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Biodiversity and business

A conversation with Dr. Johannes Vogel and Dr. Sarah Darwin
June 2022

Biodiversity is a crucial yet under-appreciated foundation on which our societies – and our businesses – have been built. Most of our supply chains begin in nature, yet the essential ‘ecosystem services’ on which we rely for our survival do not appear on our national or corporate balance sheets. The failure of our accounting models to recognize the depreciation of natural capital has resulted in an over-intense exploitation of the natural world. Business leaders are increasingly aware that natural capital is just as essential for success as human, physical and financial capital; and biodiversity is slowly appearing on the agendas of corporate boards.

To mark World Environment Day, Spencer Stuart spoke to Dr. Johannes Vogel, Director General of the Berlin Natural History Museum and Professor of Biodiversity and Public Science at Humboldt University, and Dr. Sarah Darwin, a botanist, architect of the Museum’s groundbreaking nightingale ‘citizen science’ project, and a direct descendant of Charles Darwin. We discussed the urgent challenges facing business and the benefits that can come from fully engaging with biodiversity.

We occupy one planet. It’s the only one we have, and it provides us with everything we need to thrive, multiply, and achieve world domination. The current estimate is that global ecosystem services add about the same amount to our wellbeing as what we count as GDP, so that means in our current economic system, half of the wealth we spend is not being accounted for.

How we tackle climate change will determine <em>how</em> we live. How we tackle biodiversity will determine <em>whether</em> we live.

Nature – biodiversity – is unfortunately a lot more complex than climate, and what we humans strive for is simple arguments. We want a nexus that allows us shortcuts and to communicate in a powerful way; CO2 in the atmosphere is one measurement science can agree on. So it becomes the thing that channels the discussion. Climate scientists can agree that 1.5 degrees is something that might or might not be the limit to a sustainable future for mankind, and with this at least you have something that enables you to say we are approaching danger point.

With biodiversity, nobody can say what a tipping point would be. So while many of us have a gut feeling that we've entered a zone where a lot of red lights are really, really flashing now, it will be very difficult to give such clear guidance to policy or to business similar to what we have for climate change. But that should not take us away from the fact that we are facing a major issue here. How we tackle climate change will determine how we live. How we tackle biodiversity will determine whether we live.

Nature's arsenal is infinite when it comes to inflicting damage on us.

Climate change has two solutions that need to work hand in hand. One is reducing CO2 emissions as rapidly as possible. The other is using nature to absorb carbon, or I should say, stabilizing nature to continue to be able to absorb carbon. Only functioning ecosystems take in carbon. So, a good example is the rainforest in the Congo which, as far as I know, has the best carbon uptake in the rainforest soils. Why? Because of the woodland elephants. No other rainforest has these large mammals; they cause disturbance, regeneration, growth, they allow more species to thrive. So if the woodland elephant goes, the rainforest might still be standing, but the carbon storage capacity of these large swathes of land will diminish quite dramatically. This is just one example of why preserving biodiversity matters.

What we can be absolutely sure about is that humans are not going to bring life on earth to an end. It’s very, very unlikely that we can do that, because life has survived many bigger crises than humanity poses at the moment. So I wouldn't really advocate that we have to protect nature for nature's sake. I would strongly advocate that we have to protect nature for our sake, with all we've got, because nature does not negotiate. It doesn't enter into political discussions. Nature's arsenal is infinite when it comes to inflicting damage on us.

The toxic combination of climate change and a change in biodiversity patterns was a cause of Covid-19. Climate change is contributing to bats changing their distributional ranges, and add to that population growth, unsustainable wildlife trade and the consumption of non-domesticated organisms. What this adds up to is that unsustainable and often unethical use of natural resources causes us to pay dearly.

There are many dangers, from soil erosion to nutrient depletion to the fact that one million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction. But if we continue with the theme of linking biodiversity to climate, the health of the planet is also linked to the oceans, which cover 70% of the world's surface. Theoretically, only a very thin layer on the several meters deep water bodies is active in photosynthesis. However, there is life throughout the water column, and the “gardening” of the oceans, the thing that allows the oceans to be more active in absorbing carbon, are whales. They disturb the water columns through their deep dives, supplying nutrients in a nutrient-poor environment, so that phytoplankton can thrive at the surface. This photosynthetic plankton sinking to the ocean floor is where carbon is stored over geological time. If we kill the whales, we have a good chance of killing the oceans, and if we kill the oceans, we will be gone fairly rapidly.

