88. The crash in biodiversity

In the 1970s I was enchanted by my wonderfully wild garden in Cambridgeshire. I was captivated by the music of dozens of different songbirds, From April to September the bees swarmed around the flowers. Frogs and toads jumped in and out of the small pools. On occasion I would see foxes, munkjack deer and colorful pheasants and innumerable squirrels. Four decades later there are no more sparrows, owls, or bats and very few songbirds. Maybe a handful of frogs remain; hardly a bee appeared all summer. I have not seen any four-legged wild species this year. The toll is dreadful and makes me wonder: For how much longer will we humans who have abandoned animal labor for machines and exchanged the natural resources of nature for the miracles of chemistry remain on this planet? Extinction may well be around the corner.

At a recent conference in Cambridge I was astounded to listen to the prominent economist Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta declare that he believed the greatest danger facing mankind was the threat to biodiversity. I would have expected him to say it was capitalism, inequality, or population, but he pointed out that there had already been five mass extinctions in our planet’s history — the last, about 65 million years ago when an asteroid hit the earth ending the dinosaurs. The Dasgupta casually observed that over half of the world’s wildlife has been lost in the past 50 years.

“Biodiversity,” a term which most people don’t seem to understand embraces the variety of different types of life found on our planet and the variations within its species. For biologists, biodiversity is a measure of the variety of plants, animals, insects and other micro-organisms present in our different ecosystems. Fauna and flora are essential components of nature and ensure our survival by providing us with food, fuel, medicines and wherewithal. The devastation that one species, homo sapiens, has wreaked on this planet has transgressed such critical boundaries as: climate change, exploitation of resources and pollution.

Our inept perspective on biodiversity is colored by outdated views of our relationship to the environment. Although the disappearance of bees is of concern, the loss of numerous insects — so important to the web of life — is ignored. Habitat destruction is driven by overpopulation, but we don’t accept the connection.

About a third of all amphibians [like frogs and toads] have become extinct since the 1960s. Fresh water biodiversity has been threatened because ponds, streams and rivers have had minimum protection from human pollution. Marine life is similarly affected: The destruction of nesting grounds, drowning in fishnets at sea, and hunting have killed 80 percent of sea turtles over the past four decdes, Even our seas are being littered with some 6 trillion bits of plastic. The marine ecologist Chelsea M Rochman of the University of California has said “Plastics are like a cocktail of contaminant floating around the in aquatic habitat. These contaminants may be magnifying up the food chain.”

As I have pointed out, people generally recognize the value of honeybees. We are aware that without them almonds and blueberries would no longer be on our tables. The plight of bees, partially the consequence of a chemical industry set on increasing agricultural production, may give an indication of where the planet may be headed if we continue to ruthlessly exploit the natural world for profit. “Excessive cultivation, chemical use and habitat destruction may eventually destroy the very organisms that could be our partners,” wrote Mark Winston.1

A two-year ban on three neonicotinoid insecticides came into force in the European Union two years ago. However, a typical honeybee colony contains residues from more than 12 pesticides. While none of these, individually, could be fatal to bees, together they produce a toxic hive. The sub-lethal effects would appear to have affected the navigation of bees. It is unlikely that a global moratorium of neonicotinoids, such as those produced by corporations like Syngenta and Bayer, will be tackled because it is not yet known exactly how these substances affect human beings.

What is clear from the signals all around us is that the biological framework of life on earth is being dismantled. “How soon, indeed, before the Earth’s biological treasures are trashed in what will be the sixth mass extinction?” asked Jan Zalasiewicz.2 Globally thousands of species die off each year, nearly all of them without obituaries or notice. That is what occurs when on e species becomes so overwhelming that it crowds out or obliterates all the others. The famous biologist and author Professor E O Wilson noted that the present extinction rate in our tropics is “on the order of 10,000 times greater than the naturally occurring background extinction rate.” The will reduce biological diversity to its lowest level since the giant asteroid killed off the dinosaurs. It might surprise readers that hardly any of the species that surround us today existed 100 million years ago.

Lord Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal who has a broad perspective on the planet’s place in the universe, wrote that “climate change is aggravating a collapse in biodiversity.” Rees claims that “We are destroying the book of life before we have read it.”3

At the Paris Global Conference for the Environment which starts this week, there is going to be a strong demand for a healthier world for human beings — to be achieved through climate change. However this vast gathering is unlikely to consider the needs of all the other living species. It therefore takes no crystal ball to predict where biodiversity is headed.

