“And the second thing that really gives me hope is that I have seen what happens when we give some space to nature. I have seen nature bounce back, mostly in the ocean. And the ability of nature to recover is spectacular. So, if we just give it some space, she will come back and she will continue proving for humanity and for the rest of life on the planet.” — Enric Sala, Explorer in Residence at the National Geographic Society
Matthew Bishop (MB): Hello, welcome to Books Driving Change with me, Matthew Bishop. Today I’m talking with Enric Sala, Explorer in Residence at the National Geographic Society, who has written a terrific new book, The Nature of Nature: Why We Need the Wild. And I’m talking to Enric about why we do need the wild and many of the calls for action that he makes in the book.
But Enric I’ve known for many years as an extraordinary enthusiast for nature and a practical person who has really led important work to save large amounts of the ocean in particular, in their pristine state through his Pristine Seas initiative, which I’m going to ask him about a bit later as well.
But for this audience of people who are committed to building back a better world, I think there could be no better practical guide to some of the challenges of nature of which there are many: preserving our climate, preserving our planet in a healthy way, than Enric. So, I’m going to ask Enric, to kick us off really by saying in a sentence: Why should people who are interested and committed to building back a better planet, why should they read your book?
Enric Sala (ES): Well, first of all, thank you so much, Matthew, for having me on your podcast. I think people should read The Nature of Nature to understand why it is in our best interest. And it’s for our health, our economy, our happiness, and well-being, why it is in our best interest to protect the natural world that’s around us.
MB: I think that’s a very interesting starting point that this notion, I think that’s often out there, is that somehow it’s expensive to save the planet. And therefore, that’s the main reason we’re doing such a bad job of doing it, because it really would require us to accept worse standards of living and a poorer environment, or a poorer set of choices in our daily lives, than if we actually invested in saving the planet, but you made the case very powerfully in the book around the economics of nature: that actually, money invested in nature is actually money that will repay itself in economic terms many times over. Can you just talk a bit about why that is?
ES: Yes, well, we’ve been told to believe in a myth for so long, which is that we cannot protect more of our planet, we cannot protect more of our land and ocean because we have to grow the economy, we have to feed the 10 billion people that are coming. But this is a fallacy. Because everything we need to survive – the food we eat, the oxygen we breathe, the clean water we drink, the stability of the climate, that allows us to live on this planet, everything is dependent on the work of other species. And we have destroyed so much of nature, that the world, the natural world, cannot absorb our impact anymore. So, what we have been doing is unplugging our life support system, little by little, and we have reached a point – we have already reached the point – where unless we plug that system back in, there’s going to be no future for humanity as we know it.
MB: You do address this question also through a moral lens, making the case that the main religions of the world have historically made: the importance of not destroying the world, but often also with a duty of stewardship in there. But that combination of the moral imperative and the economic imperative, both of those have been sort of beaten back by the consumerist myth that you talk about. What are you seeing that encourages you to think that we’re getting on top of this problem, or could get on top of this problem, and start investing properly in nature?
ES: There are so many reasons why we need to make sure that we have a healthy natural world. It’s in our best self-interest, and also, what right do we have to drive other species to extinction? If you are religious, the natural world is part of God’s creation. So you have a responsibility to protect it. This is what Pope Francis wrote in his encyclical letter, Laudato Si’, in 2015. Saying that, loving the natural world, protecting the natural world, is showing love for God. If you are a scientist, and you don’t believe in God, then you have the biosphere, the living layer of our planet: it is an absolute miracle regardless, because we have this extraordinary diversity. We’re talking about 9 million species of plants and animals, and probably a trillion different types of microbes that live together, interact with each other, and make this planet work. So no matter how you look at it, it’s a miracle. And there is a moral imperative for us, the most intelligent species on this planet, to make sure that we protect something that is unique in the known universe. But then you mentioned the economics. We hear also that we cannot afford to protect more nature, because of the economy. Well, you know, there is no economy on the moon. Society is what created the economy, and society depends on the healthy natural world. And the science is pretty clear that we need to protect half of the planet, if we are to prevent the extinction of a million species, and the collapse of our life support system, and if we are to achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. So we can start with protecting at least 30% of the planet by 2030. And the cost of doing that would be less than what the world spends today on video games.
