Remember Dr. Dolittle? He was a vet who could talk to animals. One of the rarest was the “pushmi-pullyu,” a llama with two heads (one head was where the tail ought to be).
The pushmi-pullyu was a gentle creature that did not like to be stared at. And yet the other animals in Africa convinced him to go with the good Dr., and be put on display in Europe, because Dr. Dolittle was a kind soul who needed money to look after all the animals in his care.
Already you can begin guess why I chose this story to begin a commentary on two large conferences under way this week: the IUCN’s World Conservation Congress in Hawaii, and the Global Green Growth Week in Jeju, South Korea.
Dr. Dolittle’s two-headed wonder is an obvious metaphor for the problem of trying to conserve nature while encouraging growth. If both heads want to go in opposite directions, nothing happens. If one head wins out, you get more of one thing (economic growth or nature) and less of the other.
In both congresses, the aim is to find win-win solutions, to “have your cake and eat it too.” The agendas even overlap to some extent: IUCN has sessions like “Driving green growth at a landscape level” while the Green Growth folks will explore topics like “Innovation in Water Governance and Conservation.”
But one would almost prefer that these groups were meeting together, rather than separately, because the overall impression from reviewing their respective agendas is that we still have a “pushmi-pullyu” problem. Green Growth is a wonderful innovation; but we have a long way to go before we can be confident that more of it will also lead to reversing the general decline of nature: species, ecosystems, and global climatic stability.
The Green Growth conference agenda is, of course, inspiring to an old “sustainability wonk” like me. It is covering wonderfully important topics like gender empowerment and new energy policies; and many friends are there. The conference is even debating the question “can economic growth be inclusive and green?”, which at least acknowledges that the jury is still out.
But that’s the conference for Green Growth thinkers. At the “summit” session for Green Growth policy-makers — ministers, bankers, insurance executives — the agenda reads quite differently. That agenda is entirely focused on money, with every session reading something like this: “Is International Green Finance Flowing to the countries and regions that need it?”
In other words, the folks with actual power are not talking much about the “green” part of the agenda, just the growth.
Meanwhile, the IUCN is meeting at a moment when the alarm bells for disappearing species and ecosystems have never rung louder. New research tells us that African elephants have lost 30% of their population in less than ten years. Four out of the six great apes are “one step away from extinction“. Those are the “charismatic megafauna”, but their plight reflects the general trend for nature: continued rapid decay.
The outlook for green growth is, frankly, much better than the outlook for nature. The Global Green Growth Institute’s budget has grown year on year, and the amount of money being invested in our world that carries some kind of “green” badge is definitely growing (“green bonds,” for example, have gone up from about US$ 11 billion in 2013 to 100 billion this year according to one forecast). I should be celebrating this revolution in investment, but the headlines from IUCN leave me feeling more sobered than celebratory.
Clearly, at the moment, the “growth” head of the global conservation/green growth push-me-pull-you is winning. “Nature” — a word that is not even mentioned in the Green Growth conference agenda, except as part of the phrase “natural resources” — is losing.
So I wish that some folks from the IUCN Hawaii gathering, with deep knowledge of these collapsing ecosystems, could be parachuted into the heart of the Green Growth summit. Of course I want green finance to grow; but I also want the people thinking about green finance — about finance and investment and economic growth generally — to spend equal amounts of time trying to reverse the “degrowth” in precious living creatures and irreplaceable ecosystems that I have observed over decades, from childhood enchantment to middle-age melancholy.
To be honest, I’m a little mad at Dr. Dolittle. He helped me fall in love with animals, which makes witnessing their disappearance all the more painful. (Bruce Cockburn, the legendary Canadian singer-songwriter, has an amazing song about this: Beautiful Creatures.)
By the way, if you read the original Dr. Dolittle — you can read the whole 1920 book free online — you’ll discover it’s different from the sweet family movie that so captivated me in 1968, or the less-captivating Eddy Murphy remake from 1998. The book is full of disturbing racial stereotypes, as well as colonialist (as well as sexist) language about relations between Africa and the land of the White Men. It serves as a reminder of why we in the rich nations have a moral duty to take Africa’s development and conservation challenges very seriously.
In short, we still have a lot of work to do. We don’t need Dr. Dolittle. We need a whole army of “Dr. Do-a-Lots” — doing a lot more than we are doing now to save nature, transform the global economy, and reinvent “growth” as prosperity for all.
Before we lose the elephants, the apes, and much more besides.