About Better Nature

Better Nature aims to place nature and natural resources at the centre of emerging efforts to redesign our social, economic and political systems, to ensure the continued wellbeing of humanity on a healthy and thriving planet. It will do this by analysing and identifying new thinking and innovations that have the potential to reposition the natural world as the nexus of the redesigned systems that are collectively needed to pull humanity back from its current predicament.

Once identified, Better Nature will act as a mobilisation platform to deploy the most promising of these innovations, working with keystone actors to realise their potential with unprecedented scale and spread. The purpose of this is to stimulate boundary events where coordinated programmes of activities trigger a transformation in cultural, social, political and economic norms.

In so doing Better Nature will help to transform the relationship between humanity and the natural world, changing the conditions on which efforts at human development and the protection and improvement of nature rest. Conditions that currently constrain human development and ecological improvement may, by this approach, become enablers of such activity. Better Nature aspires to make healthy nature and a thriving natural world central to all human activity, creating the conditions in which efforts to improve biodiversity and conserve nature can flourish.

The name, Better Nature, reflects two fundamental facets of what we are trying to do. We wish to help change the underlying conditions that constrain humanity’s attempts to improve nature; and we need to do this by appealing to, and fostering, humanity’s better nature, without which we will never stabilise the relationship between humanity and the planet.

Better Nature aims to secure a central place for nature and natural resources in new and emerging conceptions of human development.  It is designed to contribute to the global efforts underway to accelerate the delivery of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  As such, Better Nature is closely working with UNDP to explore adequate mechanisms for future collaboration.

Keystone Actors

Österblom, Jouffray, Folke et al. (2015) illustrate that key companies in a given industry can operate in ways similar to keystone species in ecological communities, meaning that they can have a disproportionate effect on the structure and function of the system in which they operate. The thesis they test in their work is that transformations in practice by these keystone actors working across a sector “could result in cascading effects throughout the [field] and enable a critical transition [to sustainability].

Better Nature proposes to take this concept and extend it beyond analysis of companies to all actors (companies, government, multilaterals, NGOs, the public, etc.), whether individuals or organisations, that have a disproportionate effect on the systems in which they operate.

In a Nutshell

– We are in a new era: planetary boundaries have been – or are in the process of being – breached. Climatic and ecological – and the associated societal – collapse are increasing possibilities.

– While some success has been achieved, the pace and scale of action to defend biodiversity and ecosystem resilience falls far short of what is needed to reverse present trends and avoid such a collapse.

– It is increasingly clear that current patterns of economic growth are not compatible with sustainability. The underlying social, political and economic preconditions work against the protection of nature, too often rewarding behaviour that undermines ecosystems. In many cases, economic activity is a direct cause of biodiversity loss and environmental impoverishment.

– As a result, humanity’s combined efforts – governmental and non-governmental, global, national and local – have to date been unable to make adequate progress towards arresting biodiversity loss, stabilising natural resource use and improving degraded ecosystems.

– Nature, the environment, biodiversity – however we choose to call it – requires elevation, alongside the rethinking of development and growth, to become a central focus of emerging efforts to redesign global systems and so avert environmental and social collapse.

– This will only be possible if a new, compelling and mobilising narrative is crafted around natural systems and our economy’s inextricable dependence on them – a narrative that moves beyond the bleak, fear-based story that dominates today to one that focuses on the many things that can be done to turn present trends around and that energises people to join that effort.

– Better Nature will undertake broad surveys to identify new thinking and proposals that have the potential to galvanise the systems transformations required to place nature at the heart of new planetary governance. It will then promote the best of these through comprehensive efforts at engagement and incubation, to mobilise the key actors that can collectively realise the necessary change.

– To generate the needed mobilisation, Better Nature will use distributed and open governance and management systems, generating new – and amplifying existing – movements, products, services, policies, legislation, financial instruments and technology required to enable the step change humanity needs to make.

Boundary Events

A boundary event is an event that triggers a transformation in cultural, social, political and economic norms.

By way of example, in 2015 Urgenda, a small Dutch NGO, took their government to court accusing them of failure to set an adequate 2020 climate emissions target. They won. This triggered a seismic shift in cultural opinion, which laid the ground for the new coalition government to propose, and have accepted, legislation committing to a 95% emissions reduction by 2050. Urgenda’s court success may be considered a boundary event within Dutch society, in that it contributed to a profound transformation of national perceptions related to climate change.

By stimulating boundary events Better Nature aspires to make healthy nature and a thriving natural world central to all of humanity’s activity, creating the conditions under which efforts to improve biodiversity and conserve nature might flourish.

What is Better Nature?

Vision, Scope and Target

VISION: To transform the social, political and economic ‘rules of the game’ so that they enable, rather than prevent, humanity’s efforts to stabilise ecosystems and reverse biodiversity loss.

SCOPE: Focused predominantly on elevating nature and natural resources to the centre of a new model of planetary governance, Better Nature will work through the ‘intellectual engines’ of the economy, such as finance, law and technology, to identify and realise opportunities that contribute to this new model.

