A Positive Utopia
What could our future look like if we take action now?
The climate crisis is a real threat and we can see its impact almost every day in our lives. So, is it already too late to do something about it? At Treedom we don’t think so! Supported by scientific data and input from international scientists in different fields, we show how our planet could change positively in 5, 10 or 50 years. Provided, of course, that we take action now. In a time of energy crisis, biodiversity loss and war; we give a positive outlook, spreading hope and inspiring people to take action for their own future by making their small contribution to a greener and better planet.
In the third interview of our “positive utopia” series, we are talking to Adrián Escudero who holds a PhD in Biological Sciences and is currently Professor of Ecology at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid. His research interests include plant conservation biology, global change effects and ecological restoration. He has published more than 325 scientific articles. Together with Fernando Valladares and Xiomara Cantera he has published "Planetary health", a work in which they explain that human, plant and animal health are interdependent, and are linked to the health of the ecosystems in which they coexist. Treedom wanted to talk to him to understand the current state of health of people, animals and ecosystems on Earth and, above all, to help us draw a future in which we restore health to our environments and, with it, recover human health.
"The first thing is to be aware that we have a problem. It is very difficult to change things or to establish a regulation that forces us to take certain actions if people are not aware that we are facing a problem. From that awareness, which requires communication and education, we can do many things, some of them quite simple".
Treedom: Why did you decide to dedicate yourself to the field of ecology?
Adrián Escudero: In my case it has been a matter of vocation almost since I was a child: I have always wanted to dedicate myself to science. Even as a child I loved nature. I have always been skiing, climbing and running in the mountains, so the connection was direct. I must also tell you that the influence Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente and the Iberian fauna programmes had on me was certainly not minor. Evidently, we saw the world through TV, we only had two channels and suddenly diversity began to enter through there. So I am also an heir of that communicative legacy.
Treedom: So your taste for the mountains and love of nature television programmes led you to study ecology?
Adrián Escudero: Well, I was thinking of dedicating myself to animals, but at that time I didn't know what ecology was, imagine that! Then, as my career developed, I saw that I really liked mathematics, physics and biology. I feel comfortable with a lot of data and where you can theorize a lot.
Treedom: In your expert opinion, what concrete actions can we as individuals take to move towards a positive future?
Adrián Escudero: There are many things that can be done in a small framework of action such as that of a city council or even a community of neighbours, for example. The first thing is to be aware that we have a problem. It is very difficult to change things or to establish a regulation that forces us to take certain actions if people are not aware that we are facing a problem. From that awareness, which requires communication and education, we can do many things, some of them quite simple. For example, one of the big issues where we can greatly reduce our environmental footprint is by knowing what and how we eat. That basically involves issues related to proximity and reducing the amount of animal-based foods we eat. I am not saying that we do not eat meat, but it should be something exceptional: we cannot base our food on animal-based foods because the environmental footprint they have is very large.
Treedom: Are there any other aspects of the food that we eat that we should take into account?
Adrián Escudero: Yes, proximity issues can also make a difference. In the developed world we are used to living with recurring food booms that some call "superfoods". They may be positive in terms of individual health, but no one evaluates them in a global context. For example, we have to know that if we eat quinoa while it is not produced in our country, it turns out that in places of the planet such as the Andean areas where quinoa has historically been a staple, they are left without this food. If we add this to the fact that bringing these products to our country has an enormous environmental footprint, the conclusion is that we have in our hands a decision with an enormous social and environmental impact. On the other hand, in order to act individually, I think it is necessary to be very aware that biodiversity is important for our well-being.
Treedom: Are biodiversity and our health related?
Adrián Escudero: Indeed. In general people are not aware of this connection, they think that biodiversity loss is a problem but that it does not affect them. On the other hand, today there are many scientific publications that show how diverse environments both on an urban scale and on an individual scale in our own home are healthier. These studies show that far fewer people get sick or have mental health problems in wooded urban environments than in urban environments with lots of concrete. I am not talking about the ecosystem services provided by having a well-preserved mountain range, but the fact that having flower pots in your house or having a green space or a tree-lined street when you come down from your apartment is very important. This is also a relevant point where we can act at the level of small communities, but also at the individual level.
* Scientific studies by ISGlobal show that green spaces - parks, gardens, tree-lined streets or forests, among others - are associated with health benefits such as reduced stress, living longer, better general and mental health, and lower consumption of medication in adults.
Treedom: What else can we do?
Adrián Escudero: We can also be active in issues related to the life cycle of the products we consume, where the most direct thing to do is to participate in all recycling processes. And we can also pay attention to our mobility. I am aware that in an urban environment it is difficult to have the workplace very close by, so people have to move around, but how you get around is very important, and that is where we can reduce our environmental footprint a lot: from opting for car sharing, to using public transport, or limiting areas in cities where you can't drive. We all know that this works, and it works very well.
