Feature Story

Seven steps to avoid the irreversible degradation of nature

December 18, 2017

A canal in Thailand covered with water lilies.
A canal in Thailand covered with water lilies. Throughout the XIX International Botanical Congress in Shenzhen, China, botanists from around the world recognised that our planet is changing rapidly.

By W. John Kress, distinguished scientist and curator of botany, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution

This summer 7,000 botanists from 77 countries – attending the largest international conference of plant scientists in nearly a decade – agreed, almost unanimously, to focus their research and educational efforts on finding solutions to increasing environmental degradation, unsustainable resource use, and biodiversity loss.

Time and again – throughout the XIX International Botanical Congress in Shenzhen, China – botanists from around the world recognised that our planet is changing in ways that will substantially affect the social, political, and economic frameworks of our lives for the foreseeable future. And everyone there agreed that these immense changes are the result of unbridled human activities across the planet. The Anthropocene is here.

The Shenzhen Declaration on Plant Sciences, conceived and composed by a broadly representative group of scientists and endorsed by the Congress, aims to raise awareness that botanists need to take social and political action if the accelerating rate of environmental change around the globe is to be slowed. It calls on all scientists to commit to immediate action in both their lifestyles and their research programmes to find solutions before the crossing of a threshold that will inevitably lead to irreversible degradation of societies, natural habitats and biodiversity. Although many scientists are convinced that the threshold has already been crossed, the botanists who endorsed the Declaration believe that there is still time for answers to be found and implemented. However, no-one disputes that time is short.

The Declaration outlines several priorities:

  1. to become responsible scientists and research communities pursuing plant sciences in the context of a changing world;
  2. to enhance support for the plant sciences to achieve global sustainability;
  3. to cooperate and integrate across nations and regions and work together across disciplines and cultures to address common goals;
  4. to build and use new technologies and big data platforms to increase exploration and understanding of nature;
  5. to accelerate the inventory of life on Earth for the wise use of nature and the benefit of humankind;
  6. to value, document, and protect indigenous, traditional, and local knowledge about plants and nature; and
  7. to engage the public on the power of plants through greater participation and outreach, innovative education and citizen science.

These bold statements follow other declarations by engaged scientists across the globe. The World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity (pdf), issued in 1992 by the Union of Concerned Scientists and 1,700 co-signatories, recognised the impending environmental disaster we now call the Anthropocene and called for action to increase our stewardship of the planet. That 25 year-old pronouncement has now been reinforced by the World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: a Second Notice, with over 15,300 signatories, recently published in a major scientific journal.

Heeding the Scientists’ Warning, and realising and achieving the Declarations’ seven priorities is a major challenge that will require new resources and re-orienting research agendas. However, the enthusiastic response to the Declaration in Shenzhen suggests that the scientific community is building a solid and inspiring roadmap for the future. If we are successfully to build a green and sustainable Earth, all scientists and citizens should carefully read, study, and take steps to participate in collective action to make the seven priorities of the Shenzhen Declaration a reality for the future of our global commons. A third Scientists’ Warning to Humanity may come too late.