Climate Action

This Indigenous principle could transform how we invest in nature

Indigenous communities Next Seven Again principle nature investing

Indigenous communities and principles can offer fresh perspectives on investing that provide for long-term goals and personal responsibility. Image: Unsplash/Josh Withers

Gill Einhorn
Head, Innovation and Transformation, Centre for Nature and Climate, World Economic Forum
David Sangokoya
Head of Civil Society Impact, World Economic Forum Geneva
Professor Deen Sanders OAM
Integrity Lead and Indigenous Leader, Deloitte
Guy Williams
Asia Pacific and Global Nature Lead, Deloitte
Alice Bell
Integrity Director, Deloitte
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Long-Term Investing, Infrastructure and Development

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  • The Next Seven Again principle, found in many Indigenous communities worldwide, asks individuals and organizations to examine their decisions' impact on future generations.
  • Applying this principle to nature investment facilitates long-term thinking and mitigates risks that result from narrow objectives.
  • At the heart of this approach is responsibility to our ancestors and future generations. What would our great-grandchildren's great, great grandchildren think of the decisions we make today?

Thinking short term, whether that is the next election or the next quarterly earnings report, is simply not adequate for addressing the climate crisis. But what if there was another way to understand and analyse our investments and projects?

The Next Seven Again principle, or the seven generations principle, is found in many Indigenous communities worldwide — and it may provide a solution to the shortcomings of short-term investing.

Maa-Bularrbu is the term used to describe the approach among the Worimi people of Northern New South Wales in Australia. It is also a fixture of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) peoples in North America. In New Zealand, the Māori people conceive of “mokopuna’s mokopuna” across four generations.

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The Indigenous Next Seven Again principle

The concept holds that you are responsible not only for yourself or your immediate family, but for carrying the knowledge and responsibility of past generations into seven generations ahead. While Indigenous concepts of kinship and ancestry don’t easily translate into descending hierarchical models, if we were to imagine the Seven Generations principle in a Western sense, this would mean thinking about the impact of your everyday actions on your great-grandchildren’s great, great-grandchildren.

When we all accept responsibility for the consequences that our individual decisions have on future generations, it magnifies into a collective responsibility to maintain the integrity of the system across generations. Not for the interest of individual families, but for the interest of supporting a system that sustains our species.

On an organisational level, the principle presents a wide-ranging perspective in relation to economic systems and the natural world, challenging a far longer-term view than political terms of government or a corporate quarterly reporting cycle.

As the climate crisis unfolds and the collapse of our natural world becomes steadily more apparent, we must recognize that investments need to be made with nature and future generations in mind. As we set our sights on restoring the landscapes that past, present and future generations inhabit, the Next Seven Again principle pushes us to examine how we might address our own pressing needs, while also taking into account the interests of past and future generations. How do we deliver results not only in one year or in ten, but also in over one hundred years — well beyond our lifetime and the lifetime of our immediate descendants?

In applying the Next Seven Again principle to current practice, three critical paradoxes emerge: speed, quality and scale. Examining and addressing these paradoxes will ensure that any investment made in nature now is in our own best interest as a species.

The paradox of speed

The need for a swift response to the climate crisis is clear, and growing multilateral commitments by nations are a positive sign. During COP26, 145 countries committed to ending and reversing deforestation by 2030. More than one-third of the world’s largest publicly traded companies now have net-zero targets, many of which involve agendas to conserve and restore nature on short time horizons.

The increased demand for nature investments is a welcome trend, however the urgency through which these projects are being pursued and the pressure for measurable and narrow returns, such as marked drops in carbon emissions, has often resulted in prioritization of investments that favour short-term, lower-quality projects. Occasionally, this can lead to inadvertent negative social and environmental outcomes that detract from the intended benefits from the perspective of our great-grandchildren's great, great-grandchildren.

As a 100,000-year-old continuous culture, my people measure time and nature on a geological scale. My people have experience and story of four ice ages, each transforming entire landscapes and ecosystems.

Deen Sanders OAM, Worimi man and Deloitte Partner

Geological time may not be accommodated by the present system, but multi-generational time thinking highlights the value of governance principles focused on building trust and collaboration that values partnership and long-term success over short-term ambition or avarice.

The paradox lies in the time needed to build these partnerships in a way that responds to the social and ecological needs of the land, while at the same time our climate-related risks continue to grow.

The paradoxes of scale and quality

For companies aware of the impact of their supply chain and those who are looking to invest in nature to offset their emissions, the development of carbon markets and avoided deforestation and land degradation (REDD+) are also a welcome development.

Whilst REDD+ projects are increasingly integrating a range of vales and units of measurement, including social and ecological indicators, these projects remain largely focused on the goal of carbon emission reduction. As such, projects still typically simplify a single unit of measurement and monetization, for example, tonnes of CO2, and prioritize this above the myriad of other values to be captured in these deeply diverse and complex forest landscapes. The reason for a narrow focus is to help investments drive the largest possible scale. However, these approaches are prone to decision-making that doesn’t account for social and ecological complexity and co-benefits and can lead to whole landscapes being bundled together, often misrepresenting the localized systems of nature.

For Indigenous peoples, the relationship with the landscape is curatorial, cultural, familial and deeply localized. This form of localization is not inherently at odds with current practices in investing in nature, but the search for scale and simplicity as a model of maximizing returns typically deprioritizes the returns that might be gained from localized economic intensity.

The paradox here lies in the long-term investment return from a financial, environmental and social perspective. Optimizing for a single variable in a complex system increases fragility and raises the likelihood of systemic risks and unintended consequences. These weaknesses can be avoided by informing investment strategies with Indigenous wisdom, like the Seven Generations principle, and partnering with local communities.

The future of indigenous-informed nature investments

Two other centrally important aspects of the Seven Generations principle are the notions of ‘relationality’ and ‘responsibility.’ Understanding these can address the paradoxes of speed, scale and quality when it comes to investing in nature.

Relationality challenges investment perspectives to recognize the value of deep and complex relationships across and within systems. Responsibility speaks to how we understand our duties in the health of those systems.

Our present system of markets and investments is regulated and incentivized on a paradigm of accountability. But accountability and responsibility are distinct. Other people, markets or regulatory systems hold us accountable, but responsibility is a personal commitment. It is an exercise in individual agency for the care of others.

Thus, the landscape — or mother, ‘Nyairi Barray’ in the Gathang language of the Worimi people — bestows the responsibility of caring for a system that supports future generations upon you. When we accept our responsibility to the landscape as our mother, as Indigenous people, as local communities and as investors, we shift the framework through which rewards and success are realized.

The consequences are self-evident and immutable, transforming approaches to planning conservation and restoration work in any landscape and in implementation plans that reconcile the aforementioned paradoxes of current investment strategies.

We are able to better comprehend our inextricable relationship and responsibility as an interdependent part of nature, which shifts the demand from immediately accessible, large-scale and low-quality projects to high-quality long-term investments — those that keep trees standing and rivers flowing long into our collective future.

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