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Unreasonable People: Introducing The Zeronauts

It’s time to move past the “status quo” to the “future quo.”

Submitted by: John Elkington

Posted: Jul 06, 2012 – 09:28 AM EST

Series: The Zeronauts

Tags: csr, sustainability, innovation, business ethics, entrepreneurs


By John Elkington

This is the second post in the series, “Zeronauts,” about a new breed of innovators operating at the leading edges of tomorrow’s economy. Post #1: Zero is the New Black

High above Ground Zero in New York, new generations of sky-walkers – ironworkers skilled at operating at dizzy heights – have been helping a new skyline rise above the ruins of the World Trade Center.  Inspiring, but essentially an exercise in rebuilding the status quo.  Now the time has come to build towards what we call the “future quo”, evolving very different forms of wealth creation, which could well throw up very different skylines.

It’s time to meet some of the main characters of our story, though few, if any, of the pioneers spotlighted here – even in our first Zeronaut 50 Roll of Honor -- would yet self-identify as a Zeronaut.  To my knowledge the term hasn’t been employed to date in the sense in which I use it, though it did turn out to have been used by a band I stumbled upon through Google: formed in 2003 and called “The Zeronaut”, their play-list contained songs with cheery titles such as “Napalm death,” “Destruction,” “Rage,” and “Wormed.”

And the origin of the word Zeronaut, as I plan to use it?

EarthWell, in the years before the Trojan War, the Argonauts (a name meaning sailors in the ship Argo – and reputed to be 50 in number) sailed in pursuit of the Golden Fleece, which may have been linked to lamb fleeces pinned to the bed of rivers to capture flecks of alluvial gold washed downstream.

These days, we might consider the Golden Fleece as a powerful symbol of the processes of wealth creation based on conventional natural resources. The challenge for gold-miners has always been to extract the maximum amount of precious metal for the minimum effort, a process that generally left immense mountains of spoil and huge plumes of toxic materials such as mercury.

I have been down a deep gold mine in the Rockies and it left me with an immense respect for those who work in the bowels of our Earth. But I am in even greater awe of those who have gone outward from our planet. During the second half of the twentieth century, Astronauts (meaning space sailors) and Cosmonauts (their Soviet/Russian equivalent) launched into the heavens, some in pursuit of the new commanding heights in the Cold War, others in search of new worlds to colonize.

In the process, they helped to catalyze the evolution of everything from non-stick frying pans and minicomputers to satellite telecommunications. But the biggest, priceless gift was the outside-in view of our home planet.

Astronauts, Space Entrepreneurs, Inventors, Thinkers

Astronaut Jerry LinengerOne of the Zeronauts, Jerry Linenger, has been both an Astronaut and a Cosmonaut, returning with a conviction that water will be one of the great strategic challenges of the century. Another, Peter Diamandis of the X Prize Foundation, has helped spur the private sector’s growing involvement in space exploration. Two of the entries are posthumous: Buckminster Fuller for his work on doing more with less, and Ray Anderson for Interface’s Mission Zero.

Some of the Zeronauts are independent thinkers (e.g. Hawken, Lovelock), operate within the NGO and think-tank sector (e.g. Benyus, Burns & Wackernagel, Cohen, Desai & Riddlestone, Greenpeace, Hawken, Lovins, Pauli, Robèrt, Savory, Schmidt-Bleek, West), some in the public sector (e.g. Ban Ki-moon, Hansen, Johnson, Stubbs & Hartnett), and some in foundations (e.g. Gates, Skoll), while others are very much in the private sector (Agassi, Albaek, Gore & Blood, Musk, the Nike ‘zero’ team, Tebo, Zeitz, Zhengrong). 

The First ‘Zeronaut 50’ Roll of Honor

What follows is a first stab at a selection of leading Zeronauts, with details on the reasons for their selection and what they do to be found in The Zeronauts.  Most of the nominees are individuals; but in some cases organizations or teams are listed, with several individuals key spotlighted.

  • Shai Agassi, Better Place
  • Morton Albaek, Vestas
  • Ray Anderson (1934-2011), Interface
  • Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General
  • Janine Benyus, Biomimicry Guild
  • Michael Braungart and Bill McDonough, Cradle-to-Cradle and MBDC
  • Larry Brilliant, for his work on smallpox
  • Lester Brown, Earth Policy Institute
  • Susan Burns and Mathis Wackernagel, Global Footprint Network
  • Gary Cohen, Health Care Without Harm
  • Gretchen Daily, Center for Conservation Biology, Stanford University
  • Ron Dembo, Zerofootprint
  • Pooran Desai and Sue Riddlestone, BioRegional
  • Peter Diamandis, X Prize Foundation
  • Eve Ensler, The Vagina Monologues
  • Buckminster Fuller, geodesic engineer and champion of “ephemeralization” (1895-1983)
  • Bill and Melinda Gates, Gates Foundation
  • Al Gore and David Blood, Generation Investment Management
  • John Frazier, Santiago Gowland, Hannah Jones and Sarah Severn, Nike, for their work on “Race to Zero”
  • Greenpeace International, zero toxics and zero deforestation
  • James Hansen, NASA Goddard Center for Space Studies
  • Godert van Hardenbroek and Eelco Rietveld, Formula Zero
  • Paul Hawken, environmentalist, author and entrepreneur
  • Peter Head, Arup/Ecological Sequestration Trust
  • Martha Johnson, General Services Administration
  • Jerry Linenger, former Astronaut and Cosmonaut, Circle of Blue
  • James Lovelock, independent scientist
  • Amory Lovins, Rocky Mountain Institute
  • Hunter Lovins, Natural Capitalism Solutions
  • Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jørgen Randers and William W. Behrens III, Limits to Growth team
  • Herman Miller, Inc.
  • Elon Musk, Tesla
  • Ramez Naam, Microsoft
  • Gunter Pauli, ZERI
  • Michael Pawlyn, Exploration
  • Karl-Henrik Robèrt, The Natural Step
  • Richard Sandor, Chicago Climate Exchange
  • Allan Savory, Savory Institute
  • Friedrich Schmidt-Bleek, Factor 10 Institute
  • Jeff Skoll, Global Zero
  • David Stubbs and Felicity Hartnett, London Olympic and Paralympic Games
  • Pavan Sukhdev, TEEB
  • Paul Tebo, former DuPont “Hero of Zero”
  • Ralph Thurm, Deloitte Innovation and Zero Hub
  • Mechai Viravaidya, PDA
  • Geoffrey West, Santa Fe Institute
  • Matthew Wright, Beyond Zero Emissions
  • Muhammad Yunus, Grameen movement
  • Jochen Zeitz, Puma/PPR
  • Zhengrong Shi, Suntech Power

The first area of weakness in this first listing is in relation to the financial markets – although a number of the Zeronauts flagged here are in that world to some degree, among them Bill Gates, Generation Investment Management Richard Sandor, Jeff Skoll, Pavan Sukhdev (with his background at Deutsche Bank), and Muhammad Yunus (though he has now been shaken out of the Grameen Bank). The Zeronauts: Breaking the Sustainability BarrierGiven the importance of financial markets, there should perhaps be more representation in the Roll of Honor from that direction than I have managed to achieve.

A second is that there are few government people, to date, though the General Services Administration and the 2012 Olympic & Paralympic Games honorees are either government or public sector.

And a third is that so many of the current honorees are American. This speaks volumes about the role of the United States as a source of breakthrough ideas, technologies and business models in recent decades—but it’s perhaps significant that the last honoree in our list, thanks to the tyranny of the alphabet, is Zhengrong Shi, who is Chinese. Watch that space.


Zero is the New Black

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