23 October 2020
We live in turbulent times. Most countries are still battling the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused so much suffering and loss of life and has disrupted global economies. In addition, there is a far worse threat to our future—the climate crisis. Unfortunately, we have brought these nightmares upon ourselves by our violence against nature and animals.
We have destroyed forests and polluted air, land and water, including our oceans, with agricultural, industrial and household wastes. We are building dams and roads and an endless number of shopping malls. Our reliance on fossil fuels has led to the release into the atmosphere of unprecedented amounts of carbon dioxide, a major component of the greenhouse gases that are trapping the heat of the sun. A warming planet has caused changes in weather patterns everywhere. Polar ice is melting; sea levels are rising; and devastating hurricanes, typhoons, tornadoes, floods, droughts and fires have become more frequent and destructive.
Intensive farming is poisoning the environment with chemical pesticides and fertilizers, destroying wildlife habitats to grow grain. Irrigation in places not suitable for farming is draining the great aquifers. Much water is used to transform vegetables into animal protein. The billions of animals involved in factory farming produce methane, another major greenhouse gas. Moreover, factory farms along with the wildlife markets of Asia, the bushmeat markets of Africa, and the trafficking of animals and their parts around the globe to sell as food and medicine, or to drive the trade in exotic animals as pets, are all creating ideal conditions for a pathogen to jump from an animal to a person, where it could become a new zoonotic disease such as HIV/AIDS, Ebola, MERS, SARS—and COVID-19.
More and more people are realizing that as we emerge from the pandemic—as we shall—and go back to business as usual, abusing mother nature and plundering her finite natural resources, we could end up joining the ranks of those animals and plants that have gone extinct at an unprecedented rate. Our disrespect for the natural world, of which we are a part and on which we depend, threatens our own survival
So how can we avert disaster?
We must alleviate poverty, for the poor will fell the last trees in order to grow food or make money from charcoal. The urban poor cannot afford to question whether the things they buy caused harm to the environment, or are cheap because of child slave labour or inappropriate wages. They are merely trying to survive.
We must change the unsustainable, materialistic lifestyle that most of the rest of us follow. We can afford to make ethical choices and ask, “how does what I do now affect the health of the planet and future generations?”
We must bring discussion of the growth of the human population and their livestock into the open. There are some 7.2 billion of us on the planet today, and already in some places we are consuming the planet’s finite natural resources faster than nature can replenish them. It is estimated that there will be some 9.7 billion of us by 2050. And as we help raise people from poverty, they will understandably seek to emulate what they see as the desirable but sadly unsustainable lifestyles of the rest of us.
We must work towards a new relationship with the natural world and a new “green” economy that will provide many jobs. If we fail, conflicts between people will worsen—already people are fighting for water rights as freshwater supplies dwindle, and climate refugees are swelling the numbers of the millions fleeing armed conflict.
I have faith in the resilience of nature if we give it a chance. When I began studying chimpanzees in Tanzania in 1960, the tiny (35 sq. km) Gombe National Park was part of the forest belt that stretched across equatorial Africa. By 1990, Gombe was a tiny island of forest surrounded by bare hills. There were too many people for the environment to support and they were too poor to buy food elsewhere. They were forced to cut down trees on even the steepest slopes to grow more food or make charcoal, causing erosion and mudslides in the process. I realized that if they did not find ways of making a living without destroying their environment, we could not hope to save the chimpanzees. So the Jane Goodall Institute initiated a holistic, community-based conservation programme that we call Tacare. In addition to restoring fertility to the degraded farmland, it includes introducing permaculture and water management projects, improvements to health and education facilities, scholarships to give girls a chance to move into higher education, and microcredit programmes for people to take out loans for environmentally sustainable projects. We provide workshops to train villagers to use smartphones to monitor and protect their village forest reserves—home to most of Tanzania’s remaining chimpanzees. Knowing that protecting the environment is not only to protect wildlife, but their own future, the people of this region have become our partners in conservation. Today there are no bare hills around Gombe. Animals on the brink of extinction have been given another chance. There are so many projects of this type around the world.
Then there is the extraordinary human intellect. Scientists are coming up with amazing new technologies to help us live in greater harmony with nature, and we, as individuals, are working out ways to reduce our own environmental footprints.
Finally, we see the energy, commitment and enthusiasm of young people once they understand the problems and are empowered to take action. The Jane Goodall Institute’s environmental and humanitarian youth programme, Roots & Shoots, enables its young members from kindergarten through university to choose their own projects to make the world a better place for people, animals and the environment—for all are interrelated. This movement, in partnership with other youth programmes with shared values, is now operating in more than 65 countries. As it began in 1991, many of the original members of the programme are now adults, some in decision-making positions.
Young people are growing organic food in their school gardens, learning about permaculture and regenerative agriculture, recycling and reusing, collecting trash, and spreading awareness about the illegal trade in wild animals and their body parts. They are volunteering in shelters for abandoned or rescued animals and in soup kitchens. They are raising money to help victims of natural disasters. Older members are educating younger children about the importance of protecting the environment and how animals are not merely things but sentient beings, individuals who can feel fear, despair—and pain.
It is encouraging to see the growing trend towards a plant-based diet, which is better for our health and the health of the environment, and alleviates the horrible suffering of millions of sentient, individual animals.
In response to consumer pressure for sustainably produced products, many companies are changing their practices. And big business often has the power to influence government policies.
Around the world millions of people are planting millions of trees and protecting and restoring forests and other habitats.
All of the measures set out above are reflected in the ambitious United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Among the Agenda’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are serious, practical objectives for maintaining the planet, its wildlife and its resources for the benefit of present and future generations. As the Organization celebrates its 75th Anniversary this year, which has been marked by a global pandemic and global fear, we are all called to renew our sense of solidarity and hope.
The world’s children and youth are no longer passive beneficiaries of hope but are often also its motivated ambassadors. A new United Nations photography exhibition, now also offered virtually, celebrates the last 75 years of the pursuit of a healthy and peaceful planet. It features images of life and resilience, and the role of our incredible youth. A few of these stunning photographs are featured in this article. I would encourage anyone seeking a sense of hope for our future to experience this exhibition however they can.
Perhaps the most important message is that each one of us can play a role in creating a better world—every day.
The photographs featured in this article are part of #TheWorldWeWant, a global photo contest hosted and organized by mobile app Agora in support of the 75th anniversary of the United Nations.
The UN Chronicle is not an official record. It is privileged to host senior United Nations officials as well as distinguished contributors from outside the United Nations system whose views are not necessarily those of the United Nations. Similarly, the boundaries and names shown, and the designations used, in maps or articles do not necessarily imply endorsement or acceptance by the United Nations.