This guest post was written by our great friend and Advisor to the GCC Board, Robert Ludke. This blog is the first of a series that explores how climate change, illegal animal trade and other environmentally detrimental activities are contributing to both the declining health of our planet as well as threats to the global population – including the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the past few months a stark realization has begun to sink in: our bodies are getting sick because our planet has been sick for a long time. The COVID-19 pandemic of today is merely another in a line of global pandemics – ebola, SARS, MERS, and bird flu – and there is no reason to believe this trend will stop anytime soon.

While the starting points and the symptoms of each pandemic may differ, the underlying cause is the same: human behavior is weakening the ecosystems that often serve as a buffer between humans and animals that are infected with diseases. As John Vidal, a long-time environmental journalist, and Kate Jones, the Director of the Biodiversity Modeling Research Group at University College, London, recently noted, “ The disruption of pristine forests driven by logging, mining, road building through remote places, rapid urbanisation and population growth is bringing people into closer contact with animal species they may never have been near before.”

Another massive driver of diseases is the trade of wild animals for food, medicine, and to satisfy exotic tastes in luxury goods. The start of the Covid-19 virus has been traced to a “wet market” in Wuhan, China where stores were selling a variety of wild, caged animals such as wolf cubs.

The resulting transmission of disease from wildlife to humans is now a massive – and wasted – cost of human economic development. Instead of investing in our future, we will be spending precious time and scarce resources reacting to the spread of deadly diseases. The Covid-19 virus alone will have a global economic impact well in excess of $1 trillion – just in 2020. That does not account for the lasting economic consequences that will go on for years and, more significantly, the human tragedy that has touched each of us.

Finding a Balance

Despite the inherent risks posed due to increasing contact between humans and wild animals, we simply cannot halt the illegal wildlife trade or stop economic development that uses natural resources or encroaches on ecosystems. With increased international trade laws and dedicated law enforcement, the illegal wildlife trade has moved further into the shadows of the economy, causing decreased regulation of wildlife and associated zoonotic diseases. And as the world approaches a global population of 8 billion, increased resource consumption and anthropogenic land use both heightens the demand for wildlife products while also drastically reducing wildlife habitats.

However, a handful of concrete steps can be taken to ease the damage we are inflicting on ecosystems and begin to rebuild boundaries between humans and animals.

First, we need to absorb the knowledge of indigenous populations. According to research by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), a quarter of global land area is occupied by indigenous populations and those areas are seeing less environmental degradation than the rest of the planet. Indigenous populations know how to co-exist with ecosystems and generate sustainable economic and social development in the process. The UNEP report found that ecosystems in and near indigenous communities are declining at a much slower rate than other ecosystems.

Second, we can deploy better scenario planning with tools already at our disposal. Organizations such as the Natural Capital Project have developed data-driven, scenario modeling tools that help community leaders and developers of projects such as hotels and roads collaborate to find areas within ecosystems that minimize impacts. Furthermore, by starting the decision-making process with data, impacts can be measured over time – which allows for changes in practices if unexpected environmental damages occur.

Third, we need better collaboration across all sectors of the economy. Perhaps even more fundamental than collaboration there must be a greater appreciation for the connectivity that sustains all of us. Communities need the economic benefits that come from commercial activity. Not all business is bad and, when appropriately managed, it creates value for society.

Companies must better appreciate that Earth’s natural resources have a finite limit. If (or when) we run out of bedrock resources such as clean water, timber, and farmable land, economic activity will cease to function as it will become impossible to produce goods and services. Rather than consuming natural resources with pure self interest in mind, businesses must do more to reinvest in nature and give it the time and space it needs to regenerate. They must also better appreciate the mutual dependence between local communities and ecosystems. Therefore, it is in everyone’s best interests to approach economic development from the perspective of connectedness rather than one of competing interests.

We Have an Opportunity

The one thing everyone agrees on at the present moment is that society will never be the same. The way we live, the way we interact with each other, our definitions of value, the role of corporations and government in society will all change.The opportunity is before us to use this “great reimagining” to foster a society that, as Jeremy Lent recently wrote, creates life instead of creating wealth. In that process we must find a way to strike a balance between social and economic development and nature. If not, the next virus – and the crisis that comes with it – is just around the corner. More lives and more livelihoods will be lost – and the cost will be ever greater.

Robert further explores these topics as well as the urgent global need to create sustainable markets and economic systems in his new book Transformative Markets, now available on Amazon. All proceeds from this sale of this book will directly fund the development of a specialized learning track in GCC’s Future Rangers curriculum – “Ecosystem Entrepreneurship” – focused on teaching students to build businesses and communities that balance sustainable economic development with ecosystem preservation.

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