Treedom: Are all these alternatives you are talking about validated by scientific studies?
Adrián Escudero: Yes, when those of us who work in this field point to concrete actions, we do not say it in the framework of what we think or what could be common sense, but there are studies behind that support and validate that this is the case. That is why we can say that it is possible to act individually: generating a much more diverse environment, as we have mentioned, on a super small scale. And that, in the end, has many positive consequences for you and your family.
Treedom: So, everything you are talking about goes beyond environmental health: does it have an impact on people's health?
Adrián Escudero: Yes, in fact, it is very difficult to separate our individual health from global health, it is an epistemological issue and history is important. In health, medicine has always been focused on the individual and we have not made that leap to understanding the individual as a social being integrated in a community and in a natural and biodiverse environment. That is why everything that ecologists do has remained on one side and everything that medics do is on the other. It has taken the pandemic to make us understand that emerging zoonoses, which are serious individual health problems, are actually closely related to the health of ecosystems and that deforestation in tropical areas has increased the probability of these evolutionary escapes, which are zoonoses. The pandemic has put on the table that health has to be seen in a global way, so we have to heal our ecosystems: that is what is important.
Treedom: Can you give me an example of how individual and planetary health go hand in hand?
Adrián Escudero: One of the first food crises at the end of the last century in Mexico had to do with the emergence of biofuels. Since corn was needed to produce it, the price of corn in Mexico went through the roof. As a result, corn, which was a staple food for many people in the region, became more expensive and generated a food crisis. Just as we have to address biodiversity and health in global terms, any problem we face must take into account that these imbalances can occur. And people should be aware that eating an avocado in our country may be generating a deforestation problem in a forest in El Chaco, or that by eating quinoa that we do not produce ourselves, we are taking away a basic food from Andean regions.
Treedom: What role do global governance decision-makers have in advancing all these issues?
Adrián Escudero: There are many actions that have implications for political decision-making. And in that sense people have the ability to push for change through voting. So we have the ability to go to our city hall and vote for groups that put certain issues on the political agenda.
Treedom: What would you say to those people who think that we cannot change things?
Adrián Escudero: For me the fundamental thing is that people don't fall into hopelessness, because when that happens, you disconnect, and paradoxically that's when you lose the possibility of moving things simply because you think there's nothing to do. I think the important thing is for all people to be active, and that doesn't mean that everybody has to be a political leader, but you can be active at the level of your family, your neighbours and your group of friends. Even this conversation that we have is important.
Treedom: If we really get moving and start acting, what would the planet and Spain look like in 50 years?
Adrián Escudero: What I have told you so far is the simple thing, which is the effects, and we have scientific evidence. If you ask me what is going to happen in the future, we have to talk about modelling exercises. What is certain is that if we were to stop and we were able to stay within that framework of a 1.5 degree temperature increase, there would be many changes like the ones we are seeing, it is difficult for us to be able to return to where we were. But it is true that it would give us a margin to recover ecosystem services and we could reasonably maintain our social functioning and the levels of welfare we have.
Treedom: What can we take as a reference for hope today?
Adrián Escudero: We have just seen that now, at the COP 15 in Montreal, an agreement has just been signed to guarantee 30% of the planet's surface, restore it and conserve it. It seems little, but it is an huge leap because it implies a commitment of all countries to the same goal. You will tell me: now they have to comply with it. Yes, but think that if this framework, this reference, did not exist, it would be practically impossible to achieve it. Not only that, having this agreement actually makes it much easier for the governments of each country to put these goals on the table. By all this I mean that we have many ingredients: our vote is important, acting individually is important, and social leadership on the scale that each one of us can, is also important.
Treedom: And if we look back, are there examples in history that show that we can make a difference?
Adrián Escudero: Things can be done at global or much more local scales. We have the case of the Montreal Protocol for the protection of the ozone layer: the problem was detected, an agreement was reached to eliminate the production of CFCs and the problem was reversed. At present, the ozone hole problem has been overcome and is an example of global governance that had an enormous impact on certain sectors, because they were very common products in industry and there was a lot at stake. However, it was done. On a smaller scale we have seen it with the most endangered feline in Spain: the lynx, whose populations are now growing. It is a clear case of success in which the government, the autonomous communities and civil society were involved. And on a more global scale, in the tropical world, much land is being protected and conserved thanks to money channelled through NGOs.
Like these, there are more small-scale examples that demonstrate the importance of citizen involvement. For example, during the 2007-2008 drought, the most severe in Catalonia, water consumption was reduced by 21%, thanks to the awareness of citizens and the measures implemented by the Generalitat de Catalunya.
At Treedom we have always believed in the power of individual actions that spread and end up generating great changes. That's why we are one more agent that gives people the possibility to make a difference with a single click.