Becoming Future-Fit with Green Swans, Onions, and Audioslave

Picture of Green Swans flying
Volans —

What do a Green Swan, an onion, and an American rock band formed in 2001 have to do with one other, let alone the current COVID-19 pandemic and some of the other challenges faced by humankind?

Let me explain.

I recently finished Green Swans, the latest book from John Elkington, the ‘godfather of sustainability’. Elkington is a modern day sage, environmentalist, and an “invisible elbow” metaphorically jabbing the ribs of company executives aspiring to better manage their companies’ ‘Triple Bottom Line’, a term coined by Elkington decades ago. A self-described “Chief Pollinator” of ideas and strategies to help organizations thoughtfully consider their financial, social, and environmental risks, obligations, and opportunities, the author introduces the concept of a Green Swan. Building on the Black Swan theory put forward in 2007 by Nassim Nicholas Taleb which focused on the extreme impact of rare and unpredictable outlier events, Elkington’s Green Swan refers to a profound market shift, generally catalyzed by unexpected challenges and changing paradigms, to ultimately deliver exponential progress in the form of economic, social, and environmental wealth creation.

The release of the book comes at a time in human history when governments in most countries are being challenged to deliver healthcare and social safety nets in the face of a global pandemic. Companies and NGOs are also attempting to figure out answers to “what’s next?”. More broadly, the book finds us in our current reality called the Anthropocene, a time when human beings have become a force of nature, having reshaped the planet at an unprecedented rate. While our species has been around for a minuscule portion of time, in the past 200 years we have affected profound changes to our 4.5 billion-year-old planet.

Wading through anecdotes, snippets of speeches and papers, and personal experiences he has had over the years, Elkington gets to the ‘meat’ of the matter (on page 220 in my copy) with the following passage, effectively encapsulating where we are as a species and the stark realities we face in trying re-balance life on Earth:

“Most of us avert our eyes, close our minds. We assume that the natural order will reassert itself, somehow — just as we assume that populism, trade wars, and deglobalization will sort themselves out, somehow. But eleventh hour escapes seem increasingly unlikely. Instead, we seem to be forcing ourselves into the biggest civilizational migration in history, where we have no option but to shift our economies and our business technologically, geographically, politically, and culturally.”

Indeed, we face a number of ‘Wicked Problems’ — described by John Camillus as having “innumerable causes…and (no) right answer”. The author also introduces and discusses the nuances of ‘Super Wicket Problems’ (SWP). While a Wicked Problem has complex interdependences and no determinable stopping point, a SWP possesses a distinct time pressure (think exponential versus linear). Of the four distinguishing characteristics of a SWP, the one I find most interesting is that current policies discount the future irrationally, something Elkington describes as the “beating heart of the matter”. The reality is that as a species trying to ‘solve’ massive challenges, we are embedded in the same dysfunction systems that we ourselves have created. Unfortunately, we also continue to downplay the urgency and timescale of the SWP at hand (i.e. the climate crisis).

With his “Swanifesto”, Elkington has put forward a working draft for the future of capitalism, democracy and sustainability. Challenging leaders and those interested in changing our broken economic and ecological systems, he suggests that market-based forms of value creation must be redesigned from the ground up to value all forms of life. The solutions we need involve resilience and regeneration; not more efficiencies. As he puts it:

“Ultimately, any true Green Swan will help — simultaneously — to regenerate the natural, social, and economic worlds. An existentially taxing, civilizational task. But we have left ourselves no alternative. The upside is that, for the foreseeable future, this will be by far the biggest opportunity for adventure, growth, and evolution in the tightly coupled stories of humankind, capitalism, and our home planet, Earth.”

Which brings me to onions.

As someone who loves to cook, I appreciate fine produce for what it can add to a dish. Onions (and their various cousins like leeks, garlic and shallots) are staple ingredients in many cultures, and the more I think about it, they represent some of the mega challenges before us.

Let me explain.

Onions are packed with potential (and a powerful punch) under the protective layers of their light, translucent skin. Uncut, an onion is an innocuous vegetable. Smell one and it doesn’t reveal much about what is inside.

But once the cells in an onion are broken, it’s like pulling a pin on a hand grenade. Enzymes and chemicals interact with one another to transform the juicy bulb into an offensive ‘crisis’. An invisible agent of discomfort suddenly becomes apparent. The onion’s pungent smell is often a precursor to one’s eyes watering, like receiving a punch to the nose. Its acrid, sulphurous odour is inescapable and for some, may cause a mild panic. (In my case, my wife always asks me to cut the onions as she just “can’t deal”.)

So, here we have an example of an entity being introduced into the environment that seems relatively benign. However, once it is disturbed and its stench becomes dispersed, it surreptitiously penetrates our bodies, threatening the wellbeing of those in infiltrates.

Sound familiar?…

Here’s the thing. If one soldiers through and slices an onion into appropriately sized cubes, and then carefully cooks it in oil and/or butter (being careful not to overheat and destroy the sweet potential within), a whole new world of flavours appears. The sugars locked in the onion caramelize and reveal themselves, creating a surprising sweetness and colour.

The key ingredients in the process — a metamorphosis from fearful to fantastic — are patience and persistence. By powering through what initially may appear like an invasion of your personal space and comfort levels, a perceived danger can become part of a delicious dish. This is a central message in Green Swans.

Which brings me to Audioslave, a band formed in 2001, and featuring the inimitable Chris Cornel as its lead singer. They were an unlikely combination of styles and individuals, but they worked. In 2006, the band released their Revelations album which included the track The Shape of Things to Come with the following lyrics:

Now I feel the worst is near,
I hold them close and count their years.
And pray a ray of light appears
To shine down on us here.


Breakdown in the shape of things to come
But I’m moving on like a soldier
And I say now when all is said and done
It’s not ours to break the shape of things to come.

The ultimate lesson in all of this?

Leaders — in fact, all of us — cannot shirk from our responsibilities to think about and challenge some of the underpinnings of our respective societies. We may struggle to find the words. We may worry about the ‘unprecedented’ nature of the problems that we face — full of contradictions and complexities — but like cutting an onion, we must fight through the discomfort of the moment (eyes streaming with tears) to discover new ways to find the sweetness within a horrible situation.

In may be learning how to better slice the onion. It may be swapping out the tools we use to either cut or cook.

Either way, achieving a delicious sauce will not happen without cutting into an onion.

And so we must, if we are to see the Green Swan of regenerative capitalism emerge from our current reality, look for new ways to think about, articulate and tackle the problems before us. We face humankind’s Rubicon moment, but with human ingenuity, brave leadership, and seeing our world with new eyes, we stand a chance.

Thank you to John Elkington, the lowly onion, and the lyrics of Chris Cornell, RIP, for opening my (teary) eyes and giving me some hope.

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