CoViD 19 as Our Crystal Ball

The future is already here, it is just not evenly distributed

Bewildered climate activists flood my feed.

The essential question is ‘Why CoViD19 and not Global Heating?’

The response we have seen over the last months and weeks is the sort of response we have been waiting for since the turn of the millennium.

This article contends that while it is important to understand the difference in the responses, it is even more useful to examine those responses to learn the lessons required to build the post-growth world.

Personal, immediate and real

The fundamental difference, apparent in all the language used by all authorities, is that the threat from SARS-CoV-2 is immediate and it is personal. ‘If we don’t do this, you will die.’

The images of Italians and New Yorkers waiting for Intensive Care provides compelling evidence. ‘That could be me.’ There is no doubt of the risk. Global heating, by comparison, will harm us all at some point in the future. It is easy to ignore.

The other, critically important, difference is that there is a well-funded climate-denialist lobby, actively undermining any policy or action addressing greenhouse gas emissions. Their efforts, the media they control and the toxicity they inject into the debate are systematically documented by Naomi Klein in her 2014 book, This Changes Everything as well as many other places.

The absence of that truth denying lobby in this pandemic allows us to analyse government, community and individual responses to the pandemic without doubting the self-evident facts. In fact it provides a controlled experiment in which different national responses adjust individual variables providing a rich field for exploration.

We are all selfish

Young people did not physically distance as soon as lock downs were decreed: they went out and partied, invited friends over and generally behaved as if they are invincible. As you do.

Despite admonitions not to, many people hoarded. Some had experienced shortages in wars, some only survive by their wits and some are simply greedy. We do not want to queue for food, go hungry or pay extorted prices to others who are faster to act than we are.

Anaesthetist Erich Schulz recently told me, “hundreds of people struggle to make sacrifices that will save their lives. They should eat less, drink less, exercise more, but they cannot give up the immediate gratification of their current lifestyle, even though it is a matter of life or death. We cannot change people’s behaviour by telling them what is good for them, let alone what is good for everybody else.”

Environmental movements have failed to sweep progressive politics partly because they often sit uncomfortably with social justice movements. The environment is perceived as a concern of the affluent. This pandemic has brought home the reality that we all respond to Maslo’s hierarchy of needs, we feed and shelter our family before we look out for the neighbours or build community. Apply your own oxygen mask first.

In building a sustainable, post-growth future, we first have to build community, the framework to support the change in our behaviour. We cannot dictate what others do, we must invite them to join us in the thriving and sustainable future that we create.

Lives versus money

Because the CoViD-19 disease has an obvious impact, offers no immediate profit and has arrived so fast, governments have acted on behalf of their citizens rather than the interests of capital.

The few outliers calling the “cure worse than the disease” or saying, “I would rather die than harm the … economy” have gradually morphed into the more gentle assertion that “harming the economy will kill more people than the disease.”

This goes to the heart of our standard left/right political divide. It is not a trivial argument.

We have enjoyed seventy years of affluence beyond the wildest dreams of earlier epochs. We travel in smooth, fast chariots without making personal effort. We whisper into or wave our hands over polished rocks that transfer our thoughts instantaneously to the other side of the world.

This affluence has been brought about by scientific ingenuity, plentiful cheap energy, the resulting exponential population growth and the extraction of irreplaceable resources. Capitalism has facilitated this affluence and is dependent on the continuous growth and extractive practices.

 ‘The economy’ is simply the mechanism for tracking and the measuring commercial activity, it is not in itself an entity that requires nurturing. That fiction has been actively promoted by the owners of joint-stock companies over centuries who use ‘the economy’ as the means to control governments and so extract wealth from our individual activity. It is the worship of money that is the root of all evil, not money itself.

CoViD 19 has shifted the debate from whether we should reduce activity, to how we manage that enforced reduction and its impact on the population at large.

The role of the state

Part of the emerging libertarian pushback is on grounds of personal rather than economic freedom. Laws preventing gatherings may ensure public safety in a pandemic but sacrifice hard won freedoms that governments may be reluctant to relinquish.

This can be subtle. We willingly give up cash to use the more hygienic digital equivalent, even though centralised money systems can be abused. The fictional example of Handmaids Tale reflects the actual, recent experience in Greece. Digital money can be reassigned at the press of a button.

Conservative governments have gone out of their way to apologise to business and industry for the loss of profit caused by governing in the interests of public safety.

The important thing to remember is that we call on the state to support us when the situation gets beyond our capacity to manage. If the neighbour’s party turns into a riot, we call the police; when a woman collapsed outside my apartment yesterday, I called an ambulance.

When the Black Plague swept through Europe in the 14th Century killing over 30% of the population, people blamed God, prayed for deliverance and went to their deaths assuming that He had forsaken (or sacrificed) them. By comparison, in response to the cholera plagues of the 1850s, citizens turned to governments to build better sanitation and water supply and provide compensation and regulation.

We acknowledge and recognise the apparatus in which we place our faith by supporting it with our loyalty, our cash and our compliance. The neo-liberal project has undermined our faith in government and replaced it with faith in the market. The CoViD 19 crisis exposes the falseness of that proposition. It is an echo of the City’s assumption of control over New York fire brigades in the late nineteenth century to prevent disasters caused by in-fighting between insurance companies.

