James Lovelock's Gaia message is getting through to corporations.
By John Elkington and John Gilbert
It’s odd, but a good way to get a grip on the future is to visit a museum—or, to be specific, one museum in particular. Two objects displayed in London’s Science Museum, one huge, one tiny, symbolize a new era in human existence. They bookend the period in which humankind woke up to the planetary implications of the surge of industrialization that began some 300 years ago.
Two Museum Exhibits Tell the Story of The Modern Age
The era into which we are now rocketing is dubbed the Anthropocene, in which our species has impacts on the global system akin to geological forces. The first exhibit is Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine, dating back to 1712. The second, which helped route our planetary wake-up call, is the electron capture detector. Our favorite 94-year-old independent scientist James Lovelock invented the latter with the Science Museum’s example dated to 1960.
Compared to the Newcomen engine, the detector looks totally unassuming, like something a plumber might have left after installing a new central heating system. But it helped spark the scientific research that led to the virtual criminalization of chemical compounds like DDT and CFCs. And it also helped catalyze and fund Lovelock’s work on new types of science that suggest that our species has turned on a global heating system that could undermine the very foundations of our civilization.
Lovelock's Gaia Theory and Business
We highly recommend a visit to the Science Museum, which has just opened a new exhibition, Unlocking Lovelock: Scientist, Inventor, Maverick. A must-visit presentation of the scientific work and impact of a scientist whose name, in time, may well come to be attached to the core scientific paradigm of the twenty-first century. Indeed, we would bet that future historians of science will place Lovelock alongside people like Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Einstein.
Meanwhile, Lovelock’s new book, A Rough Ride to the Future, has been attracting surprisingly positive reviews in the business press. But the media commentary has largely failed to tease out the business and financial implications of what is variously called Gaia Theory (Lovelock’s term) and Earth System Science (for more cautious champions of the notion that, in some respects, our planet acts as if it were a living organism, maintaining the conditions necessary for life).
The Twenty Trillion Dollar Bubble
Yet those implications are already significant—and are likely to grow exponentially. Indeed, there are people with a deep knowledge of our financial system who argue, as does former J.P. Morgan managing director John Fullerton, that business is blowing an immense carbon bubble. His price tag on the externalities represented by the bubble is $20 trillion.
Interestingly, Lovelock doesn’t blame those who built our fossil-fuels-based economy. They didn’t know what they were doing, he generously notes. But, intentional or not, the systemic changes triggered in the process now pose mind-boggling challenges for political, business and financial leaders—as outlined in the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
A Panel on Lovelock—and Shifting Paradigms
To explore possible solutions, we recently hosted a dinner and debate at the Science Museum’s Smith Centre. The discussion took place under Lovelock’s impish eye—in the form of Michael Gaskell’s extraordinary 2011 portrait of Gaia’s progenitor, now housed in the National Portrait Gallery.
Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, chaired the panel discussion. The panelists were leaders from the worlds of science and finance: Professor of Climate Science at UCL and a former Director of the Science Museum Chris Rapley represented the climate side while the world of finance was represented by Trevor Maynard, head of Exposure Management and Reinsurance at Lloyd’s of London along with Saker Nusseibeh, CEO of Hermes Fund Managers.
The current Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford told the extraordinary story of how his team came to acquire the Lovelock Archive followed by Curator Alexandra Johnson who led the development of the exhibition. Such people increasingly see Lovelock’s greatest contribution as his multiple contributions to shifting our scientific and business paradigms.
As a parallel, think of Charles Darwin and his new thinking on evolutionary biology. There were periods where Darwinism was on the back foot, even apparently in retreat, but ultimately the new science would help transform our understanding of biology, creating the foundations for key parts of today’s health and pharmaceutical industries.
In like vein, Lovelock and other earth system scientists are laying the foundations of new areas of science, technology and business—in the process powerfully shaping the long-term prospects of both our national and international economies. Too many business leaders talk sustainability. Lovelock walks it.
Growing Need for Breakthroughs
Other leaders involved in our debate included Tessa Tennant (Non-Executive Director, Green Investment Bank), Paul Abberley (former Acting Global CEO Aviva Investors) and Sir Martin Smith of the Oxford School of Enterprise and the Environment, after whom the Smith Centre itself is named. The consensus was that there is a now a growing need for breakthrough technologies and business models.
We also need new approaches to economics, informed by one planet thinking.
A Wartime Scale Investment in Low Carbon Economics
Among the initiatives celebrated were CarbonTracker, whose new CEO Anthony Hobley was among the participants, and Culture|Futures, whose co-founder Peter Head also took part, are increasingly active in this space.
ClimateWise Overview from ClimateWise on Vimeo.
Participants also spotlighted the growing number of pre-competitive collaborations, including ClimateWise, with over 40 insurance industry players signed up, and the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals initiative formed by companies in the apparel and footwear sectors.
Ultimately, one former financial sector CEO concluded, “the solution has to be a war-time scale investment in low carbon economics—a bit like the Apollo Program, but global this time.”
Another top-flight investor agreed, noting that we probably have “about 15 years to run with business-as-usual emissions before the onset of unprecedented climate-induced political, economic and financial volatility” starts the rough ride in earnest.