The Long Read: Is It Time To Retire Sustainability?

The Sustainability Game

Lynn Johnson
3 July 2022

In a 2021 video about climate change and biodiversity loss, George Monbiot said he thought less than 1% of people fully understood the scale of the emergency we are collectively facing. He blamed the media, saying, “They allowed this entire shitfest to happen”. I agree with this, but I also believe that, at least for the extinction crisis, global conservation organisations must shoulder part of the blame. In April 2017 I wrote an article, Want To Know Why Conservation Is Failing? Read On… I stand by everything I wrote all those years ago and nothing has improved.

It is still a few years away, but when a greater scrutiny of the last 70 years of the conservation industry does occur, I don’t think the history books will be kind and nor should they be.

The laissez-faire way that the commercialisation of wildlife, under the guise of the unproven sustainable use model and sustainable development, has been accepted by those in conservation, and in particular corporate conservation, will mean that they won’t be able to use a plausible deniability strategy when they are finally challenged about having enabled this to happen.

The landmark May 2019 IPBES report into the global extinction crisis confirmed that direct exploitation for trade is the most important driver of decline and extinction risk for marine species and the second most important driver for terrestrial and freshwater species. Yet corporate conservation has continued to lend their personal brand to companies, industries and governments to help greenwash activities that have enabled the commercialisation of species to continue, accelerating the decline.

The lead up to the June 2022 World Trade Organsation’s 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) in Geneva highlighted just the most recent failure of corporate conservation. In a letter calling on Ministers attending the WTO meeting to deal with the fisheries subsidies from countries who have the greatest responsibility for overfishing and stock depletion (EU, China, US, Japan), the global conservation brands were missing from the over 80 civil society groups who were signatories to the request. This is frankly ridiculous given unsustainable fishing is the most important driver of decline and extinction risk for marine species, and fuel subsidies from governments to their fishing fleets are a key factor in overfishing. The fact that the programme for the June 2022 UN Oceans Conference didn’t include anything about these environmentally damaging fishing subsidies is indicative of the failure of conservation to influence any change at this point in time.

The impending extinction crisis is a clear demonstration of the ineffectiveness of corporate conservation organisations. One clear measure of global conservation’s inability to engage people in tackling the environmental and extinction crisis is that even after 70 years, less than 3% of global, non-government donations go to supporting environmental and conservation solutions; 97% of donations go to human related causes. Right now, as highlighted in the George Monbiot video, most people in the developed world don’t know what they don’t know about the implications of biodiversity loss. Too few good people are saying ‘no more’ to biodiversity loss.

If corporate conservation had shown more courage to speak truth to power, this industrial scale of selling out species need not have accelerated over the last 20 years.

As long ago as 2002 a report, Global Environmental Governance: Options & Opportunities made it clear that the world had only four options to choose from to slow down and ideally reverse the dire environmental crisis long apparent by the turn of the millennium. These options were proposed in the lead up to the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development:

  1. Do nothing, discussing that “Collective action at the global scale is especially complicated and expensive”, going on to say, “Cost-benefit calculations represent an essential starting point”.
  2. Refine the status quo governance structure, highlighting that a number of stakeholders “believe that the most feasible way to improve global environmental results is to revitalize the existing regime centered on the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), giving UNEP a sharper mandate, bolstering its funding, and developing better coordination across UN bodies”.
  3. Launch a new global environmental organization, stating “the benefit of having a body that could serve as a counterpoint and a counterweight to the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the other international economic institutions, thus ensuring that environmental sensitivities are systematically built”.
  4. Develop a new governance approach, where “Its core capacities might include [the] provision of adequate information and analysis to characterize problems, track trends, and identify interests”.

The four options available, ranged from ignoring the impending environmental crisis to major institutional reform. Clearly, options 1 and 2 won out, but all that this has done has made the crisis we have to deal with much worse because we have collectively used option one to ‘kick the can 20 years down the road’ and option 2 to ‘fiddle while the world has burned’.

The Overselling Of Sustainability

The actions associated with option 2 – Refine the status quo governance structure – include the overselling of sustainability. Voluntary, tick-box governance schemes have been allowed to create the illusion of progress.

So, it comes as no surprise that more people are asking the question, given the lack of progress being made under the banner of sustainability, should sustainability be retired?

