“We need to save the planet” is an exhortation that I hear frequently, from family, friends and peers in the world of conservation and environmental action, and even more widely across the morass of social media. But my response is, and always has been, the same: “The planet is fine, it will be here long after we are but a fossilised footnote to the history of life on earth!” The truth is that we instead need to worry about ourselves; and when we critically examine what it takes to look after human societies, we are forced to conclude that a healthy life support system, represented by functioning ecosystems, clean air, productive seas and forests, and a stable climate is fundamental to ensuring we achieve this.
In our April blog I reviewed some of the links between the current COVID crisis and the lessons that we are already learning about how our treatment of nature has both caused the initial outbreak and continues to inform our responses, both successful and less effective, to the pandemic.
And in the space of two months there have been a trifecta of “International Days” that have brought into focus the critical role that the environment, nature and biodiversity has, and will continue to play in our ability to prevent and manage phenomena, such as climate change and pandemic diseases, that affect human health and well-being.
The birth of the environmental movement
April 22nd 2020 marked the 50th Anniversary of the very first Earth Day. The movement, which started as a mass protest by over 20 million Americans to highlight environmental ignorance and to demand a new way forward for our planet, was precipitated by the realisation that we as a global human population were not taking care of the critical life support system that ensures human well-being.
The catalyst for this realisation is widely acknowledged to be “Earthrise”. the image taken by Astronaut William Anders during Apollo 8’s Moon orbit in 1968, an image that focussed attention on just how delicate, precious and unique the Earth is in the vast infinity of space. As a child a giant poster of this image adorned the back of my bedroom door and gazing at the green and blue hemisphere against its inky background on a daily basis was without a doubt a major factor in my environmental awakening.
(Bio)diversity and inclusion
May 22nd marked the International Day for Biological Diversity, the theme of which was “Our solutions are in nature”, a call to action that highlights the growing awareness that not only is it prudent to protect the diversity of nature in the world, but that the very diversity found in nature can play a critical role in addressing current challenges like climate change and disease outbreaks.
The word “Biodiversity” is widely used today, but as a term is actually only about 30 years old. By any definition it encompasses more than simply “nature” or “wildlife”. It refers to all the diversity found both within species, between species and across all earth’s ecosystems. By extension it forms the basis of the variety of ecosystem services that permit human societies to thrive.
The appreciation of how important our understanding of the links between the use and abuse of biological diversity and human health is only too obvious in the current crisis. Scientists and researchers studying the subtle, complex and often unexpected relationship between environmental degradation and mismanagement and the emergence of epidemic disease predicted two years ago that deforestation and the displacement of wild species (specifically bats) would promote the emergence of a novel coronavirus. It turns out that approximately 75% of all emerging diseases are transferred from wild animal species to humans – they are zoonotic.
The knowledge generated through a multitude of similar studies allows us to build strategies to mitigate future pandemic outbreaks by sustainably and wisely using nature. These strategies are part of the ongoing efforts in this, a “super year” for nature and biodiversity, to co-ordinate global action to mobilise nature-based solutions. The COVID crisis has certainly highlighted the need to better manage our relationship with nature, especially as the effects of the current lockdown are not all as positive as we initially thought for nature. It will be a cruel irony that illegal destruction of nature, which lead to the transmission of the virus from wild species to humans, is actually intensifying while governments and people are distracted by the immediate task of controlling the spread of COVID19.
This is why Carbon Tanzania has biodiversity at the heart of all its projects. While reducing emissions from deforestation, and protecting some very special and charismatic species of wildlife like lions, elephants and chimpanzees, we are equally focussed on ensuring that integrated ecosystem health underpins our projects. Every organism counts, from trees to tinkerbirds, and from bacteria to bees. The resilience of the forest areas that our communities protect is built on their natural biodiversity, and this in turn is what supports their livelihoods through direct provision of food and nutrition, and indirect ecosystem services that support fertile farming conditions and grazing lands.
A fascinating example of how the less obvious, unseen biodiversity around us contributes to human well-being is to be found in a study conducted by anthropologist Jeff Leach who works with the Hadza in the Yeada Valley. His research project, called the “Human Food Project” has studied the microbiomes of the indigenous hunter-gatherer tribe. His research shows that the Hazda microbiome is dramatically more diverse in terms of the kinds of bacteria than that of an urban living American, and he links this directly to the immeasurably more biodiverse environment in which the Hadza live when compared to the urban landscape of his other subjects. The Hadza are also immunologically well-endowed when compared to the average Western urbanite, and the simple conclusion is that living in a healthy, intact environment, rich in biodiversity, is a cornerstone to fighting disease and thriving as a human society.
Now or never?
And finally tomorrow, on the 5th June 2020 we celebrate World Environment Day, the message couldn’t be clearer:
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