Richard Branson

With scientific gravitas, complemented by the skilful use of layman’s language, Tim Flannery paints a serious picture of the planet’s future, even if, as he says, he overwhelms us “with the scale and the number of challenges facing humanity.”

Let me start with a huge dose of optimism. I believe that we will rise to the challenges Tim poses. I believe it is possible that one day we will enjoy modern, fun-filled lives using only one planet’s worth of natural resources. We will emit minute amounts of carbon, there will be radically less evidence of poverty, and most people, most of the time, will enjoy healthy, satisfying lives. Sustainability is possible. If I have been successful, it’s because I believe the impossible is possible and I have, in my business life, made it so. Okay, building a business is not saving the planet, but we all need that same “let’s do it” attitude if we are going to see this challenge through. 

As a businessman responsible for nurturing companies, careers and customers, as well as meeting environmental and social responsibilities, I find the major challenges, particularly climate change and food production, almost too vast to contemplate. At the moment, the tone of voice around sustainability implies sacrifice and giving stuff up. Unsurprisingly, consumers reject this because it seems to present fewer opportunities for a satisfying life. We know the opposite needs to be true. To this end, the world’s experts could join us in a bigger debate about lifestyle choices and lifestyle possibilities.

None of us can afford to be reluctant to comprehend the scale of change required. We need to get ready for drastic as well as piecemeal action. I don’t deny that we have all been guilty in the past of ducking the issue. Governments and politicians, by their nature, think in the short term, to the next election in democratic countries at least. Businesses have to meet the demands of their shareholders, who want short-term as well as long-term profit. Consumers – the general public – fret about the lives of their children or their grandchildren, but as individuals they feel powerless to do anything and question the difference it would make if they did. 

I believe there is still a gap between the way business leaders think and the way environmental experts, such as Tim, think. Business people consider the laws of economics, while Tim considers the laws of nature. These two sets of laws are not natural bedfellows. The fundamental challenge facing us all is to make the necessary and important rules by which we run our economy complement the laws of nature. The laws of economics were created in modern history to serve mankind, whereas the laws of nature go back billions of years and serve the entire ecosystem on which we rely. Therefore, while the laws of economics matter, they cannot overrule the laws of nature, and perhaps that is the humble pie Tim is inviting us to eat.

I am, however, heartened by a growing realisation that businesses, governments and citizens can form a powerful triumvirate to act in concert. While there are squabbles and disagreements, there is also a movement supporting the best academic and scientific brains, as well as admired statesmen, in the belief that “something has to be done.” Initiatives such as the “Elders” and the “Environmental War Room” are indications of this, each aiming to find solutions to global environmental and social challenges. The purpose of the War Room is to evaluate major solutions to climate change and to create incentives to enable their rapid and scaled deployment.

Tim Flannery deals with the macro issues facing society, and my businesses can and will make an important contribution to these. We will strive to understand where our products help provide short- and long-term contributions while reducing the negative contributions. It is complex. It is easy to be harsh on the family flying to the Caribbean on the grounds of the carbon emissions that result, but what about the benefit to the local communities and the benefit of quality family time? And what about the members of our health clubs – is their desire to keep fit a positive contribution in its own right? How can our mobile communications help rural and inaccessible communities? Patently, Virgin Group companies can make a positive or negative contribution towards making sustainable lifestyles easier, and each of them is being asked to identify what those contributions may be.

The questions we are asking our companies go beyond the usual corporate soc-ial responsibility puff and KPIs that some big businesses are expected to measure. Yes, we do measure our carbon footprint; yes, we do recycle and reduce waste; yes, we do invest in the latest, most fuel-efficient planes. But we also ask broader questions such as: what does an economy that only uses the resources of a single planet look like? How do we decouple economic growth from the use of natural re-sources? How do we contribute to lives powered by clean and renewable energy?

We are a business, so commercial success is foremost in our mind. But we also ask ourselves how we can ensure that the basics of the free-market economy will still operate, albeit with rules that are better aligned with the laws of nature.

