The consequences of the Great Acceleration

“We’ve watched the COVID-19 situation unfold at incredible speed… The climate crisis is playing out on a much slower timeframe. We know roughly what to expect and when to expect it, and we should be preparing with the same level of urgency.”

We are literally going to start this chapter on a burning platform. But probably not one you would expect.

One July night in 1988, Daryl Connor, a consultant and writer, was watching the news on TV when he heard about a horrific explosion on the Piper Alpha oil rig in the North Sea just outside of Scotland. The explosion and subsequent fires destroyed the platform and claimed 167 lives. What captured his interest was the story of one of the survivors, Andy Mochan.

The explosion had abruptly woken Andy up in his quarters and injured him badly. He still somehow managed to escape to the platform edge. Daryl Connor writes: “Beneath him, oil had surfaced and ignited. Twisted steel and other debris littered the surface of the water. Because of the water’s temperature, he knew that he could live a maximum of only 20 minutes if not rescued. Despite all that, Andy jumped fifteen stories from the platform to the water. When asked why he took that potentially fatal leap, he did not hesitate. He said, “It was either jump or fry.” He chose possible death over certain death. Andy jumped because he felt he had no choice — the price of staying on the platform was too high.”

/ It helps us realise that we often don’t move until we have to — or until we have a real crisis on our hands /

Daryl Connor used the story in one of his 1990s management books as a metaphor for describing the determined commitment needed to create a significant change. Today, the metaphor is most often used to convey the message that remaining with the status quo, or staying put, is not an option and that something needs to be done even if it may be both risky and uncertain. The story may, however, create slightly different associations than it did 25 years ago when the oil and gas industry was booming. Today, it is an industry in transformation due to another burning platform (climate change) and an increasing focus on renewable energy. As a metaphor, however, it is still highly relevant because it shows the difficulty and importance of making a choice and taking action, especially when we feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. Further, it helps us realise that we often don’t move until we have to — or until we have a real crisis on our hands. I am confident that Andy would not have made the fifteen-story jump into the cold water were it not for the imminent threat to his life.

So let’s jump right in.

“The Great Acceleration of the world economy over the last 70 years has brought an unprecedented increase in output and human welfare. Human population grew from 2.5 billion in 1950.”

Over the past century, the world has seen unprecedented economic development and an exponentially growing population. Industrialization and globalization have led to wealth and prosperity; they have increased our lifespan by decades and brought billions out of poverty across the globe.

The exponentially growing GDP has simply created a brand new world over the last century. When my own grandmother was born in 1908, most Swedish households still had no electricity and none had the modern appliances that we take for granted today. When my grandmother passed away in 2005, a lot had happened during those good 95 years. In fact, in less than a century, the world had in many ways completely transformed. This unprecedented development improved quality of life and made it less cumbersome in many ways. Just imagine having to wash your clothes by hand, having no shower, no refrigerator, no TV, no holiday in an exotic country, and not even a car or a telephone — much less today’s mandatory smart-phone. Better economic conditions and ground-breaking innovation improved living conditions, and a globalized economy led to reduced child mortality and longer lifespans, but also to an exponentially growing global population.

So, what is wrong with this? Higher GDP and more people on this planet bring increasing potential for products and services, which in turn means a flourishing economy. All good for business, right? Unfortunately not, as the amazing developments of the past century also brought a lot of unintended consequences. It is widely recognized today that the unprecedented population growth coupled with unsustainable production and consumption practices upon which we have built our modern society is putting the planetary systems and life as we know it under significant stress.

In the report, The Trajectory of the Anthropocene — The Great Acceleration (2015), researchers zoomed further in on the development and summarized their observations and conclusions with the insight that the period from about 1950 until today is unique in human history: “The second half of the twentieth century is unique in the entire history of human existence on Earth. Many human activities reached take-off points sometime in the twentieth century and have accelerated sharply towards the end of the century. The last 50 years have without doubt seen the most rapid transformation of the human relationship with the natural world in the history of human-kind.”

It is not only GDP and population that have skyrocketed. Several indicators in fact point in the direction of exponential growth.

Even though the pace of change has been rapid over the past decades, futurists Ray Kurtzweil and Peter Diamandis claim that we will never experience a change and development this slow again and that we are already facing exponential growth in a vast number of technological areas. According to Diamandis, over the next 100 years we will experience as much change as we have over the past 20,000 years… Others speak about system and paradigm shifts beyond capitalism, or even about new portals opening to other dimensions.

