The independent review on The Economics of Biodiversity led by Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta has now been delivered to the government. The report underlines our failure to grasp that our economies are “embedded within Nature, and not external to it.” We rely on nature to “provide us with food, water and shelter; regulate our climate and disease; maintain nutrient cycles and oxygen production; and provide us with spiritual fulfilment and opportunities for recreation and recuperation which can enhance our health and well-being.” Yet our current economic models do not take nature into account.
The report calls for reducing our demands on nature, changing our economic measures of success, and transforming our institutions - particularly our finance and education systems - to enable a fundamental transformation of our relationship with nature. If we take a moment to consider how we currently determine value and progress, it’s clear that these changes are long overdue. The dominant approach to economics has been the idea that as long as the economy grows, the ark of progress continues. This logic says that a whale only has value once it’s been slaughtered. It says that pristine Amazon Rainforest only has value once it has been converted to cheap furniture, or some other product. And it measures a human life’s value by their contribution to GDP - even if that human is struggling to make ends meet.
The emerging shoots of a new approach to economics
With such a story guiding our decision makers, perhaps it's no surprise that we face so many warnings of climate breakdown, ecological collapse, and an era of pandemics. Writing a year after the emergence of the COVID pandemic, scientists still warn that further pandemics are inevitable, as the destruction of natural habitats continues, increasing the risk of crossover between pathogens and people.
We can no longer treat these as unintentional side-effects of economic progress. In the long-term, not only do we need to account for nature in our economics. We need to see ourselves as an extension of the metabolism of mother nature, moving in line with ancient views of our existence that are still being safeguarded by indigenous peoples around the world. After all, indigenous peoples make up just 5% of the human population, yet they protect 80% of remaining biodiversity. The idea that we are separate from nature, and nature can be in poor health while we are healthy, has always been an illusion.
Below are some areas where we can quickly and confidently improve the health of nature whilst improving the health of our species. These areas represent pillars of a new kind of prosperity, rooted in a symbiotic relationship with nature. We have the opportunity to show that we can nourish, and be nourished by nature. In doing so, if enough of us act, we can weave a new story for the century.
Treating Agriculture as part of nature
We have an opportunity to switch from industrial agriculture, which is very energy intensive and extracts life from the soil, to regenerative agriculture which prioritises soil health, treating farm land as part of a holistic system. Throughout history, 500 Gt of CO2 have been leaked from our soils into the atmosphere as 12,000 years of agriculture has taken its toll. That’s over 13 times the whole global emissions in 2019. But the destruction of soil is not an inevitable byproduct of agriculture. Afro-indigenous cultures have long had methods of maintaining the health of soil. These were all but erased by the commodity-driven, resource intensive agriculture of the 20th century. Growing a revolution: Bringing our soil back to life by David R. Montgomery tells the story of how across the world, people are combining traditional methods with modern-day science to ensure we can grow enough food for all whilst building up the health (and carbon content) of soil.
This has substantial implications for our relationship to nature. It means agriculture can become a carbon sink, rather than a source of emissions. A source of biodiversity and beauty, rather than a leading cause of extinction. It will enable landscapes to absorb and store water, rather than leave them vulnerable to nutrient runoff, floods, and drought. It will also regenerate soil health naturally, rather than depend on external inputs. In the UK, organisations such as the Oxford Real Farming Conference are leading the conversation in this area.
Entrepreneurship: Letting Nature take the lead
I launched Fast Forward 2030 in 2015 to provide an intellectual home and collective voice for the new generation of radical entrepreneurs who are building businesses which tackle complex environmental and social problems. Since then, we have collaborated with many entrepreneurs. Amongst the most impressive are two Fast Forward 2030 Board Members who have biomimetic businesses. Biomimetics (also known as biomimicry) is a design method where the designer looks to nature for inspiration.
Solveiga Pakštaitė founded Mimica Labs, which has designed smart food packaging which degrades at the same pace as the food inside it. Pakštaitė came up with the idea when looking at an overripe banana and noticing the texture difference. Considering the fact that food waste is a leading cause of emissions, this kind of innovation could prevent unnecessary waste and reduce emissions.
Similarly, Ehab Sayed co-founded BIOHM, a bio-manufacturing company led by nature. From mycelium-based insulation to edible building materials, BIOHM are showing how learning from the wisdom of nature can lead to regenerative, market-competitive alternatives in the construction industry.
Inviting nature back into cities
Not many solutions have such a holistic set of benefits as inviting nature back into cities. I am often fascinated at study after study showing the benefits of being around plants and trees, such as this one showing that being around trees makes us more generous and empathetic.
On a practical level, depaving and tree planting in cities helps capture water run-off, reduce heat island effect, improve air quality, and can even improve the insulation of nearby buildings. Not to mention they provide important habitat for a city’s birds. Combined with making cities more walkable and bikeable, these actions have massive prosperity potential. It could even tackle the loneliness crisis - there are studies that show that people have more friends on quiet streets, compared to streets with constant heavy traffic.
I’ve been pleased to see people in cities turn to food growing as a way to connect to nature and create new public spaces. Communities are organising garden sharing, and local governments can build on this by making public space available. The long waiting lists for allotments show the desire is there. If planned well, it can also provide fertile ground for new connections between people to flourish. In fact, gardening has already been used as a treatment for depression in London. There is huge potential to design social value into our food system. It’s also possible to grow a surprising amount of food. Recent research shows that 10% of a city’s greenspace can provide 15% residents’ fruit and veg.
Ocean health, our health
The IGP’s Professor Jacqueline McGlade has worked with colleagues globally to explore conducted leading research into ocean health, demonstrating that worsening ocean pollution “poses a clear and present danger to human health and wellbeing.” Professor Their McGlade’s research highlights how plastic pollution is the tip of the “pollution-berg,” as many less visible but increasingly dangerous forms of pollution exist and pose serious threats to human health. The research points to success stories where ecosystems have been cleaned up, and recommends policies for this to happen at a larger scale. This is another clear indication that nature’s health and the health of the human species is intertwined.
The oceans also demonstrate a story that is reiterated across ecosystems: nature becomes more generous when shown respect. We have all heard news of fish stocks being under threat due to overfishing. Thankfully, fishery management works. When fisheries are scientifically monitored and fishing controlled, there is an increase in abundance as fish populations are given a chance to recover and grow. That means that less fishing leads to more fish.
Marine biologist and policy advisor Ayana Elizabeth Johnson highlights the potential of regenerative ocean farming as a way to “farm the ocean to health, not hunt it to death.” This involves harvesting oysters, clams and mussels and seaweed - all of which sequester carbon. Across an acre, this method has the potential to produce 25 tons of seaweed and 250,000 shellfish in five months.
I launched the Institute for Global Prosperity because I knew we need an expanded vision of prosperity if we are to flourish in the 21st century. Since then, we have developed the Prosperity Index - a method of co-creating new visions of prosperity locally, led by Citizen Scientists and involving people living and working in neighbourhoods. The Prosperity Index reports on factors that local people say support prosperity and quality of life in their neighbourhoods. We have developed the Prosperity Index in England, Kenya, Lebanon, Tanzania, and Cuba. Everywhere we work, peoples’ desires are more nuanced than traditional economics would have you believe. People need a sense of community, belonging, security, and flourishing. Thankfully, millions of people around the world are developing ways of delivering visions of prosperity rooted in a symbiotic relationship with nature.
Image credit: Dasgupta Review