Rich Gilmore is the Australian director of The Nature Conservancy, and is fighting to conserve and restore Australia’s precious landscape by involving sectors across the board, and making them part of the issue. He is this week’s Changemaker.
Stuck, knee deep in Kenyan mangrove mud while on a corporate volunteering trip, was the exact moment Gilmore realised he had to leave behind his cushy job at a multinational.
He describes how he was immediately taken aback by the articulate, intelligent and capable people, who could have been working in any job, but were instead, covered in mud, fixing other people’s problems.
Before this moment, he had no particular interest in the environment or mangroves for that matter, but witnessing people doing their bit for the world turned his world view and what he was doing to contribute, on its head.
He’s now leading some of the largest conservation projects in the country, using his business and finance background to figure out conservation solutions that are not only sustainable from an environmental view, but financial as well.
In this week’s Changemaker, Gilmore speaks about the emotion behind the climate change debate, the importance and benefits of consulting traditional custodians of the land, and the future of environmental funding.
You were a stock-broker to start off with, how did you get into conservation?
There was a very clear moment I remember when I knew I had to change careers.
I’d already left the finance industry, and was working for a multinational company at the time. As part of my leadership development they sent me to volunteer on a project in Kenya for two weeks, where they were restoring mangroves in East Africa. I didn’t have a particular interest in the environment or mangroves – I just saw it as an opportunity for a free trip to Africa.
When I got there, I was absolutely amazed that these really intelligent, articulate, capable people, who could have been doing any job, decided to spend their day, knee deep in mud solving other people’s problems. I thought it was such a worthwhile way to spend one’s time, so I came back, tossed in the job, did an environmental degree at UNSW and really haven’t looked back.
Were people surprised when you switched from working in corporate and finance to conservation? What were their reactions?
I remember my boss at the time asked me what I was doing taking such a big pay cut to work for a charity, and why I didn’t just make as much money as I could, and then donate it to charity. Which is a point. But I really wanted to have the fulfilment of putting my professional talent, whatever that was, to a good cause, rather than just dollars.
It’s really important that people give to charities, I’m obviously a donor to my own charity and many others, but I think it’s really important for people who do have skills they can bring to the sector, to bring them.
TNC work really closely alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditional land owners, why is that important to you?
Put simply, it’s the right thing to do. The traditional custodians of Australia own or manage half the continent, and that number is increasing. The Northern Territory for instance is around 80 per cent Aboriginal owned and managed. It’s their traditional lands, so the right thing to do is to be partnering with them, and not just on the things that we want to do, but importantly, helping traditional owners realise their own aspirations for their country. If we can do that, we can help realise the aspirations for the environment as well.
Secondly, if you’re not partnering with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, then you’re at best, solving half the conservation challenges. There are 2,000 generations of knowledge embedded in Indigenous language, culture and stories, we’re just scratching the surface on what we know around traditional knowledge. So there are huge reservoirs of knowledge, that we want to be able to help traditional owners unlock.
Climate change is having a negative effect on us, very quickly. As someone working in the area, can you tell me about some of the changes you’ve witnessed?
I spend a lot of time in the Murray Darling Basin these days and last week there were several consecutive days above 45 degrees. I live in Melbourne, and in the 20th century, there were about five days above 45 degrees in Melbourne, in the 21st century, there’s already been about 15. Climate change is not a future problem, it’s stressing agriculture, water, human populations right now.
It’ll be 43 degrees in Melbourne this week, and that’s a really serious health challenge, especially for vulnerable people. Ecosystems are the same, if you think about a health warning around really high heat, the health warning is really for very vulnerable people, the elderly, the young and the sick. Those are the same challenges in ecosystems. If you have really high heat, and not enough water, the ecosystems that are most at risk are the vulnerable ones, the ones already suffering from chronic stressors, like water scarcity and enduring drought.
Fragile ecosystems don’t have the resilience to cope from these continuous severe shocks, like a sudden heat wave or a big storm. More and more, we’re seeing these multiple chronic stressors and sudden shocks, in not only our natural communities, but our human communities too. I think that’s the biggest and most rapid change I’ve witnessed since coming to the sector.
