The idea of protecting nature for its intrinsic value is thousands of years old. Early civilisations celebrated the sacredness of wilderness and humanity’s obligation to care for the natural world. Sixty or so years ago, however, the notion of simply conserving nature because of its beauty or pristine state started to radically change. The US biologist and writer, Rachel Carson, initiated thinking about how by destroying nature humans were also jeopardising their very existence. Carson did this through her work on pesticides, and it was continued with the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden, the first international meeting that was focused on the environment.
As environment experts once again assemble in the Swedish capital to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the original “groundbreaking gathering”, the International Red Cross (IFRC) and the WWF have come together to push the importance of protecting nature for more than simply its intrinsic value, but also as a solution to safeguarding communities from the worsening impacts of climate change.
“Man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself,” Carson told the broadcaster CBS in 1963. A year before, she had published her seminal work Silent Spring, detailing for the first time the devastation caused to nature by the large-scale use of pesticides. In a similar vein, the Stockholm conference, concluded: “Both aspects of man’s environment, the natural and the man-made, are essential for his well-being and enjoyment of basic human rights”.
“I truly believe that we in this generation must come to terms with nature, and I think we’re challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves,” continued Carson. Stockholm was an effort to show the world was capable of such “maturity”. Yet, while governments have, with some limited success, come together to act on the climate crisis, ongoing multilateral efforts to protect flora and fauna have proved difficult.
To say nothing has been achieved in the half century since the Stockholm conference would be incorrect. Some species threatened with extinction have made unexpected, if fragile, comebacks – beavers in the UK, black-footed ferrets in the US, black rhinos in Nambia. But the overall trend is overwhelming negative. From raptors to reptiles, species are in peril everywhere, with scientists agreeing the world is now experiencing the sixth mass extinction. Ninety per cent of the world’s ocean fish stocks are close to or have already passed the point at which populations are too low to replenish themselves. Half of coral reefs have disappeared.
The reasons for this dismal balance sheet are myriad and complicated, but human activity is at the heart of the havoc. “Humans are the only species able to manipulate the Earth on a grand scale, and they have allowed the current crisis to happen,” wrote researchers in the Biological Reviews journal in January. Climate change is one source of anthropogenic pressure on nature. More regular and more intense storms, droughts, heatwaves and floods – which climate science shows will get worse as the world warms – damage, and even destroy, habitats on which humans, like other animals, depend.
At the same time, healthy trees and plants can protect against such harm, insist the IFRC and the WWF in their report published today to coincide with Stockholm+50. A robust environment favours food production and water supplies. But the advantages of protecting nature for human gain exceed these obvious benefits. Mangroves – as Amitav Ghosh writes in his 2004 novel The Hungry Tide – with their “tough and leather” leaves, “gnarled” branches and “often impassable dense foliage” act as natural storm and flood defences. Healthy coral reefs provide a similar service, reducing the height of waves by up to an estimated 75 per cent. Meanwhile, vegetation-heavy slopes, as opposed to over-farmed fields or bare forests, can prevent landslides.
India is no stranger to extreme weather. The inhabitants of the islands in the Bay of Bengal have, as Ghosh describes, always lived with dangerous rivers and the threat of flooding. But the country is now very much on the frontline of climate change and could benefit from the introduction of natural solutions, in the form of mangrove restoration for example. In 2020, India experienced its worst locust attack in decades, three cyclones, a nationwide heatwave and flooding which killed hundreds and forced thousands more to evacuate.
Ritu Bharadwaj, a researcher with the UK-based International Institute for Environment and Development, recently visited Kendrapara and Palamu, districts in the east of India where floods and drought are causing chaos – loss and damage to crops, livestock and farming equipment – forcing people to migrate to survive.
Kendrapara, says Bharadwaj, used to be a fertile and prosperous region, but the impacts of a hotter climate – more frequent cyclones and flooding coupled with sea-level rise and sea water intrusion – mean the land is no longer fit for farming. These environmental changes have left impoverished households vulnerable to trafficking and human rights violations, including forced labour, withholding of wages and slavery-like working conditions. Women are at particular risk of exploitation when left with no other solution but to leave their homes as shelters and sanitation facilities set up for migrants offer them no privacy.
Slow onset disasters like drought are taking a particularly disturbing toll, says Bharadwaj. She describes them as a “silent poison spreading through communities”. Agro-forestry, where trees or shrubs are grown around or among crops or pastureland, could help reduce the severity of droughts, say the WWF and the IFRC, and potentially be a sign that humanity is finally ready to have a more mature relationship with nature.