Cultivating better ways to value Nature

Dan Enzer Blog

A walk in Nature

When I think of Nature, I imagine myself alone in a forest. Sitting on a fallen log, listening to blackbirds respond to thrushes. Bees and flies add a low buzzing hum. The smell takes on a damp mossy quality, cut through with the light sneeziness of tree pollen and the depths of earthy decay. Whilst abundantly wild and chaotic, this place is refreshingly peaceful. 

This place is real. The current On Purpose Associates recently enjoyed a retreat to Devon where we had the opportunity to connect with Nature. We were guided to notice what was around us as we explored the rewilding site - a walk through meadows and woodland that led me to my log. This time to reflect in a beautiful corner of Nature highlighted how important it is to me, but it was hard for me to ignore a nagging anguish at its losses. 

Nature is vitally important to us all, so there’s an urgent need to reverse losses and encourage regeneration. Conversations on the environment tend to focus on climate and carbon, with attention just starting to turn to Nature and biodiversity. This is a key year, as following last year’s COP26 talks on climate, this year it’s the turn for the COP15 talks on biodiversity. So whilst there are exciting developments to help biodiversity, to get fundamental change we need to value Nature properly.

The problem facing Nature

We are losing Nature to human exploitation and climate change. This may seem an old story, as there are common conceptions of Nature losses going back decades. Like stories of old-growth forests being felled in the American North-West and of the bees dying out. These are all true, but don’t capture the scale, complexity and importance of the Nature and biodiversity losses happening now.

Digging deeper into these stories, we can see the interconnectedness of issues and how they come to impact humanity. Those old-growth forests of cedars and firs tend to be replaced with mono-culture pines that are far more prone to drought, wildfires, flooding and landslides. Each of these issues gets more likely as the climate crisis escalates, which itself is driven by further deforestation. The old-growth sequesters up to  three times more carbon per hectare, as carbon is locked into larger trees, deposited into richer soil, and absorbed by a diversely networked understory of saplings, ferns, lichens, and fungi.

Despite colony collapse disorder and death by neonicotinoid pesticides, managed hives of honey bees have actually increased 83% since 1961. However, inflated numbers of honey bees pressure nectar supplies for the wider 20,000 wild bee species that are actually endangered, with 40% of those species at risk. Wild bees are uniquely suited to pollinate specific plants and thereby increase crop yields  compared to honey bees. Even then, bees are just one class of pollinator amongst wasps, butterflies, bats and more. Taken together,  35% of global crop production is fully dependent on pollinators, with over 75% of crops relying on pollinators to some extent for yields or quantity. 

These cases show how much humanity relies on Nature with all its intricacies and interdependencies. We take food, building materials, fuel, clothing, medicines and more from Nature, which amongst many things also provides us with carbon storage, environmental protection and leisure activities. Our economy doesn’t value these benefits enough to stop degrading Nature - the core problem being that society values lumber more than forests and crop productivity over wildlife.

New economic values for Nature

The world view that brought us here sees the economy and humans as separate from Nature. The economy only values Nature indirectly - when it can be extracted from. A forest is worth zero in GDP, and only shows up in sales of timber or camping gear. This systematic undervaluation has spurred progressive efforts to better evaluate and protect Nature.

The UK has seen exciting developments on this front:

  • Natural capital accounts: the ONS has been releasing annual accounts since 2019 that track the value of ecosystem services, or the price that society would be happy to pay for all the benefits it gets from Nature.
  • The Dasgupta Review on the Economics of Biodiversity (2021): this advocates for tracking ‘inclusive wealth’, which would measure the actual well-being society gets from Nature rather than the lower market value.
  • The Environmental Act (2021): creates a legal target for the UK to halt nature losses by 2030 and a key provision for all new developments to increase biodiversity by 10%. 

Looking wider, we have global efforts to value Nature more:

  • COP15 biodiversity: these talks in December will aim to finalise the Global Biodiversity Framework, which includes targets to protect at least 30% of land and sea by 2030, reduce pesticide use by two-thirds, and eliminate plastic waste. 
  • Taskforce for Nature Related Financial Disclosures (TNFD): the taskforce is currently producing draft guidelines for understanding nature-related risks and reporting on them. 

Together, these developments are giving policy makers the indicators, targets and frameworks to catalyse change. It’s welcome progress to evaluate Nature in the first place and make bold steps for protecting it. However, concepts like ecosystem services, natural capital and nature-related risks are far removed from how people envisage Nature. Further, such a commercialised way of thinking about Nature is inherently tied to the economic system that is driving its destruction. 

We can go a step further than evaluating and bargaining with Nature. The recent IPBES report has a fantastic framework for nature-based values. They note there are many ways beyond ecosystem services that different worldviews value Nature. Integrating these deeper values will strengthen our relationship with Nature and push policy even further. 

