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Thriving w/ Wayne Visser, Cambridge & Antwerp sustainable business expert – EP130

In Economics Explored EP130, we explore a new book Thriving: The Breakthrough Movement to Regenerate Nature, Society, and the Economy, by Professor Wayne Visser of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership and Antwerp Management School. Wayne is reassuringly optimistic about the future of the planet due to a variety of technological and business practice changes that mean we are approaching “tipping points”, after which we will rapidly reduce the stress we are placing on the environment – all going well, of course, as nothing is guaranteed. 

In the episode, Wayne speaks about a convergence of positive developments, such as rapidly improving electric vehicles, cultured/lab-grown meat, blockchain and synthetic DNA to aid traceability of supply chains, green hydrogen, and Unilever committing to deforestation-free palm oil (by 2023, and whether it achieves that is still to be determined). You can listen to the conversation with Wayne using the embedded player below or via Google PodcastsApple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher, among other podcast apps. 

Here’s a short video clip from the conversation in which Wayne introduces the concept of Thriving:

Links relevant to the conversation

DNA Spray-On Technology Could Revolutionize Food Traceability

Transcript of EP130 – Thriving w/ Wayne Visser

N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.

Gene Tunny  00:01

Coming up on Economics Explored.

Wayne Visser 00:04

Being optimistic or at least having thriving as a lens is just a more effective way to be, no matter what the state of the world is.

Gene Tunny  00:13

Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host Gene Tunny. I’m a professional economist based in Brisbane, Australia, and I’m a former Australian Treasury official. This is Episode 130. In this episode, we explore a new book from a world leading expert in sustainability, Dr. Wayne Visser, who joins us from the UK via Zoom.

Wayne’s new book, published by Fast Company Press is Thriving: The Breakthrough Movement to Regenerate Nature, Society, and the Economy. Wayne currently serves as head tutor, fellow and lecturer at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. He is also Professor of Integrated Value at Antwerp Management School, where he holds the world’s first Academic Chair in Sustainable Transformation, as well as being a world leading authority on sustainability. Wayne is an accomplished poet, and he shares some of his poetry with us toward the end of this episode. Wayne’s new book Thriving considers issues with huge implications for our economies, so I was very glad to chat with him about it. His book contains lots of valuable examples of how businesses and communities worldwide are attempting to make themselves more sustainable.

Please check out the show notes for links to materials mentioned in this episode, and for any clarifications. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions related to this episode or the previous ones, please get in touch by SpeakPipe. See the link in the show notes or email me via contact@economicsexplored.com. I’d love to hear from you. Righto. Now for my conversation with Dr. Wayne Visser on his new book, Thriving. Thanks to my audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Professor Wayne Visser, welcome to the programme.

Wayne Visser  02:23

Hi. Great to be joining you.

Gene Tunny  02:25

It’s fantastic to have you on, Wayne. Yes, very happy to be chatting with you about your new book, Thriving, which is on a topic that is of great interest to me, and I know to many of my listeners. It’s this issue of sustainability. Climate change is related to that, obviously a big environmental challenge. I’d like to explore what your book is about, why you wanted to write it, what those key messages are. First, I’ve just got a couple of questions about your work. You’re at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. Could you tell us a bit about that, please?

Wayne Visser  03:20

Yeah. Great pleasure to be talking to. The Cambridge Institute is a department of the university that was set up many decades ago actually, firstly, mainly, at the request of the Prince of Wales, Prince Charles, one day soon to be king, I guess, who’s always had a passion for sustainability. He set up a business and environment programme through the university, and it just evolved from that. And ow they it’s a very large office and runs many, many programmes, I head up their business sustainability management online programme, which is getting great traction. We have upwards of 900 students, taking that four times a year. We’re seeing the uptake. I’ve been associated there for nearly 10 years, and I really see how it’s changed. In fact, 20 years. Yeah, since 2003. Really, the interest levels are up, and the demand for solutions, especially from business, is really rising.

Gene Tunny  04:39

Right. You’re certainly right about Prince Charles. I remember visiting his country estate, just as a tourist, Highgrove in Gloucestershire, and before you go on a tour of the estate, you have to sit through a 10 or 15-minute video of Charles, of the Prince of Wales talking about the importance of sustainability. I think he’s into organic farming and that sort of thing. I’ve certainly seen his commitment to that, so very good…

Wayne Visser  05:19

He was way ahead of his time, especially on the organics side, or what they sometimes call in Europe, Europe bio. Many of the programmes have been very specific. We have very good climate legislation in the UK, for example, and also in Europe. That’s partly down to the Prince of Wales Business corporate leadership group that we set up at Cambridge on climate change, where we tried to be an intermediary between business and government, because business was saying they couldn’t be bold in their commitments, because they didn’t have clear policy guidance, and the politicians were saying they couldn’t be bold in policy, because they thought business would lobby against them. Playing that kind of role has been very, very effective in making the progress that we need to make.

Gene Tunny  06:11

I’d like to ask you later about good legislation in the UK. and EU. I’m interested in what you consider good legislation. That’s something we can chat about. Also, you’re a professor at, is it University of Antwerp, is it, in Belgium?

Wayne Visser  06:31

Yes, Antwerp Management School. It’s actually a sister organisation of the university, but it is independent. Yes, I have a chair there in sustainable transformation. It’s supported by corporate partners, BASF, Port of Antwerp and Ronstadt. I run the Sustainable Transformation Lab there, where we mainly work with corporate partners on advancing sustainability, but also on embedding it into all of the teaching for the full-time and the executive MBA students.

