John Elkington’s Adventures in Wonderland

Wonderlands are wildly unpredictable places where reality bubbles merge, foam, burst, and John Elkington loves them. In this special Guest Post, the ‘Godfather of modern sustainability’ stumbles across portals, meeting rabbits and Indiana Jones as he looks for a Big Bang in wisdom

So, first, a question. What would you most like to know about the future? To that end, if you could travel to just one moment in the future, when would that be? And, once there, how would you set about finding out what you think you want to know?

Then flip the direction of travel and consider, if you were invited to zoom back to any single point in time in the Earth’s 4.54-billion-year evolution – with a guarantee that you would return alive and sane – where would you choose to go?

If I were trying to thumb down a Tardis or a Mr Fusion Home Energy reactor-powered  DeLorean, my current inclination would be to head back to life on Earth’s ‘Big Bang’ moment – the unparalleled Cambrian period.


Well, this extraordinary burst in evolution, which began just over 500 million years ago, saw new life forms explode into being around the planet – laying the foundations for much of life as we know it today. Wings, a particular interest of mine, wouldn’t come until later, but this was a magical moment in life’s journey.

It would be wonderful to see those early stirrings in life’s family shrub, to bear witness to it. But, born in 1949, I have witnessed something very different. A period where the Big Bang of the Cambrian period has been slammed into reverse.

The scale of that reverse beggars the imagination. As the scale of the information available to us zooms exponentially upward, it often seems that biodiversity follows an exponentially downward trajectory.

Just as some astronomers predict that our universe, birthed with the Big Bang, will end with what some of them call the ‘Big Rip,’ where everything eventually dissolves into nothingness, humankind is now tearing ever-bigger rips in the fabric of life as we know it.

We need a Big Bang in wisdom to reverse the ecological Big Rip. 

The Big Rip = the universe tears itself apart

Since 1970, when I was 21, emerging blinking into the world of work from my first stint at university, we have lost 68% of the planet’s wildlife. This is early evidence of the accelerating Big Rip.

True, our planet now hosts an estimated 8.7 million species, but even while their number grows (because we keep finding more), it is also shrinking (because, as the planet-wide neighbours from hell, we make life impossible for so many of them).

You can see the effects of the Big Rip in today’s world, or in some cases you can’t see them. For example, in many cities the clouds of insects that once swarmed around our street lamps are no longer there. Only 4% of mammals on Earth are now wild. And, zeroing in on a single species, some of Africa’s elephants are now evolving smaller tusks, or dispensing with them altogether, to thwart the existential pressure of ivory poaching.

We’re all to blame

Uncle Jimmy, as we knew him, gave me a christening tankard when I was born. Made of part of an elephant tusk, and framed in silver, it is as grimly doom-laden now as the matching pair of brushes he would give me later on. Backed with polished ivory, their bristles are made out of the baleen of a great whale.

Uncle Jimmy

It’s easy to point a finger, fingers even, but we are all complicit in this Sixth Great Extinction. To my undying shame, for example, I still possess several ivory gifts given to me by my favourite godfather, Sir Arthur James Drummond Ramsay-Steel-Maitland. (If you are going to drop a name, drop a big one – or at least a long one!)

Painfully paradoxical, given that the songs of humpback and blue whales provided part of my generation’s call to environmentalism, thanks to the inquisitive hydrophones (underwater microphones) of Dr Roger Payne.

So those well-meant gifts now strike me as a bit like being given a set of polished slave shackles by those folk in so many European family trees, including mine, who were involved in the slave trade

A different path

Uncle Jimmy struck me as something of an Indiana Jones figure, albeit in a kilt and spectacles. He was ingenious, no question, at one stage setting up a factory in the basement of his castle to turn out fibreglass fishing rods. I had one of those, too, for many years.

Another of his passions was collecting wild animals for zoos, among them those in Edinburgh and London. But one year after he died in 1960 I would set off on a path very different to his. In 1961, aged 11, I raised money at school for the fledgling World Wildlife Fund, founded that same year. The focus now was on conserving rather than collecting and hunting wild animals.

Out of the blue, I became an environmentalist. Something that would put me at odds with many among the older generations that had been through one or more world wars. For them, growth was almost invariably good. Industry was wonderful – and, unless you were a trade unionist, the captains of industry were respected.

In 1962, Rachel Carson published a book that would expose environmental and health threats 

For my generation, by contrast, growth-as-usual was spraying out all sorts of unexpected hazards. Some were outlined by Rachel Carson in her milestone book Silent Spring, others erupted later, from the expanding hole in the stratospheric ozone layer to our successful efforts to turn the Earth’s atmosphere into a planetary pressure cooker.

But unlike most environmentalists, I was fascinated by business – or industry and commerce as it was then known. Perhaps inspired by early James Bond films, I wanted to see if I could break into the control rooms of these great polluting monsters to put a spoke in their wheels, or begin to turn them around?

