top of page

Time to pause the Universal Commons

Updated: Apr 22, 2023

Perhaps my Last Post

After five years of reflection and learning I have decided to put the Universal Commons Project on ice. In this post I want to explain why, to reflect on what the project achieved, and to tell you about a new project I am about to undertake.


As many of you will know, the Universal Commons Project emerged from a speech I gave at the Harvard Club in 2017 and a workshop the following February at our home on the Great Ocean Road.


In the February 2021 issue of Griffith Review, I described my journey of discovery. Over the past five years I have spoken to hundreds of people and read over a hundred books, along with dozens of academic and business articles. At the end of this post, I list many of the people, books and articles who helped me understand many things that had previously been closed to me. I recommend the reading list as a guide to capitalism’s future in a time of frightening climate change.


Intellectually, it has been the most challenging and fulfilling period of my life. I have learned more about economics, politics, and philosophy over the past five years than in the previous 65.

I have met many amazing, talented, and generous people. Some will be transient acquaintances – hence the thank yous below - others are likely to be lifelong friends.


Perhaps most rewarding of all, I have developed a more mature understanding of my personal ethics and passions, my intellectual limitations, and my character. I am conscientious, restless, curious and a bit of an intellectual, but I am also a practical person who likes to solve problems and create things.


In my 2017 Harvard speech – “What’s wrong with profit” - I shared my emerging concern with capitalism and its apparent inability to solve the world’s most pressing problems.


My simple thesis was this: too often, profit and value are not aligned. In other words, it is possible to earn profits without contributing to the things we all care about, like a fair and stable society and a healthy and sustainable environment. Even worse, profit is too often earned at the expense of social and environmental value.


My solution – certainly simple, probably naïve -- was to include changes in social and natural value in the measure of profit. Where profit detracted from social and natural value it would be reduced by the degree to which it did so. Similarly, when profit added to social and natural value it would be increased by that amount.


At the workshop my dear friend, the philosopher Simon Longstaff, provided a guiding framework for my explorations, as well as an illuminating way to measure value. Simon proposed designing an economic system on the premise that every human being has an equal share in the value of our social and natural endowment, which he called the Universal Commons. This resonated strongly with me. If we all had an equal right to the stock of social and natural value, we would be prepared to reward those who added to this stock and demand compensation from those who detracted from it. In this way, we could create a market economy in which profit and value were aligned.


Here are some of the other things I learnt in these past five years:


  • Economists describe the disconnect between profit and value as market failure. They largely attribute this failure to externalities – consequences of industrial or commercial activities (such as pollution or carbon emissions) which affect other parties without this impact being reflected in market prices. When profit exceeds value, the market is said to create negative externalities; when value exceeds profit, the market is said to create positive externalities.

  • To repair such market failure, we must be able to measure changes in social and environmental value, yet on its own, this capacity to measure, while crucial, is not a sufficient condition for repairing market failure.

  • Rather, there must also be changes to social norms, policies, laws and regulations – and the political will for change.

  • Changes to social norms, policies, laws and regulations must be initiated and implemented through robust democratic processes. When this happens, profit will align with value.

  • The role of business is to create profit within existing social norms, policies, laws and regulations. Yet too often business uses its wealth and power to undermine democratic processes and to prevent necessary changes to social norms and rules.


For many well-meaning businesses, the answer to this conundrum has been corporate social responsibility. Yet CSR turns out to be a dead end, because it cannot, in isolation, repair market failure. Competitive pressure prevents companies from unilaterally ameliorating their negative externalities. For the same reason, they cannot invest in positive externalities.


Instead of CSR, responsible business should focus on profitable opportunities, but support changes to social norms and rules that better align profit with social and environmental value. This strategy makes sense at any time, but especially in the times of social and environmental crisis in which we live.


For me these lessons were an end in themselves. They helped me to reconcile my increasing criticisms of capitalism with my enduring belief in its value to society. To put it another way, when profit aligns with value, it is earned and deserved, but when profit is earned at the expense of value it is neither earned nor deserved. Capitalism is not a values-free zone and there is no such thing as a free market. Instead, capitalism works when markets and business serve society. They serve society when the rules governing markets are created by a healthy democracy and when business obeys the letter and spirit of the law.