Gene Tunny  07:04

BASF, this is one of the biggest chemical corporations in the world, isn’t it? It’s a huge company, isn’t it?

Wayne Visser  07:14

It is, and right there, Port of Antwerp Zone, which goes for more than 30 kilometres, has one of the biggest chemical clusters in the world. And of course, it’s a great challenge, I must be honest, because the chemical industry has many, many impacts, and is one of the institutions, one of the sectors that has to transform, if you look at something like climate, and it’s not easy. There are massive technology investments that have to be made, whether that’s on using green hydrogen, to get their energy for their crackers, or even going for carbon capture and storage, investing in renewables, which they’re doing as well. But at least they’re one of the progressive ones, I would say, and they really are seeing that this is the future and they have to invest in it.

Gene Tunny  08:10

Okay, Wayne, what was that word you used? Was it crackers?

Wayne Visser  08:14

Yes, yes. Crackers are just the way that they get them, the molecules, the chemical molecules, how they break them apart. This is a very, very intensive, energy-intensive process, much like many other industries. Smelting I know is being done in Australia, for example, aluminium smelting, cement making. These are all very intensive industrial processes where there is no easy solution. For climate change, they really have to come with new technology, such as green hydrogen, where you get the renewable electricity to power the creation of hydrogen from water normally. That takes a lot of energy. But once you have that hydrogen, that can then create the heat that you need for these large industrial processes.

Gene Tunny  09:07

We might have to chat about that a bit later. I guess one of the things I’ve been fascinated by is just how a lot of these big corporations are… They’re seeing the future and they realise—well, many of them, I mean the more enlightened ones are realising, we probably have to get on top of this now, to start addressing this, or we could lose out in the future. I think that’s an example of that. Very good. One other thing I’ve saw in your bio, which I thought was really interesting, so you’re also a poet as well as a pragademic, if I’ve got that right, or pracademic. You’re a pracademic. You’re an academic and you’re also doing practical things involved in policy. You’re also a poet, and it turns out you’ve written 40 books. There are books on both environmental issues and also poetry? Is that right?

Wayne Visser  10:14

Yes, it is a mix. I must say, the majority of them are on sustainable business. And they range from the encyclopaedic, literally because I did an encyclopaedia the A to Z of corporate social responsibility, nd I’ve done a world guide on sustainable enterprise covering countries around the world, so that kind of reference work through to yes, even a fiction. Some poetry books, but also some fiction. There’s a parable on leadership, called Follow Me, I’m Lost, about a goose, a Scottish goose, who gets lost on the way to leadership school in London and ends up in Africa, travelling down and meeting strange creatures who each teach him a leadership lesson. There’s the full range.

Thriving is, I would say, in the middle. It’s really written for a broad audience. But it is about how we change society and the economy fundamentally. It includes some of the poetry actually in the book, as well as many stories, both personal stories, but also stories of the innovation that’s happening. I guess we’ll dive into that. But that’s one of the reasons I wrote the book is, there’s so much doom and gloom around now. Look at the statistics on many trends. Some of that is justified, even what’s going on in the world today with war breaking out in Europe. It’s hard not to be pessimistic, but you also have to take the bigger picture and see this global system that is in transformation and is actually speeding up. Many of the signals are all headed in the right direction. There’s so much innovation out there. This book was about capturing that innovation that’s happening.

Gene Tunny  12:09

That sounds great. That sounds great. With Thriving, so what you wanted to do, is basically you wanted to counter the doom and gloom. Is that what you’re saying? You think there’s too much doom and gloom? There’s actually a lot of innovation occurring out there, and are you trying to suggest, okay, given all of this innovation, this is what the appropriate policy settings are? Are you touching on policy settings at all, Wayne?

Wayne Visser  12:43

I touch on policy, but I would frame it like this. In fact, I start with something in the early chapter, called the Stockdale paradox. And this is named after Admiral Stockdale who survived a prisoner of war camp, I think he might have been in there for seven years, and came up with this philosophy that what you need to do to survive and thrive is to face the absolute reality, all the brutal facts, completely honestly. So don’t kid yourself about the state that you’re in. But at the same time, you can never give up faith or hope that things can change and can get better.

You’ll see in the book, it’s not a book of denial, or wishing things were better. I set out a lot of the facts on what’s going wrong, what’s really challenging, when nature, society, and the economy are breaking down. But then I look at the larger system and I look at how systems change, especially living systems, of which society is one nature is another, organisations as well. When you distil it down to the scientific principles of how those systems change and thrive, you actually see many signs that we are heading into a tipping point of change towards the better. It’s not that we don’t face these big challenges, but we’re seeing many transformational signals. And most people are not aware of that. And so yes, they get trapped in the pessimism or the doom and gloom.

It’s also that, you know, being optimistic, or at least having thriving as a lens, is just a more effective way to be, no matter what the state of the world is, because if you’re trapped in in pessimism, you’re disempowered. You sort of just give up before you’ve even made it a try to tackle the issues.

