The case for nature
At the start of 2020 a strange, beautiful creature, whose kind had been around for at least 200 million years, was declared gone forever. By comparison, we homo sapiens have spent a mere 300,000 years on the planet. The dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago.
The Chinese paddlefish could grow to an impressive seven metres in length, with a long snout used to sense the electrical activity of its prey, tiny comical eyes and a huge flapping mouth. Its premature demise was not a natural occurrence; it had been severely overfished – during the 1970s, 25 tons of paddlefish were being netted each year – and the damming of its Yangtze river habitat blocked the route to its spawning grounds. By the time efforts were made to save it, it was too late. The last sighting of a Chinese paddlefish was in 2003, and it probably became extinct years before the formal announcement.
In June 2020, researchers concluded that 515 vertebrate species had fewer than 1,000 individuals remaining and were thus staring extinction in the face – of these more than half were down to under 250 individuals. This is far from the full picture because so many species in our natural world are as yet undocumented and unknown. The estimated number of all species facing extinction is a sobering one million.
According to scientists, the extinction threat is equally as urgent as climate change and in one aspect worse – extinction is irreversible; once a species is gone, it’s gone for good. With it goes all its evolutionary adaptation, over millions of years, to its living conditions and all the interactions it had with its ecosystem. The fraying of nature’s web is dangerous – the extinction of one species, due to its interconnectedness within its ecosystem, has the potential to set off a cascade of other extinctions, continually impoverishing nature.
Extinction, by itself, is not remarkable – it has been happening since life began on Earth. It’s the rate that has sped up. Based on the fossil record, the best (and admittedly highly imprecise) scientific estimate we have is that a vertebrate species goes extinct within one to three million years of its existence. Today the average expected lifespan is a mere 5,000 years. Plant extinction is occurring 500 times faster than would be expected naturally.
Extinction is the sharp edge of a more dramatic global thinning. While populations of the few animals humans rear for their consumption have exploded, wildlife is undergoing what conservationists are calling a biological annihilation. In the short span between 1970 and 2016 the global populations of wild mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles fell by a staggering 68 per cent.
Insects are often overlooked in such studies and scores could be going extinct without humankind ever having known about them. Car drivers of a certain age can recount when a long journey resulted in a windscreen full of squashed bugs, now no longer the case. A recent study comparing long-term surveys across 41 countries in 5 continents found that land-based insects were declining at the rate of nearly 1 per cent each year.
What would our reaction be if such disasters were befalling humans? At the time of writing Covid-19 has taken out 0.017 per cent of the total human population and the effects of what it has done to us are plain to see.
Indeed the pandemic itself has emerged from some of the very factors that are driving biodiversity down the drain, in this case the proximity of wild animals and humans due to the fragmentation of habitats and the industrial farming of livestock.
Today scientists are talking of a looming sixth mass extinction – if the previous ones seemed like B-movie scenarios featuring gigantic volcanic explosions or meteorite hits, this one is being powered by human activity. We humans are stretching the limits of the natural world to such an extent that increasingly conservationists refer to our age as the Anthropocene, a term coined by Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen in 2002.
It’s as if we’re playing a game of planetary Jenga. The first few bricks we tap out seem not to affect the overall structure, but as we proceed things get increasingly tottery, until all at once it could all come tumbling down. Ecological collapse is now not just the stuff of dystopian fantasy; it could lead to our own extinction or the marginally less dim prospect of humans surviving, with great difficulty, in an ‘empty world’ as described by the acting executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema.
It need not be all doom and gloom. Nature, if given the space, protection and opportunity, can bounce back with surprising resilience. It tends to abundance. But turning this particular corner requires Herculean action on many interlinked fronts: on ongoing habitat destruction, unsustainable exploitation of wildlife (including the illegal international wildlife trade), the climate emergency, pollution and invasive species and diseases. And all those actions become much harder in an unequal world where the richest exert great extractivist pressure even on the most remote corners of the planet.
The immediate response to nature’s destruction is conservation, focusing on particular habitats and species in order to secure them. It is difficult, complicated work that becomes even more uphill when faced with issues around a changing climate. You could possibly consider feeding elephants that are going hungry in the rainforest of the Congo Basin because the fruit they rely on is getting scarcer due to drier conditions. But how do you tackle the plunge in numbers of insect-eating bird species in the Amazon because the heat is also wiping out the creatures they require? What to do about plant species that would need to migrate to higher latitudes to survive warming but at a speed that is impossible? Or animals needing to do the same but being unable to because there are no migration corridors or new habitats to move to? What do you do with the knowledge that as much as 40 per cent of the Amazon rainforest is at the tipping point of turning into grassland due to drought?
As Robert Watson, the former chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), put it: ‘We cannot solve the threats of human-induced climate change and loss of biodiversity in isolation. We either solve both or we solve neither.’