These lessons helped me reconcile my support for Milton Friedman’s assertion that the role of business is to make profit with my intuitive distaste for his politics. Friedman said something like this: “the role of business is to make profits; often the easiest way to make – or defend - profits is to bend the rules in favour of profit; therefore, business has a duty to bend the rules in favour of profit; and if we – society - let them do that we are suckers”. I find Friedman’s view here both naïve because it ignores the power of money to shape politics and society, and cynical, because it dismisses the possibility of business exercising restraint in its political activities to achieve a better social outcome.


In an article I have yet to write I will explain why I believe business has two moral standards. In its pursuit of profit - in its market role - it must follow Friedman’s dictum and pursue profit within the letter and spirit of the law. But in its political role it has a duty to ensure that its actions are consistent with the public good. It cannot lobby for changes that are good for profit but bad for society or the environment. The responsible business will meet a higher standard: it will actively support changes to social norms and rules that advance not only profit but also social and environmental value.


I must acknowledge that my broader impact from all this talking, reading and thinking has been modest; articles in The Harvard Business Review, the Stanford Social Innovation Review and Griffith Review, along with several opinion pieces in leading newspapers. The feedback from many readers was heartening, but unsatisfying. “Nice in theory, but how will any of this make any difference in the real world?”


How, then, can I apply these insights to the real world?


I have decided to pivot away from my philosophical and abstract inquiry, and to apply what I have learnt to global warming – a menacing example of market failure. When profit is earned alongside carbon emissions – as it is most of the time – profit is no longer equal to value. It cannot be reversed by the unilateral altruistic actions of a few businesses. It can only be reversed by changes to social norms and rules that apply to all businesses. And yet changes to these norms and rules are hard to implement because coal and oil companies, among others, are using their wealth and power to resist the necessary changes to social norms and rules.


What should business do when the market fails, when its profit-making activities contribute to global warming and when some powerful companies use their wealth and power to resist necessary changes?


An article I published with Reuben Finighan in the September 2021 issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review argued that to align profit and value, business should combine traditional investment with investment in advocacy.


I have spent the last 18 months bringing the argument of that article to life. Indulging my practical inclinations, I have applied my commercial skills to bring a modest version of this ideal to fruition at Trawalla Group - our family investment firm.


Our first challenge was to find investment opportunities that achieved normal commercial returns whilst helping to reduce emissions. We concluded that three relatively recent changes in the social and political environment would lead to an explosion of demand for high quality products and services that reduced carbon emissions. The first were the net zero commitments of hundreds of nations and thousands of firms, the second was rapidly improving CO2e measurement standards and the third was the inevitability of a crackdown on greenwashing.


Based on this analysis our family office has strategically allocated $100 million to “climate investing”. After extensive research and Due Diligence we have committed $65 million – with a number of additional investment opportunities in the pipeline. We are confident that these investments will deliver not only full commercial returns but will also contribute to achievement of the Paris targets.


But, following the logic of the Stanford article, this was not enough. By investing for commercial returns, we were merely capitalising on decades of social and political work by civil society and philanthropy. The relentless advocacy and lobbying of many NGOs and philanthropists has created the social and regulatory changes that have contributed to the net zero commitments of many countries and thousands of corporations, which in turn has created demand for carbon-reducing products and services.


And it is this demand that will underpin the profitable investments we are setting out to make. If we are to contribute, rather than merely profit from the work of others, we believe we have a moral duty to defend and reinforce these social and regulatory changes. We have a duty to advocate and lobby for social and regulatory changes that increase incentives for investment in carbon reducing products and services.


Our second challenge has been to justify “investment in advocacy”. Whilst we have never felt the need to justify our philanthropic support for climate NGO’s, we were squeamish about doing so when we had a commercial interest in the outcome. How, in principle, was our self-serving advocacy different from the PR campaigns and the behind-the-scenes lobbying of the coal and oil companies to safeguard their profits?


Having left philosophy and abstractions behind, my response is simple and pragmatic: we are living in exceptional times, and exceptional times demand exceptional behaviour, and create exceptional opportunities. We can and must emulate the lethally effective precedent of the oil and coal industries.


Out of all this thinking has emerged an important new initiative – the Transition Accelerator. This organisation, initially philanthropically funded, will support partnerships between business and civil society organisations to lobby for changes to social norms, policies, laws and regulations that support increased investment in carbon reducing products and services.


I am excited about this initiative because I think it will combine companies’ knowledge of where the opportunities for emissions reduction lie in their sectors with the ability of the best civil society organisations to make a powerful case to government and society for legal and regulatory change. Businesses and NGOs don’t always see eye to eye, but the current moment provides an extraordinary opportunity for them to work together on a shared goal: the achievement of a net zero economy and society by 2050. In contrast to the lobbying efforts of coal and oil, our shared advocacy will run powerfully with the arc of history.