Nuance is difficult – Science is hard

We have watched governments blunder and stumble in their interpretation of the science and converting it to policy. But the messaging, science and policy have gradually converged to make cogent sense.

A clear example has been the concept of ‘flattening the curve’ and its more nuanced partner, ‘bending the curve’.

On 20th March, Tomas Pueyo published in an article entitled the Hammer and the Dance analysing in detail the actions taken by various governments and the corresponding infection and mortality rates.

His article is dense and not easy to explain in a three minute news story.

Over the subsequent week, though, hand worked examples of exponential growth appeared on free to air television, the rhetoric of ‘flattening the curve’ was used to explain the need to manage demand for a limited resources, such as intensive care beds and then, finally, the rhetorical device of ‘bending the curve’ explained the difference between an exponent of more or less than one.

This week governments are struggling with the messaging for the reality that until there is a vaccine, we remain locked down or wait until about 70% of the population gains immunity through infection.

The absence of people actively funding ‘anti-science’ has allowed a widespread dissemination of information and the creation of knowledge and intelligence to understand and accept challenging policy that requires personal sacrifice.

Toilet paper, sanitizer and spaghetti

The items we have hoarded during the CoViD 19 pandemic reveal systemic flaws that we must address in the larger project of building the post-growth future.

We cannot easily direct people to use squares of newspaper instead of super soft, double ply toilet tissue because the modern sewer is not equipped to handle squares of toilet paper, no matter how vigorously they have been softened by the sitter. Hand sanitiser is more convenient than soap and water, our love of meat means we no longer obtain the bulk of our protein from pulses as was traditionally the case.

When we outline the technological solutions to greenhouse gas pollution and biodiversity, we have to take these dependencies into account.

Hubs of production

Cat Green is a PhD student researching food sovereignty. She contributed a chapter called the
Radical Homemaker to a book on Fair Food. Part of her radical homemaking manifesto is that our
homes have been constructed as nodes of consumption and that we need to transform them into
hubs of production.
We buy stuff and consume it at home, alienating ourselves by consuming alone. If we make stuff to
share, then we put ourselves at the centre, or hub, of the network instead of at the edge. Our lives
are filled with people and those people get something tangible from us that builds a relationship.
By engaging friends and neighbours in shelling the pigeon peas we grow on the spare block next
door, we build community in ways that have worked for thousands of centuries. That community
supports us in the present as well as the future. That network makes us resilient and helps us thrive
instead of simply survive.
Of course, the choices we make as a consumer can contribute to long term sustainability but we
would have to buy a lot of hand-made soap to influence the footprint of soap manufacturing. By
contrast, making the soap for other people spreads the word, increases the volume of hand-made
soap and encourages soap-manufacturers to respond to the market.

Creating the future

This pandemic is just the most recent disaster. While we are battling it, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is undergoing its fourth major bleaching event in a decade. Bushfires that denuded the landscape of every living thing were still burning in late January. There will be other disasters in the future, probably before we emerge from the pandemic.

Governments are already saying they will ‘take off the brakes’ on ‘the economy’ to ‘get back to normal’ when we get ‘to the other side’. To maintain control of the agenda, we will have to build on the lessons  outlined in this article.

There will be fertile ground. Regional manufacturing is re-emerging a couple of weeks into the shutdown, local economies are forming, people are rediscovering the joys of games, reading, learning, playing music and singing together.

We must support and nurture resilient communities to thrive in a post-growth era and we have a golden opportunity to establish those communities. We must also wrest control of our governing structures from the mega-wealthy who own the capital that controls the systems that, until last month, dominated government policy. That is the larger task, but at least this crisis has offered us a window into what is possible when our governments take control.

The future is already here and, this time, it is widely distributed

EcoRadio discusses deGrowth

Geoff Ebbs hosted EcoRadio on 4ZZZ yesterday, 26th Feb and took the opportunity to discuss the Circular Economy and an end to growth.

One of the items he put to air was an interview he had earlier recorded with Dick Smith. “… we know that we cannot continue to grow on a finite planet, but capitalism depends on growth, so it might all go bust. We might not be here to see the future, I’m sure some cockroach will be here and ready to start evolving again, but I am optimistic. I am a capitalist and I hope that some wonderful genius will come along and save us from ourselves.”

Dick Smith, the dare devil
Dick Smith campaigned against endless growth

Yes Dick reflects the dilemma we face as a civilisation. Interestingly, he knows more than most of us about the challenges of ending growth. He ran Australian Geographic as a xero-growth company for eight years. Listen to the last three minutes of the interview to hear him discuss that.

Save the Wilderness: Synthesise everything

Two contrasting views of our relationship with nature emerged at last night’s Circular Economy Meetup at the Precinct in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley.

Founder of GreenKPI, Johanna Kloot, painted a picture of the circular economy as recognising that all our resources come from the land, “everything you have eaten, worn or used today is a product of the environment. The economy is simply the conduit that carried that resource to you.”

Professor Rob Speight
Professor Speight chatting after the Circular Economy meetup

Professor of Microbial Technology at QUT, Rob Speight, outlined the production of synthetic leathers, meats and fibres using genetically engineered microbes as a means we might employ to take the pressure off agriculture and reduce its enormous contribution to global warming and the ensuing climate chaos.

