MUSINGS¬† on¬† our¬† predicament
This page is in need of much revision following two difficult years, including the passing of my brother-in-law, my mother, several seizures, my Tibetan terrier dying four years too early, and the clearance of the house preparatory to moving down to North Devon (Braunton) in late autumn.
In a small, unremarkable corner of this vast, infinitely expanding universe, a species has evolved with the mental capacity to contemplate and investigate its origins. It lives on an average-sized planet orbiting a long-lived star in what is known as the Goldilocks zone, with millions of other species, some of which are quite capable of predating it, and through its intelligence, ingenuity and the use of tools it has become the apex predator and an ecosystem engineer, now seemingly hell-bent on destroying that which supports it, namely the living planet itself. Madness? Let me introduce you to Homo sapiens . . .
It has become increasingly apparent over recent decades that all is not well with Planet Earth. Fully HALF of the world‚Äôs vertebrate wildlife has disappeared since 1970, a September 2014 report by the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London informs us, and some 22,413 species are threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). These alarming statistics should give us immediate pause. Every single species that becomes extinct, whether it be a large vertebrate or a bacterium, diminishes the complex, interconnected web of life to which we all belong. But this is only part of the picture, as we do not yet know the complete extent of the world’s biodiversity; so much remains un-researched, and an unfathomable number of species still await discovery. To take the historical perspective regarding the UK, most of the large and predatory mammals became extinct long ago, the last wolves having been extirpated in the late 1600s; however, it is in the developing world that the trend of decline is most pronounced, although the developed world imports from these countries much of what contributes to habitat destruction and wildlife decline, and should therefore bear a significant proportion of the responsibility.
The text that follows¬†attempts to reflect knowledge acquired through my own experience and that of kindred spirits working in the field of natural history, as well as what has been learnt from the study of conservation organisations, books, journals,¬†and the¬†internet. It is ongoing, and will be¬†subject to constant revision as new problems arise, existing issues are perhaps resolved, and new facts, figures and research emerge. Where there are entire, edited, or modified quotes, the source is stated in every case and permission given.¬†It is by no means¬†comprehensive, there are bound to be omissions and¬†errors ‚Äď any suggestions about these are¬†most welcome ‚Äď and whilst it may seem like doom-mongering, that is not my intention; it is simply a collection of known facts, along with my own take on the issue concerned. To counter the uncomfortable nature of what follows, there¬†is an untold number of charities, organisations and individuals across the globe¬†working extremely hard to protect¬†species and habitats, instigating legal actions against the actions of companies that threaten to destroy individual species or entire natural habitats through the extraction of oil, coal, minerals, precious metals, rare earths, and by pollution, development and infrastructure projects. There are also tens of millions of right-thinking people organising petitions and protest marches across the world against globalisation, climate chaos, and accelerating degradation of natural ecosystems and our quality of life by the super-rich, capitalism, extractive industries , agribusiness corporations, and human hubris and greed, and I have included these gleams of hope.
