Time to get real about our relationship with nature

So far this year, around 100m babies have arrived in the world. Despite the global pandemic, there have been around 40m deaths, a net increase of the UK’s population in just 9 months. Today, there are 7.8 billion people inhabiting he planet – that’s enough (if the government guidelines allowed it) to fill Wembley 78000 times. And the world is more inter-connected than its ever been. Coronavirus took just a matter of weeks to reach pretty much every corner of the globe. So, the actions of one part of the world impact others like never before.

Achieving change within such a huge and complicated ecosystem is an enormous undertaking. But I fear that there is a single common factor in pretty much every current challenge that we face as a species that means we must urgently embark on that journey.

As I write, there have been 28m cases of coronavirus reported worldwide, and of course a significant number of additional unreported cases. Around 1m cases have been reported as deaths, and the WHO indicates that the pandemic has a long way yet to run. Most economies have received a deep shock, our sector has been decimated, and (as always) the less privileged are suffering the most.

At the same time our climate system is experiencing the largest period of warming since BC (before Christ, not before Coronavirus) times, with ice caps melting, sea levels threatening low lying land mass, and a massive increase in wildfires. Climate change physically threatens millions and is also a major threat to food security and ecosystem viability. As is soil erosion which is impacted strongly by our use of land and chemical interventions in agriculture such as pesticides, insecticides, and fertilisers. Current rates of soil depletion globally are already much higher than natural soil formation, and the gap is widening.

And we should not ignore the trashing of our oceans either. Much of the plastic that does not end up in landfill or go through other waste management pathways (such as recycling or incineration) is thought to end up in the ocean. Science Journal’s research has estimated that over 10 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean each year as large identifiable items, without including microplastics – pieces under five millimetres in length. Large pieces degrade over time to become microplastics, but never fully disappear. And a UN FAO 2018 report estimates that one-third of world fish stocks were overfished by 2015.

The single root cause of the above is just one factor – our relationship with nature, and the raw materials that we derive from it. Right from Covid-19 (just the latest in a long line of zoonotic diseases – which jump from animals to humans) all the way to how we have ensure we have enough fish to eat in the future, we are screwing up and shooting ourselves and our children in the foot. We are living through a critical turning point where we simply must reset our relationship with nature, to find ways to halt and then reverse the declining trends I describe above. This year we have all begun to get a glimpse of the kind of dystopian future we will leave to our children if we fail in that mission.

This is not to denigrate the significant progress that we have and are making on many fronts. In July for example Vietnam announced the closure of illegal wildlife markets and wild meat shops and restaurants, together with stricter controls of farmed wild animals. This is a great step forward, but broader global action is required.

In a recent speech, WWF International Director General Marco Lambertini summed up the wider picture of what we need to do very well:

“We need a much broader nature-based ‘health insurance’ policy for humanity. From climate change and deforestation, to the way we farm animals for mass production, there are serious nature-related impacts on human health, including the development and transmission of diseases, that must be addressed. And, as we emerge from this crisis, we must not miss the opportunity for change, starting from how we invest in the recovery of our economy, embracing a just and green transition towards an economic model that values nature as the foundation for a healthy society and a thriving economy. Imagine if the trillion dollars of the recovery plans to support most impacted sectors would be invested in clean energy, regenerative agriculture, sustainable fishing, and green infrastructures. We will accelerate the building of a safer future not just from future zoonotic pandemics, but also tackling other global threats like climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss.

This is our chance to put things right and rebalance our relationship with the planet. To absorb the lessons learnt from a virus. To call for nature-based solutions that enhance human health and safety. And to move to a ‘new normal’ rather than revert to the old ways that have failed us. One where job creation, economic development and social equality is fuelled by green development based on humility, respect and stewardship towards nature.”

In my view the key areas for focus are Food/Farming /Diet,  Distribution/Transport and Energy. Our sector has a critical role to play in all three. Let’s stop waiting for others to make the change – we can all make a difference, no matter how small. We simply must make sustainable decisions in our businesses that respect nature and generate safe outcomes for future generations, even if they come at a short-term cost.

The problem is not coronavirus. It is not climate change. These are just symptoms of the wider challenge we have – reforming our attitude to and relationship with nature. The time is right for a reset. Let’s get real, and start making that change now.