The real question for humanity today is: How do we now advance through and past this COVID-19 pandemic in order to stabilize the health of our ailing patient planet — address the pandemic’s socio-economic crisis, build climate resilience, and recover nature’s broken, fragmented ecosystems? Well, we first take nature’s pulse, and record the biosphere’s baseline. We then assess the dynamics of our human-nature relationship that brought us here today. And, finally we prescribe a new fitness regime, nutrition program, healthy lifestyle, resilient community, and sustainable nature positive business model to build back better.

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Image from our Video Premiered @ Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation Gala 2020

The Biosphere’s Baseline

Globally, 15% of earth’s landmass is protected and 7% of the world’s oceans are protected. (IPBES Global Assessment 2019), while 50% of the biosphere has been transformed into cities, suburbia, farms, roads, recreation, and other human infrastructure; fragmenting habitat for 1–8 million species (Diaz 2019, Our Future in the Anthropocene Biosphere, 2020). Over the past 50 years nearly 75% of the earth’s land surface, 66% of the earth’s oceans, and 85% of the earth’s wetlands have been impacted by humans. Further, 50% of coral reef ecosystems have disappeared entirely (IPBES Global Assessment 2019). Concurrently, our global population has doubled, our global economy quadrupled, and global trade increased by a rate of 10x, while consumption and pollution has increased in train with production, manufacturing, and movement of goods around the world. (The Future of Nature and Business II, WEF 2020)

Humble Bee, Nature’s Reflection Photography
Nature’s Reflection Photography 2020

Nature’s Reflection Photography 2020

“If the humble bee becomes extinct; agriculture will be devastated. If forests diminish further due to fire or deforestation, then carbon emissions and pollution will increase; making masks a permanent feature of our lived reality.” Munir Akram, President of the Economic and Social Council, UN

The latest conservation community figures report that we’ve lost 68% of the biosphere’s wildlife over the past 50 years since 1970. (WWF Intl Living Planet Report 2020) Further, over 50% of the large marine wildlife has gone extinct since 1950. And, now nearly 1 million species on life’s phylogenic tree in addition are either threatened and near-threaten by extinction. (IPEBS Global Assessment Report 2020) The good news is that 80% of those animals at risk are impacted by three economy sectors with the most to gain from nature-positive pathways forward. (The Future of Nature and Business II, WEF 2020) The good news is that we don’t have to over-fish the ocean to the last large marine wildlife species. We can invest in aquaculture operations to grow and harvest the ocean’s bounty in sustainable ways (Peter Thompson, Biodiversity Summit 2020), as the Pacific Island Indigenous Peoples have done for generations.

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Simply, there are 7.8 billion people on the planet using resources faster than nature can restore them, polluting the planet with our non-biodegradable packaging and harmful chemical waste. And the good news is that the point source of the problem- humanity ourselves — are also the solution. As Jane Goodall eloquently summarizes for us again and again in her multiple (no virtual) appearances over the UN Summit — our primary aim must be to engage all local people, Indigenous groups, communities on the ground to be our earth guardians, eco-champions, and partners in conservation. We know that a standing tree is valued more than a dead tree. We know that sustainable forest businesses and management are viable and sustainable economic, resource, and job’s creators. We know we can produce our food with less energy input, in more sustainable ways, and certainly be smarter in limiting the now 33% waste of food throughout the system of production from farm to fork. See the Jane Goodall Institute for practical tips.

Dr. Jane Goodall, Biodiversity Summit 2020
Dr. Jane Goodall, Biodiversity Summit 2020

Dr. Jane Goodall, Leaders Pledge for Nature and People 2020

“We have a small window of time, closing fast, and we need everyone who cares to join us together, now — to stop this 6th extinction happening now by halting the abuse of nature and wildlife, shifting nature’s pendulum back to her balanced center, and acting only in ways that support people and planetary health.” Jane Goodall

