Better Nature aims to rewire our political-economic systems in support of nature
More than a year in the making, the time has come to introduce Better Nature to the world. Last week’s launch of the biodiversity report by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) issued a damning verdict on humanity’s efforts to protect nature and called for “transformative change of paradigms, norms and values”. The response from incumbent actors has largely been to step up efforts to set targets, monitor things better, and find more cash. These weak responses throw a thin veil over the reality of things: that nature will only survive if our political and economic systems are transformed. It’s time to throw off this veil, face the truth, and act as if our lives depend on it. Because they do.
“We are all passengers on a long rickety train heading south at 40 miles per hour, steadily chugging southward toward general environmental and social destruction. Alert to the dangers, many of us have been earnestly walking north inside the train, congratulating ourselves on our progress…
“But if we would only pause to look out the window, we could all plainly see that we are now further south than we were when we last stopped to congratulate ourselves on our progress. Despite our best efforts, we have been unable to reverse the direction of travel. The time is long overdue when we must ask ourselves what it would take to change our trajectory, to permanently alter our direction of travel.“
These words were written in 1997. It is now clear that ecological breakdown is an existential threat equal to that of climate breakdown. It is approaching fast, and it is not pretty; indeed, we are hurtling towards a world in which no sane person would want to live.
Successfully rising to climate and ecological breakdown (essentially a single crisis) will involve making stark choices to avoid ending up where we are heading. It is no longer sufficient to walk towards the back of the train as it heads off the cliff we have created — we need to reverse direction entirely.
Both media and expert reactions to the litany of scientific evidence are predictable. They lay out myriad catastrophic facts and figures, as if the shock will animate the reader into action. Public commentators are careful to offer a silver lining, pointing out that it is not too late to act, and that we know what needs to be done if we can only muster the political will to react at scale.
While some commentators acknowledge that we need transformative change, the implications of genuine systems change appear to frighten people more than the prospect of ecological collapse.
How, then, can we overcome this paralysed lethargy and move forward with the depth and dimension of change needed to save life on the planet as we know it? The answer lies in generating political will based on accountability, rolling back corporate capture, mobilising movements, and levering the systems change that these enable.
The environmental targets to which we must aspire have repeatedly been set and refined, and our shelves creak under the weight of strategies, roadmaps and action plans that lay out what we need to do — as soon as the political will is mustered.
So how do we bring that about? The first step is to accept that political will is closely linked to electoral calculus. Politicians tend to do what is necessary to get elected and then reelected. If making empty promises is sufficient to win the election, then empty promises is what we will get. If on the other hand voters require genuine action, then politicians will ensure that they offer enough action to win the election.
We therefore need to get quickly to the point where it is inconceivable for politicians to win elections unless they can show what they have genuinely done to stem the tide of biodiversity loss and to restore ecosystems to productivity and health.
Undoing corporate capture
For the electorate — the will of the people — to really matter to politicians, we need to loosen the stranglehold that corporate interests have on the political process. So often it is the case that democracy is oligarchy in drag. Large corporations and the finance industry have disproportionate influence on the political system when compared to the influence of civil society organisations, who mostly represent the interests of the general public.
We see this in the revolving door phenomenon where personnel move freely from regulators and legislators to corporate and industry bodies; in the scale of spending on corporate lobbying; and in the alignment of corporate sentiment with political decision making and in contrast with civic sentiment.
Transformation of political will and removing the corporate blockade will only happen if we can generate a large-scale, targeted and sustained mobilisation that convinces politicians that leadership to restore and respect nature is the pathway to electoral success.
The seeds of mass mobilisation for nature are there. Whether it is the climate crisis or the mass extinction of species, a number of movements are emerging that strongly reject the consequences of the status quo and insist that we transform our political-economic system now and definitively. It is essential that the energy evident in these movements be harnessed to positive action and avoid populist politics, social fracturing and even violence.
For these movements to be successful, three factors must be present:
The first is storytelling and a can-do narrative. We can save the planet from destruction if we act now, at scale. A narrative that seeks to frighten people into taking action is more likely to drive them to denial or to violent frustration. We need instead a narrative, anchored in truth, that inspires, that calls to action, that motivates people to engage with a genuine sense that the problems can be overcome and they can make a difference. Recall the power of President Obama’s “Yes We Can” message.
Second, is a clear indication of what actions might be taken. Given the scale of the problem, we need to offer multiple channels for action, from the individual, family and community level to the corporate, national and global. These actions need to be possible now, rely on existing technology and be implementable without too much financial outlay. And, collectively, they should be capable of reversing the present trends. The growing call for ecological restoration and “rewilding” is gathering momentum and could have such a transformative effect. Similarly, calls for a transformation of fiduciary duty and changes to accounting standards are another.
Third is to confront key stakeholders outside of their comfort zones. While traditional NGOs and think tanks have been offering up policy advice and corporate guidelines for decades, Extinction Rebellion and School Strike for Climate have, comparatively, had overnight success. The ground was fertile and the scientific community’s recent publications have received deserved media attention, so there is credit to be given to the measured and loving taunting of radical greens and moody teenagers. Their presence in the street has broken through decades of corporate and political obfuscation and created a very public consciousness of urgency, effectively shifting the window of discourse.
Finally, our stories and actions will not succeed unless we address — head-on — the underlying drivers of biodiversity loss. Activating political will, reforming corporate lobbies, and fanning the flames of movements are three tools needed to rewire the economic, social and political systems so that politicians, CEOs, and investors are rewarded for restoring our planet.
Changing our economic, social and political systems might seem impossible, but the current models have all emerged since World War Two and took a sharp turn towards their present destructive impact only in the 1980s. They were put in place by our parents and grandparents and should now be replaced for our children and grandchildren.
Those who benefit most from the current paradigm — politicians, CEOs, investors — will not let go easily of their positions of power, but can be pressured through disruptive action generated by targeted large-scale mobilisation — mobilisation that definitively rejects the present status quo and that stands up to the inertia that keeps it in place. It requires fundamental change to social norms using all the non-violent means at our disposal, from legal action, through divestment, to mass education and communication.
Serious social and political change have always depended on moments of large-scale disruption. Successfully rising to the systems crises of climate breakdown and biodiversity collapse will involve making stark choices, but together we can scale the movements needed to galvanise political will and corporate change to turn our train around.
Better Nature is a new initiative. We are using a new way of working to protect the natural world, by changing the political and economic rules of the game. We are doing this through partnerships with a group of remarkable organisations, all bringing their specific skills to the task of transforming our shared political-economic system so that it restores rather than destroys nature. Find out more at www.betternature.earth.