Fighting supremacy: Wilson and Tutu’s shared legacy
I was 17 years old when during a visit to the Milan Natural History Museum library, I stumbled across one of E.O. Wilson’s thought provoking books, On the Nature of Man. Seventeen years later, my heart was flooded with emotions when Mandela walked to freedom on TV, catalyzing the beginning of the end of apartheid in South Africa. It was also then when I heard for the first time one of Tutu’s passionate speeches.
Two of the greatest thinkers and activists of the 20th century have sadly passed. Although conservation biologist Edward Osborne Wilson and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu could not appear more different, they both dedicated their lives to a similar cause albeit from different perspectives: fighting supremacy, oppression and injustice.
Wilson fought against our delusion that humankind is somehow separate from nature, a view that has led us to self-declaring our supremacy over the rest of life on Earth. This is a view that has led directly to today’s accelerating ecological crisis as well as relentless ecocide. Tutu fought against the way that different groups of humans declare their supremacy over other humans, leading to discrimination, exploitation, dehumanization and genocide all over the world.
History and evolution both teach us that domination doesn’t last long, particularly when it’s abusive and destructive. Balance will be re-established — sooner or later, peacefully or painfully, intentionally or naturally. Social systems, once broken, often need a long and difficult reconciliation process. Ecological systems can reach tipping points, leading to a change in state — from forests to deserts, from productive seas to dead zones — that will impact life in a dramatic way and may take centuries or millennia to revert.
At a time when the inequality gap destabilizes societies and economies across the world, and the twin climate and biodiversity crises are accelerating so fast that they are an imminent existential threat to life on Earth, there is nothing more dangerous than failing to acknowledge that humans are a part of nature, not apart from it.
If we are to drive the systemic economic and social change that can avert disaster and advance development, we first need a quantum and definitive step change in culture. We must stop taking nature for granted. We must demolish the false dichotomy that sees nature-versus-humans, or conservation-versus-development, as if nature and humans had different needs or lived in parallel worlds.
Achieving a carbon-neutral and nature-positive future is increasingly considered necessary to ensure human well-being, prosperity and equality. Nature conservation is no longer only an ecological issue; it is now increasingly recognized as an economic, human development, and human health issue. It is also a social and intergenerational justice issue, as the most vulnerable populations and future generations will suffer the most from climate change and vanishing natural resources. This is also where individual and collective human rights meet nature’s rights. Whether you choose to take an anthropocentric or an ecocentric view of the world, healthy nature is essential in both cases.
Over the last few years we have seen much-needed convergence between agendas: environmental and developmental, and biodiversity and climate change. This was best shown at last year’s COP26 climate summit, where nature conservation was recognized as an essential part of tackling climate change.
This year, we have the opportunity to strike a ‘Paris-style’ global agreement on biodiversity under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Embracing a clear, measurable and time-bound global goal on reducing global emissions — carbon neutrality or net-zero by 2050 — has proven crucial to align governments, business and civil society in fighting climate change. We now need the equivalent goal for nature to tackle the other and equally dangerous twin crisis, nature loss.
Many leaders have already taken steps to show their support for such a goal. Under the stimulus of a Leaders’ Pledge for Nature signed by 93 heads of state and the President of the EU Commission and committing to reverse nature loss by 2030, a global goal for a nature-positive world by 2030 is gaining traction. That means committing to have more nature than there is today by the end of the decade. More forests, more fish in oceans and rivers, more pollinators in the countryside, more biodiversity worldwide — a nature-positive world!
After decades of accelerating nature destruction, this is an ambitious and disruptive goal. It will force us to rethink our relationship with nature, and redefine our economic model. It’s also essential, because it’s the only way to sustain human development in the future and to preserve the progress we have achieved so far. We won’t be able to defeat hunger, eradicate poverty or achieve any other of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals on a degraded planet.
Science-based ambition is of the essence. In his more recent book, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, Wilson made the scientific case for half of the planet to be kept in a ‘natural state’ in order to avoid ecological collapse. Far from what some mistakenly perceived, this is not an anti-people vision, excluding humans from half of the planet. On the contrary, it should be seen asa call to preserve and sustainably manage a healthy and productive natural world as the necessary basis for a prosperous and just future for humanity, and it has inspired a growing coalition of governments and non-state actors to support a goal of conserving 30% of all land and waters by 2030.
Today, we are conserving — with varying degrees of success — only 15% of lands and a mere 8% of the ocean. The so-called “30X30” objective is in itself ambitious and disruptive. In order to achieve it, we will not only need to identify and conserve Earth’s most precious natural places but also design inclusive conservation governance models, and reduce the economic and social pressures by transitioning sectors like agriculture, fishing, forestry, mining and infrastructure development — that today are responsible for much of our nature loss, from deforestation to overfishing.
As crucial as it is, a spatial conservation target (30X30) alone won’t solve our problems in the long term. Wilson’s vision of ‘Half-Earth’ protected or sustainably used, needs in fact to be explicitly coupled with an inclusive approach to nature conservation, and an overall deep system change of our current economic and development model which needs to shift from linear to circular, from wasteful to sustainable, redirecting financial subsidies and investments inspired by our new double compass on climate and nature: carbon-neutral and nature-positive.
A deep transition has already started in the energy sector. Indeed, the fossil fuel economy is being disrupted by divestments towards renewable energy. We need to see that same disruption happen in the other economic sectors driving biodiversity loss, ensuring that the transition is just and leaves no one behind; in fact, delivering as much social and economic progress as ecological conservation and restoration. Today, these two dimensions are inextricably linked. The days when we could develop our economies at the expense of nature are over. A new era, the carbon-neutral and nature-positive era, is here. An era where nature is an ally to humanity, not an expendable commodity or an impediment to its development.
Tutu and Wilson’s visions of a just and equitable future for humans and all life on Earth can only be achieved in a stable, healthy and productive planet: a Living Planet for all.
Director General: WWF International