Despite countless extinctions, the rapidly shrinking areas of wild or partly managed habitat available to wildlife, and a bleak prognosis about what awaits if nothing changes, there are some grounds for optimism¬†here in the British Isles. Some notable examples include the¬†most welcome¬†return of the otter to British waterways and coastlines as a¬†result of cleaner rivers, and the withdrawal of organochlorines such as¬†aldrin and dieldrin. The banning of DDT in 1984 led to the¬†spectacular comeback of the¬†peregrine falcon. There has been an¬†impressive increase in osprey numbers since the 1950s, now with about¬†three hundred pairs breeding in Britain. The beleaguered water vole,¬†although still in trouble, has been much aided¬†by riverbank habitat¬†improvement, reintroduction, and the trapping of American mink (on which an increasing otter population is thought to have an impact). There has been a¬†long-term and successful reintroduction of the white-tailed eagle,¬†instigated and driven in large part by Roy Dennis, with Mull now¬†supporting over fifteen pairs. We have also become accustomed to the¬†sight of the elegant red kite along roadsides, for many decades recorded¬†as a breeding¬†bird only from a tiny area of upland Wales. And the¬†reappearance of the large blue butterfly in the south-west of England¬†should be much celebrated, as should the increase in populations of¬†adonis blue and silver-spotted skipper elsewhere. Nature conservation is¬†evolving, with new, species-rich habitats being created on a¬†landscape scale by various wildlife conservation organisations and¬†individuals. Small, discrete nature reserves have been shown to suffer species decline; just as in the overall web of life, only larger, varied, and most importantly, connected habitats are able to maintain their biodiversity. A good example is¬†the RSPB‚Äôs Lakenheath Fen,¬†previously an area of carrot fields, now a large wetland with reed beds,¬†marshes, and open water, where marsh harrier, bearded reedling,¬†bittern, hobbies, golden orioles, and common cranes now¬†successfully¬†breed. The planting of millions of Scots pine and other native deciduous¬†trees to increase the area of Caledonian Forest in the Highlands to¬†some six hundred square miles, the exclusion of red deer from rare¬†Alpine flora habitats above the natural tree-line such as on Ben Lawers,¬†the reclamation and renewal of degraded lowland heath in Southern¬†England and the Suffolk Sandlings, and the re-creation of new salt marsh¬†in Essex by¬†allowing areas to be reclaimed by the sea are other successes. The recent poll to vote for Britain’s National Bird resulted in the humble robin; perhaps red kite, or even hen harrier, would have reflected more aptly the changing state of nature in the British Isles.
In 2013¬†George Monbiot, an environmental journalist and political activist of¬†great integrity, published his latest book Feral ‚Äď Searching for¬†enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding [2,3,4]¬†in¬†which he suggests that large areas¬†be left to allow nature to take its¬†own course, rather than being intensively managed (except where¬†necessary as for reed beds, and the extirpation of troublesome and¬†invasive non-native species). Apex predators such as wolf¬†and lynx could¬†be reintroduced, and connectivity provided between the rewilded areas.¬†This could resolve the issue of overpopulation by deer; because the vast acreage of woodlands that pre-dated the Neolithic Age has largely gone, and subsequent to the extinction of their natural predators,¬†populations of certain deer species have increased to problematic¬†levels. Particularly effective in the Highlands, such reintroductions could allow¬†the gradual return of¬†large areas of Caledonian forest. A major¬†percentage of our peat-rich, carbon-sink upland habitat is severely¬†degraded by hordes of publicly subsidised sheep, leading to¬†areas largely empty of biodiversity, a¬†deterioration of the hydrological¬†cycle, and increased vulnerability to flash-flooding due to runaway erosion. If scrub and trees¬†were allowed to recolonise these areas, floods and landslips¬†would become a thing of the past, and biodiversity would¬†increase beyond¬†measure. A substantial reduction in sheep numbers alongside the¬†creation of large areas where nature is just left to itself would¬†provide solutions to a multitude of ecological ills. Our uplands are¬†kept species-poor, whilst being championed as ‚Äėwonderful open¬†landscapes‚Äô by the various wildlife organisations. However, there would¬†always have to be some kind of compromise regarding any change in¬†hill-farming methodology, with¬†enormous resistance coming from that¬†sector of the agricultural community.
The¬†Eurasian beaver, which became extinct in the British Isles in the¬†sixteenth century, although a review of all the data suggests that it¬†could have survived until the 18th, has been released in trial areas in¬†Knapdale, Scotland,¬†in Gloucestershire, Lancashire, Kent and Devon in¬†England, and may soon be released in Wales. In late January 2015 a small family of beavers on the River Otter in East Devon was allowed to remain for a five-year assessment period, having been DNA-tested to ensure they are of European and not American origin. There have also been¬†deliberate releases, as well as unintentional escapes, and a thriving¬†population now exists on the River Tay. Their¬†presence as a keystone¬†species reshapes the landscape, creating wetland areas which are¬†beneficial to a host of other species including salmon and trout, and¬†resulting in significant increases in aquatic and¬†terrestrial¬†biodiversity. Apart from humans, domesticated animals and invasive flora and fauna, almost no other animal¬†introduces such changes to its surroundings. An revision of conservation¬†policy might be overdue ‚Äď perhaps it should reflect recent changes in¬†the way we approach and¬†interact with nature ‚Äď and could incorporate the¬†concept of rewilding, instead of keeping nature ‚Äėpreserved‚Äô in isolated¬†nature reserves, for lessons regarding which we need look no further¬†afield than Europe, where¬†the brown bear, wolf, lynx, wolverine and bison are beginning to return.