Tim Flannery points out the power of tropical rainforests and their need for protection. The tropical rainforests are home to an estimated two-thirds of all living species and to hundreds of millions of people and, as he emphasises, to some of the world’s most unsustainable agricultural practices. Like Tim Flannery, we believe that perhaps the biggest single opportunity that links the need to address poverty in developing countries and the need to reduce the rate of climate change is reversing the rapid and unsustainable rate of deforestation.

To do this, we need to ensure that rainforests are worth more alive than dead. So another question we ask ourselves is this: what influence can we have on developing creative ways of giving financial value to eco-services provided by rainforests and oceans to ensure that the economy will work within the finite limits of nature? At the moment, a rainforest generates more income when it has been converted into garden benches and oil palm. How do we create more income by leaving the original forest standing?

One of the Virgin companies – Virgin in the UK together with Virgin Unite – has just begun working with the Climate Tree, an initiative of the Tropical Forest Trust, helping to finance a project in the Congo to find entrepreneurial ways of helping local people create value from their forests without causing damage.

Some readers might be bristling, annoyed by my focus on rainforests when air-lines are meant to be one of the most evil perpetrators of climate change, but as a journalist from the UK Independent commenting on the UK Stern Report wrote last year:

It is unwise for politicians to arm-wrestle over rising aircraft emissions when just the next five years of carbon emissions from burning rainforests will be greater than all the emissions from air travel since the Wright Brothers to at least 2025.

IT has also easily overtaken aviation as a source of greenhouse gas emissions (half a billion servers and growing). However, aviation is still seen as high profile and is coming under emissions-trading schemes. There are proposals in both Europe and Australia. Naturally I would prefer a single global scheme, but either way these schemes will generate billions of dollars. I believe that some of this money should be channelled into projects to protect rainforests.

It is not just about carbon and rainforests. Wellbeing is an important element of a sustainable lifestyle. A generally wealthier population in the Western world has not always led to increased happiness and wellbeing. Instead there has been an increase in obesity and stress levels, as well as in diseases such as diabetes. So we are debating how our businesses can ensure that self-esteem and pleasure are based more on experience and the realisation of one’s potential than on the ownership of more and more stuff. We also ask how we can help people extend their personal wellbeing into community wellbeing. In many cases, the solution is simple: recycle more, keep fit and buy greener products.

This does not discount the need to find large-scale technical solutions, and initiatives such as the Earth Challenge (a US$25-million prize to encourage a viable technology that will remove at least one billion tonnes of atmospheric CO2 equivalent per year) will make hugely important contributions. These solutions, along with the development of non-fossil-generated energy and the major challenge of containing population growth, are all part of the bigger picture of true sustainability.

While I hope these questions we are asking show some robust intellectual thinking, I am also aware that more action on the ground is required. We will continue to work with partners more expert than us to ensure we are tracking in the right direction; we will ensure that new investments contribute to, rather than work against, achieving sustainable lifestyles; we will resource our own experts and reinforce the knowledge of these issues among our senior managers; and we will encourage our businesses to be leaders in their sectors.

While the future challenges are massive and, at times, the outlook seems bleak, I persist in seeing the glass as half-full. To sit on the sidelines is to place our way of life at risk and possibly see millions of people die of starvation or suffer from extreme weather conditions. Such a prospect is what provides the impetus to act and to act now. No single group can solve the problem, which is why we need to work together, whether as individuals, businesses, governments or NGOs, to reach creative, pragmatic yet bold decisions that will create tipping points for the challenges we face. 

Some might think I am too optimistic. However, I would rather be optimistic and proved wrong than pessimistic and proved right. That’s entrepreneurialism for you and I know a little about that. Just imagine a world where the best scientists collaborate with the best entrepreneurs – perhaps then my optimistic vision will become reality.


Richard Branson is founder and head of the Virgin group of companies. 


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 31, Now or Never. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 32, American Revolution.


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