Beyond ESG | systems solutions for sustainability

This piece borrows its title from the lecture series the Institute hosted with Duncan Austin, an independent sustainability expert. We invited Duncan to present these lectures to Institute members because his message is important and needs to be heard, despite it being provocative and somewhat controversial now. We believe that it won’t remain controversial for too long, certainly within the sustainability fraternity, and we are in agreement about the systemic nature of the problem.

My biggest learning from the series is summed up in the phrase: “sustainability is a property of the whole, not the individual parts”. This is both simple and serious. Simple because we are seemingly not responsible for ensuring the sustainability of the system. Serious because it is so counter-cultural in a largely individualistic society where what matters most is my sustainability and that I am more important than the system.

It also provided exquisite clarity. The system is queen, and the soldiers and workers should enjoy their basic lives, playing their part in service to the queen. It is also serious because, as a part, we may need to be sacrificed for the greater good. In my view, this is consistent with all continuing systems, where it seems some components thereof must perish.

I found the series somewhat disconcerting when descending to unlearn what I thought was true, and rising again with new learning in an unfamiliar place. Now I am not sure how to get my body to join my mind in that new place. We learnt that ESG is like quick sand; the harder we try, the worse we make it. And that ‘externality-denying capitalism’* is a double bind; its logic requires fixes that are profitable (win-wins). To escape the bind, we need to act illogically and wait for logic to reform in our favour (lose-to-win). This is akin to the well-trodden path of social activism, where people like Wilberforce, Ghandi, Parks and, most recently, the ‘Colston 4’ acted outside the prevailing logic, and often outside the law, until history and/or the law decided they were actually on the right side.

This is deeply problematic, of course, and a good proportion of the discussion time was devoted to principal-agent issues, the constraints of fiduciary duty and free riding – all of which conspire against solving our sustainability-collective-action problem. We covered collaboration, building coalitions, and lobbying to make lobbying illegal. It would be so, so much easier if the public sector just set out clearly what was allowed and what was not. But the well-trodden path of social activism shows us this is not how things tend to work. We act, and they make our actions acceptable (sometimes, legal) after the fact.

The somewhat conservative pensions / investment industry doesn’t feel the natural place to start a revolution using the logic of tomorrow. And yet, the third pillar of the Paris agreement is finance. It is a truism that what gets financed gets built. If a new fossil fuel well is financed today, we should expect that financing to be responsible for carbon emissions for three or more decades into the future. The investment industry doesn’t do a huge amount of new primary investment but we could, arguably, have more influence over corporate capital allocation decisions.

We could also adopt an attitude of ‘heroic incrementalism’, a phrase coined by Roger Urwin in the context of transformational change, which is rarely wholly successful. My interpretation of this is that ‘incrementalism’ is taking the next safe, or comfortable, step. In contrast, ‘heroic incrementalism’ is being conscious of the scale of change ultimately required, as well as the sacrifices needed (be it safety or comfort), and doing what it can today with the resources it has. And tomorrow, or when energy has been replenished, it takes the next step. And then the next, because we are very unlikely to be done with only three incremental steps under our belt.

These are a few of my high-level takeaways from a series that took us deep into complex and often uncomfortable places; but it was true to the title and provided a highly thought-provoking systems view of a world post ESG. To enjoy your own journey click here for videos and slides.


* Duncan uses the phrase ‘externality-denying capitalism’ to provoke; he notes that the more accurate label would be ‘resistant-to-internalisation-of-externalities-capitalism’