#13: Our Health and the Health of Our Planet with Nicole Schwab

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Meet NICOLE SCHWAB, who will reveal how our health and the health of our planet are inextricably linked, and what we can do to look after both.   The founding director of the forum of young global leaders, Nicole is actively involved in creating a ‘restoration generation’.


Watch the video version of this episode!


  • Ecopreneurs
  • Restoration Generation
  • Diversity
  • Durability
  • Adaptability
  • Biodiversity
  • Balance of Nature
  • Health of our Planet
  • Flow


Poems by the Persian Poet Hafiz


The Whale Rider – story by Witi Ihimaera directed by Niki Caro.


Diversity of life is everywhere. It is within us, it is around us, it is part of life and that is what makes life so rich and so beautiful.’ ~ Nicole Schwab


Read Full Transcript

Tania Cotton: Welcome to the LifeWise Show where we explore the things in life that make you feel truly alive. Today, I have the enormous pleasure of introducing you to Nicole Schwab and sharing with you a topic close to both of our hearts. How our health and the health of our planet are inextricably linked and what we can do to look after both. With a Master’s in Public Policy from Harvard Kennedy School, and an MA in Natural Sciences from Cambridge University, Nicole Schwab started out working on health sector reform projects in South America.
She then returned to Europe to become the founding director of the forum of young global leaders which she now chairs as part of her continued engagement to bring together progressive youth leaders in re-establishing our balance with nature and unleashing the power and energy of the restoration generation. Recognizing the importance of diversity not only in nature, but also within our society.
She was actively involved in projects that promote women's empowerment, co-founding the Edge Certified Foundation. A certification system for gender equality in the workplace. She is currently leading the Trillion Tree Platform which was set up to support the conservation, restoration, and growth of a trillion trees over the next decade.
Nicole is also the author of a beautiful, spiritual parable offering earth centered wisdom called the Heart of a Labyrinth.
Welcome Nicole.
Nicole Schwab: Thank you.
Tania Cotton: So, I’d like to begin by exploring how we’re responsible… I mean never before have we been so aware of how our health and the health of our planet are inextricably linked. Do you think disease or dis-ease is caused by a loss of connection to ourselves and to nature?
Nicole Schwab: Yes, I think we can say that we have lost connection with the natural world. Most of us live in cities. We live in highly urbanised environments very far away from the natural world, so we’re no longer in touch and that also means that we don't realise anymore that everything that we receive from the natural world like our food, healthy food, the air we breathe, the water we drink, that all of this is what keeps us healthy and if the planet is not healthy, how could we be.
And this breakdown in this re-relationship with the natural world is something that has come to the fore now and that we're starting to-to realise and to understand better. And it's also something that was very much at the heart of the way indigenous peoples have been living and caretaking the planet with that understanding that we are all intricately linked with all species.
Tania Cotton: Can you give us a feel Nicole for what's actually happening within our natural world at the moment, say perhaps since the last 50 years, since the industrial revolution?
Nicole Schwab: Yes. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, if you look at the statistics, if you look at all the graphs, what you see is that over the previous hundreds of years or even millennia depending on which data we’re looking at, it’s pretty flat in terms of what's happening and then on all the graphs, you see this curve, right? You see what people call ‘the hockey stick’, whether its carbon emissions or whether it's loss of biodiversity, whether it is water tables going down. I mean there is a very serious trend of an acceleration of the depletion of our natural world in the last 50 years. And to give you a few examples, we've lost 90% of the big ocean fish like tuna. We have lost 70% of terrestrial wildlife, and a million… one million species are at risk of extinction today, which is why, a lot of people are calling this the sixth great extinction.
Tania Cotton: And what is it that’s having the greatest impact on our planet. Is it us?
Nicole Schwab: Yes. Today it is us, and I think before we used to call the eras that we were in based on geological factors. We were into Holocene before, but now we are in what is called the Anthropocene from the Greek Anthropos which means human. And this is because we humans are now, through our activities, altering the environment to such an extent that it's having an impact on the future of ecosystems, and on the future of the natural world and its delicate balance, which is now tipping into a different kind of equilibrium because of us.
Tania Cotton: Are we destroying natural habitats and therefore wildlife and their health is affecting our health as well?