There are certainly a lot of sectors that should be friends of biodiversity, because their business model totally relies on it. The health sciences industry, to start with, but agriculture, food, fisheries and forestry. If they don't care about biodiversity, their business model is not sustainable.

It’s also possible to see adaptation to climate change as a business opportunity, especially when it comes to the need for clean tech installations, be it solar, wind energy, carbon capture and so on. You can stay within the current economic system and provide returns for your stakeholders or shareholders. These innovations will have indirect benefits for biodiversity.

We also quite rightly get excited about nature-based solutions, or offsets, such as rewilding – something that could have a significant impact if implemented on a really large scale. But saving what we’ve already got is much cheaper and faster. We are in the UN Decade of Nature Restoration and to rewild a part of the Amazon rainforest, to get it back to where it was in terms of biodiversity and carbon storage, probably takes hundreds of years. It’s far, far better, and more efficient, to try and preserve what we’ve got.

I would say, look at your goals and vision, and see how they can be aligned with stewardship of the natural world. And then challenge your enormously talented staff to come up with solutions to align your business objectives with stewardship of the natural world. Of course, I cannot prescribe what type of approach should be taken, it has to be specific to your business and your people. But unleash that creative thinking; be part of alliances that help when it comes to rethinking your business model.

In all the decisions we make, nature should be our priority. Unless we see nature as a global commons, it is going to hurt us.

Small things matter. We used to visit a fantastic museum that was all about biodiversity and nature and the oceans, and then we'd sit down at the restaurant and we'd all be eating prawns, seafood, beef, pork. People were just not making these connections, but they are now. I think businesses are going to find that their employees care very much about these things. Unless businesses make adjustments they're not going to attract people, so it's going to be in their interest to be thinking along these lines.

As leadership advisors, you [Spencer Stuart] have a responsibility as well when you identify candidates for board and executive roles with global companies. Forward-looking businesses need to attract the best talents and systems thinkers who can build sustainable business models and who can see when maximizing profit or shareholder return might actually be counterproductive in terms of the environmental damage caused. In all the decisions we make, nature should be our priority. Unless we see nature as a global commons, it is going to hurt us.

As humans, we are easily distracted. We are not really are geared up to think about the medium to long term. Quarterly reporting is a good indication of where the emphasis is. And the lifetime of a FTSE 100 CEO, for example, is maybe 5-6 years. Despite relatively short tenures in executive roles, you have to instill long-term thinking into the corporate mindset. Who is thinking about whales and what a population of whales might do for their grandchildren?

We need to find completely new coalitions for change, unexpected partnerships coming together on equal terms, that thrash out what the sensible, challenging solutions should be. One needs to look at the entire value chain or systems that we work within. So that means academia, business, government, regulators, NGOs, activist organizations. I hired a person at the Museum to identify change coalitions (as opposed to change organizations) around nature. We stopped at 500 globally. At the aggregated level, there's a cacophony of voices and this is diluting the potential impact. In order to be effective, to be powerful, you need fewer voices, proper alignment and more people saying the same thing.

Let’s take the example of a project we led on nightingales, which arrive in Berlin in their thousands every spring. We asked the public to record nightingales and download their songs onto an app developed by the museum, which has algorithms to help you identify what is and is not a nightingale. Information collected by citizen scientists enabled the museum to see where these nightingales are, to better understand their behaviors, and even to see whether their songs varied in different parts of the city.

We need to foster three things – connections, courage, and community – because people do care about biodiversity.

We took an iconic bird and developed a program around it that appealed to an incredibly broad audience. I like to think of the nightingale as a gateway species, since it is a migratory bird that spans three continents: Africa, Europe, and Asia. Berlin is a city full of migrants and refugees, and this has been a project that they can all share in the city they call home. Each culture has its own relationship to nightingales, and this has enriched the collective experience. For refugees in particular, being able to come to events in our Museum and feel a sense of pride and belonging through a connection with the natural world has been transformative.

We had multiple ways of engaging with members of the local community from all walks of life. We’d never had such a diverse project, and we really made a difference. It proved that if you can train up your community to become advocates of the natural world, then they can go out and there will be a ripple effect.

We’ve had emails from people saying, "I have never listened to the Berlin skies before. I didn't realize we had so many birds." It's transformed people; they really want to be engaged, they want to help. If I had to sum it up, I would say we need to foster three things – connections, courage, and community – because people do care about biodiversity; they don't want the robins in their garden to die out. The power in a project like this lies in using community engagement to foster a healthy planet and a healthy human population, and in in its potential to increase our self-reflective capacity.

More information on the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin can be found here.