Leadership and Achieving Long-Term Outcomes: Reflections on a Journey to Deliver Sustainability Within Environmental Limits by Jane Davidson


CIEEM Autumn Conference 2019 After Dinner Speech

Delivered by Jane Davidson on 19 November 2019 in Llandudno, Wales

 Noswaith dda i chi gyd, good evening to you all.

I thought I would meditate – in a very non-political way considering the election currently underway – on the challenges and opportunities that the increasing crises we currently face offer us.

In this conference, you’re focusing on maximising biodiversity through planning and strategic land use. I’m really interested in the use of land in a climate constrained world, and particularly about getting species’ voices heard in infrastructure planning;

  • how can we generate net biodiversity gains?


  • where and how should the ecologist voice be heard in policy development to be most effective?

We’re all trying to find the right metaphor to unlock action appropriate to our times, to make people understand the scale of the challenges we face. In the last two weeks I’ve been asked to make inputs on health, food, climate emergency and now biodiversity.

Patient Planet

In each sector, the concern is clear. If we were to consider our planet as a patient, health professionals would quickly diagnose that ‘Patient Planet’ was critically sick with an escalating fever, difficulties breathing, a faltering circulation with metabolic acidosis and a toxic status, failing liver and kidney functions, a pale and blotchy skin indicating signs of shock and a rapidly declining mental state.

From the perspective of the planet’s doctor, we would need urgently to send ‘Patient Planet’ straight to critical care for emergency resuscitation and stabilisation. From an evolutionary perspective, in many respects human systems can be seen as a microcosm of the Earth’s living biosphere. After all, an increase of temperature of 3-4°C is a medical emergency and risks fatality in humans. The new discipline of Planetary Health aligns the health of human civilisation and the state of the natural systems on which it depends – its proponents describe it as a discipline that is future orientated, upstream facing, equity committed, systems based, solutions driven – recognising that no one discipline can do it alone.

This is I believe a really important message – even if not one that I could use on the doorstep! If we are going to take more sustainable decisions, then we have to take more factors into account. And that is in every discipline, not just health.


In relation to food I am particularly interested in the journey of an almond nut. I love almonds! I usually have a packet in the car for long journeys. They are often to be found in my bag at work.

We are being encouraged to eat more fruit, nuts and vegetables. I’m told that moving away from meat and dairy as protein is already increasing the nut consumption of the middle classes – not least through drinks such as the soya almond latte to which I was recently introduced by my nephew and niece in north London.

So, let’s look upstream to where the nuts that I love so much come from. The largest producers of almonds in the world – 80% – is the Central Valley in California. Now, a single almond requires a gallon of water to produce. Almonds in California already use more water than Los Angeles and San Francisco put together and the Central Valley is increasingly water challenged. The pickers have to take bottled water with them as there is no safe human water supply across much of the area. So, we are being told to eat more nuts assuming an infinite supply, when we have a finite and probably shrinking reality.

If I brought this metaphor home to Wales, only 3% of fruit and vegetables consumed in Wales is grown here – and on only 0.1% of the land. I don’t know the figures for other parts of the UK – this figure came from a PhD student and had to be verified as we don’t generally collect data in this way, but if we faced security of supply issues tomorrow, as a nation we would struggle to tackle the gap between potential need and potential supply – and that is as a small nation with a small population.

Climate Change

In relation to climate change, we are now witnessing flooding at unprecedented levels on our TV screens – for 14 days now there have been calls to build more defences, with politicians of all colours wading their way through floodwater; authorities being blamed for failing to defend buildings on flood plains – and of course they are guilty, but their crime lies primarily in allowing buildings on flood plains to be built in the first place – and that crime goes on.

Here in Wales, some local authorities are still allowing planning applications to go ahead despite concerns from Natural Resources Wales (NRW). Between 2016 and 2018, over 2,000 new homes were allowed in undefended areas at risk of flooding – a huge rise from previous years. Allowing building contrary to NRW’s advice should make such buildings uninsurable by the developers or make the local authority carry the risk. This cannot be acceptable in light of the evidence of our changing climate. I’m pleased a review of national planning policy on the issue is also underway and I hope that CIEEM and others will put in strong responses about what is acceptable in a climate constrained world and the Welsh Government will respond in the spirit of its declaration of a climate emergency.


In Wales, we now have a triple lock of legislation to protect the environment:

  • The Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act – which redefines prosperity in law as “low carbon, generating decent work and tackling climate change”. This is aligned with a legal definition of resilience which “maintains and enhances a bio diverse natural environment with healthy functioning ecosystems that support social economic and ecological resilience and has the capacity to adapt to change for example climate change”. It was the commitment to this legislation that effectively stopped in its tracks the motorway extension that would have detrimentally affected the Gwent Levels.

