Q&A with Tony Juniper: Dialogues on the Environment

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Published on September 4th, 2013  |  Discuss This Article  

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Mark Tercek is the president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy and author of Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive By Investing in Nature. You can follow Mark on Twitter @MarkTercek and find more of his writing on The Huffington Post.

In this ongoing series, I talk with thought leaders about ideas and trends in the environmental movement. I recently spoke with Tony Juniper, author of What Has Nature Ever Done for Us? How Money Really Does Grow on Trees. He is a sustainability adviser to Prince Charles, a fellow at the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership, a co-founder of the Robertsbridge Group and the former director of Friends of the Earth.


Mark Tercek: You began your career as an ornithologist and have been an environmental leader for nearly three decades. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the field? In your view, what is the environmental movement doing well? What could we be doing differently?

One big change is the general rise in awareness among politicians and companies. Many specific positive changes have come with this, seen for example in different pollution control regulations, the increase in the number of protected areas and the rising number of companies with serious sustainability strategies. Set against this is the worsening of deeper trends, in relation to the loss of biodiversity, climate change and resource depletion. Environmental groups and thinkers did well in raising the profile of the problems and in getting measures to address some of the symptoms, but we still have a lot to do in forging a positive vision of how things could be different at a more fundamental level. If we can set out a compelling idea of where societies might like to travel, then getting public support for broader change will hopefully be possible. In the end, this must include work to gain support for new economic ideas and shifts in culture. This is a very big job and will require much stronger collaboration among environmental groups and advocates.

Mark Tercek: In your new book, you demonstrate that nature doesn’t need to be sacrificed for economic progress—and you uncover fascinating examples of nature’s hidden economic value. What’s the most important thing you learned as you wrote the book?

For me the most important thing is about the need for a new narrative in business and politics. This is necessary to replace the existing one that assumes the degradation of nature is somehow a price we must pay for progress. It seems to me that this world view must be superseded by a new storyline, one that sees nature as essential for economic development. Linked to this is the need to articulate new ideas in economics. I call for the shift to a ‘bio-economy’, a situation where sustaining the biosphere becomes a core aim of economic policy. There are plenty of tools already available to start this process, including ecological taxes, new technologies and different ways of measuring corporate and national economic performance. The challenge is not so much in the mix of tools, but more in getting support for such an approach in politics and business. That is the big job that I think we all need to get behind.

Mark Tercek: We both believe that protecting nature is important for the planet and the bottom line. What needs to be done so that more businesses incorporate sustainability into their business plans?

I have concluded that one really important driver for change will come from leading companies who understand the importance of natural capital doing better in a commercial sense. I think there is a big opportunity for leading companies to work more together, so that there is more business-to-business interaction between those who are on the journey. That way they can complement each other and contribute to their collective success in ways that will get the competitors sitting up and taking notice. If this kind of synergy can be made to work, a virtuous competitive circle could be created, whereby a ‘race to the top’ breaks out. There is also a big awareness-raising job needed among the investment community. Most investors still don’t get it at all, even from the point of view of the financial risks that come with ever more unsustainable behavior. There is a lot of material out there demonstrating how companies taking sustainability seriously are better managed and anticipate risks more effectively. That fact needs to be spread more among the investment community. These two factors together – leaders gaining competitive advantage coupled with investor engagement – could significantly transform business performance for sustainability.

Mark Tercek: I argue in my book “Nature’s Fortune” that focusing on nature as an investment opportunity can build support for conservation, provide a source of capital and an opportunity to scale up. What risks and opportunities do you see in this approach?

The opportunities are considerable, not only in the potential for being able to harness more finance for conservation, but also in deepening the engagement and commitment of different economic actors to the protection of the natural environment. The example you offer in Nature’s Fortune (and which I touch on in mine) on how New York’s water supply was secured through investment in what might be called ‘green infrastructure’ is a very good case in point. One risk I see, however, is in how such initiatives are explained to stakeholders, including those who regard investments in nature as steps toward the ‘privatization’ or ‘commodification’ of the natural world. If there is to be widespread support for the scaling up of investments in natural services and assets, then different initiatives need to be carefully designed, explained and developed in tandem with narratives that present such efforts as complementary to the protection of nature for its own sake. I believe this can be done, with measures to harness economic forces deployed in ways that recognize the wider intrinsic, aesthetic and spiritual dimensions of the natural world.

Mark Tercek: You are a sustainability advisor to several large businesses and the Prince of Wales. What is your response to those who say environmentalists shouldn’t partner with big business?

Not so long ago big companies tended to look like they were more part of the problem than they were allies in finding solutions. While the majority of companies remain with a rather superficial understanding of the value of natural capital (and their dependence on it), there is an increasingly substantial group of leading businesses that are demonstrating how profitable enterprise can indeed be achieved at the same time as sustaining nature. One way to accelerate change is to work with these companies so as to demonstrate that sustainable business is possible, while at the same time putting more competitive pressure on those that still need to get the message. On top of all this, and given how companies shape so many outcomes in our world today, I don’t see any alternative but to find constructive ways to work with them. Having said this, I do think it is very important that campaign groups continue to keep up the pressure on the laggards. That is vital for maintaining momentum and keeping issues on board room agendas.

Mark Tercek: You have great examples in your book about the economic value of natural systems, from vultures in India to pollinators in the U.S. and China. Now that we’ve got hard figures attached to these striking stories, what is the next step? What course would you chart to better connect people to conservation?

I have always been a believer in action at different levels and that multiple strategies are needed in meeting conservation challenges. One strategy is finding ways to better reflect the value of nature in economic decisions through, for example, more accurate metrics and reporting. To me, it seems just as vital that more is done to connect people with nature. This is because an increasingly significant proportion of people have rather limited personal experience of the natural world, and are thus unaware of what it does for us. Putting people in touch with how nature and our Earth works could transform outcomes. The opportunities to do this are many and varied.

Mark Tercek: Despite what you call a “failure of economics”- you remain optimistic about the future. How do you stay motivated? What keeps you hopeful about the future?

I recently adopted a new motto – ‘It is too late for pessimism’. I take this view not only because of the urgency of the situation but also because optimism can be a powerful motivator of positive change. I sometimes fear that we conservationists might collectively talk ourselves into defeat through making too many gloomy and self-fulfilling prophecies. Some of the doom-laden thinking in relation to environmental issues is well founded from the point of view of the science, but the action that needs to come in its wake is I believe more likely to occur if we create a sense that we can in fact succeed, and in the process make life better for people. At a personal level I keep motivated through seeing things change for the better (albeit often rather too slowly) and by working with such talented and effective people in the many organizations and initiatives that I am involved with.

Tony Juniper is an independent sustainability and environment advisor. He is the Special Advisor to the Prince of Wales Charities’ International Sustainability Unit, Fellow of the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership and is President of Society for the Environment. He is a founder of the Robertsbridge Group that advises international companies. He speaks and writes on many aspects of sustainability and is the author of several books, including his 2013 book What Has Nature Ever Done for Us? He was a co-author of Harmony, with The Prince of Wales and Ian Skelly. He began his career as an ornithologist, working with Birdlife International. He was executive director at Friends of the Earth and Vice Chair of Friends of the Earth International.

[Image: Tony Juniper. Image source: Tony Juniper]

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