• Ecosystems find balance across complex networks of interactions, interdependencies, niches – disrupting this can trigger ripple effects with far-reaching consequences.
  • It’s time we reassess how we treat the natural world if we are to avoid similar disasters like the COVID-19 pandemic in the future.
  • Protecting the natural environment is as much a socioeconomic activity as it is a biological intervention.

Natural ecosystems find balance across complex networks of interactions, interdependencies and niches. Disrupting this balance can trigger ripple effects that have extreme and often far-reaching consequences. It is easy to forget our place in the natural world as we drive across a city to drop our children off at school or meet colleagues remotely via a Zoom call, but we are both part of nature and deeply reliant on the balance it provides. But change is happening, and it is time we begin working in partnership with nature to ensure it is a world that meets all of our needs.

After signs of abating, particularly across Europe, COVID-19 cases are rising again in countries that had looked to be getting a handle on the disease. Elsewhere, other countries remain in the full throes of the first wave. It has been an event that has changed the world. I hear even the scientists on Antarctica are practicing lockdown rules to prevent the disease reaching the last unexposed continent on Earth!

To a lesser or greater extent, societies have worked to adapt and limit the spread – although of course this has exposed deep-seated social inequalities in terms of those who have been able to self-isolate – and it now comes down to global ingenuity and cooperation to help the vaccines reach as many people as possible.

The World Health Organization is still gathering evidence to pinpoint the exact origins of COVID19, but it has already been designated as zoonotic – a pathogen that has jumped from an animal to a human, with possible links to the wildlife trade. It has been our encroachment of nature that has caused many devastating human diseases, including ebola, rabies and bird flu, and so it is time we reassess how we treat the natural world if we are to avoid similar disasters in the future.

Problems on a larger scale

Playing out on a much larger scale and with far greater, long-lasting consequences, climate change is also resulting from our behaviour towards nature. It stems from our attempt to dominate nature, through our digging up and burning of fossil fuels (organic materials laid down in sedimentary rock strata hundreds of millions of years ago) and from our drive to convert natural environments for food production and urban areas to meet our growing needs; forgetting in the process that it is the natural environment that provides the circumstances conducive for life in the first place.

Today, record-breaking wildfires are devastating communities the length of the western United States. Here in Indonesia a relatively wet dry season has spared the country from the worst of the annual ravages of fires. But all of us here are keenly aware of the choking effects of the haze – typically caused by the burning of drained peatland.

Meanwhile, people living in many island nations and low-lying, coastal countries are already experiencing rising sea levels from the melting of the polar ice caps, and many more communities will be displaced as it continues in the near future.

Just as with COVID-19, poorer countries and communities will be hit disproportionately harder and sooner by the climate crisis, with the effects being significantly more extreme if we do not act effectively now.

Of course, there are things we can do now, and in many cases already are doing now, to avert the extremes of climate change. Globally, the priority needs to be for governments and corporations to decarbonise the energy sector, industry, transport and manufacturing. We must treat resources, and therefore consumption, sustainably. And we must conserve and restore the natural environment rather than depleting it.

All of this needs to be done while ensuring there is enough food to go around; while we work to stamp out inequalities; and while we support thriving communities.

Protecting the environment

Conservation and restoration of nature is where my focus lies, and it may surprise some that protecting the natural environment is as much a socioeconomic activity as it is a biological intervention. Long gone are the days when someone decides to protect a forest, erects a large fence around it and posts guards to keep everyone out. Instead, how we protect nature today is by working to change attitudes, behaviour, livelihoods and lifestyles.

What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

It’s an annual meeting featuring top examples of public-private cooperation and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies being used to develop the sustainable development agenda.

It runs alongside the United Nations General Assembly, which this year features a one-day climate summit. This is timely given rising public fears – and citizen action – over weather conditions, pollution, ocean health and dwindling wildlife. It also reflects the understanding of the growing business case for action.

The UN’s Strategic Development Goals and the Paris Agreement provide the architecture for resolving many of these challenges. But to achieve this, we need to change the patterns of production, operation and consumption.

The World Economic Forum’s work is key, with the summit offering the opportunity to debate, discuss and engage on these issues at a global policy level.

The drivers of deforestation are overwhelmingly economic, therefore one of the crucial parts of conservation is to transform economies that are based on destructive activities and replace them with sustainable practices that work in partnership with nature.

At a local level, this means engaging closely with communities, taking the time to understand local needs and working together to encourage environmentally positive livelihoods, be it through the provision of micro-finance, support for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), or the creation of smallholder cooperatives.