MB: Wow. So simply what we spend on video games, that budget would more than suffice in terms of getting the planet into a healthy state.
ES: Well, more than that, because we estimated that we need about $140 billion per year to manage a global network of protected areas, covering 30% of the planet. So $140 billion dollars per year is only a fraction of the money that governments use to subsidize the industries that pollute our air, cause global warming, and destroy the natural world; the life support system. So if we just redirected some of these harmful subsidies into conservation, we would have enough resources. But still, for every dollar that governments invest in protected areas, that dollar generates, on average, $10 in economic output. So the benefits far outweigh the costs, even if we just think about economics here.
There is a moral imperative for us, the most intelligent species on this planet, to make sure that we protect something that is unique in the known universe.
MB: In the book, you start by telling a bit about your personal story. And in particular, how you were initially inspired as a kid by Jacques Cousteau. But then, how as you were an academic at the Scripps Institute, you became increasingly frustrated with academia and felt a call of public service that required activism. Can you just tell us a bit about how that change came about? And how you found moving from a world which was not about public service and activism into one that was, because I think a lot of people today as they look at the pandemic, and they look at the poor state of leadership and government in the world, they’re also wondering whether they should get more engaged, get more involved in building back better?
ES: Yeah, well, I changed careers, basically, because of a personal frustration. I was a professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, as you mentioned. And my job was to teach and study the impacts of humans on the ocean, the impact of fishing and climate change. And as soon as I became a faculty member, I was called together with the other new professors. And we were instructed by the Vice Chancellor of Research at the University at UC San Diego that we would be evaluated based on teaching just one class per quarter. That’s enough. And to focus on the research, to publish as many scientific papers as we could, in as good a journal as we could. And public service? Really, just don’t worry about it. We don’t want to bother you with that, really.
So that’s what I did. I published all these scientific papers in these academic journals and one day, I realized that all I was doing was just re-writing the obituary of the ocean with more and more data and more and more precision. So I felt like the doctor who’s telling you how you’re going to die, with a great deal of detail, but not offering a cure. And that day, I asked myself, “Wow, what am I doing here?” The science is very important. But if all I’m doing is just describing how the patient is going to die, I don’t want to dedicate my life to this. And in 20 years look back and ask, “What have we done?” So I decided to quit academia, quit my professional job and work on the cure full time. And this is why I came to National Geographic to propose this idea of Pristine Seas – let’s combine exploration, research, storytelling, policy work, education, to inspire country leaders to protect these places before it’s too late.
MB: And this work with the oceans, the Pristine Seas initiative, that achieved a lot more than I think you probably imagined was possible, in terms of preserving real, untouched seas, parts of the ocean. Why was that initiative so important to you? And what do you think was the reason that it managed to make so much progress?
ES: Well, there were several reasons. When I started, only 1% of the ocean was in protected areas. And now 7% of the ocean is in protected areas. And one thing that really helped was President Obama’s two terms. We had Secretary of State John Kerry, who was a champion for the ocean, and he created something called Our Ocean Conference. And working with him and his team, we made it the platform for country leaders to make announcements, commitments that then would be monitored. And that provided the global platform, the global visibility, for country leaders to make announcements, to create new opportunities.
But also, we realized that data alone, science alone, wasn’t going to be enough: we had to use storytelling, we had to use arguments that will touch the hearts of those leaders. So we reversed what I thought was the model for people to make informed decisions, when I was in academia.
