Rewilding for Our Health – Interview with Amy Lewis

Apr 22, 2021Featured, Survival Revolution, Talking WILD

by Amy Lewis

Vice President of Policy & Communications

by Savannah Manning

Social Media & Content Specialist

This live interview took place in March of 2021. WILD’s Social Media Specialist, Savannah Manning, asked Amy Lewis, WILD’s Vice President of Policy and Communications, about the connection between rewilding and our health. Here we’ve created a transcript of that talk for you to read below. 

Savannah

The first thing I want to ask you is just a brief introduction, so tell us about yourself and how you got to where you are currently as the Vice President of WILD.

Amy

Thanks Savannah. So I have been a long time environmentalist and I was studying environmental policy. Actually, I was in my PhD program for environmental policy at Colorado State University and I, you know, was just watching what was happening in the world and I really wanted to be out applying the knowledge I had and doing something, versus just researching about what was being done. When the job opened up at WILD, it was really my dream job and I’ve been able to bring a lot of my skills as  a community organizer, a marketer, and an environmental social movement theorist to the work at WILD.

Savannah

It’s been a pleasure working with you. I’ve learned a lot thus far in the few months that I’ve been here. So we’re going to pull up a quote from Antonio Gutierrez. I’ll read it really quickly: “Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal. Air and water pollution are killing 9,000,000 people annually, more than six times the current death toll of the pandemic. With people and livestock encroaching further into animal habitats and disrupting wild spaces, we could see more viruses and other disease agents jump from animals to humans.”

Amy 

I want to clarify that this quote is from Antonio Gutierrez, the secretary general of the UN and he made the statement in December of 2020. I will just speak a little bit more about this. What’s interesting is that Antonio Gutierrez as the Secretary General of the United Nations has made several very strong statements about humanity and our relationship with nature and he’s actually said it is the fundamental task of the next decade for us to restore and fix our relationship with nature. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because our survival depends on it. This has become very clear in the light of the pandemic, which was essentially caused by a broken relationship with nature and the intrusion of human settlements and human civilization in wild areas.

Savannah

Would you talk about the correlation between the encroachment of wild habitat and the increased risk of disease outbreak?

Amy

Actually over the last 30 years we’ve seen an increase of about 30% of disease outbreaks and at the same time we’ve also seen over, I think it’s about, a quarter of the wildland we had 30 years ago have vanished. There’s this correlation but many scientists are increasingly coming out with research that shows it’s not just a correlation. It’s that the rise of disease outbreaks are actually caused in large part by our intrusion into wild lands. The reason for this is that there are literally thousands of novel viruses that exist in wild animal populations around the world that we haven’t encountered yet. The areas that these creatures live in are not spaces we inhabit and so when we very rapidly, on a geologic scale, move into these spaces, we fragment nature. So there’s some wild lands around, then there’s some farmlands, then some cities, we actually begin moving into areas where the wild animal populations exist that carry these viruses and we then expose ourselves to them and that’s when you have zoonotic spillover and you get novel diseases. So you know, the solution to this isn’t to remove all the wild lands and wild animals because actually there’s also a correlation between high biodiversity and and lower risk of novel viruses, and there are reasons for this about how high biodiversity can actually essentially dilute viruses and make it more difficult for them to spill over. Ultimately, the solution is to recognize that nature’s a fortress. It’s a fortress against diseases and not only  a fortress of life giving services where all of these parts are inside of a wild area. From a blade of grass to a rhino, to bats, all of these parts contribute to the production of oxygen in our environment, the reduction of carbon from our atmosphere, the fertility of our soils and climate patterns of our rainfall. So it also acts as a buffer, as a fortress, against the rise of diseases and we need to recognize that our health is inextricably linked with the health of nature.

Savannah

That was well said and that actually leads to my next question, in your research, which area of land has seen the most destruction in the last 20 years? And feel free to relate that kind of back to the pandemic and how that’s affected us.

Amy

Well, it’s always interesting to me that we treat landscapes, and we treat species, as somehow distinct from one another. You know, the rainforest is the rainforest, and the ocean is the ocean, and tigers are tigers, and we invest our passion in one or two of these things. And we forget that all of this belongs to a whole.


A whole complete system that makes up this planet, and you know, we as a species, for whatever reason we really value really shiny objects like gold and silver and platinum and diamonds and whatnot, but I guarantee you you can go to almost any other rock in the solar system and find gold and find silver find these minerals, these elemental minerals, but you can’t go to another place in our system and find the biosphere we have, and that is actually the rarest most valuable thing that we have.


Every single part of the biosphere contributes to our health and well being.They are all linked, they all work as essentially a machine, an engine, a living machine to produce what we need. Every single part of the biosphere is under attack and when we attack it we degrade our own well being and the potential for healthy lives.