The time is now to recover our wonder, awe, and respect for nature as our source-provider-nurturer and to evolve our lifestyles and communities in ways that mutually support Nature’s finely tuned biological life systems. This is the key message of Sir David Attenborough during this nature-focused UN Summit. And as the spiritual male counterpart to Jane Goodall, as well, brother to EO Wilson among other wise elders who will likely soon be with us only in spirit, Sir David shares with the world his witness statement. (Sir David Attenborough, on the eve of St. Francis’ Feast Day, October 4th, A Life on Our Planet)

Sir David Attenborough, Leaders Pledge for Nature and People 2020

Sir David Attenborough, Leaders Pledge for Nature and People 2020

“As millions of animals dazzling in their differences, … work together to sustain each other… if we act now, we can do the same, and put things right again. The time is now.” Sir David Attenborough

Clearly, we are facing a biodiversity emergency. We are also facing a climate emergency. And, both the biodiversity-climate emergencies are linked to our people-planetary health emergency. This health emergency is wedded to our global socio-economic crisis. Indeed, we are in a real jam. But the good news is that as the COVID-19 virus that hacked our geopolitical world is fueled by unhealthy wildlife food capture, unethical containment, and unsustainable trade. We can decide to halt and reverse those practices — begin chipping away at dealing with our climate-nature-health trifecta planetary emergency. And the good news is that nature can be our best ally in building resilience and recovering. Nature is a highly effective shock absorber and nature-based solutions can help us meet at least 30% of our climate mitigation strategies. (Elizabeth Mrema, Executive Secretary, Convention on Biodiversity, Biodiversity Summit) And, the great news is that we can actually employ people to implement those NBS strategies; so saving two odd birds (humans + non-humans) with one proverbial stone…reclaiming the Good Life for all.

Nature’s Reflection Photography 2020

Nature’s Reflection Photography 2020

Now in regards to climate change…tragically, atmospheric carbon is currently at 412.55 ppm (Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii September 9, 2020) even though we originally vowed before Copenhagen’s COP 15 in 2009 as an international community not to exceed 365 ppm (actually 325 ppm to protect coral reefs) of carbon in the atmosphere. Hence, the origin of driven by activist Bill McKibben, now aligned with other activists from this youth generation, like Greta Thunberg (Future Fridays). As carbon and climate are positively correlated and as human-driven atmospheric carbon has increased, it’s no surprise to scientists that we’ve also witnessed the warmest years on record 2015–2020 (WMO March 2020)… and the most extreme, intense wildfire complexes (e.g. Western US and Australia). Of course, these accumulating record high events beg the question: How long exactly can the ocean continue to (literally) take 90% of the heat for our global carbon footprint? No one really knows; but we pray until we humans figure out the carbon neutral game. The IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change — comprised of over 1,300 scientists from around the world) reported from most recent scientific studies — a current global average increase of 0.90C since the pre-industrial period (IPCC Global Report 2019). However, some countries, like Chad, are now recording alarmingly higher 1.70C annual averages. And, World Meteorological Organization’s findings predict a 30C -50C spike by the end of the century if/when concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHG’s) continue to rise and exacerbate the climate-earth system. (WMO March 2020) The truth is we might have slowed human-caused carbon-polluting industrial activities in these past months and taken serious steps toward cleaning our air of particulates, reducing pollution, and stimulating a new climate economy; but we’ve not yet stopped or inverted our carbon footprint to reflect a positive temperate effect. The world as a whole may have reduced its carbon emissions by 17% and in China by 25% during the heart of the April COVID-19 shutdown (Nature and Finance Forum, 2020); but we know that closing the doors of business is not sustainable or sane.

Western Wildfire Sunset, Northern California Nature’s Reflection Photography 2020

Western Wildfire Sunset, Northern California Nature’s Reflection Photography 2020

