BY JEF TEUGELS AND KARTHIGA RATNAM
It is amazing how many definitions Merriam-Webster offers for the word ‘nature’, and how they vary from the inherent character or constitution of persons and things up to the external world in its entirety.
The Cambridge dictionary presents fewer definitions and defines nature as “all the animals, plants, rocks, etc. in the world and all the features, forces, and processes that happen or exist independently of people, such as the weather, the sea, mountains, the production of young animals or plants, and growth.”
The baffling aspect of Cambridge’s definition excludes people as if to underline that the human species somehow do not belong to nature. Who took humans out of the equation? The Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament persistently states that God grants dominion over nature to people of faith and that natural disasters are God’s punishment of the sinners.
The reason people do not figure in the definition is the Christian and Jewish belief we are superior to nature; mandated to govern it according to God’s will, punished for transgressing it. Compare that to Mali’s bamanan society’s still-used practice, where people’s last names come with the responsibility to protect and care for a particular animal species. This care and protection include killing some animals from a specific species, yet just enough to secure thriving biodiversity.
Native North Americans see the living world as a beautiful creation called Mother Earth and know that being part of her, we cannot harm any part of her without hurting ourselves. Common in non-Western societies is that nature is a feminine regenerating force that breeds and feeds life.
It must, therefore, not be a surprise that Carolyn Merchant, author of The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution connects the domination of nature with that of women. To Merchant, the witch hunt or the overturning of a “society by the witch who controlled the forces of nature and the women who overturned its order…heralded the death of the old order of nature.”
If an old order of nature can die, then so can the new order, described as the “enlightened man’s quest to overcome the primitive forces of nature demanded that he deploy entrepreneurial power over men and patriarchal power over women and children.” One cannot, therefore, decouple environmentalism from other isms.
Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac – both architects of the 2015 Paris Agreement – claim in their book The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis that, in the year 2100, we end up in one of two worlds.
The first will be more than three degrees Celsius warmer because we failed in controlling emissions after 2015. The second will be no warmer than one and a half degrees Celsius because we managed to halve emissions every decade since 2020.
The sad news is that we are heading straight for the first world. Atmospheric CO2 in September 2017 was 403.55 ppm. In March 2021, it is 417.66 ppm. The pre-industrial measure was 208 ppm… We are, therefore, not talking about the death of an order of nature but about the end of habitable boundaries of life.
After all, we already opened Pandora’s CO2 box and unleashed an uncontrollable release of captured gasses, unknown microbes hiding in the permafrost, and the development of viruses in hot, overcrowded megacities. Yet, Figueres and Rivett-Carnac maintain that we still have a choice, that we create our future. They offer three mindsets and ten actions to soften the impact.
Mindset 1: Stubborn Optimism
Although we may be challenged beyond what we can imagine, we possess the creative survival skills and ingenuity to solve wicked problems.
Mindset 2: Endless Abundance
We will face scarcity, and therefore we must do a lot more with a lot less. It’s an abundance of doing more mindset that leads to co-creation and sharing.
Mindset 3: Radical Regeneration
We must radically filter all our actions through a simple stress test: is my action self-centered or nature-aligned?
1. Let go of the old world
2. Face your grief but hold a vision of the future
3. Defend the truth
4. See yourself as a citizen, not as a consumer
5. Move beyond fossil fuels
6. Reforest the Earth
7. Invest in a clean economy
8. Use technology responsibly
9. Build gender equality
10. Engage in politics
What can big corporations do?
There is a lot of hype and PR about ESG goals and creating circular economies. But is that really enough for us to get to net zero by 2050? Let’s delve deeper into both.
Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) goals are derived from the UN Sustainable Development goals. The ESG framework was drafted to ensure that investment becomes more conscious and purpose-driven. That companies weren’t operating purely for maximizing profit.
According to the MSCI 2020 ESG trends to watch report, although there are smart startups looking to innovate and solve the extinction threat. What we really should bank on are the big corporations. And evidence does support this. If we explore the impact of R&D budgets on innovation and the ability to scale, then larger corporations with more cash to burn are more likely to succeed.
But, the problem right now is not just economies of scale. It’s also being able to achieve economies of scope. The world population as it stands today is estimated to be 7.9 billion. By 2050 it will grow to 9.7 billion. Roughly 2 billion people will be added in the next 29 years.
Here lies the scale and scope challenge. The population will keep growing, but our natural resources are becoming scarce. More and more people need food, water, clothing and shelter. We need to supply this whilst simultaneously reducing our emissions. We don’t just need innovations at scale. We need innovations at scale and scope. And we need to do it in circular fashion.
This brings us to the circular economy. The problems associated with the linear economy have been written to and debated to death. Enter the circular economy framework. Basically existing supply chains and business models need to transition to a more closed loop model. The underpinning philosophy of the circular economy is the use of renewable energy sources and the reuse of materials. ESG goals and the circular economy framework couple together nicely.
If more companies adopted the circular economic framework then they would find it easier to hit ESG goals. Corporations need to start transforming all aspects of their business to be more impact-driven. The focus needs to be on sustainable, low-carbon emission, zero-waste innovations.
We have less than 30 years to transform our entire way of life. The alternative is not an option. But in order to find solutions we need to know all the problems. Unfortunately for us the correlation between wicked problems has not been documented deeply. The interrelations, underlying systemic, cultural, historical issues have not been identified.
This lack of “documentation” hamstrings us from looking at problems holistically. We are still treating symptoms but not deep-rooted systemic causes. The best way for me to explain this is the leaky boat analogy. And right now we are using a dixie cup to take out the water. We may be slowing the process, but we are sinking. The way to stop is to identify all of the causes and effects.
The Wicked7 is an open collaboration project founded by Christian Sarkar and Philip Kotler. The project aims to be a starting point to address the key components of the “ecosystem of wicked problems.”
With the Wicked7 launch on the 1st of April, the first Wicked issue being addressed is The Death of Nature. What are the contributing factors and issues towards the death of nature. How do they interrelate with one another?
Each of the Wicked problems will be drawn out as a map that shows us the cause and effects. The idea is that if we can holistically understand the cause and effect of these problems, we can start finding virtuous solutions. The image below shows a rough sketch done by Christian Sarkar to highlight the interwoven nature of just one Wicked problem – The Death of Nature.
As humanity realizes the consequences of our actions over centuries, regardless of which mindset you have one thing is clear. The time to take action is now. If you are unsure of where to start, join our Death of Nature wicked challenge. Let’s learn from each other and try and save humanity from itself.