Savannah

As a scholar of environmental policy, what policies do we have in place that directly relate to the climate emergency?

Amy

Well, so here’s the thing, we treat the different landscapes and different species as separate from one another. As if the extinction of a single species is a problem that we can address in isolation.


We treat it like that, but the number one cause of extinction is not poaching. It’s habitat loss. So by saving and restoring wild lands, we’re actually halting extinction in its tracks.


It’s the exact same thing with climate, we treat climate as if it’s separate somehow from nature and we treat it as if it’s something that we can engineer ourselves out of. If we just build better cars and more efficient solar panels and everything like that, we’re somehow going to solve this problem. But the fact is, we absolutely cannot meet our climate targets keeping temperature rise under 1.5° and parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere under 450. We can’t do it without nature. Nature is the single biggest carbon storage. The oceans are the biggest underground, and the biggest above ground carbon storage is our boreal forest. We can’t do this without nature and every time we remove a landscape, a boreal forest, a peat bog, parts of the ocean, we are impairing nature’s ability to be our ally and to remove excess carbon from the atmosphere. In fact, if we restore landscapes, we can actually start removing more carbon from the atmosphere, we might be able to remove almost close to 40% of the carbon that we need to remove in order to meet our Paris climate targets.

I think what’s great about nature too, is it’s not a technology that we have to invest, and scale up, and figure out how many trillions of dollars we need in order to make it work. In Africa and in Asia and everywhere around the world, it’s there already. It’s a solution that’s already at scale and all we have to do is help it help us. This is the brilliant thing, and I think it’s probably the most efficient, biggest, fastest policy we can implement in order to reduce the likelihood of pandemics, stabilize climate change, and halt extinction, that is protect nature. If we’re listening to what the scientists say, they say we have to protect at least 50% of Earth’s land and seas if we’re going to keep the system functioning. That’s why, this year, the WILD Foundation will be advocating for the solution at the IUCN World Conservation Congress, as well as the Convention on Biological Diversity.

You know, it’s really interesting — I think part of the reason why the climate issue has kind of superseded the biodiversity issue is that, and this is nothing against climate, we have to address climate change through renewable energies, through technology, along with protecting nature. But I think part of the reason why it is spoken about much more frequently than protecting biodiversity is because, ultimately, you can make money off of addressing climate change. Renewable energies are a profit center. We kind of think ‘profit’ is a bad word. It’s not, but you can basically create proprietary solutions to address climate change. It’s not that you can’t do that with biodiversity and with wilderness, however, much of wilderness and biodiversity fall into a category that we call the Commons. The definition of the Commons is that you essentially can’t make money off of it. The Commons belong to everybody. You can’t exclude anybody from the Commons and so it’s much harder to come up with solutions that are profitable for private individuals and private entities. This means we have to collectively solve this as a society now.

Savannah

Can you tell us what rewilding entails and how interconnected wilderness is a benefit to humanity?

Amy

So, I mentioned in my last answer that we have to protect 50% of Earth’s land and seas and we’re basically at that threshold right now as a planet. We have maybe just a little bit more than 50% of our wild lands and wild seas that are intact. This is new for our species. Never before have we lived on a planet with this little wilderness and this few wild lands and wild areas as we do now, and that’s scary. There’s a lot of risk involved with that and if we don’t protect what’s left, science tells us, we’re going to be in a whole world of hurt. In addition to protecting what we have, we are also going to have to restore nature. What we call the restoration of nature is rewilding and restoration. Essentially giving nature the space it needs and the things it needs to heal itself. It involves a couple of major activities from reintroducing native species, both plants and animals, to removing invasive species, to restoring landscapes and watersheds. Rewilding is absolutely essential to reconnect wilderness to itself because right now, what we’ve essentially done, is fragment wilderness. There’s just these little postage stamp size areas of wilderness all over the map and they need to be reconnected to corridors that will allow wilderness to function in a more intact way. Rewilding can help us do that. Additionally, rewilding can also restore landscapes that are incredibly important carbon stabilization areas. We can look at those landscapes on a map, look at peat bogs, look at boreal forests, and see where it is that we can both interconnect them to other landscapes, and also where it is we’re going to get the most carbon drawdown. Those will absolutely play an essential role in fighting the climate emergency.

Savannah

Do you have any suggestions on what individuals can do to help with rewilding?

