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The Way Forward

  • Written by  Tim Smit and Mike Maunder
  • Published in Opinions
The Way Forward Sander van der Werf
17 Sep
We live in an age where awe and wonder at the natural world have largely been replaced by feelings of pity and hopelessness at the injuries we see inflicted upon it

Instead of ‘Planetary Home’, we see resource and utility, instead of a spiritual insistence that we should live with the grain of nature, we see it as a consumable. We are the apparent purpose of existence itself to the point where we have now named a geological era ‘the Anthropocene’ after ourselves. There is a famous Native American saying; ‘If you wish to be praised for the rain that falls, you must take the blame for the drought’.

Our Anthropocene era is marked by what EO Wilson and Lynn Margolies have referred to as the ‘Sixth Extinction’, a time of such rapid species loss that it bears comparison with the meteoric destruction (or was it climatic change?) that did for the dinosaurs.

To argue about the degree of human impact is to miss the point that if one can clearly identify that Homo sapiens sapiens is mistreating the planet in an objective way, regardless of whether it is solely responsible for the damage or not, we should mend our ways and let the better angels of our nature replace bad practise with a nurturing vision of a future that still remains ours to make. For many of us, the COP21 agreement has both real and symbolic resonance that we may be at a tipping point.

As we look at the world today, there are many reasons to be hopeful about what we can do, but to act we need to be aware of the scale and nature of the problems we face and have an idea of the remediation we can make and the remediation we must let nature control.

We may be moving towards a future when we adopt a broader concept of our own health that values other species and ecosystems

We could live in an age of biological restoration where biodiversity is valued as a vital contributor to our wellbeing. Instead we witness the annihilation of unique ecosystems, accelerating species extinctions and profoundly degrading the ecosystem services we all depend upon. We mean ‘all’ because the consequences of actions in one place impact elsewhere. The mass migrations of peoples from the country to the city, and in some cases from the country to other countries, increasingly have their original cause in the land, not only the politics. We are also witnessing a catastrophic decline in agricultural diversity where traditional cultivars are being lost and replaced by a small sampling that are suited to modern cultivation, agri-business and retail. The crop diversity that has supported us over the past 50 years is unlikely to be the diversity that will feed us over the next 50. We leave ourselves incredibly vulnerable with the depletion of plant genetic resources from which to breed resilience and vigour for a densely populated and volatile world.

The retention and stewardship of biodiversity and associated wild landscapes will be dependent upon many strategies. The global stock of protected areas is a vital foundation but there is an urgent need to create new and extensive protected areas. The tools for species conservation are continually being tested and improved in the face of insufficient funding and political support. The world’s seed banks have done an extraordinary job in preserving crop diversity, now they hold the resources that will support both crop breeding for a hotter and drier world and the raw material for ecological restoration.

Conserving wild lands and threatened biodiversity requires ensuring the livelihoods of the people who live in the landscapes that provide vital ecosystem services and support unique biodiversity. The restoration of soils, grazing, watersheds and biodiversity builds ‘Natural Capital’ that provides long-term benefits for resident communities. At the same time, the embedding of cultural diversity and respect for traditional knowledge needs to be enhanced to create the cultural ecology on which to build. There are many exciting working models for this approach, both large-scale and local, such as the work of the Quito Water Conservation Fund in Ecuador, the farmer-driven restoration of tree cover in Sahelian West Africa and the Northern Rangeland Trust in Kenya.

Importantly, that same process of extinction is happening at a more intimate scale, our own bodies are undergoing a loss of biodiversity, accordingly the opportunities for our personal restoration are also huge. Each of us contains, and in turn needs, a diverse microbiome that sustains our physiology and ultimately contributes to our physical and mental health. In fact each one of us is a complex ecosystem, populated by bacteria, viruses, fungi, archaea and protozoa. Around 90 per cent of our cells are microbial; the various microbiotas of our body contain at least 100 times more genes than our human genome.

For a variety of reasons, linked to antibiotics, poor food and a sedentary lifestyle, our guts hold an impoverished biome, for which, many of us are paying a real price. This reduction in the diversity of our gut microbiota is linked to an important range of health disorders including immunological, gastrointestinal, metabolic and psychiatric problems.

Rewilding is now a health agenda, the management and restoration of our own biodiversity can form a continuum with the management of our gardens, cities and wild landscapes

As recognised by the WHO and CBD, we may be moving towards a future when we adopt a broader concept of our own health that values other species and ecosystems and recognises that our health is directly influenced by the interactions of our internal ecosystem with the environment outside of our bodies. Not only are our diets and lifestyle driving habitat loss and species extinction (for instance the increasing demands for soya, palm oil and red meat), but they are also impacting our own health and ultimately our own national and household budgets – including our reserves.

We see a future that recognises a profound nexus of human health interests around the need for biodiversity, a need for a new food ecology and an imperative to train a new generation of land custodians. Traditional nomenclature would call these folks farmers, gardeners or conservationists, who focus their work on the regeneration of natural resources and the regeneration of a human link with biodiversity.

This could fundamentally change the human relationship with biodiversity and the wilder landscape. In effect we are identifying a continuum between our own intimate ecology; our microbiome, the food we consume and our ability to grow it, the need for resilient agriculture and the imperative of retaining wild and semi-wild ecosystems.

We suggest some approaches that could help stem extinctions and move society closer to sustainability:

  • A need to focus additional conservation investments in the overlooked, predominantly invisible, life support system of the microbiomes, fungi, plankton and so on. These continue to be the ‘Cinderellas’ of the conservation world. However, we may now be living at a time when humans start to see themselves as being part of the natural world rather than being apart from it. We could consider expanding
    the concept of flagship species to encompass fungi for soil fertility or bacteria for own intimate rewilding?
  • The recognition that wildlands are key to our survival as they provide key ecosystem services, not least the ability to buffer climate change through carbon storage and watershed provision, but also to nurture the understanding that humans feel well in the presence of nature. What was once an ‘alternative’ position is now scientifically demonstrated to be the case. Beauty, joy and well-being should have a currency as powerful as the Pound, Dollar and Renminbi.
  • An urgent need to train and employ a generation of restoration ecologists who can repair our legacy of ecological damage. This is linked to a need to restructure agricultural and horticultural training to teach a new generation of food producers able to maximise production of a wide variety of biodiverse crops to create more livelihoods, healthier human diets, and habitats supporting food production, biodiversity and resilience.
  • A look at improving the design of urban areas and green spaces as key areas for human health, food production and for maintaining biodiversity in an increasingly urban future.
  • There needs to be a bigger investment in the conservation of crops and wild crop relative heritage to ensure we have the resources to build a sustainable agriculture.

Fundamental to the conservation of biodiversity is encouraging a philosophical and emotional transition from seeing our own wellbeing as something isolated from ecology, to a recognition that we are actually an ecosystem that is directly linked to the external ecology. Rewilding is now a health agenda, the management and restoration of our own biodiversity can form a continuum with the management of our gardens, cities and wild landscapes.

Generations have talked of ‘conquering the wild places’ and for 10,000 years we have tried to kill our wild competitors for food resources. Maybe now we are on the verge of a new understanding – one where conservation is not only an ethical, economic or legislative imperative, but defines who and what we are.

Tim Smit and Mike Maunder are, respectively, the co-founder and Director of Life Sciences of the Eden Project in Cornwall

This was published in the September 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

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