It’s a little bit philosophy, but it’s also backed up by some science of how change happens. And then lots of examples of where business especially, is really charging ahead and bringing the solutions that we need and starting to scale them, which is something that in my 30 years plus working in sustainability was always missing. We always had many of the solutions, but they weren’t scaling. Now they’re scaling. Tesla’s one of six trillion-dollar companies now, and its core mission is a sustainability mission. It’s to speed the transition to sustainable energy. That’s scaling. And it’s valued at more than all the other auto manufacturers, even though it makes less than 1% of the cars.

Gene Tunny  15:53

That’s extraordinary. That’s extraordinary. I want to go back to this point you made. You’re generally optimistic. However, you did note before that there are places where nature, society, and the economy are breaking down. Where is that, Wayne? Are you able to describe or tell us where that is most acute, because we hear all of these horror stories about bad things that could happen, tipping points, and all of that, but where are things breaking down? Could you tell us, please?

Wayne Visser  16:30

This gives a little insight into the structure of the book, really, because I structured into these six great transitions that we’re going through and that we need to go through. There are two breakdowns in nature, two in society, and two in the economy. I’ll briefly touch on each.

In nature, what we see is huge breakdown in ecosystems, so degradation of ecosystems. You’ve got the Great Barrier Reef on your shores there, and it’s literally dying, bleaching, just as one example. The loss of species is actually catastrophic right now. We are going through the sixth mass extinction. And we’ve lost 67% of wildlife populations since 1970. Something that took 3.8 billion years to build up on the earth, we’ve wiped out in one generation.

Yes, huge breakdown in ecosystems. But there is this counter movement of restoration, so protection and restoration of ecosystems. Yu start to see, there’s in fact a lot of work going on through the UN trying to create an equivalent international agreement to the Paris Agreement, which is on climate change, to have one on nature now. There is a widely promoted target for the world now to protect and restore 30% of our land and our oceans by 2030. Likewise, there’s a lot of work going on around deforestation coming out of the 26th Conference of Parties on Climate Change in Glasgow last year, where we have now more than 90% of the world’s countries committed, that have forests, committed to end deforestation and reverse it in the next few years. A lot of movement happening there, and a lot of big companies starting to actually put money into helping to protect and restore. If you look at the Bezos Earth Fund, putting more than a billion into the Congo, the rainforest in Africa, which always gets forgotten about because we know the Amazon, but the second largest tropical rainforest is the Congo. So that’s one example of a transition.

The second breakdown is depletion of resources. This is many, many nonrenewable resources, whether it’s water or timber or topsoil. All of these are being depleted at an alarming rate, nothing like what the earth can sustain. This has been going on—we call it the great acceleration—since about 1950, when we’ve had this exponential growth of economics, of economies and consumption, and of course, resources are finite.

The solution there is renewal of resources. This links to one of the market solutions I write about, which is the circular economy. How do we get it so that everything we use in our products and services either is made from nature and goes harmlessly back to nature—that’s one type of circle or loop—or is made artificially like chemicals and plastics and metals and so on, but continues to go back into manufacturing in an endless cycle. That’s the circular economy. Today, we’re around about 10% circular in the world. This is a massive transition. We have 90% of the economy that we need to change from a linear take make waste economy to a take or borrow, make and return economy. So that’s the second transition. Those are the two breakdowns and breakthroughs in nature.

In society, what we’ve got is disparity. Despite all of our economic growth over the last 50 years, inequality has gone up in almost every country. Even though we’ve had hundreds of millions of people coming out of poverty, the gap between the rich and the poor has gotten wider. And effectively, the rich are getting richer, faster than the poor are getting richer. And this has all sorts of social implications as well. If you look at a book like The Spirit Level, they do the research on this, and they find all sorts of social problems occur in the countries that have the highest inequality, including many developed countries.

The counterforce to that is responsibility. It’s actually to have what we call an access economy where we take care of diversity and inclusion. And again, there’s a big movement for that, but still a long way to go. If you just look at gender equality. If you look at the gender pay gap, according to the World Economic Forum, it will take more than 250 years to close that gap, if we continue on current trends, which is just ridiculous in the 21st century, but we still have a lot of progress to make there.

And then we have the second breakdown in nature, which is disease, which we’ve learned a lot about in the last few years with lockdown and everything else.

Gene Tunny  22:07

Sorry, Wayne, this is in society, you mean, is it? Second breakdown in society, disease.

Wayne Visser  22:13

The second breakdown in society is disease. We know all about COVID and communicable diseases, but the interesting thing is that 70% of people die from non-communicable diseases. These are things like heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, cancers. Many of these are lifestyle related. In fact, 40% are preventable because they relate to what we eat, especially how much meat we eat, in particular red meat, and also processed foods, and whether we live in toxic environments, polluted environments. Of course, there are things like stress as well that take that toll. What we want is revitalization, and so the well-being economy, which is again, a massive opportunity, lots of investment in innovation, lots of technology going in there, really exciting things happening, but plenty to do there. So those are the two breakdowns, breakthroughs in society.

Then if we look at the economy, I talk about disconnection. This is the technology piece. What’s happened is that we think we’re all connected, but we’re not. There is still roughly half of the world, maybe three or four billion who still don’t have an internet connection. Many, many billions still don’t have a mobile phone or live outside of mobile phone signal areas. The world is not all connected. And this refers to what we call the digital divide. It basically is an amplifier for inequality, because technology gives us opportunity. We have to really look at that gap and work on closing that gap. Meanwhile, of course, many are streaming ahead with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and with 5Gg and artificial intelligence and virtual reality and all of those things, and so the gap potentially gets wider. So we have to address that.

