The break that the pandemic has forced us to take could be the starting point for a better affinity between human beings and nature.
In many parts of the world, the slowdown caused by the pandemic is visible: people have abandoned urban centers and move around much less, animals seem to be making themselves at home in the streets, and air quality is better. The activist ecologist Vandana Shiva, one of the guest speakers on the panel “Unlocking Human Potential for Biodiversity” organized by Space for Life and the UN’s Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, mentioned that with our less polluted sky, she could now see the Himalayas, located 300 kilometers from her home in Delhi. These changes are hardly surprising, since in her words, “nature has resilience and can bounce back very fast.”
According to the ecologist, biodiversity is part of the solutions for health problems, including the next pandemics. For instance, urban sprawl and deforestation increase the chances of the transmission of an illness from an animal to a human. As much research has been demonstrating for 20 years or so, biodiversity and human well-being are linked together. Nevertheless, the loss of biodiversity is continuing at a great pace.
The other guest experts on the panel made the point that collective initiatives in support of the environment can be an agent of change. During this pandemic, moreover, we’ve seen that it was possible to greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions through limiting travel by automobile and by air. Still, it takes the right motivations to carry out these actions in the long term, warns Stanley Asah, associate professor in conservation psychology at the University of Washington. “COVID has initiated some things for us, that all we have to do now is make sure that we continue to work with those and move forward…. During the pandemic, people have become conscious of the importance of that connection with nature, and appreciate it more. That is a motivation that may help us do things differently in the future. We do have a strong baseline set of motivations to continue to do things differently.”
Feeling wonder and taking action
To stimulate that citizen action in favor of biodiversity, Anne-Sophie Gousse-Lessard, a postdoctoral researcher in social and environmental psychology at UQAM, put forward a number of ideas for those who champion the environment, including that of providing tools and guiding people in their efforts to become well-rounded ecocitizens. “Instead of focusing on the problems that need to be solved, we should instead talk about a positive relationship with nature and pass through the stages of wonder and discovery to understand that human beings are part of a system bigger than themselves.”
Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk and instigator of a number of humanitarian and nature protection projects, emphasized that, once we’re appreciative of the environment, more altruistic behavior results. “If you’re filled with amazement by the wild part of the world, you’re going to respect what amazes you and not devastate it.”
Bringing nature to town
Should the development of cities be reconsidered in order to be closer to nature? That was one of the ideas advanced by Stanley Asah. He pointed to the example of cities in Germany. “Most of the sizes of cities in Germany are smaller. Ecological spaces are all around them. And when nature is present in an urban environment, a strong feeling of belonging to the community is created. The bigger the city, the smaller the sense of community becomes.” Planting trees, opting for renewable energies and erecting more energy-efficient buildings ‒ the transition to a greener model after the pandemic is currently under way in a number of urban centers.
Already, megacities like Mexico City, New York, Paris, Berlin and Montréal are seizing this opportunity for a “green” economic recovery and freeing up more space for cyclists and pedestrians ‒ on the one hand to comply with social distancing, but also for the sake of maintaining an environment and an air quality that citizens of big cities have rediscovered during confinement. One thing is certain, the pandemic will shape the design of future cities.
On the occasion of World Environment Day, on June 5, 2020, and for which Montréal was host city for North America, Space for Life and the United Nations’ Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity organized the event “Unlocking Human Potential for Biodiversity” to reflect on the state of things and to imagine the future of our planet as well as coexistence among species, of which human beings are part. In that framework, four panelists from different backgrounds were invited to address the theme of human potential in identifying solutions and making a difference.
- Anne-Sophie Gousse-Lessard Ph.D., researcher in social and environmental psychology and committed citizen
- Matthieu Ricard Ph.D., author and initiator of humanitarian projects
- Stanley Asah Ph.D., associate professor, conservation psychology
- Vandana Shiva Ph.D., ecofeminist and founder of Navdanya