A very important science-policy symposium is taking place in London at the end of the month. Hosted at London Zoo, run by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), it will discuss Safeguarding Space for Nature and Securing Our Future, post-2020. The number of wild animals on this planet has halved in 40 years—an utterly staggering figure when you stop to think about it–and there are no signs of recovery. This is a call to do something.
Renowned American Biologist, E.O. Wilson, proposed a radical idea a little while ago that we allocate 50% of our planet to wildlife. Seem farfetched? When you consider that we’re on the brink of the sixth mass extinction event of our planet’s history, it suddenly seems like, in fact, it isn’t enough. The Anthropocene or Holocene era that we now find ourselves in is a time marked by the dominance of human activity on our planet’s vital homeostasis. No longer can nature do that remarkable thing it’s always done so well where it brings itself back to balance. No, unfortunately, we’ve inflicted far too much damage. From climate change to widespread plastic pollution, we need to do something huge to turn things around.
The upcoming symposium will (hopefully) be a creative, honest, and open space for some of our brightest biologists and conservation strategists as well as policy-makers and business leaders to agree upon something bold that truly will trigger a U-turn in the rates of extinction and habitat demise that we’re currently seeing. Its aim is to review the science, evaluate the repercussions of different policy options and recommend the most viable path forward from here.
So let’s say that we did allocate half of our planet to the great wild world. What then? Assuming that the natural flora in those habitats will eventually replenish, this means a much greater percentage of vegetation on our planet’s surface area. More vegetation means more carbon dioxide absorption and therefore less trapped in the atmosphere causing climate change. I’m down with that. But what about pollution? Evidence of our plastic consumption, for example, has thieved even the Arctic of its “pristine” status. How do we control this? By our actions on the 50% we still colonize of course! It’s time once and for all to clean up our act.
But as well as being good for the continuation of our planet (kind of an important one!), I’m interested in how we might benefit from expanding wild zones in the ways that aren’t so obvious. How would it benefit our mental health for example? There’s abundant evidence that nature is beneficial for our mind, body, and soul, but I’m curious about the effects of being in wild nature. Nature where you’re not top dog. Nature where you have to stay on your toes. Nature enriched by the presence of wild animals, many of which are natural-born predators. This is wilderness that hasn’t been carefully planned within the confines of a square fenced zone, but rather the great outdoors.
Side Story. I am a big fan of camping and have been doing it for years. I couldn’t even begin to count how many times I’ve spent the night in a tent… But all my most memorable trips, when I stop and fondly reminisce, were ones that had one thing in common: an element of danger to them. (That makes me sound like a badass risk-taker and I’m really not btw). There’s something about having to build a bear bag and dangle it off a cliff so that you don’t get savaged in the night, or lying awake to the sound of some unknown animal that you hope won’t kill you snuffling around the outside of your paper-thin fortress that puts things into perspective and puts life back in check. Is that petty thing you were worrying about really worth your time? The question I pose to you is this: how good is it for us to be so damn safe all the time?
Many are saying that obsession with health and safety is killing science and it might well be. But I think it’s killing the soul. Being out in the great outdoors teaches us a wealth of information about problem-solving, focus, and taking responsibility for ourselves that we simply can’t get from sitting behind a desk. There is risk, but there is massive payoff. Plus, it promotes teamwork and altruism. Especially this wild wilderness that I’m talking about. It boosts every single aspect of emotional, mental and physical health and facilitates connection and community.
If we’ve eliminated most of our wildlife, including top predators such as big cats, wolves, and sharks–just to name a few–from the environment, there’s more than a tad to worry about. Predators keep the entire ecosystem in check by controlling populations lower down the food chain. Take the important relationship between sea otters, urchins and kelp forests for example. Kelp forests off the coast of California provide a rich ecosystem for all kinds of animals to thrive in, plus serve as a carbon sink for greenhouse gas emissions. However, urchins can wreak havoc by chowing down on the seaweed fronds until there’s literally nothing left. The well-loved sea otter does wonders for this habitat by feeding on urchins, keeping them in check so that the kelp has a fighting chance. We see relationships like this throughout our planet’s ecosystems.
With habitats in check, we see an increase in biodiversity, or the number of different species all coexisting. This results in a much healthier and more beautiful ecosystem. And we need beauty. It’s incredibly important for our mental health. Numerous studies have shown that a beautiful environment makes us care more about preserving it. And through caring, we can gain a sense of pride and purpose, which is incredibly fulfilling and a major factor in our happiness. Sounds like the dream, right?
With an opportunity to dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, bring back our natural predators, balance our ecosystems and give us a much-needed mental health boost, what do you think about giving half of our planet to wildlife?
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