During the¬†late Pleistocene about twelve to thirteen thousand years ago, Northern¬†Eurasia still had a collection of megafauna which included the woolly¬†mammoth, straight-tusked elephant, woolly rhinoceros,¬†European¬†hippopotamus (bones of which have been found beneath Trafalgar¬†Square), giant aurochs (the ancestor of domestic cattle), Irish Elk,¬†cave bear, cave lion, cave hyena, steppe wisent (bison), and the¬†scimitar cat, amongst¬†others. These moved south ahead of the last¬†glaciation, and when the ice finally retreated they were gone, hunted to¬†extinction. George Monbiot comes to some fascinating conclusions in¬†Feral as to why some tree species¬†regrow from where the stem has been¬†broken off ‚Äď oak, ash, beech, alder and willow amongst others ‚Äď it being¬†an evolutionary response to the browsing habits of the straight-tusked¬†elephant. Trees such as holly, yew and box¬†have exceptionally strong roots and¬†are resistant to toppling; this is seen as another adaptation to these¬†large herbivores. The blackthorn has oversized spines as a defence¬†against browsing rhinoceros. We need to think back and see¬†the big¬†picture of what was before, in order to imagine what could be again.
With regard¬†to the operation and management of a significant percentage of¬†Britain‚Äôs barren uplands, the driven grouse moors and shooting estates,¬†there is now no doubt that it is an activity carried on for the sole¬†benefit of a¬†privileged clique of extremely wealthy individuals such as¬†bankers, stockbrokers, royalty, peers, heads of industry, government¬†ministers and landowners. Their ‚Äėmanagement‚Äô of these estates does¬†enormous damage to the¬†peat ‚Äď a highly efficient carbon sink ‚Äď through¬†drainage, costly to water-users, and the systematic burning of heather,¬†carried out to encourage fresh young growth for the poults of their¬†precious grouse, releasing¬†hundreds of thousands of tonnes of¬†carbon, equivalent to the emissions from 88,000 average-sized cars.¬†The body that advises the government, Natural England, having capitulated to retail tycoon¬†Richard Bannister over¬†the Walshaw Moor* debacle, has now become little more than a¬†toothless minion for the landed classes, or to quote George Monbiot’s succint phrase, “blood-soaked lairds and congenital twits,” who, subsidised to a¬†significant degree by the public, are allowed to continue the¬†destructive,¬†barbaric practice of systematically and ruthlessly extirpating¬†any species (including the protected English hen harrier) that could¬†remotely threaten the profitability of their shoots, all the while¬†trumpeting that they are “nurturing a¬†precious landscape, for which¬†their reward is a little sport” [5,6]. They often use cruel methods such¬†as trapping, snaring and poisoning (sometimes with banned pesticides¬†such as carbofuran) with impunity. So as we stand now,¬†the government‚Äôs¬†appointed agency charged with protecting the natural landscape, and all¬†the species in it, now seems to be firmly on the side of the landed rich¬†intent on destroying it. These developments represent a kind of¬†resurgent aristocracy. Grouse moors should be licenced, and if the law¬†is transgressed regarding raptor persecution, the estate‚Äôs shooting¬†licence should be revoked. Applying enforcement, however, would be¬†next to¬†impossible as it stands now, and there would probably be loopholes by which shooting estates could wriggle out of any potential¬†convictions. As these estates are exempt from business rates and enjoy¬†other benefits, a far¬†better move would be to abolish tax breaks for the rich, stop subsidies to landowners, and tax the value of the land rather than earned income. This would free up large areas unsuitable for any other purpose to rewilding, perhaps with low-level¬†grazing on others. The spectacle of these barren grouse moors on which nothing except grouse are allowed to live amounts to a national disgrace. Mark Avery,¬†who joined the RSPB in 1986 as a researcher, became Head of Conservation Science in 1992 and Conservation Director in 1998 before leaving in April 2011, created¬† a petition calling for a ban on driven grouse shooting (closed 30th March 2015); on the 25th July 2015 he created a fresh petition with the same aim, which closed on 21st September 2016, and I hope all those concerned with the virtual absence of the graceful hen harrier and the parlous state of affairs on driven grouse moors have signed.