We also have:

  • The Environment Act with its purpose of the sustainable management of natural resources
  • The Planning Act – under which the draft National Development Framework (NDF) falls – the consultation on that closed last Friday.

I think we have a way to go before the legislation delivers on all its intention – but it is good legislation, and of course legislation is much more enduring than policy. Legislators need your help as ecological experts, both in responses to consultations but more importantly in building the evidence base. And demonstrating what can and should be done.

Planning and Development

The NDF states: “Sustainable growth will involve setting an ambitious strategy for achieving biodiversity and green infrastructure enhancement in our urban areas. Effective and innovative nature-based solutions to the challenges of urban form, design and density will be required in order to reap the well-being rewards of living and working in exemplar, future-resilient settlements”.

Sounds great – until you see where the proposed areas of growth are… Perhaps some more thought is needed as NRW, as the executive agency of Welsh Government replies “we are aware that the identified main areas of growth also include, or are in close proximity to, locally sensitive environmental considerations including; areas of flood risk, statutory nature conservation designations, protected landscapes, water bodies that are under pressure”.

So, some way to go – but I hope that the recent climate and biodiversity emergency declaration by the Welsh Government will enable it to be stronger as a result of this consultation response.

But I am very pleased that the NFD includes:

  • An intention to ensure the enhancement of biodiversity and ecosystem resilience through the national level of strategic planning. This will elevate the important contribution that nature-based solutions can make through the planning system.
  • That nature-based solutions should be promoted in national planning policy as the preferred approach within planning-decisions (with scheme promoters having to demonstrate why nature-based solutions are not taken forward within relevant schemes.) The exception must prove the rule in this case otherwise the words will be meaningless; this is a key area where we need your help.
  • And that there will be a new national forest – a key opportunity to create a valuable new, probably distributed – asset for supporting biodiversity and delivering wider ecosystem services for the nation’s benefit.

The Need for Change

The Welsh Government, National Assembly for Wales and most local authorities in Wales – including Conwy, where we are now – have all declared climate and/or biodiversity emergencies, but the real action is yet to follow.

I wonder if the gap between commitment and action is that we have forgotten how to intervene at the most basic level of human survival?

To illustrate the point, I want to go back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that was first drafted in 1943 – the date is significant.

At the base of the pyramid are our most fundamental human physiological needs – air, water, food, shelter, sleep, clothing, reproduction.

Above them lie our community ‘safety needs’ – highly topical territory at the moment as this is what elections focus on – personal security, employment, resources, health, property.

Above that lie our personal support needs – friendship, family, intimacy, sense of connection

Above that comes esteem – respect, self-esteem, status, recognition, strength, freedom

Above that, at the top of the pyramid comes self-actualisation – i.e. to be the most that one can be.

To achieve self-actualisation without having your physiological, safety, love and belonging and esteem needs met would be hard – some might say impossible. It is interesting that the pyramid was crafted during World War II – a time when the whole of society was having to re-evaluate and rebuild itself – when access to the most fundamental elements for human survival – clean air, clean water, food, shelter, health and education were deemed the most important elements to construct a post-war society – and one that was consciously fairer too. Are we approaching the time when we can acknowledge current economic systems are not working? Where the pressure on nature is too great to sustain? After all, only last week, we had the Financial Times in a wrap-around banner asking if capitalism needs a reset!

Perhaps that is the nature of what our thinking needs to be now – a total reset to get back to what matters; to take immediate action to look at our fundamental needs and ensure our access to them; which means taking all the action necessary to sustain this single planet of ours for the future. That means fundamentally putting the environment and the survival of species at the heart, the very base of what we do.

Working for Future Generations

I’ve been on a journey over the last 20 years to do everything I can to put future generations as the central organising principle of the organisations I have worked within, whether that is government, the public sector or the university sector in Wales. And although my focus has been on people, it has been on the right for humans to live in harmony with Nature as was outlined as a principle in the first Earth Summit in Rio da Janeiro in 1992.

I want land to be managed for the wider ecosystem services it can deliver, including carbon storage, water quality, flood management, landscape quality and connectivity for wildlife to adapt to climate change – and therefore halting the loss of biodiversity and creating a greater number, range and genetic diversity of wildlife with a greater understanding and appreciation of our interdependence with the other species with whom we share the planet.

I want the marine environment to be managed sustainably on an ecosystem approach, with an ecologically coherent, representative and well managed network of marine protected areas.

