I will confess that I am someone who cares about nature for its own sake. For its spectacles that dazzle, like the annual pulse of bright red sockeye salmon that gift the watersheds of Bristol Bay with their abundance. Or, for nature’s ingenuity and elegance at a more intimate scale, as with the dung beetles of the Amazon rainforest playing a critical role in the larger ecosystem as they humbly go about their business. In contemplating these wonders, I draw strength and comfort from knowing that there are still places on this earth that move to rhythms choreographed primarily by the diversity of life and its interplay with the world around it — where humans are part of the orchestra, but not an imperious conductor.
And as someone who cherishes nature for its own sake, I will also confess that I’ve occasionally been baited into skirmishing with those who would call on us to protect nature mainly for the benefit of people.
But on this Earth Day, I am laying down my arms and declaring a truce in what was admittedly probably always a pointless battle.
Not because I’ve concluded that nature has lost any of its intrinsic value, but because if the past year’s fires, floods, and now pestilence have shown us anything, it’s that this debate is essentially moot. In a world where we are facing interconnected and existential threats to climate, biodiversity, and human security, there is really no room for daylight between the goals of these two camps. There is no world in which humanity exists apart from nature; it is clearer than ever that our fates are intertwined, and that our failure to accommodate nature has rendered the life support systems that humanity depends upon far more brittle and more vulnerable to devastating shocks.
Take the fires that have ravaged the Western U.S., the Arctic taiga and boreal, the Amazon rainforest, and the Australian outback — each with distinct proximate causes, but all embodying shared lessons about the warning signs of a world out of balance with nature.
The Amazon fires, make no mistake, were ignited largely at the hands of humans, as an unprecedented number of blazes were set to clear lands for agricultural development. And the direct social consequences were also devastatingly clear, with smoke in São Paulo thick enough to block out the mid-day sun, and a spike in respiratory ailments in communities across the entire region. Other consequences, while less overt, are no less serious for people. At a local scale, there is a growing body of evidence that deforestation disrupts patterns of temperature, rainfall, and evapotranspiration, negatively impacting food security in the very places where forest habitat is being converted in the name of agricultural productivity. Further afield, we have seen evidence that the accumulated soot from fires in the Amazon can affect the melting of glaciers in the Andes, jeopardizing the water security of communities that depend upon them as storage reservoirs. And at a global scale, perhaps there is no better example of the risks that humanity assumes when it pushes nature to the brink than those that come with bringing the Amazon recklessly close to its “tipping point” — where accumulated deforestation could eventually push the tropical rainforest past the point of no return, with its carbon-sequestering forests giving way to grassy savannah. If that comes to pass, we lose an irreplaceable buffer that absorbs an estimated 600 million metric tons of carbon each year, accelerating global climate change and the extreme weather events that come with it.
And to see what a future with more extreme climate events holds for us, one need only look at the other fires of note in 2019, which ravaged Australia with destruction at an unprecedented scale. By now, we are far too familiar with the role that human-made climate change played as a culprit in literally fanning the flames of the Australian bushfires — creating conditions that amplified the fire risks and intensified their destructive power. But beyond that well-understood story, there is an important lesson that the fires can teach us about the perils of managing nature to its most rigid limits, in contrast with the wisdom of embracing land and fire management practices that work in harmony with nature to create resilience. Looking to Australia’s indigenous peoples and territories, we can learn from a 60,000 plus year history of land and fire management that works in tandem with the rhythms of natural systems, yielding a landscape that is far more resilient to the region’s inevitable fire events. This stands in sharp contrast to much of the rest of Australia, where habitat has been cleared, fragmented, and developed, and fire has been suppressed, in a manner that ultimately increases the landscape’s fragility.