I have posted two items for your consideration: a speech I gave launching the Transition Accelerator at the Climate Investor Conference in Melbourne, and a document describing the new organisation.


A very warm thanks to all of you who have accompanied me on this journey. I would be delighted if you would consider continuing it with me. If you would, please go to our new web site www.transitionaccelerator.com.au and insert your email for further updates and posts.


Alan


People, books and articles that shaped my thinking


People

1. Frederick Alexander: Introduced me to the work of the Shareholder Commons

2. David Andrich: Helped me appreciate the depth and quality of thinking in relation to measurement of social and natural assets.

3. Duncan Austin: Showed me the power of writing, and that I was not alone.

4. Clara Barby: Opened my eyes to the work of global organisations and to her excellent work in measurement.

5. Jo Barraket: Introduced me to the word “normative” and challenged me to define and explain my project.

6. Paolo Basilico: Had more confidence in me than I deserved.

7. Professor Eric Beinhocker: Pointed out that measurement was a necessary but not sufficient condition to create markets for social and natural assets

8. Tony Berg: Gave me insights into the likely response of thoughtful business leaders to my project.

9. Amit Bouri: Introduced me to the broader world of impact investment and openly shared its challenges and opportunities.

10. Tim Buckley: Introduced me to the global network of passionate climate philanthropists and activists and demonstrated the criticality of effective communications.

11. James Button: Accepted my request to help me write better – and then assisted my thinking as well.

12. Oliver Cansdell: worked hard to put together a workshop in London on the proposed Nesta prize for measurement of social and natural capital.

13. Sir Ronald Cohen: Demonstrated the possibility of profit alongside impact and acknowledged the importance of measurement.

14. Robert Costanza: Enriched my understanding of natural capital and introduced me to the concept of the “well-being economy”

15. Peter Cosier: Gave me confidence that measurement of natural capital is possible and making good strides.

16. John Daley: In the context of philanthropy, explained the power and leverage of advocacy; a concept I was able to apply to business and markets.

17. Nathaniel Dalton: chatted at a Conscious Capitalism conference in Washington and showed me that I was not alone in my project.

18. Glyn Davies: Had more confidence in me than I deserved.

19. Andrew Davies: Spent many hours explaining B Lab and debated how much investment in social responsibility we could reasonably expect from business

20. Tim Dean: Listened to my very early thinking and helped me to refine my thinking and to express it in a number of Universal Commons Posts

21. Richard Denniss: Showed me how economics is not, cannot be and should not be a values free zone

22. Paula Di Perna: Explained why the Chicago Carbon Exchange collapsed and offered some important lessons learned for early movers

23. John Elkington: Offered wise counsel, friendship and generosity

24. Jed Emerson: Shared early drafts of his long meditation on impact investing and markets

25. Simon Faivel: Introduced me to the world of social impact measurement.

26. Reuben Finighan: Was my most important guide on this journey – an intellectual mentor and an economic advisor - and protected me from many mistakes and missteps.

27. William Fisher: Was my first encounter with the world of measurement and taught me about the importance of measurement if we are to create markets for social and natural capital.

28. Lynn Forester de Rothschild: Introduced me to Conscious Capitalism and the power of personal networks.

29. Professor Ross Garnaut: Had more confidence in me than I deserved.

30. Lisa George: Indirectly launched the Universal Commons Project by asking me to address the Harvard Club in 2017

31. Emily Gerrard: Gave me insights into the global climate movement and the role and importance of legal frameworks.

32. Simon Goff: Gave me insights into how activist civil society works.

33. Saul Griffith: Demonstrated the power of bold and grand thinking and excellent communication.

34. Nicholas Gruen: An early and consistent critic, accusing me of being a “nominalist”. Helped me understand how little I understood about the problems I was tackling and the solutions I was proposing.

35. David Halpern: Helped me understand how my thinking fitted into a public policy perspective.

36. Steve Hamilton: Gave me encouragement by reaching out and praising an article I wrote with Reuben Finighan.

37. Jeremy Heimans: Showed me what a smart, bold and fierce NGO can achieve.

38. Ken Henry: Shared his insights into the economics of valuing natural capital.

39. John Hepburn: Showed me what a smart, bold and fierce NGO can achieve.

40. Dr Mary Johnston-Louis: Encouraged my work and introduced me to leading thinkers and academics.

41. Tim King: Showed how an Impact Investor can use traditional advocacy channels to advance social and environmental objectives.

