Seán Kerrigan: In Athens you will give a presentation on the crumbling of ‘four key pillars’ of the 20th century that threaten the global status quo. What are these pillars and how are we witnessing them falter? (This presentation reflects the thesis and findings of the recent CIFs report “Crumbling Pillars”)
Daria Krivonos : When we talk about ‘pillars’ we of course recognise that there is more to the last century than the four aspects we have picked. But at the same time, looking back at the developments since the early 1900s, we believe that there are clear trends of i) expansion and strengthening of liberal democracies, ii) a strong momentum in the globalisation movement driven by the western world and iii) a series of significant technological advancements also lead by the West. These three trajectories have shaped the world as we have come to know it, including its institutions, international rules, trading flows etc. The fourth pillar is the climate, which until relatively recently is not something we have taken for granted. I think it’s fair to say, that all four pillars, are now showing signs of fatigue or need for concern.
The New Now
SK: When we spoke recently, you raised the point that there are few moments in history that people did not feel were unique or turbulent to them at the time. And, of course, historic review backs this up in hindsight. What seems unknown or extraordinary about the way change is occurring now? Are we simply more aware, or is the scale unique?
DK: No doubt, going back to earlier epochs we will find multiple examples of time of upheaval, change and deep societal transformation. What seems different this time is the velocity and acceleration of change. Additionally, the synchronisation of trends, driven by the new age of telecommunications and the internet, are unprecedented. When the students protested in China in 1989, the rest of the world didn’t have a live feed in real time. The progress of information technology means that we instantly partake in something that is happening on the other side of the globe, making the trends and changes a global phenomenon in a matter of minutes. That same technological advancement is transforming societies faster than ever before, be it through new mobility solutions, education, health or just the way we organise our family life.
Corporate Moral Responsibility?
SK: The report posits the notion that there is an increasing importance of ideals in the corporate world and that companies may have to take a more clearly defined stance on social issues - similar to how sustainability concerns now feature on seemingly everyone’s agenda. Why do you believe that is?
DK: Well, for one, as mentioned in the previous comment, technology has fostered an enormous amount of data and coupled it with demand for increased transparency. Growing awareness of the global challenges has increased tremendously, at the same time, so has the size and impact of the large corporations. They now constitute economic and political powerhouses, some bigger than actual nations and economies. Such a potential for influence comes with a call for responsibility. Large corporations are held to an increasingly higher standard by their partners, clients and ultimately the end consumer. The bigger the brand and company, the bigger the exposure and thereby the higher the vulnerability. Everyone of them is only one hashtag away from a branding disaster. Engaging in sustainable business models is transforming from being a competitive edge, to being a license to operate.
SK: And how are we witnessing it affect corporate strategies and behaviours?
DK: I think the number of sustainability departments and headcounts in the various organisations, could be an interesting proxy. 10 years ago, it was almost unheard of, now every big corporate has a head of sustainability. Similarly, we see more and more companies join initiatives such as the Global Compact and the like, signalling to the outside world that they are increasingly more committed to try both to do the right thing and to do things right, naturally within the realm of sensible business acumen.
Is All Growth Destructive?
SK: We also spoke of accelerating environmental change and pollution as the ‘destruction of future value’. And we have recently heard, amongst others, Mark Carney, the Bank of England’s governor, and François Villeroy de Galhau, head of the Banque de France, talk of the economic imperative of acting on climate change as “a global problem, which requires global solutions”. Despite the increasing focus on sustainability we mentioned above, how does this concern tally with a current economic model that targets (and rewards) growth through the exploitation of resources, thus contributing to the problem? We’ve apparently doubled our output of CO² since understanding the negative impact of emissions in the 1970s and 1980s. We fly, produce and consume more than ever…
DK: Indeed, decoupling growth from further deterioration in our natural habitat, is one of the keys to solving the current challenges. That is if we insist on growth as we know it. One solution is of a somewhat philosophical or theoretical nature, i.e. the ongoing efforts to redefine economic composites such as the GDP measure, to curb the ‘growth at all cost’ approach. A simple example is an oil tanker spilling its cargo in a port, generating more GDP by conventional measures as cleaning up creates economic activity, meanwhile everyone will agree that an oil spill is never a good thing. Such an event paints a pretty good picture of the flaws in the current models, and it doesn’t even touch on the societal value of mental and emotional wellbeing etc. which too are virtually absent in existing wealth measures. But redefining our economic indicators will do little to limit our emissions or resource extraction and depletion, absent coordinated efforts. In an odd way, perhaps climate change is the one challenge that will enable and force the much needed rebalancing the global geopolitical powers, as the challenge is as global as they get and only coordinated global solutions stand a real chance of offering any relief.
SK: And finally with an eye on the practicalities, what are the most impressive technical innovations or initiatives you’ve seen recently that address some of the above concerns?
DK: I believe the latest progress made in transforming power back into fuels such as hydrogen or ammonium, the so called Power2X technology, are very promising. Our biggest problem is not lack of energy, but our ability to harvest it efficiently and to store it for later use. The first part of the equation is seeing great progress in the vast advancements of renewable energy technology. The latter remains a hurdle we need to solve. Power2X can be one of these solutions. Additionally, the slow, but positive mentality move of consumers to more plant rich diets, too is a very positive sign as such a transition harbours great potential for CO2 reductions from livestock as well as reductions in deforestation associated with less need for grazing lands. But this is just to mention a few.