It’s indisputable that human health and planetary health are inextricably linked. This isn’t a new concept, but rather one that’s been highlighted with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The current crisis has put a spotlight on the fact that human health and safety goes together with the health of the natural environment. What started life as a virus found in a wild animal has been able to transmit to humans likely because of increased human contact with wildlife.
Hunting, farming and even the global movement of people to cities has led to massive declines in biodiversity, and increased the risk of dangerous viruses like COVID-19 spilling over from animals to humans. This particular ‘spilling over’ effect was likely the result of wildlife trafficking in response to the demand for more exotic animal meats in wet markets around the world. However, it represents just one of many illustrations of where ‘cause and effect’ highlight the interlinkages between humanity and the wider ecological and biological world around us. Mess with the system, and there are consequences as we’re seeing now.
The challenge we face is that while we’re playing around with the dynamics of our biosphere, whether intentionally or not, we continue to canter towards a future where there can be no winner. With this in mind, it begs the question:
If healthy societies depend on healthy environments why are we not doing more to prevent the continued destruction of natural habitats and minimise the overall impact we have on the natural environment, be this biodiversity, water quality, soil health or even the air we breathe?
Perhaps it’s because everything feels pretty far away and intangible. But as we’ve seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, crises can get personal quickly. Or maybe it’s because these big global issues make us feel so small and insignificant that we don’t see how, as individuals, we can contribute to tackling them. I personally don’t believe it’s because we simply don’t care.
I really like something that Georg Kell, the former Executive Director of the UN Global Compact said in an op-ed recently. He said, “…no country is prepared for the next pandemic if the rest of the world is not. And no country can stop the impact of climate change alone.” What he was saying is that this current crisis we’re facing, creates opportunity if we work together. However, the challenge we face is that while everything is linked, our political structures aren’t set up to handle this kind of interconnected systems thinking and action very well. So, what can we do about it? Well, quite a lot it would seem.
Community-level engagement is vital to building the momentum necessary to create a safe and sustainable future. Just look at Earth Day, for example. It’s been 50 years since the first Earth Day. What started as student 'teach-ins' in the Seventies, has evolved to a movement involving up to a billion people around the world demanding environmental action. Another example of individual and collective action are the recent global climate strikes. Whether you’re a fan of protest movements or not, it’s clear that they have been instrumental in putting the climate agenda much more firmly on the radar of policy makers, industry, media and society at large.
Whilst the climate crisis is undoubtedly global, we are increasingly aware of the importance of taking a more local or regional approach to changing the systems and processes we depend upon. The current pandemic has brought a new perspective to ‘local’; from the food that we buy, to the parks and green spaces we use and appreciate, and the communities and businesses we support. If we are going to reshape and reset our economies post-pandemic, we need to start by rethinking how, what and where we produce and consume. By focusing on strengthening local and bioregional production, we can build resiliency into the system, helping to mitigate against future shocks and crises, as well as reducing overall environmental impact. But to achieve this shift, it requires all of us as consumers to rethink the way we buy and consume.
We also need to change the economics of the system and move away from linear economies to more circular ones, which eliminate waste from the outset and maximise the continued use of resources rather than depleting them. Establishing regenerative and restorative economies which focus on ensuring that we live within environmental limits, where everyone can meet their basic needs, and which reduce inequality must be our focus coming out of the current global crisis.
The pandemic is acting as an accelerator, to test new business models, new ways of accessing things (be this products, services or simply information), and organising ourselves. It’s also serving to heighten our individual and collective understanding of how we can be impacted and have impact.
It turns out, humans can adapt pretty fast when they need to. Look at home working, for example. We’re rapidly learning that web-based conference calls can work just as well as in-person meetings (most of the time) and that by eliminating the commute it gives us back loads of personal time, not to mention reducing our environmental footprint.
We’re in a weird liminal moment, in which we know that life itself has changed, but we can’t yet see what the future will look like. So surely now is the time to shape that future into something that works for both society and the planet. And it’s important when doing so, not to forget that it will be future generations who will inherit the political and economic systems that are now being reshaped in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
I remain optimistic that we can create a future that works for us and the planet. Let’s not waste the opportunity we have now to press the reset button, roll-up our sleeves and get to work on creating a future that all of us can enjoy.