What Would Nature Do? What Would Nature Have Me Do? The Next Thirty Years
When I was pensive as a child, I’d hop on my bike and ride to a little creek down the lane, where I could watch the caddisflies assemble their crazy pebbly houses.
When I was yearning to consolidate my thoughts after divinity school, I walked 500 miles through the fields of wheat and sunflowers in northern Spain.
When I was returning to practice in a large financial institution, I endlessly studied the interactions my honey bee hives.
In the early days of the pandemic, I began to stop on my daily walk to lean against a 200 year old oak, though it was weeks until I was aware of this habit.
And once, at a conference in Las Vegas, I hid amidst the branches of a big potted ficus tree, the only thing around that was not flashing lights or bleeping at me.
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that I see a great reconnection in business and investing taking root – a joining-up of finance and the wisdom of our natural world. I don’t mean a focus on investing in nature, though in many ways that is vital. I mean a focus on investing as nature, a shift in how our decisions are considered and made and monitored. This shift goes beyond the changing jargon and labels and frameworks of our profession, important though they can be. It reflects a deeper level of reunion, a reconnection of investing with the world it is meant to serve.
I acknowledge that this trend is not so visible some days.
Here in our “now,” things are pretty complicated.
Over the past two years, we have witnessed the tragic and disruptive impacts of the pandemic; continued evidence of racial injustice in the United States; record-breaking fire, hurricane, drought, and flood conditions across many parts of the world; and the ongoing polarization of civil discourse. Recent months have brought news of the horrific invasion of Ukraine, inflationary pressures, and tumult in economies and financial markets. The opportunities to improve the systems that support our well-being, livelihoods, and societies are enormous, sometimes overwhelming.
When times are difficult, both shortcomings and strengths are revealed. Individuals, communities, companies, and societies have the chance to rediscover our most valuable assets. Amid the challenges noted above, we have also experienced the joy of reunion, the power of effective collaboration, and the glory of our natural environment. We are reminded daily of the power of social connection, positive technological advances, and effective systems of care and governance.
What are the common characteristics of these newly vivid assets?
Effectiveness over efficiency.
Connection over isolation.
Adaptation over rigidity.
Partnership over predation.
These are also the design principles at work in healthy natural systems, the ideas that sit at the heart of the practice of biomimicry.
What Would Nature Do?
Biomimicry asks us to look to nature as our most magnificent library of wisdom, not just a warehouse full of stuff. It asks us to stop before we design a process, or invent a taxonomy, or create a product, and to ask, What Would Nature Do? How is this function I’m considering present in natural systems, and what can I learn from the billions of years of cumulative experience all around me?
Fittingly, my introduction to biomimicry was itself a re-rooting. I was visiting with the incomparable Hazel Henderson at her home in Florida, where visionary scientists and teachers Janine Benyus and Dayna Baumeister introduced us to the core principles of biomimicry and natural systems design. At one point, Janine summarized by saying, “so this is how the world functions,” and I felt a huge whoosh of my own exhaled breath. This is how the world – our home – already functions. It is not so hard to imagine realigning our puny, brand-new financial systems once this reality is clear.
In some ways an investment practice or business operation aligned with natural systems might still seem a faraway dream. But I see the green shoots sprouting up everywhere I look. When a CEO reports on the benefits of their products to customers before talking about operating margins, that’s a sprout. When a CFO tells me with eyebrows raised that increasing wages is an investment and not just a cost, that’s a sprout. When my own team shares stories of the best things in our weeks before diving into our spreadsheets, that’s a sprout. When analyst and CIO commentary recognizes that all of these activities contribute to financial returns, that it’s not a zero sum, fixed pie world, that is more than a sprout; it is a sapling!
What Would Nature Have Me Do?
A more recent reframing of this core question has recently come to me through reunion with the Harvard Divinity School community, and particularly with the legacy of Reverend Peter J. Gomes. I’m sorry to report that one of my main lessons from Divinity School is, unless you are Reverend Gomes, no one really wants to hear your sermon! Thankfully we still have the records of his orations to draw upon for inspiration and guidance.
Rev. Gomes famously upped the ante on the popular Christian phrase, “What would Jesus do?” by asking instead, “What would Jesus have me do?” This has me wondering, what if we extend our inquiry to ask, What would Nature have me do?
These two tiny words make all the difference. They move us from a place of judgment to a place of responsibility, from analysis to action. Whatever we honor, this edit tilts the question inward, and forward.
In this demand we find love.
In this demand we find hope.
Like the green shoots of biomimicry design principles, I see sparks of this hope everywhere. The buttoned-up CFO who tells us about sharing personal struggles with his team during the pandemic is a spark. The analyst whose enthusiasm for the circular economy earns the attention of a cranky old colleague is a spark. The manager who insists on a higher standard of substance over a check-the-box approach to reporting is a spark.
As I compose this curious combination of reflection and prediction, dear Hazel has just “gone virtual” (in her words). She leaves us with great bushels of seeds from her far-ranging wisdom, and great arcs of illumination from the sparks of her spirit. As we go forward with the planting, as we try to light a path ahead, how fitting it would be for us to also take up her mantra, “the wealth is in the network!” This work is joyful, and also sometimes lonely. But we are not alone.
These seeds and these sparks are my hope for the next thirty years. They are the source of my faith in what could lie ahead. Here is the work of our time, to reconnect all that has been held falsely separate.
What rewards it could bring!
Study Nature. Love Nature. Stay close to nature.
It will never fail you. – Frank Lloyd Wright
Article by Katherine Collins, Head of Sustainable Investing at Putnam Investments and portfolio manager for Putnam’s Sustainable Leaders and Sustainable Future strategies, with approximately $8 billion in assets under management.
Ms. Collins has over thirty years’ experience as an active fundamental investor and was named to the inaugural Forbes “50 Over 50” list of leaders who are shaping the future of finance in 2021. She is the author of Month of Sundays and The Nature of Investing, and founder of Honeybee Capital, an independent investment research firm focused on sustainable investment themes. Earlier in her career, she served as Head of Equity Research, Portfolio Manager, and Equity Research Analyst at Fidelity Investments.
Katherine serves on several nonprofit boards, including the Santa Fe Institute, Omega Institute, and Harvard Divinity School Dean’s Council. She earned a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and a B.A. from Wellesley College, and is a CFA charter holder