Brilliant and skillful in its storytelling, the emotions Our Planet evokes are all at once awe-inspiring, mesmerizing and heart-wrenching. This gripping portrait of the critical condition of our planet highlights key conservation issues, which can be boiled down to one problem: our world is becoming less wild.
The statistics are as disconcerting as they are sobering—40 percent of Arctic sea ice is gone, the number of wild species has halved in the last four decades and about half the world’s forests have disappeared. As icebergs crumble into the sea and ancient forests are stripped of their resources, as wildlife numbers plummet and the human population skyrockets to an estimated 10 billion by the end of the century, we might be asking: What can we do? How do we put an end to our unsustainable practices and halt the devastation we have wreaked upon the earth? How do we get back in balance with nature and achieve a sustainable existence? In short, how do we save our planet?
While the planet is indeed in trouble, and human nature is anything but perfect, we have the opportunity to change, to rectify our misdeeds, to re-wild our world and to restore our home. We can make changes in our daily lifestyle and reduce our environmental impact, creating a future in which both people and wildlife thrive, by taking the following steps:
It’s no secret that cattle ranching is the single largest threat to the deforestation of the Amazon. A tremendous amount of our freshwater and land space goes to producing beef, pork and poultry, and the meat industry is encroaching on forests and converting grasslands at an alarming rate. We have the power to reduce our daily water footprint, eat more sustainably and minimize food waste. Plant-based proteins continue to develop and grow in popularity. When looking at what produce to choose, you can support sustainable agriculture which requires less space, reduces demand for freshwater and leaves more room for wild biomes. When grocery shopping, seek out seals such as Rainforest Alliance Sustainable Agriculture Certified, Fair Trade Certified, Demeter Certified Biodynamic and USDA Organic.
Our seas are suffering, and unsustainable fishing practices are depleting our waters. Bottom trawling scrapes everything from the ocean floor, and vulnerable species often become tangled in fishing nets, ending up as bycatch. Sought-after bluefin tuna and many other species are now endangered due to overexploitation. However, conservationists are coming up with ever-more creative ways to stop illegal and unregulated fish from entering the market. Properly managed oceans are showing us how protected seas produce more fish—a win-win for marine life and people. You can support the health of our oceans by shopping for sustainable seafood with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Salmon Safe labels.
It is clear we need a global plan to revive our oceans and other life-giving support systems. But as Our Planet wisely acknowledges, when seeking answers, we should recognize that nature is dynamic and the solutions will be complex. It will be a multistep process to save our seas—if we want to protect marine life, it will not only be by stopping overfishing but also by addressing the problems of underwater noise pollution, agricultural runoff, oil spills, plastic debris and ocean acidification from climate change. There is a multitude of factors as to why our oceans and other ecosystems are suffering, spurring us to take an integrated approach to conservation. Switching to sustainably caught seafood is one step in the right direction.
The melting of sea ice due to a rapidly changing climate is a potentially catastrophic disruption. Phytoplankton grow under the ice, which krill graze on. Fish eat krill, seals feed on fish and polar bears feast upon seals. If the ice melts, the entire Arctic marine food web risks disappearing altogether. In addition, the traditional lifestyles of 40 indigenous groups in the Arctic are currently threatened by unpredictable ice—humans are not immune to environmental consequences. Just as climate change is affecting Arctic ecosystems, which I learned firsthand during an expedition to see polar bears with Natural Habitat Adventures, the warming atmosphere is also contributing to the deterioration of the páramos, the only wet tropical alpine tundra, which I rode across on horseback years ago. From the places I have traveled to my home—all are under threat. Phasing out fossil fuels and replacing them with renewables will not only slow the warming of the planet and the acidification of the ocean, but it will provide us with clean air to breathe—air pollution is currently the greatest environmental hazard to human health. You can reduce your carbon footprint by taking public transportation, carpooling, biking or walking to work or school. Investing in green energies like solar and wind will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so assess the electricity you use and switch to a clean energy option where available.
Our lives are reflected in that of other species. Just as we rely on our parents at birth, orangutan infants are sheltered by their mothers in the ancient rain forests of Borneo. Orangutans risk extinction as their home is converted to palm oil plantations, and as forests fall, it is not only these great apes that suffer but human beings as well. Hurting their home hurts ours, as the world’s jungles provide us with clean air to breathe and fresh water to drink. Though humans may have largely removed themselves from wild landscapes, residing in high-rise cities and suburban complexes, we cannot escape the inevitable truth that our futures are linked with that of the natural world.
But instead of extending gratitude and respect to Mother Earth, for too long we have taken advantage of her resources and at times left her barren. As Sir David Attenborough states in Our Planet, “Every time we clear a patch of jungle…a strand of the intricate web of life is gone.” By reevaluating what products we use and choosing those only made with sustainable palm oil we can make a difference. Next time you’re at the store, search for the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) label.