He described a synthetic hamburger that bleeds, ensuring a genuine taste experience thanks to genetically modified yeast that can produce heme, the haemoglobin component that gives blood, and therefore meat, its unique quality that plant based patties do not provide.

Professor Speight conducts research into dissolving natural fibres so that we might recover the valuable plastics in mixed fibre clothing. 95% of the world’s textiles involve a mixture of cotton an polyester (wool polyester blends make up around 1%) but it cannot easily be recycled using existing technologies because the cotton and polyester fibres are intricately woven together. Using digestive enzymes the team at QUT can remove the natural fibres allowing the polyester to be recovered for remanufacture.

He began his research journey investigating the problem of removing dags from cattle before slaughter. He said that feedlot cattle carry around 40kilograms of manure, dirt and urine caked into their hair which has set like concrete and requires up to ten hours of high pressure washing to remove before the animal can be cleanly slaughtered. The QUT research into digestive enzymes allows the cow to be shampooed so that the dags can be removed much more quickly. “We don’t want the solution to be too strong, no-one wants a bald cow,” he quipped.

Some members of the audience wondered if simply transitioning from red meat or, at least from red-meat produced in feedlots, might not be an easier solution, preferring Johanna Kloot’s approach of learning to live in harmony with nature.

Professor Speight noted that red meat earns around 20% of the Queensland economy putting it in a similar category to coal, and environmental disaster on which we rely for our comfortable lifestyles.

Great Notions asked both speakers to consider a future in which synthetic production of food, fibres and other materials allowed us to restore some of the biodiversity and reverse the damage done by the industrial harming of animals and land. “Might we save the environment by replacing agriculture with a test tube?”

Johanna Kloot responded with the observation that living in harmony with nature has been the sustainable practice of the oldest living civilisation that has existing on the Australian continent for thousands of generations. “The solution is in harmony and respect, rather than control.”

Professor Speight observed that we need to temper the temptation to synthesise everything for two reasons. First, “nature provides unique and complex experiences, such as steak, that we cannot and should not even try to replicate” whereas a hamburger uses meat that has been minced beyond recognition and is more environmentally and economically sound to synthesise. Secondly, he noted that “we do not understand genes well enough to actually synthesise complex lifeforms. It is very arrogant of humans to think that we can engineer life. We can engineer yeast and algae to create useful fuels and simple materials but the only life form we have completely mapped is a virus with about twenty genes. We really know very little.”

Host Yasmin Grigaliunas observed a number of times throughout the discussion, “hashtag itscomplicated. Once again, we see that this is a very complex topic and there are no simple solutions.”


Abundance thinking switches on social enterprise

Visiting professor Jay Friedlander brought his abundance approach to social enterprise at CQ University in Brisbane last night, Monday November 4th. Hosted by Dr Tobias Andreasson of CQU and Emma-Kate Rose of QSEC, Professor Friedlander outlined his Cycle of Abundance and the Social Enterprise bootcamp that he runs.

“Many approaches to sustainability have focused on using less, doing without … we have adopted the scarcity model of the economists,” he told 30 social entrepreneurs, gathered to discover how his institute in Maine, USA helps start up founders bridge the business gap.

The College of the Atlantic is a tiny campus, nestled into an island in the far north east corner of the United States, which takes 350 students through a Masters of Human Ecology using a hands on learning approach in which they build a social enterprise as part of their education. The system uses variations on a business model canvas which replaces waste with a category of goods known as “unsold production”. He described these subtle shifts in thinking as the basis of promoting a new approach to business.

He described the intensive MBA 101 as a key component in taking the visionary, passionate founders through the process of understanding the basic building blocks of a business. They all start off pursuing their passion then at some point they realise, Oh My Goodness, I am now running an enterprise and I don’t know the first thing about management and systems.

“We found that process to be so transformational that we decided to take it off campus and run it as a three day boot camp.” The boot camps have run in 19 US states and various Australian organisations are looking at adopting them here.

Professor Friedlander with Emma-Kate Rose and Dr Andreasson
Jay Friedlander, Emma-Kate Rose and Tobias Andreasson at CQU

In response to questions from the floor, he said that while each sustainable enterprise can only shift the world a little, it is the network of social enterprises that will build a model for the future and the mutual support will help the sector scale.

He noted that operating at scale can lead entrepreneurs to focus on growth instead of their vision but he pointed out that it is critical. “For example, after fifteen years in building and promoting organic fast food in the US we are still less than one percent of the market. If the 99% of commerce heed over the cliff, we are going with them. We need to scale up massively, to make a difference.”

Young female entrepreneurs seek roadmap

I had the honour and privilege of meeting a dozen young women interested in business with purpose at the QUT Foundry last week. Organised by HerHub, the event was billed as “Beyond the circular economy” and promised to navigate the Circular Economy, the Performance Economy, the Sharing Economy and other terms that confront and confuse people who want to do more than make a quick buck.

One of the reasons for this particular framing is that the Circular Economy is getting a bit of press recently. State Governments, including Queensland and Victoria have announced plans to transition to a circular economy, the Queensland Chief Entrepreneur has been travelling the state promoting it and presented the state’s emerging Circular Economy Lab at the recent Circular Economy Conference in Finland.

