Nature and Biodiversity

How to turn eco-anxiety into bold action on nature

The time is ripe for a new conversation about nature

The time is ripe for a new conversation about nature. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Nicole Schwab
Co-Head, Nature Positive Pillar; Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum Geneva
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Climate and Nature

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Too many contemporary economic models fail to account for the depletion of natural capital.
  • According to the Dasgupta review, natural capital per person has fallen 40% in just 30 years.
  • We stand at a threshold where we can use our agency to reimagine a new economic model that has the restoration of nature at its core.

Nature is a complex and often misunderstood term. What ‘nature’ means to a businesswoman in Paris, say, will most likely differ dramatically from how a member of an Indigenous community in the Amazon relates to it, just as our attitudes towards – and engagement with – nature have changed over the centuries.

Yet, beyond these differences we all need to come to terms with the fact that we have depleted our natural capital to a point where the Earth’s ability to sustain our livelihoods is becoming compromised. For decades, we have been drawing on the natural resources and ecosystem services – such as clean air, clean water and pollination – that contribute directly and indirectly to our economy, society and personal well-being. According to the Dasgupta review, natural capital per person has fallen 40% in just 30 years.

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The science backs this up, with increasingly dire warnings being sounded. We’ve already passed six out of nine planetary boundaries, which are critical for maintaining the stability of the Earth’s systems as a whole, and which once crossed threaten the planet’s ability to support life as we know it. The 2023 State of the Climate Report suggests we have entered “uncharted climate territory” with 20 of Earth’s 35 vital signs showing record extremes, and 2023 experiencing the highest monthly surface temperature ever recorded (likely the hottest the planet has been in 100,000 years).

Underpinned by robust data, the evidence is unequivocal – if we do not dramatically rethink the fundamentals of our economies and societies, the warnings are that by 2100, between 3 and 6 billion people may find themselves outside Earth’s inhabitable regions.

But is this really sinking in? And if we move out of denial, will we find ourselves overwhelmed and trapped in a frozen state of inaction, as is often associated with eco-anxiety? I would suggest that this is not an ‘either/or’ situation. We have a responsibility to acknowledge the facts, and at the same time, if we focus on the many small signs of change, we may find that we are on the cusp of a different way of relating to our life-support system.

Change in awareness

The time is ripe for a new conversation about nature – one in which we better understand our reliance on it, properly value natural capital, and begin to take real responsibility for protecting and restoring it.

Individuals like conservationists Sir David Attenborough and Jane Goodall have paved the way for this change in awareness. Youth movements and other grassroots efforts are strengthening it, emphasizing calls for political and business accountability and inter-generational equity. Indigenous peoples are finally being recognised for their critical role in stewarding 20% of the Earth’s territory, containing 80% of its biodiversity.

At an international level, several landmark declarations and frameworks have come into existence, including COP26’s Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on forests and land use, the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, the ‘High Seas Treaty’ aimed at protecting marine biodiversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction, and the WTO’s Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies to end harmful fisheries subsidies. Alongside these, plurilateral and regional cooperation is growing, as evidenced in the engagement of Ocean 20 with G20, promoting a sustainable, inclusive ocean among businesses and policy-makers of the world’s major and systemically important economies.

There are signs that this activity is feeding through into national policy. An increasing number of countries are adopting frameworks and incentives that are bringing the valuation of natural capital into the mainstream, as well as incentivizing nature-positive action. In its 2023 budget, India announced a Green Credit Scheme offering incentives to companies, local bodies and individuals to pursue sustainable practices under the Environment (Protection) Act. Also last year, Australia’s Nature Repair Market Bill was tabled with the aim of unlocking private finance for conservation and restoration goals.

Credible nature strategies

There is a growing recognition that the economic model that underpins modern-day economies is no longer adequate because it fails to account for the depletion of natural capital, giving us a skewed assessment of our progress. This is slowly feeding through into the activities of business leaders, who are showing an increased awareness that a company’s resilience and long-term viability will require adopting comprehensive nature strategies alongside their climate targets.

Through the World Economic Forum’s Nature-Positive Pillar, we have been engaging stakeholders to act in areas as diverse as blue carbon partnerships, fisheries supply chain transformation, 1t.org, our trillion trees initiative as well as supporting the Now for Nature campaign, advocating for businesses to set credible nature strategies.

Concurrently, thousands of ecopreneurs are putting nature conservation and restoration at the heart of their business models. Through UpLink, the World Economic Forum’s digital platform to source innovative solutions for the world's most pressing problems, we have developed a community of more than 270 innovators working to conserve and restore forest and ocean ecosystems.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing about nature?

The narrative is reshaped for every generation, but we’ve reached the point where future generations may not have the opportunity to claim their own narrative if we don’t change how we think about ourselves in relation to nature. The question is: are we moving fast enough? But more importantly, are we bold enough? Can we unlearn that which we have been conditioned to? Do we have the courage to question and reshape the fundamentals of the socio-economic systems we have created?

As the dominant mindset about our position and role as humans is shifting, a new sense of how to exist in harmony with the natural world is emerging. We have the ability – and the responsibility – to take action, and now find ourselves at a threshold where we can use our agency to reimagine a new economic model that has the restoration of nature at its core.

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