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.”

Lois Guthrie, Founding Director, Carbon Disclosure Standards


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.



Questions for a sustainable world

“A prudent question is one half of wisdom.”

Francis Bacon

What’s it all about?

The quest for a sustainable future is all about questions. Some are big and some are small. Some are about the nature and purpose of our systems of value, and some about how we value our loved ones. Sometimes the smallest questions have the biggest answers.Questions questions

Human beings are good at asking questions. We start off very good indeed.

Children’s ability and commitment to asking questions often outstrips our ability to answer them. This is not merely that an incessant stream of ‘why?’ questions is tiring, it’s also that some of the time we genuinely don’t know the answers to the questions we are asked or are unprepared to deal with their true implications.

As we grow up, we often keep questioning, but the scope of those questions can narrow due to the practical need to balance a sense of wonder with passing an exam or earning an income. We still question aspects of life but often these become more about the details and less about the overall purpose. This ‘bounded rationality’, keeps our questions within a less examined frame of reference and is one of the challenges our species faces in breaking away from unsustainable ways of being and creating new ones that may differ slightly or radically.

Some questions demand answers

“I don’t pretend we have all the answers. But the questions are certainly worth thinking about.”

Arthur C. Clarke

In essence, sustainability is about one of two things; doing the same things very differently or doing very different things.

Maintaining our status-quo commits us to a collision course with the very real limits to possibility on this wonderful though populous planet.

To follow a path to sustainability we need to ask and then answer some fundamental questions of economics, finance, culture and business. Not just “can we do business with less impact?” but “how do we connect finance with a flourishing future in the first place?

Over previous centuries immense logic and ingenuity have been applied in the creation of our systems of value and enterprise. However, we face challenges which require a rejuvenation of our thinking because the logic of the past often falls short of the obstacles of the future.

Unless we ask the big questions “What is the point of capitalism?” and “How do we value a sustainable future?” we will be unlikely to find answers which meet the scale of the challenge.

The current rules of the game for capitalism are undermining its own long-term existence. Any game includes winners and losers, creativity, luck, cooperation and competition, and should do so in order to deliver creativity, innovation and the chance of individual and collective choice, reward and well-being.

Changing the rules of the game such that capitalism seeks to deliver sustainability wouldn’t affect the range of possible outcomes and types of choices within the game. Indeed it would guarantee that we all had more chance to play for longer, and indeed might guarantee that more of us might ‘win’.

Whatever will be, will be

“If single human beings — if one single rickety infant — can be born as it were by accident and die futile, why not the whole race?”

H. G. Wells

Towards 9 Billion asks some big questions about the nature of things and some naïve questions as to whether things must be as they are.

Humans tend to love and despise systems in equal measure. The systems of economics, capitalism and enterprise which surround and drive us are required and beloved but also feared and doubted.

Our writing is intended to present and explore new ideas and hopefully provide some inspiration about how we might think differently about a sustainable future and the route to achieving it.

  • Why do our systems of value and production function as they do and might they be capable of becoming truly planetarily compatible?
  • How can our markets give rise to behaviour so perverse that it’s in no one’s interest to leave them untouched?
  • Might there be a larger purpose behind these systems and might we aspire to more human approaches for the good our home and our species?
  • Do our current systems of value contain the seeds of the next ones?
  • Must profit for one always mean loss for another?
  • Must we learn to leave behind our expectations of linear cause and effect in an increasingly changeable world?
  • How do we move to a positive sum economy, where common good and private interest naturally align?

Coming soon – Towards 9 Billion book series

Such questions are at the heart of this blog.

In order to add a little weight to the questions we pose, and also some of the answers we suggest, 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.Whats the point book cover


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

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?

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.



Against a dark background – the limits of certainty


“Chaos is found in greatest abundance wherever order is being sought. It always defeats order, because it is better organised.”

Terry Pratchett. Thief of Time

Through a glass, darkly

Certainty and predictability are fundamental elements for any planning process, and utterly vital for economic and investment decisions.Tunnel Vision

However, the scale and scope of ecological and social disruption envisaged by many reliable organisations and institutions over the coming decades raise some hard questions (see these from the Strategic Foresight Group) about how well humanity will fare in the coming decades.

The coming decades may result in new limits to certainty. Put simply, in a fast changing world, the assumptions that have steered us to where we are now are increasingly ill-suited for guiding our pathway forward.

The increasing dissonance between how far we can see, what we see when we look and how far we are planning, manifests in two dimensions:

  • Firstly, the divergence between the future that many studies show is coming – of restricted resources, competition for food and water, unstable climate and social disruption – and the future that we are currently planning for – a continuation of business as usual, and:
  • Secondly, the impacts that a “business as usual trajectory” has upon the predictability of the future. This is a feedback loop. The more we ignore the need for change the less predictable the change we will be forced into undertaking will be.

The first category was highlighted recently by no lesser figure than the Governor of the Bank of England, not a role usually held by a scaremonger or Jeremiah. In a speech to the World Bank in December 2014, Mark Carney highlighted what he called a “tragedy of horizons”, an emerging dissonance between recognisable problems with clear future implications and the adequate integration of the risks into corporate planning, financial valuation and risk analysis. This means that the value of companies today is calculated without enough reference to the fundamental contextual challenges that they will face in the future.

A simple expression of this challenge would be a car heading to a business meeting hurtling off the road and towards a ravine. Meanwhile, inside, the passengers discuss how rich the deal they are (still) planning to execute will make them.

This mismatch of ambition and likely outcome was categorised by Mark Carney as a “market failure”. I have previously categorised it (with wilful understatement) as a “Restraint of Future Trade”.

The second category is somewhat more difficult to get your head around, because it requires us to acknowledge and come to terms with just how much we don’t know, and furthermore don’t understand, about the world, its complexity and the limits of reliable prediction.

A light in the darkness – the Lyapunov exponent

 “…no gluing together of partial studies of a complex nonlinear system can give a good idea of the behavior of the whole.”

Murray Gell-Mann

Don’t despair though! There is a useful (if only in a metaphorical sense) tool that might help to navigate such a murky future.

It is called the Lyapunov exponent. For those of us that are not advanced mathematicians or who, when faced with a page of algebraic equations shrug and say “It’s all Greek to me” it can be simply expressed as follows:

The Lyapunov exponent is a means by which to predict, in a chaotic system, the limits of certainty – the “distance” beyond which forecasting is either inadequate, unlikely or likely to be just plain wrong.

Our world appears to be pretty predictable, the sun comes up every morning (unless you are at the Poles), spring comes around every year (unless you are on the Equator) and so on.

Yet at levels of detail our world is a chaotic system. Not in the sense that anything can happen at any time, but in the very specific sense that the complexity of the natural world (including animate and inanimate systems; life, energy and matter) interact with each other at such extreme and unmappable levels of complexity that they are essentially chaotic. Stated simply, the natural world exhibits complexity beyond our currently relatively crude understanding of cause and effect relationships.

