Rediscovering our relationship with Nature – beyond profit and optimisation
FS-UNEP Centre / 4 November 2022
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Project Coordinator
María José Valverde works at the Frankfurt School-UNEP Collaborating Centre as a Project Coordinator and has a background in economics and public policy. She is currently involved in topics related to climate finance and policy, biodiversity and adaptation. She holds a Dual Master’s in Economics and Public Policy from the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po) and the University of Tokyo, as well as a Dual Bachelor’s in Economics and Social Sciences from the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po) and the University of British Columbia.

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Climate change has taken a prominent role in daily conversations among friends, colleagues and strangers – and so has climate anxiety. However, on a personal level, having the opportunity to work on these issues every day helps me to keep this anxiety away (a bit). It allows me to “put a face” to a sometimes very abstract and complex problem – and to witness concrete results. As my father normally says: no se preocupe, ocúpese, or do not worry, just get busy.

Through previous experiences and my current position at the Frankfurt School-UNEP Centre, I have immersed myself in the world of finance. With an academic background in policy and economics and knowledge of the “politicking” behind climate finance decisions, the journey to the finance world has been insightful. I have learnt a great deal from working at the cutting edge of finance development: what works and what does not, what are the particular needs of developing countries in different regions and what are the bottlenecks regarding project formulation and implementation. On the other hand, I have also come to wonder whether the way we are designing some aspects of this green transition as a global community is the correct one. At times, it feels like we are trying to solve a problem using the same methods and tools that brought upon its own creation in the first place.

Technological breakthrough vs inherent innovation in Nature

One of my favourite books is called The Overstory by Richard Powers. My family and friends would roll their eyes at this precise moment – it is a book I bring up constantly. But the reason I refer to it so often is because it made me truly rethink the way we have treated and perceived nature throughout history. More specifically, every time innovation and bankability are brought up in these conversations, parts of this book come back to my mind:

“These people need dreams of technological breakthroughs. Some new ways to pulp poplar into paper while burning slightly fewer hydrocarbons. Some genetically altered cash crops that will build better houses and lift the world’s poor from misery. The home repair they want is just a slightly less wasteful demolition. She could tell them about a simple machine needing no fuel and little maintenance, one that steadily sequesters carbon, enriches the soil, cools the ground, scrubs the air, and scales easily to any size. A tech that copies itself and even drops food for free. A device so beautiful it’s the stuff of poems. If forests were patentable, she’d get an ovation.”

We are constantly trying to re-invent nature – to “fix it”. From feudal lords to colonial times to the present, we are on an eternal mission to “improve” or “transform” our surroundings.  Increased resilience of agricultural yield or carbon capture technologies to reduce carbon emissions have turned into beloved phrases to be included in reports. But, to me, sometimes these phrases sound rather like this:

“Improve forest health. As if forests were waiting for all these four hundred million years for us newcomers to come cure them. Science in the service of wilful blindness: How could so many smart people have missed the obvious? A person has only to look, to see that dead logs are far more alive than living ones. But the senses never have much chance against the power of doctrine.”

There is a reason why one of the solutions to restore an ecosystem is to leave it alone. Planetary systems and the beings embedded within them have long existed without us – and will continue to do so after we are gone. By re-contextualising our position within the delicate balance of life, we will be able to comprehend how best we can help to remedy the situation. The natural world is not only made of separate components for us to quantify and internalise in financial models – it is a comprehensive web of dependencies and transactions:

“No one sees trees. We see fruit, we see nuts, we see wood, we see the shade. We see ornaments or pretty fall foliage. Obstacles blocking the road or wrecking the ski slope. Dark, threatening places that must be cleared. We see branches about to crush our roof. We see a cash crop. But trees – trees are invisible.”

Our ancestral relationship with Nature

Looking back on our relationship with the natural world, the only ones who seem to still listen to the ground, to the trees, to Nature and understand what needs to be done are the people who live in harmony with it. These are the communities who do not perceive “life and land between money and markets”, as Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore would phrase it, but as a network and collective that remains alive and sentient. That by working with it, instead of “helping” it or conquering it, we can re-learn what our ancestors used to know epochs ago. That by listening to it, we will understand what we must give back for this natural force to cease its storming protests.

This is not to discredit the ongoing efforts towards greening our economies within the current global financial and political system. It is rather an acknowledgement, as Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Mottley has phrased very eloquently, that it seems we remain “more concerned with generating profits than saving people… perhaps the greatest condemnation that can be made of our generation globally”.  Accordingly, a caveat must be made on each corner we turn when designing such financial solutions, to not forget what greater purpose we actually serve.

“What we care for, we will grow to resemble. And what we resemble will hold us when we are us no longer.”