A Conversation With Andrew Deutz, Conservationist
Here, Deutz discusses the significant advances in understanding the economics of nature that have been made over the last few years; why we must realize that the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment and that a healthy environment is necessary for long-term economic growth and stability; and why the real prices for basic commodities and everyday essentials like food, water, and energy are rising and will continue to do so as the global middle class expands.
What do you say when people ask you, 'What do you do?'
I tell most people that I work for the Nature Conservancy and my role is to get governments to change policies and move money to invest in natural capital to help solve big problems like climate change, water availability, food security, and poverty.
What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the sustainability world?
Over the last few years, there have been significant advances in understanding the economics of nature. We are getting much better at recognizing and valuing the benefits and services that nature provides. We get a huge subsidy from nature that makes our societies possible and our economies work -- and we are finally starting to understand just how big and important that subsidy is -- and what smart things we can to make sure it keeps delivering.
What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?
A lot of people seem to think that a healthy environment is a "nice to have," after we've satisfied other personal and societal needs, usually defined in economic and financial terms. But the economy is really a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, which means that a healthy environment is a "must have" if we are going to have long-term economic growth, security, and stability.
What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?
Resource scarcity. The real prices for basic commodities and everyday essentials like food, water, and energy declined over the course of the 20th century, a testament to human ingenuity in the industrial era. However, those gains have largely been reversed in the first decade of the 21st century, basically because we have added a billion new middle class consumers to the global economy over the last 25 years, reaching almost two billion people in the global middle class. In the next 25 years, the world will add another three billion middle class consumers. That will create huge demand pressures on the world's basic resources, at the same time that we are bumping up against planetary boundaries on a range of environmental stresses, and climate change is beginning to be felt both acutely and chronically. Sustainability is going to become a pocketbook issue like never before.
What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?
I often get the question: What's the one thing people should do to improve the environment? I wish people would stop thinking there's just one thing. The biosphere is a complex system. Economies are complex systems. Communities are complex systems. So, we need a systems approach to solving the sustainability challenge. We need to be smart and hopefully simple, but not simplistic.
What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?
Raw data. Earlier in my career I was really interested in ways to collect and present environmental information, based on a somewhat naive assumption that simply having more information about the state of the world would motivate the obviously needed changes in behavior. I've come to think that facts and figures are really useful to justify the decisions and actions that people and institutions are already committed to take and figuring out how best to get where you think you want to go, but are rarely adequate on their own to change behavior -- that requires getting at interests and emotions.
Who are three people or organizations that you would put in a Hall of Fame for your field?
Rachel Carson, Gro Harlem Brundtland, and Maurice Strong.
What other field or occupation did you consider going into?
Human rights advocacy.
What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?
A combination of international news sites: UN Wire, BBC, NYTimes.com, The Economist, etc.
What song's been stuck in your head lately?
"Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies," from The Nutcracker. My three-year-old daughter has just discovered ballet.