With the emphasis in most circular economy discussions clearly on waste reduction and resource efficiency, significant concern has been raised by serious thinkers about the “wicked problems” of climate chaos, economic growth, population growth, global equity and social justice. None of these problems are necessarily addressed, let alone solved, by the more efficient use of finite resources.

To unpack this knotty field of enquiry and explain the various Economies, post-growth, de-growth, social enterprise, profit for purpose, philanthropy, charity and BCorp I set out to build a map of the landscape by creating some broad divisions starting with the difference between the profit and the non-profit sector.

Identifying antecedents

Traditionally, business has been for profit and government and chanty have not. The government provides schools, hospitals, the police and utility services such as water while charities did good work of supporting people who were left behind by the business of business. The way that industry coding systems such as the Australian Tax Office Business Industry Codes (ATO BIC) and the Australia and New Zealand Standard Industrial Classification (ANZIC) work reflects this, with very high level codes for activities such as Charity and Government that put them on a par with Manufacturing, Agriculture or Mining.

The inherent assumption here is important: the accumulation of wealth is different to the provision of services for the public good. This contrast is consistent with the traditional left, right divide of politics: you are either focused on doing good or on making money.

The economic and political history of the last fifty years has blurred this simple separation. That blurring comes from many sources.

Dispossessed groups, such as First Nation people, have long analysed charity as enshrining a power imbalance in which the powerful assist the powerless to a limited extent on the understanding that they do not attempt to tackle the underlying power structure. This can be summarised in the phrase “a hand up, not a hand out”.

That battle to create independent funding and so escape the tyranny of the purse strings has become important in a range of sectors that have suffered funding cuts as governments have begun to withhold funding from groups that tackle their agenda. At a global level this is evident in the US government’s refusal to fund any international aid agency that supports abortion. John Howard tied school funding to the flying of the Australian flag and throughout the noughties and teens conservative governments have closed funding of environmental groups, and those fighting for the rights of women, queers and refugees.

When the Australian Climate Council was defunded by the Abbott Government in 2013 it turned to crowdfunding to keep the door open, forcing both the government and the activist sector to become more sophisticated in funding and regulation campaigns and activism designed to achieve social and environmental outcomes.

This is an extension of the much longer term project to measure all social activity in dollar terms. The public accounting of welfare agencies and support services played into the hands of large charity providers who could afford the administration staff to meet the reporting requirements and thus had the infrastructure to support small delivery services. This consolidation of the community service sector led to the acceptance that there was a relationship between funding and outcomes, that outcomes cost money and created a measurable value.

The reason for identifying these different historical reasons for relating the impact of outcomes to the cost of achieving them is to understand the different threads that have informed the growth of what we now call social enterprise and impact investment. There is a blend of the desire for independence, recognition of value, justification of activity and alignment of value.

Australia’s National Disability Insurance Scheme is a world-leading experiment that was initiated by a 2011 Productivity Commission inquiry that determined it was more productive for the entire economy to harness the energy and creativity of the disabled by integrating them into the workforce than it is to exclude them by providing them with welfare. As a result, we have launched a scheme in which the disabled are treated as clients that select the services they need to achieve the outcomes they want in a transactional relationship with service providers. The logic is that this will empower those clients to be agents of their own destiny and thereby contribute more to society at lower cost than if they are simply supported to survive.

One outcome of this is that services providers have had to evolve the administrative and customer service activities to support those transactions instead of simply applying for large chunks of block funding. Discussing this on ABC Radio Vision Australia’s manager for government relations, Chris Edwards, said that the service has gone from managing seven block funding grants to over 30,000 individual subscribers and had major teething problems in establishing commercial communications with its vision impaired audience.

And so, to terms

Given the landscape, then, it is a little easier to place the various terms upon it.

Social enterprise has gone through a number of iterations, commencing in the mid-nineties as a response to the economic rationalist agenda that community services should be able to justify the expense of operating the services they provided. Some parts of the sector began to explore entrepreneurial alternatives to grants as a form of funding their activities. By adding elements of enterprise to their service they could explore alternative means of accounting for that value.

It now contains a mix of community services who seek funding from transactions with their clients, enterprises that are fundamentally created to support a community or create a social, environmental or cultural impact and enterprises that can claim to achieve some impact even if that is as simple as a foundation created to support a small number of disabled people, or an enterprise created to provide employment for a marginalised group in one location.

The key point about social enterprise is that its proponents attempt to merge a social benefit with some form of enterprise. The general rule of thumb is that at least 50% of the total turnover of the organisation should come from enterprise. It is much harder to measure the impact of that activity but it is generally held that the impact should be the primary purpose and that the organistion should be able to point to its theory of change and demonstrate how its actual activities work toward achieving that change.

Complementing social enterprise are impact investors, who are prepared to invest in activities that have a positive social, cultural or environmental impact even if it means a somewhat smaller return on investment. Impact investors are not specifically concerned with investing in social enterprise, they may support research into a product designed to solve an issue on a totally philanthropic basis. Generally, they are led by wealthy people who know how to build wealth and so there is often a net growth in the value of their investment despite the fact that its primary purpose may not be financial. Globally, that model is led by philanthropic organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. A range of groups who suggest that putting money into traditional charities is an ineffective way to address global problems use the term impact investment to explain their strategy.

