So a guy walks into his doctor's office with a nasty-looking cut on his arm. The doctor examines it and says, "Hmm, that's pretty bad. Why don't you wait until gangrene sets in and then come back and see me?" Sounds pretty ridiculous, right? We don't withhold medical care until a patient is in critical condition and the cost of treatment is exponentially higher.
Yet for too long, this has been our policy approach to environmental issues. For example, elected officials have been gridlocked on legislation like the Climate Protection Act and the EPA's Clean Power Plan Proposed Rule. Even when we act on wildlife conservation issues, we typically wait until a species or ecosystem is in dire straits before rallying to try to preserve it. In a few instances, we've managed to pull a species back from the brink of extinction — the American bison and black-footed ferret are notable examples. But our losses outnumber our victories to such a staggering extent that we are now in our planet's sixth mass extinction crisis, with a significant number of species at risk of disappearing forever.
So what do we do? We can't just give up, or point to previous mass extinction crises — such as the loss of dinosaurs — and rationalize that the planet recovered. People's lives right now are tied to the health of species and ecosystems in ways that we scientists are just beginning to understand.
This philosophy, known as "One Health," states that the health and well-being of all living things is connected. Evidence supporting the scope and impacts of these linkages is mounting, from around the world. We are just beginning to understand and able to estimate the economic value of ecosystem goods and services that contribute to a healthy planet. An excellent review shows the variety of ways that loss of biodiversity can increase incidence of disease in people, whether in our own backyards or the tropics.
These connections between economic and physical health make the greatest case for integrated policy action that breaks through the gridlock on climate change and moves toward proactive efforts to conserve wildlife. The environment is inextricably linked with people's well-being and economic development: In agricultural areas in developing nations, when crops don't come in and non-farm jobs are limited, people cope by falling back on their natural resources, such as timber and bushmeat. By causing more crop failures, climate change forces poor people to consume these resources at faster rates. Through the lens of One Health, we also see that deforestation and the capture, butchering and consumption of bushmeat bring increased contact with wildlife that can facilitate the emergence and transmission of diseases.
The ongoing tragedy with Ebola in western and central Africa is an excellent example of a disease whose impact on human health is clearly tied to climate change, deforestation and harvesting of bushmeat. Treating the sick justifiably demands our attention and resources. Yet no matter how much we spend on containing and treating the illness, we are not giving it our full attention if we leave the underlying climate and wildlife connections out of news reports, policy discussions and economic analyses.
This failure to emphasize the linkages between human physical and economic health and the environment is pervasive. For example, the recent White House report, "The Cost of Delaying Action To Stem Climate Change," explicitly leaves out those items that are difficult to value economically, such as loss of habitat, species and ecosystem goods and services.
Fortunately, there are signs of change. USAID's new "Biodiversity Policy" underscores how billions of people depend on natural resources for food, livelihoods and resilience to a variety of shocks. With this policy, USAID is charting a forward-thinking development agenda. A recent issue of Science highlights both the ecological changes that accompany loss of species as well as how reductions in animal populations link with organized crime, terrorism and child slavery.
While we have certainly not progressed to the point where environmental issues are embraced as "post political," recognition that it is in our own best interest to care and act now might just move us there.
Travis is faculty director for the environment at Cornell University's Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, and is an associate professor of reproductive biology and wildlife conservation at Cornell's Baker Institute for Animal Health at the College of Veterinary Medicine. Views expressed in his column are his alone and do not represent those of these institutions.