In physics, chaos is defined as:

“the property of a complex system whose behaviour is so unpredictable as to appear random, owing to great sensitivity to small changes in conditions.”

 Chaos and order – a false dichotomy?

 “There are different kinds of rules. From the simple comes the complex, and from the complex comes a different kind of simplicity. Chaos is order in a mask…”

Terry Pratchett. Thief of Time

A strict delineation between a wanted and an unwanted state, of order and chaos, is perhaps too binary to match up to the nature of our reality. The Holocene has provided our species levels of predictability that we have interpreted too simply, and upon which we have built yet more simplistic, inchoate models of the nature of reality. Each step masking the innate and fundamental complexity of the place where we dwell.

This simplification has allowed us to feel falsely certain about the real nature of existence – that nature and physical systems on our planet are never and have never been either merely ordered or chaotic but are a mix of one giving rise to the other and vice versa.

This combination of certainty and uncertainty can be described as chaordic (a portmanteau term “coined” by Dee Hock, the founder of VISA). Facing up to a chaordic reality gives rise to a need for us to develop not only better ways of shining a light through the darkness – a Lyapunov torch perhaps – but also a different, more intuitive and less organised approach to planning and exploring an uncertain future.

The term chaordic is really trying to reflect that “chaos” is not the opposite of order, and that “ordered” or relatively predictable outcomes or conditions emerge from the complexity of fundamentally chaotic systems. These outcomes can be termed ‘emergent properties’ – aspects or characteristics that arise through complex interactions which are produced reliably enough to be capable of being considered as predictable until or unless circumstances change. Such properties have been defined as follows “An emergent property of an ecological unit is one which is wholly unpredictable from observation of the components of that unit” (George W. Salt, The American Naturalist, Vol 113, No 1. Jan. 1979).

A hard dichotomy between chaos and order is too simplistic – it is from the functional chaos of our massive complex and interdependent world that elements of predictability and order emerge. However the more we change the properties of our system, through physical interventions in ecosystems and changes to the balance of our atmosphere, water and soil systems the less predictable and reliable the properties that emerge from these systems will be. Our current civilisation has thrived because of the relative predictability and stability of the systems we depend upon. Changing the equilibrium of these systems will change the outcomes of their interactions – possibly in ways we can ill afford and predict.

Put simply, it will become increasingly difficult, unless we start to add to the quality and resilience of the ecosystems we depend upon, to rely on our ability to predict the future.

The limits to Assumptions

Given that the threshold of predictable emergence may be getting closer to us by the year and the chaotic nature of our planet is a simple and unavoidable fact, isn’t it time for us to develop systems of value and prioritisation which recognise rather than ignore the limits of uncertainty?

Our current systems of value derive from classical economics, which was developed in a time when natural resources could easily be considered as free goods and the planet as effectively infinite.

The fundamental tenets upon which classical economics is based, though venerable, remain at the heart of economic theory. They are no more right or really useful for helping our species navigate the physical world than they were when they emerged from the thinking of Adam Smith, Jean-Baptiste Say, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill or the other pioneers and thinkers in this area (for a simple exploration of the thinkers, theories and assumptions see this overview). The difference is that now we are running out of headroom for them being as wrong as they are.

Stated simplistically, the tenets of classical economics (and therefore the bedrock of our systems of value) are as follows:

  • Ceteris parabus – that everything else is equal.
  • That economic actors take action in the light of perfect market knowledge.
  • That economic actors behave rationally.

For a discussion of these, see this discussion of the main assumptions of economic theories.

Recognising the limits to our certainty starkly reveal (as if it isn’t already obvious) that none of the above assumptions actually hold true in any real sense. The market is merely a subset of the physical system it operates within. Since we do not fully comprehend the properties and interactions of the system, perfect market knowledge is impossible. In a market which is dependent upon inflows from functioning natural systems (resources, air, water etc.) then everything is transparently not equal – some things are much more equal than others.

Finally, if rationality were a characteristic of economic behaviour then market bubbles would be unknown, we would not price and prioritise the availability of dirty energy over that of a functioning climate and preserving the quality and availability of toilets would be more important than the availability of mobile phones.

The future’s so dark…..

“What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions, if all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?”

Sherwood Rowland

The utility of the Lyapunov exponent in the context of our planet’s future could be to provide us with a clear idea of where the threshold of predictability lies. To project our gaze towards this threshold. Towards when, over the coming decades, all bets will essentially be off and when any investment predicted to perform beyond that time threshold could be classed as junk.

Beyond an indication of the unpredictability threshold, it might be used as a metric to tell us how we are getting on in extending that threshold away from the present.

Other such approaches exist to indicate our proximity to system-wide tipping points. The most famous is the Doomsday Clock. This initiative of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has, since 1947, assembled a prediction of “how close we are to destroying our civilization with dangerous technologies of our own making”. It analyses not just the danger posed by nuclear weapons and atomic energy but also the growing threat of climate change and problematic technologies.

The clock is (in 2015) at three minutes to midnight: “because international leaders are failing to perform their most important duty—ensuring and preserving the health and vitality of human civilization.

This is serious stuff. It is not the apocalyptic predictions of depressives in darkened rooms, but the sober analyses of engaged and intelligent scientists.

In addition, organisations have constructed scenarios based upon the logical possibilities arising from current and likely future trends. Many of these are from reputable and sober organisations not given to wild speculation and doom mongering, such as the WBCSD, the World Economic Forum and the US Department of National Intelligence (DNI). The best scenarios in my opinion are those produced by the Global Scenario Group.

Not one of the scenarios noted above predict a smooth transition to a sustainable world without fundamental, deliberate, planned change being undertaken. Each one, to varying degrees, predicts significant disruption to economic and social conditions over the coming decades. The scale of such disruption is magnified by each year in which the scale of coming resource, water, climate, energy, consumption challenges and changing demographic power dynamics are effectively ignored by our economic and political systems.

Pretty much anyone who stares too long into the future we are currently on course for feels at least a frisson of fear. However, such analyses, of either our proximity to catastrophe or the diminishing predictability of the coming decades, seems to have no real effect upon our systems of value or production.

We just keep on valuing fossil fuel firms as though they were companies of the future rather than of the present-past and demanding consumption-based growth irrespective of physical limits.

 A Lyapunov torch…shining a light on uncertainty

 “We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.”

Alan Turing

If the future is too dark to see clearly we need to grow our ability to be comfortable with uncertainty, to design systems and processes that are capable of flexibility, multiple redundancy and of changing tack when the wind (or the climate) changes. Of course such capabilities are hardwired into nature already, it’s just that we seem to have decided we can transcend such approaches through the linear power of our rationality.

Taking the Lyapunov exponent as an inspiration, we need a torch to light the darkness ahead as much as a clock to tell us how late it has got.

We need to be able to consistently assess and expand the limits of our ability to predict and forecast and, beyond that, we perhaps also need a Lyapunov torch to reveal the reality of our chaordic system.

