Coral Reefs, Rainforests, and the Human Body
The Battle Between the Unicorns and Zebras and How “More Forever” Can Be Self-Destructive.
Let me start with a short story:
Two CEOs from two different companies were having a meeting with their board of directors and investors. I am summarizing those meetings:
The first one told them: our potentia
l for growth in unlimited. I am making our company a trillion Euros corporation. It is going to be the biggest company in the world.
The second CEO told them: I am not interested in growth for the sake of growth. I’m interested in leading a balanced and meaningful company working for everybody’s well-being.
Here is my question: Which of the CEOs is making the board of directors and investors happy? I don’t have a proper and immediate answer, but I might talk about this before ending this post.
I. The Balance of Life:
1. A coral reef is an underwater ecosystem characterized by reef-building corals. Reefs are formed of colonies of coral polyps held together by calcium carbonate. The original reefs appeared around 500 million years ago, and some biologists call them the rainforest of the sea because they are some of the Earth’s most diverse ecosystems, providing homes to at least 25% of all marine species.
2. Rainforests are forests characterized by high and continuous rainfall, with annual rainfall in the case of tropical rainforests between 2.5 and 4.5 meters a year. It is estimated that 40 to 75% of all biotic species are indigenous to the rainforests. There may be many millions of species of plants, insects and microorganisms still undiscovered in tropical rainforests. The rainforests have been called the Jewels of the Earth and the "world's largest pharmacy," because over one quarter of natural medicines have been discovered there. Rainforests are also responsible for 28% of the world's oxygen turnover.
3. The human body is the structure of a human being. It is composed of many different types of cells that together create tissues and subsequently organ systems. They ensure homeostasis and the viability of the human body. The study of the human body involves anatomy, physiology, histology and embryology. The body varies anatomically in known ways. Physiology focuses on the systems and organs of the human body and their functions. Many systems and mechanisms interact in order to maintain homeostasis, with safe levels of substances such as sugar and oxygen in the blood. The human body is also an ecosystem. There are trillions tiny organisms living in and on it. These organisms are known as microbes and include bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Because of this, our body is a unique ecosystem.
These three seemingly disconnected ecosystems are vital for the sustainability of life on planet Earth — obvious, isn’t it? But to close this point, I would like to ask some basic questions: What would happen if any of these ecosystems start growing unchecked and unstoppably? Would that be normal? Alarming? Dangerous?
My first guess is that we would be seeing this growth as abnormal. Unlimited or unchecked growing does not exist in Nature. It is simply unhealthy because the ecosystems would be out of balance. An ecosystem based on the premise of unlimited growth would make sense only if it had unlimited physical space at its disposal for expansion. On the contrary, the physical space available on Earth is circumscribed and finite.
II. Unicorns versus Zebras
The following short story is from a book I recently read The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel:
At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal, Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel Catch-22 over its whole history. Heller responds, “Yes, but I have something he will never have…enough.”
Enough. I was stunned by the simple eloquence of that word –stunned for two reasons: first, because I have been given so much in my own life and, second, because Joseph Heller couldn’t have been more accurate.
For a critical element of society, including many of the wealthiest and most powerful among us, there seems to be no limit today on what enough entails.
“For every unicorn we talk about today, there are a few hundred dead mules behind it. 9 out of 10 start-ups fail and, in failing, probably take the life savings of the founder (s) with them”. Chris Skinner blog (February 11th, 2021).
In 2013, Aileen Lee — a venture capitalist — coined the term unicorn to describe a company with a $1billion value: choosing the mythical animal to represent the statistical rarity of such successful ventures. In 2013 there were 39 unicorns, while today there are over 600 in the world. This increasing figure can create a certain distortion — conveying the sensation of an inevitable ascending path to the unstoppable proliferation of unicorns, losing its out-of-reality mythological status.
Perhaps that is why nowadays a lot of people working in startups, fintechs, or businesses linked to the digital economy have the tendency to think against the statistical reality. We see more or less the same mentality with every young person developing an app, having the inclination of thinking s/he will instantaneously become the CEO of a unicorn. In our current digital economy, we can see some unicorns that
have passed the $50 billion value. From my perspective, this shows a lack of satisfaction, with their growth seeming to be endless.
At COMO we are not thinking that way. Our goal is not growing for the sake of growing; or profiting for the sake of profiting; and success is not just financial success.
