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Our inept perspective on biodiversity is colored by outdated views of our relationship to the environment.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

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