Book Reviews: Environmental, Military and Political
Screw Business as Usual by Richard Branson
Read by Tracy in January 2012
Tracy recommends as an exuberant look at changing the way we do business
This is a tough book to categorise and I put it here, instead of in the Political section, although there are significant crossovers. Screw Business as Usual is Richard Bransonís plan to save the planet through an initiative called Capitalism 24902 which focuses on people and the communities they are forming to change the world (pg 327). Branson argues that by changing the way we do business to a more ethical and transparent model it still allows good financial results to be achieved (pg 3). He does have a point historically business is all about making money for the directors and shareholders, ignoring society, and of course this has had some drastic consequences in the last few years with the global financial crisis. Branson makes some interesting points and analogies about our current situation in relation to climate change and the environment where our resources are being used up at an unprecedented rate and what is left is becoming heavily polluted. This rapid depletion of natural resources is a significant threat to humanity (pgs 5 and 20), but all is not lost and Branson comes up with lots of examples and you can start to imagine a world where urban architecture combines the beauty of natural systems such as vertical and roof farms, solar and wind energy and community based living (pg 23). As well as local action, there needs to be measurable action from our largest corporations in changing and reducing carbon emissions and again in addition to the changes Branson has been implementing in Virgin, he cites how Marks & Spencer now recycle 94% of their waste and have achieved a long list of commitments in one year instead of the five years it was estimated. Their project became cost neutral in only its second year (pg 41) which is a phenomenal achievement and shows that if you are committed to changing your business model, it is achievable in financial terms. In relation to the Copenhagen Conference, I too was not the only person disappointed when no realistic commitments were finalised, but Branson doesn't seem to fully understand that his vision of a global village is an impossible dream in the current climate when nobody is willing to take the helm and although there are a never ending stream of good intention people, they tend to focus on their one specific issue not a global or even national agenda.
I wholeheartedly agree with Branson's stance on charity - he does not give money without questioning who is getting their hands on it and what they're using it for as his investments must have the best possible social and environmental return (pg 9). Branson uses his Virgin conglomerate to make positive change happen, stepping away from the usual handouts, instead offering targeted help where it can be most effective. He realises that the majority of people don't want to be told what's good for them, instead they want to be involved in making their own lives better which can only happen at the local level (pg 33) but this is hampered by not enough jobs available. This is where Branson wants to focus and he is developing local entrepreneurship through various acadamies and centres to encourage locals who have the vision but not the means to achieve it. Similar in concept to micro-financing initiatives that were started Muhammad Yunus. This is a radically different concept to the current mentality with NGO's and governments who have been trying to solve the world's issues by pounding trillions of dollars into aid and we still see no significant solutions to possibility of meeting the Millenium goals (pgs 53 and 121).
It isn't all about people, Branson also supports a huge variety of organisations aimed at helping our wild creatures either through conservation or education and although a lot of his focus on the book was in relation to Africa, you realise that he is involved in many global initiatives. For me, particular interest was in the work he is doing to draw attention to and eradicate shark hunting (Sharkwater documentary) which is a disgraceful practice of capturing sharks to fin them and then allowing the shark to drown - all for a minority in the Asian market.
However, I do disagree with Branson on quite a few areas, particularly in relation to his excitement when Avaaz delivered a petition to the UN of 500,000 signatures to call for changes in the war on drugs. What was the UN response, yet another UN task force to develop yet another approach to drugs and organized crime (pg 303). I have become increasingly cynical about any benefits of the UN after they have constantly let down the people they are meant to protect (Rwanda is a prime example) and do we need yet more task forces to tell us what we already know, the same with the quantity of NGOís etc, a lot seem to reinvent the wheel instead of grouping together and becoming a larger organisation. On the opposite side to those negative thoughts there is one shining star in Bransonís book, Ela Bhatt, who argues that we should not rush to modernize and urbanise our world - technology and capital can in fact create imbalance and we should look more closely at the economic and social structures that are being dismantled in the name of development (pg 311). What a fantastic and realistic thought, like a breath of fresh air in a world where we must race to garner more and more assets instead of looking at our social structures to understand what drives this constant and unsustainable rush towards consumerism. There are also some great examples of business ventures i.e. Ecotact which provides clean toilets and sanitation in Africa through a sustainable low cost business model. However, the highlight and lightbulb company for me was Pavegen Slabs - the energy it captures from people walking on the paving slabs generates electricity and stores it for up to three days, thereby providing street lighting etc and even the slabs are made from recyclable items such as car tyres, so simple.
Branson's style of writing is relaxed and exuberant, but I felt the book would have benefitted from some good editing, there are a lot of duplications and Bransonís own stories started to take over from others and in several areas it became more of a who's who instead of a guide to how we can Screw Business as Usual, although if there are any tickets going a trip to Necker Island sounds nice.