If we turn to the notable floods of 2019, whether in Kerala, India or the Midwestern United States, we will find stories that differ in their specifics and yet speak to this same overall pattern: choices about how we live with the natural world that magnify our vulnerability to disaster events, increasingly intertwined with the realities of global climate change in ways that amplify those risks and intensify the potential consequences for human security. In both Kerala and the Midwest, the proximate causes of the flooding were extreme weather events: late and unprecedented monsoon rainfall in India, and heavy spring rains combined with warmer than normal temperatures driving rapid melting of record snowfall in the Midwest. And as with all individual episodes of extreme weather, it is simultaneously impossible to link the particular occurrence definitively to climate change, and yet foolhardy to deny the ways in which climate change has made these events far more likely. In both cases, the extent of human suffering was exacerbated by the cumulative impacts of decisions people had made about how to live in the landscape. In Kerala, deforestation and illegal mining in the biodiverse Western Ghats mountain range had destabilized the region’s geology and water flows in ways that worsened the extent of the damage. In the Midwest, decades of land development and flood control practices hardened the system, making it more rigidly dependent on a network of overtaxed levees and less able to function with any natural floodplain capacity, virtually ensuring that swollen rivers would inundate communities left vulnerable.
If we examine the current coronavirus crisis through a lens that perceives these sequential disasters for what they really are, it becomes alarmingly clear that COVID-19 is less a black swan event that no one could reasonably see coming, and more an archetype of the kind of human security disasters that we may find ourselves catalyzing with growing regularity if we continue to push the natural world past its breaking point.
In the case of COVID-19, the origins of the virus are not fully known and may not be for some time. But we do know that COVID-19 falls into a class of emerging diseases of animal origin, the latest in a long line that includes such notorious predecessors as SARS, MERS, Ebola, Zika, and HIV. And while the precise vectors of animal to human transmission differ in each case, the pattern of risk is clear: when we erode the barriers between humans and wildlife, we increase the risk of interactions that facilitate emerging zoonotic disease. Sometimes we breach those barriers directly, as with hunting and trafficking of wildlife species, which has garnered particular attention of late given speculation about the potential link between COVID-19 and Wuhan’s wild animal markets. But we also multiply the pathways for animal to human transmission in less obvious ways, for example, as deforestation or other forms of habitat conversion fragment our landscapes and alter patterns of animal migration, bringing them into more regular contact with people. And as with fires and floods, climate change has the potential to serve as a risk-multiplier, making climate refugees of both people and animals in ways that throw them together with greater frequency and potentially catastrophic results.
When you step back and look at this string of calamities in their totality, it’s hard not to feel that nature has issued us a warning.
As Pope Francis recently remarked in an interview about the COVID-19 crisis, “Who now speaks of the fires in Australia, or remembers that eighteen months ago a boat could cross the North Pole because the glaciers had all melted? Who speaks now of the floods? I don’t know if these are the revenge of nature, but they are certainly nature’s responses.” And indeed, if nature is sending us a wake-up call, the message is starkly clear: if we fail to rethink our relationship with the natural world, we will intensify risks and impacts that threaten all life on earth.
Yet there is reason for optimism. The same systemic interdependence that triggers all manner of negative feedback loops when we fail to leave room for nature also holds the promise of unleashing a positive cascade of benefits when we focus on creating space for nature as the foundation for building resilience.
Take coastal wetland ecosystems such as mangroves, marshes, and seagrass beds as an example. Protecting coastal wetland ecosystems from destruction yields tangible and immediate local benefits for the communities that depend upon them to sustain productive fisheries, filter water pollution, and attract commercial tourism. And beyond those local benefits, keeping coastal wetlands intact can contribute to climate stabilization by avoiding on the order of 273 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent each year, the equivalent of burning 300 billion pounds of coal. Moreover, maintaining coastal wetlands also serves as an important insurance policy that puts coastal communities in a better position to adapt to whatever impacts we might see from climate change — with mangroves alone providing an estimated $65 billion in flood protection from rising seas and surging storms. And finally, avoiding changes to the structure, function, and use of wetland ecosystems reduces the risk that alterations to the environment will result in unexpected changes in the presence or proliferation of pathogens (e.g., antimicrobial resistance associated with shrimp farms built in converted wetlands).
Scaled up across ecosystems around the world, the benefits of focusing on nature as a foundation for resilience in this manner stand to be tremendous.