It proved possible in some cases, though that’s a story for another time. As I got deeper into the heart of the beast, the mouth of the whale, I came to realise that the fundamental issue was less industry and commerce per se than it was our very nature as a globally successful species.

More recently, I have come to think of our species as Homo Dodo – and here’s why.

Growing numbers of businesses, for example Walmart, may be committing themselves to the revived cause of regeneration – which means life creating the conditions for more life. And yet the evidence suggests that the broad mass of businesses is still headed toward the planetary Big Rip.

Homing in on wonderlands

As I wormed my way deeper into the business world, and into the boardrooms of major companies, I found myself in something very like Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland – Dodo, Caterpillar, White Rabbit and all.

For me, wonderlands are borderlands, frontier zones, unpredictable places where different realities touch, intertwine, bleed into one another. These are places where reality bubbles merge, foam, burst. Places where normal rules dissolve – places where the extraordinary can become commonplace. Places where you can step – or stumble – from one reality to another, even on occasion from one paradigm to the next, which I think is happening to us all at this very moment. Mine has been a life of stumbling between realities.

wonderland Eat me, Drink me about TOPIA
“I can’t explain myself, because I’m not myself, you see.”

Wonderlands are weird, exciting, disorienting places, but I have come to love them.

Indeed, I have sought them out and explored them for most of my 72-years-and-counting life. In the process, I have shuttled between a dominant worldview where our species is the center of existence, of the universe, the measure of all things, and competing worldviews, bubbling up at the edges of normality, suggesting that our god-like status is, to put politely, exaggerated.

My role has been to weave market narratives for business people linking the known, business-as-usual present with the not-yet-known, business-as-unusual future. [Business-as-unusual was a term John Elkington coined back in 1997 in Cannibals With Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of Twenty-First Century Business (Capstone Publishing, Oxford).]

Children know only too well what it is like to live with fluid realities and narratives. The nature of their experience was unforgettably captured by Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, in his glorious books, among them Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass.

As she moves through Wonderland, Alice finds that she is constantly changing. “I can’t explain myself,” she explains to the Caterpillar, “because I’m not myself, you see.”

Well he didn’t see, nor do most parents or many teachers. Instead, while we may be momentarily charmed by children’s ability to occupy multiple realities, we see it as something they must grow out of. As fast as we can, we educate and incentivise them into seeing our reality as theirs – generally as the only one.  

Capitalism has become adept at doing the same thing, particularly since the collapse of traditional forms of its nemesis, Communism.

But there are multiple realities, and their numbers explode if you project into the future. Looking back, one key aspect of my survival and success in such borderlands was the permission to explore, given to me by my own parents and, given that I met her when I was eighteen, my wife.

Their often hands-off support allowed me to retain elements of curiosity, wonder and playfulness – elements of that childlike mind.

Rabbit holes, silvery mists

Most of us, most of the time, operate in one reality. But for some there are trigger moments where one reality blurs into, or gives way, to another. For example, the moment when Saul, on his way to persecute early Christians, is blasted off his donkey by a shaft of heavenly light – and becomes one of those he hated.

These are moments of madness, conversion – or, more positively, extreme creativity.

Blinding bolts of light on the road to Damascus don’t feature in Wonderland or Looking-Glass, but Alice unwittingly stumbles across two portals into Wonderland.

First, hot on the heels of the waistcoated, clock-watching White Rabbit, she tumbles down a rabbit hole. Later, she repeats the trick from the comfort of her family home, clambering up onto the mantlepiece, then stepping through the “silvery mist” of the mirror.

I have found many and various ways to tumble down rabbit holes or step through the silvery mists. Sometimes the boundaries have blurred through immersion in nature, or in deep conversations. Sometimes, I admit, the slippage has been the result of the ingestion of psychotropic drugs. Much more often, though, it has come when stepping into the boardrooms of some of the best known and most powerful corporations in the world.

Stepping into parallel realities suffused with the strange protocols of power and the quiet, noise-suppressing hum of air-conditioning.

Taken together, and without ever intending to be so, many of the people I have met and worked with in such places helped shape my sense of the Homo Dodo syndrome. To be clear from the outset, “Homo Dodo” is not a newly discovered species. Instead, it is a condition, a disease even, largely hard-wired in us.

It blinds most members of hominid species to their impact on the wider world. What we do as a species is drive other species to extinction, from the giant sloth and cave bear to the passenger pigeon. Not that we set out to do that – it just happens. No-one who killed and ate dodos, for example, intended to drive the bird into extinction, though it’s not clear what they would have done had they known that this outcome hovered in the future.

Pond of Dreams

Like it or not, we are an extinction engine.

In fact, the story of how Dodgson first came across the dodo, the bird generally considered to be his avatar in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is instructive. Both he and his illustrator John Tenniel drew inspiration for the Dodo in Wonderland from a stuffed specimen in the Oxford Museum of Natural History.