The survival of our species in uncertain times will likely be because we have used our outstanding capacity for flexibility in the face of adversity to adjust to this ever-present but newly rediscovered uncertainty. To reconfigure our systems of value, production and consumption in the light of the fact that nothing stays the same forever.

The simplified picture of the world that was developed which delivered the industrialisation of the last 200 years may well fall to pieces in the face of systemic disruption to our physical and economic certainties.

Whether our massively interdependent civilisations will fall down with it depends upon our ability to perceive the limits to our certainty, and to embrace the uncertainty that has always been there.

A Lyapunov torch might be a valuable tool to help us see beyond ourselves through the coming darkness of the future. To shine a light into the chaos that surrounds and nurtures our existence.


This concept at the heart of this piece was inspired by Alastair Reynolds’ stupendous novel On the Steel Breeze, which introduced me to the Lyapunov exponent in the first place. In addition, I would also like to give huge thanks to Lois Guthrie and Alain Ruche – who each kindly lent constructive ideas and input to navigate the tangle and chaos of my own making in early drafts of this piece as well as firm ideas on the navigation of complexity. Other thanks of course go to Iain M. Banks for a title to borrow.

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A planetisation of finance: The Earth as a going concern

“We have statesmen and politicians who profess to guide our destinies. Whither are they guiding our destinies?”

 H.G Wells

Valuing continuing existence

In recent decades considerable effort has been invested into describing and identifying the planet’s natural environment in terms that can be appreciated and integrated into the A place to do businesslanguage of economics and finance.

From the 1997 work of Robert Constanza et al onwards, the TEEB coalition and the Natural Capital Coalition, to the multi-capitals approaches to accounting and reporting that are forming part of efforts by organisations such as the SASB (Sustainability Accounting Standards Board) and the IIRC (International Integrated Reporting Council). Each is seeking to quantify and therefore consider the value of natural systems and their outputs in comparable financial terms.

I have written extensively on these approaches – mostly from the perspective of a critical friend rather than a wide-eyed fan, mostly because I feel that the conceptualisation of natural and social capital into economic terms will lead to a commodification of nature (a financialisation of the planet) unless there is radical change to the nature and purpose of global markets (the planetisation of finance).

In order to move beyond a critical analysis of the pros and cons of the multi-capitals approach it seems to me that there is a simpler pre-existing conceptual vehicle that could be adopted to provide a forward looking perspective on the value of the planet and its assets (natural, human, built and otherwise).

This is the concept of the going concern, an accounting approach to assessing the value of an enterprise based upon its potential for continuing existence. It is at the heart of our thought experiment to explore an IPO for the Earth, a finalist in the ICAEW/ Accounting for Sustainability Finance for the Future Awards 2014.

Opportunity costs…and benefits

Approaches to the valuation of currently under-represented/under-priced sources of capital (those which are not pure financial capital) predominantly focus upon two aspects of value, of capital stocks and capital flows. A simple metaphor for these two categories is that of a bank account – where the stock is the money in the account and the flow is the interest that is generated by the capital.

I would argue that there is a more significant area worthy of attention – to focus upon the going concern value that the existence of healthy stocks and flows gives rise to. This is not a value of the stock or flow itself – but is derived from the opportunities that become possible because of the existence of the stocks and flows.

When viewed through this lens, natural capital becomes most powerful not when it is used to give rise to an asset value (“what would we get if we sell it?”) calculation, but a going concern value “what does the asset’s continued existence and health allow us to do and how valuable is that?”.

This distinction between asset price and the value of the opportunities that arise from the asset, is partially reflected in the concept of stocks and flows – but the idea of a going concern value goes beyond a flow valuation. An example of these category differences for a company like Google would be as follows:

  • Asset value – the market capitalisation of the company – what it would fetch if it were sold.
  • Asset flow value – the yearly revenue of the company.
  • Going concern value – in addition to the categories above, the value of all the things that exist because Google provides and facilitates fertile ground for a huge range of activity.

Valuing our planet as a going concern

If the motivation behind approaches to valuing natural, social and other capitals is to highlight their value to the economy rather than leave them as either economic externalities or considered as effectively free goods, shouldn’t we take a more creative approach to using the accounting techniques that already exist?

Wouldn’t it be far more productive to focus upon the value of the planet as a going concern – as a place to do sustainable business over the long term?

Luckily, there is a well-established approach to doing just that. Accountants do it all the time, all we need to do is expand its scope and scale somewhat, from the going concern value of a specific entity to the going (common) concern of the planet as a whole.

In accountancy, the going concern principle is “the assumption that an entity will remain in business for the foreseeable future.” If it can be assumed that a business will remain viable over time, it can be considered to be valuable because of its capacity to sustain economic activity “the value of an entity that is assumed to be a going concern is higher than its breakup value, since a going concern can potentially continue to earn profits.” (Accounting Tools).

Going for how long?

While it may seem perverse to say so, in cold mechanistic terms the Earth’s value to humans lies in it providing us with the means to carry on doing stuff – not in either its inherent value (what we would pay to keep it) or in its value when broken up and traded (what we would get if we sold it).

The idea of planetary going concern value is too often ignored, partly because it asks us to project value into the future. In accounting terms, going concern assessments/judgments focus upon a consideration of “the foreseeable future” but this is only judged using one year forward time horizon (aligned to annual accounting and reporting).

At a planetary scale an annual going concern perspective wouldn’t get us very far, we need to be thinking about how to project the value of a going concern much further – say to 2050.

Such projections happen for smaller things happen all the time. The world is full of news stories and analysis saying “the market for X could be worth $10 billion by 2025” or “sales of Y set to grow by 200% over the next ten years”. All such projections assume a continuation of certain elements of business as usual (i.e. a reasonably similarly functioning market to today) and certain elements of change (e.g. increased disposable income, increased urbanisation etc.) that are interpreted from various trend analyses and forward predictions.

At the planetary scale a going concern calculation could be done for a range of scenarios, e.g. where no significant strategic response is made to evolve to meet the challenges of resources, consumption increase, reduction in soil fertility, increased pollution and climate uncertainty, as opposed to the planetary enterprise that would be possible if we made the transition to a sustainable economy fit for 9 billion interdependent citizens, all capable of making sovereign social and economic decisions.

It seems clear that the former would, by its nature, be less valuable than the latter.

Not under current management….

Accountants judge a going concern according to range of criteria that could easily be adapted to apply to the planet as a whole.

The Financial Reporting Council’s Statement of Auditing Standards on the issue in 1994 states that for financial audits seeking to judge whether an entity is a going concern, they should take the following into consideration:

  • “Whether the period to which the directors have paid particular attention in assessing going concern is reasonable in the entity ’s circumstances and in the light of the need for the directors to consider the ability of the entity to continue in operational existence for the foreseeable future;
  • The systems, or other means (formal or informal), for timely identification of warnings of future risks and uncertainties the entity might face;
  • Budget and/or forecast information (cash flow information in particular) produced by the entity;
  • Whether the key assumptions underlying the budgets and/or forecasts appear appropriate in the circumstances;
  • The sensitivity of budgets and/or forecasts to variable factors both within the control of the directors and outside their control
  • The existence, adequacy and terms of borrowing facilities, and supplier credit; and
  • The directors’ plans for resolving any matters giving rise to the concern (if any) about the appropriateness of the going concern basis. In particular, the auditors may need to consider whether the plans are realistic, whether there is a reasonable expectation that the plans are likely to resolve any problems foreseen and whether the directors are likely to put the plans into practice effectively.”