First, we went for the emotional connection. And after that for the rational, which means that we took leaders with us into the field to these amazing places. It’s impossible to get in the water or get in the submersible and see one of these wonderful places and not fall in love with them. And if the leaders didn’t have the time, then we took these places to them, with our documentaries, with our images, with our stories.
And once these leaders fell in love with those amazing places, and realized that they were unique, and that they had an opportunity to do something, to exert some global leadership, then we came with the stuff for the brain. We came with the science and economic analysis, so that the Minister of Fisheries and the Minister of Finance would understand that, actually, this can help me. This protection is not going to come at a cost to my industry or to my ministry.
So, I think that it was the combination of this global political momentum, and more awareness about ocean issues, plus using this combination of the heart and then the brain with a series of leaders that was really visionary.
MB: You tell the story of President Bongo of Gabon, particularly, having a sort of epiphany, whilst being taken on a tour by you in that country.
ES: Yeah, we were off the shore of the northern coast of Gabon and the president came on our ship. And we showed him images of what we had found on our expedition across the country. And he was interested in expanding their incredible network of protected areas, national parks, on the land, to expand on to the sea. And after 45 minutes of showing him what we found and showing him how extraordinary that was, he looked at his watch and I thought, “Uh-oh, we lost him.” But then one of our crew members said, “Mr. President, would you like to use our Remote Operated Vehicle? It’s like this little robot that is connected with a cable to the boat. And you can see what’s on the bottom real time.” And he said, “Sure.” And that was our savior, because he started, like, playing video games with an underwater robot. And the robot ended up in a place, a volcanic rock, that was so full of fish. And we said, “Mr. President, can you put this thing on the bottom?” And then these huge groupers, dogtooth groupers, as big as picnic tables – five of them – came to look at the camera, probably because they saw themselves reflected on the dome. And the president couldn’t believe what he saw: “Well I had no idea that we had these in our country. This is a clear sign that we need to do something to protect these amazing areas.” So that was one example of country leaders seeing firsthand what’s underwater and conforming their approach to the use of the ocean.
MB: When you think about the leaders of the world, who are going to be meeting for COP26, later this year, what lessons can you learn not only from stories like that, but also from your broader experience of trying to protect pristine seas, about how we can get those leaders to be much bolder than they generally have been at these climate gatherings?
ES: Yeah, well, the good thing is that this year, we also have the COP15 of the UN Convention on Biodiversity. And for the last two and a half years, we have been working with a series of countries, and created the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, which is co-chaired by the governments of Costa Rica, France and the UK. And these governments support “30 by 30” as one of the main targets of the new agreement on nature that is going to be signed at this COP.
MB: What do you mean by “30 by 30”?
ES: That means 30% of the ocean, and 40% of the land, protected by 2030. This is the minimum – this is the floor, not the ceiling. This is the minimum amount of the planet that needs to be protected in this decade if we are to avoid an irreversible disaster. So now we have over 60 countries and the European Union supporting this target. So hopefully, that’s going to make climate ambition greater also, because if we want to achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, if we want to get to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, reducing emissions and innovation and technology are going to be key to reduce our emissions.
But we still need to draw down the excess carbon pollution that is in the atmosphere. And the only technology that we have now, that can absorb carbon at scale, is nature: trees, forests, wetlands, peatlands, mangroves, kelp forests, healthy ocean ecosystems, so that both the climate and the biodiversity COPs, the two issues, climate and nature, go hand in hand. So on the nature side, we are seeing a momentum now that we have never seen before.
MB: And so you’re hopeful that this year will produce big breakthroughs, big commitments?
ES: Well, just last week [June 2021], the heads of state of the G7 came up with this nature compact, where they commit to protect 30% of the planet by 2030. They realize – they acknowledge – that protecting nature is key for fighting climate change, but also to reduce the risk of future pandemics, because we need to remember that this virus, this Coronavirus, its most likely origin is a horseshoe bat in China. And we’ve seen previous pandemics also coming from animals, like HIV, Ebola, SARS, and others. So, it is our encroaching upon the natural habitat, destroying natural habitats for logging, cattle ranching, mining, or allowing this trade of wildlife that is putting us in touch with these viruses, that means that more protection of nature also will reduce the risk of future pandemics. So having the G7 countries make such a powerful statement is a clear signal that the debate on whether nature is important is past now; we’re getting into action.
