“For greed, all nature is too little” – Seneca
What is the nature problem?
You often hear that humans are ‘killing the planet’. We-re not – the earth will continue to spin, with its oceans, volcanoes and hydrological / meteorological systems. Nothing we do can change that. It’s not our planet, but the ecology of our planet that’s being damaged – nature, in other words. And as nature / ecology is what keeps us healthy, and ultimately keeps us alive, if we damage nature we damage ourselves.
How are we damaging it? Global warming is the most widely-known way – there’s no (sensible) debate any more about global warming and its anthropogenic nature. We just have to listen to climate scientists. Then there’s soil erosion: for a species that requires healthy soil to grow most of its food, it’s not wise to continue to erode soil at 10-40 times the natural rate. There’s also the release of plastics and nanomaterials; pollution – i.e. the release of toxic substances; ocean acidification; the introduction of invasive species; water depletion and the direct removal of natural habitat for agriculture, cities, roads, ports, airports, golf courses etc.
But the cumulative effect of these problems is an erosion of nature. Are you old enough to remember driving on a summer evening in the 20th century? You probably had to stop every now and then to wipe away the enormous number of bugs that had splatted onto your windscreen. That doesn’t happen now. A recent study covering 63 nature reserves in Germany over 27 years shows an 75% drop in flying insect numbers. This has been nicknamed ‘insectageddon’, but of course it’s not just insects.
Altough the current extinction rate is much higher than the pre-industrial rate, large animals are often preserved in zoos, and so it’s mainly creepy-crawlies that are lost. They’re extremely important when it comes to soil creation, pollination and seed dispersion, and they constitute the bottom of the food chain on which all other life depends.
However, the problem may be not so much about extinctions, even for insects and invertebrates – but more about the extent of populations of those species. So for example, if a species still exists, but only in one or two little reserves, or even just in zoos, then that creature doesn’t play a role in global ecology any more. So if pollinators don’t become extinct, but fall in numbers so that they don’t do much in terms of pollination globally, that causes the same problems as if they were extinct. It stops global ecosystems working properly – preventing what scientists call ‘ecosphere functioning’. So for example, the Zoological Society of London tells us that we’ve lost 95% of eels since the 1980s, with similar falls all over Europe – so eels can’t play the same role in ecology that they used to. The declines in populations don’t show up in the extinction figures, and result in the ‘nature problem’ being understimated.
Who says so?
In 2017, an article appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. It’s entitled: Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and declines. Notice those first two words. This is an establishment, sober, respected and respectable organisation, founded in 1836, whose output is triple peer-reviewed (see below). The researchers involved have clearly chosen those two words carefully to grab attention.
Science magazine: the current extinction rate is 20-100 times the natural background rate.
American Museum of Natural History: as long ago as 1998, a survey found that 70% of biologists believed that we are entering the fastest extinction event in the Earth’s history.
Convention on Biological Diversity: the abundance of vertebrate species populations declined by a third between 1970 and 2006, and the main pressures driving biodiversity loss are increasing.
International Botanical Congress: between one-third andtwo-thirds of all plant and animal species, most in the tropics, will be lost during the second half of this century.
WWF Living Planet Report: global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles declined by 58 per cent between 1970 and 2012
We could go on, but you can find more sources online.
The five major extinction events in history, plus the one we’re entering now.
How do we know they’re right?
The sources above are peer-reviewed, which means that independent academic experts in the same field have checked the methods, analysis of data and conclusions before they’re published. It’s not perfect, but there’s nothing better. There is no fixed or absolute authority when it comes to establishing ‘facts’. We can only make best-guesses based on meticulous and impartial work, and then have established, disinterested experts in the field judge the meticulousness and impartiality of the work.
Let’s look at the PNAS review process (above), for example. When a paper is submitted, it’s handed over to an editorial board member for its first review. Here’s a list of their editorial board members. If the editorial board member judges that the quality of the paper is high enough, it’s passed on to a National Academy of Sciences member editor – a professional scientist and researcher in the field associated with the paper. The member editor will look at the paper in more detail, and again, if the quality of the methodology, data analysis and conclusions are high enough, it’s passed on to an independent peer reviewer, who is a recognised expert in the field of study.
This is a three-tier review by scientists qualified in the field of study. We want to focus on this process to highlight the fact that this is the exact opposite of something garnered from Facebook or from a conversation in the pub. All opinions are not equally valid. This is as far from fake news as it’s humanly possible to get. If you think it’s wrong, you have to go to as much trouble as they have to show your reasoning. Otherwise you’re just wasting everyone’s time, in the same way that climate change denial wasted time (and still is, in some quarters).
It’s the most effective way we have of ascertaining what’s true, to the best of our knowledge. You might hear some people say ‘science doesn’t know everything’ – but as Daro O’Briain said, ‘science knows it doesn’t know everything; otherwise, it’d stop’. Or you might hear: ‘scientists believed that we were entering a new ice age in the 70s’; but they didn’t.
What are the consequences of the nature problem?
Ecology is an interconnected web of life. For example, some plants need certain insects to pollinate them, some seeds need to pass through other species to germinate; some species can only eat one kind of plant or animal, some are parasitic on others, or have symbiotic existences, etc. So take enough species out of global ecology and, like a game of Jenga, it looks solid until one too many is taken out. When nature is so damaged that it can’t reproduce itself any more, there’s a point when feedback loops produce what ecologists call a ‘cascade effect’ – and we have runaway ecological damage with no way of stopping it.