The text above is mildly summarised in the interests of space, the full text is available in paragraph 23 of this document.

If a planetary-scale auditor used the criteria noted above to assess the current de facto administration of the planet (our economic and market systems) would they judge the Earth to be a going concern, and if so, for how long?

Is the simple but frightening answer that the Earth is not capable of being considered as a going concern over the coming decades under current management?

Towards a planetisation of finance.

“The twelfth law is that such things as cannot be divided, be enjoyed in common…”

Thomas Hobbes’ 12th Law

The vast majority of approaches to bring under-priced or unpriced capitals within financial domains tend to do so by treating them as adjustments to existing prices (e.g. as carbon taxes etc.) rather than focussing upon and questioning the origination of their price in the first place.

Externalities should not be priced per se. However, price must reflect them (they shouldn’t really be externalities at all, just a fundamental aspect of costs that should be naturally recognised) if any approach to building a sustainable economy is to succeed.

The point of exploring the planetary going concern concept is to provide another driver towards the more innate consideration of sustainability as a defining aspect of financial success over the long term. The planet can only be considered as a going concern if such fundamental dependencies are integrated into the heart of decision making, not considered after the fact as most current approaches to “pricing externalities” currently require.

Without a fundamental reconsideration of what actually constitutes sustainable value, and an effort to align the origination of money (and price) against that, we are just building ever more rickety structures upon the already unsteady foundations of current economic and market processes.

Valuing the planet in economic terms runs the risk of financialising, commodifying and privatising nature. The task in front of us is not to tinker with the methods, but to reverse this concept, moving from the financialisation of the planet to the planetisation of finance.

Economics and markets based upon the value of the planet as a going concern might be a powerful and positive step towards aligning financial value with the physical facts of life on this planet – the only place we have (as yet) do to business.


My profuse thanks go to Jane Gleeson-White for her feedback and comments on a draft of this piece. Any errors of logic or hyperbole are unquestionably mine. Her book “Six Capitals: The revolution capitalism has to have – or can accountants save the planet?” is a must-read for anyone keen to explore how we might meaningfully value the priceless.


Contact TerrafinitiThis piece was also published by the Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series (TSSS) Innovation Hub on 3/06/15 and Sustainable Brands on 22/06/15.

Discounting the discount rate…how can we value a sustainable future?

“We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.”
George Bernard Shaw

A bird in the hand…

We know that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. The adage worksBird-in-the-hand well, and it makes sense for a hunter-gatherer, but does it also hold true for a globalised species seeking a sustainable future?

Under some circumstances might the bird in the hand actually be worth less than a larger number of birds which are potentially available but currently out of reach?

Does the value proposition change at four birds in the bush, at six, or at ten?

How do we value something we could have against what we have already?

Such questions abound as we focus upon on of the most fundamental challenges to the achievement of a sustainable and prosperous future; the lack of a functional economic mechanism to help us positively value the future.
Our financial measures predominantly focus upon the value of the immediate. There is of course a certain logic to valuing today more highly than we value next week or beyond – the present actually exists (for the sake of argument) whilst next week is only a logical probability. In any case, even if we could be sure that next week will exist, we have no idea what might happen between now and then, what new technologies would transform the opportunities we might have to catch birds/make bird substitutes/change our dependency upon birds etc.

Discounting our chances for a sustainable future

A consideration of future value is a key part of any investment decision, financial planning or accounting process. An amount of money in your hand can be considered as definitely real (in as much as money is ever real) whereas money in the future is always considered to be less valuable as it is far more notional and conditional upon circumstances. This is referred to in terms of the discount that future value would have when set against its value now (net present value).

The mechanism for calculating this reduction of value over time is the discount rate. A seemingly innocent and rational accounting technique, the discount rate is perhaps the most significant reason why we find it so hard to invest in a sustainable future.
Some approaches exist which allow us to value future outcomes, yet each is substantially constrained by the deadening effect of the discount rate.
Cost benefit analysis, for instance, is the main vehicle for assessing the likely financial outcomes of different courses of action. It was used by Lord Stern to calculate that the costs of a transition to a lower carbon economy were a fraction of those of dealing with the implications of unconstrained climate change.

Logical? Sort of…

Discounting future value makes a great deal of sense for many things but it also projects a restraint on forward planning that restricts adequate investment in sustainable change.
Like so many aspects of economics and accounting, it is intensely logical (and useful) within a very specific frame of reference. If that frame of reference shifts, then logic would dictate a re-consideration of its utility.
The frame of reference for the discount rate has definitively shifted.

From discounting to compounding – our route to a sustainable future

Economics, finance and accounting may not have developed mechanisms to compound value over time (as noted, because the future doesn’t exist yet). However, it’s conceivable to imagine a social and economic architecture that would innately involve an ability to compound the future.

There a couple of possible ways to increase future value and therefore encourage behaviour which pays off over the long term, these are:

1. For there to be a purpose to capitalism…
This solution is exquisitely easy to express, though perhaps rather harder to achieve. We need to introduce a long term purpose for economic activity. In addition to being financially and personally worthwhile for individuals to participate, economic activity should make a manifest contribution to the achievement of:

  • Healthy and thriving ecosystems.
  • A global human population of 9 billion capable citizens.

With these goals in place, it would be relatively easy to compound value, to judge behaviour by its contribution to these goals, asking the question ‘are these activities likely to achieve or to undermine our sustainable destination?’

Just as investors currently (in theory) assess the likelihood of a company achieving its stated aims and value them accordingly, so this could done in the context of a shared long-term goal.

2. Long money and short money – changing the rules of money

This refers to ideas which either change the conception of money itself (I have previously suggested that thermodynamic performance, abundance, contribution to natural capital and balanced social interdependence are good suggestions to add to the current basic elements of scarcity, supply and demand) or which alter the rules that are applied to money.

One such approach to the rules of money would be to create “Long money” 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.

The mechanism for creating such distinctions exists, it is called demurrage, it is a reverse interest rate and refers to a cost levied for holding or owning money for a given period. Applying demurrage universally would naturally discourage people and organisations from sitting on money, and encourage its circulation or investment as Long money which would be inherently more useful for the common good.

A practical example of this type of thinking is in the area of alternative currencies, which have been used in reality across the world in order to achieve a range of rather amazing things. A pioneer of alternative currencies is Bernard Lietaer, his books and websites give a number of incredibly inspiring and creative examples as to how alternative money can change the world and in many cases already has.

