Coronavirus: ‘Nature is sending us a message’, says UN environment chief

31 March 2020

A tree stands alone in a logged area prepared for plantation near Lapok in Malaysia’s Sarawak State. (Photo: Saeed Khan / AFP / Getty Images)

According to UN’s environment chief Inger Andersen, nature is sending us a message with the coronavirus pandemic. In an exclusive interview with the Guardian newspaper, she said humanity was placing too many pressures on the natural world with damaging consequences, and warned that failing to take care of the planet meant not taking care of ourselves.

“Never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals to people,” she told the Guardian, explaining that 75% of all emerging infectious diseases come from wildlife.

“Our continued erosion of wild spaces has brought us uncomfortably close to animals and plants that harbour diseases that can jump to humans.”

She also noted other environmental impacts, such as the Australian bushfires, broken heat records and the worst locust invasion in Kenya for 70 years. “At the end of the day, [with] all of these events, nature is sending us a message,” Anderson said.

“There are too many pressures at the same time on our natural systems and something has to give,” she added. “We are intimately interconnected with nature, whether we like it or not. If we don’t take care of nature, we can’t take care of ourselves. And as we hurtle towards a population of 10 billion people on this planet, we need to go into this future armed with nature as our strongest ally.”

John Vidal, a former Guardian environment editor, writes that many of the great conservationists, like Jane Goodall, David Attenborough and Chris Packham, recognise that the near tripling of human numbers in the past 70 years, along with the huge increase in the consumption of resources by the wealthy, have been responsible for the collapsing ecosystems, the climate crisis and pollution.

… very few people want to admit the inconvenient truth that population is a primary driver of global ecological crisis. Most political parties and environment groups are afraid to talk about it because it smacks of prejudice against countries with higher birth rates. How much easier to close the debate and blame all biodiversity loss and climate change on the rich for their profligate lifestyles.

Consumption matters, of course, but so do sheer numbers. World population, which currently stands at 7.5 billion, is increasing by 82 million people a year and looks likely to reach 11 billion … Sustaining another 3.5 billion people, or an extra India and China, will inevitably impact on climate, oceans and forests, and deplete natural resources. Many in areas of high growth want fewer children but cannot access contraception.

However, population growth, resource consumption and environmental impact are closely linked, and there is little chance that the great extinction of species the world is seeing and the climate emergency can be turned round unless they are addressed together.

As David Attenborough says: “It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us. The natural world is doing it for us right now.”

Final Warning Limits to Growth

An Interview with Dominant Animal author Paul Ehrlich

Sir David Attenborough on Overpopulation

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