Technically such protections should be able to be delivered by environmental legislation, and indeed they could be with coherent enforcement and compliance; but life is a series of trade-offs and politics more than most, particularly when the democratic mandate is shaky. Only Scotland in the UK’s recent history has a single party majority government. All other parts of the UK have had to grapple with the challenges of coalitions and different priorities which can mean contradictory policies being delivered by coalition arrangements.

But we also need a stronger ecological voice to call out the transgressors, putting government and public services in the spotlight. David Attenborough in his 90s and Greta Thunberg in her teens have probably brought more people to understand the loss of nature and the failure of leadership than anyone else in my lifetime – such is the power of social media and the power of what people believe is wrong.

Understanding Limitations

How can we seize this moment for nature? Donella Meadows, in her revolutionary book Beyond the Limits argued in 1992 – the same year as the Rio Earth Summit – that society had gone into overshoot – a state of being beyond limits without knowing it; “we are overshooting such crucial resources as food and water while overwhelming nature with pollutants like those causing global warming” and that “a sustainable future will require profound social and psychological readjustments in the developed and developing world”.

I used to believe we didn’t know it, but I’m not so sure now. Perhaps governments of the day somewhat cynically passed the responsibility down the line to future generations. In 1992, Earth Overshoot Day – previously known as Ecological Debt Day (the day in the year when humanity’s resource consumption exceeds the Earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources that year) was mid-October – so already by 1992, we were overusing the Earth’s capacity by 2.5 months; in 2019, it’s July 29th. In 27 years, we have lost a further 2.5 months. In broad terms, that’s nearly a month being notionally lost in each decade. I know it’s only a tool, but it’s a tool that warns us that carrying on with business as usual, means within 70 years there could be no replenishment – and some of the younger among you could still be alive then. But even here there is hope – which is the year where the trajectory was stemmed? Where there was no increase? 2008. The financial crash was good for our longer-term future. Tackling our consumerism and the unicorn of infinite growth is key for us and future generations. That should influence how you vote as ecologists!

Interestingly in 1992, Donella Meadows thought that a rational, scientific, data-led approach to a peaceful restructuring of the ‘system’ to a sustainable society – i.e. using the rational tools scientists use in their everyday lives – was possible. She felt that there might also be the need for softer tools such as “visioning, networking, truth-telling, learning and loving” but did not know how important they may be.

By 2004, in Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, she makes it clear “these five tools are not optional; they are essential characteristics for any society that hopes to survive over the long term” and that “each of these exists within a network of positive loops. Thus their persistent and consistent application initially by a relatively small group of people would have the potential to produce enormous change – even to challenge the present system, perhaps helping to produce a revolution.”


Professor Jem Bendell (University of Cumbria) is a founder of the Deep Adaptation Forum and of Extinction Rebellion. He and others have recently started an open Professions’ Network in the Deep Adaptation Forum; this is an international space to connect and collaborate with other professionals who are exploring implications of a near-term societal collapse due to climate change. There is no need to wait for your fellow professionals to wake up to our predicament. Through this free forum you can join regular webinars, seek advice and co-create shared resources for your field of expertise.

Deep Adaptation invites us to reflect on four questions:

  • Resilience – what do we most value that we want to keep, and how?
  • Relinquishment – what do we need to let go of, so as not to make matters worse?
  • Restoration – what can we bring back or rediscover to help us through these times?
  • Reconciliation – with what and whom do we need to make peace as we come to understand our mortality?

I know you’ve been talking about leadership today and it feels to me as though these four questions can create a new kind of leadership where people can come together in thoughtful conversations and act collaboratively; leadership that tells the truth, even when it’s hard, leadership that can involve people everywhere, to make a plan together, with a sense of urgency, and a relentless focus on the radical and practical actions we need – a new version of leadership more capable of tackling the global crisis in front of us.

Such leadership will have certain characteristics. It will:

  • be genuinely curious, inquiring and open about where possible solutions might come from – not advocating more of the same – prevention;
  • collaborate with other leaders wherever they are – from the grassroots to established positions, young people and elders;
  • appreciate the importance of diversity, involving people with different perspectives into respectful dialogue, keeping the concerns of the whole system in view;
  • focus squarely on the actions needed for the long-term, sticking with the challenge of working through real tensions and dilemmas; and
  • learn fast, in cycles of action, reflection, learning and adaption – integrating all the above.

What interested me here was that the five ways of working mandated in the Wellbeing of Future Generations’ (Wales) Act – prevention, collaboration, integration, long termism and participation are all inherently necessary in new ways of leadership. They are the way we should be making decisions, decisions which factor in long-term consequences.

