Putting Things Right: How the Pandemic Reveals our Dependence on Nature

Words & photos :: Leslie Anthony.

Last April, as the COVID-19 pandemic was accelerating into the juggernaut that has now pinned us down for more than a year, an article appeared in Time with a title that bluntly summarized our dilemma: “Want to stop the next pandemic? Start protecting wildlife habitats.”

It was a direct reference to a well-established chain: consumer demand → deforestation → loss of wildlife habitat → greater human contact with animal disease reservoirs → zoonotic transfer → epidemic.

 

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A pristine wetland near the shore of Georgian Bay south of Parry Sound. LESLIE ANTHONY

 

We’ve seen many such scenarios in recent decades, from regional outbreaks of Ebola, SARS and MERS, to the global march of HIV, swine flu and Zika, so our current predicament should come as no surprise. Cataclysmic as it has been both in terms of lives lost and seismic economic interruption, however, the pandemic is but a single symptom of overarching human ecological dysfunction.

Coupled with the widespread effects of climate change—floods, wildfires, glacial retreat, landscape collapse, ocean acidification—it should be clear to us daily that human enterprise is in a state of gross overshoot. At the rate we’re consuming nature’s goods and life-support services, ecosystems simply cannot regenerate. The average level of consumption globally already far exceeds Earth’s long-term carrying capacity, and estimates show we’d need five Earths to support the current global population—with no additional growth—at the average material standard enjoyed in Canada. Put like this, it’s easy to see our path as unsustainable.

 

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Vancouver Island. Photo by Ben Allan on Unsplash

 

Fortunately, it has become commonplace to acknowledge this in post-pandemic recovery conversations. Given the dependence of so many sectors of human society on nature and ecosystems, recovery plans that focus on a transition to biodiversity-friendly economies are bound to create living conditions with less risk, more jobs and better livelihoods. It’s the thinking behind sloganeering like Build Back Better, The Great Reset, Green New Deal and The Leap echoing to various degrees of agreement (most people) and rejection (conservatives) through the corridors of power. Unsurprisingly, we’re already paying for biodiversity loss, and it will total a $10 trillion USD hit to the world economy by 2050 under a “business-as-usual” scenario according to a January 2020 World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report. It follows that spending far less to reverse this trend would be sound investment; indeed, the study calculates a $490 billion USD annual net gain in GDP under a “global conservation” scenario.

 

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The shores of Algonquin Provincial Park. LESLIE ANTHONY

 

In response to Global Convention on Biodiversity targets set in 2010, federal, provincial and territorial governments collaborated on 2020 Biodiversity Goals and Targets for Canada. The publication reflects both Canadian priorities and ways to aid the global effort (Canada, for example, holds a quarter of the world’s wetlands, which are important not just for their resident fauna, but also species that migrate through them). Canada’s 19 targets support four goals: A) better land-use planning and management; B) more environmentally sustainable management across the economy; C) improvements to available information concerning “people benefits” of nature; and D) increased general awareness of biodiversity and participation in conservation.

 

…it should be clear to us daily that human enterprise is in a state of gross overshoot.

 

Progress on these goals was recently reviewed in Canada’s 6th National Report to the Convention on Biological Diversity. The news was typical Canuck: not fantastic, but not horrible. Working backward, goal D’s two awareness targets are on track, which should help drive future targets faster. Surprisingly, three of four targets under goal C’s low-hanging fruit of public outreach are flagging. The only winner? Integrating the capital value of natural systems into Canada’s statistical tracking system. Better, of eight targets under goal B, we fall short on only two: the sustainable and legal harvesting of fish and aquatic invertebrates, and reducing water pollution. Finally, of the five targets under goal A, three look good, but we lag in whole or in part on the two most important: Target 1, that we conserve 17 per cent of Canada’s terrestrial (land and freshwater) area and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas; and, Target 2, that species whose status is secure remain so, while species at risk trend toward recovery. As of 2020, 12 per cent of land and 13.1 per cent of marine areas are protected—the latter a win based on new Indigenous conservation areas.

 

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A northern green frog in Haliburton. LESLIE ANTHONY

 

Not that good things aren’t already happening. They are—right across the country. Like a successful $825,000 collaboration between universities, butterfly breeders and conservation groups to reintroduce endangered mottled duskywing butterflies to their preferred oak savannah habitats in southwestern Ontario. Or the new Mark Bass Nature Reserve, comprising wetlands important to flood mitigation and at-risk Blanding’s turtle that adds to a 1,000-hectare patchwork of set-asides in Prince Edward County.

 

 

This past spring, an online Global Biodiversity Festival hosted by Ontario-based Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants convened some 65 live virtual events with scientists, explorers, conservationists and policymakers from 20 countries. Most banged the drum of more protections, more money, more understanding of biodiversity’s role in our lives, but Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF, most clearly summed up the actions needed: Stabilizing climate and biodiversity loss in order to live in more harmony with nature should be humanity’s number one priority. This, he averred, will require a sea-change in thinking: producing more responsibly, consuming more wisely and building a green economy with subsidies and investment in more sustainable production of food, energy and goods. With $44 trillion of economic value—equivalent to half the world’s GDP—dependent on nature according to a report by the World Economic Forum, Lambertini foresees a cultural revolution that puts “the idea that nature is not just beautiful, but indispensable” at the centre of planning. “We need a New Deal for Nature and People—a ‘Paris moment’ for nature if you will,” he said.

 

 

Whatever paths are trodden here, scientists agree there’s only one way forward: a more carbon-neutral and nature-positive world to stop the loss and begin recovering, a lofty goal that will require participation of not just governments, but earth’s seven billion people. And herein lies opportunity: the pandemic-induced will to improve on our performance in protecting biodiversity in tandem with other similarly motivated countries. If the effort goes global, it’s bound to reduce the probability of more severe outbreaks.

Given current political structures and “economy über alles” orthodoxy, however, as we’ve seen with both the current climate emergency and pandemic, even direct threats to human existence offer only fleeting and fractious calls to collective action. But if I’m not holding my breath that things will improve, I’m at least desperately hoping to be proven wrong.

Excerpted from ML Blue Mountains.

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