Much is made these days about the well-being benefits of connecting with nature. However, parodying JFK’s immortal words, turn the narrative on its head to make it less sapiens-centric and more about environmental concern and there is arguably a better chance of securing a sustainable future for the planet along with its habitats, biodiversity, and the health of its human population. Enlightened self-interest or informed empathy, call it what you will.

Translating the prose into reality is the challenge but a process in which we can all participate. A cynic might well ask: Why bother? What difference can one person’s actions make among a global population of 7.8 billion people? For a few, this dispiriting, defeatist argument is enough to make them give up. However, anyone with even a modicum of self-awareness knows there are good choices and bad ones to be made in life. Choose the right paths and we can make a difference, big or small and, if nothing else, we can lead by example.

Turning back the clock, until Galileo provided evidence for the heliocentric nature of the Solar System proposed by the likes of Copernicus, conventional wisdom held that the Sun revolved around the Earth. It says something about human nature that there are parallels between that antiquated world view and many people’s blinkered outlook today. And it is not unique to individuals: strategic narcissism can be seen as a manifestation of the same perspective but at a national level. Changing these insular views of the world is at the heart of solving many of the problems that beset the planet and its human inhabitants.

Right now, overcoming the challenges posed by Covid-19 has understandably taken centre stage. However, an unintended consequence has been to shine a spotlight on the strength of human nature and its frailties. How we approach the Pandemic also sheds some light on how the human race does and should deal with those other self-inflicted crises of our times: habitat destruction, biodiversity-loss, pollution (notably plastic), and climate change.

Through our use and abuse of the natural world there is good reason to suppose that Covid-19 is a zoonotic disease and that humans unwittingly sparked its genesis. Scaling up, as a species the blame for the planet-wide environmental devastation that has occurred in the last 50 years falls fairly and squarely on our shoulders too. A reasonable conclusion to be drawn is that we continue with our exploitative relationship with wild animals and the natural world at our peril. And our unwillingness to think beyond our own lifespans is putting the future of humanity in jeopardy.  

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Some people’s interaction with the natural world is superficial at best and has little to do with engaging with nature. As a consequence, many in conservation circles feel that last summer’s post-lockdown increase in access to sensitive wildlife sites was not good news. What’s needed are more informed, enlightened visitors and less unbridled public access. ©Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd

By nature, we are an inventive species and there is an understandable desire to engineer solutions to the manifestations of problems that most directly affect us. However, there is a danger this blinds us to the root causes of these very issues.

In the case of Covid-19, focussing on vaccinating our way to a safer planet means there is a danger we fail to grasp why it happened in the first place, and what we should do to reduce the risk of future pandemics. As the WHO puts it: ‘Urbanization and the destruction of natural habitats increase the risk of zoonotic diseases by increasing contact between humans and wild animals.’

In the case of environmental issues, by focussing on carbon and how the resulting climatic impacts affect us as humans, we often come up with solutions that justify continuing our existing, biodiversity-destructive lifestyles. The race to Carbon neutrality, use of Carbon Credits and concept of ‘off-setting’ can sometimes legitimise the continuing abuse and destruction of natural habitats and biodiversity. As an example, it is hard to see how Microsoft financially underpinning cattle ranching in Australia benefits the continent’s natural ecosystems and native biodiversity.

The much-used phrase ‘no-one’s safe until everyone’s safe’ is as relevant to habitat destruction, biodiversity loss and climate change as it is to global pandemic resolution. We all live on the same planet, a finite world with finite resources.

Two alternative visions for Brazil’s Amazon. One seemingly favoured by President Jair Bolsonaro (left) and another advocated by anyone with even a modicum of environmental respect, not to mention enlightened self-interest (right). But before we in the UK criticise too harshly, remember that our ancestors cut down almost all our primary forest millennia ago. And wilful habitat destruction continues to this day on our watch – just think HS2. ©Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd

Talking of finite resources, Easter Island is sometimes cited as a case study of a disaster caused by unbridled environmental exploitation in a closed system, one that led to a dismal tally of plant and animal extinctions. Whatever the precise cause of the catastrophe – habitat destruction pure and simple or a plague of introduced Polynesian Rats – the inescapable reality is that Easter Island’s ecosystem was wrecked as a consequence of human settlement, and the lives of surviving inhabitants were degraded as a result.

