it build or undermine my reputation?
  • Will there be anyone in the audience likely to think I am worth talking to if I deliver good input?
  • Opportunity cost – do I have something else to do that does pay (better)?

It is one thing to be asked to put in time, inspiration and expenses towards someone else’s event if you feel it is on balance worthwhile. Pay-to-play is quite another. It seems iniquitous to be asked to pay to speak if the event is made worthwhile because of the range of expertise and insight it gives access to.

Conference organisers tend not to bother to prove an investment case when they are trying to get you to pay-to-play – they just talk nebulously about X hundred delegates, space on a website or conference publication etc. etc. There is no evidence supplied about conversion rates for speakers, increased business or increased profile. Of course speaking at conferences can be directly valuable – people can come up to you and start talking about working together. It’s just that most often speaking slots are a long term game – brand building rather than sales building. With a shaky ROI for merely speaking for free, it is yet more marginal if you have to pay to do so.

In the last few years it has become very rare, unless you are one of the few truly global sustainability superstars, for speaking to actually pay you money. The bottom has dropped out of the market for expertise, yet the sustainability conference market appears to be booming – causation or correlation?

Some sustainability events do not take the play-to-play route. Though actual payment (for input) is rare, some give speakers free access to multi day events as part of their contribution. Not all sustainability events are the same.

Are they valuable for the attendees?

If you are thinking of attending an event – wouldn’t it be in your interest to find out how they get their speakers? Shouldn’t a responsible events organisation clearly disclose its speaker recruitment process? As a paying attendee, isn’t it your right to know and shouldn’t you be asking?

I would like to see every sustainability event have a clear, accessible statement of speaker recruitment approaches. In the future this should perhaps be a sign of the integrity of the event itself.

Money talks, but does it say anything worthwhile?

Of course, many speakers, whether they pay to do so or not, have valuable things to share. However, those companies with the biggest marketing and communications budgets for sustainability can sometimes also be those whose practice is the least advanced, or have the most ground to make up. Is it really possible that speakers from such companies win their slots on merit? It’s possible of course, just rather unlikely.

That doesn’t mean that all frequent speakers at sustainability events are promoting mediocre ambition or achievements. It’s just that if they were genuinely chosen on the merit of their expertise, achievement and organisational progress then paying to play wouldn’t work because the availability of budgets for securing speaker slots will not necessarily correlate with the value of the speaker’s content.

A shift of value – from “experts” to aggregators

I believe that this issue is reflective of a wider societal trend, the shift of value from expertise and experience towards those places that aggregate and collect knowledge, flowing from the experts at a conference to the conference organisers and news sites themselves. So it is often possible to find sustainability news sites that spend a few years gathering together (using free contributions from experts) an impressive set of knowledge resources, selling their own services as being experts themselves. You could say ‘Good luck to them, that’s enterprising!’ Alternatively you could say ‘What a con!

I wouldn’t dream of venturing an opinion myself.

Nevertheless, it seems it is becoming less valuable to have original insight and experience and more worthy to be a curator of input. In this scenario it is the conference organisers rather than the content experts who have become the true value creators…

It’s not just me complaining

I am not the only one grumbling about such things. In a post last year the sustainability reporting expert Elaine Cohen wrote a fantastic blog piece on the related, troubling, though marginally less exploitative practice of being asked to contribute time and effort for free. In her blog Elaine mentions being approached to undertake a sustainability strategy for a company for free, because of the “exposure” it would give her and her business. I think that I will try that approach to get myself a free new Tesla Model S, surely Elon Musk would benefit from the exposure his company would get if I drove his cars!

It is also not just the sustainability world that is seeing this trend, it was also a topic on the blog of Gini Dietrich, a communications and marketing expert, a couple of years ago.

A manifesto for sustainability conference delegates

 “Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.”

George Bernard Shaw

This post is of course partial – I am feeling cheesed off at an industry trend that I don’t think favours my expertise or approach. However I genuinely believe that there is a wider problem that should concern all of you who pay to attend events. Are you really getting the value that you pay for?

With this in mind, I suggest a series of questions that you should ask of any conference organiser whose event you are considering attending:

  • How do you source your speakers?
  • Are your speaker slots tied to sponsorship?
  • Do you sell your speaker slots directly?
  • (Where speakers have to pay) Why do you believe that speaker payment is the best way to serve my needs as a delegate?
  • (Where speakers have to pay) How do you justify your claims to offer the best expertise and experience when you are effectively discriminating against those experts without large promotional budgets?
  • Will you publish your speaker recruitment and remuneration policy in your event and booking materials?

Increasing the level of disclosure from conference organisers as to how they assemble the expertise at their events would be of benefit to prospective delegates, allowing them to make informed choices as to how and where to spend their money.

The sustainability of sustainability conferences depends upon the integrity and value of their content. I believe that pay-to-play makes a mockery of claims that a conference can be guaranteed to deliver value for delegates. It additionally undermines and skews the value of original, insightful and experienced expertise, just at the time when we need it most to undertake fundamental shifts to a sustainable world.

Most sustainability experts that I know are incredibly happy to give away stuff for free and are very happy to help other people whenever they can, often without charging a commercial rate. Why should this natural goodwill be further and pointlessly exploited? Can any sustainable good come of that?


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