Caring for ourselves and for nature

June 10, 2020


As COVID-19 tracks across the globe, there have been many recent publications by the conservation community focusing on how nature will be key to avoiding another pandemic. I wonder if the world will listen.  We have seen time and time again how global leaders choose technical and not nature-based solutions. To counter this UNDP has worked out a detailed plan for response and recovery, harnessing nature's power to accelerate progress towards achieving biodiversity and climate goals and the SDGs. I believe that alongside the scientific explanations of the links between deforestation and zoonotic diseases, there is a much bigger relationship emerging; caring for each other. Why is this so important?

Our challenge in sustaining the planet's nature is not lack of knowledge, but lack of will. We know the technical solutions needed but have been unable to turn them into the large-scale actions. The fundamental question we face is why when we know what to do, we do not do it. Whilst I still champion technical solutions to guide us, I increasingly believe we need to harness the power of emotions and beliefs to the facts and figures governing societal decision making.

Studies show that humans are wired to search for and interpret information in a way that reinforces their beliefs and values. If we want meaningful change we must engage with mindsets and beliefs. So if we can line up conservation of nature with what people care about we could crack our ability to make change. But even before we look at the relationship of people to nature we need to look at peoples’ relationships to each other. If people don’t care for each other how will they ever care for nature? Learning about when and why people care is key. If we can focus on the real motivators behind decision making, it will enlighten us on how to improve the effectiveness of conservation measures and we will find the cure for nature. 

So what does motivate people and drive their decision making?  The universal wish to be happy. This is noble. However, the dominant world belief is that happiness is derived from material gain. If I get that big house, I will be happy. If I get that nice car, I will be happy.  But what if this is not correct? Studies show that beyond a minimum income to meet basic needs, happiness is not linked to money but comes from within, and from connection and relationships with people and nature.

What if we could support people to turn from materialism and externally motivated satisfaction to internal happiness? Across the developed world, the pause enforced by COVID-19 is showing people that they can enjoy life at home with reduced consumption, a slower rhythm, more family time, and an opportunity to care about others. Reduced consumption need not mean a negative impact on the economy. We can pay more for food with pricing which includes quality of life for farmers and wildlife. Many would say this can't happen, but look at the many compassionate coronavirus solutions; hasn't the impossible already happened, in so many ways? We are at a crossroads and we now have a unique opportunity.

What if we use what we have learned from the pandemic to find a way to live in a relationship with ourselves, each other and nature that is caring, nurturing and flourishing?

Until recently there was much evidence to show people caring less, not more about each other. Now the pandemic has triggered a wave of caring and compassion. This is the key not only to our recovery from COVID-19 but to planetary sustainability. COVID-19 gives us a glimpse of what could be when our will is aligned around caring for people. Governments have put people first over the economy and have been quick to offer support to those hit hardest by COVID-19. National stimulus packages range from billions to trillions of dollars. Governments have focused on saving lives and on securing employment, providing unemployment and cash benefits to workers and households, and providing liquidity to businesses. Alongside this we see massive volunteer movements; shopping for vulnerable people, running food banks online, and huge sums have been donated to support groups. I have seen it myself as neighbourhood committees offer to help my elderly parents bring in food because they are not allowed to shop. It is so reassuring to know strangers are willing to help.

So let us learn from the pandemic to find a way to live in a relationship with ourselves and each other and then work out how to turn that into a caring, nurturing and flourishing long term relationship with nature.

The UN Development System is switching to emergency mode, helping countries within the coming 12 to 18 months to shore up health systems, prevent a breakdown of food and agricultural commodity systems, restore and build back better their basic social services and other measures to minimize the impact of the pandemic on the most vulnerable populations. Compassion and a willingness to help others is at the heart of this work. Many others are bringing connection, caring and consciousness into their work. Everywhere, citizens are showing empathy, kindness and generosity towards one another. Will it last? We must nurture and grow these green shoots of compassion. UNDP’s integrated approach to improving socio-economic and environmental systems provides an excellent home for this. These are powerful seeds for deep and sustainable recovery, so let's try to make this the foundation for a revolution in how we change society's relationship with nature.

This is the first of a series of examinations of the deeper implications of our approach to sustainability, climate change and social justice. The UNDP Green Commodities Programme works to build trust and collective action through Multistakeholder Collaboration for Systemic Change. That means encouraging changes in mindsets and beliefs, both in how the system works and the potential for changing it. Over the coming months a variety of experts in the field will discuss the human factors behind our work, adding to the growing understanding of why we do what we do.