Then there’s a second kind of disconnection, which is that the machines start to disconnect us. This is really about automation. 25% of jobs today are at high risk of automation, and another 70% at medium risk. It’s not that we want to go backwards, but we have to look at that and take care of that, start re-skilling people, upskilling people, to be ready for that hugely disruptive transition.

The solution there is all about, I call it rewiring. It’s really the digital economy, but it’s mainly about using all of those fantastic technologies, like big data, like 3Dd printing, like all of the other things, to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Artificial intelligence, huge potential there, but we very quickly found out that it’s racially biased. We have to take care of how technology is being used and whether it’s being used to solve the problems. I really believe that it does bring many of the solutions.

The last one is disruption. This has to do with crises and catastrophes, which we’ve also learned a lot about recently. This is where climate change comes in. If you look at the wildfires, you look at the storms and floods and the droughts, you know all about that in Australia, but also all around the world now. It’s costing the world hundreds of billions, of which roughly only a third is insured. You’ve got two thirds of the millions of people who are affected by this just left hopeless, so tackling this and other crises. By the way, COVID is another example of a massive disruption. You get industrial accidents, also disruptive. BP lost 50% of its value within 50 days after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, just over 10 years ago, and has paid $65 billion since.

All of these have to be addressed. What do we want? We want to move to resilience. That’s the breakthrough. That means making our institutions but also our infrastructure more resilient. Some of that is physical infrastructure, like building flood walls and having buildings that can withstand earthquakes and lots of other very practical things we can do, but it’s also about how you build the economy, because what we’ve discovered is that our economy is very brittle in the crisis. Look at what’s happened with supply chains during COVID or during the Icelandic volcano a few years ago. There’s no longer any slack in the system to take the shocks. We think we’ve been very clever by making everything super efficient just in time, everything delivered, next-day delivery, everything like that. But actually, it makes us more vulnerable. This is all to do with a risk economy, everything that can reduce risk, but also help us survive and thrive through crises. Those are the six transitions.

Gene Tunny  27:28

That’s a very comprehensive overview. I’ve probably got comments on a lot of what you said, but I’ve got to ask you about that Icelandic volcano. That’s the one that no one can pronounce the name of, or certainly I can’t, if I remember correctly. Can you remind me what happened there? You mentioned that as an example of a disruption.

Wayne Visser  27:48

It was obviously just, they have a lot of volcanic activity there. But this one was so big that this cloud just spread across Europe and grounded everything, so planes couldn’t fly. As soon as you start messing with logistics, not only does it mean people literally stranded all around the world in countries, but also business grinds to a halt because of all of the trade that happens through logistics. It’s just an example of that kind of disruption. We’re starting to see more and more, the recent supply chain disruptions around COVID, but also to do with the oil price. Lots of these shocks just show us that… Even my book was delayed by over a month, because suddenly, there was no paper. They couldn’t get paper in the world. So we have to prepare for these kinds of shocks. This is the new volatile world, the VUCA world.

Gene Tunny  28:55

Yeah, well, it’s certainly taking a while for everything to get back to normal. I’m an economist, and I’ve got great faith in the ability of markets to adjust ultimately, but it takes time. We could have these sort of disruptions for another year or so. I think I saw one estimate.

Wayne Visser  29:21

And remember, the kind of COVID type disruption, earthquakes, volcanoes are a bit random, but COVID will most likely happen again. It still has a bit of course to run, but another type of infectious disease, we can expect those again. In fact, it’s linked to these risks we’ve been talking about because as we’ve wiped out nature, zoonotic diseases, which are these diseases that leap from animals to humans, also as we have this huge industrial agricultural system with livestock, the chances of, again, diseases going from animals to humans actually is going up. We can expect that kind of shock again. But all of the analysis that we’ve seen of climate change suggests that COVID is just a very mild dress rehearsal for what’s coming on climate change. The point is that we should be expecting to live in a world of disruption. We have to know how to cope with that, and how our economies can cope, how our organisations can cope, and personally, how we cope.

Gene Tunny  30:30

What will that disruption from climate change be, Wayne? What are your thoughts or what’s your expectation as to what we’ll see? You mentioned wildfires, and I guess flooding as well. We’ve just had some flooding here in Brisbane, where I am, on the east coast of Australia. Look, there’s a big debate. It seems to be it’s difficult to attribute any particular natural disaster or to say that that’s related to climate change. I’m not sure you can do that. But certainly, I understand that it could increase the risk of these things, so I accept that. What do you see as the potential future if we don’t stabilise the CO2 in the atmosphere?

Wayne Visser  31:28

You’re right, there’s weather, and there’s climate change, and weather changes. It’s hard to link individual weather events to climate change, although there is now a scientific centre that is doing exactly that through statistical analysis, showing the probability that this could have been just a normal weather event, without the climate driver. They can now very quickly, actually, on most events, give a rating as to whether this is likely to be climate related.

But essentially, what we’re going to look at is just more extremes, I think that’s one of the one of the mis-sellings of what was originally called global warming. People thought it’ll just get a little bit warmer, we’ll go to the beach a bit more. But actually, it is climate change. It’s more disruptive, because it’s hotter and it’s colder. The storms are more intense and more frequent. That’s for complicated reasons, largely that the oceans are warming up, which makes the weather more unstable. Just everything that used to be a very rare occurrence, like a massive storm or extended 10-year drought, will just become the new norm. Temperatures that we never used to see—Canada had its highest temperatures in the last 12 months—will again become the new norm.