The Oxford Dodo represents the most complete remains of a dodo collected as a living bird anywhere in the world

As the museum explains, it is now accepted that the Dodo was Dodgson’s “playful nod to himself, and his habit of stammering nervously, introducing himself as ‘Do-do-dodgson.’”

Less well known is the fact that the same stuffed dodo was the subject of a murder inquiry some 350 years after its death. Forensic scans showed that the bird had been killed by a blast from a shotgun held close to its head.

Then, indeed, it would have been as dead as the proverbial dodo, but not yet extinct.

Partly because of the dodo’s association with Alice, it has become the most famous example of a species driven into extinction. But the story is rather more complicated than originally imagined. Yes, the birds were hunted to extinction by Dutch explorers who arrived in Mauritius in 1638, but it turns out that they had skirted extinction at least once before.

A team from the University of Amsterdam found that almost four thousand years ago a freshwater lake on the island – the Mare aux Songes, or “Pond of Dreams” – began drying up during a 50-year megadrought. With animals of all sorts forced to crowd around the edges of the dwindling lake, sanitation became a  major problem.

The waters boiled with faecal matter, poisonous algal blooms spread, so the area became a “deadly faecal cocktail.” Hundreds of thousands of animals were killed by “intoxication, dehydration, trampling and miring”.

None of that means that clears Homo sapiens of the charges levelled against the species, however. And the charge sheet grows ever-longer. Various people have tried to calculate how many species we have driven to extinction so far, as my late friend Norman Myers did in his book The Sinking Ark. But we do know that up to one million plant and animal species now face extinction, many within decades, because of human activities.

Without drastic action to conserve habitats, the rate of species extinction – already between tens and hundreds of times higher than the natural background over the past ten million years – can only accelerate.

Of horseshoe crabs and mammoths

True, I take some comfort from the work of people like Ryan Phelan of Revive and Restore, who I found myself sitting next to at James Lovelock’s centennial birthday party. She and her team have been working on turning the tide of extinction for horseshoe crabs, for example, and – even more ambitiously, are planning to bring back the woolly mammoth.

In that future wonderland, revived mammoths would help get rid of solar-radiation absorbing trees, allowing them to be replaced with brilliantly reflective snow – boosting the albedo effect that bounces sunlight back into space.

All hail the woolly mammoth

Perhaps such Jurassic Park-style interventions can reverse at least some part of the extinction curve. Perhaps, at a more modest scale, the rewilding of farmland and other managed landscapes can help bring Ark-loads of once-threatened creatures back into our world. But some part of my brain wonders whether the ultimate challenge for us as a species is to reinvent and restore God?

In a childhood spent in God-soaked (and consequently often blood-soaked) places like Northern Ireland, Cyprus and Israel, I don’t say this lightly. But we do seem to be wired to tune into and obey higher forms of authority – as Noah Yuval Harrari explains in his extraordinary new graphic novel series, Sapiens: A Graphic History.

Is it unthinkable that, just as WW2 created the appetite for the United Nations system, the conflicts and tensions of the coming decades will drive the evolution of artificial intelligence – and even artificial wisdom – systems that a growing proportion of the global population will bow down before and obey?

In wonderland times like these, with everything increasingly in flux, it has been noted that the apparently impossible has a habit of becoming first possible and then, over time, inevitable.

The late Edward de Bono coined the word PO to help people move beyond the stand yes or no answers. It’s time to “PO” like mad to surface solutions that are currently unthinkable, even unimaginable, en route to a more sustainable future.

People I see doing this most effectively include Peter Diamandis of the XPRIZE Foundation, with books like Abundance and Bold, and science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson, particularly in his most recent book, The Ministry for the Future.

Finally here, probably my favorite Alice quote begins with the young interloper into Wonderland saying: “There’s no use trying. One can’t believe impossible things.’” One of the assorted Queens then famously replies: “I daresay you haven’t had much practice. When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Inspired by John Elkington? Of course you are!

Hear more from the ‘Godfather of modern sustainability’

What’s so good about this?

At a time when most events are called ‘summits’, might we hold an ‘Impossibility Summit’ in 2022 to consider somewhere between six and ten things that currently seem impossible and could become possible, then inevitable?

We need to break the iron grip of Dodonomics, and the mesmerising sway of its champions, to open up the way for the sort of world future generations would want to inherit.

And for that to happen we need to push Homo Dodo as fast as we possibly can toward, yes, extinction.

Meet the writer

Known to many as the ‘Godfather of modern sustainability’, John Elkington has been a pioneer of the sustainability movement for well over 30 years – since well before the concept was properly birthed – and is responsible for the concept of the ‘triple bottom line’ (people, planet, profit). The grit-in-the-corporate-oyster has co-founded four companies since 1978, including Volans, and is the prolific author of 20 books, the latest being Green Swans: The Coming Boom in Regenerative Capitalism. In 2021, Elkington was presented with the World Sustainability Award, so he’s come a long way since raising money for the infant World Wildlife Fund with his pocket money back in 1961. Follow @volansjohn.

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