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Towards a new progress story which redefines our relationship to nature

"If the 20th century turned much of the world into a pavement or car park, the 21st century needs to be about turning it back into a garden."

Published: Monday 13 July, 2020



Professor Henrietta L. Moore

The destruction of nature is the driving force of the current dominant progress story, which is why we need to change the story. As more roads were paved, cars bought, and airports built, economies grew, but so did the destruction of nature.

For a while, perhaps the planet seemed just about big enough to absorb the shocks we cause it. Nature seemed forgiving, with forests so large and the seas so deep and full of life. But the Dasgupta Review on the Economics of Biodiversity is clear: Although there is a sustainable amount we can take from nature, we have moved far beyond it. If we do not evolve, we will continue to destroy the biodiversity we depend on, unravelling the web of life we need to survive as a species.

This unravelling has already begun, and indications of the strain we put on nature are impossible to ignore. In the last few years, there has been no shortage of daunting headlines. From reports of the rate of insect die-off “threatening the collapse of nature”, to the studies indicating the Amazon rainforest is approaching a “tipping point”.

Something about our collision course with nature feels inevitable, but it is not. It is a result of the dominant vision of what prosperity is, and how we deliver it. Prosperity when rooted in economic terms and measured with indicators such as income level, consumption level, or employment status, without any real thought for what really makes a good life, can only ever be delivered through economic growth, regardless of the impact on the world, or on our survival chances in the future. This economic progress story only acknowledges nature as an input to the economic machine – as more fuel for more economic growth. In mainstream economics, the destruction of nature is seen as a regrettable but necessary trade-off for “progress”.

But this progress story is not inevitable. There are other ways and better stories. A new story of a more expansive prosperity delivered by redefining our relationship to the natural world is possible. One could even argue it’s already emerging. Many people have a vision in their hearts of a world that is better, and more beautiful. Our economies are designed to deliver growth at the moment. But a recent report showed that British people support measures to track health and wellbeing, instead of economic growth. The way to do this is by redefining our relationship to nature.

If the 20th century turned much of the world into a pavement or car park, the 21st century needs to be about turning it back into a garden. That means bringing nature back into our lives in whatever ways possible, and rediscovering nature’s generosity. It means changing the way we see ourselves – from above nature, to deeply embedded with it. It means a deep re-imagining of many areas in a way that honours life and delivers prosperity for the long term.

In agriculture, it means regenerating the land by building soil health and biodiversity. In cities, it means removing ‘un-concreting’ and allowing communities to connect with the soil and grow their own food, medicine, and beauty. With transport, it means making cycling and walking the most appealing option for people, by making plenty of space for it and by transforming busy roads into something that resembles parks. With health, it means using the astonishing power of access to nature to prevent chronic illnesses – both mental and physical.

So much of this work has started already.

This article is part of IGP’s Post-Covid Live series where I address the nature of society, the kind of government and the form of economy we will need and want after the crisis.

Image credit: Adrian on Unsplash

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