This has impacts on all kinds of things. It has impacts on agriculture, of course, the food system, to survive those floods and droughts, but also the climate is moving. So if you’re in a particular area, and that’s no longer good for agriculture, because everything’s got warmer, then that becomes a problem. Tropical diseases will increase because we’re moving to a warmer world. So places that never had to deal with things like malaria or Dengue fever suddenly will be dealing with those. So there are health impacts. And also remember that for every degree, on average, warmer that it is, people are less productive. And there are statistics on that as well. You have economic losses as well, as the world gets warmer.

So lots of different impacts, but it’s all about the volatility and the extremes of climate and wheather our infrastructure and our organisations and even our homes are just ready for that. As I said, you know, only a third is insured of all the climate damage that we’re seeing year on year. So for two thirds of people, it’s not covered.

Gene Tunny  34:25

Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.

Female speaker  34:30

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Gene Tunny  34:59

Now back to the show. Wayne, I think what’s terrific, what you’ve done is really good with these six great transitions, I think you call them, so two in nature, two in society, and two in the economy. And if you hear that, then you’re thinking, oh, okay, there’s some big challenges that the world faces. How are these going to be addressed? It sounds like you’re relatively optimistic. To what extent will they be addressed by what’s happening with business, business transforming itself with innovation that’s occurring right now? And then how much needs to be addressed by government policy, or changes in the household that could be encouraged by government policy—changes in households and business? Could you take us through that, please, because just looking at that, those six great transitions, it looks like we need some sort of, I hate to say great reset, because that’s become such a controversial term and really triggers people, so I don’t want to say that. But could you take us through, how are we going to get through this, please?

Wayne Visser  36:19

I don’t think it’s wrong to call it a great reset. It’s become a political term. But it is of that scale. We really are looking at reinventing capitalism and going through another industrial revolution that’s very different. World Economic Forum calls it stakeholder capitalism. Now, that’s a huge shift from shareholder capitalism.

But maybe I’ll give you a little insight into another part of the book, which is to look at the underlying science, because the science tells us where the change is happening. There are six keys to thriving, which is an insight into how these complex systems change. One is complexity. This is all about how many relationships there are in any given system. And what we see is the world getting more and more complex. Of course, we’re getting more and more connected. Social media can help; sometimes it can hinder. But just in so many ways, the connections are increasing.

One of the solutions we start to see more and more, partnerships, so companies getting into partnerships with government, with NGOs, and even getting into partnership sometimes with competitors to change the landscape. When Unilever decided to go for 100% sustainable palm oil, which is a big problem in the world today, if they did it on their own it’s useless. They had to convince their competitors as well to do it. The other big ones like Nestle, for example, Procter and Gamble, and so they went through the Consumer Goods Forum, and they got everybody signed up. We’re seeing far more of those kinds of initiatives. It’s all about creating more and more connections.

Then the second one is coherence. This is about having really big goals to aim for. Now we’ve got the sustainable development goals, which are certainly helping, these 17 global goals that all the world’s countries have signed up to, that has created a common focus. But we also see coherence arising around specific issues. Like I mentioned, the 30% land and water protected by 2030, or on climate change, consensus really has emerged around a 1.5 degree warming target, not even two degrees anymore, and net zero by 2050. That’s just become the new norm that everybody is going for. We see this coherence start to emerge in different ways. Policy certainly helps here, because that’s what good policy does is it sets the destination, and then lets business innovate to get there. And we’re starting to see more and more of that good policy. If we look at the Green Deal in the European Union, it’s a great example of that.

Gene Tunny  39:18

Sorry, the Green Deal. I’ve heard of the Green New Deal in the US, but that’s not been implemented. There’s just some sort of wish list from AOC and people of that sort of persuasion, but you mentioned a Green Deal.

Wayne Visser  39:44

Yep. EU Green Deal. It’s effectively Europe’s strategy on climate change. It’s very, very comprehensive and very ambitious. And it touches everything. It’s got a Farm to Fork area which touches agriculture. It’s got a mobility area, around electrification of mobility. It’s got a circular economy element. It’s got a finance element. It’s a very, very strong policy. In some ways, America is trying to copy that with the New Green Deal. Yes, policy helps with the coherence piece.

Then you’ve got creativity, which we’ve talked about a little already. For things to change, for all living systems to change, they need innovation. And that happens through diversity. Again, there’s something we’re working very hard on, but we are living in an age of innovation, no doubt about it. In many of our most difficult problems, we are seeing some amazing solutions coming. If we just pick on one, for example, we know electric cars. I’ll leave that alone, but just remember that that is changing much faster than people think. Norway is burning fossil fuel cars by 2025. That’s just around the corner. In most other countries, UK, it’s 2030. Within 10 years, it’ll really be something to watch.

But take food, for example. There’s a whole movement of course around going more plant based. That makes sense from a health perspective, because 20% of mortality can be reduced just by going more plant based, but also from a climate perspective, and a biodiversity perspective, and of course an animal welfare perspective. But here we see innovation. You’ve seen the Beyond burger and the Impossible burger. These are really engineered to look and taste like the real thing. I know that may be a hard sell in in Australia, but on blind tests, actually, they’ve done extremely well.