So if halting business is not our global sustainability strategy goal or viable future pathway, what is? Well, good question. Why not transform businesses into clean, lean, green, service-oriented, net zero carbon and waste, value- generating, agile, local-global, innovative, green job-creating, nature-positive eco-engines? We’ve been calling for this agenda for the past 50 years to build a more equitable and resilient human eco civilization before it’s too late. The good news is that the hour is now late. We have reached the 11th hour…and I choose to believe with Christina Figuerez’s Global Optimism that we are beginning to really rally. Just in time and on cue, the strong economic case has now been made to make that transition. If we do create a nature positive, net carbon-waste zero economy, we are looking at 10.1 trillion USD of business value created and 395 million new green jobs. If we don’t, then 50% of the global GDP is at risk. (The Future of Nature and Business II, WEF 2020) We haven’t yet put the car in reverse and transitioned to a 100% renewable energy driven electric transport universe. But, given the suite of announcements at the WEF’s Sustainability Impact Summit 2020 by leading businesses like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Unilever, P&G, Danone and commitments from leading countries like Canada, Germany, the UK with the announcements of 60 countries making the Leaders Pledge for Nature and People @ the virtual UN General Assembly, Biodiversity Summit — it appears we may now finally be on the right track forward.

Ursula von der Leyden, EU President
Justin Trudeau, PM Canada
HH Prince Albert II of Monaco, UN Leaders Pledge to Nature
Lord Zac Goldsmith, UK Environment, Leaders Pledge for Nature
Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany, Leaders Pledge to Nature
Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany, Leaders Pledge to Nature
President Ivan Duque, Colombia BiodiverCities
PM Xi Jinping, China
PM Xi Jinping, China
Mr. Abdel Fattah al Sisi, Egypt

We’ve also got now a platform for investing in and scaling local innovation for sustainable development through the UN and World Economic Forum’s novel Uplink resource. We’ve got a Strategic Intelligence platform for businesses, governments, and organizations to access current and leading expertise on sustainable development and build knowledge networks, chart decision tree impacts and depict visually high quality information to make better decisions that account for nature and people. We’ve got global banks working together to set standards and better metrics for valuing nature impacts, de-risking carbon neutral investments, and figuring out ways to include the 70% of the workforce exchanging value in informal marketplaces integrated into the global economy through new Fintech — financial digital technology.

Given the right political will and the necessary allocation of resources from dedicated COVID-19’s relief and recovery funds in every country — now directed toward climate-friendly, nature-positive, and energy-resource efficient programs; we can build back a better world for all. (see my Great Green Reset series- Part III for examples)

UN 75 years ago in Muir Woods, Nature’s Reflection Photography 2020
Site of the forming of the UN 75 years ago in Muir Woods, Nature’s Reflection Photography 2020

Finally, as whole ecosystems and individual species necessarily respond to changed climates; it’s no surprise either that in taking nature’s pulse, 2019 exhibited incredible extremes in fires and floods, and that the New Year crowned off Q4 with a global outbreak of the corona virus, which has claimed the global headline for the 2020 Super Decade on Nature until the Biodiversity Summit, even today. And, it’s no surprise that 2020 continues to deliver extreme weather events — droughts, floods, and of course, the wildfires.

The good news here is that nature has spoken, albeit still only softly. There is certainly still more eco-drama to come…. And building back resilient communities and companies now will be key to future-proofing our world. Mountain glaciers, sea ice, and permafrost do not respond to human interest, but nature’s climate… and earth’s ice continues to melt. The vast frozen tundra of Siberia and the Canadian boreal begins to expose pre Ice Age landmass, emitting carbon, changing water reserves, cycles, and salinity; potentially already causing irreversible and unstoppable positive feedback loops. Further, no one really knows exactly how the thermo-haline conveyer belt wrapped across the world ocean will be impacted by a 20C or 30C world. And, no one really knows how the anticipated release of CO2 and CO4 from increased permafrost melt — spanning across Siberia will offset all the nature-positive 1 trillion tree planting activities now underway across the globe. (That said, I do remember a conversation with Tom Lovejoy at his home in the US nearly 15 years ago where he shared with me that in 15–20 years time, the permafrost melt of Siberia would be the sleeping giant to awaken the real climate storm.)