When I started, only 1% of the ocean was in protected areas. And now 7% of the ocean is in protected areas.
MB: So you obviously end the book with a chapter that you wrote during the pandemic, about the pandemic, and I suppose – even now – I feel like the public generally doesn’t fully understand the connection between biodiversity and our exposure to viruses of this kind. I mean, could you just spell it out? Very simply, what your message is about, what we need to do in future to manage those risks?
ES: Yeah, well, the natural world is our best vaccine. There’s always been spillover of viruses, from animals to people. But in the past, when the world was not as globalized as now, that created local outbreaks that at one point disappeared. But now it only takes one person to get infected by a virus; it could be a hunter in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who just killed the chimpanzee, which is how HIV came and spilled over to humans actually. Or it could be somebody in a market in China being bitten by a pangolin or getting infected by blood from a bat, or, you know, any time that a worker or a miner is bitten by a wild animal while destroying the habitats. It only takes one of these cases. And thanks to our globalized lifestyle, the viruses, like in this case, spread like wildfire, all over the world. So I think that this pandemic is the loudest wake up call for humanity, the loudest reminder that we are all connected, not just among us humans, but also with all other creatures on the planet. So if we banned wildlife trade, if we protect it – whatever wild is left – and restored much of our degraded land and oceans, we will bring back all that biodiversity, all that complexity, that richness of life on our planet. And the more biodiversity, the less likely it is for one of these viruses to escape into our human world. So it is in our best interest to preserve the world, the natural world that keeps us alive and keeps us healthy.
MB: Now, I think both in practice you’ve been addressing the need for pristine seas to be protected, but also in the book, in terms of when you look at the economics of nature. You are very open to finding ways to create livelihoods for the people who live in some of the areas where recent practice has been to sort of destroy the ecosystem around them because they can make a quick buck out of it and so forth. Can you just talk through that? I mean, I know that at the broadest level it is referred to in the jargon as “ecosystem services.” But I mean, there is this shift now, in thinking about how do you flip the incentives for people living on the ground to to behave as stewards of the environment rather than destroyers of it?
ES: Exactly. This is not, “nature, or people” – this is “nature for people.” We are not apart from the natural world; we are a part of it. And this is not about restricting people’s behavior. This is making sure that local communities will continue living in a healthy, prosperous, rich world. And we have seen it in the ocean, for example, over three quarters of the fish stocks around the world are overfished, meaning we are taking them out of the water faster than they can reproduce. But there is a way to fix this.
One is to protect areas, where marine life will be free from fishing, mining, oil drilling, and other damaging activities. And marine life can come back. I have seen it. I have seen it with my own eyes. I have seen it in the Mediterranean of my childhood. I’ve seen it in developing countries, in rich countries. When we protect an area in the ocean, marine life bounces back spectacularly and on average, based on our studies from all around the world, on average, the abundance of fish increases six times relative to unprotected areas nearby. And these fish not only grow larger, but also they produce a disproportionately larger number of eggs, which together with the spillover of adult fish out of these reserves helps to replace the areas around, so the local fishermen are fishing more now around these protected areas than they did before when they were fishing all over the place. And this we have seen for small species to large species, from small reserves to the large reserves.
One example is in a small reserve, Okunivawa in Fiji, where the locals created a new fishing area. And the population of scallops that they use to fish increased 11 times inside the reserve, and also seven times around the reserve in only three years. So they went from declining catches to increased abundance of their scallops seven times in the area that they were fishing. So these areas are not a sacrifice, these areas are not a luxury for rich countries, these protected areas, especially in the ocean, are like investment accounts with a principal set aside that grows with compound interest and produces returns that we can enjoy sustainably for the long term.