“Over the next 100 years we will experience as much change as we have over the past 20,000 years.”

In my first book, Navigera in i Framtiden (2018), I set out to explore this concept of accelerating exponential change and what business leaders can do to surf its waves rather than become its victims. For instance, the unprecedented advances in technology and digitalization seem to have led to a human attention span shorter than that of a goldfish. This means that we now tend to focus on what is immediately in front of us rather than addressing brutal facts and what matters most in the long term, not only due to the short-sightedness of the quarterly economy but also due to our natural cognitive limitations. This short-sightedness is, however, not a completely new phenomenon. In 1972, authors of The Limits to Growth described a world where only a few have the luxury — or capability — of taking a long-term global perspective, while the majority are fully preoccupied with everyday life and the coming weeks and years.

A brutal fact that we cannot afford to ignore, however, is that we are currently consuming more than is sustainable on this planet. This is not only important but now also urgent, and something we must deal with now. There is simply nowhere to hide. The Stockholm Resilience Centre has illustrated this urgency in their Planetary Boundaries model, visualizing that several of our planetary life-sustaining systems are currently challenged and that we as humanity need to take action to continue to develop and thrive for generations to come. Or, as said on their website: “We must stop considering nature as something separate from society because people and nature are truly intertwined… Development can no longer be done without an increased understanding of nature’s role for our own survival and well-being.”

The biosphere is the foundation for life and society on this planet, and as such also for economic prosperity — and business. The biosphere is the regions of the atmosphere and surface of the earth that is occupied by living organisms. An ecosystem is “all the plants and living creatures in a particular area considered in relation to their physical environment” within the biosphere.

Today, the health of the biosphere and the ecosystems that we rely on are deteriorating more rapidly than ever before in human history. In the words of the UN IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.” There is still hope, however, “Through ‘transformative change’, nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably — this is also key to meeting most other global goals. By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

Kate Raworth, a recognized economist, have integrated the social and planetary boundaries in her book Doughnut Economics (2017), where she pointed out that humanity’s challenge of the 21st century is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet and its life-supporting systems, such as a stable climate, fertile soil and a protective ozone layer. Her visualization also illustrates that some systems are clearly beyond the boundaries of what is sustainable. Furthermore, in connecting the model to our social foundation, she shows that planetary boundaries are completely interconnected with our societal wellbeing.

/ We, as a humanity, are currently consuming ecological resources equivalent to 1.6 Earths per year /

Adding to this complexity is that we, as a humanity, are currently consuming ecological resources equivalent to 1.6 Earths per year. There is even a name for the day that we consume more than the planet can cope with: Earth Overshoot Day. In developed countries, this day occurs in the first half of the year. In less developed countries it occurs in the second half. Few manage to live below what is the Earth’s capacity and as the global middle class is expanding and dreaming of more than they have today, this trend is obviously moving in the wrong direction.

The most urgent and important of all these issues may of course be climate change. Scientists today widely agree that the burning of fossil fuels has affected the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. Before the Industrial Revolution, it was estimated that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was about 288 ppm (parts per million). We have now reached about 414 ppm and are on the way to doubling the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere by the end of this century. In the latest IPCC report, the analysis is clear: “Observed increases in well-mixed greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations since around 1750 are unequivocally caused by human activities.”

Scientists say that if CO2 doubles, it could raise the average global temperature of the Earth between two and five degrees Celsius, which could bring devastating consequences for life on the planet… A senior scientist at the The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) Global Monitoring Laboratory noted that CO2 persists in the oceans and atmosphere for thousands of years after it is emitted: “We are adding roughly 40 billion metric tons of CO2 pollution to the atmosphere per year… That is a mountain of carbon that we dig up out of the Earth, burn and release into the atmosphere as CO2 — year after year. If we want to avoid catastrophic climate change, the highest priority must be to reduce CO2 pollution to zero at the earliest possible date.”

”We are adding roughly 40 billion metric tons of CO2 pollution to the atmosphere per year…”

Going back 800,000 years in time, NOAA has of course seen fluctuations in CO2 levels over time. There are however no other periods that even comes close to the atmospheric levels of CO2 that are now being recorded.

The problems, however, do not stop here. The above mentioned indicators are still accelerating. The concequences are wicked indeed.


This post is an edited excerpt from the book Better Business Better Future, by Elisabet Lagerstedt (2022). It was first posted on