42. Larry Kramer: Shared his ideas about philanthropy, capitalism and democracy and how these prompted the establishment of the Madison Initiative.

43. Bridget Kustin: Challenged my assumption that family investment firms are more enlightened and public spirited than public investment firms.

44. Simon Longstaff: Provided the moral and intellectual foundation for the Universal Commons Project, and encouraged me to keep aiming high

45. Professor Geoff Masters: Showed me how measurement science was being applied to measuring educational outcomes.

46. Colin Mayer: At a wonderful dinner in a glorious ancient library in Oxford, introduced me to the idea of the Universal Owner

47. Rob Moodie: Used his lived experience in public health to argue that business should have no role in the development of policies and laws that govern business

48. Bill Mountford: Has provided consistent, high quality critiques of my thinking and writing

49. Geoff Mulgan: As CEO of NESTA, supported my proposal to conduct a global competition for the measurement of social and natural capital

50. Carl Obst: Provided insights into his work on natural capital accounting and sustainability

51. Thomas O’Neil: Introduced me to his Universal Owner initiative

52. Ben Oquist: Taught me the power of effective advocacy.

53. Tim Orton: Challenged me to get practical and create a “gadget” – is the Transition Accelerator a gadget?

54. Joshua Pearl: Had more confidence in me than I deserved.

55. Mike Salvaris: Demonstrated the many varied approaches to measuring social and natural capital.

56. Sanjay Purohit: Listened patiently to my early unformed thoughts and give me insights into large scale philanthropy and social activism.

57. Subramanian Rangan: Provided invaluable feedback – in particular the need to absorb prior art before trying add to it - and invited me his course at INSEAD

58. Susheela Peres da Costa: Helped me understand how institutional investors can contribute to the change we need.

59. Martin Rich: Showed how difficult it is for business to invest in social or environmental improvement when there are no incentives to do so.

60. David Ritter: Befriended me and exposed me to the rational side of radical action.

61. Judith Rodin: Challenged me for over complicating the solution.

62. Anna Rose: Introduced me to wonderful people in the climate advocacy space.

63. Mark Rudder: Helped me understand the communications imperative of social change.

64. Oscar Schwartz: Warned me that my project would involve a lot more politics than I realised.

65. Nicole Scurrah: Showed how the climate challenge was bringing out the entrepreneurial streak in people with corporate backgrounds.

66. Anna Skarbek: Explained how net zero commitments would create markets for carbon reducing products and services.

67. Jennifer Slansky-Juster: Introduced me to the idea of “pre-competitive collaboration.

68. Tim Smit: Gave me confidence in the possibility of bold thinking.

69. Bernard Stapleton: Gave me great soral support and for introduced me to Subi Rangan.

70. Gavin Starks: Helped me understand that in order to create a market for social and environmental goods and services we need demand.

71. Gary Stoneham: Shared his method for measuring ecosystem stock levels.

72. Professor Olinga Ta’eed: Opened my eyes to the almost infinite approaches to solving social and environmental challenges

73. Eran Tal: Shared lunch with me in Paris prior to the Epistemology of measurement conference.

74. Mathew Tominc: Offered thoughtful and practical feedback on the opportunities for and limitations of impact investment

75. Olivier Usher: Graciously accepted my conclusion that a global prize for measurement of social and natural capital may not be a good investment.

76. Iain Walker: Offered a possible solution to my quest for “democratic legitimacy” for business advocacy and lobbying.

77. Danielle Walker Palmour: Invited all the right people to a lunch I hosted in London

78. Samuel Wills: Enthusiastically supported the project and offered creative economic insights

79. Mark Wilson: In his UC Berkely office, debated the limits of measurement of social assets and attended the Epistemology of Measurement conference in Paris with me.

