There’s a new book out at the end of this month called Thriving, but before we start let’s welcome our latest patron, Tommy Wiedmann. Tommy tells me he worked at the University of York here in the UK for some years, but he’s now living near the Blue Mountains in Australia. Lots of rain, but fortunately he’s escaped the floods. Tommy, welcome.
My guest on today’s Wednesday Interview is Dr Wayne Visser.
Wayne Visser has been listed as one of the world’s top 10 most influential faculty thinkers on social media on issues of responsible business, a top 100 thought leader in trustworthy business, a top 100 sustainability leader, and a top 500 influencer on CSR and business.
He currently serves as head tutor, fellow, and lecturer at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, as well as professor of integrated value at Antwerp Management School, where he holds the world’s first academic chair in sustainable transformation. He is also a director of the think tank and media company Kaleidoscope Futures Lab and founder of CSR International.
Anthony: Wayne, welcome to the Sustainable Futures Report.
Wayne: Great to be with you.
Anthony: Well, you've been writing and speaking and teaching about sustainability and the climate crisis, practically all your life. You've been involved in field work. Now we're talking today about your latest book, "Thriving," which is published on the 31st of March. And in that you talk about regeneration. About regenerating nature, society, the economy, and organisations. Tell us a bit more about this approach.
Wayne: Well, as you say, for more than 35 years now, I've been engaged in this work of sustainable development. And I've seen that evolve over time. I've seen that increase and start to scale, but I also see that on many, many issues, we're completely failing to reverse the trends that we're facing as a global society. And I see that part of the problem is the framing of these issues in terms of sustainability for a few reasons.
Framing the Issues
One, I think sustainability is still largely misunderstood despite the fact that it was introduced in 1987. I think it is also misapplied, especially by business and sometimes by politicians. But most importantly, it's uninspiring. Who in their life says, "My dream is to sustain myself." It just doesn't get to what makes us tick as people, as societies.
Whereas if you say to somebody, "Would you like your career to thrive? Would you like your organisation or your relationships to thrive?" They know what that means. Now, fortunately, there's a lot of science behind this because we've been studying complex living systems for the last few decades. And that's really what the book tries to bring together is some of the science, but also the application, especially through innovation, we start to see the world changing in a positive direction.
Progress from Our Common Future 1987
Anthony: Well, as you say, 1987 was Our Common Future from the United Nations. That's when the Brundtland Commission came out with a definition of sustainability. And it wasn't long after that we had the Rio Earth Summit. That was 1992 and now in 2021, we had COP26, which was effectively the 26th conference following on from Rio. But the world isn't moving fast enough.
You're suggesting that they're not describing the issue in what I might describe as a sexy way or an attractive way, but the fact remains we're not moving fast enough. Emissions are increasing year on year. Are we ever going to get to the point where the world will actually take this seriously and move forward?
Wayne: Well, I think that the world is taking it seriously. So one of the things I try to do in my work and with the book is to understand how complex systems change and of course change doesn't happen in a linear fashion. It doesn't happen incrementally. It's like a virus. It's slow to start with and then you get what the scientists would call positive feedback loops and it accelerates. And what I find so exciting right now is many of the issues we've been working on for so long we start to see those positive tip points reaching the stage where the scale and the speed really is increasing rapidly now.
So we have to remember that we don't have to get to a majority of people agreeing to this either. So when we study complex systems, the signs suggest that anything between five and 25% of a crowd can move the crowd in a certain direction, if they have a common intention. And so a lot of what I see is about hope. It's about saying that all the pieces of the puzzle are starting to line up and you mentioned COP26. I can go into that as an illustration of how I think we have the different parts starting to reinforce one another.
Anthony: I'd just like to go back on what you were saying about five to 25% can actually change the whole opinion, but does that imply, or does that require, that the other 75 or 95% are uncommitted at that point? Because we have debates all over the world. We had a debate called Brexit, as you're well aware, and it's a lot more than five or 25% who are in favour of one side, but we're in deadlock on that. So how exactly does it work?
Wayne: Yes. So, this is in a, if you like, in a system where there is randomness. And so of course that is not always the case. We have people pulling in opposite directions as well, and we have a lot of chaos in this system. And so it does mean that minority needs to be very clear on their intention, needs to be working very actively towards making that change happen. But the main point is that most change doesn't happen in the way that a Brexit happens where you're simply looking for a majority vote. Rather, in fact, what you get is a momentum building for a long time, and then you get the system flipping.
Transition from Apartheid
Now, I was fortunate enough to live through the transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa. And we saw a generation of resistance to that change, of course, among the white minority that was in power, very brutally, actually. And then when the change happened, it happened incredibly rapidly within five years, the whole system flipped.