Controls on the human population will not take place at the conference, although our numbers have quadrupled over the past four generations and have had a greater impact on biodiversity than any other single factor. According to a study by the World Wildlife Fund in 2014, the human population already exceeds our planet’s biocapacity. It would take 1.5 Earths to meet our current demands for food, water, space and land. Following the Convention on Biological Diversity in May 2010 where numerous conservation measures supporting biodiversity were proposed, non of the specific targets were met. Biodiversity receives only a tiny fraction of funding compared to the financing of industrial development. The bitter truth is that humans are not ready to make minimal sacrifices now in order to avoid major ones in the future. The thoroughbred capitalists writing for the Economist contend that both economic growth and technological progress are friends of biodiversity.4

A crop of biodiversity deniers had been sustained by a few American billionaires and neonicotinoid producers who set profits above the demands of life itself. The deniers and the greedy simply do not want to face up to what is happening. The statistics speak for themselves. True, the reading public has begun to find the subject of climate change infinitely boring, so trying to engage its perspective on biodiversity is ever more challenging. The diminishing attention spans of the coming generations does not bode well for improving these truly existential threats facing humanity.

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize psychologist, has said that “No amount of psychological awareness will overcome people’s reluctance to lower their standard of living.” The capitalist economy, to which we have become enslaved, demands the continued exploitation of the planet’s resources: We are catching fish faster than the oceans can restock, taking water from the rives and aquifers faster than rainfall can refill the, and cutting down trees faster than they regrow, while emitting more carbon dioxide than the oceans and forests can absorb.

Speaking at the United Nations this autumn, Pope Francis demonstrated that he had truly grasped the scale of the problem by asserting that the large scale destruction of biodiversity could “threaten the very existence of the human species.” He enlarged on this by saying that unrestrained capitalism was not only trampling on the poor and the weak, but also on nature itself by destroying the environment.

The need to halt the current rush towards extinction is obvious but whether any agreements on climate change made in Paris 2015 will then be implemented is less certain. The United States, after prolonged debates and hesitation, finally banned the use of DDT in the 1970s, but whether the assembled members in Paris, after decades of negotiations, will take effective measures to reduce global population [which would help to protect biodiversity] can only be wished for. I would like the delegates to remember that the total number of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish across the globe is, on average, half the size it was only 40 years ago!5

1Mark Winston, Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive [2014]
2Jan Zalasiewicz, “The Earth stands on the brink of its sixth mass extinction,” The Observer, June 21 2015
3Martin Rees, “Scientists and politicians alike must rally to protect life on earth,” The Financial Times, September 2, 2015
4See: “All creatures great and small,” [Special Report on Biodiversity] the Economist, September 14, 2013
5The Living Planet Report 2014

87. A Leap-frogging Conference to End the Middle East Chaos

The frenetic response of both the press and the leadership of the Western nations to the slaughter in Paris has been most disconcerting not only because of the lack of perspective and historical context, but also because of the focus on retaliatory strikes. More drone and fighter plane attacks on Raqqa by the French and the US will not resolve anything. Yes a few more Daesh maniacs are likely to be killed, but so will a larger number of innocent residents, Daesh captives and slaves unable to escape the evil clutches of the fanatics.

We are faced with a dreadful mess which has engulfed the entire Middle East. The British Prime Minister’s eagerness to drop bombs on Syria will not help to resolve the situation. What is lacking at the moment is a planned strategy for the entire region not merely to combat terrorism or to depose Assad, but also to control the tensions between the Sunnis and Shias and to lessen the contagious extremism in the region which threatens even further hostilities.

I strongly believe it is crucial at this stage to leapfrog the day-to-day events and to focus on the larger picture in order to get results. What this involves is an international Conference to follow up on the G-20 talks in Turkey and the continuing talks in Vienna. The agreement reached on November 14th — by 19 countries including the rival powers of Iran and Saudi Arabia — could lead to talks between the Syrian government and its opposition and work toward a possible ceasefire by May 14, 2016. This was a positive first step in the right direction.

The harsh reality of the current regional chaos dates back to the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in WWI and its break-up at the Treaty of Sevres (1920) by oil greedy French and British representatives. The dramatic regional configurations which liquidated this empire, then the largest state in the Western world, were made by French and the British diplomats who rejected the advice of those most affected. Syria and Lebanon became French mandates, while Palestine and Trans-Jordan came under British mandates. A truncated Turkey was ordered to give autonomy to Kurdistan. This latter demand was never pushed through because the French and British had lost interest in the Kurds at the Lausanne Conference two years later when they attempted to correct some of the over-sights of the Sevres Treaty.

Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon all became separate nations in an area which had contained one large Muslim body or caliphate, for 650 years. It is to be noted that the wretched and criminal leadership of the terrorists had only one strong point on their agenda: the return of all these artificially created nations into one single body, or caliphate. None of the heads of state meeting in Turkey and Vienna these past weeks brought up this alternative solution.

