CEO, criminal or Zeronaut?

Picked up “The Zeronauts: Breaking the Sustainability Barrier”. Interesting mix of sustainability, innovation, cradle to cradle and innovation. Any type of pollution is criminal, you will be sued as an organisation and there are ways to transform your business.

New gold

Things we have taken for free will become the new gold. Water, waste, carbon. What would happen if sharply reduced carbon, water, toxic waste, or other footprints became the focus of policy and, ultimately, societal expectations? (or vice versa.) What would a zero impact growth model look like? What would be the risks and where are the likely opportunities? What sort of timescales might be involved?

Going zero

I think we are going zero. It is only a matter of time. Here are some questions to consider:

  • Where does zero fit into your existing sustainability and wider ambitions, targets, and toolkits?
  • Where are you already using zero or net-zero targets?
  • Have you considered doing so, but decided not to; if so, why?
  • Are you or your competitors already making related claims? If so, how are they being received?
  • What would zero look like in our organisation?
  • How far up Mount Sustainability are you?
  • Should you build out from existing foundations or start anew?
  • What partnerships, existing or new, will you need to succeed?
  • What’s the competition up to on all of this?
  • Are there players on the edges of our world, as currently defined, who could explode into our space with new mindsets, technologies, business models, or branding?
  • Who is already doing this sort of thing in our markets?
  • Why are they doing it – and how are they doing?
  • How might we use such thought experiments in our executive training or induction processes for our new employees?
  • Who among our key stakeholders will be attracted by this and who might not be? How do we best manage those conversations?

Ponzi scheme

It may not have been designed that way, but conventional capitalism increasingly looks like a giant Ponzi scheme – where the interests of (at least some) people alive today are wildly favoured over those of future generations. The example of soil is used to demonstrate that, without intending to do so, we are in the process of crashing the biosphere.


In the case of Western capitalism, our incomes and in many cases our pensions depend on the continuation of returns that are only achievable by running down ecological assets that by rights should have been handed over in good working order to future generations.

You are going to get sued

When we clear-fell forests, exhaust oceanic fisheries, run-down aquifers that have taken millennia to build up or expose children to environmental toxins that stunt their development, we act like criminals. Theft is a crime. The theft of our children’s future will someday be considered a crime. You are going to get sued for your pollution, emissions, waste, carbon, poisoning, etc.. CSR and philanthropy are too weak. That is too close to business-as-usual. It needs to become a fundamental part of your business model.

Because it is getting scary

  • Scientists have found that bees are entombing certain cells in their combs that subsequent analysis shows have dramatically higher levels of pesticides and other chemicals.
  • Europeans already consume at the rate of three planets a year, and the Americans are burning along at five.
  • We see evidence of a “Great Splintering”, where the traditional social contract has, in effect, been torn up, creating lost generations. Active looting of society’s wealth by oligarchs, many bankers, and hand-in-the-till CEOs has largely escaped the rule of law. That has encouraged the dispossessed (or those who feel they are dispossessed) to descend into anarchy.
  • More than 80 per cent of the world’s population now lives in countries that are running ecological deficits.
  • Trucost has put a number on the total annual cost of human footprints and impacts. That figure, they estimate, is some $6600 billion. The top 3000 companies alone are responsible for $2000 billion of that damage.
  • The number of people facing food or water shortages will jump from 600 million to 1.4 billion.
  • In 2050 we will see 200 million “climate migrants”, most of them poor. That is five times as many as the world’s entire refugee population in 2008.The thin layer of topsoil that covers the planet’s land surface is the foundation of civilisation. This soil, typically six inches or so deep, was formed over long stretches of geological time as new soil formation exceeded the natural rate of erosion. Sometime within the last century, as human and livestock populations expanded, soil erosion began to exceed new soil formation over large areas. It helps to think of soil as a living organism covered with skin like a human. We can live with a certain percentage of our skin damaged, but if too high a percentage is, we die. So, too, does soil and thus most life. Read “The hidden half of nature”.


