Master Class: Life in the Early Anthropocene, with Howard Covington

Positive Mavericks, Institutions

Preventable Surprises Senior Adviser Howard Covington gifted us with an excellent first  Master Class on Life in the Early Anthropocene. We recommend you watch the replay or look at the slides.

Howard – who currently chairs both ClientEarth and the Alan Turing Institute, sketched a remarkable portrait of the geological disruption under way, in the context of exponential developments in technology and artificial intelligence, and of shifting geopolitical and economic power.

Global heating, deforestation, topsoil erosion, decline in animal biomass, decline in male fertility are happening at an unprecedented scale and crucial ecosystems are at tipping points. Meanwhile, technology is transforming many facets of human existence, from energy to media and personal freedoms, and economic and technological power are increasingly concentrated on either side of the Pacific Ocean.

Clean technologies will experience a boom. Entire industries, such as food, transport, energy, and materials are poised for transition and disruption. Supply chain and infrastructure will also face disruptions. Some property markets will go bust. Yet investments are lagging. A 2-degree plus degraded and dangerous world is unavoidable.

This makes for a concerning risk landscape., one that the pandemic, and the invasion of Ukraine are making very real. Howard estimates the risk of total deep disruption this century (equivalent to a 25% loss of global output) at one if four, whether from climate change, from misaligned AI, engineered pandemic, nuclear war, or nature destruction.

The early Anthropocene is and will be tough. Crucially, no one is in charge: these disruptions are chaotic and anarchic. Small leveraged events and actions may have large future impacts. There will be a personal and economic premium on resilience. On the upside, civil society groups can successfully act to reduce emissions, preserve nature, and reduce the AI risk.

These disruptions also invite responses to the strategic questions Preventable Surprises engages with:

– Do institutional investors understand the immediate risks associated with these disruptions?

– What is their role in exacerbating them?

– What can they do to mitigate them?

– What can civil society groups do to make investors do it?

In considering our answers, we might heed Howard’s observation about the chaos and anarchy of the disruption. This does not leave anyone without agency, far from it, but it is a good reminder that either simplistic and all-encompassing visions and social and economic theories of change towards a new, post capitalist, world order – which abound in sustainability and ESG – but also conservative advocation of the status quo – will easily crash against stubborn reality. This is a strong call for adaptability and for constantly reevaluating tactics. For Preventable Surprises, this translates into adopting opportunistic strategies rather than working towards a unique vision of change. It is a hard sell, but it is a necessity. We can chart transition courses for clean energy, but they are not a given, require intervention at every turn, and are largely out of any single person or entity’s control. We can and do make ethical choices about the invasion of Ukraine. But can we assert what is on the other side of it?

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