Green.Org sat down with David Elliot, CEO of The Future Forest Company and Commissioner at the London Sustainable Development Commission, to chat about his career and visions for a sustainable future.
Thanks for joining us David, tell us a little bit about your background.
I could certainly not describe my background as linear. I have never had a mapped-out path to follow. For me, the choice of jobs and direction has always been influenced by two factors: what I find interesting and what seems like a valuable way to spend my days. Through this simple philosophy of work, I have been fortunate to be involved with a range of fascinating organizations and subject areas. For example, I have run landmine clearance teams, managed aid and global health programmes, developed reintegration programmes for former child soldiers, and set up international animal welfare projects. Over the last decade or so my focus has been on the environment and sustainability. Until recently, I was CEO of a UK-based non-profit called Trees for Cities, and I am now CEO of a growth-stage business called The Future Forest Company. Our challenge is to rapidly scale up nature-based solutions to help address climate and nature emergencies. The need to achieve genuine scale is so urgent and pressing, which makes it both an exciting and somewhat daunting responsibility. I am also a Trustee for a range of brilliant environmental charities such as the Shark Trust, the African Conservation Foundation, and the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust.
What would you do with $1 billion dollars?
When we consider that the earth is our only home—and that of all our future generations—it is extraordinary to think that we are trashing the very fabric of it. It is a form of madness of humankind that we treat our world in this way; imagine taking a similar approach in your own house! One root cause is that funding for protecting and restoring nature is, in general and in the grand scheme, pitifully low and hard to come by. Despite the importance of the natural world on our everyday well-being, it is so deprioritized in the decision tree of where funding and financing gets channelled. In the UK, for example, we spend 8 times more per year on the military than we do on the environment… $1bn could make a big difference to nature in the UK Environmental organizations are crying out for more funding to do what they need to do. It could help reverse many of the imminent species losses that we are on the brink of; it could transform the health of our waterways; it could help us breathe cleaner air; it could create swathes of new forests that would sequester enormous volumes of carbon. But wouldn’t that, in reality, be a huge amount to find? Well, as the UK plans to spend some $50 billion on replacing its nuclear missiles, maybe we just need to think more about what we see as priorities…
Why do you think sustainability is such an important topic today?
I actually really dislike the word ‘sustainability’! I think it is a term that is poorly understood—even amongst those in the sector—and is not particularly accessible to the ‘lay’ person and business. Even I sometimes struggle to really get under the skin of how it is being used (and this is coming from someone who is a Commissioner on the London Sustainable Development Commission!). For me, what sustainability is really referring to is ‘quality of life’, both for today and for the future. A decent and ever-improving quality of life is fundamental to what society should be driving towards. There can be no sustained quality of life in a world where most planetary boundaries are exceeded, and hence the natural value of the place that we live in is constantly deteriorating. Or in a world where we face constant threats from an ever-destabilizing climate. This is where the environmental strand of sustainability fits. It is not about it being an important topic, but an essential and existential one.
What do you envision your industry looking like in ten years?
I can envision what it should look like. Obviously, whether it does will be down to a range of players and decision-makers. In ten years’ time, the nature-based solutions industry/sector should be playing a genuinely leading role in nations’ and businesses’ key approaches and strategies (e.g. net-zero strategies) – not at the fringe but at the core. Nature needs not to be a peripheral department within government, but a holistic part of all policy and planning, e.g. in education, health, infrastructure etc. We are on the right path – the ball is dropping – but the speed of change is still too sluggish and there are always risks of reversing back in the wrong direction if, for example, parties start cynically using the environment as a political dividing line, as seems to be creeping into UK politics. I would hope that our decision-makers can be more grown up than that, and put the needs of future generations before cheap vote-grabbing.