We meant to save our civilisation but didn’t have a budget code for the work…

The discount rate dominates and dictates an unsustainable future because, surprisingly or not, humanity doesn’t have a plan. As a species we are old enough, and dangerous enough, not to be blundering around without a destination and a plan by which to get there.
A common direction is not dictatorship, communism or even collectivism, it is simply an intention to survive, and perhaps even to thrive over the coming decades.

Our current mode of capitalism is no less collectivist than what I propose – it defines shared modes of behaviour, measurement, legality and value – however current capitalism lacks a definable and constructive plan for the prosperity of our species or planet over the long term. This is an issue which is manifestly worth addressing as it is clear that the demand is there: most of humanity is keen to ensure a viable and successful future for themselves and their loved ones.

LIkewise, our conceptions of the meaning and purpose of money are no more fixed in stone or incapable of change than any other systems (though they may have more inertia). Money is a tool, a means by which we signify value and facilitate exchange. Valuing the long term success of our species should certainly be worth something and perhaps it is time we considered the role that our means of exchange could have in achieving that success.

The forthcoming challenges of sustainability should spur our action, so that we might design ways to overcome the barrier of the discount rate and work towards building a greater future value than our limited financial mechanisms currently allow us to conceive.

“This is the first age that’s ever paid much attention to the future, which is a little ironic since we may not have one.”
Arthur C. Clarke

This post was also published by 2Degrees on 3/10/14 and by Sustainable Brands on 13/10/2014.

Entropic Valuation – energy economics as if thermodynamics mattered

The constitution of the universe

“Everything you are, and have, you owe to the radiations from your sun.”

Chocky (John Wyndam)


The Laws of Thermodynamics provably frame and shape our scopeeverything we have...

for existence, yet they are effectively ignored by economic policy and process.

The first and second laws of thermodynamics are sometimes called the “constitution of the universe”. They describe the fundamental physical principles of the behaviour of energy. The 1st Law refers to change in energy states, the 2nd Law to energy dispersal, which can be expressed as follows: “energy of all kinds in our material world disperses or spreads out if it is not hindered from doing so.

To use a metaphor, energy is like water, it only moves in one direction: towards dispersal (energy) or downhill (water). However, not all water moves downhill at the same speed, just as not all energy flows from concentrated to dispersed forms at the same rate.

The measure of the dispersal predicted by the 2nd law is entropy. As entropy applies without exception to all energetic processes, it can provide a common metric to measure the lifetime performance of different energy sources.

Why isn’t overall thermodynamic performance part of energy economics?

Despite recent advances in renewable production, fossil fuels still make up more than 80% of our planet’s energy use. There are some good, practical reasons why coal, oil and natural gas (CONG) dominate supply in the global economy. Most significantly, CONG provide concentrated, transportable sources of utilisable energy.

However, this ease of use distracts us from their lifetime energetic (entropic) performance: that is, how efficiently they capture, store and render the sun’s energy over their lifetime.

We tend to think of CONG as energy itself, but this is not accurate. They are storage media for concentrated solar energy which was aggregated by photosynthesis in prehistoric vegetation and then subjected to nearly 100 million years of geological process. In conceptual and literal terms they are natural batteries, comparable to a lithium ion battery storing energy derived from solar PV.

The Sun is the original source of almost all energy, arguably excepting nuclear, geothermal and tidal. This common origin provides the opportunity to derive like-for-like comparisons of energy sources.

Comparing the entropic performance of energy sources provides us with a way of assessing and therefore pricing the total efficiency of a wide range of energy sources. This could be called ‘entropic valuation’.

Why entropic valuation matters

Entropic valuation is a means to compare the total energetic efficiency of solar derived energy sources, it considers: “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.

If common solar origin is considered for a range of energy types then a very different picture of value and efficiency emerges. For example, if we consider the conversion of solar kilojoules into usable kilojoules, then solar PV is circa 100,000 times more efficient than oil.

This may be technically correct, but what difference does it actually make? After all, while CONG includes many million years of investment, we don’t pay for that time and can simply reap the benefits of its existence. However, there are compelling reasons to explore the real total energetic (entropic) performance of different energy sources.

Benjamin Franklin wrote that “the great part of the miseries of mankind are brought upon them by false estimates they have made of the value of things”.

The false estimates that we make of the value of fossil fuels blinds us to the challenges which arise from their use. Beyond the pollution impacts of burning irreplaceable stored energy, the belief that fossil fuel energetically outcompetes other sources of energy has lead to distorted markets and incentives to pursue resources that are ever harder to exploit.

Projects such as Carbon Tracker have begun to highlight the extent of the problem, calculating that only 20-40% of carbon assets held by listed companies could be burnt without exceeding global warming of 2°C. Yet the worth currently assigned to these assets can only be realised if they are used. In our current industrial model this would be a onetime use: valuable in the short term, but catastrophic in both planetary and financial terms in the future.

Applying entropic valuation to differing solar derived energy sources reveals that fossil fuels carry sunshine at a much lower rate, in terms of original energy received, than the real-time production of solar PV and storage.

overpowering fossil fuels

The above table compares the energy conversion (of solar input) efficiencies of a number of energy sources. Put simply, coal, oil and natural gas capture only 2.4% of solar input received, while solar PV captures vastly more, varying between 15 and 40%.

This ‘capture gap’ is compounded through the geological translation of ancient vegetation into concentrated fossil fuel, meaning that while every KJ of sun energy received by solar PV produces around 0.1kJ of usable energy, oil produces only 0.00000094 kJ – more than 100,000 times less!

This analysis highlights an interesting relationship between the energetic efficiency of ‘real-time’ or ‘live’ energy generation and that of fossil fuel energy generation.

These differences can be translated into money. Using the relative efficiency figures from the table above, energy sources can be priced on an equal basis. If each input kJ of Sun energy cost $1, the product energy price required to break-even per kJ produced are shown here:

The fossil fuel price problem

The whole picture – don’t forget the externalities

While comparisons of total energetic performance are dramatic, we should also remember that significant external costs arise from the use of CONG.

These costs, rarely integrated into the actual price paid for energy, exist across a range of “balance sheets” and consist of the following dimensions:

  • Climate impacts the contribution of CO2 and other emissions driving climate disruption.
  • Pollution direct impacts from extraction, production and refining in addition to combustion emissions for energy and other uses.
  • Opportunity costs one time use of such complex, time-rich compounds precludes a huge range of other uses, for: plastics, agriculture, pharmaceuticals and possible future technologies.

Use of oil - entropy

There appears to be a correlation (but not necessarily a causal link) between energetic performance and the scale of these externalities. While climate and pollution costs are well documented, the huge differences in energetic performance perhaps highlight the scale of opportunity costs incurred by our predominantly “one-time” use of fossil fuels.

Towards real-time energy

Francois de La Rochefoucauld noted that “The principal point of cleverness is to know how to value things just as they deserve.”

It is just such intelligence that humanity must apply to the environmental and energy challenges of the coming decades.

