In 1961, the year in which WWF was established, the world was a very different place. Then, around a billion people lived in the world, fewer than half the number now alive, global average life expectancy was around 30 per cent lower than today, and air travel was a luxury for the few while mobile phones and the internet were part of science fiction.
Back then, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) did not exist, there were hardly any environment ministries, and there were no international and precious few national environmental policies or laws. Nonetheless, as today, people were concerned about the natural world.
At the same time, WWF’s founders realized, as Max Nicholson wrote, that “it’s not just about saving whales and tigers and rainforests and preventing pollution and waste, but is inescapably concerned with the future conduct, welfare and happiness and indeed survival of mankind on this planet”. That thought is still reflected within WWF’s mission “to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature”.
In the beginning, WWF set out to do practical conservation, based on the most up-to-date science. Its aim was to demonstrate what could be done and how it could be achieved. Early projects to create individual wetland and forest protected areas were followed, in the 1970s, by the first global campaigns to save the tiger and the world’s great rainforests.
The need for multi-stakeholder cooperation
The fact that both the tiger and the world’s tropical forests remain the focus of current global initiatives, however, demonstrates that continued vigilance is needed, not just by one environmental organization, but through cooperation between a variety of stakeholders: governments, business and industry, communities and individuals.
Such cooperation is exemplified by the founding of the Forest Stewardship Council, the Global Forest and Trade Network and the Roundtables on Sustainable Palm Oil and Responsible Soy to ensure that forests are managed sustainably. Governments in the Amazon, the Congo Basin and Borneo have been mobilized to protect their forests. Now, WWF is working with partners to ensure that forest conservation is truly sustainable, that local communities and governments are rewarded for protecting forests that provide the ecosystem services on which we all depend: storing carbon, capturing water, and regulating the Earth’s climate.
Understanding how our world works
Over the past 50 years, we have come to understand that our planet and all life on Earth is an interactive whole, now sometimes referred to as the Earth System. Scientists recognize that even seemingly insignificant actions can have unforeseen, possibly great and sometimes irreversible impacts on the natural world. A huge amount has been done to address environmental degradation around the world, with WWF contributing to the protection of more than a billion hectares, bringing species including pandas, whales and tigers back from the brink of extinction, and moving forest and fisheries management towards sustainability.
Taking new ideas from development to policy and practice
WWF has also worked to disseminate new ideas: sustainable development, biodiversity and the ecological footprint – taking these words, and the concepts that lie behind them, and introducing them to the wider world.
None of this could have come about without the support of others – from governments to individuals. Richard Sandbrook was one of those individuals who always supported WWF’s mission, usually behind the scenes, applying his sharp mind to plans or his great strategic sense in negotiations and international fora. The development, worldwide acceptance and continuing influence of the World Conservation Strategy – a cooperation between the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, UNEP and WWF in 1980 – is perhaps the most significant and lasting example of Richard’s dedication to what we now know as sustainable development. He was deeply influential in defining that idea, and bringing to it international prominence.
Population growth and unsustainable consumption: the need for long-term strategy
However, the twin drivers of a growing world population and current modes of production and consumption continue to work together to hobble progress towards that vision of sustainability. That is why WWF has set itself two overarching, linked, longer-term goals, to be achieved by 2050.
Firstly, we are determined to ensure that humanity’s global ecological footprint is reduced to, and remains within, the Earth’s capacity to sustain life, and that the natural resources of the planet are shared equitably.
Second, and linked to this, is our determination to conserve the integrity of the most outstanding natural places on Earth, contributing to a more secure and sustainable future for all. That will mean demonstrating that success is possible: working with producers and buyers to bring sustainability to global markets as well as with governments and communities to secure lasting conservation of some of the most extraordinary places on Earth – from the Amazon to the Arctic.
An urban world, separated from its relationship with nature
Enlisting the support of not just millions but billions of people, on every continent, to the urgent cause of building a vibrant, prosperous, sustainable future is vital. It is not made any easier by today’s urbanized world, where more than half of humanity lives in towns, cities and megacities – increasingly detached from the natural systems that support all life.
Supporting the next generation
So perhaps our greatest challenge is amongst young people, many of whom have no experience or understanding of how dependent we all are upon the natural world in all its wonder. The battle to which Richard Sandbrook was dedicated, the challenge he relished, was changing minds, helping build a world in which people live in harmony with the natural world. With this legacy, we must continue to work hard and achieve lasting conservation impact.