Three Ways to Stop Destroying the Planet We Live On

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Jun 01, 2019
by Martin Silva Rey
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Three Ways to Stop Destroying the Planet We Live On

Chair of IUCN Urban Alliance Jonathan Hughes on obstacles to building a sustainable world Jonathan (Jonny) Hughes has been an elected global councilor of the International Union of the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) since 2012

“We can use nature, but we would need to use nature sustainably - so, in a way that it can replenish itself… It’s a bit like having a bank account and saying ‘Right, I’m just going to spend all the bank account, and I’m going to become bankrupt, and then I’m just going to expect people to just give me some more money.’ You can’t do that... we’re bankrupting the planet, really, at the moment,” said Jonathan Hughes, a veteran expert in world conservation and chair of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Urban Alliance.

From an early age, he and his father would go out every weekend and look at wildlife in the field, which left Hughes fascinated. But it was a trip with a friend to the ancient Caledonian Forest in Scotland where he realized he wanted to work in nature conservation.

“[My friend] pointed out to me that most of it had been destroyed,” Hughes said. “The few bits that were left were now dead on their feet, really, because they were being overgrazed by red deer and sheep that had been let into the forest… There wasn’t any natural regeneration.”  

Hughes was brought up in Wales and went on to study at Keele University in Staffordshire, England. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in geography and biology. It wasn’t long afterward Hughes returned to the land he had fallen in love with in his childhood – Scotland. Desperate for nature, the novel geographer and biologist found a job that hit the nail on the head.

At the age of 23, Hughes started his “dream job” as a warden of a remote nature reserve in the north of the country. It was his first position at the Scottish Wildlife Trust, where he eventually became the chief executive officer. Later on, he experienced a different sort of landscape working at the Westminster City Council, before going back north. 

Hughes has always been focused on pioneering new ideas in conversation. One of his proudest achievements involved co-authoring Living Landscapes - Towards Ecosystem-Based Conservation in Scotland. It’s a pocket bible of landscape-scale conservation – the first of its kind. On the back of that initiative, he launched a 50-year vision of landscape-scale restoration carried out by landowners working together across 60,000 hectares of the remote northwest of Scotland.     

Currently, Hughes is preoccupied with three frontline problems. The first concerns the lack of a sustainable agri-food system. Agriculture, he believes, is destroying the natural capital stocks of the planet, and it needs to change to tackle climate change.

“It doesn’t matter how much renewable energy we put in place, it doesn’t matter how much we decarbonize our industrial economy. If we don’t decarbonize our agricultural systems, we will fail,” he said. “Because around about a third of climate change is actually due to the degradation of nature on the planet, and the degradation of nature is mainly through the need to feed ourselves…”

The second problem concerns the abuse of the oceans and rivers, which is tightly linked to the agricultural problem. “Runoff from agriculture and soil loss and sedimentation in rivers and coastal ecosystems is a far bigger problem actually than the plastics issue, which has risen up the agenda recently…,” Hughes stressed.

The third problem concerns urbanization. Cities leave a footprint that impacts beyond their boundaries. He said, “The design of cities is absolutely critical in the future, not just for the people that live in them but actually for… the future sustainability of the planet.”

Hughes considers the answers to these issues lie within a combination of nature-based and technological solutions. He said, “When I get up in the morning, I think ‘Right, I’m got to go to work today, so what I am gonna do?’ It’s to try and create momentum or keep the momentum going for a fundamental kind of paradigm change in the way that human beings interact with the planet.

“I’m trying to bring about a kind of consciousness, I suppose, within humanity, that respects and values nature in such a way that we no longer abuse it, but we work with nature...”


The Salzburg Global Seminar program, Partnerships for Urban Wellbeing and Resilience: Harnessing Nature and Protected Areas for the Sustainable Development Goals, is part of the Parks for the Planet Forum. This program is supported by Future Cities Forum, ICLEI CBC, IUCN Urban Alliance, Learning Economy, National Park City Foundation, The Centre for Conscious Design, World Urban Parks, and 21st Century Trust.