How does it make you feel to witness this change?
I’m pretty optimistic about most things. I think we can solve challenges in the Murray Darling Basin, but I think with climate change the environmental sector needs to start doing a lot more investing in adaptation. I think so many of the negative effects of climate change are locked in. We’re still spending a lot of time on mitigating, and trying to reduce emissions, which is critical, and we have to keep doing that, but we’ve got to be acting now to help human and natural communities adapt to what is already serious change locked into the system. We’re not doing that at a big enough scale or fast enough.
Have you been able to use your finance industry skills in your conservation work?
Surprisingly, one of the most helpful skills has been my background in finance. If you think about what it takes to solve these social challenges, there just isn’t the government funding and philanthropy available to solve them.
Environmental philanthropy globally needs about $400 billion of additional investment in biodiversity conservation annually to change anything. But globally, there’s only around $6 billion worth of philanthropy, and $50 billion worth of government funding available in nature conservation at the moment. Our choices there are to increase government funding by 600 per cent, or increase philanthropy by 6,000 per cent. I don’t think either of those propositions are realistic.
What we do have, is $250 trillion worth of investable assets globally. That number grows by around $10 trillion a year. So you only need to unlock a tiny slice of global wealth and redirect that towards responsible investment in nature, and you can solve the biodiversity challenge, multiple times over.
It’s just about finding the right ways to do that, and that’s one of the things The Nature Conservancy (TNC) are trying to do at scale; creating investments that deliver benefits, to sustainable agriculture, and to nature, but also pay a return to investors.
We had a global goal to deliver around US$1 billion (A$1.4 billion) of impact investments by the end of 2020, and we’ve just passed the $2 billion mark, with multiples of that to come. It’s just about finding the right investment for the right deal. Impact investment isn’t the answer to everything, but it’s an option.
Do you have trouble convincing people to invest in conservation and the environment? It’s quite easy to remove yourself from the issue if you’re not directly exposed to it.
Yeah, I mean carbon dioxide is a colourless odourless gas, as we’re often reminded. If you live in a city you’re not going to be spending that much time in nature, and we have what we call shifting base lines. If you’re a fisherman who was fishing 100 years ago, and landing 500 fish in a day, you really notice when that catch goes from 500 to 200. But because of the loss of these ecosystems and the gradual effect of climate change, people often aren’t awake to them, or see the changes. So if you caught 10 fish, you’d be delighted, because you don’t have that memory of what abundance really is. Because it’s this gradual process, it is difficult to explain why it matters.
I think the conservation movement needs to do a better job of making emotional connections with people. We often make rational, economic arguments for nature conservation, thinking that’s what motivates people, but if you think back to your happiest memories as a kid, many of them, were times spent with family and friends in nature… camping in the bush, or trips to the beach, and those experiences are under threat now, because these ecosystems are being destroyed. We have to do a better job of explaining why it matters on an emotional and personal level, not just an intellectual and economic level.
What’s your biggest project at the moment?
Right across southern Australia, from WA right around to Noosa in QLD we are re-building the great southern reef. Australia had an oyster and shellfish reef, equal in scale to the Great Barrier Reef, and today it’s functionally extinct on the mainland. We think we have the first opportunity in history to bring an entire ecosystem back from extinction.
In Melbourne for example, 50 per cent of Port Phillip Bay was a reef when Europeans arrived. SA had 1,500 kms of reef, and today neither of those states have any living reef, other than the ones TNC and it’s partners have restored. This won’t just be of huge environmental value – water filtration, fish habitat, and coastal protection – but for the thousands of jobs that were previously sustained in the shellfish fisheries.
There were hundreds of boats in Victoria fishing for oysters, muscles, abalones and scallops. Now there’s virtually no industry. So it’s this idea of how do you align economic and financial interests with social and natural interests to do things at scale. We’ve just got to tell those stories a bit better, to help people connect with these sorts of projects.
Does the future scare you?
Sometimes climate change keeps me awake at night, and there are days when the issue feels like a runaway train. I know hope is not a strategy, and we do need to act and act with urgency, but I think being positive and optimistic is much more compelling than the negative alternative, which I don’t think will get us anywhere.