Clear and unarguable environmental and resource trends indicate an overwhelming need to connect energy pricing with the fundamental realities of physics in terms of:

  • overall energetic performance
  • longevity & replenish-ability
  • cleanliness/pollution
  • significant/irreversible opportunity costs

Entropic valuation provides a means to connect these aspects, founded in immutable physical law.

Entropic valuation reveals the orders of magnitude difference between the life time efficiency of “live” solar generation and the ‘stored sunshine’ of fossil fuels.

It suggests that truly sustainable solutions lie in growing ‘real-time’ energy and moving rapidly away from our dependence on upon finite, and borrowed, prehistoric time.

It’s time we paid rather more mind, and money, to entropy.


Entropic Valuation is idea developed by Joss Tantram in conjunction with Sean Grunnet Cuthbert and first tested in public at the Energy Storage World Forum, Berlin, April 2013. Our motivation in developing the idea was to explore new ways of looking at old problems and to connect energy perspectives with the energy reality defined by the laws of thermodynamics.

A slightly shorter version of this article was first published by Green Futures Magazine on 3/02/14.

Sustainable futures and the status quo bias

“All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”

Dr Pangloss, “Candide”, Voltaire

Winning the battle but losing the war?

Sustainability has become a concept that, by certain measures, has gone mainstream. It has become an expectation, rather than an exception, that companies of global (and smaller) significance have staff and effort expended towards some form of sustainable, responsible or citizenship related endeavour.

However, this does not mean that the “war” for the protection and enhancement of the global environment has been won. To the contrary, all the scientific evidence tells us that the overwhelming global trends in environmental quality are downwards (with the odd little piece of less-bad news).

The reasons for this are many, varied and complex. It is perhaps easiest just to say that sustainability was never a design consideration of economics, and therefore, by extension, of capitalism.

However, from a psychological and neurological perspective, there are also some other, very interesting, factors at work.

The forces of reaction and the forces of protection

Beyond the forces of reaction – those who believe that environmentalists are wrong, are wrongheaded, or who have wilfully or naively misinterpreted data; and beyond the forces of protectionism – those who may privately agree that environmentalists have a point but are having far too good a time to want to change, there is a further challenge we face in building a sustainable world – status quo bias.


Status quo bias – the best of all possible worlds?

It is not reason which is the guide of life, but custom.

David Hume

Status quo bias is the phenomenon (backed up by some significant evidence) that humans have an objectively non-rational preference for the status quo. A 2009 paper published by the US National Academy of Sciences found that, when faced with difficult choices, people are more likely to choose the status quo. In addition the study also noted that these choices were frequently not the “best ones” but that the difficulty of making the decision was a factor in driving people to stick with the familiar.

A common example is that presented by an over-abundance of choice, for instance when faced with too many varieties of cereal in the supermarket, we often find ourselves buying either what we always buy, or refusing to make any choice at all.

Status quo bias implies that, than rather than setting us free, choice may actually imprison us.

This phenomena presents a huge challenge for building a sustainable world, even though that world might be demonstrably more likely to benefit us all. It also calls in to question the idea that a sustainable world can or should be achieved through presenting people with a greater variety of sustainable choices when perhaps such a change would make little or no difference.

Change and the fear of change

Change alone is unchanging.


To an extent, status quo bias can also be attributed to a natural fear of change. As a man, this is something I am of course familiar with; move the contents of kitchen cupboards around and I become lost, listless and existentially challenged until my brain eventually gets used to opening the correct door.

In contrast however, humans actively embrace certain types of change, notably those we label as progress. In the last 20 years technologies have transformed our access to knowledge and learning – a change we have embraced as undoubted progress, and our ability to travel and explore has expanded also.

Fundamental, radical, change happens all the time and humans are quite capable of adapting. My grandmother, for instance, was born into a world which was in many ways indistinguishable from that of two or even three hundred years before. Yet when she died the world had convulsed, tens of millions had been killed deliberately and died preventably. Technology had boomed and mass material production and consumption had become a core mode of good citizenship, as had universal healthcare and the chance for many of not dying from dirty water and many communicable diseases.

Yet, while we are living it, change appears not to be something called change, just life, which may or may not have new features from one day to the next. Our lives are defined by change, however small – so why does real sustainable change seem like such a challenge to achieve?

It is perhaps not change which presents the problem for building a sustainable world, but the fear of change. It is also the fact that, whether we like it or not, we tend to assume that the status quo, the now, is somehow right and natural; an instinct which prompts us to instinctively reject visions of the future as containing more design and value judgements than our present reality.

The argument goes like this – “You may consider that the environment is important, and want it to be protected or valued differently, but doesn’t the valuation or protection you propose require value judgements as to what is important? Who are you (or anyone) to make judgements which may not be shared by all?

This is of course a fair point – any environmentalist seeking to assign or champion value or behaviour without some logical and empirical framework underpinning their thinking should be ashamed of themselves.

Value judgements are a fact of life so let’s get on with it

Any vision for change from the status quo will involve value judgements, but aren’t we already wrestling with a set of value judgements that tell us that economic activity (i.e. a developed wetland) is more valuable than none (an undeveloped wetland), regardless of the consequences for the system as a whole?

We live in a world of value judgements; therefore to suggest that some value judgements may produce better outcomes for common-self interest than the current set of value judgements doesn’t really seem to me to be imposing anything.

Towards common value (judgements)

Visions of a sustainable future are by their nature based upon judgements as to what is valuable. At a species level, I would suggest that most of us would probably agree on what is valuable: water, food, air, shelter, warmth, security, equitable income, education, communication and representation.

Equally, in terms of what is valuable in nature, it is fairly clearly understood that qualities of diversity, resilience and productive capacity are critical for thriving ecosystems and we also have a pretty good idea of how to support and encourage these characteristics.

Given the possibility of consensus we mustn’t confuse the way we happen to do things now with the “right way to do things”.

We must not let our comfortable attachment to the norms of today prevent us from embracing the change that a sustainable human future demands. Yet we must also understand that there are good reasons why we tend to associate what is familiar with what is “best”.


This post was originally published in a marginally more sober form by Guardian Sustainable Business on 15/02/2013

A sustainable world before the end of our world?

Life will not perish! It will begin anew with love; it will start out naked and tiny; it will take root in the wilderness, and to it all that we did and built will mean nothing — our towns and factories, our art, our ideas will all mean nothing, and yet life will not perish!”

Karel Čapek

The possibility of death in the mind of someone living

Many years ago when I was studying Human Ecology in sunny West Yorkshire we learned about Deep Ecology; which sought to place the human species in the wider context of the Earth’s history and its other inhabitants. Viewed via this perspective the infinitesimal instant in the planet’s history in which we have been around is a mere blink of the Earth’s eye, we are newcomers when compared with almost any of our companion species on this planet.

This planetary perspective gave me, as a callow youth, great comfort. I had grown up lucky enough to have the free run of countryside and had always felt an empathy with the eternal changing of the seasons and cycles of life and death. To feel that, in time, my life would conform to these natural cycles felt natural and right and that life on this planet, in whatever form, would persist long after the passing of our species felt equally right.