*Walshaw¬†Moor is protected under both the European Union‚Äôs Birds and Habitats¬†Directives, and after Natural England failed to stop destructive burning¬†and drainage practices on the moor, the RSPB took the case to the¬†European Commission, and the RSPB has invited Natural England to provide¬†evidence of restoration work on the moor, since the estate receives¬†subsidies specifically for this.
A most¬†unwelcome problem is the deeply ingrained culture of poisoning,¬†trapping, and shooting of British raptors which has prevailed for many¬†decades. The most notable disappearance from our uplands is that of the previously mentioned¬†hen¬†harrier, now virtually extinct as an English breeding bird, and¬†connected with the high occurrence of driven grouse moors in the north¬†of the country. Just one pair bred successfully in 2012, two tried¬†but failed in 2013, four pairs bred in 2014, and six pairs produced eighteen fledglings in 2015, with¬†suitable habitat existing for up to¬†three hundred pairs. Golden eagles and white-tailed eagles, thirty-two¬†in the last eight years, with zero prosecutions , red kites, goshawks, and peregrine falcons, amongst others,¬†have fallen¬†victim to illegal poisoning. One shocking massacre involved sixteen red¬†kites and six buzzards which were discovered dead in the Conon Bridge¬†area of East Ross-shire during the third week of March 2014, with¬†tests¬†proving that nine kites and three buzzards had been¬†poisoned. In 2012 DEFRA proposed to somehow ‚Äėmanage‚Äô buzzard numbers by¬†various indiscriminate means to protect non-native game birds such as¬†pheasant; there was a public outcry, and the proposal was withdrawn. Owen Paterson, arguably the worst environment secretary in the UK so far, and who also, incidentally, doubled grouse moor subsidies and is keen to see the fox-hunting ban repealed, was returned to the back benches after the reshuffle of early October 2013. However, in May 2013, Natural England were¬†sanctioned¬†by DEFRA to issue a secret licence for the destruction of buzzard eggs¬†and nests to protect a local pheasant shoot. There are about¬†forty thousand breeding pairs of buzzard in the UK, and they take only¬†about one or two¬†percent of the thirty-five million pheasants that are¬†bred to be shot, with up to thirty percent being killed on the roads¬†annually. What kind of message does this action send? In mainland Argyll¬†and on Mull, farmers have been¬†making exaggerated claims about the¬†number of white-tailed eagles (ninety in one instance from January 2014,¬†the reality being something nearer fifty), and the impact on their¬†precious sheep, despite existing compensation¬†being in place for any¬†losses, and are clamouring for ‚Äėcontrol measures.‚Äô They also claim an¬†alleged impact on ground nesting birds such as dunlin, seabirds, and¬†hares. How do they imagine these creatures survived before¬†the eagle was¬†driven to extinction? In January 2014, 92% of those polled were against¬†any form of control of these magnificent raptors, which contribute¬†significantly towards a healthy tourist revenue on Mull.
