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Doug Gurr: “We are potentially decades away from a mass extinction”

As Cop15 ends, the former Amazon boss turned director of the Natural History Museum wants to make nature count by counting it right.

By India Bourke

From the eternally spiralling Fibonacci sequence to the AI systems behind global supply chains, Doug Gurr is well versed in the power of patterns. The mathematician and former head of Amazon UK is steeped in a world of algorithmic certainty. Now that he is director of the Natural History Museum in London, the patterns have him worried.

Take, for instance, the microscopic phytoplankton that inhabit the depths of the oceans. “They’re these, beautiful, wonderful, bulbous things,” Gurr tells me over Zoom earlier this month – but they are also fragile “canaries in the coal mine” of ecological disaster. About 200 million years ago, he explained, centuries of volcanic eruptions increased carbon dioxide levels and warmed the planet about 3.5-6°C, leading CO2 to dissolve into the oceans and form carbonic acid. The water became too acidic for the calcium carbonate shells of microalgae to form, leading to a near total collapse of the global food web. Today, Gurr warns, the shell thicknesses of phytoplankton are once again reducing “dramatically”. By 2100 they may no longer be able to form at all. “We are potentially just decades, not centuries, away from a mass extinction event.”

Gurr, 58, is not alone in his fears. The swaggering Victorian confidence behind the Natural History Museum’s monumental architecture is now gone, dissolved in the face of industrial capitalism’s assault on nature. Global biodiversity intactness (which measures the proportion of an area’s native species that remain, and their abundance) should be 90 per cent, but today’s average is just 75 per cent. In Britain it is 53 per cent, the museum has found.

A historic deal agreed this week in Montreal, Canada, and presided over by China, will now try to pull the world’s acidifying oceans and denuded landscapes back from the brink. Nearly 200 countries put their names to the Cop15 conference’s once-in-a-decade Global Biodiversity Framework, which promises to protect 30 per cent of the planet by 2030 and restore 30 per cent of its degraded waters, while respecting indigenous and traditional rights. Governments will also be obliged to halt the flow of $500bn of nature-harming subsidies, and ensure large companies disclose the risks their business poses to the natural world. How far nations now turn these promises into action will determine the fate of the planet.

“Things are moving in the right direction – reforms for agriculture, better protection for vital ecosystems and Indigenous communities who had a strong voice at the summit,” Gurr, who attended the UN conference, emailed me after it had concluded on Monday. “I witnessed a step change in business engagement at Cop15 too, which was hugely encouraging, but a lot of us still worry the final targets wouldn’t be ambitious or measurable enough to bend the curve of nature’s decline.”

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Measuring that progress (or lack of it) is a challenge that Gurr, in many ways, seems naturally selected to tackle. He was born in Leeds and grew up in Kenya, and every year he and his academic parents would return to visit London, where “the only places I ever wanted to go were the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum”. Skeletons of dinosaurs and whales were seared into his young mind, he recalled. His fascination with nature’s “deep time perspective” only grew as his mathematical interests introduced him to the “extraordinary” patterns that exist within the natural world – from the fractals that determine the shape of rivers and the veins of leaves, to the Fibonacci spirals found in everything from roses and pine cones to galaxies.

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Today the soft-spoken data enthusiast is confident that his career at the consumer giants Asda and Amazon will help him to give back not just to the museum, but conservation in general. “Let’s take that toolkit around technology and data and commercial operations,” he told the museum’s board of directors before he began in his role, “and let’s deploy it to some really meaningful work to resolve what is genuinely a biodiversity crisis.”

Whereas historical monitoring relied on manual observations that were difficult to perform at larger scales, today’s satellite and AI techniques are capable of spotting patterns across a previously impossible range of species and ecosystems, Gurr enthuses. “For the first time you’re starting to have continuous multi-locational observations of what’s really going on – and once you get that, then you can start to make a massive difference.”

The Natural History Museum’s Biodiversity Trends Tracker is part of this shift, Gurr explained. It helps countries and companies to predict the impact their activities will have on biodiversity intactness in any given area, and allows them to make more informed decisions about where to locate new infrastructure, for example, or source their supply chains. Similarly, the Restoration Barometer developed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature will help to record what progress has taken place and how, and has already helped 18 nations to document how $26bn of investment restored an area the size of Greece. According to Carole Saint-Laurent, head of IUCN’s forests and grasslands team, discussion about reporting mechanisms will take centre stage now that ambitious targets have been set.

While Gurr’s commercial background has set him up to be a leading salesman for the salvation of nature (he opts for the word “advocate”) it has also made him a controversial candidate for Natural History Museum director. In the New Statesman’s own pages his selection was seen as worryingly appropriate for a museum sector increasingly characterised by pay-reductions, insecure employment and greenwashing. “Shock, outrage and incredulity,” was how the trade publication Museum Next summed up the response among many people in the sector.

Furthermore, while his mathematical mind allows Gurr to bridge natural science’s past and its technological future, it has perhaps also informed his carefully calculated political positions. He will not be drawn, for instance, on whether Rishi Sunak should have attended Cop15 himself: “I can’t obviously speak for the prime minister. His office will have a view on that.” And when I suggest that if billionaires such as Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder, paid more in tax there would be less need for reliance on their charitable donations, he defends private philanthropy. “The public funding that has gone into [protecting biodiversity] is a lot lower than has gone into some other areas,” he says, and philanthropy could be important in filling “the gaps”.

That said, Gurr knows that the UK has one of the most depleted natural environments in the world and recognises that monitoring alone won’t necessarily lead to action. The first problem, he suggests, is the scope of what is surveyed: “There are very few metrics that take into account bacteria, fungus, insects [or soil].” Second is the lack of forward-modelling capacity: “You’ve got to be able to say, if I made this change, what would play out over the next five, ten, 20 years?”

With the flourishing of all life on earth – including humanity – now hanging on the extent to which governments put their promises into action, the Natural History Museum’s Victorian drive to collect and catalogue must be revitalised, expanded and put in the service of nature. Legal reforms, such as the Zero Hour campaign’s attempt to lock the UK’s nature restoration targets into law, could help to spur action. But as Gurr suggests, to inform change, you first have to look beyond the bird and butterfly counts that have formed the bedrock of natural history surveys to date. To make nature count, in other words, you need to count it right.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he stresses, “I love butterflies, but they don’t really tell you the stuff you need to know to help.”

[See also: Cop27 shows climate collaboration can survive dark times]