Book Review: The Zeronauts by John Elkington
John Elkington one of the sustainability field’s leading pioneers and in his latest book he looks at those at the cutting edge of sustainability thinking who he dubs Zeronauts – the people who are aiming for zero – zero waste, zero emissions, zero toxins. Zeronauts are people like the late great Ray Anderson of Interface who launched the groundbreaking Mission Zero programme to have a zero impact on the planet by 2020. Zero is of course the ultimate stretch target and a great motivator as Elkington reminds us throughout the book.
The structure of the book takes us through three quintets of concepts:
5Cs of scale: citizen, corporation, cities, countries, civilisations;
5Es of maturity: eureka, experiementation, enterprise, eco-systems, economy;
5Ps of examples: zero population, zero pandemics, zero poverty, zero pollution, zero proliferation.
So far, so good. But the big problem is, for me at least, the book just doesn’t deliver on the central promise. Many of the examples are of bog standard sustainability efforts rather than the special case of zero, diluting the core message. In fact the most insightful critique of the zero approach in the book comes not from Elkington, but in a series of lengthly blog extracts on zero waste from Andrew Winston of Green to Gold fame. Beyond this, there was little about the implications of, say, a zero waste policy to a single company and no mention of key enabling concepts such as industrial symbiosis. The “How Zeronauts Tackle Pollution” box could be titled “How Everyone Tackles Pollution” so generic is the content.
I also found the presence of many on the ‘Zeronauts Roll of Honour’ to be debatable – for example James Hansen is a great scientist who has bravely stuck his head over the parapet to warn of the dangers of climate change, but I have never heard a proposal from him that fits the zero theme – and none is presented here to justify his inclusion. The list appears to consist of sustainability practitioners that Elkington admires rather than Zeronauts per se. And don’t get me started on the five figure year format.
That’s not to say there aren’t loads of interesting ideas and nuggets in the book, which I have to say is beautifully presented, and the Zeronauts meme is brilliant in itself, but I was expecting a tautly drawn up manifesto for the zero movement, or a critique of it, and this falls well short of either. Zeronauts could and should have been an essential text, but it’s more of a curate’s egg. Frustrating.