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Can capitalism and nature coexist?

The head of the world’s largest environmental organization explains what it will actually take to stop the extinction crisis.

Marco Lambertini speaks from behind a podium.
Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF International, in September 2021.
Benji Jones is a senior environmental reporter at Vox, covering biodiversity loss and climate change. Before joining Vox, he was a senior energy reporter at Insider. Benji previously worked as a wildlife researcher.

MONTREAL — At 3 on Monday morning Marco Lambertini was awake, seated in a giant conference room downtown, lit by fluorescent light and surrounded by government officials from around the world. It was far from the Swiss mountain trails he likes to hike, but he wasn’t going to miss one of the most important moments in his four-decades-long career.

Lambertini helms the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the planet’s largest environmental organization, with roughly 9,000 employees and 72 offices. That Monday, he was waiting for more than 190 nations to agree on a landmark deal to stop the decline of nature — the main agenda item at COP15, a UN conference that wrapped up this week in Montreal.

Finally, just after 3:30 am, the deal went through — and it’s historic. The agreement commits more than 190 counties to 23 targets designed to halt biodiversity loss within the decade, including conserving at least 30 percent of the Earth. WWF, and Lambertini, 64, have been advocating for years to get countries to adopt the 30 percent target, known as 30 by 30.

“The agreement represents a major milestone for the conservation of our natural world, and biodiversity has never been so high on the political and business agenda,” Lambertini said after the agreement was adopted.

Even with a new agreement in place, the environmental movement still faces major headwinds. The main activities that drive the global economy, from industrial agriculture to energy production, harm ecosystems and the animals they harbor. Any effort to save wildlife will have to work with the industries that are destroying it. And while statistics on biodiversity loss are dramatic, it’s still hard to get the public, businesses, and politicians to care about them.

To succeed in its mission of halting the destruction of nature, WWF will have to deal with these problems. One afternoon at COP15, I sat down with Lambertini to understand how he plans to do that, and what hope he has that the environmental movement can actually succeed. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Going beyond pandas to get people to care about the environment

Benji Jones

How grim is the decline of wildlife, really?

Marco Lambertini

It’s terrifying. Terrifying.

The latest figures show a 69 percent [average] decline of global wildlife populations in 50 years. These are species that have been on the planet for millions of years.

One million species are on the brink of extinction. We have lost almost half [or a third] of the forests, half of the coral reefs. I mean, it’s really bad. We are reaching tipping points at an ecological level with catastrophic impacts.

An underwater photo shows a scuba diver with flashlights pointed at coral, which are white.
A diver looks at bleached corals near the Society Islands in French Polynesia on May 9, 2019. Global warming is causing corals to bleach, which can kill them.
Alexis Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Benji Jones

Yet it can still be hard to get people to care about this. How do you inspire the general public to care about these declines, especially if they’re not the outdoorsy types?

Marco Lambertini

There are two dimensions. The most obvious one is that a lot of people feel a very strong moral duty to actually coexist with the rest of life on the planet. You see this with kids. We all have an instinctive affiliation with wildlife. You put an animal in front of a 2-year old and their reaction is fascination not fear. There’s a lot of that in everyone.

The other side of the story is less about wildlife and more about nature as a system. A few decades ago, there was this realization that protecting the diversity of non-human life is the biggest contribution to protecting humanity as well. So suddenly, the humanitarian and the ecological agenda merged.

Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF International

Nature is our best life insurance for the future. The air we breathe, the food we eat, the stability of the climate, our mental and physical health, our emotional and spiritual ability — it’s all related to stable and healthy natural systems.

Journalists should be connecting the dots. Between nature and migration, nature and conflicts, nature and food insecurity, nature and climate change.

Benji Jones

Does this represent a shift in WWF’s messaging around conservation? I hear WWF and think of pandas, tigers, and other charismatic creatures but not all of these linkages.

Marco Lambertini

Yes, totally. Using tigers and pandas to inspire conservation has been very effective for WWF; we’ve been growing constantly. That’s undeniable.

But I have to say, perhaps what we could have done — and what we are now doing — is connect the dots, and to highlight other wildlife that’s perhaps not so charismatic but incredibly important.