Not only that, but we’ve got cultured meat coming. This is grown in labs meat, essentially grown fermented, grown in fat, like you do for insulin. And this is this is going to completely change everything, because again, you don’t have the input of land and water. You have much lower energy input, and you’re not killing anything. You’re literally just taking cells, live cells from a cow, for example, and you’re creating that. In Singapore, you can already go to a restaurant that sells cultured chicken. This is innovation happening very fast. Massive amount of investment going into this.

Gene Tunny  42:41

Sorry, by cultured chicken, do you mean lab grown, do you?

Wayne Visser  42:46

Yes, lab grown.

Gene Tunny 42:48

Wow.

Wayne Visser 42:48

That’s the popular—

Gene Tunny 42:49

In Singapore.

Wayne Visser 42:50

For everything, for steak, and you can literally grow it how you want to try, so lean or however you want it. It is real meat. It’s just that it’s grown from cells rather than the living cow that you have to slaughter or chicken you have to slaughter. And it’s very sustainable, not only in terms of those impacts, but literally, if I remember the numbers correctly, if you’ve got a factory that’s making this, every two days that meat replenishes itself. It grows back. You’ve just got this endless supply of meat that is growing much faster than a cow that you have to grow for months and months, or years. It’s just an example of innovation happening. That’s the creativity piece of the underlying science.

You’ve got a really interesting one, which is convergence. Convergence is very linked to innovation. It’s really the perfect storm. It’s when things reinforce one another. We call this in the science, positive feedback loops. And this is what creates tipping points. And here again, if you look at what’s happening, there are many of these positive reinforcing tipping points. When you were asking do we need more policy, do we need more market forces, what do we need, this is where we’re seeing the convergence because in fact, what we’ve got are the breakthrough technologies, which are starting to scale, plus the policy, which has really been a huge amount of policy reform in the last five years. We’ve just had the UN agree, for example, now to also create a plastics treaty globally, similar to the climate treaty, which countries will need to sign up to. That will happen by 2024. A lot happening on the policy front. Plus the market forces are kicking in. The likes of a Tesla or an Ørsted, which many people don’t know the name, but used to be a fossil fuel company in Denmark, completely transformed to a renewable company and now is one of the largest offshore wind companies in the world. We’re seeing this kind of transformation really happening very quickly.

And then, in addition to that, so we’ve got the policy force, we’ve got the technology force, we’ve got the market force, and then you’ve got the social movements that are kicking in. This is whether it’s the climate strike movement, or the Black Lives Matter movement, or the Me Too movement, or the extinction rebellion, these are very, very significant, with millions and millions of people, especially younger generations of people, who are just starting to say, “We want a different world. We don’t want our future sold out.” All of these are reinforcing one another.

And if I throw in one last one, finally, finances come on board, coming out of the Glasgow climate agreement. From November last year, there was something called the GFANZ. It’s now the Global Financial Alliance. This is $130 trillion of assets under management that is lined up now from the 450 largest financial institutions in the world, top 10 banks in Europe, top 10 banks in America, all committed now to fund this transition to net zero carbon. Now, practically what that means is they have to go back now to their corporate clients and say, “Show me your plan to get to net zero not only by 2050, but how you’re going to halve your emissions by 2030.” It starts to put massive pressure right through the value chain. All of these things are reinforcing one another, which is why the change is speeding up and why I think on many of these issues, we’re getting to these positive tipping points.

Gene Tunny  47:03

You’ve got a lot of great examples in your book. I would recommend, if you’re listening in the audience, and this sounds interesting, then yeah, please, you should get a copy of the of the book. There’s lots of great examples in there.

I wanted to go back. You mentioned palm oil. That’s something of great interest to me. I’ve done a little bit of work with Indonesian ministries, and palm oils are a major commodity in Indonesia. And if you go to, I think it’s in Bogor, just south of Jakarta, if I remember correctly, there’s a botanic gardens near the presidential palace, and there’s an extraordinary thing. There’s a monument or a statue or a tribute to a palm oil tree I think it is, because it’s such an important crop in Indonesia. I think it was first they imported it to Indonesia from elsewhere in the world, maybe from Africa. I can’t remember correctly. But they tested it in Indonesia, in that the gardens there. There’s a large amount of deforestation, I think in Borneo, due to it. But you mentioned Unilever is now committed to, is it renewable palm oil? Is that right? Is that having a practical impact on deforestation?

Wayne Visser  48:35

Yeah. A couple of things happening there. And you’re absolutely right, I think Indonesia maybe supplies 60 or 70% of the world’s palm oil, along with Malaysia, which provides another 20 or so. It has been absolutely devastating for forests. Indonesia has the third of the world’s largest tropical forests, and that’s really under threat. So we’re destroying these lungs of the earth for commercial interests, because the demand is there. And often the demand is from us in the West, isn’t it, the rich countries, because palm oil is in one in 10 products that we buy, everything from detergents to food. It’s very, very useful.

Yes, quite some time ago now, they set up something called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. This has a way of growing palm that doesn’t have the impact that the old commercial approach does, and doesn’t have the deforestation but also the biodiversity impact. Companies can get certified and supply chains can be certified to that RSPO standard. All the big players are on board, whether it’s Nestle or Unilever or Procter and Gamble. They’ve all committed to go 100% to that. It takes a bit of time, but there are large parts of the sector that are still not committed to that, and so it’s a partial solution right now.

