Measuring the Sustainability of Business: From Economism To Earth Systems Science


By Hazel Henderson

When US astronaut Dr. Sally Ride returned from her space trip in 1983, she exclaimed that NASA should have a Mission To Planet Earth! This led to NASA’s “Earth”, an ongoing program of research into how our planet functions based on Earth Systems Science.

I was a science policy wonk in Washington, D.C. from 1974 until 1980, on the Technology Assessment Advisory Council to the U.S. Congress. Dr. Ride became a member later. NASA began addressing this crucial agenda, using satellite imagery and data collection to show in vivid color detail, Earth’s beautiful mountain ranges, coast lines and tracking the rise of CO2, oil spills and soils washed into estuaries in our oceans.

Promising Start But Setbacks Lead To The Long Haul

Thus, 25 years ago, these pictures of our planet showed how our living biosphere captures the daily shower of free photons from the Sun and sparked my passion for the great transition I wrote about in the Politics of the Solar Age. We humans were learning that we did not need to dig in the Earth’s crust for our energy but could mimic the technology developed by plants – photosynthesis – and harvest those free photons, not only in the plants that provide our daily food, but also directly in solar collectors, from wind, water and mimicking the radical efficiency of Nature’s productivity.

President Jimmy Carter understood this. He and Rosalind invited me to speak at the governor’sjimmy carter solar panelsmansion in Georgia in the 1970s, he put solar panels on the White House and hosted my friend E. F. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful (who also wrote the Foreword to my first book, Creating Alternative Futures).

In 1980, however, President Ronald Reagan removed those solar panels from the White House and the fossil fuel interests continued to reign over Washington, D.C., along with the nuclear industry, still reaping over 90 percent of available tax breaks and subsidies. I knew I was in for the long haul and by 2004 decided to launch Ethical Markets Media with the mission to reform markets and metrics while growing the green economy globally, and tracking the growth with our Green Transition Scoreboard®.

Planet-based Metrics

Fast forward to 2013 and we reported that $4.1 trillion of private investment is now at work growing a greener, cleaner, knowledge-richer economy. Markets and their metrics are slowly reforming to catch up with the new realities. Our Beyond GDP surveys with GlobeScan in 11 countries since 2007 show that the public in all these countries understands the need for correcting GDP to include health, education, poverty gaps and environmental quality.

Further, the Carbon Tracker has shown that most of the “investments” in fossil fuel reserves of companies in London’s FTSE are “toxic assets” that can never be burned without exceeding the 2 degree Celsius rise in temperature due to CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere. We joined with many other groups in calling on pension funds to write down these fossilized holdings and shift their assets to all the companies we track in the green sectors.

Durable Assets, Material and Not

Since the 1980s, pioneer asset managers Pax WorldCalvertParnassus and Domini, have led the expansion of socially responsible investing, convened every year since by the SRI Conference.  Progress in metrics in triple bottom line, ESG, ethical, green investing have made positive impacts. In 2012, at Rio+20, asset managers and the UN Principles for Responsible InvestingIIGCC andCeres pledged to include natural capital as “material” to asset values.

These obsolete terms from economics show that these models are still mired in the fossilized Industrial Era based on materialism and goods you can drop on your foot. In today’s Information Age, biomimicrymuch value is intangible: reputation, goodwill, knowledge, including the new behavioral sciences understanding of human motivations and the research of Earth Systems Science.

Principles of Ethical Biomimcry Finance

When we leave “economism” behind (see my monograph forthcoming from ICAEW and Tomorrow’s Company), we will not be flying blind – just using better metrics based on science. So I reconnected with my friend Janine Benyus and her Biomimicry Institute, and Ethical Markets partnered with them to launch our Principles of Ethical Biomimicry Finance, together with Stuart Valentine, Centerpoint Investment Strategies, Katherine Collins, Honeybee Capital, and Capital Missions.

Our precursor statement on Transforming Finance Based on Ethics and Life’s Principles lays out our understanding of Earth Systems Science and human responsibilities in our Anthropocene Age (as humans are now changing the face of the Earth). So far, 77 global experts have co-signed our Statement.

Now, we invite all our friends to add their signatures!

The late Dr. Sally Ride and NASA should be proud of “Earth,” their ongoing Mission to Planet Earth!