As Ken Pucker writes in The Myth of Sustainable Fashion, Retire Sustainability: Less unsustainable is not sustainable. Fashion companies should not be allowed to simultaneously profess their commitment to sustainability, while opposing regulatory proposals that deliver the same end. Businesses must disclose their lobbying efforts, use their clout to affect positive change while engineering a business system that is regenerative.” As a replacement to in-house sustainability reports he suggestsmandatory stewardship reports attuned to planetary thresholds and that must be subject to annual external audits.

Sustainability has been significantly oversold and so it will be hard to sink this ship, slow it or steer it in a more genuine direction. The interrogation of sustainability is long overdue, particularly as the current unproven, sustainability strategy is about to be further consolidated with the emergence of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) investing. ESG investing is directly linked to the sustainability agenda, promoting such investing is supposedly aimed at driving outcomes that fuel growth, whilst strengthening our environment and societies. But like sustainability before hand, should we buy into this without question? Key voices are not only saying sustainability should be questioned but also the growing influence of ESGs. 

As with climate change, we are rapidly approaching a tipping point on biodiversity loss that we won’t be able to overcome. 

From a biointegrity perspective, the planetary boundaries model shows that we are well beyond the Zone of Uncertainty and in the High-Risk Zone; biodiversity loss and failing ecosystems have huge implications for food security, yet we haven’t even reached the ‘denial stage’ that obstructed 30 years of trying to tackle climate change. Most of the world’s wealthy citizens are simply unaware of the true consequences to their addiction to consumption and how badly the extraction of flora and fauna for commercial purposes is monitored and regulated.

To be fair to the big conservation brands, who could have used their multi-million dollar marketing and PR budgets to educate consumers, their key donors haven’t really wanted consumers to be educated. Consumer ignorance of the implications of biodiversity loss has helped governments, companies and investors to push their continued growth agenda.

When the public finally realise that biodiversity loss is driving a decline in their desired lifestyle, impacting lifespans, health, food security and financial security who will they blame? Human nature will mean that people will certainly look for scapegoats to vent their anger. Consumers will want to pretend “we didn’t know”, to absolve themselves. They will say that they trusted the large conservation organisations and they are ‘shocked’ that they were complicit in misrepresenting the ecological impact of the lifestyles we were living.

Despite having kicked the can down the road for the last 20 years and despite the visible decreases in biodiversity the public has not yet clued on to the impending catastrophe. The lack of courage to call out the fundamental clash between increased consumption and biodiversity loss by the corporate conservation sector and the global environmental sector as a whole has allowed this state to persist over decades. Nobody wants to challenge the economic growth mantra and jeopardise their donations (from governments, corporations and the public) by doing so.

Will Corporate Conservation Challenge the Overselling Of Progress Studies?

A growing number of people, including billionaires and entrepreneurs, are catching on to the fact that we are reaching the end of the current 200-year economic cycle created by the industrial revolution and cheap fossil fuels.  They recognise we are heading into a period of declining economic activity and living standards that people in developed countries have come to automatically expect.

As a response to this decline, some proponents of never-ending growth have looked for ways to ‘reboot progress’. A 2019 essay in The Atlantic titled, We Need A New Science Of Progress, claims that ‘progress’ itself is understudied. The authors, Patrick Collison, co-founder of Stripe and Tyler Cowen, an Economics professor at George Mason University, and the author of The Great Stagnation, propose by studying how ‘progress’ accelerated we have a better chance of alleviating a time when it slows down, or stagnates. They believe that a deeper understanding of the dynamics of progress can even lead to speeding it up.

So, what is wrong with the idea of progress studies? Nothing, so long as it isn’t done at the cost of exceeding planetary boundaries. But as a recent BBC Futures article highlights, some of the people involved in the growing, influential movement of progress studies, don’t desire a world where humans live more harmoniously with nature. As another advocate of progress studies, entrepreneur Jason Crawford writes, “Humanism says that when improving human life requires altering the environment, humanity takes moral precedence over nature.” continuing that progress studies is a “moral imperative”. Statements like this show how little has been learnt about our dependence on having a ‘healthy’ natural world.

Instead of considering how we must restore our broken relationship with nature if we are to ensure the planet’s future, they are investing their time analysing what was happening in 19th century Northern England, that triggered the industrial revolution. What they don’t discuss is the environmental degradation of the region that is still playing out 100 years, and more, later.

