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Spring 2016 stories

Securing the Well-Being of People and Nature: A Reflection on Laudato Si’

Excerpt from Public Lecture, “Our Future on a Shared Planet” Conference, Santa Clara University1
By Gretchen Daily


By Gretchen Daily
Bing Professor of Environmental Science, Department of Biology;
Senior Fellow, Woods Institute for the Environment;
Director, Center for Conservation Biology
Stanford University

Cloud forests provide us with a tremendous amount of water. They help stabilize the climate. They’re kind of the genetic library of all known life in the universe from which we have derived all kinds of clues as to how to live a better, more fulfilling, healthier life. Incredible benefits come from cloud forests, and yet we don’t capture them anywhere. We don’t really think about them. We don’t factor them into our decisions. And so cloud forests are disappearing all over the planet.

So what we’d like is to see is alternatives, and connect what we’re doing today, our big and small choices to ecosystems. Ecosystems are our life support systems; the many services we get from them supply our human well-being. Thus we want to connect ecosystems up through institutions, such as the city government of San Jose for example, and drive change that results in better decisions and better alternatives.

I was extremely lucky to get to work in Costa Rica starting around 1991—right after a time when Costa Rica led the world in extinctions and tropical deforestation. It had the highest deforestation rate on the planet. And yet Costa Rica has turned around. They now have the highest reforestation rate. (Costa Rica, together with—you won’t believe this, but keep reading— China!)

But how did Costa Rica do that? First, a bunch of people came from universities, some in the Bay area. Hydrologists and others recognized what was happening and what a tragedy it was. They also saw how flooding would become much worse, which had already begun with the stripping away of forests. Forests are like sponges that soak up heavy rain that naturally falls in the tropics. And they thought, okay, the way to secure Costa Rica economically and otherwise is to invest in forests. They therefore established the world’s first nationwide policy to pay people to replant or conserve forests on their land. 

Amazingly—speaking of equity, engagement, and inclusiveness—they fought the World Bank. Although contentious from an economic point of view, I appreciate what they did. Rather than just paying those who had the most important forest that protected people from flooding or secured drinking water quality, they said, “We’re going to pay anybody. You just come here and sign up. And that’s because we want everybody to be part of this social movement. It’s about a lot more than just storing carbon or purifying water or securing our communities from flooding. It’s about the whole change in our values.” And that’s the way they’ve driven the program. It was immediately heavily oversubscribed and has basically remained so. 

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis urges: “Interdependence obliges us to think of one world with a common plan” (§164). Acknowledging our interdependence is essential to confronting deeper problems which cannot be resolved by unilateral actions. So how do we come together in our tightly interlinked world and address some of these challenges? How do we develop a common plan, a common vision?

Coffee is a tropical forest plant. But you could say coffee has been the enemy of the tropical forest. How could we possibly harmonize coffee production and the livelihood of the farmers, the people, and the rainforest?

We went out and looked at the different types of wildlife in the Costa Rican landscape. How many birds do you think exist there? It turns out there are about 200 different species of common birds flying around out there. Guess how many bees are there? How many different types of bees do you think we caught in one month? I thought it might be something like 30 to 50. That’s what a friend of mine caught up in California’s Central Valley on some organic farms. So I thought it would be a little higher than that, but not too daunting. We caught 700.

Glenn R. Specht/Shutterstock

After a ton of hard work, we found out that bees actually boost coffee yield by 20 percent and the quality of coffee beans by about 50 percent. So having rainforest right near your coffee farm is actually a blessing—an economic blessing, in that these farmers are often on the edge financially. Those boosts are very significant. And the bees aren’t going to fly 100 miles to go pollinate some coffee bush. Right? They’re going to pollinate right nearby. 

We also found out that birds reduce infestation of coffee’s main pest, the Coffee Berry Borer, for which there is no chemical pesticide, by 50 percent. The livelihood of farmers and the wellbeing of the rainforests are linked.

Now I’d like to jump into the activation part. How do we go from understanding our connections to nature, our dependence on nature, to actually changing what we do?

“A true ecological approach always becomes a social approach... so as to hear both the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor” (§49). Laudato Si’ calls for a legal framework to set clear boundaries and ensure the protection of ecosystems. Amazingly, my example of a legal framework that sets such clear boundaries is China.

We get so much bad news on China you might disbelieve me. But a couple of years ago the Chinese government, the president, and the premier announced China’s dream of becoming the ecological civilization of the 21st century. What you see in China today is a massive battle going on internally, pitting development as done in the past, proceeding apace, against this new set of forces driving toward a much more sustainable set of outcomes. Harmonizing people in nature.

China has seen massive floods— the worst flooding on the planet in 1998. All these leaders asked, “Where and what should we protect?” Now many areas receive payments through a deal similar to the Costa Rica deals. Payments went to people to shift out of growing annual crops like rice and corn on really steep slopes, the source of much of the flooding, and instead, people were paid to grow forest or in some cases grassland. A hundred and twenty million households enrolled. That’s the main message. I mean, where can you do that? That happened overnight. Within about a year, 120 million households are getting paid to make that shift. So that’s why China has the highest rate of reforestation worldwide.

And to go one step further in China and then I’ll close, the state government also approved a year ago a plan to go beyond gross domestic product (GDP). GDP alone guided China’s growth in the last century. For this century the state government decided to continue to pay attention to GDP, but also to attend to the gross ecosystem product (GEP): a measure that looks at all the goods and services that come from ecosystems at every scale and promotes or removes political leaders based on their GEP performance.

On one hand, there’s obviously a long way to go. On the other, I often think about the story of a friend I have who is in an investment sector helping to drive this kind of integrated ecological vision and action forward. He grew up in the United Kingdom, and his dad, who was really into sailing, would make him, even as a young boy, board this small boat and sail across to North America. He was always terrified as they lost sight of land out in the middle of the Atlantic. For days on end they would be hurled by waves, and then a time would come when they could smell land. They couldn’t see land, but they could smell it. And he’d finally feel at ease in the boat at that point.

My sailing friend says: At this moment, we can’t quite see it. But you know what land will look like. We can smell it.

He’s hopeful, along with many people in this movement—and there are a lot—a lot of people in this movement around the world. I’ve just highlighted a few cases here today. But a lot of people feel that we’re approaching what Pope Francis is calling for. A common set of goals and a morality to what we’re pursuing. 

I feel there is a good shot of things coming together if we activate. If we actually all become involved. At least educating ourselves, bringing others in, driving change here or in other ways as we can in our lives. We all know Silicon Valley can lead the world. It’s our responsibility and it can be our joy to do that.

We can smell the land now.


Gretchen Daily is the Bing Professor of Environmental Science in the Department of Biology; senior fellow in the Woods Institute for the Environment; and director of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University. She is also co-director of The Natural Capital Project, a partnership among Stanford University, The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, and the University of Minnesota, whose goal is to align economic forces with conservation. Daily received her B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in biological sciences from Stanford University. She serves on numerous boards, including the Beijer Institute for Ecological Economics (part of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences) and The Nature Conservancy.  She has published over 200 scientific and popular articles.


  1. Gretchen Daily, “Securing the Well-Being of People and Nature: A Reflection on Laudato Si’,” public lecture, Our Future on a Shared Planet: Silicon Valley in Conversation with the Environmental Teachings of Pope Francis conference, 4 November 2015, Santa Clara University.

Photo Credit: 

Rice Paddies - Shutterstock
Bees at the Forge Garden - Charles Barry


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