Toward zero and beyond


ALAIN DESVIGNE is the CEO of a leading solar company, the Amarenco Group. He strives to contribute to sustainability in every field of life. Here he explores the nature of reducing and minimalizing our use of resources in the world, by working on our reaction emissions and inner climate changes.

What has led us to this point?

The Industrial Revolution marks a major turning point in the history of the world. Indeed, almost every aspect of daily life was influenced in some way. The population growth and GDP per capita had been broadly stable for thousands of years, and suddenly the average income and the size of the human population began to exhibit unprecedented growth during this new era. However, it is a growth that we acknowledge now, 200 years later, as being harmful to the overall fragile balance of Nature.

The unsustainable model of development associated with the Industrial Revolution has led us to where we are today – a “house on fire.” But how could the trajectory of one single species succeed in hijacking the journey of millions of others and even jeopardize life itself?

The core underlying principle of the Industrial Revolution was based on more, more and more. Adding new basic materials, chiefly iron and steel, adding the use of new energy sources, including fuels and motive power such as coal and petroleum, adding new machines … The list goes on and on to lead us to the ever-increasing accumulation of carbon and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, more growth, more shareholder value, etc.

Can we simply reverse the problem?

Thus, at first glance, unravelling the devastating effect of the past seems very simple. The answer lies in fixing the source of the problem that created it: we just need more of less and less! Less of harmful sources of energy, less of harmful lifestyles, less of harmful pollution, etc. In short, less of anything that is contributing to an unsustainable model of development.

This is why the mantra these days of every conscious leader, including conscious policy makers, is to set “zero objectives” – zero emissions, zero carbon economy, zero carbon footprint, zero waste, zero environmental impact, zero pollution, zero poverty, zero hunger, zero unemployment, etc. Zero objectives are promoted everywhere as the path to restoring the original balance, to re-establishing a model of development that preserves life and contributes to well-being, starting with ours, not only for the current generations but for all upcoming ones.

Having said that, resetting the current trajectory is extremely challenging.

Zero objectives are promoted everywhere
as the path to restoring the original balance,
to re-establishing a model of development
that preserves life and contributes to well-being.
Having said that, resetting
the current trajectory is extremely challenging.

To begin with, it requires huge amounts of capital. Net emissions have grown by 40% over the past 30 years. Meeting the 2015 Paris Agreement goal related to climate change will necessitate a 90% fall of carbon emissions from the current COVID-struck levels over the next 30 years. Meanwhile, the world’s human population is expected to rise by two billion, and the gross product may triple over the same period. In practice, with our global economy still generating over 80 to 85% of its energy consumption from fossil fuels, the transition away from fossil fuels will require $1.5 trillion extra annual investment in the power system alone, according to the International Energy Agency. That is more or less 1% of today’s global GDP.

The good news is that the outbreak of COVID-19 has proven to be a major turning point for ESG1 investing (ESG1 is the highest rating a company can achieve for strategy that considers Environmental, Social and Governance ratings alongside traditional financial metrics). Sustainable funds attracted record inflows in 2020 amid the market turmoil, according to data from Morningstar, and many of these funds have outperformed the broader market for the year. Also, some industry leaders of polluting technologies are moving away from their original business practices. For instance, Toshiba and Siemens both announced they were moving away from coal in November 2020. Toshiba is committed not to take any new construction orders for coal-fired power plants, while Siemens stated it would stop selling turbines for new coal-fired facilities.

Unfortunately, this is very far from being enough.

The “21st Century Power” edition of The Economist (October 2020) confirms that all current and planned investments drastically fall short of what is needed to keep temperatures within 2°C of pre-industrial levels, let alone the 1.5°C required to limit the environmental, economic and political turmoil of climate change.

Beliefs that make smart people dumb include
the belief that intellectual ability is fixed,
that current performance measures long-term potential,
and that people who are truly gifted
don’t need effort for their achievements.

Our belief systems are making us dumb

So what is missing? Why is the required change not taking place, or, let’s say, not fast enough?

When I was doing my MBA at INSEAD, back in 2007, one of my favorite classes was “The Social Psychology of Management,” conducted by Professor Allan M. Filipowicz. I still remember an article he shared with us called “Beliefs That Make Smart People Dumb.¹” Carol Dweck identifies both the beliefs that make smart people dumb and the more adaptive beliefs that make people smarter. Beliefs that make smart people dumb include the belief that intellectual ability is fixed, that current performance measures long-term potential, and that people who are truly gifted don’t need effort for their achievements. More adaptive beliefs include that intellectual potential can be developed, that current performance simply tells you where you are and what you need to do now, and the belief that everyone needs sustained effort to realize their potential.

We can apply these principles to everything related to change management. It is our own belief system that is the first obstacle, and that obstacle is definitely not a small one! When we talk about changing ourselves rather than changing others and our external environment, there is immediate resistance from within. We react and fight with all possible arguments: “I am just a drop in the ocean, so why should I change?” or “How can my own change really make a difference?”


So the first belief we need to remove from our database is that we are who we are, and we can’t do anything about it. And the first belief we need to add to our database is that every change does make a difference, because the ocean is made of drops!

When we don’t change beliefs, we are destined to fail individually and, therefore, collectively. While Dweck’s article focuses on the belief that our intellectual potential is fixed, the same misconception extends to our emotional structure, our mental patterns, and our habits and lifestyle. In short, our whole character! The most amazing thing is that we have no problem believing that it is within our power to change our external environment, including other people in our lives, like our children. In fact, we spend so much time trying to change them! Isn’t it funny that we believe we have more control over the outside than what is inside us?

Change begins within

If the old adage is right, that “change begins with me,” and change starts with changing my own belief system, where to begin? Assuming we have successfully understood the fact that we can truly “in-power” ourselves to change, then we have the capacity to impact our inner climate as much as we are impacting our external climate.