This is about convening new conversations – bringing leaders together from different professions and sectors to share what they know and what we can do; in Wales all public services are required to deliver on the five ways of working. The Public Services Boards here – the collaboration of all public services working together at local and regional levels – have only two organisations that have a statutory voice at every discussion – the Welsh Government and NRW – so your opportunity as ecologists is clear to use your evidence base to help NRW influence all parts of Wales in terms of support for Nature.


We have to educate for new ways of working. I particularly welcome a new accredited NRW course – ‘Introduction and Application of Sustainable Management of Natural Resources and Well-Being’.

  • 1,400 NRW staff have now attended the introductory course with approximately 100 staff registering to be accredited.
  • NRW has worked with qualifying body Agored Cymru, partnered with Groundwork Wales who provide internal verification support.
  • The units of learning have been woven into NRW’s induction programme for all new members of staff to hear and learn about its core purpose with an option to follow up the accreditation offer.
  • The units of learning will soon be available on Agored Cymru’s database of qualifications for any Agored Cymru registered centre to access. NRW will provide some bespoke courses and train the trainer guidance to support its external partners to deliver the units to ensure that the content is consistent and recognised.

Who should take such a course? How do we extend the reach of ecologists to influence policy? Cascading learning is critical here. We did something similar at my own university in relation to creating an accredited course on the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act that can be taken by both students and staff to enable them to better participate in thinking more sustainably.

Taking Action

There is a moment now when the threat to humans is being understood in relation to our effect on nature hence the declaration of climate and biodiversity emergencies – but the action is not yet clear.

There is a moment now when campaigners young and old have influenced the debate – Chris Packham’s followers virtually doubled after he featured in the Extinction Rebellion days of action.  By the way, in a tweet yesterday he pointed out that 22 million people didn’t vote at the last election, saying “if we don’t register to vote, we’re leaving decisions affecting our wildlife to someone else, and we all know where that’s got us”. Please make your voices heard on 12th December 2019.


I want to close with an excerpt from a paper from this week’s Ecological Citizen, ‘The biodiversity crisis must be placed front and centre’ by Joe Gray and Eileen Crist. They say it so much better than I ever could!

“In this historical moment, wherein the awakening of a collective awareness of humanity’s overreach is at our fingertips, we must not miss the opportunity to look hard and look long at nature’s occupation and its irreversible impoverishment of life as we know it. This haemorrhaging of biological abundance and diversity is not just occurring but accelerating – and it would be, even if the by-product of burning fossil fuels did not happen to amplify the greenhouse effect on planet Earth.

All told, the coming years are arguably the most significant in human history, with nothing less than the fate of the Earth and humanity at stake. The destruction of life’s variety, complexity, and abundances – the biodiversity crisis – is on course to be a tragedy of scale that ushers in a depauperate and desolate era. Much of the manifold beauty of the current radiation of life with which we share Earth is being rapidly erased. This is an unfolding ecocide that remains an enormous (albeit invisible) injustice to the non-human world and bodes a bleak future for human life and self-understanding. That humanity has yet to comprehend the ethical and existential gravity of the biodiversity crisis reveals the blindsiding bankruptcy of human supremacy – and of the mostly unquestioned ‘right’ of human dominance within, and domination over, the natural world. 

There is an ever-more-urgent need to awaken society and policy-makers to life’s devastation, to the ongoing inequity toward the more-than-human world and to the imperative to end biodiversity collapse in our time. The biodiversity crisis must be placed front and centre.”

As a patron of CIEEM I have a duty to be part of that argument, but we need to do this together.

So “screw your courage to the sticking place and we’ll not fail.”

Dr Jane Davidson is Pro Vice-Chancellor for External Engagement and Sustainability at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. From 2007- 2011, Jane was Minister for Environment, Sustainability and Housing in Wales where she proposed legislation to make sustainable development its central organising principle – the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act came into law in April 2015. She created a Welsh Climate Change Commission and Future Generations Commissioner, the 800 mile Wales coastpath, legislated on waste which has seen Wales become the lead recycling country in Britain and introduced the Welsh charge on carrier bags. Jane is a patron of the Chartered Institute for Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM) and Tools for Self Reliance Wales (TFSR Cymru). She holds honorary fellowships from CIW (Chartered Institute of Waste), CIWEM (Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management) and is a member of WWF’s UK Council of Ambassadors. She is Chair of the RSA in Wales and has recently been invited onto the faculty in Harvard University .

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