Of course, with age, the naive bravery of idealistic youth gives way to elements of fear, for ourselves and for the next generation. This warm comfort, whilst I still feel it, is mixed with a desire and hope for the end of our species and civilisation to perhaps be further away in our future than charging ever faster around time’s corner towards us.

Why all this talk of death? Because a subject that seems to be emerging in sustainability circles is that of remaining optimistic in the face of overwhelming odds. The past decade or so has seen massive progress in the acknowledgement of the need for sustainable change by international institutions, visionary businesses and governments, yet the actual practice of modern life is still dreadfully unsustainable.

Given this lag or dissonance between rhetoric and practice, the extent to which sustainability professionals can remain optimistic has been the recent focus of a number of bloggers, activitists and writers.

Some are arguing for optimism, such as Hunter Lovins, and some, such as Osbert Lancaster, calling for a recognition that the possibility of achieving a sustainable world is slipping further from our grasp with every passing day. This latter call for realism makes the point that professional optimism – focussing on sustainable hope for a possible future rather than unsustainable likelihood – is disingenuous at best, and that truly acknowledging the likelihood of failure is a pre-requisite for re-imagining our possible futures.

Such an approach is an interesting one, acknowledging not just the possibility but the likelihood of failure does not come easily to those of us who have dedicated our lives and our hopes to making some contribution to a sustainable world.

Of course, in planetary and universal terms – what we do with our lives matters not one jot…

Eschatalogically speaking – we really are all doomed

Of course, we are, as individuals, societies and likely as a species, all doomed. Death is the inevitable reciprocal of life, so as individuals we have to get our heads around this at some point.

Human history, short though it is planetary terms, has seen the rise and fall of many civilisations and societies- there is, after all, no certainty but more uncertainty.

In a cosmic context, the long term outlook is not too rosy. Eschatology (religious or philosophic studies of the end of the world/ the end of the universe) presents many, many physically certain ends for our planet (e.g. when the sun burns all its hydrogen in about 4.8 billion years) or the slow heat death of the universe (likely to come at a time in the future with so many noughts attached that its best if you just look here).

Is wilfully blind optimism dishonest?

Many people involved in sustainability and CSR are professional optimists, celebrating relative gains in company performance or highlighting the positive possibilities for a sustainable world. Great swathes of the internet are dedicated to CSR and sustainability news sites trumpeting the most minimal changes in the environmental and social impact profiles of companies. They ignore the overwhelming trajectory of our species’ consumption habits and trends and instead try to link these tiny changes to a wider (possible) trend towards different, more sustainable, industrial models.

I have often called myself a (wilfully) blind optimist – an optimist by inclination rather than faith. The trouble with acknowledging that we are all doomed is having to find something to do with the rest of your life – I would rather my life was dedicated to trying to make positive change happen than to spend the rest of my years buying an isolated property on the top of a hill, laying down the tins of soup and long life milk and building a high wall.

OK, we are all doomed, what shall we do now?

Optimism for a sustainable future might be pointless in cosmic terms but then so is pretty much anything when viewed in this light. I would rather feel that I were a soldier in a thousand year war – unlikely to see victory but pretty sure of the rightness of my cause – than give up trying to achieve a sustainable and equitable future.

Of course it is unlikely that we are going to seamlessly achieve the transition of economic, industrial and social models, but the question that we need to ask ourselves is not whether it is logically possible, but whether it is impossibly logical? If we value what we have now then surely it makes no sense not to strive to sustain it.

I believe that, whilst unlikely, a sustainable world remains within our species’ grasp.

There’s a 50/50 chance of achieving a sustainable world, though there’s only a 10 percent chance of that.

(after) Ed Hocken (George Kennedy) in The Naked Gun


This post was originally published (with fewer jokes) in Guardian Sustainable Business on 14/09/2012

Valuing abundance – breaking the tyranny of scarcity

We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.

Alan Turing

Scarcity is So now…

Every day we hear more and more about scarcity. We hear that the expected demands of an growing world population will increase conflict over scarce resources. We hear that delivering against the growth plans of global companies and the expectations of a growing middle class will put pressure on supplies of food, water and the rare metals present in the goods we have grown to depend upon for our sense of self.

We are fixated upon the scarcity of valuable resources.

In the coming decades, we are told, we will need to compete ever harder over smaller and smaller quantities of materials which we once treated as effectively limitless.

Limits to growth?

The earth is an island of life floating in a pretty sterile sea of space. While we receive a daily bounty of 84 Terawatts of solar income every day, we get precious little else. Were we to receive new supplies of minerals or metals they would likely arrive with the rather high delivery cost.

It would be logical to organise ourselves in cognisance of these facts.

However, our economic and industrial models do not recognise these parameters as part of their design principles. The two big challenges we face are that:

  • We are using resources which are only replenished over geological timescales at a rate likely to give rise to intense scarcity, and:
  • Our use of such resources, combined with the unsustainable harvesting of natural productivity, endangers the functioning of our life supporting ecosystems.

Who ate all the pies? – We did (in the West). The pies that we ate were extravagant, wasteful and wonderfully tasty. How extravagant? Very – eighty percent of the world’s resources are consumed by just 16% of the world’s population. Moreover, that consumption is highly wasteful; the US economy for example, has been estimated to have a total material efficiency of between only 1% and 10%.

The pies we have been enjoying are going to become increasingly scarce and expensive in the coming years – and more people have equally justified expectations of being able to enjoy them. We either need to stop eating pies or change the recipes we use.

On a crowded planet, scarcity is of limited utility

As the churn through vital resources gets ever faster we become necessarily more and more fixated on scarcity and the perverse relationship between scarcity and value grows ever stronger.

Yet scarcity is pretty useless if you have big plans. We need to break the link between scarcity and price.

Scarcity may be economically very powerful, but it is of very limited value for a future of 9 billion people, all seeking the material and financial wellbeing and security that those of us lucky enough to be born in the West have grown to consider as our birth right.

Scarcity is not a good basis for a viable business strategy

Basing technology on recognisably scarce resources and materials makes no business sense either. What rational business would, on the one hand, make plans for growth in the production and supply of products and services whilst on the other hand building those technologies and services using resources that are not abundant or safe enough to meet these growth targets? Surely such an inherent contradiction should be of prime concern to company leaders and investors?

But scarcity does exist, it can’t be denied

Of course scarcity exists – but the risk that it poses to our ambitions in business, economic and quality of life terms depends almost entirely upon how we undertake the following:

  • Focus on the sustainable use and continued re-use of scarce resources.
  • Prioritise the use of abundant and renewable resources.


 New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common.

John Locke

Abundance is So tomorrow

Scarcity is a fundamental component of the derivation of price. Current economics uses the scarcity of a good or service to determine its price through a combination of supply and demand.

