Young UN Futures Stories is an evolving foresight storytelling experiment launched on the 75th Anniversary of the UN’s formation and looking at how we reimagine and shape our UN institutions over the next 25 years as we approach 100! Read more about Young UN Futures Stories project here.
Of Moths and Planes
This story was brought to life by Young UN with mentoring from SOIF.
It has been co-written by Martina Müller and Minang Acharya.
Design by Gabriela Heermans, Pepa Majkic with support from YUN Branding Team.
Website support from People Activation and Break Creative Partners.
Guatemala, 2045. It’s three in the afternoon and the late-summer Caribbean heat beats down on my skin. Waiting on the scorching tarmac to board a small UN aircraft, I feel the 3D specimen scanner’s weight in my briefcase. The plane is late. Glancing at my watch, I wonder if I’ll make it to Bangkok in time for the UN centenary celebration tomorrow morning.
Feeling a pearl of sweat forming on my forehead, I am reminded of a very similar moment that took place twenty years ago. I was waiting at a small airport just like this one, ready to board an old-fashioned jet fuel airplane to take me to Nairobi. But rather than taking part in a celebration like the one planned for tomorrow, I was on my way to participate in a last attempt to salvage the Earth’s biodiversity. I had been invited to present my research findings on the issue of tropical ecosystem collapse and invasive species to Member States at the UN Ecosystem Rescue Summit.
That day en route to Nairobi, my then six-year-old daughter Ashia was in my thoughts. I had just talked to her on the phone. Shortly before hanging up, she asked me in her sweet voice if I could save the moths. What six-year-old worries about moths? But Ashia had learned about them in school. “Momma, without the moths, there are fewer crops. And we need crops to eat. I like eating yucca.” It’s amazing how kids have an innate capacity to focus on what’s important.
Ashia was right, of course. It had started long ago, with the first reports of the nocturnal moths’ demise due to pesticides and urban lights. Year after year, the yucca crops they pollinated had been getting worse yields. But it wasn’t only yucca – the drastic decline of insects ruined so many other harvests as well. The Amazon forest had been reduced to a small patch, changing rain cycles all over the world. Food prices had soared, and famine was widespread. Corals had nearly all died off, making the fishing industry collapse. Civil wars had broken out worldwide, and the International Organisation for Migration was reporting the highest numbers of displaced people in history.
I worried. To use a common analogy, biodiversity can be viewed like an airplane: each extinction removes a screw from the plane. Initially, there are a lot of screws, and the losses don’t make much of a difference. But if enough are removed or a few are taken away at crucial spots, the plane will crash.
We scientists had been ringing the bell for years and years, but government representatives just wouldn’t listen. All our research and findings had largely been diplomatically dismissed. Not to mention the pressure of certain business sectors, which had pushed to delay crucial policy decisions to ensure the safety of our natural habitat. Just like its forebears, the Aichi targets, the post-2020 Kunming biodiversity framework was only showing timid results, and the 2050 Vision set out in it seemed like an impossible journey to a distant galaxy. And even though the state of the planet was deteriorating at unimaginable and uncertain speed, diplomats and heads of state had difficulties agreeing on any real action. Why would it be different this time? I almost felt like not attending the conference at all.
But I had to try, for Ashia. If things continued like business as usual, I feared there soon wouldn’t be much of a living planet left for her to enjoy. That was my sentiment and my determination as I boarded the plane to Nairobi twenty years ago.
The Summit ended up being a game-changer. I’m sure it wasn’t only my presentation that made Member States take action (although I like to think that it contributed). I believe the meeting finally confronted this new generation of delegates with reality: we would crash our biodiversity plane into the ground in a matter of years if radical measures weren’t taken immediately, probably exterminating humanity with it.
Afterwards, people would say the 2025 Emergency Summit had been surrounded in a similar aura as the San Francisco Conference many decades before. Delegates determined to work together and reach an agreement. At the San Francisco UN Conference on International Organization, to create an organisation that would save humanity from the scourges of war; in Nairobi, to implement unprecedented policies which would save the planet from the Sixth Mass Extinction. During eight weeks of intense negotiation countries agreed on new bold measures.
And lo and behold, over the next twenty years, things changed at a pace never seen before. The first thing I noticed were the new procedures at airports. Extremely thorough checks were now carried out at every port of entry to reduce the introduction of foreign species. This included screening passengers and their luggage biologically to identify any “hitchhiking” specimen.
In a matter of years, the number of international conservation areas grew exponentially. Large areas of land were placed under protection on every continent. Studies show that the Amazon, Congo and Sumatra rainforests, previously on the brink of desertification, are slowly recovering – although it might still take thousands of years for them to regain their full ecological functions.
Many pesticides that were leading to massive die-offs saw their use discontinued throughout the globe. A similar fate befell single-use plastics that had led to the presence of microplastics even in Antarctic fish. Corals were re-planted in every ocean on a massive scale.
Technology was also increasingly put to use to save biodiversity. My own work was a good example. Through a public-private partnership with tech companies, my team had quickly developed a portable 3D specimen scanner. I now periodically take it into the jungle (for example here, in the Caribbean cloud forest) to read a species’ DNA and determine how healthy it is.
It is still crazy to realize just how much we have evolved in two decades. And as the UN turns 100, there is something extraordinary to celebrate: our biodiversity flight path is finally starting to be stable again. Of course, there is still a long way ahead of us, but at least now there is an upward trajectory.
The noise of the approaching plane pulls my thoughts back to the tarmac and the Caribbean heat. The solar-powered jet touches the ground – it looks like I’ll make it to the UN centenary celebration on time after all. As I board the aircraft, carefully storing my 3D specimen scanner in the overhead bin, I hear an incoming call flashing on my retina. An excited female voice greets me – Ashia is already 26 years old. “Mom, I just read on the news that the 2045 report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services is out: moths are making a comeback!” I can hear the excitement in her voice, and a mix of relief and happiness overcomes me. She will have a future after all.
This story is part of the Young UN Futures Stories collection. They should not be utilized in real-world analytic products as they are merely fictional pieces. The views, assumptions and opinions expressed in this story are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect an official policy or position of the Young UN, the United Nations, and neither of any of its institutions.