So that's the main point is that you need that perseverance, you need to stay focused on the goal, but as things start to reinforce one another in a positive way, the system can change very fast.
Anthony: So is it fair to say that the minority have to make it clear to the majority that it's in their own interests to change their mind in order to facilitate the flip?
Work in our Spheres of Influence
Wayne: Well, certainly it helps when it becomes clearer that moving in a certain direction is good for everyone. And you can't leave too many people behind. I think that's been the mistake actually of a lot of politics in recent years is that people have been left behind. And so they've ended up being a resisting force to change, but in fact, we don't have to convince everyone. That's really the point. What we have to do is continue to work in our spheres of influence.
We don't have to change the world. We have to change our world. And that means that working locally is the most effective thing we can do because we all have different areas that we influence. And what have happens then in a complex system is that starts to ripple through, and it starts to reinforce the work that others are doing. And fortunately, we do have more and more evidence that moving in this direction can be extremely good for people, can be extremely good for businesses.
And we can take many examples, Tesla's now one of $6 trillion companies, and it has its core mission, accelerating the transition to sustainable energy. It's valued at more than all the other automakers put together, even though it makes less than 1% of the cars. So it starts to have its positive returns if you like.
XR and pressure groups
Anthony: On a completely different scale, but talking in terms of small pressure groups, do you think that Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain and organisations like that are on the right track? And are they different from organisations like Greenpeace, which have been around for a very long time and have not achieved breakthrough, they've achieved certain things, but they've not achieved a fundamental breakthrough so far?
Wayne: Yes. If we study how things change, what we find is it always begins with the heretics, right? They branded as heretics. It's those that are more radical. And I talk about being radical in the book because we have to go back to the root of the meaning, which is actually all about roots. It's about going to the foundation. And so groups like Extinction Rebellion, I think they can be perceived as extreme, but really what they're doing is challenging the system based on very good science, by the way, and just giving us that injection of urgency that we need.
So we do need them. I think they are being effective in helping to nudge the system, but we need all of the others as well. We need Greenpeace. We need the WWF's. We need the Climate Strike. We need the Black Lives Matter. All of these social movements are what is helping to accelerate the change.
The Great Reset
Anthony: It's been suggested that the shock of the pandemic gives us the opportunity for the Great Reset, changing things fundamentally in a way which we would never have considered if the pandemic hadn't thrust change upon us. Do you believe that we have the leaders with the vision to seize the opportunity or are they just going to chase after business as usual?
Wayne: Well, a couple of points here. I did write at the time when this became popular jargon, the Great Reset, that those who are expecting that COVID-19 will change the world will be disappointed, but they won't be wrong. So I think the changes that we hope for, which is that everything will suddenly go on to a better track are unrealistic. I think many entrenched systems will try to go back to where they were, but the fact is that COVID has changed the system. And I think many of the things that it is done, we will only know in years’ time, when we look back what the most significant changes are. And that again is a feature of complex systems.
You get that butterfly effect where a butterfly flaps, its wings in one part of the world, and you get a typhoon in the other metaphorically. So we don't know what all of those ripple effects will be, but some are quite obvious. The fact that not having to travel everywhere for meetings has just become standard practice, questioning many things, people having experienced in some cases, nature for the first time, or having the opportunity to spend that time.
So I do think there are many effects that we will still need to understand, but I think one of the most profound things from COVID is that it helped us to understand exponential change. This is something that's crucial to trying to move our world in a better direction. But for many people, it's hard to get their head around when you talk about doubling times. In the case of COVID, it was often within three or four days, right?
So this virus started out seeming not to be a threat at all with very, very low numbers and then people could actually see on a day by day basis, how this could rapidly escalate. And that is what we have in our global society and our economy, as you know, the great acceleration with the consumption having increased exponentially and all of the impacts that's come with that.
On the other hand, we also see those exponential effects in some of the breakthrough areas, whether that's renewable energy or electric vehicles, batteries, many of the positive solutions are starting to scale on that same curve.
War in Ukraine
Anthony: We agreed to set up this interview on the 16th of February and the world has changed very fundamentally since then. So in the face of brutal cynicism and disregard for human life, can we hope to unite humanity to deal with the climate crisis?
Wayne: Well, of course, we've got Europe being affected by a war now and an invasion of Russia into the Ukraine. And one thing we should be completely clear about the opposite of thriving is war, right? War is devastating on so many levels, social, economic, and even environmental, psychological. So everything we can do to respond to that and to restore peace, I think is part of the agenda of working for thriving.