The Australian Federal Government is currently putting together an Impact Investment Working Group, charged with developing a policy for supporting impact investors and freeing them from some traditional restrictions imposed by the corporations law.

Impact investors are generally patient investors. That term is applied to anyone who is prepared to forgo a short term return on investment for some reason. That reason may or may not be related to the impact of the investment, for example it might be for higher long term gains. It is generally true, however, that the primary reason for patience in an investor will include some non-financial outcome, which is probably aligned with the values of the investor.

Social trade is a term used to describe social enterprise which explicitly infers a transactional basis that is arguably implicit in the term social enterprise. Social traders Australia is a body designed to promote social trade that has very specific entry criteria. These are a rigorous expression of the criteria described under the social enterprise heading and social traders may generally be described as social enterprises.

Profit for purpose organisations are very similar with the notable absence of any restrictions on the purpose. The term is largely used to impress investors who, on the whole, are more comfortable with organisations focused on profit, than on organisations focused on creating an impact. The lines between profit for purpose companies and social enterprises are somewhat blurry as a result but tend to be more commercially oriented and seek a higher profile through marketing and participation in government funded programs.

The sharing economy can be used as a term to describe activities that tend not to be commercial, but allow its participants to benefit by trading unwanted or spare goods with others and so reduce their expenditure and consumption. Such activities might be driven by either outcome (impact), and might also involve a financial transaction despite being driven by the desire to build community, reduce consumption or waste rather than to raise a profit. Peer to peer organisations like AirBnB and Uber are often described as being in the sharing economy, the notable difference is that the enabling platform is owned by a corporation that is building wealth for its shareholders not the members of the community.

The gifting economy is a different term, often used to describe transactions in situations where money does not exist, but which overlaps significantly with the sharing economy and which excludes corporate ownership of the platform that facilitates the service.

The circular economy is not a subset of this landscape, it is a different way to approach the problem.

The simplest way to describe the circular economy is to contrast it with the linear economy of extraction, manufacturing, consumption and waste. One example of the linear economy is that we catch rainfall in the mountains using a dam, we pipe it into a city, and then pump our sewage out into the ocean. Another is that we dig up a resource, like coal, we burn it to produce heat or energy in the form of electricity and release the carbon dioxide, pollutants and waste products into the environment. One does not have to think terribly hard about the consequences of the linear economy with a growing population on a finite planet to realise the value in considering ways to make it more circular in nature.

The classic metaphor for a circular economy is the ecosystem of something like a rainforest, in which all resources are re-used, there is no waste, and one organism’s output is another organism’s food. Commercial examples are mining the waste stream through re-use of products, or full corporate responsibility for a product from manufacture to remanufacture. Many white goods companies in Germany, for example, re-use the bodies of their appliances to deliver new models, rather than allowing the customer to throw them out.

A close examination of the circular economy reveals that some activities are more efficient than others. Re-use of a manufactured part is orders of magnitude more efficient than recycling, ofr example, and so many models of the circular economy involve concentric loops with the “inner circle” being the most efficient. The so-called performance economy promotes the ongoing ownership of the product by the manufacturer, leading to the re-definition of the product as a service. Powerful as the resulting Functional Service Economy is, one only has to consider the price of software, or photocopying to see that corporate handling of products of services have not always worked in favour of the customer.

The circular economy and its variants are attractive to industry and government because the concept has a significant and positive impact on waste, resource consumption and pollution without undermining the basic tenet of capitalism that we must maintain infinite economic growth. It is essentially a resource efficiency model of industry, despite the possibility of applying the definition to community, environmental and cultural outcomes.

On the other side of the line sharply differentiating those approaches supporting capital growth from those attempting to ensure long term sustainability are post-Growth, de-Growth and Natural Capitalism.

The fundamental principle in this field of enquiry is that we cannot grow infinitely on a finite planet and, since capitalism requires continuous economic growth to survive, we must move beyond growth to build a sustainable economy.

De-growth is the movement defining the ways in which we might uncouple our personal activity or or social organisation from the requirements of continuous growth. It examines how we might live without money, what business means if money is not the primary objective. Post Growth defines forms of social organisation that might emerge and allow us to exist in a world that does not rely on growth. So degrowth is the pathway and post growth could be seen as the destination. Natural capitalism is one of the many forms of economic organisation described as a solution to the problem of infinite growth and the outcome of degrowth.

A Post Carbon economy is a subset of these broad philosophical views of the future that is specifically focused on mitigating Climate Chaos and coping with Peak Oil. It is essential that we move to a post-carbon economy to survive on a planet with billions of humans but it is a necessary, not a sufficient condition. Further, it is increasingly apparent that some of our ruling elites have already made the same assessment and prefer to dispense with billions of humans than with the convenience of burning fossil fuels. Jem Blendell’s Deep Adaptation explores the stark reality of our options and challenges us all to change our practice in the face of those choices.

Navigating the future

A map is only useful if there is the will and skill to use it to guide us to a particular destination. Every budding entrepreneur or socially concerned citizen will have their own priorities in selecting points on the map, and pathways between them. Those priorities will be driven in part by logical reasoning and in part by innate resonance and desire.