Wildlife¬†tourism now results in far more income for local communities than the¬†hunting industry, which receives farming subsidies and pays no tax. What¬†percentage of profit actually filters down for the benefit of¬†people outside¬†that small circle? Nature-watching is now a major leisure¬†activity across the UK, with an annual net financial gain in Scotland¬†alone of about ¬£65 million, supporting nearly three thousand associated¬†jobs. Traditional notions of¬†land stewardship, of leaving it in a better¬†state than when it was acquired, have given way to short term economic¬†expediency. We are surely all aware of the significant decline in birds,¬†butterflies, bees, wildflower meadows,¬†unimproved chalk grassland,¬†upland hay meadows, fens, lowland heaths, upland peat bogs, in fact¬†almost any species or habitat you care to name. Taking a¬†historical, generational perspective, we remember that¬†wildlife was¬†generally more abundant during our childhood; the same thing applied to¬†our parents when they were children, and so on back through the¬†generations. ‘Shifting Baseline Syndrome’ is the term now applied to this conceptual drift away from what was the actual true state of nature before humankind appeared. What we see now is but a shadow of the abundant wildlife¬†and species-rich habitat that existed before we learnt to harness the¬†energy latent in coal during the early 1700s, and with the increasing¬†mechanisation of agriculture; even until the two world wars, much still¬†remained. Today,¬†wildflower meadows and properly maintained hedgerows¬†are well-nigh non-existent; the current practice of hedgerow flailing, a¬†highly destructive and unsightly process, is certainly unfavourable to¬†nesting birds. We have the¬†power, if we act in unison, to prevent¬†further degradation of our landscape, and halt or reverse the declines¬†of the creatures found within it. George Monbiot writes that if the¬†grazing pressure on our barren uplands were to¬†be reduced or even¬†eliminated, woodland would return naturally by a process of succession,¬†and we would see many mammals and birds make their return. Natural, open woodland has¬†been shown to support a far higher number of species¬†than grassland or¬†heather moorland, and areas could be left for birds of these¬†open habitats such as hen harrier, merlin, ring ouzel, dunlin and skylark as¬†well as other waders and passerines. More hides could be built where,¬†for a small fee or donation, the public would have an opportunity to see¬†some of Britain‚Äôs charismatic wildlife in its natural habitat, with¬†a resultant increase in profits to wildlife organisations, local¬†businesses and people,¬†helping to reconnect us and future generations with¬†nature. From experience and understanding of the natural world, a proper¬†perspective will be regained of our own place within it; this would¬†afford us the positive spiritual enrichment¬†which has become a victim of our increasingly commercial, secular, bland, homogenized society.
In the latest seriously¬†insane¬†proposal under consideration by Natural England, as part of the¬†periodical review of the General and Class Licences of government¬†wildlife legislation, robin, starling, and pied wagtail could be¬†trapped¬†and their nests and their eggs destroyed if they are considered to be a¬†risk to health and safety. This is supposedly because they occasionally¬†nest in ventilation flues. If this were to go ahead, it would allow¬†people to¬†destroy the birds‚Äô nests and remove their eggs. Shouldn‚Äôt ‚ÄėNatural‚Äô¬†England be the guardians of our wildlife? It is also proposing similar actions for Egyptian and¬†greylag geese, mallard,¬†sacred ibis, jay, house crow, jackdaw and¬†collared dove. The RSPB has said that this would contravene¬†Article 9¬†of the EU Birds Directive, which is supposed to prevent harm to¬†wildlife from commercial interests. Natural¬†England admits that¬†‚Äúcompliance checking would be unlikely‚ÄĚ under the terms of the licence.¬†Perhaps we should start removing all the house martin nests because they¬†cause a mess and pose a health risk to small children! It¬†beggars¬†belief, and I wonder what hope there is for protecting the rest of¬†nature if policies like this proliferate.