Ecology delivers the things that we need to survive – clean, oxygen-rich air, fertile soil, fisheries, pollination, pest control, etc. If these ‘services’ start to break down in a world where the human population is expanding, international relations could easily degenerate into resource wars between countries possessing nuclear weapons. A radioactive world with air quality, soil fertility, fisheries, pollinators and pest predators plummeting, and with high levels of disease and toxicity could indeed be fatal for our species.
Empires have fallen because of environmental damage, although the consequences were local. The Sumerians diverted water from the Tigris and Euphrates with irrigation channels that were shallow enough for a lot of the water to evaporate, but leave behind salts, that accumulated in the soil and reduced yields year on year. Deforestation added to the problem by causing soil erosion and siltation of irrigation channels. Their empire fell when they couldn’t feed their people from the depleted soil any more.
The Romans had no interest in sustainable agriculture – they used constant expansion and conquest to provide for their needs. They removed most of the trees from all parts of their empire that could grow wheat, and then attempted to constantly increase wheat production until the soil was exhausted. They managed to turn North Africa into the arid and sparsely vegetated region it is today. Trying to extract taxes from increasingly impoverished farmers, and trying to obtain food from further and further afield eventually weakened Rome to the point that they were susceptible to Barbarian raids from the north.
The consequences of the collapse of empires were local. Human societies were unaffected elsewhere. Ecological damage is now global, and the case of collapse, there will be nowhere for humans to recover and to replenish.
What can I do?
So how do we stop the damage, and avoid collapse? Some believe that we can’t – that it’s already too late. If it is too late to prevent collapse, then maybe our actions can push back that collapse so that we can put in place local, resilient infrastructure and gain relevant skills that will mean more of us will survive. But even if this is wishful thinking, we can do things that are more interesting and fulfilling than the crushing tedium of corporate work, consumerism and celebrity.
Global Biodiversity Outlook 3: the importance of biodiversity, and what we are losing.
As an individual, you can adopt behaviours, technologies and facilities that will reduce your personal contribution to the nature problem, as well as helping to develop local, small-scale, sustainable and convivial alternatives, and to gain the skills that might save your life or, in the meantime, help you to change to a career that doesn’t help prop up the corporate economy. We’ve compiled over 230 of those behaviours, technologies and facilities.
But there’s only so much we can do via individual lifestyle change – bearing in mind that the vast majority of humanity don’t know or care what’s happening. Conservation groups can help, but ultimately, we’re not going to be able to conserve nature with an economic system that has to grow forever. We believe that system change is essential to prevent biodiversity loss and extinction, but we don’t believe that this change can happen via the electoral system, and even less so via violent revolution.
That new system is already being built. You can help it to grow.
Some (‘ecomodernists’) will tell you not to worry – that human ingenuity and new technologies will solve these problems (ignoring the fact that those were the very things that caused the problems in the first place). This is music to the ears of those who are benefitting from this system. Some of these people are genuine, and some have been paid to say those things. But their approach is extremely irresponsible. Our position on ecomodernism is more-or-less summarised here.
There are other people who don’t think it’s particularly important if humans become extinct, or even welcome it, because, well, we’ll have deserved it, and it will allow biodiversity to recover. However, humans represent the universe becoming aware of itself – at least in this little corner of it. What a shame to snuff out that growing awareness because of a bad system, rather than bad people.
Should we not talk about this, in case it scares people?
Many feel that we shouldn’t mention this, or at least that we should add copious amounts of sweetener, rather than being honest about the scale of the problem. The arguments go something like this: if you scare people, you paralyse them so that they do nothing, or you make them spend and consume more, to shore up their defences against the coming disaster (therefore making the problem worse); and/or you make them hostile to others in their community, who they might see as competitors for dwindling resources. This is the opposite of what we should actually be doing, and so frightening people with the truth about ecology is self-defeating. It will dilute people’s will to do anything about it – they will become fatalistic.
But would people be more or less likely to man the lifeboats if shown clearly that a collision with an iceberg is imminent? Research has shown that imminent disaster tends to be motivating, until it becomes clear that nothing is going to work – and we haven’t got to that point yet. Another important thing to remember is that the majority will never be motivated. This message is for the minority that will – to persuade them to stop tinkering, and to start turning the steering wheel. And for goodness sake, to take their foot off the accelerator. Anyone who thinks that we can avoid ‘biological annihilation’ and still chase perpetual economic growth is not part of the solution.
We should talk about this because if we don’t, the response will be inadequate. And that’s exactly what’s happening. If you could see that someone’s house was on fire, you’d warn them, wouldn’t you?
Whilst you’re here, why not take a look at the other 25+ nature topics available? And don’t forget to visit our main topics page to explore over 200 aspects of low-impact living and our homepage to learn more about why we do what we do.
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Dorian Cavé holds a Master’s degree from the Paris Institute of Political Science, and is about to begin a PhD at the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (Uni. of Cumbria). He has extensive knowledge of climate change and sustainability, particularly regarding China. He now focuses on education / networking in activist communities building social / economic resilience around the world. He blogs here.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's