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Yosemite, Nature’s Reflection Photography 2020

What we do know is that we observe stream, river, and lake ice breaking up earlier in spring; changing the ecology of aquatic ecosystems. We observe plant and animal ranges, migration patterns, corridors, and micro-populations; shifting. We observe trees flowering sooner and marching upslope to replace the alpine ecosystems. We observe grassland and savannah ecosystems responding to changed precipitation patterns and more frost-free growing seasons. We observe record high heat, unprecedented drought, and larger, more frequent, more intense fires… closer and closer to home. (Our Future in the Anthropocene Biosphere 2020NASA 2020) Indeed, the list of ecological symptoms to our anomalously global changed climate regime is alarming, amplifying, and accelerating. It’s time to triage and stabilize the patient; do no more harm, perform the necessary procedures, and begin the healing process.

“Taken as a whole, the range of published evidence indicates that the net damage costs of climate change are likely to be significant and to increase over time.” IPCC 2020

Author, Dr. Catherine Cunningham, Eikosphere
Self, Nature’s Reflection Photography 2020

The Human+Nature Relationship

Simply, we’ve lived too long with the misperception that the biosphere is at our disposal for eternal consumption and waste deposition. Until now, we’ve failed to moderate our population growth rate and rather invest more value and collective compassion in the health, wellbeing, education, and lives of those smart humans who now grace this planet. Until now, we’ve failed to slow down, reflect on, and reign back our human development desires to ensure that as we grew to be a big world on a small planet; the planet could still support us and all other living organisms in a sustainable way. (Johan Rockstrom, Big World, Small Planet 2015 , Prince of Wales, Harmony etc.)

The good news is that now we recognize the reality that the human + nature relationship only works when we value nature, appreciate the unavoidable interconnectivity of all life and our essential dependence on the earth’s living systems to support our existence. The good news is that as our world has unraveled, we realize now — we better understand that to function well we must follow nature’s principles of reciprocity; and participate in a circular flow of energy, food, and resources in a zero waste, symbiotic way.

UN Biodiversity Summit

The good news is that many world leaders in the 75th UN General Assembly 2020 and Biodiversity Summit 2020 underscored the importance of building our nature-positive economies back with Indigenous Peoples as partners the next 75 years and seven generations forward. During the Leaders Pledge for Nature and People, Achim Steiner, UNDP Director highlighted Indigenous Peoples as the true earth guardians who have generational knowledge of their bioregions and legacy rules and relationships to protect the health of people and nature; such that 80% of well-functioning, wild nature ecosystems are currently under their stewardship and care.

The good news is that the future of nature and business is positive. In a bio-based economy; again we stand to create 10.1 trillion USD in business value and create over 395 million jobs by 2030 (WEF Global Report 2020). Conversely, if nature loss increases under a business-as-usual (BAU) COVID-19 recovery scenario; then the global GDP risks losing 50% of its natural capital- the fuel that drives global markets. Forestry and the pollination of food crops alone account for 26% of GDP growth, globally. Will we really have to truck in exotic bees from far away lands to pollinate our almond orchards in California or to paint pollen onto flowering plants, as they now do in parts of rural China? (EU Green Deal Video) This is not a naturally intelligent way to work or partner with nature.

World Economic Forum, Sustainable Development Impact Summit

“Nature really is everyone’s business.” (Dominic Waughray, World Economic Forum’s Sustainability Impact Summit 2020)

The good news is that world organizations are embracing the opportunity to initiate a Great Reset and political will is rising to meet this Planetary Emergency. As well, world leaders who have been beating the human+nature drum over the past decades, like the Prince of Wales, who wrote a beautiful book called Harmony (above), now have their time in the sun to share their well-thought visions of a bio-based economy. Like ancient indigenous seeds waiting patiently in the dark, cool earth, underground; the Prince of Wales’ vision for transitioning to a nature positive economy is now ripe for emergence during this planetary emergency. I’ve written many times about the Prince of Wales multiple point plan as it evolves and takes form. (Nature-Climate Economy and Natural Intelligence: Nature’s Capital and Great Reset: All the Difference in Davos) Here is the latest iteration at the opening of the Biodiversity Summit 2020.

Prince of Wales, Harmony

1. Implement an effective polluter pays principle to accelerate decarbonization and drive a green economy.

2. Accelerate and scale carbon capture storage in nature and engineered to buy us time.

3. Establish a trusted and global carbon offset market; and fold in the NBS solutions to have the co-benefit of restoring nature and recovering biodiversity loss.