When we look at the nature of our relationships, and the decisions we make or don’t make, resulting in action and inaction, they are all the result of our inner fabric. Thus, changing our inner fabric leads to fundamental changes in how we make decisions, and the way we navigate relationships. This ultimately is translated into our actions and how we build human rapport. Our personal inner changes impact all the people with whom we are connected, and this is how the world is constantly evolving, for better or worse!

If we are to start owning this inner transformation, my personal take on the very first step is the following: We need to start by curbing our reaction emissions. That is a bold statement given that many of you may not initially see the correlation between climate protection and curbing reaction emissions!

Reaction emissions

Reactions are expressions of our untrained ego. Every time we react to a situation, it is the noise the ego makes because the “I” is reacting. The moment the “I” reacts, we lose our natural state of balance. Losing balance creates a separation from the original state. And because of the inner climate change caused by a reaction, we usually end up emitting reactions around us which impact the climate of our relationships like a butterfly effect.

Every time we react to a situation,
it is the noise the ego
makes because the “I” is reacting.
The moment the “I” reacts,
we lose our natural state of balance.

How many times have we felt miserable after our negative reaction affected someone dear to us, such as a family member, a friend or a colleague? Every time we react negatively with someone we love, we fall into the trap set by the ego. The inner trigger resulting from an external input ends up being a major climatic event, which alters the balance of the relationship with the person we love. We end up with regret and remorse, but still we continue with the same pattern again and again.

At first, a reaction to any situation creates bubbles within, which then convert into waves when they reach the surface. The waves can be simple ripples on the surface of the water, or they can turn into a tsunami if the reaction taking place within becomes an inner earthquake.


The need to pause

My experience with reaction management, with varying levels of success, is to avoid the bubbles reaching the surface by pausing. That pause is the critical element in tackling a reaction. It gives time for my heart to identify the appropriate response to the external situation. Instead of a devastating ego-driven reaction, I shift my focus towards a heart-driven response. And this pause can be a few seconds or minutes, or even a few days sometimes!

Zero reaction

The next level is to develop the capacity of not letting even one bubble form. That’s the ultimate goal. We can call it a “zero reaction emissions” goal, implying a “zero reaction footprint.”

Zero reaction requires absolute nothingness within, absolute vacuity. It is only when we have achieved that state of nothingness within that we are able to welcome any input cheerfully as there is nothing within to react upon.

When is this possible? When the ego is totally subdued. When it takes the backseat. “I” still exists, but the heart takes the front seat. To reach and maintain such a state 24 hours every day is a life goal, for sure, but we need to start somewhere and be fully convinced that we can get there one day.

What I have personally learnt in this journey toward a zero reaction footprint is one very precious lesson: To bring my ego to a state of constant awe so that it is completely subjugated by the heart’s wisdom. Step by step, when I give the heart the chance to respond and take decisions, and observe the result, I am filled with wonder and accept to “in-power” it more and more: “Yes, please do respond because you have much more wisdom than I have.” The more we give our heart a chance to guide and notice its capacity to make the appropriate responses and decisions, the more we learn to trust the heart and the more we let it run the show.

Beyond zero

And then what? Is there more to it? Does anything exist beyond zero?

High up in the Eastern Himalayas is one of the greenest countries in the world. The Kingdom of Bhutan has not only achieved zero carbon emissions but is already carbon negative, meaning that it takes more greenhouse gases from the atmosphere than it emits. Sandwiched between China and India, Bhutan spans approximately 14,800 square miles, with vast woodlands covering approximately 70% of the country that act as a natural carbon sink. With around 750,000 people, Bhutan removes nearly three times as much CO2 as it produces.

So when we reach a constant zero reaction footprint, I do believe we can go even beyond and become reaction sinks. We can develop the heart so that we absorb reaction emissions from others with whom we interact.



But back to the bold statement: How are carbon and reaction sinks related to each other?

A life where the ego is cheerfully “in-powering” the heart to take the front seat is an integrative life, an inclusive life. It is a life in which the responses we make, the decisions we take, and the actions we carry out are not based on reactions but on the wisdom of the heart. This means they come from the highest planes of consciousness. This applies equally to situations where our families are involved, our communities, the organizations we lead, or the governments we run.

Now imagine the world we could shape! Thanks to the ripple effect of responses to situations and interactions with others, as well as decisions we take as leaders of organizations and nations, what if we are able to remain balanced and thus fully inclusive with such an approach? We would find new and creative solutions to our current global and local challenges without the unnecessary pollution of our untamed egos. We could nurture relationships with each other, including nations, based on trust and respect, thus yielding sustainable collective peace. We could integrate in our decision making long-term shareholder value and GDP growth with all the other dimensions that are at stake to preserve life today and tomorrow, thus yielding sustainable prosperity for all.

The possibilities arising from such a shift of approach towards life itself are only limited by our capacity to transform our old inner fabric. So the only question that we are left with is the following one: Are we willing to try it out and convert imagination into action?

¹ Dweck, C.S., 2002. “Beliefs That Make Smart People Dumb,” in Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid. Ed. R. J. Sternberg, pp. 24–41. Yale University Press, USA.

Illustrations by ANANYA PATEL


Alain Desvigne

About Alain Desvigne

Alain is a co-founder and CEO of Amarenco Group, a leading European solar photovoltaic infrastructure investment company based in Ireland. His 20-year career has focused on international development and investment in water and low carbon energy infrastructure. Previously, he led Solon France, was a General Manager of Samsung Green Energy, and worked as a Business Unit Director of Engie water portfolio company. He has an MBA from INSEAD and a Master’s degree in Water & Environmental Sciences from ENGEES. He is President of the Heartfulness Institute France.

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