The rapid spread of Coronavirus has shown us that the world is even more connected than we realised – and that our connections are also the key to facing this emergency together. Could the world’s rallying cry against current crisis be a hopeful sign of the environmental sea change to come?
If anything can show us how connected the planet is, it’s this. Inadvertent actions that took place in one little market in Wuhan, China have caused Europe, the Americas, the Middle East, Africa and the Pacific to grind to a halt in a matter of months. All of us are shocked and deeply saddened by the lives lost through this pandemic. Millions will also be affected by its economic impact. And while we are all trying to do our part by working from home, and, where possible, volunteering to support our local health services, the speed and scale of this crisis seems to keep surprising us.
Nature has been telling us throughout history that we are connected. Millennia before humans started jetting around the globe, migratory animals like birds, butterflies, wildebeest and reindeer were transcending borders – to this day, they frequently cross national boundaries and cover vast tracts of land or sea. It stands to reason that a food shortage at a Red Knot’s feeding grounds in Delaware, USA will have a profound impact on its breeding success in the high arctic breeding grounds.
So when you think about it, it’s no surprise that a pangolin could spread disease when crammed into cage with hundreds of other animals, transported long distances while stressed and immunosuppressed, bound for a crowded market where it will doubtless mingle with countless other species, including humans. The illegal trade of wildlife is the perfect melting pot for the spread of zoonotic diseases. It is also a huge threat to nature that the conservation community has been fighting for decades.
Solving this complex problem will only be possible if we work together, enacting clear and firm regulations and enforcing laws at markets and trade sources. We also need to work on the ground with local people to provide alternative incomes to alleviate poverty, which is so often the root driver of this practice.
Nature loss is driving modern pandemics
However, as huge as this problem is, it’s not just about the illegal wildlife trade. The truth is that it’s not only our exploitation of these species, but also our destruction of their habitats that is exposing us to deadly risk. As populations grow and cities expand, human settlements are spreading into previously untouched landscapes. Building, hunting, mining and logging all disrupt delicately-balanced ecosystems, putting not only millions of species at risk, but also ourselves. Studies have shown that 75% of new or emerging diseases that affect humans originated in animals.
The problem isn’t just humans going out to wild spaces – our actions also force wildlife to come to us. Deforestation drives wild animals out of their former habitat and forces them to seek refuge near human populations. According to the World Economic Forum, this process is linked to 31% of disease outbreaks, including Ebola and the Zika virus. Furthermore, climate change is widening the range of mosquitoes that carry malaria and dengue fever, and also drives the movement of people – ‘climate refugees’ who often arrive at their destination stressed and poverty-stricken, and are forced to live in overcrowded conditions.
Added to this, the destruction of nature is removing the very lifeline that can help us combat illnesses: around 50% of modern drugs have been developed from natural products that are threatened by biodiversity loss. Who knows how many more ‘miracle drugs’ will go undeveloped because their key ingredient will have already become extinct? Our actions are putting the balance of the planet out of sync, not only jeopardising the existence of millions of species, but also our very own survival.
It’s time to wake up. We humans need to stop seeing ourselves as the owners, or even the stewards, of nature. We are part of nature, and the planet is a system on whose delicate balance our own survival depends. It’s time to think less in terms of human health, and more in terms of wider planetary health.
Now is our chance to turn society around
After the current storm calms down, we, as a society, urgently need to rethink the way we’ve been pushing development and economic growth at the expense of the planet, and move to a system that is truly sustainable for decades to come. In a recent blog my friend Pavan Sukhdev, CEO of GIST, calls us to revisit our current economic model:
“This model glorifies markets, and as markets only trade private claims, it devalues public and community goods and services, such as robust national health services. It places private goods on a pedestal above community and public goods which do not have market prices, indeed do not trade in markets.” This is our opportunity to reset the system and heal our relationship with the planet.
To achieve this, we need to make sure that the new approach begins right now, when the current economic system is already being opened up to change. Governments around the world are, quite rightly, offering significant and much-needed financial aid to small businesses and vulnerable people who are out of work, sick or homeless. However, we need to make sure this financial support is not hijacked by powerful bodies eager to fuel the same old model of development. Instead, it needs to reinforce the trajectory towards a sustainable economy that we are already on, and comply with the commitments we have made to reduce and adapt to climate change and end the loss of nature.
For example, former EU Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete is calling for any financial bail-outs for airlines to come with strict climate conditions, such as limits on emissions. A similar sentiment was portrayed in BirdLife’s letter to President Von der Leyen of the European Commision:
“This is the time to… accelerate the shift towards an economy which is climate-neutral, protects and restores our natural world, health and wellbeing, and lets nothing go to waste – in a way that is fair and leaves no-one behind.”
While we’re at it, maybe it’s a good time to rethink the modern approach to conservation, too. Instead of just mirroring the approaches used by big business, we need to rethink these structures altogether, and look ahead to a future where consumerism and economic growth are not the driving forces of society. Perhaps we need to go back to the roots of the conservation movement, and combine our professionalism and scientific expertise with the passion and creativity of grassroots activists such as Greta Thunberg.
We’ve seen that change can happen when it really needs to. When clear policies and regulations such as social distancing are established, people abide by them because of the global (and individual) good. If we can do this for ourselves, we can do it for the planet. The new vision of the future is both challenging and exciting, and we at BirdLife are ready to help the world achieve it.