We are what we read illustration

We are what we read: In conversation with John Elkington

For Neste’s Journey to Zero “We are what we read” series, Irja Howie speaks to author and sustainability guru John Elkington, a member of Neste’s Sustainability Advisory Council, about his favorite reads.

When asked if he is an avid reader, Elkington laughs and points out that every wall in his house is covered in hundreds of books – which to him is an important daily reminder of how much more there is still to read and learn. “I was born curious,” he explains and adds: “And to be able to quietly go into a completely different world – how immensely exciting is that?”

He usually has a handful of books on the go. “I’ve always been a manic reader, but the kinds of things I read have changed over the years. When the children were young, I used to read more fiction. And before social media, when I traveled the world constantly, I’d gather all kinds of magazines by the armful at airports and devour them on flights.”

As a prolific author himself, Elkington says that the influence of reading on his writing is enormous and continual – “but sometimes hard to fathom. What you read just becomes a part of who you are, and it can be impossible to retrieve the specific lightbulb moment.”

He illustrates his point by looking back at the Triple Bottom Line concept he came up with in 1994 after 18 months of thinking about it. “I had an acute sense that I’d read something like that before. But it was only years later, when I was clearing out old books and came across a copy of Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave – which had a big influence on the way I think – and I saw inside a section heading called Multiple Bottom Lines, that I realized that this had been the seed that had then grown in my brain.”

The book Elkington wanted to talk about specifically for We Are What We Read is Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – a tome that had a profound impact on him as a 14-year-old boy in the 1960s.

When I suggested that it didn’t seem like an obvious choice for a teenager he said: “I’ve always been an outlier, liking to read around all kinds of subjects. The school that I went to had a spectacular library which I was forever prowling for books that were a little off the beaten track.”

He can’t recall whether he happened on the book by chance or whether it was recommended to him, but he found it transformative. “The book startled me. Kuhn showed that how we view the world is learned, acquired from our parents, teachers, culture, education. For the first time I saw how plastic our sense of reality is, how it can change, and how we struggle to cope with those very big disruptive shifts that happen every 80 years or so.”

He points out that we are going through the late stages of just such a paradigm shift as we speak, an experience that he says for many can feel nauseating: “Eight billion people live on this tiny planet, exerting an impact akin to geological forces on it. We used to think that we could do what we like – that God would sort it all out. But now, increasingly, we are forced to admit that what we have been doing is radically destabilizing our planet – and it is up to us do something about it.”

Elkington says Kuhn’s book started a process of enquiry which led him to study economics and soon after to switch to sociology – “because I was interested in the plasticity of our sense of reality, and also specifically in how people with different religions see and interpret reality in very different ways.

“Kuhn started the process for me of lots of things bubbling up - turning my brain upside down.”

But despite the book’s lasting impact on him - and there being at least five copies on his shelves that Elkington continues to dip into once in a while - he doesn’t necessarily recommend others to read it: “It is actually really badly written. What is important is that it unleashed the idea of the paradigm shift, which is now in the mainstream, and a hugely useful concept and tool.

“It’s a term that is both widely used and widely abused now. But what he argued was that these convulsive moments challenge our sense of identity. The Copernican shift, for example, hinged on the fact that we are not the center of the universe, but a tiny speck on the distant fringes.”

Would it be the book he would take with him on a desert island? Again, a no – and after a moment of reflection he says: “It’s a tough question. But on balance, I would probably take a book of poetry – by Gary Snyder, or Ted Hughes. With poetry you keep discovering new layers, new lenses.”



Irja Howie, UK-based journalist and communications expert.

Sign up for our newsletter
Subscribe to our newsletter and get inspiration and insight for your Journey to Zero.