4. Tackle perverse subsidies to fossil fuel companies, exploitative fishing operations, and unsustainable, industrial agriculture; while pivoting to maintain food security.

5. Create a global ecosystem market that measures soil carbon and improves water quality and includes those externalities in the value exchange.

6. Advance sustainable urbanism — restoring the rural-urban balance, protecting both food systems and bioregional natural assets.

Finally, the good news is that if you forget all else — — remember this: Everything we need to know about rebuilding a global green, nature positive economy we learned in kindergarten.

Tread lightly on the land, be conscious of your impact on other toes (for Mother Nature always knows), give back more than you take, take only what you need, include everyone, celebrate the beauty and abundance of nature, share what you have with those who have less, value and respect everyone, drink lots of pure spring water, eat only energetically rich, healthy food, breathe deeply, smile often, laugh a lot, and remember always to say “thank you”.

“Making nature healthy again is key to our physical and mental wellbeing and is an ally in the fight against climate change and disease outbreaks. It is at the heart of our growth strategy, the European Green Deal, and is part of a European recovery that gives more back to the planet than it takes away.” Ursula von der Leyen, President of the EU Commission

Natural Intelligence

This series is dedicated to my many friends, colleagues, innovators, and world shakers-shapers who have demonstrated committed leadership on climate and nature for many decades before COVID-19 forced us to wake up.

Dr. Catherine Cunningham, PhD, Natural Intelligence Media is committed to awakening Natural Intelligence in the World. She produces multimedia content — books, films, interactive media, and podcasts with her creative companions that aim to inspire everyone, everywhere to live a happy, healthy, naturally intelligent life.

Visit our Natural Intelligence Website HERE.

Listen to my Naturally Intelligent by Design Podcast, featuring strategies from animals in our world to adapt to disruptive environmental change. HERE

Listen to our Natural Intelligence Worldwide Podcast HERE.


  • Catherine Cunningham, PhD

    Mission Possible: Awaken Natural Intelligence in Our World

    Natural Intelligence

    Dr. Catherine Cunningham, PhD is an ecologist, anthropologist, writer, filmmaker, and media host producing films, interactive experiences, and online multimedia for international clients who are focused on positive economic, social, and environmental win-win-win solutions to global conservation and climate change.

    Catherine has travelled, written, photographed, and filmed in 70 countries, producing creative films and music videos in support the UN Global Goals and the human+nature planetary health narrative. Visit Natural to see where her work has premiered internationally. Over 20 years, she has interviewed hundreds of global thought leaders to promote sustainable solutions to climate change and conservation in creative ways. Catherine has written numerous articles on climate change, nature, and regeneration. She’s currently writing two books: “Naturally Intelligent by Design” — a fine art science and culture book for families and “Natural Intelligence”— a guidebook for well-navigating a post COVID-19 world by following nature’s principles. Partnering with Eurovision News and Events, Catherine is also an independent media host— producing content on nature, climate, and regeneration; syndicated globally by EuroVision’s News Direct. She is a regular contributor to Thrive Global and Medium. She currently produces communications for the Prince Albert II Foundation and participates in programming @ the World Economic Forum on Climate Change, Nature, and Biodiversity. As an university educator, Catherine taught undergraduate and masters courses in corporate sustainability communications at Arizona State University; global sustainability at Chapman University; biology, ecology, botany, and environmental science at Denver State College and Front Range College. In 2016, she designed one of the first university courses on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (also online), contributing to youth action on the UN Global Goals. She also created a post-graduate program with UNESCO on the MAB (Man the Biosphere) reserves. Catherine earned her PhD in Ecosystem Science at ETHZ in Switzerland, studying climate impacts on mountain ecosystems. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Cultural Anthropology and International Peace Studies from the University of Notre Dame and a Masters degree from Utah State in Ecology. Catherine speaks fluent English and conversational Italian. She loves creative collaboration, media production, mountaineering, outdoor sports, yoga, wellness, and travel.