Valuing “Natural Capital” Vital to Avoid Next Pandemic

Gillespie is a disease ecologist who helped pioneer the “One Health” approach to protect humans, ecosystems and biodiversity. His projects in Africa, including collaborating with Jane Goodall at Gombe National Park in Tanzania, are focused on helping farmers subsisting amid fragmented forests co-exist with primates and other wildlife in ways that minimize the risk of pathogen exchange between species, known as “spillover.” HIV, for instance, spilled over from chimpanzees to humans. Infectious disease and deforestation are the two biggest challenges facing chimpanzees at Gombe today, according to a newly published study led by Goodall and co-authored by Gillespie. 

The Gillespie Lab has a similar project in Costa Rica, focused on bats in fragmented natural ecosystems.

Now, Gillespie finds himself virtually managing his lab’s field projects while also advising global policymakers. “More people are listening,” Gillespie says. “This pandemic has fueled awareness that a One Health approach applied on a grand scale is vital to both local and global economies.” 

Carol Clark of Emory News Center talked with Gillespie on the seismic shifts he says are needed to protect global health and economies against the impacts of pandemics. 

Carol Clark: What do you mean exactly by “natural capital”?
Thomas Gillespie
: Natural capital consists of ecosystems of nature that sustain us. Human activity has driven an overall global decline in natural resources of 40 percent per capita in just over 20 years. Our economies, our health and our well-being are all built upon natural capital. 

There is growing recognition that we are totally dependent on the natural capital of our planet and that perpetual economic growth is not sustainable. We’ve had a false sense that we can simply measure the success of countries and policies through gross domestic product and economic growth, even when it means we are taking loans from nature that we have no capacity to repay. 

The rising risks of pandemics has caught the attention of people who are in charge of economies because COVID-19 is immediately affecting bottom lines. Every country is feeling the pain simultaneously, at both individual and national levels. 

Clark: Is it possible for human development and conservation to co-exist?
: When people talk about development from an economic standpoint it involves conversion of natural resources for profit, often by degradation of ecosystems via mining, timber cutting, oil extraction or clearing for cash crops. But when we talk about development from a sustainability perspective, we’re talking about improving the quality of human life. 

Use of the word “development” in these different ways can lead to a great deal of confusion. The urgency of the coronavirus pandemic is helping to break the silos down so that people from both camps can come together to think about solutions. There is growing recognition that instead of just considering whether a land-use project will impact a certain endangered species, we need to have mechanisms to evaluate more broadly how projects may impact the health of wildlife, people and an entire ecosystem. 

Right now, those profiting from economic development are not the ones paying the costs. The data shows very clearly that you can have a high GDP (gross domestic product) and also have plenty of poor people and a large proportion of a population struggling to survive. There is not a clear linkage between gains in the stock market and the quality of life for the average citizen. 

Clark: How does climate change fit into this “One Health” approach?
: Although many have rallied behind mitigating and adapting to climate change, it’s just one of the troubling vital signs of the planet. Climate change, biodiversity loss and the ever-increasing risks of pandemics are all symptoms of the same illness — our disconnect with nature and associated unsustainable norms. 

We’ve long needed to bring together climate scientists, disease ecologists and policymakers from agriculture, financial and environmental systems to tackle the illness instead of just having them all separately focus on individual symptoms. This shift is occurring, discussions are happening. The challenges are enormous, but at least now everyone has come together at the same table to try to work toward solutions. 

Clark: What are some examples of individual countries taking on these challenges?
: U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to rejoin the Paris Agreement for carbon reductions and set a 2050 carbon neutrality target. That holds huge implications for global climate diplomacy and will also create opportunities to rally behind shared solutions to prevent future pandemics and to safeguard the planet’s ecosystem services upon which our collective future depends. 

Some governments are beginning to remove environmentally harmful subsidies and redirecting incentives for a green recovery. In fact, New Zealand, Scotland and Iceland are recasting their entire economic frameworks to officially prioritize human well-being and planetary health over GDP

New Zealand developed a “Living Standards Framework” to set its budget. Bhutan now shapes policy to advance what it calls its “Gross Happiness Indicator.” Similarly, the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund — the Norwegian Government Pension Fund — has divested from 32 companies involved in unsustainable palm oil production. 

These kinds of initiatives are leading the way to build a better future together.