Nature Positive La La Land

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On 6 September 2023 it was announced that 27 of the world’s largest nature conservation organisations, institutes, business and finance coalitions have joined forces to launch a new initiative aimed at driving alignment around the definition, integrity and use of the term ‘nature positive’.  

This is just the latest example of why the strategy of incrementalism, a method of working using many small incremental changes, used for decades to turn the tide on climate change and, now, biodiversity loss, is just too little too late. Why?

Nature Positive was coined in 2019, and by 2021, a paper was released, A Nature-Positive World: The Global Goal for Nature. What is interesting about this paper is that the authors come from the leadership teams of the most prominent names in the conservation field, such as the IUCN, WWF, The Nature Conservancy and the Wildlife Conservation society, together with the likes of the Global Environment Facility, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the World Resources Institute and Business for Nature. You would have thought that before you publish a paper like this, thinking about a definition of what nature positive actually means would have been helpful. Certainly, it would have been rational to have this definition locked in before the CBD CoP15, particularly as the conference was delayed by two years.

The fact that this wasn’t done as enabled businesses, management consultants, the financial sector and governments worldwide to create whatever definition that best serves their needs. In the intervening years, businesses have hyped Nature Positive, using it as a PR, marketing and lobbying exercise to ensure that what is really needed, mandatory regulation and legislation, isn’t enacted. Just one example, in July 2020, a World Economic Forum article, A blueprint for business to transition to a nature-positive future, stated “Now, we need a bold vision for a more sustainable, inclusive, safer future – with business playing a leading role in the transition.”.

Here we are in September 2023 and that bold vision has reached the point of a coalition coming together to find a definition for Nature Positive and ensuring alignment and integrity. I think that ship has sailed. Possibly Greenpeace explain it best, “Nature Positive is more focused on saving a failed economic model than on protecting biodiversity.”.

How we have reached this sad situation is possible best explained in a recent article by George Monbiot, The Bird Cage, discussing how the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds after spending the past 50 years being polite and considered in its public statements about the grim reality of wildlife decline, finally called out the UK government for abandoning its environmental commitments. The response was swift, “Tory MPs and the billionaire press had gone berserk, demanding, among other measures, that the Charity Commission strike out the RSPB’s charitable status. The commission, always a compliant instrument of power, said it was considering the issue. This perfectly explains why the natural world is in such a dire state. Large organisations (characteristically more timid than small ones) bend over backwards to appease established power.”.

Around the world large conservation organisations know their place and are keenly aware that grace and favour (and hence access to power and funding) can be easily withdrawn.

Interesting that The Bird Cage article provides some historical insight in to how our institutions became so neutered, “In 1944, the Office of Strategic Services, a US intelligence agency, issued an underground guide for workers living in the Axis powers. It was called the Simple Sabotage Field Manual. It explained how to undermine an organisation from within. Among its recommendations was “Advocate ‘caution’ [incrementalism]. Be ‘reasonable’ and urge [others] to be ‘reasonable’ [accept an incrementalism approach]”. The article continues, “By being cautious, reasonable, polite and considered, our major advocacy groups might avoid political trouble. But they fatally sabotage their own objectives. Always and everywhere, the real danger comes not from speaking out and offending power, but from falling into line.”

Why is this so important now? Last month it was announced that Australia will host the first Global Nature Positive Summit in Sydney in October 2024. The Australian Federal Government is co-hosting the Global Nature Positive Summit in Sydney, in partnership with the Government of New South Wales. The goal is obviously to elevate ‘Nature Positive’ to the next big thing, after CSR, triple-bottom-line, ESG, biodiversity offsets etc. Each iteration of buzzword starts with plenty of hype and fizzles out with no action other than putting off any real action for another decade.

That Australia has volunteered to host this summit adds insult to irony. I had to do a double take when I read the comment in the Syndey Morning Herald by the NSW Environment and Climate Change Minister Penny Sharpe, “Australia is a world leader in advocating net zero and nature positive initiatives, and we are delighted Sydney has been chosen as the host city for this historic event.”. An interesting statement given appalling track record of the federal government in protecting endangered species and the NSW state-sanctioned logging in some of the last remining habitat of endangered marsupials.  And let’s remember that Swiss Re, the world’s second-largest re-insurer, in its sustainability Index of the G20 countries, ranked Australia in second (worst) place, after South Africa, for failing and fragile ecosystems.

As these 27 conservation organisations, institutes, business and finance coalitions join forces to drive alignment around the definition, integrity and use of the term ‘nature positive’, the question is, have they left it too late to rain in the confused and unintelligible mixture of seemingly random PR jargon, marketing activity and actions of the last 3 years? The next 12 months in the lead up to the Inaugural Global Nature Positive Summit October 2024 will be the test. I’m not holding my breath.

Lynn Johnson

Lynn Johnson is a physicist by education and has worked as an executive coach and a strategy consultant for over 20 years.  In her work she pushes for systemic change, not piecemeal solutions, this includes campaigning for modernising the legal trade in endangered species, to help tackle the illegal wildlife trade.