Many people I am speaking to are wondering what to do about the biodiversity emergency. The climate emergency has felt easier to understand. Crudely, we need to achieve net zero carbon emissions very quickly. Carbon gives us a variable that we can work with. After declaring a climate emergency, engineering firms have occupied themselves with minimising carbon. But what to do after declaring a biodiversity emergency?

What we did after declaring a climate emergency

For the climate, there are two levels on which to engage with the emergency. The first level is what I call carbon accountancy.

Carbon is a crude proxy for the global warming. It helps us understand a direction of travel but the interactions between human choices and climate breakdown are more complex. But for now it is the de facto currency of the climate debate and it where most of the focus has been in engineering.

Carbon accountancy is understanding the embodied and operational carbon of everything on the planet. This is important work as it help us to understand the impact of our choices.

Deeper engagement on climate

The second level on which to engage with climate crisis is to step back and engage with the fundamental choices that we need to make. I think this is the much harder part, the part that involves disagreements, conflict. It involves changes in operations for businesses; changes in lifestyles for people.

I think engagement with carbon accountancy has distracted us from the bigger questions around the climate emergency. What kind of world do we want to live in? How might it look? What do we need to stop doing, and what do we need to start doing? Where is the leadership, and if it doesn’t exist, how can we lead?

These larger questions require the best of us. They require us to be brave and have difficult conversations. We need to create space where other people can have these difficult conversations too. They also require us to think about who we can influence and how we can grow that influence. They require us to step into a place of vulnerability and to show leadership where it is lacking. Of course, we need to understand the key issues. Knowing the high-level figures on carbon impacts – the carbon accountancy – will help.

But what to do after declaring a biodiversity emergency?

One challenge of the biodiversity crisis is that there is no easy metric; no easy proxy. Here we are talking about the breakdown of the complex ecosystem that supports us. And as this is a complex system we can’t fix the problem by managing one variable.

The second challenge of the biodiversity crisis is that without an easy proxy, there is no game of accountancy that we can be getting on with to avoid the bigger questions. There is also no easy answer that we can just put as a target and pursue.

But I think there is a bigger challenge that trumps both of these. It is that we need to fundamentally rethink our relationship the problem before we can start to work with it.

Attentiveness rather than commanding

Historically, civil engineers were taught that their role was to direct the great forces of nature for the use and convenience of man (Tredgold’s definition of civil engineering). I think it is fair to say that today this definition is understood in a more open minded way – both as to the intended beneficiaries and the means. But I think the heritage remains of seeking to dominate, rather than work with nature, which affects the attitude with which we approach the problem.

But another factor that I think of as just as important is what kind of problem the biodiversity crisis is. Engineers educated on a diet of engineering science are taught to conceive of an ideal world – with frictionless surfaces and isotropic, homogeneous materials, for example. We are then taught to make allowances for reality with factors and adjustments. Implicitly, the real world – the natural world – is an inferior version of an ideal world, conceived in the mind.

From this perspective, when something doesn’t work, it’s reality that’s at fault, rather than ideal.

The approach of a doctor working with a patient

Drawing on the writing of philosopher Matthew Crawford in ‘The Case for Working with your Hands’, I can see that the biodiversity crisis shouldn’t perceived with the mind of the mathematician working with idealised problems, but with the hands of a doctor working with grubby reality.

Using Crawford’s thinking, the doctor working with the patient is working with a problem not of their own making. The patient is not something the doctor has ‘designed’ themselves. The patient’s condition is not fully knowable by the doctor . All the doctor can do is patiently look for clues, indicators that might suggest a patterns seen elsewhere might apply here. And to keep looking when the answer isn’t obvious the doctor needs to care about the outcome.

To find their solution, the doctor needs to pay attention, keep looking, test theories and examine outcomes, and all because they are committed to creating the best outcome possible despite the unknowns.

To get better results, they must pay closer attention, gain greater understanding and ultimately show great care for the outcome. Quoting Crawford: the key ingredients here are ‘Attentiveness and a sense of responsibility….The truth does not reveal itself to idle spectators’.

How to rethink our relationship to the problem

What this amounts to is a fundamental shift in the relationship between ourselves and the ecosystem in which we are working. We cannot expect to address the biodiversity crisis by doing something to our ecosystem. Instead, like the doctor, we must pay closer attention, gain greater understanding of how our ecosystems work and show great care and responsibility toward the outcome.

But how do we do this in practice? That will be the subject of tomrrow’s post.