Nicole Schwab: Well, yes. I mean if you want other statistics, I think is very telling as if you would weigh all the mammals on the planet by weight, 96% of them are livestock and humans, and only 4% are wild animals, so this gives you a sense of the space that we have left to the wild animals, and to the natural world and its pristine state, and that means that whether it's for species that need large habitats or whether it is just simply the diversity of life that needs a certain equilibrium to function properly. All of this is being, severely affected and destroyed in many places.
Tania Cotton: So, it seems to me that everything is connected to everything? So, how is it that our health and the health of the planet, um, are linked? I mean, do not all our most essential needs come from the planet?
Nicole Schwab: We are so deeply connected to nature and, you know, how many times when we breathe, do we think about the fact that the oxygen that we need to live is produced by plants, and microscopic algae. How many times do we become aware of this interrelationship between us breathing in and let's say a tree breathing out, and us breathing out and a tree breathing in. I mean, this is… if you picture it like that, it's a very intimate relationship. So, that's just for the air.
If you think about water, I mean large, you know the majority of the human body is made of water. Where does that water come from? How does it cycle through the different ecosystems and through the climate, and what happens if this water first of all starts to be polluted through, whether it's agricultural runoff or industrial runoff? That starts to pollute our rivers or whether it is becoming depleted, and we know that there is a huge issue with desertification and with water tables dropping in many places of the world. And so, those are just two elements, but, you know, I could talk about soil as well. We need healthy soil for our agriculture, and healthy soil is made up of millions of microorganisms, and again, a lot of people who are working on this are extremely worried because there are predictions that topsoi, because it's a very thin layer, that this topsoil could become depleted in such a way that we will be very difficult to continue agricultural processes in a healthy manner.
Tania Cotton: So, are the pesticides killing all the good bacteria in the soil?
Nicole Schwab: Yes, and of course, when we look at it in perspective when pesticides came on to the market, it was a revolution because it was a way to produce more and to feed more people. But now, of course, there is this realisation that while harming, while killing the-the pests, they're also killing some of the microorganisms that are needed to keep the soil healthy. So, there is an awareness, and I think there is a shift now to think about things differently and to think more in a regenerative manner, but of course, this is not mainstream yet, but I can really see that there is a movement in that direction.
Tania Cotton: So, it seems that there is a parallel between us putting pesticides and killing all the good bacteria organisms in the soil, and us using antibiotics and killing all the great bacteria in our gut and in that way losing our health.
Nicole Schwab: Yes, and I think it's a very interesting parallel because again, we're using a substance with initially a good intention, right, to rid us of a harmful pathogen, and to make us healthy. But then the unintended consequence, exactly in the same way as for agriculture, is that we're killing off all these microorganisms, just as we are killing populations of bacteria in our our gut - in the millions or even more, right, and that's what we need to be healthy, I think it's this pattern of starting to become aware that it's much more complex and that by just focusing on one agent, we're-we’re potentially doing harm, and that we have to start to shift our thinking and to think differently.
Tania Cotton: So, COVID-19. Is it the wake-up call or just another wake-up call? Why did it take such a monumental threat to make us really decide to take action?
Nicole Schwab: So, I think humans are not very good at changing their behaviors and very deeply entrenched patterns and this is as much true on an individual level as it is on a collective level and we know what it takes for an individual to change the course of their lives. So, I think this is, you know, it’s very unfortunate that we had to-to face such a crisis with so much sufferings and so much death for us to start looking at our health and the health of the planet, and to really start looking at how they're interconnected. I think, you know, when you say also is this the wake-up call, this is the moment.
We have a window of opportunity now. Over the past 50 years, this is when all these changes have been accelerating. The depletion of the natural world, the climate crisis, and we need to change the course we're on in the next 10 years. I've heard scientists say that this is going to impact the next 20 to 30 thousand years. So, the decisions that we make now are going to have an impact way beyond our individual lives, and we have a window of opportunity. That's why, this year, a lot of people were saying it was going to be the super year for nature. Now, it's been postponed with all the UN conferences to next year.
But, still there's a lot of momentum building, a lot of conversations and I think a growing realisation is that, if we are to make a change its now, or it might be much more difficult because everything that we're seeing today, will have accelerated, amplified, and we will be facing more and more crises, potentially with even worse consequences.
