In the UK, we're spending 240x more propping up fossil fuels than supporting nature, breaking our own laws. Here's why it matters for leaders and communities everywhere.
When we’re younger, we almost exclusively associate "growth" with nature - think plants and flowers, leaves growing on the trees in the spring. But this word has, in the last half-century or so, been co-opted and framed to be primarily economic.
Ironically, although growth is rooted in nature, nature is absent from most conversations about growth. Its seat at the decision-making table is conspicuous by its absence.
We live in an era where growth is portrayed by many leaders as an inherently positive thing. Growth means jobs, a lower cost of living; “prosperity”.
As Kate Raworth reminds us in her book Doughnut Economics, for far too long, the “cuckoo goal of GDP growth” has been “portrayed as a panacea for many social, economic and political ailments”. It has become a gauge of how well a given society is faring, so deeply entangled with our collective sense of prosperity and wellbeing, that we fail to question what is so blatantly a fiction.
The fundamental flaw in this mechanistic mindset - one that sees us as separate from and superior to nature - is that “infinite growth is ecologically impossible and exceedingly destructive”1. It is a powerful cultural story which has no basis in ecological reality, and one which is moving us ever closer to collapse.
A recent IPBES report underscored how policymaking globally still considers “only those values of nature reflected through markets”, disregarding nature’s “contributions to people, including the functions, structure, and ecosystem processes upon which life depends”.
Nature is, of course, not some abstract thing that’s separate from us: it’s the word for everything alive on this Earth.
At the UN Biodiversity Summit in 2020, heads of state and government around the world - including the UK - committed “to putting biodiversity, climate and the environment as a whole at the heart” of “national and international development”. They called it the “Leaders Pledge for Nature”.
But what use is a declaration - mere words on a piece of paper - if not matched by genuine action?
Consider, for a moment, the £41 million the UK government committed to spend on a range of “nature projects” in its “Ten Point Plan”. A seemingly large figure, but a drop in the ocean (240x less) when compared to the estimated £10 billion the UK government spends to prop up the fossil fuel industry every year.
Recent UK prime ministers and their fellow world leaders believe that infinite growth and business-as-usual economics on a finite planet is a future-proof policy ambition. The reality is quite the opposite - it’s fundamentally set up to fail. We can publish as many “Ten Point Plans” and “Build Back Greener” strategies as we like, but if we fail to ask the question, “Yes, but what’s the impact on nature”, at every turn, everything else we do can only fail.
This lack of nature-centric decision-making is evident in the government’s flagship Net Zero Strategy, deemed to be in violation of the Climate Change Act by a High Court ruling in 2022. In the Strategy, the government heralds Carbon Capture and Storage and biomass as key pathways for reaching net-zero. This ignores the now well-understood negative impact that these policy choices will have on nature, not to mention the lack of any sufficiently-scalable, tried and tested CCS technologies anywhere in the world.
So how do we move from mechanistic thinking which ignores the vital importance of nature, to holistic thinking with nature; centralising nature as the fulcrum around which all policy-making rotates?
As with any phenomenon as complex and multi-faceted as the climate and nature crisis, no solution is a silver bullet.
But cultivating in the hearts and minds of those in power, a visceral sense of how nature is at the core of everything, could be the best place to start.
If this might sound fantastical, countries like Bhutan are proving that nature-centric societies and governance systems can be achieved in practice. In this small Himalayan kingdom, the protection of the natural world is enshrined in the constitution, mandating its leaders to ensure that 60% of its land is covered in forest at all times (current coverage is believed to be 72-73%).
Bhutan isn’t alone in putting nature at the heart of decision-making. Costa Rica has led the way in championing ambitious nature policies, whilst Colombia’s new government has made strong commitments to keep oil in the ground, safeguard indigenous and environmental defenders’ rights and protect its forests from deforestation.
Whilst not perfect, their example is one we can learn from.
Imagine a world where governments and people all recognised this, and put nature where it belongs: first in all of our thinking…
Bringing about truly nature-centric politics, in the UK or elsewhere, ultimately requires a consequential change in consciousness. One which recognises the intrinsic value of nature but also instils a deep understanding of our fundamental dependance on, and entanglement with nature. Imagine a world in which leaders and citizens alike consider the state of nature, more than GDP growth, as an indicator of our wellbeing and shared prosperity?
This won’t happen overnight, especially amongst the small number of politicians whose philosophy of fervent allegiance to growth currently dominates. But we can draw hope and inspiration from the rapidly growing group of thinkers and doers pioneering this kind of decision-making, and use it to capture the hearts and minds of a critical mass of political leaders to tip the balance in favour of nature, before it’s too late.
This is what we do here at AimHi Earth, guided by our mission to accelerate nature-centric decision-making and our vision of a world where nature has a seat at every boardroom, political and kitchen table. We’re sprinting to secure a world where decision-makers at all levels of society are empowered and enabled to ask and answer the question “Yes, but what’s the impact on nature?” If we succeed, then the prize will be a liveable future for everyone now, and for millenia to come.
1 Robin Wall Kimmerer: Ancient Moss Podcast (2021)