Nature's diversity

23 Oct 2020

The opportunity in nature's diversity

The solution to an intractable problem sometimes boils down to finding a new way to look at it. 

With climate change, the dominant paradigm, at least since the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, has boiled down to seeing the climate in terms of a ‘machine’ that needs to be fixed. Nearly 30 years later, the problem of the potential influence of man-made Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on the climate is worse than ever – concentrations in the atmosphere rose every year from 1992 until 2020.


Then, in 2020, along came an invisible, microscopic virus, a form of matter that exists in the grey area of living and non-living, which did more in three months to reduce GHG emissions in the earth’s atmosphere than international agreements have achieved in decades. It also made important improvements to our polluted cities and upended most business models across the globe.


If that does not make you stop to think, then I suggest we had all better start preparing physically and mentally for a catastrophe. In such a scenario, we can forget the potential outlook for global stock market indices – they will simply disappear, and there is a chance that nature will solve the climate problem by simply erasing us out of the picture. Nature has thrived for billions of years without us – we are not indispensable.


The truth is that the machine metaphor to describe our biosphere is the wrong one. It is no machine, and humanity is certainly not the deus ex machina. We are a part of nature, not separate from it. This is sometimes lost in the word ‘environment’, which can suggest we are somehow separate from everything else in the great universe around us. However, as the Lord put it to Adam ‘from dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return’.

At the most basic level, environmental issues and their solutions boil down to respecting nature – and this is a job that starts with you and me.

On a more positive note, nature’s diversity offers us abundant, double-digit-return investment opportunities. They are practically risk-free if only we show some patience. A diversified portfolio of financial assets reduces risk. Bio-diversity increases nature’s (and thus our) resilience to real shocks. The point is made forcefully in a recent interim report on the economics of biodiversity prepared for HM Treasury by the distinguished Cambridge professor, Sir Partha Dasgupta.


The way for us to harvest these returns is to look at the climate in a different way. A better metaphor is not a machine but an extremely complex organism of which we are part. We need to respect it in the same way we respect ourselves and our offspring, to ensure our intergenerational survival.


The key thing here is that the answer starts with us as individuals and should not be delegated to distant political committees. We cannot get off the hook. At the most basic level, environmental issues and their solutions boil down to respecting nature – and this is a job that starts with you and me.


Small can be dangerous, as the coronavirus reminds us. However, small can be beautiful also, with individual effort compounding exponentially into greater things, including the wonders of nature we see around us, and in more practical terms the survival of the human race. 

The blog does not aim to give investment advice, but is designed to afford relevant longer-term context to investors, encouraging a broad perspective where uncertainty is high and a spirit of learning is important. The views expressed are those of the author, not those of Investec.