Humanity’s survival depends on reconciliation with nature: UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay (News24 Exclusive)

“It produces an immense sadness to think that nature speaks while mankind does not listen.” This phrase, written long ago by French poet Victor Hugo, is even more relevant today than it was then. At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic threatens our lives, we must not forget that, in many respects, we are the authors of our own misfortune.

Climate change, the collapse of biodiversity, the decline in the health of the oceans, the depletion of natural resources … the multiplication of crises clearly shows that we cannot continue as we have been doing. Our relationship with nature and the living world, based on domination and exploitation, has already disturbed about 75% of the world’s ecosystems and 40% of the marine environment. 

The global rate of extinction of species is already at least tens of hundreds of times higher than the average of the last 10 million years, and it is accelerating: almost one million of the eight million existing species of animals and plants are threatened of extinction. This cannot continue.

The scientific evidence demands a radical change, a total revision of our relationship with nature and the living world. It is not an option, but a necessity for our survival.

We must allocate the necessary efforts and resources to protect and restore ecosystems, whether natural or managed by man. Through negotiations under the Convention on Biological Diversity, some countries are already working to protect 30% of the world’s land or sea surface by 2030. Fortunately, the 252 natural World Heritage sites, 714 biosphere reserves and Unesco’s 161 world geoparks cover 6% of the earth’s surface.

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It is also necessary to make a profound change in the modes of production and consumption. We cannot continue destroying nature to generate GDP. The new collective framework of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) states that poverty, inequality, human rights, education, health and ecosystems must be addressed. We must also be innovative and imaginative and devise other ways of inhabiting the Earth.

We must also listen to those who have always considered nature as our past, our present and our future: indigenous peoples. Their rights must be recognized and protected, as their unique, traditional knowledge is a key source of solutions for the protection of ecosystems.

Finally, we must communicate and sensitize the population. To protect and respect the living world, it is important to use the transformative power of education and include ocean science in curricula. Because through education we can obtain long-term results. For this reason, environmental education should occupy a better place in the school curriculum and teacher training, and Unesco is committed to doing so. Rather than protecting a part of the Earth’s surface, our purpose is to reconcile the entire population with the living world. Given the key role that biodiversity plays in the economy, health and our well-being, this means making concern for the environment fundamental in our decisions and actions.

This radical and complete change does not mean abandoning our humanistic values or ideas of progress, on the contrary: the most vulnerable are precisely those who suffer the most from the consequences of climate change. Let us remember that without environmental justice, there can be no social justice.

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It is time for humans to understand that we do not own the Earth, but we depend on it. In order to share a common world, we must make the protection of nature a priority for our societies … or suffer the bitter consequences.

(The writer is Director-General UNESCO. This article is a News24 exclusive.)

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