- Issue: Fall 2020
Whether expressed in creation tales of Native American tribes and other faith-based traditions, or in detailed economic analyses of ecosystem services, it has long been clear that our own creation—and ultimately our fate—is bound up with the fate of the planet and the natural world of which we are a part.
Rarely has this connection been more obvious than during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since the first reports of the novel coronavirus emerged in late 2019, the probability that we were dealing with a zoonotic disease—one that jumps from animals to people—was high. The World Health Organization confirmed that the coronavirus is indeed zoonotic, but the animal source has not yet been conclusively determined. Many other global health crises—including Ebola, SARS, and MERS—were zoonotic in origin as well.
President & CEO, WWF
What’s less well-known is that a confluence of human expansion, vanishing natural habitat, and climate change has driven people and wildlife into closer proximity, increasing the risk of outbreaks like this—not to mention the inevitable conflicts over the remaining scraps of space and habitat. WWF’s good friend E. O. Wilson pioneered the notion of island biogeography—the idea that the larger an intact ecosystem is, the greater the biodiversity found within. The concept also underscores the profound importance of keeping natural places big enough not only to sustain a whole suite of species, but also to continue supporting the health and livelihoods of its human inhabitants.
Unfortunately, we are increasingly facing the reality of what it looks like when we break our relationship with nature. We open a Pandora’s box of new vectors of disease, leading to new pandemics that impact not just our livelihoods but our mortality as well. The best corporate leaders, the best heads of state, the best community leaders, and the best scientists see that all too well, and are finding ways to bridge reality and science with policy and decision-making so we can begin to reverse the tide.
At WWF, we’re working hard to address what we know to be the root drivers and catalysts for the spread of infectious diseases, including high-risk wildlife markets, environmental disturbances, and climate change. Trade in wild bats, pangolins, and other species makes it easier for animal-borne diseases to spill over to people. The destruction of forests is an especially big problem, as it brings wild animals, livestock, and people face-to-face. Climate change exacerbates these stresses by creating conditions for the spread of disease into new territories.
And while climate change may garner many more headlines, the loss of nature increasingly emerges as an equal threat to the world that supports us all. So it is very much up to humanity not only to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also to save the world’s most glorious landscapes—some of which grace the pages of this magazine, along with many others that hold tremendous value in terms of biodiversity, human history, and economic possibility. It is up to us to build the kinds of governance systems, the kinds of solutions, and the kinds of conservation models that get this balance right.
And we need to save nature, and not just for the sake of species and local communities that landscapes and seascapes sustain. We also need to do so in order to avoid the kinds of plagues prophesied in the Bible and other faith traditions—particularly as these powerful myths and metaphors increasingly become the stuff of scientific fact in our everyday life.
President and CEO