Perhaps they should have started their discussions with the festering Kurdish question: The Turks have been fighting an off-and-on battle with the Kurds for a couple of generations. The Kurds today have become the strongest ground forces fighting against Daesh and are continuing to expand the territory and oil they control in Iraq — but NO one is proposing a solution as to how these Kurds, who also continue to face persecution in Iran and Syria, can be recognized as a nation. All the so-called national players in this area are opposed to the prospect of Kurdistan as a neighbor. The Iraqis, in particular, are fearful that the Kurds are becoming so powerful that their country will be split in two.

A resolution is essential and needs to be addressed by a wider group at a Middle East Conference in 2016 which would have to make amends for the greed, ignorance, arrogance, and imperial ambitions of the French and the British following WWI. All the major players in this area should be seated around a table, as well as the representatives of the five permanent member states of the Security Council. Their decisions would then have enforceable validity on such important issues as the millions of displaced refugees, the increased hostility between the Sunnis and Shias, and the continuing threats of both Daesh (“ISIS”) and other terrorist groups such as al Qaeda.

Western politicians and diplomats have continued to be divided over how to unseat Assad and destroy Daesh at the same time. The two are linked in their minds because the dictator’s brutality against his own people has been one of the driving forces behind the early advances of the terrorists. On the other hand, the highly effective targeting of Daesh commanders by US drones has resulted in the elimination of their original leadership and a subsequent takeover by inexperienced, weak and unaccountable young substitutes. A leaderless force tends to produce chaotic and irrational consequences. The leaderless Hamas in Gaza is a prime example of what happens in this region when you either kill or imprison all those capable of effective command. World powers have had great difficulty in dealing with such groups and will have to come up with new ways of engagement at conferences which must inevitably be forthcoming in the critical restructuring of this entire region — and the sooner the better.

86. Opposition to Change

Change, as we all acknowledge is inevitable, but at one level attempts can be made to control it and at another level it can run out of control and turn destructive. This paradox in the 21st century is becoming ever more evident: The world critically needs major changes — ranging from economic reforms to environmental controls and information privacy — yet there is mounting resistance to profound change all around. I feel frustration in writing this blog because most of the urgent changes I have proposed over the past three years are still ignored.

A society’s values and attitudes can exert an enormous impact on encouraging or retarding change. A people who greatly respect the past, honor and obey their elders, and are preoccupied with traditions will change slowly and with hesitation. A more open society has a different attitude toward change: promoting the proposal and acceptance of social and economic development, or progress. However, such changes also can disrupt the existing culture, its assets, values, and even social behavior. This possibility instills fear into the electorate, anxious about the risks and costs involved. This is one of the principal reasons an “establishment” such as that in Britain, steadfastly side-steps changes.

Those in politics largely conform to a script of rejecting risk. Unified by a common outlook which demands that those at the top follow a steady course, which enables businesses to avoid taxes, city bankers to demand continually enlarged bonuses, and permits all-too-many others to cheat on expenses. Their operations are assisted by laws that bear down on the smallest of misdemeanors by the poorest, such as benefit fraud. As the writer Owen Jones described it: “One rule for us, one rule for everybody else” has been another way to sum up establishment thinking. Such a perspective rather assures the members continued advantages and power. It also enables them to avoid the changes that most of the electorate might desire.1

Evading risk on difficult issues appears to be of the essence to every establishment. For the past two centuries optimism was fueled by the vision of a world progressively redeemed from poverty and drudgery through technological advances. From the Marxist philosophers to farm laborers, most everyone marveled at the pace of the many changes taking place in front of their eyes. But that is no longer true. Although our attitude towards “change”, so integral to furthering progress and development, is evolving.2

The pace of technological advance progressed so steadily in our homes, our communications, and in the world around us that we came not only to accept change but to expect it. At the same time, we began to recognize that the future was likely to be radically different from both the past and the rapidly changing present. The exponential rate of technological development began to make it difficult for humans to adapt. Indeed the speed of such development has become one of the driving forces of the mounting global crises such as those now occurring in the Middle East.

We who live under the continuing advances of change are becoming fearful that it may deprive us of much of what we inherited: Our ways of thinking, our use of words, our ideas, and our attitudes are being altered not only by the fast forward drive of technology but also by the very pace of change itself. We can see this clearly in the lowered attention-spans of the younger generations. Our memories, too, are beginning to falter without the aid of photographs and social networks. Letters on paper are becoming rare.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt questioned whether “we have ceased to live in a commonly shared world where the words we have in common possess an unquestionable meaningfulness, so that, short of being condemned to live verbally in an altogether meaningless world, we grant each other the right to retreat into worlds of meaning, and demand only that each of us remain consistent with his own private terminology.”3 I know that we do not want to change ourselves out of existence, but we do not seem to recognize what is happening to us.