There¬†remain many ongoing threats to our native flora and fauna, apart from¬†the actual physical destruction caused by development, farming,¬†pollution, and invasive species. In the UK, it is estimated that¬†approximately 40% of¬†the freshwater otter population carries the parasitic disease toxoplasmosis, hosted by domestic and feral cats, due to feline faecal contamination of freshwater and coastal marine ecosystems. This poses a mortal threat to¬†other wildlife, as well as humans. The introduction, either deliberate or unintentional, of¬†non-native animals, plants, and pathogens is one of the most worrying.¬†Examples include: the grey squirrel, which, in the absence of one of its main predators the pine marten (much persecuted until recently), has largely eliminated the native red squirrel¬†from much of England & Wales by competion for food, and infection by fatal squirrel-pox; the American signal crayfish, which carries¬†crayfish plague, deadly to our native European crayfish, and being extremely catholic in its diet, destroys most other life in a watercourse and is cannibalistic; the quagga mussel, a freshwater species originally from the Ukraine that forms large colonies on hard surfaces and can block pipes, also filtering large quantities of water depriving native aquatic wildlife of food, and which because of the concentration of pollutants in their faeces, threatens the safety of drinking water; and the Asian harlequin ladybird, which could pose an as yet unquantifiable¬†threat to several of our native ladybirds. We all remember¬†the loss of the magnificent English elm from our countryside; the latest¬†looming threats to our woodlands are¬†ash die-back¬†(Chalara fraxinea), introduced on for ‘economic reasons’ (absurd when we could have used indigenous stock) ‚Äď we have yet to see how virulent this will be, but it’s not looking good; acute oak decline or sudden oak death, caused by¬†Phytophthora ramorum,¬†a pathogen also infecting our¬†Japanese larch nationally;¬†Phytophthora austrocedrae¬†which¬†affects juniper; and various other diseases, blights, leaf miners &¬†borers, and insects such as the Asian longhorn and great spruce bark¬†beetles.¬†Rhododendron¬†ponticum¬†has colonised large areas to the exclusion of the native flora, and hosts the sudden oak death pathogen and the related¬†Phytophthora kernoviae,¬†affecting places such as the Hebrides, the heathlands of southern¬†England, Snowdonia, the New Forest, and the oak woodlands of the¬†Atlantic rainforest in Western Scotland. Himalayan balsam and Japanese¬†knotweed are two of the most pernicious colonisers, costly to eradicate;¬†and there¬†are various invasive non-native aquatic plants, often deriving from the aquarium trade, in the process of¬†choking our waterways. There are many others, too numerous to mention¬†here, which all have detrimental¬†impacts on the ecological niches they¬†occupy, and which may prove difficult to eradicate as they continue to¬†spread. Most now arrive largely due to a significant increase in global¬†trade, costing the UK up to ¬£1.7 billion annually in¬†damage limitation.
The ‚ÄėState¬†of Nature‚Äô report ,¬†launched by Sir David Attenborough on 22 May 2013¬†(International Biodiversity Day) at the Natural History Museum, London,¬†concludes that concerted action is urgently needed to halt the¬†decline¬†of 60% of the species extant in the UK. Worrying examples include the¬†turtle dove, with a 93% decline since 1970, the hedgehog, down by a¬†third since 2000, and the small tortoiseshell butterfly, with a decrease¬†of 77%¬†since 2003, to name but three (however the small tortoiseshell appeared in good numbers during 2013 and 2014). Most vulnerable are those species¬†occupying a particular habitat niche, unable to adapt to modern agribusiness and the increasingly unstable climate. There is a large¬†number of willing and¬†able natural history volunteers in the UK, and¬†their work in recording and monitoring species population demographics across¬†the country is absolutely vital if we are to keep abreast of the changing state of¬†our wildlife. In North America the National Audubon Society, after seven years of research drawing upon 30 years of climate data and tens of thousands of observations, came to the sobering conclusion that by 2080 just over half of their bird species ¬†will have lost perhaps 50% of their preferred habitat range.