But again, here you start to see the value of policy. Part of the EU Green Deal, one of the most recent things they’ve done in the last few weeks, they have a law being drafted now that they will refuse any export or import of commodities, of which palm oil is one, that can’t prove that they haven’t caused deforestation. The onus is on the supplier. If you’re Indonesia, and you can’t prove that this is palm oil that’s deforestation-free, you’ve just lost Europe as a market. This is going to have huge impacts. It’s not just palm oil, it’s coffee, it’s tea, it’s timber, and several others. This is how change really happens.

Gene Tunny  50:58

Yeah. One of the technologies you talk about in the book is blockchain. Can blockchain help us with traceability, with understanding the origins of or the history of the products that we consume?

Wayne Visser  51:16

Yes, blockchain has massive potential, and is one of those ones, it’s an early stage technology, which still has unfortunate unintended consequences. The upside is traceability. And there are companies using that, to show the sustainability of supply chains. A company called Provenance in the UK is a good example. They track and trace a whole value chain for fish or for gold, and they can show, in a very secure way, every step of that process. Another example is a company called Circularise that does this for plastics and can track all the… They actually even use artificial DNA, which they put into the plastic so that just by scanning it, you can tell at every stage of the supply chain, exactly what is in that plastic and how it needs to be recycled. That’s the upside.

The downside is the blockchain, like cryptocurrencies, takes massive amounts of energy. Until we can solve the energy problem—it helps of course if it’s 100% renewable energy—but so long as it’s largely fossil fuel energy, it’s just adding to the problem of climate change.

Gene Tunny  52:34

I’ll have to look up artificial DNA. I wasn’t aware of that. That sounds fascinating. I’ll put a link about artificial DNA in the show notes. Okay. Before we wrap up, Wayne, I want to ask you about a passage in your book. Now, you talk about economics. This is an economic show. I need to ask about this passage, because I’m not sure I entirely agree with it, but that’s fine. Look, I’m trying to be open-minded on this show.

You write that, “Contemporary economics is degenerative. It systematically disregards ecological limits and fails to ensure that fundamental human needs are met. Economy is good at creating jobs, product services and technologies, but what is the quality of these outputs? Do they create more harm than good? The impacts of economic activity are explained away as negative externalities, as if environmental integrity and social justice exist in some realm outside of the economy, but that is not true. Everything is interconnected.”

Look, I agree everything’s interconnected. My view is you’re probably being a bit unfair on economists. I think contemporary economics is trying to embrace the environment more. There’s a discipline of environmental economics, as I’m sure you’re aware, and even ecological economics, although that’s really sort of a minor discipline. My view would be that economists are increasingly conscious of these issues. I think externalities is an incredibly powerful concept. And it can help us think about potential policy solutions. My concern is that we’re not going to be able to get to net zero globally, because to do so you really need some sort of carbon tax. You need a carbon price of some kind. But to do that properly, you need to have that agreed internationally and you have to have it applying internationally, to the same extent. I just think that we’re just not going to get that international cooperation to be able to do that by 2050. I’m a bit pessimistic on that.

I just wanted to note that, that as an economist I probably… That was the one thing in the book I really reacted to. I’m not negative about the book because of that. But I just wanted to get an understanding of where you’re coming from there. Do you really think contemporary economics is really that bad?

Wayne Visser  55:19

Let me start by saying that I’m not anti-economics, I did a major in economics in my business degree. And I studied environmental, ecological and resource economics in my master’s degree. Economics is a tool that we use to better understand the world and to help manage our economies.

What I think we have to look at is what kind of economics system we’ve had, and what kind of behaviour it’s promoted. Certainly, since the neoliberal economics really took off, since the 1970s, and alongside that, the push for deregulation, it’s been a disaster for the environment. There’s just no other way to say that. It has externalised a lot of the costs. It’s gone for production in places where the environmental standards are the worst, where the social standards of the worst, labour standards are the worst. It has resulted in modern day slavery. We have more people in slavery today than we had when it was officially abolished in the 1700s. That’s all kinds of forced labour. It really hasn’t managed to create a system that is consistently good for all people and for the planet on which we depend. That’s the issue. It’s created an economy that is linear, that take make waste economy, where many of the resources are simply not priced right, they’re just too cheap. If you look at Virgin plastic, for example, it’s just too cheap. It doesn’t take into account those social and environmental costs that we have.

I do think the concept of externalities can be effectively applied to remedy some of this. If we do have taxes on carbon, for example, or on poor social labour standards, this can certainly start to rectify that. But we just have to ask whether those are strong enough.

I actually do believe that we will get a carbon price. It may not emerge as one global price, but I think it’s emerging in different places all around the world, lots of emission trading schemes popping up, lots of companies providing their own internal carbon pricing. I think a consensus will start to emerge on what that price is, and governments will start to impose it in different ways. They have to, because they can’t get to their net zero targets without imposing that restriction on companies and on citizens. It’s definitely coming.

Of course, we don’t get to net zero only by changing production. We also need to invest in nature. That’s the way that you also can draw down some of the carbon to make up… It’s a kind of a Pareto rule, like 80% you need to reduce directly from your lifestyle or your operations or your value chain, and then the remaining 20—or some say it needs to be more like 10%—should be in actually restoring nature, which makes up the balance.

