John Elkington: “How Do You Define A Green Swan?”

Getting your definitions right is part of the art of driving sustained and effective change. I learned that by launching terms like ‘Green Consumer’, ‘Green Growth’ and the ‘Triple Bottom Line’ – and helping build the global ‘Sustainability’ movement. If a new concept starts to break through, it gets defined – and redefined – in ways that lead to growing confusion and disillusion.

So with my twentieth book – Green Swans: The Coming Boom in Regenerative Capitalism – due to be launched in April by Fast Company Press, let me be clear about what I mean by that term, “Green Swans”. Already we see alternative definitions coming up, as in recent contributions from Bloomberg, the Bank of International Settlements and Australia’s Financial Review.

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The Green Swans concept, at least as I intend it, clearly riffs off the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb and, specifically, his book The Black Swan. As Wikipedia explains, Taleb defines Black Swans as having the following characteristics:

  1. They are “high-profile, hard-to-predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations in history, science, finance, and technology.”
  2. They are almost impossible to see coming because of the “non-computability of the probability of the consequential rare events using scientific methods (owing to the very nature of small probabilities).”
  3. They are made more likely because of the “psychological biases that blind people, both individually and collectively, to uncertainty and to a rare event’s massive role in historical affairs.”

So the climate emergency – which we now see described by the Bank of International Settlements and others as a “Green Swan” – is in fact still very much a Black Swan by Taleb’s reckoning. Or perhaps a “Gray/Grey Swan”, in the sense that can now see it coming.

So here, for the record, is a quick sketch of what I mean when I say “Green Swans”:

  • Green Swan is a profound market shift, generally catalyzed by some combination of Black or Gray Swan challenges and changing paradigms, values, mind-sets, politics, policies, technologies, business models, and other key factors. A Green Swan delivers exponential progress in the form of of economic, social, and environmental wealth creation. At worst, it achieves this outcome in two dimensions while holding the third steady. There may be a period of adjustment where one or more dimensions underperform, but the aim is an integrated breakthrough in all three dimensions.

Green Swans are extraordinary—in the sense of out-of-the-ordinary forms of progress—driven and shaped by positive exponentials. In a counterintuitive pairing, they often rise phoenixlike out of the ashes left by Black Swans. Think of the way the natural world can recover and flourish after a volcano erupts or after destructive fishing pressure is removed. However, generally Green Swans are less likely to take us by surprise, as we typically have to plan for and work toward them over a considerable period of time.

John Elkington, Executive Chairman and Co-Founder at Volans Ventures

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