What is apparent to this author, though, is that the emerging generation is better informed, connected and equipped to deal with these challenges than those of us who have blundered into it. One of the few skill sets I would suggest is better held by the generation born in the middle of last century is the practical skills of surviving in the physical world. If the elders can humbly offer the wisdom of their years and that practical experience to the clear sighted, engaged and connected humans taking the reins of society now, we have some hope of salvaging enough skerricks of civilisation to pass onto future generations despite the inevitable depletion in our numbers and standard of living.

Waiting, waiting for the patient investor

Canadian Social Enterprise guru, David LePage is in Australia, helping the local sector build capacity to take advantage of the huge amount of capital looking for a productive outlet in hard times.

Commenting on the low-interest environment and generally unpredictable economic output he noted that “The problem for social entrepreneurs is not finding investment, it is finding the ‘right’ investment.” He was addressing government, industry and academic professionals as well as social entrepreneurs at a breakfast sponsored by the Brisbane Exhibition and Convention Centre. He said the challenge is that professional funds are not always ‘patient investors’ nor do they understand the value of ‘social capital’.

David Brookes of Social Traders discusses the work of the Federal Impact Investing Working Group

On a panel with David Brookes of Social Traders, Emma Kate Rose of Food Connect and Belinda Morrisey of English Family Foundation and hosted by Impact Boom’s Tom Allen, LePage said that despite the many challenges facing social entrepreneurs, the sector is maturing rapidly. “Five years ago we were discussing what social enterprise is, now we are discussing how we can best interface with government and the investment community.”

The shift from social welfare to social trading is partly a response to changes in government support from block funding to transactional funding, characterised by initiatives such as the NDIS. The Federal government has also responded by developing new models of investing such as crowd funding of equity and the nascent Impact Investment Working Group.

The move away from grants and ‘hand outs’ toward an entrepreneurial approach has also been fuelled by a desire for self-determination and creative freedom. This is complemented by the maturing of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and the recognition that the loss of social license by scandals such as those revealed in the recent banking royal commission. In some cases, corporations are reaching out to connect with stakeholders and customers through good works, resulting in conferences branded “Good is the new cool”.

Questions from the floor emphasised a significant gap between these intentions being formed at the big end of town and the experience of the entrepreneur trying to solve social problems through commercial activity. A lack of affordable real-estate and angel investment are clear barriers for companies starting out. LePage identified real-estate as a possible alternative to impact-investing for ‘patient investors’ who are not ready to engage directly in the social enterprise sector.

The breakfast followed a Social Traders conference in Melbourne last week, and a weekend long conference organised by Queensland Social Entrepreneurs Council held on the Sunshine Coast.

The power of the coach

Geoffrey Wade knows the power of coaching; he delivers it to his corporate clients for a living. He spoke at the invite-only Connect Collaborative in Brisbane last week, sharing some of the research that informs his practice and some of the lessons he has learned.

Surprising to many in the room, including this little black duck, he shared research showing that coaching more than doubles performance in areas of “complex activity, like sales”. Given the dependency of any business on sales this makes a pretty compelling case.

He also noted that four in five people rate themselves as good to excellent coaches, but measurement shows that less than one in ten actually do even the most basic first step in successful coaching, pay attention to what the person is doing.

Geoff Wade of Onirik
Geoffrey Wade of Onirik

Mr Wade believes that coaching is basically a process of helping people to improve their practice and so it makes sense that you need to watch and measure the existing behaviours as a first step to improving them.

He said the other mistake that is almost universally made is that we manage people by measuring their results. “Telling the best performers that you want to raise their targets might work, because they know what they are doing,” he said, “but that is not going to get you radically different results. The way to really make a difference is to turn around the people who are struggling, they sometimes perform and sometimes do not. They do not know what they are doing wrong and it is your role as coach to help them work that out. No-one wants to be a poor performer, it is simply that they do not know the techniques required to improve.”

As we all nodded sagely at the self-evident logic of what he was saying, in full knowledge that most of us have been making all the mistakes he pointed out, he dropped a bombshell that woke up the room and refocused our attention.

“To get this right,” he said, “You have to follow a simple ratio. Praise everyone five times, for each time you offer them corrective feedback.”

His research indicates that there is no point hammering people for poor performance, you simply crush their morale and cause them to lose interest. The praise, he says, is the sweetener that encourages them to want to perform, the corrective action is the support and advice they need to do so.

“It might help to remember not to criticise a mistake or poor performance the first time you see it.”

Geoffrey excludes safety issues from this general rule, noting that they have to be called out as soon as they are observed. The rest though can be run through the ‘zip your lip’ filter. “The first time is random, the second time is co-incidence and the third time is a pattern.” He finds this equally applicable to parenting, sports coaching and business. “If you say to someone, I have watched you do that twice before and now I see you doing it again, clearly this is something we need to address, they know you are on the ball. They also know that you are not going to tolerate poor performance and that you are not prone to knee jerk reactions. That is a pretty powerful way to earn someone’s respect.”

He said that the absolutely worst technique ever taught to manager and coaches is the “sandwich technique” known at the school I went to as the “shit sandwich technique”. “You are doing a good job, Jim. Your sales numbers are not good enough, but the customers love you and that’s important.”

