Izzy Fenwick: Reinventing Business – Biggest Debt Ever

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Sustainable future

Our climate crisis is nature’s debt collector, and it will not be kind to future generations. He will hold them hostage – unless we invest in his “stocks”

Opinion: While discussing the natural world in commercial terms takes away its inherent holistic value to life, our capitalist structures and systems fluently speak this commercial language. So that’s where I’m writing today.

As a young person thinking about the future and our current trajectory as a species, it is hard to imagine a world without crippling debt, limiting our possibilities and threatening our very lives.

This debt will not be purely financial. It won’t just be transition debt or adaptation debt – although that debt will also be colossal. There are things we can get out of, but in many cases it will be too late. No amount of money will give us back what we have lost – what we have spent and what we have compromised.

The way we have traded, and continue to trade, our natural capital is not just bad business, it is reckless neglect. Our natural capital has been wasted. We are actively bankrupting those who will succeed us.

These future leaders are already taking on the challenge of reimagining what the future of business looks like. A future that recognizes the inherent, intersectional and holistic value of our natural world and our undeniable dependence on it.

All of us, individuals and businesses, rely on natural capital to live (literally) and thrive (economically). Our oceans, lands, minerals, ecosystems, fresh water and air. We also rely on its services – from growing the food we eat to producing the materials we use for buildings, medicine and fuel. Insects pollinate our crops, birds distribute seeds, and our forests provide natural defenses against flooding.

Paying for services and resources is such a fundamental concept in our business world that it’s hard to understand why it’s not a standard consideration in how we treat the environment as a supplier. And while that’s not how I view the environment, it’s the best analogy I have for communicating the responsibility that organizations have to the natural world of which we are all a part.

The list of natural services is long, and it doesn’t even begin to include all of the emotional, mental, and spiritual benefits that we connect to as human components of these complex natural systems.

However, most of the services and the immense value provided by nature are economically invisible in our business world. We hardly consider them; we barely realize it and we don’t have clear plans to pay it back. The mere mention of GDP will often make younger members of society roll their eyes. How do you value something that excludes the fundamental systems that allow it to exist? How can we be excited about GDP growth when we know it is systematically linked to the destruction of everything that gives us life?

So when you think about the natural capital you depend on, do you consider your organization to be borrowing or stealing?

If we borrow, we must recognize the true bill and begin to repay nature for what we have taken. And those bills must also be paid in the currency that has real value for nature and emerging generations – by restoring the stocks we have taken, integrating nature-based solutions, and considering the wider ecosystems in which we all operate.

Because the truth is that if we don’t start taking this seriously, these bills will end up being the kind of bills we can never get through. Our climate crisis is nature’s debt collector, and it will not be kind to future generations. He will hold them hostage. And, when we consider potential climate change scenarios, it will feel a lot like torture.

For many, especially in developing countries, this torture is already manifesting itself in food insecurity, water scarcity, unbearable heat and political instability with the war for resources and global health.

Here we sit comfortably within the economic systems we enjoy today, while the natural systems and people we exclude along the way are the canaries that keep quiet in the coal mine.

Paying for services and resources is such a fundamental concept in our business world that it’s hard to understand why it’s not a standard consideration in how we treat the environment as a supplier. And while that’s not how I view the environment, it’s the best analogy I have for communicating the responsibility that organizations have to the natural world of which we are all a part.

And from an economic point of view, this is particularly critical for a country like New Zealand. We are a resource-based economy. Our economic system depends almost entirely on limited natural resources. Thirteen of our top 20 export commodities depend on natural capital, which accounts for over 70% of New Zealand’s total export earnings.

How can we be so dependent on something that we are not actively restoring? Why aren’t nature-based solutions the first thing we think of when auditing our impacts, especially when thinking about future generations? What kind of existence will we leave them if the natural world has become so impoverished that there is nothing left to enjoy or marvel at, let alone thrive on?

Seeing nature-based solutions so explicitly in the emissions reduction plan is a huge step in the right direction. It is essential to recognize how our climate crisis is inextricably linked to our biodiversity and natural degradation.

It’s a fantastic opportunity for all to learn and take the kind of action that truly improves and restores our natural world. The kind of action that alleviates the environmental debt that our legacy passes on to future generations.

Actions like this require collaboration. They require organizations, industries, sectors and systems to understand the collective path forward. A way forward that recognizes the natural world in which we exist and all of the reciprocal relationships we share with it in a way that ensures its wonderful “stores” are there for generations to come.

Because even though our natural world is not a business, our capitalist structures and systems continue to prevail.

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