Tanya Cotton: So, nature is really staring us in the face, showing us that we’re not respecting the balance of nature and how it's there to support us?
Nicole Schwab: Yes. I think I… you know, when I look at people wearing masks, it strikes me that the planet is suffocated in a way. I mean if you think about it as a metaphor in terms of carbon emissions, too much CO2, like something is suffocating and now we are wearing masks, so there is this thing about the ability to breathe and, you know, as individuals COVID is attacking our lungs, not only, so there is something around breathing space, and we need to really understand this parallel and this mirror image that the-the planet is showing us our health and the planets health and what we have done.
Tania Cotton: So, how are we responsible? Is it a question of wealth or health?
Nicole Schwab: Yes. I think that the core economic paradigm on which our societies has been built for the last 50 or 100 years are based on economic growth which puts money and wealth at the center, and this is the paradigm that needs to change. We need to put well-being and health at the center and not just our own health, but the health of the planet, of all species of this very complex, intricate, and beautiful system that we're a part of. It's not easy to do because everything has been built around these paradigms and these belief systems that this is how everything works.
So, all the attempts… I mean there have been pockets and attempts of saying we should measure the gross happiness index instead of the GDP. But all of this is still in different quarters, and the question is how can we shift the whole system to a new system and a new way of thinking? Where we prioritize our happiness and our well-being and that of other species over how much money we have and how much the company is going to grow - this has to stop. This is at the detriment of our planet and it will stop, and if we don't take action, it's going to stop anyway, and it's going be even worse.
Tania Cotton: So, Nicole. Is now the time we have to act?
Nicole Schwab: Yes. Now is the time we have to act because if we continue, according to the old paradigm that puts wealth at the center and we continue to deplete the natural capital, then at some point it will end. So, if we don't act now, we're going to face this anyway. I mean, there is just no way around it, and so, better to act now than to wait until it's even harder because it will get harder.
Tania Cotton: It seems as if there's a whole new momentum building around a restoration generation.
Nicole Schwab: This is really giving me a lot of hope and inspiration because until now…, and I was thinking about shifting paradigms, I think that we've been thinking that the only way to function is by depleting the natural world, but what if we turned this on its head and we realised that we could have everything we wanted in terms of happiness, and health, and well-being, by restoring and regenerating nature, so that our actions towards nature would not be negative, but would actually be additive, and that every time we do something, we regenerate.
Whether its regenerative agriculture or, there are many examples, and this is very interesting and there is a series of youth and youth networks who are starting to pick up this idea and who are really wanting to spearhead a movement of the restoration generation. So, it's part campaigning because it is really about shifting our mindset and then its part showcasing concrete examples of how that can be done.
Tania Cotton: Is this the same as Ecopreneurs?
Nicole Schwab: Yes, and I would say it's the same. I think the restoration generation can take many forms such as being an ecopreneur again, instead of being an entrepreneur who is trying to create wealth. What about being an ecopreneur who is creating natural wealth and well-being, and regeneration, and restoration?
Tania Cotton: The Trillion Tree Project. What is this and how are you involved?
Nicole Schwab: Yes, so there's been, quite a few people talking about trillion trees, and there's a number initiatives already on trillion trees, but we have launched a trillion trees platform at the world economic forum in January, and the intention is to support the UN decade on ecosystems restoration, because, in 2021, the UN will launch this decade again on the same theme, of can we now focus on restoration, and restoration means protecting ecosystems that are still in a natural state or grow forests. The areas in the ocean that are still largely untouched, pristine - so it has to do with conservation but it's also about restoring. So, as we talk about the-the UN decade on ecosystem restoration, I just wanted to highlight that because this word really includes a lot of different actions, and so we launched a Trillion Trees Platform to serve all the actors that are focusing on forest conservation, restoration, reforestation, and to mobilize partnerships between the public sector, between the private sector, and between organizations that are in the field, whether it's international organizations that are specialized in this or NGOs, all the way down to these ecopreneurs that you just mentioned.
So, we see ourselves as a platform that is in service to this very large vision of it, of conserving, restoring, and growing a trillion trees over the next decade, which we all have to do together.
Tania Cotton: How can we connect children to nature and to our planet?