Bizarrely, it has been argued that this manmade environmental catastrophe is a success story in human terms, the argument being that people’s ingenuity allowed them to survive a disaster of their own making. That’s an oddly rose-tinted and sapiens-centric interpretation of events.

The early residents of Easter Island had the excuse of ignorance. We do not. Scaling up, Planet Earth is also a closed system with (energy from the Sun apart) finite resources. By combining unsustainable consumption with a reliance on economic growth, you have the ingredients needed for a disaster mirroring Easter Island but on a global scale. Add to that eye-watering human population growth and the problem can only get worse and harder to solve. No less a luminary than Sir David Attenborough has dared draw attention to the spectre of this ‘elephant in the room’. Perhaps it is time for an evidence-based revision of the advice in Genesis 1:28: ‘…Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it…’.

Human ingenuity and energy efficiency measures could conceivably come to the rescue and allow our species to engineer a solution to its own survival on a dying planet. But at what cost? Probably the wholesale degradation and destruction of the natural world if current economic policies are the driving forces. Along with an insidious erosion of the quality of human life too.

As a species, perhaps we need to ask ourselves an existential question: Do we exist merely to consume? Assuming the answer is ‘no’ (and not ‘I shop, therefore I am’) then far better surely if human ingenuity was orientated towards planetary survival with a sense of global community, and recognition of our roles both as a problem and as part of the solution. And maybe what the planet also needs are few more Anders Holch Povlsens rather than ego-driven billionaires and aspiring states seeking immortality through space exploration.

Stating the obvious, without solving the issues that beset humanity (inequalities, poverty and the rest) at the global level, we will never resolve the planetary environmental problems caused by our species. To do this you have to consider everyone on the planet. It’s all very well pontificating from a position of relative ease in the wealthy UK. But it’s harder to convince somebody in the developing world when their concerns relate to how they can put any food on the table as opposed to whether what they eat is organic or which brand of supermarket they choose to make deliveries.

Conservation in the developing world: Brufut Woods in The Gambia, a wonderful reserve but a tiny fragment of the forest that once cloaked West Africa. Although surrounded on all sides by encroaching development, avian gems such as African Pygmy Kingfisher still survive, amidst the sea of plastic that abuts the site. ©Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd

If we are aware of the consequences of our own actions then we have a moral responsibility to act and respond accordingly. If we lead by example then others may follow. And then there’s advocacy. Not everyone can do it but by standing up for what’s environmentally right, persuading and cajoling others with compelling arguments, fighting environmental injustices, and speaking truth to power, then real and influential changes can be made. If you can’t do it yourself, then you can support and encourage those who can.

Returning to Copernicus, among this polymath’s many achievements were economic theories. Some of these went on to inform economists including Henry Dunning Macleod and led to him coining the term Gresham’s Law, which frames the concept of ‘good money’ and ‘bad money’. Perhaps what Planet Earth needs most right now is a renaissance intellect suited to our times, and an economic model that reins in our more atavist tendencies while allowing what’s most creative about humanity to flourish. Someone and something to usher in a new Age of Enlightenment, one tailored to the 21st Century and the needs of our sickly planet. 

That economic model might be termed Conservation Capitalism. Regardless of its name it would certainly require a recognition of our role as planetary custodians, and a world vision that sees the natural world not as a resource to be exploited but a treasure – and our home – to be respected, protected and cherished.

No way to run a Planet, surely? ©Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd

A wise man once told me that when it comes to conservation I should ‘never give up’ because you never know who is listening or reading, or where it may lead. It may not be you but somebody else who has an inspirational thought that spurs others into action: chain reactions, butterfly effect, call it what you will.

That wise man was Mark Avery and he’s right of course. Most of us can’t claim to have his incisive mind but we can all bring something to the debate and the fight for the environment.

Just as global vaccination is a complex process not an event, so the same is true when it comes to solving the problems that beset Planet Earth. In theory no problem is insurmountable and we can all do our bit to help. Armed with this knowledge, shame on us if we do nothing or the wrong thing.

If the statement that heads this article ‘Ask not what nature can do for you, ask what you can do for nature’ is framed as a question, perhaps the answer should be ‘treat it with the respect it deserves’.