Amy

Well, this Saturday [March 20th] is the very first World Rewilding Day. If you go to rewildingglobal.org/rewilding-day, you can learn more about that day and there’s actually a useful introductory guide to rewilding that you can download there. The World Rewilding Day is really a kick off to this global movement of people who are already practicing rewilding but who are now committed to working together across national boundaries and across cultures in order to create a coordinated effort to rewild nature and rewild the biosphere at the scale it needs, which is planetary and it’s an unprecedented problem. We kind of need unprecedented coordination, and global World Rewilding Day is our first stab at creating the awareness that we need to expand that movement and to maximize coordination in the future.

Savannah

I only have one thing left and let’s just open up for the audience so if anybody in the audience has any questions, now is the time to post it in the comments if you would like.

Amy

I want to get to Jay Waxse comment about the appointment of Secretary Deb Haaland as the Secretary of Interior. She is the very first Native American to serve in a cabinet level position of the United States and I have to say this is one of the proudest moments for me as a citizen of the United States to see her rise to this position. I have a lot of hope for what she can accomplish there. I absolutely agree with you Jay, about the leadership that is embodied in Indigenous Wisdom and Indigenous Lifeways. The WILD Foundation, for over 40 years, has been not only committed to working with Indigenous populations, but to actually learn from them and to elevate them to the leadership roles that are theirs’ to occupy within the conservation movement. In fact, in one of the very first IUCN Wilderness 1b management category guidelines published at the international level, the WILD Foundation made sure to strengthen the commitment to not only working again with Native peoples, but also learning from them and recognizing their leadership and co-leading with them in the conservation movement.

Savannah

What’s our biggest obstacle preventing us from rewilding right now?

Amy

So, you know, a lot of people, when we think of obstacles to a sustainable healthy planet, what we generally think of are technological problems. The technology we don’t have or the technology that we need to scale up. But in fact, we could have all the technology in the world and still not be able to achieve our environmental goals both climate and conservation-wise. The reason for this is technology without coordination and without collaboration doesn’t get…it’s not dispersed to the people who need to use it. So I think that the biggest challenge we actually have is not a technological or scientific challenge, it is a social challenge. We have to learn to work together at scale across the planet with depth and integrity at the scale we’ve never had to do before. Our biggest coalitions oftentimes have really been limited to the national scale and we really need a super coordinated international coalition in order to build the momentum and the capacity to rewild Earth at scale. So I would say that’s the biggest obstacle right now.

Savannah

I actually have a question myself, in terms of rewilding, where do we currently stand?

Amy

Well in terms of the remaining wilderness that’s intact – like really healthy, really super wild areas – we’re talking about 24% of the planet. It’s not a lot. There’s another 25-26% of the planet where the landscapes are intact enough that they’re still functioning, so they’re not true wilderness and that’s okay because they’re still functioning. We need to protect those lands, keep them at the level of functionality they’re at now and we need to add to them by rewilding. So that’s kind of the state we’re in at the moment in terms of what’s actually protected now, that’s like actual inventory of actual wild lands and semi wild lands. In terms of what’s actually protected on paper, we have approximately 17% of terrestrial areas and 10% of marine areas protected now. Many of those protections are on paper only, not super enforced and we need to work on that. But we simultaneously need to expand the awareness and recognition and commitment to protect more, to protect half. That way we can assure that the 24% of wilderness the planet currently holds remains wild, and the 26% of other intact lands stay intact plus have the space needed to heal. That’s why we’re working to protect half of Earth’s land and seas right now. Because it’s going to be far easier to protect half while we still have those areas left to protect, than it will be to, decades later, come back and realize that we should’ve protected those things in the past and try to restore on a scale that is unimaginable, especially since we’ll be looking at a lot of extinction.  And there’s some things we will not be able to do.

Savannah

Yes, and to anyone watching right now, we do post a lot of these articles surrounding what Amy just said through our Nature Needs Half platforms. So I encourage you to give that a follow. Watch our Twitter page and read the articles posted there because they fall in line with a lot of what she just said. We’re going to do one more question and then we’ll probably call it a night. Are you up for that Amy? Okay. So Cassie’s question is: do you think the pandemic was enough to get us all to realize that our health is reliant on healthy nature?

Amy

You know, it’s such an interesting question because I think for a lot of people, I mean we’ve seen this recognition at the UN and that’s super positive, and there’s also been numerous articles and letters that have come out from coalitions of scientists that have recognized that the pandemic has been essentially a direct cause by a broken relationship with nature. So there is recognition at that level. Do I think that recognition has trickled down into the mass public? Not quite, no, I don’t. I think it’s largely limited to conservation and to kind of an elite expert crowd and we still need to do a lot of work in order to make the public, even much of the environmental movement –  largely the environmental movement that’s focused on climate aware that nature needs protecting and our health is linked to it. When we protect nature, we’re actually protecting ourselves.

Savannah

Awesome. Well, thank you for answering all those questions and thanks for giving us your time here today.

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