David Attenborough has inspired the UK to create a People’s Plan for Nature. Here’s what you need to know

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Kate Whiting, Senior Writer, Forum Agenda

  • Sir David Attenborough’s latest nature documentary series, Wild Isles, has inspired a campaign called People’s Plan for Nature in the UK, which includes 26 actions needed urgently to reverse the decline of the natural world.
  • The UK is one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries, with just over half of its biodiversity still intact.
  • Here, Jon Alexander, Co-Founder of the New Citizenship Project, which put together the framework for the People’s Plan for Nature, explains how it came about.

In Davos back in 2019, while in conversation with Prince William, Sir David Attenborough called for global leaders, businesses and citizens to work together to protect the planet through a new deal for nature.

He had just narrated the Emmy Award-winning series Our Planet, made with WWF for Netflix.

“We have to recognize that every breath of air we take, every mouthful of food we take, comes from the natural world,” Attenborough told the prince. “And if we damage the natural world, we damage ourselves. We are one coherent ecosystem.”

Now, four years and a global pandemic later, the 96-year-old naturalist and broadcaster has made another series, Wild Isles, this time with the BBC, about his homeland, the United Kingdom.

Three conservation charities, WWF-UK, the National Trust and the British RSPB, have come together for the first time to create a follow-up documentary, Saving Our Wild Isles, again narrated by Attenborough. It has spawned a unique ‘Save Our Wild Isles’ campaign and a crowdsourced set of recommendations for nature’s recovery in a People’s Plan for Nature.

The state of nature in the UK

The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, with a quarter of its mammals at risk of extinction. Almost all of Britain’s wildflower meadows (97%) have disappeared since the 1930s, while 30 million birds have vanished in the past 50 years.

In 2021, the Natural History Museum’s Biodiversity Intactness Index put the UK in the bottom 10% of countries worldwide – and the worst in the G7 – for biodiversity, with just half (53%) of its biodiversity left intact, compared to the global average of 75%.

Biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse is seen by experts as the fourth biggest risk in terms of impact over the next 10 years, in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2023, with environmental risks making up six of the top 10 over both the short and long term.

A graphic showing global risks ranked by severity over the short and long term. People's Plan for Nature

Environmental risks are the biggest risks we face over the long term. Image: World Economic Forum/ Global Risks Report 2023.

“If we are to save what we have left, we must act now,” says Attenborough in the Saving Our Wild Isles trailer. It features interviews with people across the UK working to restore natural habitats: from Cairngorms Connect, a project reforesting the Scottish national park, to the No Take Zone marine protected area around Lundy Island off the north coast of Devon, in southern England – the first legally enforced no-fishing area in British waters.

The People’s Plan for Nature sets out recommendations to build on these projects, with 26 actions needed urgently to reverse the decline of the natural world, from the creation of a UK-wide Assembly for Nature to league tables for nature-friendly businesses.

It’s the result of a pioneering two-phase project gathering responses in a National Conversation and through a UK-wide People’s Assembly for Nature, designed by the New Citizenship Project, based on a process called ‘RAPID Democracy’, inspired by Bain & Company’s RAPID decision-making model.

Here, Jon Alexander, Co-Founder of the New Citizenship Project and author of Citizens: Why the key to fixing everything is all of us, explains how the People’s Plan for Nature came about.

How did the People’s Plan for Nature come about?

Helen Meech, who works at the RSPB, came to my business partner and me and told us the RSPB was working with the BBC and the WWF on a new David Attenborough-led documentary series about British nature, which might well end up being David Attenborough’s final ever. And it was going to be called Wild Isles.

Our response was to say, ‘Wonderful, what’s the plan for how to drive impact off the back of it?’ Helen and I have known each other for a long time, and we were talking about back when Blue Planet came out and there was a huge amount of energy in society in that moment, across the world. But I would argue that because, at that time, we were still in an era of individualism, ultimately, all of that potential political energy ended up being driven into very individual behaviour changes, like using fewer plastic straws.

So what we wanted to do with Wild Isles was say, what if this might create a moment when actually we could cohere the political will of the British people for action on nature, tapping into collective agency, not just individual agency?


How does the World Economic Forum encourage biological diversity?

In the last 100 years, more than 90 percent of crop varieties have disappeared from farmers’ fields, and all of the world’s 17 main fishing grounds are now being fished at or above their sustainable limits.

These trends have reduced diversity in our diets, which is directly linked to diseases or health risk factors, such as diabetes, obesity and malnutrition.

One initiative which is bringing a renewed focus on biological diversity is the Tropical Forest Alliance.

This global public-private partnership is working on removing deforestation from four global commodity supply chains – palm oil, beef, soy, and pulp and paper.

The Alliance includes businesses, governments, civil society, indigenous people and communities, and international organizations.

Enquire to become a member or partner of the Forum and help stop deforestation linked to supply chains.

What did the process involve?

We ultimately developed a process which began with an open call for ideas and stories, understanding what communities all over the country are already doing to protect their local nature, then feeding all of those stories and desires into a citizens’ assembly process alongside expert testimony and witness statements.