Nicole Schwab: I think it goes back to something we touched on at the beginning - how do we learn that everything is connected? How do we learn that we are part of the natural world? That we are not separated. We are one other species. It's by being immersed in it, it’s by having contact with it, so I think some schools take their children out, take small children out into the forest because they know that the forest has all these benefits and that if a child is used to being out in nature from an early age, then that real relationship will start to develop. Of course, in urban environments, this is very difficult.
But I've known of a project, in large metropolitan, urban cities in South America, that asks each child to take care of a plant and then you can build that relationship even if it's a plant, or even if it's looking up at the sky without needing to have access to these vast expanses, which not many people do anymore.
Tania Cotton: So, as you know, Nicole, I’m very interested in movement and when we experience a whole diversity of movements, we become more durable and that enables us to become more adaptable. Is this not also the case in nature and in life?
Nicole Schwab: Yes. Absolutely. I mean, that's why we talk about biodiversity and how as an ecosystem all these different species of life that are each performing their specific function, and altogether that's how this system works. And we talked before about the gut, right, within the human being. I mean, it's-it’s another example of that. Without the bacteria in our gut we would not be able to digest our food. So this diversity of life is everywhere. It's within us, it's around us, it is part of life, and that's what makes life so rich and so beautiful.
Tania Cotton: So, are mono-agriculture's dangerous and damaging to the planet?
Nicole Schwab: You know, mono crops have been a way to produce a lot of food at a time of very fast population growth. But yes, they are at the expense of biodiversity and there are new ways now and regenerative agriculture is an example of that. Of how we can think about agriculture in a different way, where it is not just one species, but where different species play a role for each other. That actually makes the whole work even better.
So, there are some inspiring examples whether it's having ducks in-in rice paddies that eat the bugs and with their dung, it fertilizes the fields. I mean, that's just a very simple example, amongst many more complex projects out there. But there is a realisation that with that complexity we can actually get to a better result and regenerate nature in the process.
Tania Cotton: So, just as we need diversity within the species of wildlife we have and, in the plants, we also need diversity within our human species? And I know this is something that you work a lot with - that to have lots of different kinds of people working together and collaborating together is very important?
Nicole Schwab: If you look at decision making. So, for example, decision making in teams and companies, studies have shown that if you have diversity, you get better decisions, you get better outcomes because you get a balance that ultimately can capture the whole much better. So, this diversity applies just as much to humans as it does to everything else.
Tania Cotton: So, as you know, Nicole, I'm very interested in movement and to move when we experience a whole diversity of movements, we become more durable and that enables us to become more adaptable. Is this not also the case in nature and in life?
Nicole Schwab: Adaptability is key especially now, and adaptability has always been a part of the evolution and the changes that have been observed on the planet since before we were here, but what's happening now is that with the speed of climate change in particular, there is a lag between the pace at which conditions are changing and the pace at which species, systems, organisms can adapt to the new environment. So, this is very interesting because it's not that adaptability is not there anymore, but we've changed the concessions in such a way that the rhythm doesn't match any more to a large extent what is possible naturally.

