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What does addressing root causes look like?

By Florence Miller, Environmental Funders Network, 5th October 2022

People gathered all over the UK last weekend to protest against the cost of living crisis, tax cuts and inaction on climate change. In the midst of an accelerating polycrisis, more and more people are shouting that our house is on fire.

What does it mean to be a society not stuck in an ever-unfolding crisis, but one where people and nature thrive? At its very least, it’s one where our natural systems are diverse and resilient, and where every person has access to healthy food, housing, healthcare, education, meaningful jobs. 

For many people in Britain, access to many of those things is no longer a given. But of course for many others, here and around the world, they never were a given — a swathe of our neighbours for whom the economy never worked in the first place, or whom it actively worked against. Likewise, for hundreds of millions of people, climate change is not a threat looming in the future — it’s been here for years in the form of increasingly unpredictable harvests, flooding, wildfires, drought; and is becoming ever more severe and more widespread in its impacts. For these communities, shouting ‘fire!’ is the norm, if they had the time or capacity to shout it in the first place. What’s changing is that the flames are threatening to engulf ever greater numbers of us.

Working as I do at the Environmental Funders Network, I’m driven in my work by a deep and abiding passion for the astonishing thing that is life on Earth. What an incredible gift we have; how mindbogglingly special life is. I’d gladly spend much of my life outside marvelling at it all, if that didn’t provide regular reminders of what a mess we’re in. So like many, I try to look upstream as much as possible to the root causes of our assault on nature. Why have we designed the systems we inhabit— economic, political, socio-cultural — so that, far from nurturing all life, they erode it? 

(The joke is on us, in the end: life itself will always win out, given sufficient geological time — and the planet has no shortage of that. So the question for us, in my view, is one of self-preservation.)

Last week, the pooled fund Partners for a New Economy brought together groups working on repurposing our economic system. It was wonderful to spend time with a host of organisations who are all, in very different ways, focusing on how we can redesign our economy to support all life on Earth.

Talking to them and seeing how their burgeoning sector operates, I was struck by a few things of relevance to environmental philanthropy:

Firstly, that few funders of environmental issues are funding new economy work, even though it goes right to one of the roots of the environmental crisis. The new economy field is small, but growing, and it needs a great deal more support. A couple of people asked me why more climate funders were not funding work to redesign the economy, and I struggled to give them a good answer. Funding this kind of work may feel remote from on-the-ground environmental impact but it aims for profound on-the-ground transformation. And its possible success may feel remote, but change, as we are seeing, is happening faster and faster, with greater unpredictability than ever.

Another theme was around power. When you start talking about redesigning the economy’s purpose to support all life and all lives, it follows that those left out of the current system should be fundamental to the redesign process. What does it mean to shift power so that nature and all those left behind in our current system are central to the new system’s functioning? What does this mean for funders, who developed their wealth and power within the current system? This is not just about what funders support, but how they operate — how funding decisions themselves are made. Who decides what is the desired impact, whether environmental or otherwise? Who decides where the money goes and how it is deployed to achieve that impact?

The gathering brought together groups working in a range of different ways: policy-focused think tanks, campaigners, organisers, networks, and – in what appeared to be a new addition since the last time these organisations were brought together – groups working within communities, demonstrating what new economies might look like in reality, in ways that not only benefit their communities but might also feed back into broader policy. Many of these are focused on putting those left behind by the current system, including nature, right at the centre of their work.

Dare I say it, knowing it might be unfair, I had the sense that there was a perceived hierarchy, as there often seems to be in the environment sector, with policy groups seeming to place themselves at the top in terms of impact. But social change takes a diversity of approaches. We need all of those types of groups, and crucially we need them to be joined up in their work, or at least to understand and ideally to maximise the ways their roles reinforce each other. How can policy work truly take into account the needs of those currently left behind if it doesn’t have that ear to the ground, if it’s not being informed by the ideas of those whom policy change needs to benefit? Each of these approaches needs funding and support, but further, they somehow need not to feel that they are in competition with one another for limited funds; to recognise that they are working towards shared goals and cannot reach them without each other. Funders have a role to play in fostering these attitudes and ways of working.

Finally, what I was most struck by was the brilliance of many of the individuals in the room — visionary people with not only an extraordinary grasp of what we’re up against and how it might be changed but with what are clearly excellent doing skills, making change happen in clear and exciting ways at different levels of the economic system. If I were to come up with rules of thumb for effective philanthropy, one of them would certainly be this: back great people, giving them your trust and your access to resources, and let them do their thing.

Attending this meeting came at a good moment for me, as EFN prepares to launch a new initiative, a Philanthropy Lab. This first iteration of the Lab, a structured learning programme supporting funders to work together to increase the impact of their grantmaking, investments and influence, will focus on a guiding star or goal of “creating economies in service to life”. Through engagements with world-leading thinkers, activists and practitioners in facilitated creative workshops, the Lab aims to create both tangible collaborative funding strategies for long-term, systemic impact and new ways of working that support more joined-up and systemic work. Participants will grapple with what it means to be a truly effective funder, with questions of power, and with new models for their work. And, we hope, they’ll have their horizons broadened, their perceptions shifted, and their understanding refined of their role in how we put out the fires of today’s so-called polycrisis.

If this sounds like something you’d like to learn more about, please get in touch

Florence Miller is the Director of the Environmental Funders Network.

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