TARGET: The principal target for Better Nature consists of keystone actors from the fields of law, technology and finance, which have a disproportionate impact on the structure and functioning of the sector in which they operate and whose energy, skills, ideas and experience combine to trigger boundary events, which in turn make meaningful contributions to transforming the rules of the game.

Walking North on a Southbound Train (Peter Montague, 1997)

“We are all passengers (or crew) on a long rickety train heading south at 40 miles per hour, not rushing toward doom but steadily chugging southward toward general environmental and social destruction. Many of us are alert to the dangers and for several years we have been earnestly walking north inside the train.

As we plod from train car to train car we stop to congratulate ourselves on our progress. We slap each other on the back or we hug, and we recount the many train-cars we have managed to pass through, thanks to our stubborn persistence.

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. We are all being carried southward against our will, deeply violating our sense of justice…

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.“

Why Now?

We are, literally, in a new era – the Anthropocene: human activity is now the dominant influence on our planet. Planetary boundaries across a range of environmental issues have been, or are in the process of being, breached. Environmental and societal collapse in the not too distant future is an increasing possibility as strongly underlined in the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (October 2018) and in the 2018 Living Planet report.

Current efforts to address these challenges fall well short of what is needed to reverse present trends and avoid such a collapse. Sustainable development is increasingly viewed as an oxymoron, with the growth required by development at odds with the aspiration that this growth be sustainable. The pace and scale of action to reverse current trends in the erosion of biodiversity and ecosystems falls far short of what is needed to avoid such collapse. Political momentum, with the rise of populism, suggests disturbing trends, compounding the challenge of addressing these pressing environmental issues.

The challenge of protecting and enhancing nature has been with us for a long time, and initiatives to tackle these are launched every day. However, the increasingly compelling evidence that we are failing to turn the train around suggests that the time is exactly right for an initiative with the purpose, principles and ambition level of Better Nature. For instance, the dire reports coming both from IPCC and Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), and the confluence of key global events in 2020 – and, in particular, the High-Level meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Beijing lead us to suggest that the timing for a new initiative of this sort could not be better.

A Note on Conservation

Conservation is usually understood to mean the protection of plants, animals and natural areas from the damaging effects of human activity, the sustainable use of these, and the equitable distribution of the benefits deriving from this use. As such, conservation is practiced everywhere on the planet and is a central feature of human societies and communities in all geographies and cultures.

Wise management of nature and natural resources is, especially, embedded in the tradition and practices of indigenous communities. Further, local communities tend to be attentive to their immediate environments and will converge on the need to protect these from degradation when they have the power to do so.

Much local conservation is successful, in large part because it is in the hands of those who most benefit from nature and who suffer most when it is degraded. Better Nature salutes and supports these efforts. If, taken together, they added up to a satisfactory track record in avoiding biodiversity loss and the maintenance of ecosystem services, then Better Nature would not be needed.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. Instead, the rate at which biodiversity is being eroded has accelerated worldwide over the quarter century since the Convention on Biological Diversity came into force. This is due to the impact on nature of economic policy, financial incentives, technology, governance and other society-wide – or planet-wide – factors that, until now, have lain beyond the reach of conservation action and run counter to indigenous and local conservation efforts.

If Better Nature is focused on these, it is because of an overwhelming evidence base that local conservation – which must be the backbone of all conservation – can only succeed within a favourable global framework of policies, regulations and institutions. If these cannot be put in place, then it is highly unlikely that local efforts, cumulated, can turn the present trends around.

Why Might This Approach Work?

Better Nature comes fresh on the heels of the UNEP Inquiry into the Design of a Sustainable Financial System, a four-year initiative that focused on the reforms needed to permit financial and capital markets to align better with the needs of sustainable development. Its success is well-established – including securing a Green Finance Working Group in the Finance Stream of the G20 and changing the way the world views sustainable finance, moving it from boutique operations to mainstream or, better, setting it up as a “new” stream, a strategic opportunity for the financial community.

Better Nature has been inspired to build strongly on this model – the high-quality research and analysis, the search for innovation, the global reach, etc. – but also to learn from its experience and improve when possible. Better Nature, for example, proposes to take a more strategic approach to engagement, so that it is not principally profile building, but rather mobilising. And it will focus centrally on articulating and promoting the adoption of a central new narrative for nature and the natural world.

The inception of Better Nature is timely as high-level interest is building on how humanity might redefine planetary governance to avoid the environmental catastrophes towards which our planet is hurtling.

How Does Better Nature Differ When Compared to Other Initiatives?

While many in the environmental field share the diagnosis of its present limitations, or the frustration with the slow pace of intergovernmental progress, currently there is no coordinated, significant or impactful contribution from this world into the emerging debate about social, political and economic systems change. So far, the environmental community has not adequately connected to the emerging cultures, perspectives, energy and experiences of those in non-environmental fields who have engineered disruption and are building on the space thereby created. Our aim is to transform the underlying conditions upon which efforts to protect, restore and improve nature are built, and on which their success or failure rest.

