For large numbers of people, especially those who live in overcrowded urban areas where only the odd parks serve the small patches of greenery, nature is something somewhere.
Many city dwellers have come to see nature, if they ever think of it, as an amorphous entity that is divorced from their daily experiences in urban metropolises. Who can blame them? According to the United Nations, more than half of the people on the planet (55%, to be precise) live in urban areas. By 2050, more than two-thirds of the world's growing human population (or about 68%) will live in towns and cities, according to UN projections.
Today, the most urbanized regions include North America (with 82% of its population living in urban areas in 2018), Latin America and the Caribbean (81%), Europe (74%) and Oceania (68%). The level of urbanization in Asia is now approaching 50%. In contrast, Africa remains primarily rural, with 43% of its population living in urban areas, ”according to the UN
Millions of people in urban areas have some experience of the natural world beyond artificial urban habitats only when they go on vacation for a week or two once or twice a year. Millions of people do not have this benefit, since they lack the financial means to travel and go on vacation.
Along with our separation from the natural world it has become widely seen as a simple reservoir rich in resources that we can exploit at will for our own needs. Forests can provide us with wood. The plains and hills can provide us with even more agricultural land. The oceans can provide us with fish and other types of shellfish.
However, if there is one thing that the current COVID-19 pandemic has made clear, it is that we are destroying nature at our own risk.
There is some evidence that the new coronavirus, which causes the life-threatening disease, may have jumped off pangolins. These placid scaly ant hills have been driven to the brink of extinction throughout their ranges in Africa and Asia simply because their TCM practitioners mistakenly believe that their scales have medicinal properties.
What is clear is that wildlife markets in China and elsewhere have been breeding grounds for disease by bringing various species of wildlife closer to each other and to humans in unsanitary conditions. Whatever the origin of the new coronavirus, it cannot be denied that the relentless illegal wildlife trade, rampant deforestation, and other environmentally destructive practices have increased the risk of similar pandemics, not to mention other man-made calamities.
"There is only one species responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic: us," underline scientists from the Intergovernmental Science and Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in a public statement. "As with the climate and biodiversity crises, recent pandemics are a direct consequence of human activity, particularly our global financial and economic systems, based on a limited paradigm that values economic growth at any cost," they explain . "We have a small window of opportunity to overcome the challenges of the current crisis, to avoid sowing the seeds of future ones."
Experts have highlighted rampant deforestation, rampant infrastructure development, and the uncontrolled expansion of agriculture and intensive farming as some of our especially destructive practices. These and the exploitation of wild animals "have created a" perfect storm "for the spread of diseases from wildlife to people," they note.
The solutions lie in complying with much more respectful practices with the environment in the coming years and decades.
"First, we must ensure the strengthening and enforcement of environmental regulations, and only deploy stimulus packages that offer incentives for more sustainable and positive for nature activities," say the experts. “It may be politically expedient at this time to relax environmental standards and shore up industries such as intensive agriculture, long-haul transportation such as airlines, and energy sectors that rely on fossil fuels, but to do so without requiring fundamental and urgent change, essentially it subsidizes the appearance of future pandemics ".
For a stark example of the colossal environmental devastation of rampant deforestation, we need look no further than the islands of Borneo and Sumatra in Southeast Asia. Local forests are among the most biologically diverse habitats on the planet. They are the natural habitats of such iconic and unique species as orangutans, pygmy elephants and Sumatran rhinos.
All of these species are now critically endangered due to poaching and extensive habitat loss. In recent decades, most of the local forests have been devastated by logging, while vast tracts of pristine rainforest have been converted to oil palm plantations and agricultural land. Even many of those remaining forests have been greatly reduced and fragmented.
“A century ago, most of Borneo was covered with forests. But the region has lost more than half of its forests, and a third of these have disappeared in the last three decades, "says the World Wide Fund for Nature.
"The increase in these activities corresponds to a growth in the illegal wildlife trade, as the cleared forests provide easy access to more remote areas," adds WWF. “Only half of Borneo's forest cover remains today, down from 75% in the mid-1980s. With a current deforestation rate of 1.3 million hectares per year, only peat and mountain forests will survive in the coming years ”.
Nature's situation is only slightly better in the world's oceans, where numerous marine species have been fished to the point of near extinction, while man-made activities such as plastic pollution are having equally devastating impacts.
Meanwhile, climate change is devastating coral reefs in tropical waters that are rich and biodiverse habitats. Coral reefs are home to a quarter of all marine species, despite occupying only 1% of the ocean floor. The combined effects of warming temperatures, acidification, water pollution and mass tourism have dealt a blow to many of the world's corals.
Time is running out for life on the planet as we know it. Unless we change our ways and quickly, we will be left with an Earth that is just a sad shadow of the majestic planet we have inherited.