There is also a crisis in how conservation is done (and serious limits to what it can achieve). Too often the policy framework and political will is lacking and conservation becomes reliant on NGOs. The giants among these have often made the case for nature in economic terms by expressing the dollar value of the services nature can offer us – a route that deviates from valuing wildlife for itself and makes it difficult to advocate for species that do not directly offer such value. In addition, these charities have gladly accepted funding from corporations that actively destroy nature – including mining and fossil-fuel transnationals – and help greenwash their activities by offering biodiversity credits and carbon offsets that do nothing to curb the harm done. It goes by the innocuous name of ‘partnering’.
Worse still has been the top-down vision of conservation they espouse, dubbed ‘fortress conservation’ by its critics, which seeks to enclose land in the name of protecting biodiversity, often alienating, persecuting and dispossessing the indigenous peoples who live upon it and who are truly nature’s defenders. In case anyone was in doubt of this latter fact, a study of over 15,000 sites in Australia, Brazil and Canada compared protected areas with lands under indigenous management. It found the indigenous lands to be slightly more species rich than the protected areas and, in Brazil and Canada, they even supported more threatened species than protected areas. This despite indigenous people foraging and hunting on these lands.
Recently the US government cut $12 million worth of funding to conservation NGOs, including WWF and the Wildlife Conservation Society, citing human rights abuses in Africa, and stated that finance would no longer be available to such organizations unless they have the full consent of indigenous people.
It’s no wonder that organizations campaigning for the rights of indigenous peoples view current plans as proposed by the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to reserve a third of our planet for nature with alarm if it were to be done in the usual exclusionary way, warning it could be ‘the biggest land grab in history’. That nature needs space is unquestionable, but a vision to create such space will only work if it includes nature’s defenders. Today such inclusion of indigenous peoples is mentioned again and again in policy aims and documents, even at the highest level. But there is much work to be done to make these promises a reality.
Space for nature could also emerge by easing the relentless extractivist pressure upon it. Often in the popular imagination this is a result of, as megastar naturalist David Attenborough once put it, the world being ‘overrun’ by humans. This is far from the truth – such pressure as population exerts on nature comes mainly from the appetites of the world’s wealthiest nations, with their small clutch of uber-wealthy being the worst offenders.
If we look at something as basic as food, the scientific consensus is that we grow enough to feed everyone comfortably without converting any more land to agriculture, and that’s not counting the full third that gets wasted or lost. Yet two-thirds of deforestation in the tropics is taking place due to big agribusiness players clearing land for soy, beef and palm oil. Livestock takes up nearly 80 per cent of global agricultural land to provide less than 20 per cent of the supply of calories. Further, if everyone ate like a US citizen, 137 per cent of the world’s habitable land would be needed for agriculture alone, but just 22 per cent if we all adopted Indian diets. And to complete this picture of inequality, the largest 1 per cent of farms cover over 70 per cent of the world’s farmland. All one needs to do is join the dots to see who is really overrunning the planet.
Today an infrastructure boom is taking place in numerous countries in the Global South and massive highway construction further threatens forests. Necessary development? Alas, most of these projects are not being designed to serve local communities and connect them to healthcare services or job opportunities, but to enable the extraction and transportation of their natural riches.
To ease this relentless – and often needless – pressure on the natural world will require a gear change from the continual pursuit of growth and the exponential increases in consumption it requires. A critique of capitalist consumption is now finally being voiced from establishment environmental figures, not just fringe Lefties. Earnest pleas are also being made that it is time for the West to stop taking and meaningfully aid recovery. Institutions like the IPBES are writing out prescriptions that make it seem like the technocratic scales have finally fallen from their eyes, calling for transformative change. Including: ‘Embrace diverse visions of a good life; Reduce total consumption and waste; Unleash values and action; Reduce inequalities; Practice justice and inclusion in conservation…’ etc.
Will such dawning awareness bring real change? Indeed, can it be made to dawn a little faster? Let’s consider the 20 biodiversity targets set for 2011-20 by the 196 nations signed up to the Convention on Biological Diversity. As the decade closed not a single one had been met. The next round of talks is slated for May 2021 in Kunming, China. Can we hope for a bit more action this time?
With the promise of vaccines on the way and the Covid-19 pandemic having caused an estimated $26 trillion in economic damage (and further enriching profiteering billionaires), will turbocapitalism rev up in the only way it knows – through an orgy of overproduction and natural destruction? Thus bringing the possibility of the next pandemic ever closer.
Or can we realize the political transformation that’s needed to allow us humans to behave less like vengeful gods towards the rest of the natural world? The key is equality. Author Jedediah Purdy makes the argument succinctly: ‘Without economic security and social provision, the world becomes an unsafe place, a place in which you can never have too much protection, that is, too much wealth. So insecurity brings insatiable demands on nature.
‘Here is where environmentalist and egalitarian projects meet. Only an economy with greater security is likely to produce political forces to limit economic growth because only a secure economy would make economic slowdown politically tolerable.’
The web of life is fraying. Softly softly will not cut it.
*We have not included the biggest conservation charities due to concerns around human rights and/or inappropriate corporate influence. It is best to research and support smaller, trusted local groups.