The natural world is our best vaccine.
MB: And do you see the examples of those multiplier effects, I guess you would call them, of conservation, applying also where there have been interventions on land as well as in the sea?
ES: Yes, on the land, national parks are not created so people can hunt more and feed themselves. But protected areas have so many more benefits than just food. You mentioned ecosystem services before, right? So these are the benefits that we obtain from nature. For example, coral reefs protect the coastal areas from the destructive power of hurricane waves. If the reefs are gone, the waves are going to have a much stronger impact on people’s lives and infrastructure. Same thing with mangrove forests that protect the coast from a tsunami wave, for example.
And on the land, as most people know, natural forest or natural grasslands are actually the best insurance against floods. I like to use the example of Cyclone Idai in Mozambique, which a few years ago killed thousands of people. Except in one place: the Gorongosa National Park. That park has natural grasslands that are not over grazed by cows, where they are naturally grazed by natural herbivores, or other wildlife. And these grasslands during the cyclone absorbed rainwater equivalent to 800,000 Olympic swimming pools. 800,000 Olympic swimming pools! That’s a natural filtration that the natural world can do. So that water didn’t go downstream, killing people and destroying villages. So this is just one example of how nature can protect us from floods. It can also protect us from wildfires and other climate disasters. So the more biodiversity there is, the healthier ecosystems are, the more benefits humanity obtains from them.
MB: And as you look at all the things that have been debated this year, in both COPs, what do you think are the biggest opportunities? Is there a particular thing that people aren’t sure about that you feel like they really need to go for?
ES: I think that the key issue is, you know, we have the science. The science is clear. The economics are clear, a world with more protection, a world with net zero carbon emissions, is a healthier world, a more stable, predictable world. And economically, it will be a world with a larger economic output and more wealth. So all the rational arguments are clear. But now we have to deal with one issue that is clearly one of the roadblocks for collective action, which is that today, in this world, where there’s so much inequality, the benefits are concentrated and the costs are diffused, because everybody – all of humanity – pays for the burning of fossil fuels, regardless of how much fossil fuels you are burning yourself. And it is great for big corporations, like oil companies, that are accruing most of the gains, and the costs are diffused among all of humanity.
So what we’re talking about is concentrating those costs and spreading the benefits to everybody. Of course, the industries that are going to lose economically the most from it are the ones that are politically more powerful, and they are going to make sure that change isn’t happening. Right. So this is the biggest thing. This is the biggest roadblock.
So there are opportunities that governments can easily implement. And I mentioned one before, which is that if governments decided to ban the subsidies that prop up the industries that destroy our soil, our oceans, our air, and our health and redirect the subsidies to help countries, especially developing countries, finance the transition to that better world, then that would be a changemaker.
The warning is there, we just use it for the wrong thing, we use it to destroy our life support system instead of to preserve it. So that’s one thing that countries can get together and agree to. If there is the proper financing, I think that no country would disagree that action is required now, to make sure that we keep planet earth as the only place for humanity to live.
MB: Now you’re an explorer. And many of your submissions have included an element of exploring some of the world’s most beautiful places, as part of getting the message across to policymakers and the public. And you actually published an earlier book called Pristine Seas that is a coffee table book, really, with lots of amazing pictures in it, but that also tells your story and makes the challenge for the need for action. What is your next expedition? And what are you hoping to draw the world’s attention to through that? Because I think, like many of us, you’ve actually been locked down and probably sitting home desperate to get out somewhere, to get out into nature, for the past couple of years due to the pandemic.