In the world of start-up investments, it is common to prefer quantity over quality, as it is common to be chasing the biggest valuation possible regardless of the project’s output and impact (that is one of the many reasons for the popularity of unicorns).
At COMO, we are looking and aiming at Transformation. Let me clarify we are NOT against money nor against the making of a wealthy fintech. We are focusing on creativity, knowing very well that wealth will inevitably be part of our company. Let me illustrate with a common example: a young musician, completely dedicated to the creativity and beauty of music, will eventually — most likely — create the proper conditions for her professional and financial success — even if that wasn’t her initial goal.
In this financial zoo of unicorns, we actually spent time finding a more interesting animal: the zebra. A zebra is a fintech usually owned by women or ethnically diverse people and are both for-profit and for a cause. They are not mythical creatures like the unicorn, but realistic and idealistic endeavors. The zebra, besides being in the business of creating wealth, is invested in the social and political engagement of social causes such as the environment, education, housing, and in short: community developments.
After a quiet and patient reflection, COMO has taken the path of the zebra, thinking we will be instrumental in the enterprise of the betterment of the world.
Quoting Max Lyadvinsky — CEO of Bloomio:
“Zebra start-ups have what is called a ‘double bottom line’—which gauges success between the alleviation of social, environmental and medical challenge while tending to their own profitability. It is this balance which is only becoming more appealing to the investor of today.”
It is not rare then that zebras have become a shorthand for aspiring entrepreneurs, investors, media, and adjacent communities as the expression and signal of forward-thinking, long-game economy and business culture where ambitious companies build the goods and services we need for the society we want. Together zebras are creating an emergent, grassroots movement to introduce a pluralistic approach to business processes and development.
Our wealth is not just for us.
We know the unicorn model operates under the logic of the insatiable economic system praising the infinite reproduction of capital (exponential growth); the historical unlimited production and waste; and brutal competition. All these factors have led to the creation of monopolies and the augmentation of the inequality gap in the world.
We also know the zebra model operates under a new logic of sustainability, collaboration, social engagement, community and a balance of growth and conservation. This is a new economy propelled by the unquestionable facts of the immense wealth that the Digital Economy is able to produce. Thus, at the moment of comparing both animals, we realize that we are in a crucial historical moment. Our luck is that we have the privilege of choosing, and we are choosing quality over quantity; and for a model that is not operating on a growth at all costs. In this case, our business model is our message: our commitment is not only to money but to our people and our community.
III. Our current Myth of Unlimited Growth and/or Unlimited Resources
When I was growing up, I heard the story about a reclusive neighbor. He was perhaps 35-40 years old, but for me he was really old (I was around 12 back then).
The story went like this: he had inherited a huge amount of money, and every month he was taking a salary to pay his bills: mortgage, utilities, food, and comic books (he had a passion for comic books, especially Superman, Spider Man and Batman). He had distributed his monthly income based on the insane assumption that he would be dead on the day of his 50th birthday.
It turned out that he lived longer. The story goes that in his old age he became mentally ill, homeless, and he ended-up dying on the streets. That is what we call bad planning and living outside reality. Once you spend your limited resources, they might be gone for good.
The whole of modern society and all national economies of developed, developing, and undeveloped countries alike, are currently based on the presupposition of unlimited growth, implying unlimited resources. This has become a basic principle, an untouchable myth, and almost a categorical imperative: a company that is not producing or selling more than in the previous year is apt to be talked about as “in trouble.” If the company’s profits diminish, they become losses; and if the process continues, the road fatally leads to bankruptcy, liquidation, or acquisition by a stronger company.
Somehow it seems to me that behind this presupposition of unlimited growth, we can see the roots of the current destructive pattern of the global economy. These roots go way back but were taken up by capitalism in rapidly increasing ways. As there can be no such thing as capitalism without growth, we must go beyond capitalism. But this questionable model was also present in the 20th century socialism, so it goes deeper than the systems we know.
The sociologist Edgardo Lander believes that, independently of the economic mode of production or ideology, it is a profound civilizational pattern, being the problem that the vast majority of the world has incorporated this view of unlimited growth in their subjectivity, as if happiness depended on it and never-ending accumulation of things is our primary goal. Lander argues that people who believe otherwise are seen as ridiculous, primitive and not scientific (he mentions indigenous people who refer to Mother Earth and assume we are part of nature). For the sociologist, unlimited growth “is part of the dynamics of modern capitalism and a vital requirement for the pattern of civilization. No government in the world would say that the purpose of the economy isn’t growth. It is hard to envision any party that proposed a 10% shrinking of economy would get any votes.”