As a physicist by education, born and raised in the North of England, I grew up on the stories of Joseph Swan, George Stephenson and James Watt. And I also saw the consequences the industrial revolution and the 20th century industry in the region, including the contamination of the River Tees and River Tyne; consequences being dealt with to this day.

Ill considered, post-Brexit promises have resulted in the dredging of the River Tees estuary to create the Teesside freeport. The toxic legacy of Northern England’s industrial ‘progress’ has resurfaced through this dredging, leaving beaches around the Tees estuary and along the coast of North Yorkshire covered in dead and dying crabs and lobsters; to quote one observer “I was going to list all the creatures that are dying or dead, but it is easier to say that everything is suffering. The seabed is barren.”. Sediment in this region of England should never have been disturbed. Until we can progress our thinking to deal with the consequences of the last two hundred years, then discussions of ‘progress’ are delusional.

In the view of the ‘progress studies’ proponents, progress is invariably linked to increasing GDP per capita. This doubling down on economic growth despite the fact that in the course of pursuing growth at all costs we are destroying and polluting the planet to death, shows the damage this growing movement can do. It will only add to the problems facing the conservation sector if it goes unchallenged. Yet the sustainability game shows there is little evidence that global conservation organisations can deal with the (covert) agendas, the politics and the power plays and deal with them surgically. Their missions statements say “We work to ensure that the legal trade in wildlife isn’t a threat to the conservation of nature.”, while at the same time they clinically sidestep all the evidence that the legal trade is a major threat.

This all starts at the top, with the UN Environment Programme, which sees itself as the leading global environmental authority. As a 2021 publication, The Untold Story of the World’s Leading Environmental Institution UNEP at Fifty highlights, the UNEP considers its core functions as setting the global environmental agenda and providing leadership on environmental stewardship. But as the book clearly demonstrates that this is still an aspiration rather than a reality; the UNEP has lacked the resources and the capacity necessary to be seen as an influential player of the world stage. Be it by accident or design, UNEP’s capacity has been curtailed.

While there has been much talk over the years of the UNEP evolving into the World Environment Organisation that could serve as a counterpoint and a counterweight to the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the other international economic institutions, ensuring that environmental sensitivities are systematically built in to global decision making, we seem no closer to this happening and in fact, in many ways, we seem further away.

All this means that global conservation brands will remain ineffective in saving the natural world from the effects of unconstrained growth, worse they will be puppets for businesses, industries, governments and investors who want to maintain the status quo of making huge profits from legally selling out wildlife.  This is tragic, because capitalism and the neoliberals won’t stop.

So, What Is The Solution?

As mentioned above, for a start a new global environmental organisation is needed that has the power to serve as a counterpoint and a counterweight to the pro-growth/pro-trade institutions. In parallel, we need a massive commitment to transnational, independent regulation that has the power to curb overexploitation. Only with a well-funded and powerful global environmental peak body and independent regulators can we ensure that environmental sensitivities are systematically built into trade agreements, development finance, agricultural policy and subsidies and fisheries management. This should include total transparency in the provision of adequate information and analysis to characterize problems, track trends, and identify interests.

But this isn’t enough, after 70 years of the conservation movement, we must look into why so few people are interested in wildlife and the natural world. Less than 3% of the population consistently invest their time and money in to conserving wildlife and the natural world. This is perhaps the biggest failure of the global conservation organisations; they haven’t been able to change the mindsets and behaviours of the key people driving biodiversity loss.

While powerful global organisations, such as a World Environment Organisation, are needed to represent wildlife and the environment during international, political and trade negotiations, these organisations are unlikely to be able to touch the hearts and minds of the likes of you and me. Corporate conservation, such as WWF, has proven it can’t trigger the needed behaviour change; they haven’t been able to get anywhere near enough good people to say ‘no’. The key question is Why? Decades have been wasted, only a handful of years are left to tackle the extinction crisis.

In researching the conservation players, from global organisations to local environment groups, both urban and rural, there is a missing type of organisation; an organisation that has a strategic, hyper-local focus. Could a foundation with such a strategic, hyper-local focus be what is needed to steer the ship away from the impending extinction crisis? How else are we going to get people to behave in a way that acknowledges that our society and economy are embedded in a natural system that is maintained by the activities of plants and animals, and without them, we would not be here?