Giulio Boccaletti is the Chief Strategy Officer at The Nature Conservancy, which he describes as “an institution that has been banking on nature’s assets for 60 years.”
Boccaletti is in charge of the evaluation process of the organisation’s work. As a member of the executive team, he studies the Nature Conservancy’s impact. Few people are more involved in shaping its mission and purpose.
So it’s surprising when the former physicist makes a confession from the stage of the St. Gallen Symposium. “I’m not a conservationist,” Boccaletti says. “I care about people much more than I care about nature.”
As Boccaletti explains how the organisation works, his words begin to make sense. It’s a charitable environmental organisation founded in 1951 that aims at protecting the lands and waters through partnerships with indigenous communities, governments and businesses. The starting point for the Nature Conservancy is the assumption that to mobilise investment you need to deliver return. “Conservation is an instrument for society to manage the natural environment in a way that benefits us,” Boccaletti says. “We will benefit much more if nature is properly conserved.”
"I’m not a conservationist. I care much more about people than I care about nature."
By promoting the equation that investing in nature equals higher profit, The Nature Conservancy is persuading companies to invest more in their sustainability. “If we are to change the impact that economy has on the natural environment then we have to figure out ways for these companies to do things differently,” Boccaletti says.
One of their partners, for example, is Dow Chemical Company. “It’s not a natural partner for an environmental organisation,” he admits. And yet Nature Conservancy experts persuaded the company to stop building seawalls at their chemical plant in Texas. “We proposed that it would be more cost-effective, and more valuable to them in financial terms to restore that coastline to an original wetland that would protect them from storms,” Bocaletti says.
However, the urgency of tackling environmental problems is not universally recognised, and governments such as the United States have withdrawn from international treaties designed to limit climate change, like the Paris Agreement. To Boccaletti the lack of action to protect the environment is the result of difficulties in translating scientific knowledge into policy. “What’s not working is that during the last two decades or so scientific statements have become political opinion.” Instead of discussing of what we should do, he adds, “we end up having a debate about whether it is true or not.”
For someone with Boccaletti’s background, that can be frustrating. Although he’s spent more than a decade in the business world, Boccaletti is also a scientist, with a degree in physics from the University of Bologna.
Born in Modena, Italy, Boccaletti is now based in London. “It’s always been in my DNA that at some point I would leave Italy,” he says. After finishing his Master’s degree in Bologna, he headed west, landing a PhD position at Princeton, where he focused on geophysical fluid dynamics.
His determination to go abroad was fostered by his passion for music. When he was 6 years old, Boccaletti started playing the ocarina, a flute made of clay which was invented in 1853 in Budrio, his hometown. “It was the only free music school in town. I ended up touring the world playing this thing,” he says smiling and recalling concerts in Venezuela, Argentina, Chile and the United States when he was a teenager. “The fact that I travelled so much gave me a sense of opportunity. Italy started feeling very small.”
After completing his PhD, Boccaletti spent some time as a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and then switched to the private sector, becoming a partner at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. Six and a half years ago, he joined The Nature Conservancy.
Is he optimistic about solving the environmental crisis? “I don’t know if we have other choices,” he says. “Conserving nature is essentially indistinguishable from protecting ourselves.” This year’s WEF Global Risk Report found that environment-related risks account for three of the top five risks by likelihood, and the top four by impact. “The planet will be fine, it will still be here,” he says. “The question is whether we will be.”
“The planet will be fine, it will still be here. The question is whether we will be.”
However, Boccaletti sees a trend towards global engagement in environmental issues, such as the school strike for climate. That’s a positive sign. “One of the big choices that we make as individuals is to decide how we spend time while we are alive.”
Although he works at The Nature Conservancy most of the time, Boccaletti hasn’t given up on his passion for the ocarina. He will be on tour in Japan at the end of June. “In the work that I do at The Nature Conservancy I am never really doing a thing that has a beginning and an end,” he says. “But when you’re on stage, it’s a concert. It starts and it ends, people clap. It gives you a very powerful feeling of completion.”
If the life of a touring ocarina player were more lucrative, Boccaletti says, his life might look very different. “I don’t know what I would do if I could just live off that,” he laughs. “Maybe I would just play the ocarina, who knows. Maybe that would be my contribution to the world.”
The Nature Conservancy promotes the idea that conservation can work like business: to mobilise investment, you need to deliver return. “Conservation is an instrument for society to manage the natural environment in a way that benefits us,” says Nature Conservancy strategist Giulio Boccaletti.