Now, an economic system based on the premise of unlimited growth would make sense only if it had unlimited resources and unlimited space. As Giacomo De Sabata points out: “a planetary economic system that is based on the premise of growth without limits is simply inconceivable. In the long run, a way must be found to replace the principle of growth by the principle of conservation…one of the key conditions to make that transformation possible is the urgent general recognition that an economic planetary system based on the premise of a steady upward trend makes no sense: that the myth itself of unlimited growth is false and deceiving, and that Humankind had better get rid of it without delay.”
The previous ideas can give us the suggestion that our mainstream economic theory is fundamentally flawed, showing how the expectation for endless growth is so deeply ingrained into what we expect the future to be, that we do not even question the assumption.
Decision makers assume that changes today will lead to predictable and/or reversible outcomes. This is a myth. There are fallacies throughout the assumptions of predictability, reversibility, and endless growth. When reasoning is based upon a flawed foundation, bad choices can appear reasonable. This work shows that the future is not what it is supposed to be.
Before continuing on a long controversial diatribe, I would like to suggest that perhaps this myth of unlimited growth might be part of our collective self.
Dr. Philip Cushman, in his book Constructing the Self, Constructing America: a Cultural History of Psychotherapy, refers to the empty self as the “predominant Psychological configuration of our era. He traces the origin of this empty self to “the rise of the industrial state, the attendant of loss of community and the press of consumerism”. He suggests that the empty self’s “insatiable, gnawing sense of internal emptiness drives individuals to yearn to be fill up; to feel whole, solid, self-confident, in contact with others”. I would add that unlimited personal wealth and unlimited company’s growth, play a bit part on filling that empty self.
I would like to finish transcribing the words of William S. Strauss, from an excerpt of the abstract of his PhD dissertation in Earth and Environmental Sciences and Economics. Then, I would like to ask just two short questions.
“In the shadows beneath the foundations of capitalism lurk assumptions that are so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible. This research works back to the source of the myth of endless growth and suggests that the source is simply something we have made up. Furthermore, with increasing rigor, it exposes the fallacies that allow our world-view to take endless growth as a given and natural state upon which we can make choices; upon which, in the aggregate, are taking humankind on a very bad trip. Unaware, we are blinded from knowledge because we do not question the assumption of more forever. The regime of endless growth is a sort of fission-like chain reaction in which, depending upon one’s perspective, the by-products are desirable or toxic. This research shows that some of the by-products are social and ecological anti-matter.”
By becoming obsessed with unlimited growth and the infinite reproduction of wealth, are we unconsciously working really hard towards our own self-destruction?
Are we on target thinking the myth of endless growth could be the grandest Ponzi scheme in history?
Most of the ideas on this blog are coming from the following sources:
N3F “Our Favorite Startup Animal? Zebras!” (unknown author).
Bright, Bonnie (editor) Depth Psychology & The Digital Age. 2016. Depth Insights Publications. USA.
De Sabata, Giacomo “The False Myth of Unlimited Economic Growth” Environmental Conservation, Vol. 22 Nr 3, Autumn 1995 The Foundation of Environmental Conservation. www.cambridge.org/core
Fintech Global. “Reduced appetite for large deals is causing a drop in InsurTech funding”. November 2017.
Housel, Morgan.2020 The Psychology of Money Harriman House Ltd. London Lander, Edgardo. “How the myth of unlimited growth is destroying the planet”. 2009. www.tni.org/es/node/3358
Lyadvinsky, Max. “Why investors must stop hunting unicorn start-ups and start nurturing zebras”. 2019. Published by FinTech Futures.
Mills, Paula. “Unicorns and Zebras –What type of entrepreneur are you? July 2020. Published by Academy of Entrepreneurs.
Skinner, Chris. Personal blog thefinanser.com
Strauss, William S. “The fallacy of endless growth: exposing Capitalism unsustainability”. 2008. Doctoral Dissertation 463. University of New Hampshire Scholars' Repository scholars.unh.edu/dissertation/463
Carlos Corea Lacayo PHD
Chief Identity Officer Senior Advisor to the Board of Directors