I think all of those things are happening and will happen. I do think there is a brand of economics or a new understanding of economics that can get us there. If you look at Doughnut Economics, which you’re probably familiar with, Kate Raworth and her book, I think that’s the best coherently argued alternative to what would be more conventional economic thinking. All it’s really doing is saying, how do we better build and the ecological limits, or what we sometimes call the scientific planetary boundaries beyond which the whole system is in danger of collapse, and how do we build in those social foundations, the minimum requirements that people need. Economics has been dabbling with those things, but just hasn’t been very effective if you look at some of these trends we’ve been talking about. It’s just how do we improve economics and have a new version that is more effective than we have at the moment.

Gene Tunny  1:00:09

Wayne, you’ve written a really fascinating book with lots of great examples of what business and what communities around the world are doing to try to tackle these challenges to improve sustainability. Is there anything you’d like to say to wrap up, to conclude? This has been a great conversation, and we’ve gone over a lot. I could talk to you for another few hours, but we’ll probably have to wrap up for now. Is there anything you’d like to say in conclusion?

Wayne Visser  1:00:46

Yeah, let me just mention two things, and then I’ll have a cheeky suggestion. One is that there is a chapter on the book specifically on business and how business needs to integrate thriving, the practicalities of how they do that, and there’s six steps to that. That’s based on work that I do with companies, big companies like Johnson and Johnson, where we take them through these steps of integrating. It touches on all kinds of things, on how you consult with stakeholders, how you relook at your values, how you relook at your strategic goals, how you build in new and different metrics, how you redesign your portfolio of products and services. Just be aware that there is, if you’re coming from the business world there, besides all the innovation examples, there’s also this very practical, how do I do this on Monday morning.

There’s a chapter on leadership, because that is really crucial. We are seeing a different brand or a different type of leadership emerging, that is able to tackle these big challenges and turn them into breakthroughs and into thriving. I look at the different characteristics that those leaders have, obviously, with lots of examples.

The cheeky suggestion to end with—I’ve started to do this even in keynote speeches—is to end with a poem, since as you mentioned, I’m not only a professor, but a poet. I just find that it taps into a different part of the brain. With your indulgence, I might just end with one of those.

Gene Tunny  1:02:19

Please. Thank you.

Wayne Visser 1:02:21

I’ll do the one which actually opens the book. It is a poem called Thriving. It even has a stanza that is really all about markets and economics, so you should like it. But see what you think of this. Thriving.

Our life is so much more than a duty or a chore of merely getting by without a why or what for, the law of tooth and claw, the struggle to exist, to rally and resist against life’s slow decay, the way of entropy of living just to see another day, to stay, to endure and survive. No. Life is meant to thrive. In nature, all things grow from seed to tree. We know the cycle of living through giving of reap and so, the flow. Things come and go. The cycles of grooming from sprouting to blooming of stretching for the light, the bright palette of hope, the diverse ways to cope, to cherish and flourish, bursting forth and alive, for nature means to thrive. Society lives too. A melting pot we brew from cultures and crises with spices for flavour and kindness to savour, ideas for conceiving and goals for achieving, that stretch us and bind us, that find us together in all kinds of weather, wanting what’s fair, to care, longing to love and strive for society to thrive. The markets live and breathe in complex webs we weave. The synapses of trade have made the things we need, each deed a chance to lead. While tech is getting smart, yet still it needs a heart, a compass as a guide to tide us through the storm and find a better norm. A breakthrough to renew an innovation drive. Yes, markets too can thrive. All life is meant to rise, to reach up for the skies, to move beyond the edge, to fledge with hopeful cries. Life tries until it flies. It shakes and spreads its wings and trills each note it sings. While given time and space, the race of life is run, full powered by the sun, on land, in seeds, like bees’ sweet nectar from the hive. All life is made to thrive.

Gene Tunny  1:04:57

Very good. Excellent. Professor Wayne Visser, this has been terrific. I really enjoyed our conversation and your poem at the end and fully agree. All life and society and nature and markets are meant to thrive. What a great message to the end on. I’ll put links to all your social media and your website for the book in the show notes. This has been terrific. I really, really value your time and your thoughts and all the great insights in your book. Well done and thanks so much. Hopefully I’ll look forward to your future work. I’d really look forward to chatting with you in the future. That’s been great, learned so much. Thanks again, Wayne.

Wayne Visser  1:05:54

Thanks so much for having me on. Of course, I’m always happy to find an excuse to visit you down under. I used to teach also in Melbourne, and love it down there. I look forward to those opportunities. Just also to say for people, there are different ways to access the book, so not only e-book and hardback, but also an audiobook version, so whatever takes your fancy. Delighted actually that it’s already hit Amazon bestseller status, so really looking forward—

Gene Tunny 1:06:33

Wow.

Wayne Visser 1:06:34

That’s in its first week, and number one on the new titles in various categories, including several economics categories. I’m delighted with that. Just thanks very much for having me on. I love the conversation and I hope your listeners do too.

Gene Tunny  1:06:51

Oh, very good. I’m sure they will. Thank you, Wayne. Really enjoyed it.

Wayne Visser  1:06:55

Thanks a lot. Bye now.

Gene Tunny  1:06:57 Okay, that’s the end of this episode of Economics Explored. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, please tell your family and friends and leave a comment or give us a rating on your podcast app. If you have any comments, questions, suggestions, you can feel free to send them to contact@economicsexplored.com and we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Until next week, goodbye.

Credits

Big thanks to my guest Dr Wayne Visser and to the show’s audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing the episode. 

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored. Economics Explored is available via Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

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