At micebook Ventures last week, we invited a panel of experts from outside the events industry to take part in a debate on the importance of rewilding, what we can learn from mother nature, and how the events industry can play its part in restoring our planet.
Facilitated by Leslie Robertson, CEO and founder of Ventures platform partner Open Audience, the panel featured Dr Vincent Walsh, Dr Alister Scott and Dr Benjamin Tam, CEO of Isle Utilities.
Scott is director of communications of the Global ReWilding Alliance, Walsh is one of the UK’s leading sustainable food and regenerative agriculture experts, regarded as a pioneer and thought leader within the food and farming sector, and Tam is an expert on developing new technologies, strategies and ideas in the water industry.
They were joined by consultant, author and TEDx speaker Jon Barnes, who helps organisations to rewild, and Claire O’Neill, event professional, sustainability expert and co-founder and CEO of A Greener Future, which helps festivals, events and venues around the world to be more sustainable.
Setting the scene
Chris McQue, micebook associate and Ventures creator, kicked the session off with a thought-provoking introduction to set the scene, sharing how there has been five great mass extinctions over the past half a billion years, all of which have “coincided with the pulsing migrations of humans”, and that according to scientists we are now entering a sixth one.
“The world is failing – there has been a huge biodiversity loss over the last 50 years in line with climate change. 800m trees were felled in the last 6 years, just in the Amazon, resulting in many species tragically gone. We lose 14 insect species every day, which equates to around 4,000 since we last met at Ventures in Liverpool. And disgracefully, the UK is in the bottom 10% of the worldwide biodiversity league.
“How can we do any form of business on a planet that is dying? Or maybe not? Maybe there are optimistic reasons to think more cheerfully? There is a massive opportunity to boost our biodiversity, our businesses, and our belief systems, all by giving Mother Nature a seat at the business events table.”
The panellists then debated the statement: “This house believes that unless we give Mother Nature a seat at the business events table, carbon measurement and reduction are pointless”, with questions posed by the audience. At the start of the debate, 85% of the audience agreed.
In a short presentation to kick off the debate, Dr Alistair Scott reiterated the climate emergency we are facing, reminding the audience of recent events including floods in Pakistan, the UK, Belgium, Germany and Italy, fires in Australia, and across Europe, and temperatures hitting 50 degrees in some parts of the world. But he stressed that all is NOT doom and gloom and went on to share insights into how rewilding and restoring biodiversity can help our planet, with three positive stories.
Scott shared examples of how three species had been successfully reintroduced or boosted – the wildebeest of the Serengeti, the beavers of Pickering, and the sea otters of California – and how that in turn has a positive impact on the environment. For example, when sea otters are eradicated, the sea urchins that they live on don’t have a predator, and as sea urchins eat kelp, the kelp forests off the coast of California have almost disappeared. Kelp absorbs carbon about 20 x faster than forests on land, so by bringing the otters back, the kelp forests are replenishing and that is drawing in vast amounts of carbon.
“A good news story of rewilding is very powerful,” said Scott. “We convened 15 scientists and looked at 9 key species – forest elephants, whales, sharks, sea otters, musk oxen, wildebeest, grey wolves, marine fish and American bison. We have just published the results in the top global journal Nature Climate Change, showing that just by bringing back these 9 species in vast quantities, you would be able to draw down a vast amount of carbon.”
Scott challenged the audience to play their part at this crucial moment, explaining that by supporting rewilding, businesses can draw down huge amounts of carbon. “You can make your business not just net zero by offsetting your carbon emissions, but net regenerative where you are giving back to the planet. Most significantly is what I call an inspiring shared purpose beyond self, so you are not just in it to make money, you are here for bigger purpose. This can attract and retain talent and inspire people to go that bit further.”
Practical steps the industry can take
A Green Future’s O’Neill said she believes that there is a huge disconnect – between us and the rest of nature, between us and each other and within us, which is partly why people are ignoring the warning signs from Mother Nature.
In terms of how the industry can reduce our impact, she said: “In the events industry, about 80% of our emissions are through travel. We need to consider very carefully how much we need to travel and how we are travelling. The other thing that is easy and quick is plant-based food. It is something that can be changed very easily and have a huge impact.”
Dr Walsh said that the language we use in tacking the climate change biodiversity challenge is hugely important: “What is sustainability? In terms of living systems, sustainability means nothing. If you look at words like regenerative and circular, they mean something, and are something we can measure.
“When it comes to an organisation, it doesn’t matter if you are at Silverstone or run football stadiums or venues, circular and regenerative are words that mean something. Circular systems come from understanding living systems because all ecosystems need to be circular. The first principle for businesses that want to do better is to be circular. Look at all your biological waste and look at how you can upcycle and turn it into something else. The biosphere does not downcycle or recycle, it upcycles. It’s all about mimicking biophilic systems. Any business can be circular and upcycle – just do it!”
Scott said: “There is a spectrum of rewilding, from 1, which is planting some things on your balcony through to 8, which is landscape style restoration. For example, the clothing brand Patagonia have from scratch created 16 new National Parks in Patagonia and Chile in the last 15 years by buying land from bankrupt ranchers and working with the governments, and are now bringing back native species in those areas.
“On a more local level, Rewilding Britain is a wonderful organisation, and they have a rewilding network of pieces of land, from privately owned to publicly owned, that are being rewilded. Some of those will be near you, and nearly all of them have opportunities to get involved through volunteering and corporate hosting. There is a lot of creative thinking going on in the rewilding sector, but we need business skills to help, to create partnerships etc. This audience has tonnes of skills that can be used in that movement. So, get in touch and find out how you can help.”
The panel also discussed how we can harness the power of technology and AI for good. Dr Benjamin Tam highlighted how the development of virtual meeting technology during the pandemic has been hugely positive from an environmental perspective. “Technology is an enabler and virtual conferencing is now used daily. In my sector, atmospheric water generation is a positive technological development. It enables you to create water from the atmosphere, and that could be the centre point in your venue or event, which would not only reduce your carbon footprint, but also create a talking point,” he explained.
O’Neill added: “I think that AI can have great advantages because it can free up a lot of our time through its ability to process information intelligently and create smart systems. So, for example if you are looking at things like energy management, or smart grids, or what’s happening with geospatial technology and where we should plant things. It’s a really great opportunity for having a more interactive system, that can help us to process information more quickly and in a smarter way.”
Sharing and collaboration is key
Jon Barnes pointed out that events can also have a hugely positive impact, through their ability to change behaviours. “How do you make people change behaviour? Typically, we change behaviour when we are moved, when we feel emotion, we do things differently. Events are opportunities to move people. If someone came along to one of your events, if you can design an event to make someone feel and give them tangible actions they can leave with post-emotion, that will lead to action.”
O’Neill said that you can’t be over-zealous: “20 years ago we had time to be super delicate and be polite. We don’t have time to mess around the edges now, and there are some real changes that need to happen. We can’t be shy and retiring now about this subject. We have a responsibility to put what we feel and care about out there and be honest about what we don’t know and what we can’t change and talk about what we are doing that is positive.
“If you hear about everything that is not working, you are less likely to get involved and feel motivated, whereas if you hear form somebody who shares action they have taken and what they managed to achieve, that is much more likely to inspire others to take action.”
At the end of the debate, the percentage of the audience that agreed with the opening statement had increased from 85% to 95%.
The aim of the discussion, and the event, was not to solve all the problems of the world but hear from experts from outside our sector and inspire and challenge event profs to think and act differently while demonstrating why industry-wide collaboration is critical to make real and lasting change.
It was a broad and challenging topic to debate, but huge thanks to all our panellists for sharing their insights.