A recent study from the World Economic Forum found that $44 trillion in economic value generation, or over half the world’s GDP, is moderately or highly dependent on nature and its services. As such, investing in maintaining natural ecosystems is an investment in human prosperity. And in an age of looming climate change, these investments in nature offer the added benefits of contributing significantly to both climate stabilization and to enhancing our capacity to adapt to whatever impacts of climate change we do experience. Advancing nature-based solutions for climate change mitigation can deliver up to 37 percent of the emission reductions needed by 2030 to keep global temperature increases under 2°C. And on the adaptation front, a growing body of evidence shows that bolstering natural ecosystem services to safeguard coastlines, manage water flows, and cool off cities delivers a far better return on investment than relying solely on the built environment. And in total, reorienting towards nature-based resilience has the potential to substantially reduce the risk of emerging zoonotic diseases, when we consider that well over half of infectious diseases that have jumped from animals to humans since 1940 were associated with threats such as land-use change, food and agricultural practices, and bushmeat consumption.
All in all, choosing a pathway that builds resilience through nature seems like an investment we cannot afford not to make. And yet, it is far from clear that we are ready to choose this pathway, perhaps because we have been so conditioned to view the protection of nature as something in conflict with advancing economic and social interests, rather than as foundational to them. This pernicious mindset is an artifact of having operated for so long in a system that has been engineered for exploitation rather than resilience — where our choices about living with nature are constrained toward delivering a narrow set of benefits that flow toward a similarly restricted set of beneficiaries. The short-sighted choices favor near-term expediency over long-term sustainability, extraction over regeneration, and accumulation over equity. If we are able to expand our vision and see the system and its interdependencies for what they are, we will be able to operate in a world not of rigidity and scarcity, but of resilience and abundance.
The work of the Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU) offers us a window into what is possible. In their landmark study delving deeply into the science and economics of our global food production systems, they conclude that we can transform our practices such that we maintain space for nature, contribute to climate stabilization, satisfy food security, promote healthy diets, and support inclusive rural economies. Importantly, they find that we can accomplish this, “while reaping a societal return that is more than 15 times the related investment cost (estimated at less than 0.5 percent of global GDP) and creating new business opportunities worth up to $4.5 trillion a year by 2030.” It’s an important reminder to resist the siren calls of those who posit a false dichotomy where the environment must be sacrificed in service of economic revitalization to escape the depths into which COVID-19 has plunged us.
If COVID-19 is the latest echo of nature’s increasingly urgent wake-up call, we have an important decision to make about how we will respond.
When the curve is behind us and we resume public life, we will have some critical choices to make about how we recover and rebuild. These choices can either reinforce the broken systems that led us to this place of vulnerability, or they can forge a new path, grounded in our growing understanding of how resilient natural ecosystems, climate stabilization, and human wellbeing thrive in unison. The depths of the current crisis will no doubt require us to mobilize resources at an unprecedented scale, and if we invest wisely in a more resilient future, this represents an exceptional opportunity for change. At a minimum, we can learn enough from nature’s warnings to redirect billions of dollars away from programs that simultaneously deplete nature and ratchet up the vulnerability of human communities. Instead, we can invest in transforming our systems of production and consumption along the lines articulated by FOLU and others to reap integrated nature, climate, health and economic benefits built upon a foundation that is far more resilient. And we can make good on the promise of what was to have been the 2020 “super year for nature,” by mobilizing nations, businesses, and individuals to protect areas that will ensure adequate space for nature, and to invest at a scale that reflects their significance as humanity’s life support system.
As we dwell in the long shadow cast by COVID-19, we get frequent reminders that it is not only appropriate, but essential, to practice “self-care.” And so, on this Earth Day, I will make some time to celebrate nature unabashedly for its own sake, and to embrace building resilience through nature as a form of self-care. I hope you will join me and answer nature’s wake-up call with a commitment to building a more resilient future for all of us.
Aileen Lee is the chief program officer for environmental conservation at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.