Not only does burying the corrective advice between two layers of praise confuse the message every time you use it, repeating the pattern undermines your credibility. Everyone soon works out that you are using a formula and it reduces the value of the comment and the respect in which you are held. “If there is one message I want you to take away from this it is to dump that technique. Write it on a paper and burn it, wave rooster feathers over it and tear it in half, whatever ritual you need to use to cleanse your mind, do it. You must never, ever, use the sandwich technique again.

The Anti-Shop is in the precinct

Introducing herself as the Anti-Shop, Jacq Driscoll told a Circular Economy meetup in Brisbane’s T.C.Bierne Startup Precinct that her mission is to empower people to make, fix and share stuff, instead of buying new goods.

jacq Driscol of Biome and Alec Newman of FLSmidth
Jacq Driscoll hears out Alec Newman of FLSmidth on industrial sustainability

She said that she had worked on the shop floor assisting customers for about three months when she asked the manager of the Biome Eco-store if her commitment to the environment extended to showing customers how to save money and the environment by not shopping.

Founder, Tracey Bailey was so supportive of the project she created the community workshop arm of the Biome Eco-Store and put Jacq in charge of it.

Ms Driscoll has since worked up a full education program teaching people the value of Refusing, Reusing and Repurposing before considering the energy and resource wasteful options of recycling and discarding.

“You cannot under-estimate the power of saying No,” she told the audience of 40 people interested in discussing ways to promote and implement the Circular Economy. “Do I really need this item, do I need it in this form, and do I need it now?” She suggested that more often we say no to these questions, the less money we spend and the more resources and energy we save. She described that act of resisting the urge to spend is a fundamental and profound shift from the dominant consumer paradigm that encourages us to want more.

She referred to the wave of eco-grief undermining the morale of many people who care about the environment noting, “Bring it back to those things that you can influence. Saying No to unnecessary purchases is empowering on a number of levels”.

Jacq Driscoll and fellow presenter on the evening, Dr Manuela Taboada, both highlighted the comment of one audience member that discussions about consumer power are highly privileged because they are restricted to those with enough money, time and mobility to make consumer choices.

 “I am lucky to have the time and the cash to pack my kids’ school lunches,” she said, “let alone worry about the packaging on the bread I buy.”

Dr Taboada grew up in Brazil and has studied waste and recycling in many developing nations and agreed with the observation 100%, “I am passionate about the social dimension of waste,” she said, “and it is obvious to me that waste is power. The refusal by China and other Asian countries to accept our dirty pizza boxes and soiled single use plastics is simply a shift in the power imbalance that has allowed us to dump our waste on them.”

Ms Driscoll added that learning to fix, make and share things is empowering across class and offers special benefits to those who do not have the money to make choices about their consumption.

Interminable conversations

Birds do it. Bees do it
Even educated fleas do it
Let’s do it, Let’s fall in love
Cole Porter 1928

There is no doubting the power of conversation as a communication tool. The best preachers and the biggest stadium rock bands mimic traditional call and response to engage the audience and drive home the memory if not the message.

Climate for change is the latest grass roots movement to adopt the pattern to drive for specific outcomes.

  1. “What do we do as individuals [to prevent climate change]?’
  2. “How effective is that?”
  3. “Would it be more effective to lobby government to change the regulations than to change our light globes?”
  4. Let’s agree that we should use our collective energy to lobby government.

Get Up eplored a conversational approach in the 2016 election campaign, refined and rolled it out as a significant component of its 2019 platform.

The ALP says that it is using it, but it stops short of allowing a second voice in the conversation, so can not be genuinely included as a data point in this analysis.

The Greens have been using it in one form or another since 2013. Adam Bandt employed what his campaigners called the Barack Obama strategy in his first successful election campaign. Obama had taken his inspiration from Chicago community activist Saul Alinsky and his book Rules for Activists via

Keep this manual safe and confidential.

Bandt’s campaign manual was taboo in the Australian Greens, for a variety of reasons, some practical, some factional, some relating to inertia. It had the words, “Keep this manual safe and confidential. Do Not Share” emblazoned across the inside cover. As a result, the South Brisbane Greens fought the 2013 campaign against Kevin Rudd in Griffith directly following Saul Alinsky’s principles and simply told everyone we were using the “Bandt model”. When Rudd resigned in 2014 we campaigned against Terri Butler in the by-election using the official playbook and paid Get Up’s Simon Sheikh to send some staff to come and train us in the fine print of the technique.

Following that, the model has become de-rigueur in The Greens and has spread through other environmental and activist groups as outlined above.

The most recent incarnation of the two-decade old training by Al Gore’s Climate Action has now added conversational techniques to its armoury.

The failure of all this conversing to make a “Climate Election” out of the 2019 contest for control of the Australian Federal Parliament simply brings The Greens, Climate Action, Climate for Change and Get Up to the same point.

The populace is not sufficiently moved by the evidence of the damage they inflict on future generations or the world’s poor to give up their four-wheel drives, steak dinners, international holidays and other benefits of continuous economic growth.

We need not argue about why this is the case, that is fairly straight forward, we do need, however, to discuss what we can do to engage the natural morals and humanity of the silent majority.

