It’s easy to see the magnitude of change over time while watching a time-lapse video. As this video cycles through composite satellite images of Earth, you can see the march and retreat of the Arctic ice across the seasons and over the years. It looks like the planet is breathing, until, in 2100, the ice caps have shrunk so much that the Earth’s breath is nearly extinguished.
Watching this video recently made me look differently at our planet.
I saw in the time lapse, how our decisions affect the Earth as a complete ecosystem. Viewing the planet in a new light made me reflect on what else we as a sustainability community should rethink in the New Year – three areas that need fresh thinking: ecosystems, sustainability metrics, and how we envision our future.
1. Understanding the Holistic Value of Ecosystems
Traditionally, people have viewed ecosystems in terms of the value they alone receive. This point of view asks only one question: “What’s in it for me?” While this thinking motivates us as individuals, it does little for our ecosystems as a whole. If we tweak that question to ask what’s in it for all, we expand our potential for impact, while including our own interests.
Let me explain.
At Restore the Earth Foundation, we track six categories of capital to make sure we account for the full value delivered by healthy, restored ecosystems: We look at financial, social, manufactured, human, natural, and intellectual capital.
To see how this works in practice, consider Restore the Earth’s initiative to restore 1 million acres in the Mississippi River Basin, North America’s Amazon.
In 2016, we broke ground on the initial phase of this work, to restore 4,000 acres in Louisiana’s Pointe-aux-Chenes Wildlife Management Area. Once covered with thriving wetlands and grand bald cypress forests, this swampy land is now surrounded by a growing expanse of water.
To understand the full value restoration will provide for Pointe-aux-Chenes, we conducted baseline research on the six capitals. We held community gatherings to understand how people use the area and the benefits it provides them. Dozens of stakeholders joined us, including community members, wildlife managers, local governments, community service organizations, education and research institutions, volunteers, national conservation groups, restoration employees, recreational users, local business owners, landowners, indigenous community members, and more.
It was the first time many of these people had considered the value of Pointe-aux-Chenes from another perspective: an oil and gas man heard from a school teacher, a parish leader spoke with a community organizer, a hunter heard from a shrimper and crabber.
The result: recognition that collective thinking can benefit us all because we are all uniquely interdependent on Pointe-aux-Chenes—and therefore on each other.
As we rethink our relationship with ecosystems, one of the most important things we should consider is how these landscapes provide natural solutions to global challenges like water shortages, drought, pollution, rising sea levels, erosion, and fierce storms. The more we recognize the complete value and interconnectedness of ecosystems, the more we will invest to protect and restore them. After all, it is in our self-interest to do so.
2. Measuring the True Value of Sustainability
One of the more significant realizations that came out of 2016 was the importance of real facts and real data. Oxford debuted a term for this: post-truth. In political news, pundits debated the impact of “fake news” on the U.S. presidential election. Meanwhile, in corporate corridors, there was increasing talk about taking a “science-based approach” to sustainability goals.
When it comes to sustainability, we must rethink our approach to measurement so that we understand the true cost of impacts and the real value of acting to address them.
We need comprehensive metrics that can be used in different settings, compared across companies, and scaled up across different industries and geographies. We need metrics to capture more than just environmental impacts and opportunities; we need metrics we can apply to issues that affect all levels of society.
- Metrics enable accuracy: Our case for restoring 1 million acres in North America’s Amazon comes with an airtight financial model. Restoring 1 million acres will reduce U.S. carbon emissions by 2 percent; generate12 billion in shared environmental, economic, and social value; and begin reversing the impact of the Gulf of Mexico dead zone by 12 percent. On a smaller scale, our unique EcoMetrics Model quantifies the full financial value of each restoration project in terms of environmental, social, and economic benefits.
- Metrics improve decision-making: By allowing us to see the opportunities and trade-offs related to social and environmental issues, metrics help us make better decisions. For business, metrics place these issues on the balance sheet; for government, metrics place these issues on the policy map. Consider the new Outdoor REC Act, which guarantees that the outdoor recreation industry will be officially counted as part of the U.S. gross domestic product. By making this decision, the government will begin to track the economic impacts of an industry that accounts for646 billion in annual consumer spending—and policymakers will be able to make better decisions about the natural areas this industry depends on.
- Metrics help us set better goals—and meet them: With the full force of the law now behind the Paris Agreement on climate change, and with more definition behind each of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, more companies and governments are setting better goals. With solid metrics, we can measure and report on progress, and identify where we need to redouble or shift our efforts. A positive move in this direction is the Natural Capital Protocol, which was launched in 2016 to help companies measure their reliance on nature and ecosystems. Importantly, this framework is standardized, making it easy for all companies to set goals and helping all stakeholders compare corporate performance.
- Metrics support sound investments: In recent years, there’s been an uptick in the number of investors asking companies to disclose impacts on risks related to sustainability issues. Eighty percent of investors in a 2014 PwC survey said they considered sustainability factors in the decisions they made in 2013. This trend has given rise to integrated annual reports that cover financial, social, and environmental developments. Better metrics help companies disclose these impacts and help investors reward businesses with lower impacts, which will drive business performance.
3. Imagining a Positive Future
The last area we need to rethink is our future. For too long, we’ve tried to motivate people into action with threatening images of a scorched Earth, rising sea levels, polluted air, and dying species.
The New York Times‘ series on “Carbon’s Casualties“ is the perfect example of good intentions gone awry. These important stories—covering the plight of the polar bears, drought-fueled unrest in West Africa, and rising seas along the Gulf Coast—fill us with dread and leave us feeling paralyzed. The problems seem too big to tackle or too distant to bother with.
We need to envision the future we want—and take action to achieve it. In 2017, I hope more people ask questions that help us reimagine the future: What do we want? What do we hope for? What do we dream of?
When we asked these questions at Restore the Earth, we began to see a vision of a vibrant, thriving Amazon in North America. This vision motivated us to launch our initiative to restore 1 million acres in the heart of America. As we have worked toward that vision, details of that future have emerged, inspiring us to continue our work.
Instead of rising sea levels, we imagine lush forests and wetlands. Years from now, we envision mature ecosystems soaking up carbon, filtering water, and cleansing the air. We see habitat and communities enhanced by restoration. We imagine people in the community coming together to share their experiences and how they value this ecosystem. We see city planners meeting with scientists and entrepreneurs to develop green solutions. We see business leaders inspired to create net positive economic opportunities that help their company prosper—along with the environment and society.
This future is not some distant utopia. We know that restoration works; we just need to scale it up. We know natural systems and species can bounce back; we just need to create the right conditions.
And we are – in the heart of America. Join us. Learn more at RestoreTheEarth.org.