Renewing moral values for Nature

A better way of thinking would match reality - that Nature is important, it's complex, and we are an integral part of it. Traditional Asian and African thinking often sees humanity and Nature more holistically. As do Indigenous cultures across the world, who whilst only making up 5% of the global population, protect 37% of remaining natural land. So what can these worldviews teach us with respect to Nature?

The Yurok tribe based in modern California have a philosophy that embeds humans as stewards of Nature. The Yurok philosophy has two fundamental beliefs tied to stewardship. First, that nothing is inherently evil, something can be good or bad depending on how it's used. Chopping trees is not inherently bad, and can be good when done prudently and respectfully. Second, that when the world was created it was created out of balance. Then the role of humans in the world is to be responsible for bringing the world back to a system of balance. Together, this puts humanity in an active role within Nature - to live off it in the ‘good’ non-extractive way, yet further still, to add balance by tending to it. 

This comes together in one of their myths, whereby an elder is taken by the river spirit to a great height, such that they could see the entirety of the Klamath river from source to mouth. They could see the rich abundance in the river, full of salmon, sturgeon and all other fish. Overcome with joy at the beautiful sight, the elder asks the spirit why they are there, to which the spirit guided them to keep watching as the salmon stop returning. The teeming river dies off, so though it flows there are no fish and no life. This great loss brings the elder to grief and tears, to which the spirit says, “now you understand, if there ever comes a time when there’s no more salmon in the river, there’ll be no more purpose for the Yurok people here on Earth.”

So caring for Nature is greater than a virtue, it's the Yurok people’s entire reason for being. The connection to river, salmon and woods becomes a key part of their community identity. This comes with generations of experiential knowledge - when the salmon come, which fishing spots to use and how many to take. Centering stewardship in their worldview means the Yurok people live far more harmonically with Nature, the local land, and community. 

Worldviews incorporating Nature can extend from grand mythologies to single words, as with the Japanese word for Nature or natural, ‘Shizen’. A direct interpretation of this would be, “all that exists between heaven and earth”. This is a poetic way to describe all the mountains, forests, rivers, and the animals and humans that live amongst them. Humans are explicitly included as part of the all encompassing natural world. 

There are two further senses in Shizen that add to the Western conception. First, Shizen encapsulates being as one is, or that each part of Nature has a natural way of existing. Animals and trees have an innate calling to behave and exist in their own way, which even applies to mountains. You can see echoes of this in the English when we describe a person’s temperament as their nature. This sense emphasises the importance of living in tune with Nature, rather than trying to control it. 

Second, there is the sense of spontaneity. Japan being a nation subject to earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons has a reverence for the destructive potential that Nature holds. So this sense imbues a respect to Nature, that it's powerful and cannot be restrained. Equally, spontaneity captures the momentary beauty that exists in Nature, as demonstrated by Japan’s affinity with cherry blossom. Japan forecasts the arrival of blossoms in Spring and Autumn leaves so people know when to watch the cherry trees. The fall of the cherry blossom is the most treasured time, as this most purely captures the momentary beauty. This sense enhances the respect of Nature, not just for its beauty but for its quality to grow and change.

These holistic philosophies of Nature resonate around the world, in the Southern Africa idea of ‘Ubuntu’, in the late Vietnamese philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh’s concept of Interbeing. Even the word animal has roots in the Latin ‘anima’ for soul. This is not to say that Western thinking is wrong - scientific thinking has granted incredible knowledge of species and habitats. Rather that it helps to be intellectually humble, and integrate diverse insights from other bodies of knowledge for a richer worldview. Then we can see and value the wood for the trees. 

Experience the value of Nature

This brings us back to the woodland walk. I believe one of the best things to restore the value of Nature in your own mind is to be reminded of its power, complexity and beauty. The easiest way to do that is by going out in Nature. 

Nature may feel inaccessible for some, especially in London. Though there is always something you can do to add more wild to your life. Spend more time in the park, get a houseplant, join a community plot, volunteer with a conservation group, engage in some guerilla gardening. Nature is for everyone, so engage with it at whatever level you can. 

Notice the intricacies around you, the little things about plants and animals that surprise you. Relax into the calming effects of water bodies and green space. Let yourself have a sense of wonder at the scale of Nature, how beautifully and chaotically it interweaves with itself. Enjoy feeling small, and part of something bigger. 

Spending time with Nature is a great education. Not only do we come to understand it better, we can take lessons from Nature for our own lives. Such lessons include Nature being far more cooperative and exhibiting greater forms of intelligence than we give it credit. This brings us closer to the natural wisdom of other cultures - that Nature is important, and we are a key part of it. Better worldviews can then drive the policy and structural changes we need to finally reverse Nature losses. So let’s experience Nature, and go on to value it properly. 

Image from Unsplash: Nik Shuliahin