Unless we embrace 1-Earth mindsets, behaviours, cultures and paradigms, we will crash both the biosphere and our civilisation. As it is we have, at best, a 50/50 chance of surviving the twenty-first century.

We need Zeronauts

Zeronauts are a new breed of innovator, determined to drive problems such as carbon, waste, toxins, and poverty to zero. They are tasking themselves with breaking the sustainability barrier. With 100 per cent joy and 0 Percent Emissions

Ambassador from the future

You too can become an ambassador from the future. To get a sense of what the transformation might require of us, try asking yourself these questions:

  • What would future generations want us to do today if they could speak to and advise us?
  • Who and what would they vote for in today’s world, what would they invest in?

Trying to picture yourself as an “Ambassador from the Future” and let that help you to decide where to stand on particular issues. Start developing on a thorough understanding of biosphere dynamics and the environmental impacts and footprints associated with your business, through the entire life cycle, from cradle to cradle. Or even better, what if, instead of drawing down our biosphere reserves, we began to invest in restoring and extending our ecological assets? Imagine integrating sustainability into your business models, production and design. Imagine focusing on purity a complete lack of toxins and pollution created by your products.

Wartime economy

Because it will have to come from the business world. Most corporations are highly skilled at influencing behaviour. If they want it, they can move very quickly. As they did in world war II. The speed of this conversion from a peacetime to a wartime economy was stunning. It did not take decades to restructure the US industrial economy. It did not take years. It was done in a matter of months. If we could restructure the US industrial economy in months, then we can restructure the world energy economy during this decade.

Business drivers

  • A critical driver of the necessary change is likely to be the market valuation of natural raw materials with recent years having seen rising prices for everything from oil to potash and rare earth minerals. Higher prices help to focus senior management minds on questions of efficiency and, ultimately, sustainability.
  • Accounting and management will develop systems to measure, value, and manage various aspects of the wider ecosystem services on which our economies depend. Forcing you to look at your cost base from a very different perspective.
  • Chemical companies are increasingly exploring green chemistry, where new products are designed according to a dozen principles among them toxicity reduction, energy efficiency, biodegradability, and renewability.


Ecomagination as one fo the skillset of future CEOs. Bio-awareness as a new leadership literacy. CEOs that view sustainability as a strategic prism through which to view the resiliency, future growth trajectory and value creation potential of their company. CEOs applying sustainability as TQM or Total Quality Environmental Management (TQEM). CEOs applying Six Sigma and the 4R techniques, focusing, in order of priority, on waste reduction, reuse, recycling, and recovery. Zero emissions as a standard of efficiency.

Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder

We also need governments to step up. We cannot give up on politics and governments local, national, and global level. To date, a great deal of attention has been focused on trying to suppress demand for fossil fuels such as oil and coal to address the climate challenge. Much more important in the long term will be the challenge of driving down the cost of renewables to the point where they increasingly undercut their fossil competitors.

Boosting and zero targets

Governments have critical roles to play in such areas as investing in research and development, boosting the willingness of banks and other funders to back the further evolution of the relevant markets, and the use of government bulk-purchasing mechanisms to help drive down prices. At the moment when renewable energy technologies are cheaper than the climate-damaging alternatives, the transformation will become irresistible, and we will wonder why we ever did things differently. However, very few countries have yet set themselves zero targets. That has to change.


Already 51 per cent of the world’s 6.9 billion people, 3.5 billion souls, live in cities. By 2050 demographers think it will be 70 per cent or 6.2 billion people. Nearly all that growth will be in emerging markets like Asia, Africa and Latin America. 50 per cent of world gross domestic product is generated in the 645 cities with populations over 750,000 – and the largest 40 cities now representing 20 per cent of global GDP.