The reasons that people do not want to engage are spelled out in the uncompromising and terrifyingly honest video snip, “Deep Adapatation” by Jem Bendell.

The contract is broken – We are not in control any more,”he points out.

To paraphrase: the very real and well understood danger that we may become extinct in the lifetime of people living today, leads directly to the breakdown of the fundamental promise that has underpinned liberal democracy. That promise has been that life will continue to get better, as long as we stick to the rules. As a consequence, people are no longer sticking to the rules.”

The impact is that veteran campaigners are giving up, declaring the end of social democracy and the failure of the climate movement. In April this year John James wrote his final weekly newsletter, opening with the words:

“For more than three decades I have been spreading news of the climate crisis during the years when we could have made a difference, and at no moment in all that time has the good news outshone the bad.

“I am 88. I gave my first public talk on ecology and the warming planet in 1982. I am weary of reiterating increasingly miserable news. We all know where we are heading. We won’t be bored in the years that remain to us.”

These campaigners express disappointment that we did not make the change that had to be made to avoid the position we are in now but in a very real way they have simply switched gear accepting the inevitable. They have not given up campaigning, they have simply given up trying to bring the mainstream with them.

I interviewed Richard Heinberg in 2008 about his scenario analysis PowerDown. I pointed out to him that based on the political landscape at the time his Lifeboat scenario seemed more likely than any of the others. He was shocked. “I had to include that for completeness in the spirit of scenario analysis, but it is the worst case scenario. That is what we need to do if none of the other scenarios eventuate.”

On the other hand, the youth is newly energised to pick up where their elders have left off.

The Extinction Rebellion, the Climate Emergency are declarations that reflect the urgency so cogently declared by Greta Thornburg. That does not resolve some of these inherent tensions, though. When Greta declared that Sustainability is dead, Climate Change is everything, the fractious nature of the discussion that emerged must have made fossil fuel magnates extremely warm and comfortable.

Recently, a number of young women who have expressed serious concern about their decision to bear children in the face of a possible extinction event. I grew up in the shadow of the Atomic era, I was born at the height of the Cold War. I missed being conscripted to Vietnam by five years. As youngsters we expressed intellectual concern about the morals of bringing children into this world, but all the women my age who discussed with me their reasons not to breed were driven by rather more selfish reasons. Children are an expensive luxury in a neo-liberal society.

These deep, life changing decisions by thoughtful people whom I respect are symptoms of the alarm generated by the possibility of extinction and the certainty that we are at the end of growth.

The reality is that we have to go far beyond conversations that bring the mainstream voter into the conversation, we absolutely have to take action to begin to build a post-growth, post-carbon world. That requires more than conversations or lobbying politicians, that requires radical action, leading to radical change.

Simon Sheikh of Future Super in January 2014
Simon Sheikh of Future Super ex-Get Up acted on establishing an income stream before setting up a business training people in the conversational approach.

It may well be that the organisations that have engaged directly in the financial system, Future Super, Planet Ark two name just two, despite their flaws, offer a significant clue.

Circular economy funding needs oversight, suggests Responsible Wood

With governments funding startups in the social enterprise and circular economy space there is a need to keep an eye on the outcomes being delivered, according to representatives of Responsible Wood.

Mark Thomson and Jason Ross have worked with the timber and paper industry to developed agreed frameworks for marking wood-based products as sustainable. As a result, they understand the need for agreement as well as the challenges. Great Notion’s Geoff Ebbs met with them in Brisbane today (Thursday, June 20) to discuss the lessons they have learned and how they might be applied in the circular economy and social enterprise space.

Mark Thomson is the director of Responsible Wood and is concerned that a lack of oversight might damage the reputation of the movement and lead to its dismissal by mainstream business.

“The implicit assumption that a startup is good just because it is a social enterprise or identifies with the circular economy, may need to be challenged,” he told Great Notion.

Marketing manager, Jason Ross pointed out that if the overarching aim is to spread the concepts of the circular economy as broadly as possible into the business community, then it is critical that the concepts are clearly understood and communicated.

“Business and government really need to address social and environmental viability as well as economic considerations,” added Mark. “Poor implementation could undermine that.”

“We saw in early sustainability standards that hasty implementation of environmental standards discredited the idea of sustainability,” he said. His experience is primarily in timber and paper, but our discussion ranged across similar experience in technology standards, water and sewage recycling and the interactions between rich and poor nations through international programs designed to help that fall into disrepute.

Great Notion and Responsible Wood
Geoff Ebbs, Jason Ross and Mark Thomson discuss certification and standards

Mark observes that there is a natural tension between encouraging innovation and diversity on one hand, and managing processes to ensure a common purpose on the other.

“My experience indicates that certification and standards provide an enabling platform that encourages innovation in an orderly manner and avoids catastrophic failure that is damaging to reputation as well as slowing progress.”

He points out that in the timber industry separate standards developed by environmental groups and industry groups developed from divergent starting points but have evolved to accommodate each other and create a working, global set of standards.

Jason Ross adds that any working agreement between different groups involves compromise, but it is important to ensure that those compromises do not undermine the fundamental intent of the agreement by embedding poor practice as standard.

Great Notion is engaged in ongoing discussions with Responsible Wood about presenting the advantages of the Circular Economy and a Zero Growth Economy to business.