The Current

We must protect 30% of the Earth's land and seas to prevent environmental disaster, says conservationist

Enric Sala quit academia and joined National Geographic to further the cause of conservation. His new book The Nature of Nature outlines why preserving land and oceans are our best means of combating environmental disaster.

Keeping areas of land and sea safe can help tackle climate change, says Enric Sala

Enric Sala and National Geographic's initiative Pristine Seas has so far managed to conserve marine areas measuring half of the size of Canada. (National Geographic)

Read Story Transcript

After years as an academic studying the human effects such on ocean life, Enric Sala had a daunting realization.

"I was studying ... the impacts of fishing and global warming, and it was bad news," he said. "I felt that all I was doing was writing the obituary of ocean life."

"I felt like the doctor who's telling you how you're going to die with excruciating detail, but not offering a cure."

This epiphany motivated Sala to quit academia and become a full-time conservationist. He joined National Geographic in 2008 as an explorer-in-residence. 

His new book The Nature of Nature: Why We Need the World makes the case for why the human species needs to preserve nature to ensure our future. 

Creating inspiration

Since 2008 Sala has led the Pristine Seas project, which aims to inspire world leaders to commit to conserving 30 per cent of the world's oceans and lands from human interference. 

"It's not the only solution, but it works pretty quickly," Sala, who cites the late oceanographer Jacques Cousteau as one of his childhood heroes, told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"If you protect an area of the ocean — set aside an area without fishing, without damaging activities — marine life has this extraordinary ability to bounce back."

Sala hopes to achieve this goal by inspiring powerful people with the majesty of the Earth's ecosystems. 

In his book, he recalls an ocean expedition in the African nation of Gabon, where he was joined by President Ali Bongo Ondimba on the final day. Sensing the president was growing bored, Sala asked him if he would like to pilot their underwater robot. 

Enric Sala claims that it was an expedition around Gabon's waters that convinced the country's President Ali Bongo Ondimba to put aside marine environments for conservation. (Tiksa Negeri/Reuters)

"He started driving the robot, and we see this dark shape in the distance.... There was this big rock at the edge of a seamount full of fish, full of starfish, and all of a sudden five huge groupers show up. That was the epiphany," Sala recalled. 

"He said, 'Wow, I didn't know we had these in our country.'" 

Gabon now has 20 marine parks, covering 28 per cent of their exclusive economic zone. 

Zilberberg hopes her work will inspire the viewer to take their own moment of quiet reflection and help us be protective of our natural world. 3:59

Conservation vs. economics

While the 30-per-cent goal appears ambitious, Sala argues it's not unrealistic. 

"We are not talking about a luxury for rich countries or a romantic ideal, we're talking about our life support system," he said.

Galloway challenged Sala by acknowledging that conservation requires longer attention, whereas industries reliant on natural resources, such as fishing, provide short-term economic benefits.

But Sala believes that questions of conservation and economic benefit go hand in hand.

Canadian wildlife conservation photographer Shane Gross has won awards for capturing ocean life and humanity’s impact on it. He tells The National’s co-host Andrew Chang about his mission to create emotional connections with his photographs that will hopefully lead to lasting change. Host/Reporter: Andrew Chang Producer: Sean Brocklehurst Camera/Editor: Jared Thomas 10:08

"Economic development [versus] nature is the wrong question," he claims. "If we tamper with nature on one side of the planet, everybody could suffer."

"Let's invest in preserving our life support system. That's the best thing we can do for the future of humanity." 

Ecology and pandemics

Sala claims that the COVID-19 pandemic has been proof of why global investment in future conservation is required going forward. 

"This pandemic has shown that not investing in the long-term has global consequences," Sala says. 

What it will cost to protect a third of the planet is less than what the world spends today on video games.- Enric Sala

In fact, Sala argues that the global economic response to the pandemic has cost much more than it would cost to conserve 30 per cent of our environment.

"The International Monetary Fund is talking about $9 trillion for the next two years," he says. 

"What it will cost to protect a third of the planet is less than what the world spends today on video games."


Written by Oliver Thompson. Produced by Julie Crysler. Edited for clarity and length. 

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