“Humanity needs nature to thrive.” For Peter Seligmann, who delivered that line, and Jib Ellison, who shared the stage with him at Climate One on Monday, September 12, the abundant services provided by nature too often go unrecognized.
So what are those services, asked Climate One’s Greg Dalton. In basic terms, replied Seligmann, co-founder and CEO, Conservation International, ecosystem services are what we get from the natural world. He assigned those services to one of four categories: provisions – food, freshwater, and medicine; regulating – climate, flood control on coasts; supporting – the soil and nutrient cycles; and cultural – the places we live, the places that shape our belief systems.
All of them are essential for people, he said, but “we’ve lost track of the relationship that we have with nature and ecosystem services because we don’t think about our foods coming from a forest or a farm; it comes from the supermarket. There’s a real disconnect now.”
Jib Ellison, CEO, Blu Skye, a sustainability consultancy that advises Fortune 50 companies, emphasized that business is just as indebted to the natural world. “If you think about all the goods and services that you can buy in a store, all of it ultimately is coming from somewhere down the line out of nature.”
“The big companies in the world with visionary leaders are realizing,” he said, “that as they look out five, ten, fifteen, and twenty years, and they see the rise of population growth, the continued economic activity in this current paradigm of doing things, the security of supply to serve their customers is at risk.”
Ellison, borrowing an analogy favored by his friend Seligmann, compared nature’s fragility to that of an airplane. You can take out one, two, five rivets and the plane will still fly. But take out the last crucial rivet, the wing falls off, and the plane crashes. It’s the same with nature, he said. We’re taking out too many rivets for ecosystems to survive.
The grave threat to natural systems around the globe has convinced both men of the need for environmentalists to preach beyond the converted, and to engage with business, including giants such as Wal-Mart. “What I’ve always felt,” Seligmann said, “is that if the environmental community focuses on the fifteen percent of the world that are true, ardent environmentalists we’re losing, losing, losing. We’ve got to make the tent big enough for everybody. Over time, that creates trust.”
He went on: “We need to figure out which institutions have to change if we’re going to succeed. We’re involved in making development smart and sustainable. And that means we have to change the way development works. And, for that, you need to change business.”
An absolutely critical element to get us there, said Ellison, is transparency on costs. “For businesses, as soon as we can start to quantify, and put a dollar amount – a true cost that is recognized by organizations like Conservation International and universities, which is all underway – that will make it a lot easier for CFOs to actually do the calculations that need to be done to do the right thing.”
“The sustainable economy is only going to come under one condition: When the lowest-priced good –the lowest-priced T-shirt at Wal-Mart – is lowest priced precisely because it does the least harm,” he said.
– Justin Gerdes
Photo: Ed Ritger Climate One, The Commonwealth Club HQ, San Francisco (September 12, 2011)