The limited¬†cull of badgers by shooting in Somerset and Gloucestershire, in a¬†barbaric attempt to stop the spread of bovine TB, is just the latest¬†scheme founded on dubious science and driven by powerful interests.¬†Despite¬†widespread public protest, it took place during the summers of¬†2013 and 2014. More funding for further research into vaccination against bTB¬†is surely justified, especially considering that it has proven to be¬†cheaper than trapping and¬†shooting. The effects of the vaccination of¬†adults in a sett have been shown to be passed on to the cubs; and bTB in¬†cattle fell to 3.6% in 2013, further weakening the argument from those¬†in favour of culling. It has been proven¬†in previous trials that bTB¬†actually increases afterwards! Praise must certainly go to Wales, where,¬†most sensibly, culling has been terminated and replaced by a¬†vaccination programme, and if proof were needed that bTB can¬†be¬†substantially reduced without culling, farmers there, by testing their¬†cattle annually and introducing a policy of stricter controls, have¬†brought about a 48% reduction in the disease over a four-year period. In¬†late February¬†2014, an independent scientific assessment commissioned¬†by the UK government itself found that the number killed was less than half¬†in the target areas of Somerset and Gloucestershire, and that it failed¬†to be humane, with a¬†significant proportion of the badgers taking¬†longer than five minutes to die. There would probably be a similar¬†outcome were gassing to be employed. Exterminating the unfortunate badgers (1861 in 2013, and 615 in 2014, at an astonishing cost of ¬£6,058 per badger) has been¬†extremely controversial, and it certainly doesn‚Äôt seem¬†likely to make any long term difference to the bTB situation in the two¬†counties. In November 2014 Defra’s chief scientist admitted that only 6% of fresh bTB cases are directly caused by badgers, with the key route of infection being from cattle to cattle. In January 2015, a comprehensive study from the Queen Mary University of London has shown that more frequent bTB testing of cattle would be far more effective (they are currently tested annually), and even raised the idea of culling not the badgers, but the cattle themselves, although the National Farmers Union would undoubtedly reject this. There is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel: DEFRA¬†announced in April 2014 that it has postponed¬†the proposed extension of¬†the culling programme to other counties. However, it will persist in¬†Somerset and Gloucestershire, and the government announced that the¬†2014 cull wasn’t overseen by an Independent¬†Experts Panel. The¬†campaign continues.
A sinister new practice euphemistically called ‚ÄėBiodiversity Offsetting‚Äô ¬†has recently been introduced, whereby developers are required to¬†replace any wildlife habitat they destroy with a similar area that is at least¬†as good elsewhere.¬†This is supposed to be a last resort, as it is complex and difficult to expedite successfully, particularly with habitats such as ancient woodland¬†or species-rich chalk grassland ‚Äď such habitats cannot simply be¬†‚Äėreplaced‚Äô ‚Äď and in previous cases, many¬†species have been lost. Mike¬†Clarke of the RSPB has said it could simply be a “licence to trash.” There is also a question mark over biological control, or the¬†introduction of genetically modified or alien species for the control of¬†troublesome pests (the classic case of the poisonous cane toad in Australia¬†comes to mind). To reduce pest populations, individuals with GM¬†characteristics are introduced into the area concerned. This can¬†precipitate the law of¬†unintended consequences, with entire¬†populations of the target species being wiped out, affecting creatures¬†further up the food chain, destabilising entire ecosystems and causing negative trophic cascades. Once released, these GM¬†species cannot be¬†recaptured. Is interfering with nature in this way worth the¬†risk, considering that there will inevitably be losers?
In general,¬†there has been a wilful neglect and ignorance of the fundamental¬†ecological issues facing us by successive governments, and there are no¬†plans on the horizon to reform and strengthen the Wildlife and¬†Countryside¬†Act. The government also ignored a call by the Environmental¬†Audit Committee in late 2012 to secure long-term financial security for¬†the National Wildlife Crime Unit, in effect giving a green light to¬†wildlife criminals. The¬†introduction by the Scottish Parliament of¬†vicarious liability legislation in 2010 may at least open up the¬†possibility of shooting estate managers and owners facing heavier¬†penalties, were they to be prosecuted rather than their¬†gamekeepers.¬†This, however, may simply lead to them taking more care not to be found¬†out. This kind of legislation seems unlikely to be introduced in¬†England, Wales, or Northern Ireland in the near future. So¬†far, prosecution¬†rates for raptor persecution across the UK have been¬†extremely low, with penalties that clearly fail to deter.