A moth on a bright purple thistle flower. The moth’s wings are subtly shade colored, smokey gray, blue, and green, with pops of bright red dots.
A six-spot burnet moth pollinates a thistle in Ladywell Park on July 21, 2014 in London, England.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

There’s a new realization that a lot of species that we dismissed as irrelevant play a key role in ecosystems. Take moths. Moths are incredibly important for pollination but we don’t see them because they come out at night. We also now understand that phytoplankton in the ocean is absorbing the equivalent of four times as much carbon as the Amazon every year.

Can capitalism solve the biodiversity crisis?

Benji Jones

It’s hard to ignore the fact that the environmental movement has, so far, failed to stop the loss of species and ecosystems. Do you see that changing?

Marco Lambertini

There have been many failures. The [wildlife] indicators speak for themselves.

But although the general trend is a downward curve, there are also many examples of nature bouncing back at the local level. It’s time to scale that up. To do that we need to change the system, which is the big conversation here [at COP15].

The climate movement is taking care of the energy sector. Last year, 75 percent of the investment in new energy generation was in renewable energy. The other sectors we need to tackle are agriculture, fishing, forestry, and infrastructure.

Benji Jones

But how can you actually transform those industries within a capitalistic society?

Marco Lambertini

The capitalistic economy needs to evolve. Right now it’s shareholder capitalism: there’s private profit and public loss. That needs to change into what some people call a capitalist stakeholder approach, where the stakeholders, the people, are benefitting, not the shareholders.

A capitalistic approach has produced fossil fuels, which have generated benefits for people, but now they are ultimately hurting society. That has to change. The same is true for intensive agriculture.

From an ideological perspective, I would agree [that you can’t stop biodiversity loss within a capitalistic economy]. But if you take a pragmatic approach, vis-a-vis the urgency of the need for change, we have to focus on making the existing system more socially and ecologically orientated.

Benji Jones

What does that actually look like?

Marco Lambertini

It’s important to have global leadership that comes from governments, exactly like what happened with the climate movement. Imagine if you didn’t have the Paris Agreement. Without it, you would have had some companies trying to do their best and a huge number of companies that would have preferred to maintain the status quo. Paris sent a signal that regulation was going to kick in and make the polluter pay over time.

We need to make the same thing happen for nature. We want agriculture that does not pollute or sterilize the soil. We want fishing that allows fish stocks to replenish.

While there are plenty of logical economic reasons for transitioning [industries away from these harmful activities], there is resistance from oil companies and Big Food. But I’ve had exchanges with agriculture companies and they know that things cannot continue this way. They know.

[Note: Under the new biodiversity framework, countries will need to start requiring large corporations to disclose their impacts on ecosystems.]

Cattle graze on a ranch in the Amazon rainforest in Para state, Brazil, on June 22, 2022. Cattle ranching is the leading driver of deforestation in Brazil.
Victor Moriyama/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Benji Jones

Meat production is perhaps the single largest driver of biodiversity loss. If your goal as an organization is to combat nature loss, why not put all of your resources into turning the world vegetarian?

Marco Lambertini

You would never put all your resources into one bucket and there is no silver bullet. Even if you did, it won’t resolve the entire set of problems for the world.

I’m vegetarian, but the idea is not to force people. We just need to reduce consumption, and the first step is to promote awareness of the impact of our food.

What this new deal means for the future of wildlife

Benji Jones

Is this new global biodiversity deal really going to make a difference?

Marco Lambertini

It’s like the Paris Agreement. And again, imagine if we didn’t have Paris. Where would be now, without a pathway? Without a goal around 1.5 degrees and net-zero emissions by 2050? It allows companies to develop plans and governments to commit and be accountable. Today we can look on websites and see which governments and companies are ahead or behind [on reducing their emissions]. This creates a completely different environment for accountability and social pressure.

On nature, we have nothing. Every company says, “We are great.” Actually they’re not. Here we want the 1.5 degrees equivalent for nature — which we think of as “halting and reversing nature loss.” It’s measurable because we know how much we’re losing.

Then we need to conserve at least 30 percent of the planet and reform the economic drivers of [ecological harm], which are all in the agreement text. It’s pretty solid. It’s not everything we wanted, but the agreement will give us the opportunity to begin to hold companies and governments accountable.

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