The citizens’ assembly process, which took place over four weekends over four months, then developed a set of recommendations, not just for national governments, but also local government, businesses, and even what community groups themselves could do.

That is the interim output, the first draft [of the] People’s Plan for Nature. The plan is to then follow that up, see what the NGOs can do, what councils and local governments can do, what businesses can do – and use those publicly generated asks as a way to cohere the energy.

Why is it so important to involve everyone in helping to restore nature?

The United Kingdom is one of the most nature-degraded countries in the world now. We’re losing species, and habitats at an incredible rate. We are at a point where unless something drastic shifts, then British nature will never be the same again. And that will have knock-on effects in all sorts of ways.

I’m not a huge fan of thinking about things as ecosystem services, I think there’s an intrinsic value of nature, but, at the same time, it’s really important to note that vast amounts of water filtration, energy provision, flood prevention, all of these things come through natural systems that are now under threat. So even if you only want to think about the economic cost of these things, which is obviously far from the only impact, the case for radical action to reverse nature decline in the United Kingdom is incredibly powerful.

What is the New Citizenship Project and what do you do?

It’s essentially a consultancy business: we say we help organizations do stuff better, because we think of people differently. If you think of people as consumers, the only ideas you ever come up with are transactions people have with you. If you think of people as citizens, you start by asking, what are we really trying to do in the world? How do we tap into people’s collective agency? And how do we make it meaningful and joyful for people to be part of meaningful work?

So we work with organizations of all shapes and sizes, designing things like participatory democracy processes, to make it possible for organizations to work with people, rather than just sell stuff to them. So we’ve been working with the National Trust and the RSPB and others. We have also worked with the Body Shop, with Nike, with governments across the world, all with this idea of designing processes and ways of working. Several of the founding group at the New Citizenship Project have backgrounds in the advertising and creative industries, so we’re trying to bring a bit of creative verve into the participation space.

Is collective agency what we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic?

During the first wave of COVID, mutual aid groups and street WhatsApp groups sprung up all over the world, but very few governments actually leaned into that. I see it as a major missed opportunity. To give you a sense of what I mean, my favourite case study from the research for my book and one of the big inspirations behind a lot of the work we do now is the Taiwanese COVID response where they actually did lean into it, and basically crowdsourced the entire national response. They characterized it by the three principles: fast, fun and fair. And did things like set up phone lines where they could crowdsource ideas for how the country’s response could be better. So when you start with the viewpoint that the role of communications isn’t just to sell stuff to people, it’s to open the door for people to contribute, you get to really different kinds of ideas. That insight is the root of our work.

What recommendations are in the People’s Plan for Nature?

One of the recommendations is for a standing assembly that would hold the government to account to keep working to support British nature. There are a whole swathe of recommendations that relate to the food system and incorporating measures of preservation of the natural environment into our food system, in particular into corporate reporting, so that businesses, as well as governments actually, are valuing nature and supporting it as they do their work. There are recommendations as to how local government might be incentivized and supported to look after local nature. But there are also recommendations that highlight some of the most effective activities that local community groups have undertaken and encourage other community groups to get on to them and play them out in their local areas.

What needs to happen next?

At one level, there is an aspiration that national governments – so the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish administrations, as well as the English – could step into and adopt some of the recommendations directly at the national policy level. We’d like to see that happen. But I think the important thing to emphasize is that this isn’t a process that is all about saying power is in government. We all have power in different ways, we all have the ability to work together to look after British nature. We also want to see this and Wild Isles as being a trigger for more people to get involved and come together in community groups.

One of the announcements that’s already been made off the back of this is million pounds of funding that will be made available using a matched crowdfunding platform that will enable community groups who raise money in their local area to have support from this pot of money to enable them to get on and do more.

There are groups all over the country already doing really important work. So the ambition of this is to give that work a way of adding up to more than the sum of its parts. In terms of demanding more of national governments, but also just going, ‘Here are the most effective things that we can do. Let’s get more of them happening in more places’. And also just helping all these little organizations all over the place see that they are part of something bigger, so they feel the energy of that, and know they’re doing something really meaningful.

What are your hopes for the People’s Plan for Nature?

We really see the People’s Plan as the beginning in many ways. By putting that out into the world, suddenly, there’s a set of asks that can spark different collaborations. There are several exciting partnerships starting to build. The very fact that the RSPB, the National Trust and the WWF have collaborated on this, when they’ve tended to see one another as competitors, is inspiring other collaborations. I’m already hearing that around the asks of the food system, there’s a partnership of organizations coming together to hold the space for another process, and a whole load of community action that is focused on the food system.

We don’t have all the answers as to how we can turn around the decline of British nature, what we do know is that we need to do it, and we’re going to need the help of all of our citizens to do it. We’re going to step into a mode of enabling and working together, which will be so different to the conventional mode of government, which is to say, ‘Here’s a public announcement that we will make that tells you what we’re going to do to come to the rescue, so that you can move on to worry about something else’. And that mode of government, that idea of leadership as solving the problems for the little people just has to die, because it’s impossible. We can’t solve the problems of the time that we’re living in with that kind of approach. The only way we’re going to be able to solve them is to invite everyone into participating in and creating the solutions.

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