Does the success of Tesla represent a 'Green Swan' event?

Posted on April 14, 2022 by Zachary Visconti

As the climate crisis reaches a frightening point of no return, companies are trying to step up to enact real change to save the planet. One such company includes Tesla, led by Elon Musk to produce electric vehicles at greater volumes than any company has ever dared to do before.

Above: Tesla's Model 3 (Unsplash: Alex Hagenbuch)

The term “black swan” was popularized in 2007 by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, meaning unpredictable large-scale events with major and negative implications, which society rationalizes in hindsight to seem as if they could have been predicted from the beginning.

Examples of black swans include the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine, among other examples.

In a more positive follow-up to the term that calls the world to action against climate change, Author John Elkington later introduced the concept of the “green swan” in the 2020 book Green Swans: The Coming Boom In Regenerative Capitalism, according to Forbes.

In the book, Elkington defines green swans as “solutions that take us exponentially toward breakthrough,” later adding that they are “systemic solutions to global challenges, solutions that tap into positive exponentials.”

These events, as Elkington details, are larger than a single person or company, and can’t be predicted, though they result in necessary, positive impacts, unlike black swans. Rather, green swans encapsulate broader leaps in progress such as the mainstream adoption of electric vehicles — a burgeoning movement that has been spearheaded by Tesla and Musk. 

Above: A look at the overall electric vehicle scene, globally, and Tesla's key role in its growth moving forward (YouTube: CNBC Television)

To solve the complexity of the modern world’s climate crisis, Elkington explains that concepts like the green swan are needed to re-frame the situation in ways that can help companies and individuals talk about and act to create solutions.

Elkington said, “Change as usual, incremental innovation, and even some radical innovation as we know it is not enough.” Elkington added, “because the degree of change that we need in order to save our planet and the people living on it is at an entirely different scale. We need system-wide, global changes in the economy, politics, culture, technology, and so on. Green Swans reflect such breakthrough changes.”

The life-cycle emissions of EVs are vastly lower than those of internal combustion engines across the supply chain, but real change begins when consumers can afford them en masse.

And as Elkington also explains, more green swans are needed to make a dent in the current climate crisis. Another important example of a green swan may include the move away from fossil fuels in markets worldwide.

Just last month, Financial Times reported that the combination of clean energy sources from solar, wind, hydro, nuclear and bioenergy produced more electricity worldwide than coal in 2021 for the first time ever — a win in the face of a complex web of climate challenges.

It’s tough to predict what “ugly ducklings,” as Elkington calls them, may turn out to be green swans after all, which is the point of the concept's unpredictability as defined by Elkington.

While drastic changes to markets around the world will be needed to make a positive impact on the planet, some of the fruits of the first few green swans have been spotted — and hopefully, they’ll pave the way for the next few in the years to come.

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Sources: Forbes / Financial Times

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