President's Letter: The poetry and prose of nature

Carter Roberts headshot

Carter Roberts
President & CEO, WWF-US

Renowned scientist and longtime friend of WWF E .O. Wilson developed the biophilia hypothesis, which suggests that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. This strong leaning toward nature has been present since the beginning of time, and nature looms large in the cultural traditions and religions of the world.

The beauty and genius and power of nature—the spectacle of millions of monarchs taking flight, the dawn chorus of songbirds in the spring, the shade of a mighty oak, the kaleidoscope of colors in the ocean—fill us with awe and comfort and renewal. And we depend on nature. It is essential for our livelihoods, our food, our shelter, our medicines, our economies, and so much more.

I’ve long believed that the essence of our most primal relationship with nature is poetry—the joy, the wonder, the intangible benefits, the awesome diversity of all life forms with whom we share this planet. I’ve also come to realize that along with the poetry there must be prose—accounting for the more utilitarian, economic importance of nature. And the science of capturing the value of nature is essential to securing the financing necessary to save it.

At the 2022 UN Biodiversity Conference held in Montreal, nations of the world made many significant nature-based commitments. Chief among them stood a commitment to conserve at least 30% of land, freshwater, and ocean globally by 2030 (the so-called 30x30 goal) while respecting the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities and recognizing the contributions of Indigenous territories toward the target’s tally. One of the most contentious issues in these negotiations was the finance package to support conservation efforts globally.

Most of the current annual spending on nature comes from private philanthropy, foundations, governments, companies, and multilateral institutions spawned by UN conferences. Those sources help make possible strong public policies, laws, enforcement, innovation, community support, parks creation, and so much more. WWF has done great things due to the generosity of our members and all of the partners with whom we work. And yet it is still not enough.

It is estimated that the world now spends between $124 billion and $143 billion annually on nature-positive efforts—but we need an additional $711 billion annually over the next decade to protect and restore the nature that underpins our economies.

How to close that nature-financing gap? Increasingly it’s clear that we need to marry more traditional funding with nontraditional sources—market-based mechanisms such as carbon credits or wetlands banking; payments for ecosystem services like water fees; debt restructuring; and tourism fees. Almost all of those mechanisms depend on strong science-based data that quantifies the value that nature provides; links those benefits to financing; and guarantees greater integrity in how those markets function so they deliver beneficial results to communities and sovereign states.

Research from the World Economic Forum (WEF) shows that $44 trillion of global GDP—around half of world economies—is highly or moderately dependent on nature. The WEF’s Global Risk Report 2023 could not be more stark. In its color-coded summary of the greatest risks to our global economy over the next 10 years, five of the top six threats are coded green to denote environmental threats: failure to mitigate climate change, failure of climate change adaptation, natural disasters and extreme weather events, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, and natural resource crises.

We have made so much progress for nature. But for us to truly succeed we must use both sides of our brains—both poetry and prose—to unlock the full measure of financial and political support needed to conserve the genius of nature, upon which we so profoundly depend.

Which reminds me of the saying that the true worth of something is not evident until it’s gone. When it comes to nature, we can’t afford to wait that long.

Carter Roberts

President & CEO

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