Tania Cotton: So, I'd like to talk about how we can come back to our senses. It seems that we are suffering from ‘analysis paralysis’. It seems that there are many research projects out there trying to prove and convince people that nature is good for us.
Nicole Schwab: I think that's another paradigm that needs to shift. I mean, we talked before about, you know, shifting from depleting the natural world to regenerating it. And we've been relying so much on our brains and on analysis and on wanting everything to be proven as opposed to all these other aspects we have within us, intuition, our senses, and which provide a direct link, so we don't necessarily have to go through our minds and by that, I mean our rational minds and our intellect.
But it's almost like everything has been reduced to that, as you say and everything needs to be proved when actually through our experience, we could have that direct experience that can ‘prove it’ to us in a very direct way, just very differently. And that aspect of human experience needs to be valued much-much more.
Tania Cotton: So, how can we connect to nature and to ourselves?
Nicole Schwab: Well, a simple way is really to connect to our senses, so we can observe nature… we can observe nature through all our senses - sight is the obvious one. But there are many others, and I think that those others offer doors into experiences that are very rich because we don't pay attention to them. So, I'll give you a few examples. For example, walking barefoot on the grass. As you walk barefoot on the grass, do you really focus on well, what's the texture, the temperature, the humidity? And it’s this presence - I mean, there's also a lot of focus on presence, on mindfulness, but it's all related because it's really about being present in the moment to nature, and to what is.
So, whether it's through touch or through sound, and if we pay attention, we can hear the sounds of nature, the birds, the wind, and touch also whether it's on our face, the touch of the wind. So, even just five minutes of that, an experience of five minutes, even if you're in a city looking up at the sky. What do you notice? What do you observe? And there are many, many pathways and it can be very immediate to gain that contact with nature through our senses in a way that we haven't usually done before.
Tania Cotton: And how about water? I mean we drink water, we bathe in water, we’re made mostly of water. Quality of water is so important but many of us don't really appreciate this.
Nicole Schwab: Yes, and there have been very interesting experiments done by Dr. Emoto. He was the first person to bring these results out to the world of how words, how states of mind, and states of being can influence the molecular structure of water. And whether there is a coherent pattern or whether there is chaos at the molecular structure. So, this is very interesting because if we look at ourselves, and we know that our thoughts have an impact on our well-being, on how we feel.
And if you think about water, the water in our bodies. Well, what if the way we thought had an influence on the water in our bodies as well? And not feeling at ease when we have thoughts that are not at ease, that are not harmonious, and loving, and all the things that we’ve… we wish we would feel but we have to emanate them first.
Tania Cotton: So, it's clearly important to look after our outer environment, but equally important to look after our inner environment and the new exciting science of epigenetics has shown how our thoughts can affect our gene expression. Our thoughts actually release chemicals in our body that create a state of disease or health.
Nicole Schwab: This is very interesting because the inner and outer are very deeply intertwined, and as we start to realise that our thoughts have an impact on our own well-being, we will also start to realize what truly matters to us, and what this well-being means in terms of the thought patterns and then actually it's not about more consumption. It's not about getting more stuff. It's more about a state of being and that can connect as more deeply with the natural world, and then that's a… it's a virtuous loop because that will affect how we see our relationship to nature and we can then redefine that relationship to one that is more harmonious.
Tania Cotton: So, just as nature has a rhythm, I mean, so do we and we need to find a sense of rhythm? In Greek, rhythm means to flow, so to find our flow, is this essential to our health?
Nicole Schwab: Yes, and this rhythm question is very important because as my friend Claire from tree sisters likes to say, we have been living on the out breath. So, again thinking about our economic paradigm, it's always go-go-go! The rhythm is just… there is no… there are no pauses. It's not cyclical like the rhythms of nature. In the Northern Hemisphere, you know, you have the winter, you have the pauses. And just like in the in-breath and the out-breath, you have a pause between the two and it is a rhythm.
But our… the way we've been living has not been in harmony with that rhythm that is inside of us through our breath and that's through everything else in the natural world. And if we can just get back in touch with that, then I think we can start to harmonize our rhythm and then our inner-inner rhythms to a new and different outer rhythm that is in that harmony and in that state of flow that you mentioned.
Tania Cotton: How can we make time in our day to connect with nature and with ourselves?