ES: You’re right, Matthew, I’ve been dreaming for almost two years about going back to the ocean. And actually, the next expedition we are doing is kind of going back to our origins and kind of circling back. In 2009, the first expedition we did under National Geographic Pristine Seas was to a wonderful place called the Southern Line Islands. These are five uninhabited islands that belong to the Republic of Kiribati, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean; nobody lives there. They are so remote. So you go there, you jump in the water, and you are immediately surrounded by sharks. And that tells you that wow, this place is wild, this place is really healthy. The bottom when we were there in 2009, was covered by thriving coral. 90% of the bottom was covered with life, beautiful coral.
But in 2016, there was a massive warming event across the Pacific that, if you remember, killed so many corals on the Great Barrier Reef. Well, even on those pristine reefs in the Line Islands, half of the corals died. So, we thought, “Wow, even the most pristine river that is protected, of course, has no chance against ocean warming, against climate change.”
But we have received some photographs from somebody who went to this island a couple of years later. And the bottom actually was pretty clean, and there were all these baby corals. So it seems that the corals are coming back. So we are returning to the first place that we fell in love with, that pristine place that is for sharks and large fish, to measure its recovery. And what we saw from the photographs suggests that the reef is coming back. However, other places, with people, where they have overfished the reefs where the fish and the big fish are gone, those corals that died during that warming event haven’t come back, they were overgrown by algae and by slime.
So if we are right about this, that the corals are indeed recovering, then is this is pretty powerful evidence that if we protect nature, if we fully protect places from our damaging activities, and allow all these fish and other species to thrive, the place is more resilient, the place is more likely to bounce back after climate change hits them with its warming events.
MB: We’re almost out of time, but I wanted to end by asking you to give a piece of advice to our audience who are people either involved in public policy or public service or thinking about it. What is it they should be most remembering and thinking about in terms of the nature of nature?
ES: In terms of the work, I would say that everything is connected, that tampering with nature in one part of the world is going to affect all of humanity, like this pandemic has shown us. So, it is an imperative that we work on protecting our local areas within countries, but in a coordinated way with other countries. In that way, not only do we avoid costs to everybody on this planet, but also the benefits of protecting an area in one country will benefit people in another country. And when it comes to everybody’s normal life, I would say that something that everybody can do to help themselves, their health and the environment is eat more plants and less animals, because that would release a lot of land, that we would need to produce a lot of the meat that we are actually going to need for our survival, for our proteins and nutrients. And that will also reduce the amount of freshwater that is needed to produce all that red meat. And livestock also produces a huge amount of carbon emissions, methane, mostly. So a plant-based diet, a flexitarian diet, would be good for our health, but also for the planet.
Data alone, science alone, wasn’t going to be enough: we had to use storytelling, we had to use arguments that will touch the hearts of those leaders.
MB: Great. And lastly, you know, I think a lot of people feel quite pessimistic as they look at the future of life on earth. And there’s been a lot of people, you know, yourself, David Attenborough, all sorts of people that we trust as voices for nature, to tell us the right thing. But are you optimistic that we can turn this around? And what makes you optimistic?
ES: Well, I think we should leave pessimism for better times. I have to be optimistic, because I think about this all the time, 24/7. It’s not that I work from eight to five and at 5:30, I’m not thinking about work anymore. This is my life, my passion. And I cannot stop thinking about this.
So to me there are two things that really give me hope. One, is that many countries have already committed to protect at least a third of our planet by 2030. And some countries have already protected more than 30% of their lands or oceans. And they are already benefiting from that. So there is political momentum. And there are countries that have led the way.
And the second thing that really gives me hope is that I have seen what happens when we give some space to nature. I have seen nature bounce back, mostly in the ocean. And the ability of nature to recover is spectacular. So if we just give it some space, she will come back, and she will continue providing for humanity and the rest of life on the planet.
MB: Well, on that optimistic note, Enric Sala, I’d like to thank you very much for sharing your insight and talking about your book, The Nature of Nature: Why We Need the Wild, which I highly recommend to everyone.
ES: Thank you so much for having me, Matthew.
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This transcript has been lightly edited for context and clarity.