But it is also worth noting that the way that I describe our journey to thriving is through six great transitions in nature, society, and the economy. And one of those transitions is from disruption to resilience. And that takes in issues like pandemics and climate change, but also war. So we have to learn, as a society, how to be more resilient to prepare for de-risk, if we can, but then also survive and then recover from these shocks, which are becoming more and more constant in the world today.
So it's a hard lesson to learn, but we are learning, I think, how to become more resilient. Of course, respond as much as we can to the crisis, the immediate crisis and the humanitarian effects, but will we be distracted from climate change, the essence of your question? I think that climate change is too big an issue.
We thought, to take another example of distraction, that Trump getting into power for four years would completely derail the climate agenda. In fact, what happened is it galvanised many, many organisations, including mayors of many cities and large organisations to double down and to say, "We're still in." And I think because it's not going to go away, because it'll get worse before it gets better, and because we really have very clear strategic commitments now, very transparent from governments and from companies, I think that while we may have a short term distraction in the medium to long term, climate will be very much the priority it has been.
In fact, if you think about it, you don't have to be a genius to know that one of the vulnerabilities that is being exposed now is Europe and especially Europe's dependence on Russia for fossil fuels. So I expect that this will speed the transition, I think Germany has already made an announcement to this effect, will speed the transition to renewables and to energy independence once the immediate crisis, of course, has been dealt with.
Be an Optimist
Anthony: Wayne, in addition to a wide range of skills and accomplishments, you are also a poet and you end the prologue to your book with a poem entitled, "Be An Optimist." So I don't need to ask you if you're an optimist, and I'm sure you believe we should all be optimists. In conclusion, what should individual listeners to the Sustainable Futures Report do this week to make a difference?
Wayne: Well, you are right about being optimist and this is not to be someone who denies or who sticks their head in the sand, right? I say in the poem, "Be an optimist, not because the news is good, but because good people are working hard to address these issues." So the best thing that people can do is actually to find an area where they can support thriving in their own life and in their own work.
Don't Change the World, Change your World
Back to the point we made originally, where you don't have to change the world, you have to change your world and then trust that will ripple through the system. So think about the work that you do and who you are working for and who your customers and clients are. Make some choices there. Think about what you're buying and who you're supporting through what you're buying and support the positive choices there.
Think about what you're driving, if you're driving or how you're getting around, what transport options you're making, how your energy is powered. We have in many countries now, and especially in the UK, very easily the option to go for a 100% renewable energy.
So, there are many choices that people can make. The main thing is just figure out where your sphere of influence is. And that's the scale at which you need to work. I sometimes use the analogy of termites, ants are amazing creatures, of course, very, very social in their organisation. But the interesting thing about termites is they don't have a leader and you raised the question of leadership. Do we have to wait for better leaders?
Well, in fact, we self organise, that's what complex living systems do. In the case of ants, they defend the nest. They go out and forage for food. They do some farming underground with mushrooms. They feed the queen, of course, who isn't giving instructions, by the way, she's not a leader she's just laying eggs. They take out the trash and they bury their dead in a cemetery area. All of this they're doing without a leader, they self organise and that's what complex living systems do.
And so the best thing we can say is organise yourself and those around you to take the positive action that you can take. And then hold onto that hope, because hope is an action verb, but it is also a better way to be in the world. We are more effective when we are hopeful and that's what I would advise.
Anthony: Well, thank you very much for that. Now, your book, "Thriving," it's out on the 31st of March, that'll be in hard cover, but will it also be available as an ebook?
Wayne: Yes, it's available as ebook and also as an audiobook. And I've been delighted actually with the first week it's hit the Amazon Bestseller lists across all formats and in multiple countries. So, it's got off to a good start and I hope that people enjoy it in whatever format they most enjoy.
Anthony: Wayne Visser, thank you very much for talking to the Sustainable Futures Report.
Wayne: Thanks very much for having me.
And thank you all for listening.
Before I go let me just remind you that the Sustainable Futures Report receives no income from advertising, subsidies or sponsorship. Oh, OK I am getting a free copy of Thriving. But apart from that it’s the lovely people who have signed up to be Patrons at patreon.com/sfr who help cover my costs. People like our latest patron, Tommy Wiedmann (or is it Wiedmann?). Thank you all.
The next Sustainable Futures Report will be on Friday. I’ve just read an article on Space-based energy so I’ll have a look at that and see what else I can find.
That was the Wednesday Interview from the Sustainable Futures Report.
I’m Anthony Day.
Bye for now.
For more about Dr. Visser and his work, or to book him to deliver a speech or training workshop, visit http://www.waynevisser.com.