Better Nature is different from what is already out there in that:

– It will focus on development of specific and practical options to bring the natural world to the core of efforts to design and realise global systems change

– It will articulate new, positive, narratives based on generating excitement around the genuine possibilities for transforming the underlying conditions for success in the protection, restoration and improvement of the environment, rather than on informing the general public of the urgency of our predicament or the consequences of present trends

– It aims to mobilise a wide range of new stakeholders – in particular keystone actors – who, today, are mostly unengaged with the natural world, rather than solely relying on the active participation of existing players from government or civil society

– It is solidly focused on innovation, and specifically on identifying new and emerging innovations in a wide range of fields whose success rests on a thriving natural world but is presently poorly connected to it

– It assumes that radically new and different approaches will be needed, and that these will tend to be disruptive and challenge both current assumptions and practice, and that nothing less will deliver the transformations that genuine success requires, and

– In its design and operation Better Nature embodies the ‘new power’ paradigms emerging as networked, open and democratic alternatives to hierarchical ‘old’ power, and that are necessary for transformative social change.

In the long-term, Better Nature is aimed at generating a transformation that, if successful, will not only redefine how environmental action is planned and implemented, but also shift the mind-set on how humanity relates to the planet of which we are a part.

Better Nature and the Global South

An initiative like Better Nature must focus on where change is building or breaking around the world. It cannot be dominated by a single culture or world outlook and it must work hard to challenge the somewhat out-dated assumptions that drive environmental action today.

The great majority of global environmental organisations operating today are based in Europe and North America and, to some extent, reflect the world-view of these two continents. Getting past these, seeking out and listening to voices from other parts of the world and from other cultural perspectives will be essential to the success of Better Nature. In particular, both in the rich world and in the Global South, Better Nature wishes to connect and work with institutions reflecting the new and emerging leadership – what are often termed ‘Millennial’ institutions. These are springing up in all regions and reflect a search for alternatives to the often-failed approaches taken by previous generations. A concerted effort will be made to partner with the best of these, to canvas ideas, field test the ideas of others, and ensure that what emerges from Better Nature works in the development and cultural context of the regions that make up the Global South.

At the same time, Better Nature will, out of necessity, maintain a strong focus on the powerful economies that continue to be the arbiters of financial rules, the source of most investment capital, the producers and patent holders of most technological developments, and that possess political and governance systems where recourse to the courts to dispute the actions (or inactions) of governments and corporations is realistically possible.

Given that so many of the factors that lead to destruction of nature in the Global South derive from decisions taken in the North, from institutions whose governance is dominated by the OECD member states, but also who continue to dominate the Internet and the setting of aspirations among the young, too great a focus on the Global South would sap Better Nature’s ability to identify and act on the key leverage points for impact.

Finding the right balance will be essential, and Better Nature is committed to an open, curious, participatory approach where a serious effort will be made to ensure the solid partnership of institutions and individuals in the Global South and to ensure a defensible balance in the streams of ideas that serve as Better Nature’s basic input.

How Will Better Nature Work?

Based on what is possible and what has been proven to work Better Nature will inspire and mobilise action proportionate to the challenges facing us:

– Creating new narratives around nature that are engaging, optimistic and motivational: that engage with global stakeholders critical to transforming humanity’s relationship with nature; and that highlight what specifically can be done by whom

– Spreading what works: amplifying solutions that have demonstrated success, especially local and indigenous ones, and

– Enabling systems change: transforming key elements of our social, political and economic systems so they enable, rather than prevent, the protection, restoration and improvement of nature, through healthy, mutually beneficial relationships between nature and humanity.

Following a series of partner meetings and extensive wider consultation, the following components have been developed and comprise the Better Nature work process: Discover, Analyse, Develop, Engage, Mobilise and Evaluate.

The Better Nature methodology will:

– Discover: Use a combination of quantitative and qualitative research, first, to identify elements of nature that are critically threatened alongside the human activity that is threatening them; and, second, to identify and assess specific opportunities for mobilisation and boundary events

– Analyse: Select natural world priorities and analyse where the greatest opportunities exist for mobilisation to transform social, political and economic norms

– Develop: Identify, specify and develop suitable initiatives for these opportunities within the context of three main conduits; Law, Technology and Finance, using three formats: small group expert working, wider design events, and Open Challenges

– Engage: Initiatives holding significant potential to contribute to systems change will then be ‘animated’ through a full-service suite of engagement and communications services to engage and influence keystone actors to fundamentally change the systems in which they operate

– Mobilise: Through incubation and support, relevant initiatives will be built into broader movements to change the current social, political and economic systems, and

– Evaluate: Measure and evaluate how each movement contributes to realising its mission: to transform the social, political and economic ‘rules of the game’ so that they enable, rather than prevent, humanity’s efforts to reverse biodiversity loss and stabilise ecosystems.

The work process follows the globally recognised Double Diamond model, developed by the UK’s Design Council, which harnesses a combination of divergent (exploratory) thinking and convergent (analytic and solutions-focused) thinking.

Importantly, this approach combines the power of new, open, democratic, platform approaches to sourcing, in the divergent stages of the work process, with a more directive and focused work method in the convergent stages. Together these create a pipeline for the development of initiatives (movements, products, services, policies, legislation, financial instruments and technology) required to enable the step change humanity needs to make.

To contact the Better Nature project team please email info@betternature.earth.