However, price has failed to adequately equate to value – the value of the natural systems that support life has been treated as an externality and largely ignored.

Scarcity may provide a simple and effective way of generating price but it is fatally flawed as an approach to delivering a sustainable future on a populated planet. Abundance is a far more valuable criterion for informing price than scarcity.

Delivering abundance

In this context, abundance is either a natural aspect of a resource, good or service, or can be achieved through the sustainable management of non-renewable resources, thereby suggesting two forms of abundance, literal and functional.

Literal abundance

Literal abundance is just that, a good or resource which depends upon components which are naturally abundant, or which can be derived amply through sustainable production and stewardship approaches.

Ecosystems run on abundance, not on scarcity or even efficiency. Natural systems produce material in abundance and wastage provides feedstock for other parts of the system. Basing our technological and industrial models upon these types of raw materials and flows would allow us to operate without the conventional limits to growth which currently constrain us.

Technologies are starting to exploit such resources, including the use of materials such as hemp for making body panels on cars, microalgae for producing jet fuel and bacteria to extract precious metals from waste.

Functional abundance

Functional or technical abundance, though often under another name, is a relatively recognised concept. In their Cradle-to-Cradle approach, McDonough and Braungart talk of a “technical cycle” – where scarce and potentially harmful materials are cycled endlessly through closed loop industrial models.

The concept is echoed in the developing circular economy approach. The focus of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the circular economy seeks to design industrial models based upon stewardship and symbiosis, where the waste of one process becomes the feedstock of another.

There is much distance left to travel

While many of the technologies and approaches needed to build our economies upon abundance exist, some require vast efforts of R&D and investment in order to discover, implement and scale technologies that can deliver performance and utility to the whole of the world’s population.

If one way be better than another, that you may be sure is nature’s way.


Vital technologies – the next industrial revolution

Our technologies and production processes must take a step towards the realms of science fiction to crack the mysteries of nature, to mimic the elegance, simplicity and safety of biological production.

We call such production “lifelike vital technologies”, those which borrow from and harness biological production techniques, including: ultra-low energy growth, abundant degradable production and room temperature chemical and material production. Such approaches are not just fiction; Biomimicry seeks to learn from and adapt design techniques from nature and even more revolutionarily, significant investments are starting to be poured into advanced approaches to using biology for technological and industrial production.

Defeating the tyranny of scarcity

Scarcity makes us think small at a time when we should be thinking big. Scarcity makes us fight for our share of the scraps when our planet’s life could support us in sharing abundance. Scarcity fills us with fear when we need to grow our hope.

It is time to defeat the tyranny of scarcity and to truly value abundance.


This post was originally published in Guardian Sustainable Business on 08/08/2012

Calm down dear!

Lustrum trading, a solution to market hysteria?

Lustrum trading is a simple concept, it proposes that:

Shares for each listed company should be traded once every 5 years – on one day – 3 months after the company makes its lustrum (5 year) dividend.

Rational or hysterical? You decidePanic Button

Ever wondered why, if markets are so rational, there is so much talk of “market confidence” and “market sentiment”?

Recent times have shown the clearest indication yet of the real power within our societies. The Eurozone crisis has been precipitated by credit ratings concerns and banks have failed to pass on the bounty of Quantitative Easing to businesses which make actual stuff. Politicians, technocrats and commentators have paid attention to only one constituency, the markets. The emotional state of the markets; the happiness, or otherwise of the bankers, seems to have been pretty much the most important issue in the world.

Whilst this is undoubtedly bizarre, it might make sense if the markets could be said to be more rational, more objective or somehow more able to take decisions for the common good than politicians and others who might be said to have narrow or subjective agendas.

Yet markets are not objective – in any way. They are not even supposed to be. Their goal is to seek profit, and often profit lies in market movement and, if you are a hedge fund, in volatility.

As with any crowd behaviour, markets move relative to the herd, not through rationality. Markets are innately hysterical, not rational.

Man leaves bank for while to get some sleep, panic!

Let’s take a recent example. Last year, in the UK, the part taxpayer owned bank, Lloyds, temporarily lost its CEO, Antonio Herta-Osaria, who took a leave of absence due to overwork.

The market reaction? Lloyds stock immediately lost 25% of its value.

But what had really changed in the fundamentals of the business? Had 25% of its mortgage customers defaulted? Had bad debts increased? No, the underlying nature and purpose of the business was unchanged from the previous day.

All that changed is that one man in a suit decided he needed a break. It’s not really news is it?

This is not to say that profit warnings and temporarily departing men in suits do not have some relationship to the future viability of a business, it’s just that markets are unable to act proportionately because of the herd mentality. No-one wants to be left behind so everyone stampedes and people get crushed underfoot.

Sustainability requires long term thinking

It’s time to move away from market hysteria, market sentiment and market confidence. Such emotionally volatile behaviour does not deliver the rational, logical, evidentially based decision making that ought to be at the heart of building and maintaining the security and prosperity of the human species.

This was recognised in June 2011 when the UK government commissioned the respected economist John Kay to review how the equity market functions and to suggest better long term incentives.

In a speech revealing some of his preliminary thoughts earlier this month, Kay noted that the practice of quarterly company reporting was a factor in preventing the development of long term thinking. Of a number of consultees to the review; “Many considered quarterly reporting and interim management statements to be ‘useless or misleading’”.

The link between short termism and unsustainability is clear and well established. Where short term profit taking provides overwhelmingly larger rewards than long term stewardship then sustainability will never be a priority for either companies or markets.

Yet we do not believe that abolishing quarterly reports goes far enough. Not by a long shot. Longer timescale solutions are required.

So, what to do? Towards Lustrum (a period of 5 years) Trading

One provocative proposal is to try to minimise the sub-second hysteria of the recent years in finance by radically restricting trading in shares and, through this, allowing companies to respond to the fundamentals of resource supply, customer demand and wider environmental and social trends without the distractions of the emotional meltdowns of the market.

Shares for each listed company should be traded once every 5 years – on one day – 3 months after the company makes its lustrum dividend.

Companies should report their ecological, social and economic performance annually, yet their decision making should not be affected by share trading which acts only in the interests of share traders, not in the interests of the company, economy, the planet, society at large or even the real asset owners (share and pension holders).

Naysayers may say: “Nay!” and argue that 5 years presents a cover which would allow all sorts of dodgy company behaviours and that the scrutiny of the market presents a guard against nefarious activity. However if that were true then our current market would bear this out. It does not; recent years have been littered with scams, corruption and failed companies. Companies will continue to rise and fall, through fair means or foul under lustrum trading, but the overall outcome just might be a more sustainable one.

This shouldn’t put all investors out of work, it also shouldn’t prevent individuals from buying and selling shares. On any given day a multitude of companies will have shares available to trade, just not all of them all of the time.

We have to find our way away from hysteria and to design markets and economies which automatically value and reward long term success, stewardship and social utility. Trading a company’s shares once every 5 years might be a valuable contribution to this goal – the idea might not be bulletproof, but it is interesting!