Proximity as a driver

Cities are the greatest creations of humanity. Proximity makes people more inventive, as bright minds feed off one another; more productive, as scale gives rise to finer degrees of specialisation; and kinder to the planet, as city-dwellers are more likely to go by foot, bus or train than the car-slaves of suburbia and the sticks”.


Asian cities alone must build, every single day, 20,000 new homes, 250 kilometres of road and the additional infrastructure needed, for example, to transport another 6 million litres of drinking water.


The average Londoner produces around half of the carbon emissions of the average Briton, while each New Yorker produces just 30 per cent of the average American emissions per head and citizens in São Paolo are responsible for just 18 per cent of the average carbon emissions for Brazilians.

Carbon neutral

Only some city administrations are now embracing carbon neutrality. Only Masdar, in Abu Dhabi, has been billed as “the world’s first zero-carbon city”.

Cities as lungs of the future?

Consider the possibility that our cities and their buildings might develop lungs in the coming decade. What if they were able to draw in carbon dioxide and make something useful out of it? What if our building began to come “alive”? Think synthetic biology. It’s only a matter of time before our cities can be biologically programmed to behave in ways that seem like science fiction today.


Corporates, government and cities need innovation. Starting by looking at nature. Biomimetics. The book gives lots of other suggestions:

  • Sort out your zero definitions
  • Move to the edges of incumbent systems and organisations
  • Make sure that your enterprise is located in or linked to the most powerful business ecosystems relevant to your intended future opportunity space
  • Position yourself at the “intersection”, the place where the chances of serendipity operating are enhanced
  • Access cluster (geographical, sectoral, horizontal and vertical)
  • Create multidisciplinary teams and partnerships
  • Setting impossible targets
  • Don’t expect massive breakthroughs every time, real progress comes through a succession of small steps
  • Move quickly from insight to experiment
  • Recognise that it is critical to get your timing right and that, at times, it is possible to create your timing
  • Instead of adding more bells and whistles ever, they strip the products down to their bare essentials
  • Be prepared to break all the rules and to create new ones.
  • Recognise and embrace the role of failure in successful innovation
  • Learn by doing
  • Spread your bets
  • Keep an eye on what other innovators are up to
  • Create award schemes such as the X Prize and Katerva
  • Examine the portfolios of extraordinary innovators developed by the likes of Ashoka, the Schwab Foundation, or the Skoll Foundation, or open-source innovation platforms such as Innocentive.

Innovation tips

We know innovation is tough. From the moment when an innovator wakes up to the potential for driving a particular problem toward or beyond zero, there is typically a long, arduous journey of experimentation, of failure, of competition and collaboration, and of all the sundry adventures that are inevitable as efforts are made to replicate and scale the new solutions. Here are some tips for fellow Zeronauts:

  • Turn sustainability into a ‘pull’ function, not a ‘push’ function within the business
  • Focus on cradle to cradle systems where waste simply becomes the raw materials or nutrients for further manufacturing, with products being reborn and reborn
  • Aspire to be insanely great
  • Forget either/or thinking focus on both/and
  • Acknowledge that you will have to break out of current timescales that force businesses to focus on quarterly reporting and politicians to look no further than three to four years ahead
  • Recognise that creativity loves constraint and start to constrain those who most need to jump to new mindsets and business models.
  • Get used to it and work out how to capture your share of the value you co-create


In terrestrial environments, there are four processes governing the functioning of life.  Nutrient cycling, water cycling, biological community dynamics and solar energy flow to life above and below ground.

We are all Zeronauts

Now imagine that dynamic working between you, your business or organisation you work for, the place you live in and government. All working hand in hand, cradle to cradle, in harmony with nature. We are all Zeronauts.

sensemaking cover


Sense making; morality, humanity, leadership and slow flow. A book about the 14 books about the impact and implications of technology on business and humanity.

Ron Immink

I help companies by developing an inspiring and clear future perspective, which creates better business models, higher productivity, more profit and a higher valuation. Best-selling author, speaker, writer.

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