We no longer think in terms of any limits to growth nor do we debate the possibility of slowing down change, as the Club of Rome did in the early 1970s. I regard one of the prime cop-outs of the 20th century was to suggest that long-term planning was ”socialist “and ultimately self-defeating” just because the Bolsheviks under Stalin made such a cruel mess of their five-year plans and their economies. The result was that we began to abandon thinking about changes for humanity’s long-term future. Indeed, have the scientific and technological advances [that is, changes] of the past 75 years humanized or dehumanized us?

Personally, I do not believe we can afford to let capitalism’s undisputed force in advancing science and technology determine the pace of change on this planet. It is driving our daily lives at ever greater speeds and developing robots that are already beginning to increase unemployment. Capitalism in its brutality is not only wrecking the environment but it will also change the world we are experiencing beyond recognition over the next hundred years.The way we manage change will determine our success as a global society. This means that we must become participants in dealing with change rather than passive spectators.

Our focus will have to shift from the attractions of the material world and our anxieties about profits to a more gradual enjoyment and development of our personal and internal resources. We must start drafting strategies for change which will shift its focus. Perhaps a deliberate slow-down of tempo could be assisted by the cybernetic machines of tomorrow.

However, to advance such a paradigm transformation we must find better ways of selecting capable leadership than has been demonstrated so far in this new century by the recalcitrants around the world. (The spectacle of the Republicans choosing a candidate from more than a dozen inexperienced but wealthy self-selected millionaires degenerated into a truly farcical effort at change.) Politicians in power never like change and those seeking office, like Bernie Sanders in the United States and Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom, propose numerous changes which are applauded by the younger generations but firmly opposed by their respective mature establishments.

This was most evident in England where the “establishment” is more clearly defined. The reaction of nearly all sections of the largely magnate controlled press and media — ranging from Murdoch’s The Sun to the usually progressive Guardian — has been the derisive rejection of the program of change being proposed by an “outsider,” Corbyn, who does not have a university degree, rode a bike when going to Parliament, and did not even wear ties. This rankled when combined with his opposition to nuclear weapons, his distaste for NATO, and his desire for a vast Public Quantitative Easing program.

The British establishment has drawn fine lines between what is acceptable and unacceptable: The People’s Quantitative Easing, proposed by Corbyn, for example, is an untouchable. The fact that this outsider is full of passionate intensity for basic economic changes repels the establishment. It is as if he had bad breath. His eagerness to discuss such truly delicate matters as the upgrading of Trident submarines and nuclear weapons, is something that the establishment struggles to avoid, much as it does not want to face the failures of the government’s austerity programs or the problems arising from economic inequality.

What truly riled even many of his own Labor Party’s Members of Parliament, was that this rebel had somehow, against all expectations, come to lead their Party. A leftist leader who was genuinely proposing changes to a society that is in many ways self-satisfied and wedded to a history of “Rule Britannia!”, the heritage of the Church of England, and even the Royal family was viewed as undermining the order and “correctness” of an established way of life. His very success seemingly threatened the security of “the establishment,” that is, the lose but select socioeconomic grouping of politicians, civil servants, administrators, bankers, academics, the judiciary and the armed forces running the country.

The attraction of the political fringe to such a possibility of significant change seemed frightening: A political figure on the margins was ready to shake the apple cart. As it is, little national confidence exists in the leadership of present and past political leaders in the UK, like Cameron, Osborne, Clegg, Blair or Miliband. But an upstart like Corbyn with a distaste for capitalism, the intelligence services, and drone strikes- no, that was viewed by some as going too far! The politically irritable writer, Martin Amis, even accused Corbyn of being “humourless” as well as not having “the slightest grasp of the national character” and of being gridlocked into the “encysted dogmas” of the antiquated left. Fortunately, Amis is not proposing stasis, that is the Greek word for immobility, which itself is an impossibility in this world.

Harold MacMillan, the Prime Minister five decades ago, observed that when “the establishment” is united it is usually wrong. Well, it was certainly united in dissing Corbyn. A Guardian columnist noted that the establishment has little time for elections that delivered the “wrong” results.4 Change has many enemies and here was a politician of the retirement generation who was challenging the status quo with a vision of how a basically unstable economic system, which was creating ever greater inequality could be mended. At the Labour Party Conference a couple of weeks after his selection as the new leader, Corbyn did win approval for telling a receptive audience that: “You don’t have to take what you’re given.” But the truth is that all of us have to accept that we shall experience change no matter what we are given.

The challenge for us is to make it “change for the better,”

1Owen Jones, “The establishment uncovered: how power works in Britain,” The Guardian, August 24, 2014.

2See: Yorick Blumenfeld, Towards the Millennium- Optimistic Visions for Change (1996), pp 15-77.

3Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future, (1968) p.96

4Seumas Milne, “It’s the establishment that has a problem with democracy”. The Guardian, September 26, 2015