Nicole Schwab: Mindfulness practices are a good way to start, focused on our presence, our presence to the natural world. So, this can be just five minutes several times during the day, where we pause, where we step out of that rhythm that we may be in and that go-go-go, and breathe, and start to pay attention to what nature is around us, and it could be tiny or it could be vast depending on where we are. But we always-always have an opportunity to connect with our senses, all our senses, one by one and ask ourselves the question - How are we feeling? How are we feeling inside and how are we perceiving the natural world in that moment? And then this can expand little by little. Light, the sky, you know, plants, trees, birds and of course other animals, but also really feeling this relationship and I would say that's why the word presence is so important and that it's not a mental analysis of who I am seeing, you know, this bird and it looks like this but more, is there a way to stay in that silence and to connect with whatever we're seeing or perceiving through all our senses, and to-to feel that relationship and to, you know, let it grow and let it speak to us in that silence.
Tania Cotton: Nicole, you have a deep love of nature and of animals, but particularly of the mountains. What is it about the mountains that you so love?
Nicole Schwab: The mountains and particularly the high mountains. So, there is a stillness there and there is something of vastness that is very beautiful and very peculiar that to me just opens up a space. It's like this surrendering into something so big that we connect to the fact that we are one little being on this planet, but there is so much more, and it is so much vast and so powerful. And that's why I love the mountains and the fact that there are not that many people in the mountains. So, there is a-a stillness where you're just faced with nature and nothing else.
Tania Cotton: You are a master of words, particularly as an author, and you've written a book of earth-centered wisdom. Can you please tell us the essence of this?
Nicole Schwab: The book it tells the story of a woman who goes into the Amazon rainforest looking for her mother, and she's a woman who has been completely disconnected from the natural world and grew up in a city and in that journey, what she realises is that actually she's not only looking for her physical mother but she's actually looking for the mother earth, and for that connection with life and with the essence of life.
And it's as much a journey in the outer world as it is in the inner world and in how she has suppressed that connection because of the patterns that she was in, being brought up, and the thought patterns, and the conditioning that we all experience, and her journey is about how to get beyond that conditioning and to start to re-experience this beautiful connection in this case with the Amazon rainforest.
Tania Cotton: Thank you for that, Nicole. Share with us if you will your favorite film.
Nicole Schwab: So, one film that I love is The Whale Rider, because it leaves in many of these aspects that we touched upon in terms of our relationship to the natural world, um, intuition and how we can learn from other species, and we can learn from the wisdom of the whales in this case. And I think we've been seeing animals as just these other beings that don't have a life or no emotions or… but that's our limited thinking and when we start opening up, we can see how much we can receive from them. And it's a beautiful story also about indigenous wisdom. So, very touching and recommend it very highly.
Tania Cotton: And do you have a book that you particularly like?
Nicole Schwab: So, I love the poetry of the Persian poet, Hafiz. And the reason I’m mentioning this is because I think we need more poetry in our lives. Poetry is about rhythm and it touches, it touches our senses in a way that prose doesn't and that's why I love that poetry because it's also all about opening up to the great mystery, and to the beauty, within and out.
Tania Cotton: If there was one call to action, you'd like to share with us all, what would that be?
Nicole Schwab: For me the call to action is to be aware in every single moment of our days. Are we taking from the earth or are we giving back? And if we start to ask this question and to examine, also within the realm of the choices that we can make then things can shift little by little, but potentially they could shift very massively. So, with everything we do, are we taking from the earth or are we giving back to her?
Tania Cotton: Nicole, thank you so much. It's been wonderful sharing this interview with you. I also hope we will share more adventures together.
Nicole Schwab: Thank you Tania. It's been a great pleasure.
Tania Cotton: Thank you for joining us on this LifeWise show. In our next episode, I’ll be talking to Guy Evans who will reveal the secret to living a healthy, happy, and fulfilling life for the whole of your life. I look forward to meeting you there.

Meet Tania Cotton

Tania Cotton avatar

Tania Cotton is a Movement Analyst and Chartered Physiotherapist with over 25 years' experience helping people overcome pain, injury and disease to lead a happy and fulfilling life. After 12 years as a consultant for the Swiss Olympic Medical Centre in Geneva, Tania began making films on health and human performance to show people what is possible and to inspire them to take action.

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