A common theme in Our Planet is interdependence. Desert storms blow mineral-rich sands across the ocean, fertilizing rain forests. In turn, the trees produce life-giving oxygen and generate rain. These biological realms rely on one another, and we see this symbiotic relationship replicated in a myriad of patterns throughout our world. Yet due to human activities, ripples have been felt throughout many food chains, and entire ecosystems have been disrupted. In Russia’s boreal forests, deer survive the winters by browsing on pine nuts and are preyed upon by Siberian tigers. The logging of pines is causing deer populations to fall as they lose their dietary staple, and as a result the forest’s top predator faces hardship.
Our Planet urges us to develop a new world view—instead of seeing forests as a force to be reckoned with, we are encouraged to work in tandem with their natural processes. Rather than clearing land for logging, ranching and mining industries, we have the capacity to shift the paradigm and reframe our thinking to match a new environmental model, one that benefits from the forest’s biodiversity and utilizes both scientific and traditional knowledge. In the village of Lham Ujong in Indonesia, restoring mangroves has helped clean the water, raise fish yields, bring back waterfowl and shelter the coast from tropical storms. Cacao farms in Cameroon coexist with the surrounding rain forest, which provides shade and harbors medicinal plants in its depths. Costa Rica’s jungles, once diminished to 20 percent of their former cover, have been brought back to support a flourishing ecotourism industry. Agroforestry, pharmaceuticals and ecotourism are all examples of the mutual benefits to be had when forests are managed sustainably. You can help by purchasing wood and paper products from well-managed forests. Look for eco-friendly items that certify they have been made with responsibly harvested wood, such as those with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) label.
6. Recognize Local Communities as Valuable Sources of Environmental Knowledge, Then Volunteer in Your Own Community
Indigenous communities are often most directly affected by environmental destruction—in South America, the Ayoreo people in Paraguay’s Gran Chaco and the Emberá in Panama’s Darién rain forest are clashing with ranchers, who are clearing land for cattle pasture. With native people at the forefront of such conflicts, it makes sense they would, in turn, be the best guardians of the forest. As Our Planet elaborates, when local communities are given the power to control their own reserves, a “great ecological restoration” can begin. Take the Xingu people who reside at the headwaters of one of the Amazon River’s tributaries, for example. When the river started to dry up due to deforestation from ranchers and soybean farmers, 400 indigenous women set out to collect seeds for distribution to recover the rain forest.
We can draw from lessons like these and enact change in our own communities. Plant trees, help out at an urban farm or community garden, find a local riverbed clean up project, volunteer with an environmental nonprofit or advocate for elected officials who support environmentally sound policies. You can be a voice for nature, and there are endless ways to do so.
7. Get out into nature, and inspire those around you
When watching Our Planet, I was at once struck by the beauty of our earth and devastated by the loss of such incredible biodiversity. On a personal level, I mourned the salmon runs blocked by dams in Washington State, where I grew up. As a child, I watched in wide-eyed excitement as the spawning fish filled the streams of the coastal rain forests. Life in the Pacific Northwest revolves around salmon—an essential part of traditional culture and a food source for so many creatures. Similarly, I feared the plans for a mega-hydropower dam that would affect the fishing communities living on the Mekong-fed Tonlé Sap Lake in Cambodia. I remember staying in one of these floating villages and wandering through the nearby temple complex of Angkor Wat at sunrise, pink streams of light outlining the palace in an ethereal glow. Humans are incentivized to protect the places they have a personal connection to. So, remember your favorite nature spots, those that have touched you—perhaps it’s a sea turtle nesting beach from a trip you took when you were little, maybe it’s a forest glen aglow with fireflies in your backyard—and find ways to help preserve them. Let this bond further motivate you to inspire a love of the environment in younger generations, family members, friends and coworkers. Working for Natural Habitat Adventures, the travel partner of World Wildlife Fund, has allowed me to do just that. By bringing people to wild places and creating deep connections with the regions we visit, we foster a love of nature in our travelers. We are a small part of a great chain of influence, one that makes humans want to help, whether by donating their time or money or simply by passing along stories of the beauty of the earth, which in turn inspires others to care.
As environmental change escalates, it is up to us to determine our future. We must work hard to conserve the wild populations we have and encourage nature wherever we can. There is hope for recovery, and the stories illustrated in this series display that fact, but it is imperative that we act now and act together. If governments, communities and individuals—people at every level—become ambassadors for conservation, we have the chance to preserve our natural realms and their life-giving forces before it is too late. Take the pledge for Our Planet and join the effort to save our world.