80. Jodi York: Showed me how it was possible to estimate the “value of free”


Books

1. Acemoglu and Robinson: The Narrow Corridor

2. Peter Barnes: Capitalism 3.0

3. Eric Beinhocker: The Origin of wealth

4. William Bernstein: The Birth of plenty

5. David Bollier: Think like a commoner

6. Howard Bowen: Social responsibilities of the businessman

7. Hasok Chang: Inventing Temperature

8. Robert Heilbroner: Nature and logic of capitalism

9. Michael Heller: Gridlock economy

10. Hilary Cottam: Radical Help

11. Alfred Crosby: The Measure of Reality

12. Colin Crouch: Making capitalism fit for society

13. Hernando De soto: The mystery of capital

14. Lee Drutman: The business of America is lobbying

15. Eccles and Krzus The integrated reporting movement

16. Lindy Edwards: Corporate power in Australia

17. John Elkington: Green Swans

18. Milton Friedman: Capitalism and freedom

19. John K Galbraith: Economics in perspective

20. Ross Garnaut: super Power

21. Bill Gates: How to avoid a climate disaster

22. Anand Giridharadas Winners take all

23. Jane Gleeson-White: Author of Six Capitals

24. Stephen Gould: The Mismeasure of Man

25. Haskel and Westlake: Capitalism without capital

26. Michael Heller: The gridlock economy

27. Joseph Heath: Morality, competition and the firm

28. Rebecca Henderson: reimagining capitalism

29. Thomas Hobbes: author of the Leviathan

30. Marjorie Kelly: The divine right of capital

31. Marjorie Kelly Owning our future

32. Herbert Klein: Science of Measurement

33. Timothy Kuhner: Capitalism vs democracy

34. Lakov and Johnson Metaphors we live by

35. Andro Linklater: Owning the earth

36. Nancy MacLean: Democracy in chains

37. Felix Martin: Money

38. Mariana Mazzucato: The Value of everything

39. Donella Meadows: Thinking in systems

40. Jerry Muller The Tyranny of Metrics

41. Douglass North: Understanding the process of economic change

42. Mancur Olson: The rise and decline of nations

43. Mancur Olson: The logic of collective action

44. Elinor Ostrom: Governing the Commons

45. Katharina Pistor: The code of capital

46. Karl Polanyi: The great transformation

47. Richard Posner: The crisis of capitalist democracy

48. Pufendorf: On the duty of man and citizen

49. Jonathan Rauch: Governments end

50. John Rawls: Theory of justice

51. Kate Raworth Doughnut economics

52. Robert Reich: The common good

53. Robert Reich: The system

54. Carl Rhodes: Woke Capitalism

55. Kim Stanley Robinson: Ministry for the future

56. Carol Rose: Property and persuasion

57. Jonathan Rowe: Our Common wealth

58. Michael Sandel: Author of What Money cant buy

59. E.F. Schumacher: Small is beautiful

60. Tomas Sedlacek: Economics of good and evil

61. Shapin and Shaffer: Leviathan and air pump

62. Anat Shenker-Orsorio Don’t buy it

63. Wolgang Streeck: How will Capitalism end?

64. Adam Smith: Author of The Wealth of Nations

65. Jean Tirole: Economics for the common good

66. Marian Wilkinson: The Carbon club

67. Mary Wood; Trusts nature

68. Luigi Zingales: A capitalism for the people


Articles

1. Accountability and the UN Global compact towards responsible lobbying

2. Kenneth Arrow: social responsibility and economic efficiency

3. Subhabrata Banergee: CSR the good the bad and the ugly

4. Archie Carroll: Pyramid of social responsibility

5. Ron Coase: The problem of social cost

6. Colin Crouch: Organisation Studies

7. Citizens Assemblies can help repair dysfunctional democracies

8. Edward and Wilmott: Corporate citizenship - the rise and demise of a myth

9. Ludwig Finkelstein: Hard and soft measurement

10. Seth Godin: Economics is messy

11. Hart and Zingales: The new corporate governance

12. Michael Jensen: Value maximisation and the corporate objective function

13. Joseph Heath: Adversarial ethic

14. Joseph Heath: A market failures approach to business ethics

15. Stuart Kirk: ESG must be split in two

16. Makinen and Kasanen: Boundaries between business and politics

17. Margolis and Walsh: Rethinking social initiatives by business

18. Rob Moodie: Profits and pandemics

19. Palazzo and Mena: Input and output legitimacy of multi-stakeholder initiatives

20. Philips and Margolis: Ethics of organisations

21. Ken Pucker: The trillion dollar fantasy

22. Auden Schendler: The big Whiff

23. Scherer and palazzo Toward a political conception of corporate responsibility

24. Peter Ulrich: Integrative economic Ethics

25. Norman Wayne: Business ethics as self regulation

26. Luigi Zingales: political theory of the firm

27. Martin Wolf: Business leaders have to play a better political role

Comments


bottom of page