Milken Institute Global Conference: How much trouble is our planet actually in?

Taking part in a global conference in Los Angeles was a deeply fulfilling experience that left me with hope for the future and practical steps for progress.

It was an exceptional privilege to be invited to speak at the Milken Conference in Los Angeles recently and be part of a panel speaking about the Sixth Mass Extinction.

Al Gore - Milken Conference, 2018

With speakers over the two-day event such as Al Gore, Tony Blair and our beautiful bear friend Dr Dame Jane Goodall, the conference was both interesting and profoundly important.

Jane Goodall

The title of our panel alone should see us all shuddering at its reality - and the fact that, with over 7.6 billion people on this earth, we are ravaging this planet at a rate far greater than it can sustain.

The speakers I joined were passionate and persuasive in equal measures. Moderator Melissa Stevens kept us all wonderfully on track, and invited Paul Bunje from Conservation X Labs, Thomas Meredith of Brightstar Capital Partners, Captain Planet Foundation Chairperson Laura Turner Seydel and I, to offer solutions to ensure the survival of the human species and how best to muster the allies and political will to accomplish it.

Panel - Sixth Mass Extinction

Paul Bunje, Co-founder of Conservation X Labs, summed up the situation when he said:

“What’s hard to wrap your head around is not just that there is a single species responsible, but how much worse it is than the other mass extinctions. We’re seeing species being lost at several hundred times the natural rate and that is several fold more than any other mass extinction.”

Take sharks. While so many people feel threatened by sharks, the fact is that, as an apex predator, they keep our oceans healthy and balanced. They have survived four mass extinctions over millions of years – but they might not survive humanity. Up to 100 million individuals are killed each year, mostly for shark fin soup.

Researchers tell us a huge number of animal species, including those which are not endangered, have suffered reduced populations due to habitat loss, hunting, pollution and climate change. Our systematic annihilation of so many of these species – without due consideration of their place on this planet – may see our eventual demise.

I believe the survival of the human species is dependent on our relationship with, and our protection of, the animal species with whom we share this earth.

Take bears for example.  

 As a keystone species they disperse seeds and fertilise the forest, helping it to grow and restore. As an umbrella species they keep other species healthy and robust in the ecosystem by hunting the weak and sick, and keeping the forest cleaner by opportunistically eating animal carcasses. This protects other species, including humans, from bacteria and pathogens that would otherwise pollute the forest environment and spread disease. As an indicator species, a healthy bear tells us that the rivers have fish, the forests are flourishing, and that the land we share is in balance.

And yet, we hunt these creatures and so many other mammals mercilessly and greedily while ignoring the science that continues to amass, that tells us what we are doing is wrong.  

When we consider that less than 3% of the world's oceans and less than 15% of the world's land are protected, we must acknowledge that too little is being protected, and too little is being done. The human race is fanning out across the globe to the detriment of most animals, while we repeatedly ignore the reality that protecting animals protects us.

According to a study led by biologist Felisa Smith of the University of New Mexico and published recently in the journal "Science", humans have been killing off the biggest game animals for millennia, and trophy hunting is still sending the biggest land mammals into the endangered zone, with little hope left for saving them from extinction.

According to the study, their new analysis contradicts arguments that climate change drove the extinctions of many animals, such as North American camels, several species of rhinoceros, the North African elephant and saber-toothed tigers.  

We read all the time of trophy hunters who say they contribute to charity of the local communities with the huge amount of money they give in return for the "prize" of their trophies. This is so often not the case when the vast majority of these funds ends up in officials’ pockets and never reaches the people on the ground. If hunters really care about the local communities and genuinely want to help them, they would give the money directly to needy communities and leave the animals in peace.

Former astronaut, Buzz Aldrin, speaks to the panel from the audience

So, what must our call to action be?

During the discussion, Paul Meredith of Brightstar Capital Partners vouched for technological solutions that can engage the next generation with the natural world they rarely interact with,when he said:

“We need the population to have the awareness, and the way to do that is to combine the physical and the virtual in an augmented way, because that’s how it will really change.”

Also on the panel, Laura Turner Seydel, Chairperson of the Captain Planet Foundation, advocated democracy as a method to make governments make the changes we want to see:

“We have to hold our elected officials accountable. We have to vote for clean air and clean water and healthy food for the sake of our children because it is their inheritance.”

Seconding this, I believe a practical response is to quote an ancient Chinese proverb:

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now.”

Let's start by planting metaphoric trees of change in our personal lives. We already know that a meat diet is the number one destroyer of our planet. Number two is transportation, but even 25% of that transportation is meat transport. In 2010, a United Nations report said, “a global shift towards a vegan diet would be vital to save the world from hunger and the worst effects of climate change”.  

That conclusion is hardly surprising considering that 70 billion animals are being raised for food annually across the world (many of them under horrendously cruel practices), while people are starving for the lack of the same grains that are grown to feed those 70 billion animals.  

A shocking 90% of rainforest destruction is caused by animal agriculture, and 55% of the fresh water in the USA is used for animal agriculture, while just 5% is used in homes. How can we blindly continue our current habits, when we know these facts?  

If we can embrace a plant-based diet into our lives, we can turn such significant destruction around.

Water, the giver and preserver of life, can be saved in huge quantities. It takes 1,000 gallons to produce a gallon of milk, 900 gallons to produce a pound of cheese, and 2,400 gallons to produce a pound of beef. With just 25 gallons of water needed to produce a pound of grain, what we can do to mitigate our enormous footprint stomping on this earth is obvious and profound.

With the volume of plastic waste, including our universal use of one million plastic bags a minute, over eight million tonnes of plastic are entering the ocean each year. Alarmingly, more plastic than plankton is found in some waters of the world. When we spend three seconds stirring the coffee we've just bought using the plastic stirrers on the counter, consider that after we throw it away, that same stirrer will be around when our great great grandchildren are growing up.

From changing our diets to reducing our reliance on single-use plastics, small but significant steps will see great change if we start with our actions now.

At the conference I also advocated people make the time to watch these three profoundly important films:

Earthlings, produced by my friend Shaun Monson and narrated by American actor Joaquin Phoenix. This is a difficult film to watch. Harrowing and compelling, Earthlings forces us to think of our actions which are leading to incomprehensible cruelty and environmental pollution, with conclusions that beg us to change.

What the Health, a film with case studies referencing diet and medical concerns, from doctors who fully advocate a plant-based lifestyle and also expose corruption within the pharmaceutical and intensive farming industries.

Finally, A Plastic Ocean, produced by another friend Jo Ruxton, showing our horrific waste of plastic, the sheer awfulness of what this same discarded plastic does to our oceans and animal life – and now, as it enters our own food chain with unknown health effects on the human species.

For the sake of bears, and all those animals' lives that we mercilessly exploit and snuff out, let us think seriously now about our impact on their lives, and about the benefit of their lives to ours – and leave them peacefully and deservedly to their one life.

Finally, I owe thanks to my dear friend Richard Thoburn as well as Jayne van Hoen, the Milken Institute Executive Director of Events, for so kindly helping to facilitate and sponsor my stay in Los Angeles. It was an incredible experience being exposed to so many fantastic ideas and inspirational people, setting the path for greater opportunities and progress into the future.

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