So how will¬†an estimated population of nine billion people manage to sustain itself¬†by 2050? Saving natural habitats and species is all fine and good, but these efforts may prove to be fruitless if we don’t address the root causes of habitat and species depletion, of which our own population growth is one. More land will undoubtedly come under pressure for food production, the development of housing, airports, roads, railways¬†and all the associated urban clutter. Currently there is an Infrastructure Bill making its way through the UK parliament (2014 – 2015) that could threaten many public lands, including our forests, which the UK government attempted to sell off privately but then performed a spectacular u-turn in March 2011 after an overwhelming public protest. Relaxation of planning laws and deregulation are part of a wider corporate supremacist ideology, and it could prove to be one of the most destructive bills passed in recent years; of which more at the end of this piece. Farmland for food production in the UK will face a serious shortfall, according to a report from the University of Cambridge. With a projected population of over 70 million by 2030 (63.7 million as of 2014), the UK will face some tough choices on how its land is used, and some serious challenges on how to get the balance right. At present, a third of the¬†world‚Äôs¬†food is thrown away annually, a shocking statistic. Another: the¬†production of just one beef-burger involves approximately 3000 litres of¬†water, which is clearly insane; to produce one ripe apple takes just¬†125 litres. Apparently the entire Amazonian rainforest could be purchased with the equivalent of just three years’ worth of British military funding. With¬†Indonesia currently being deforested fastest, further¬†irreplaceable primary rainforest will be felled and burnt for palm-oil,¬†soya, and meat production, releasing millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide (henceforth CO2)¬†into the atmosphere, and damaging the¬†peaty soil on which tropical¬†rainforest typically grows, a tremendous carbon sink in itself, which can itself catch¬†fire and burn for years. The oil palms are then felled and¬†burnt every 20 years, releasing yet more carbon.¬†Atmospheric CO2¬†will inevitably increase, with unpredictable effects on an already¬†chaotic climate, causing displacement of entire peoples as¬†crops fail, with an increasing risk of conflict; it seems possible that the¬†Syrian¬†uprising was initially caused by prolonged drought from 2006 to¬†2010, with over a million people affected, most of them losing their¬†livelihoods, and over three million living in extreme poverty. This does¬†not bode well for an¬†already volatile Middle East. The idea that we can¬†now make a serious difference by ‚Äėreducing our CO2¬†emissions,‚Äô given the rapidly increasing population, and the ¬†rising¬†overconsumption of goods by wealthier developing¬†nations, is just¬†fantasy. We sailed nonchalantly through the so-called ‚Äėred line‚Äô of 400¬†ppm (parts per million) of atmospheric CO2¬†in May 2013, with a¬†concentration of 450 ppm now being forecast for 2050. Oil and gas¬†exploration will¬†increasingly take place in more sensitive regions, although a plan by Shell to drill in the Arctic was finally abandoned in late September 2015 after three long years of petitions and protests, with Shell apparently saying privately that they were “taken aback” by the level of protest, and announcing that they “didn’t find as much oil as expected.” Despite compelling evidence to the contrary,¬†there are still many who deny that the world is¬†warming, or accept that the science is largely accurate but realise that it threatens their enormous wealth, with the¬†climate becoming more chaotic and locally extreme as a direct result of¬†human activity. These groups and individuals fund influential right-wing think-tanks that obstruct the science and inform the worldview of the vast majority of the super-rich elite, global corporations, fossil-fuel giants, and the politicians who are their puppets through massive funding such as for the Republicans in the US. I would suggest that any sceptics still in doubt of the¬†science take a look at the fifth report by the Intergovernmental Panel¬†on Climate Change .¬†2014 was the warmest year since 1891, with an average of 1.1¬įC above the 20th century mean, and ten of the warmest years on record have occurred since 1998. Disappointingly, the December 2014 UN climate conference in Lima yielded weak results, with each country left to decide its own climate action voluntarily, and politicians again leaving big loopholes for the giant polluting and extractive industries to carry on just as before. Hopes are now pinned on the Paris conference in early December 2015. If the results of that are similar to what transpired in the 2009 Copenhagen talks, then we can kiss goodbye to any idea of limiting global warming to 2¬įC above pre-industrial levels.
The UK has undoubtedly experienced some periods of exceptionally cold, wet and stormy weather since 2000: devastation by flooding of Carlisle in 2005, the floods of 2007 surrounding Gloucester, those of 2009 again affecting Carlisle, yet more during 2012 with Hebden Bridge being inundated twice, the floods of 2013, the catastrophic early 2014 floods of the Somerset Levels, the Thames Basin and elsewhere during a succession of ferocious storms, and the equally destructive floods and hurricane-force winds of early December 2015 brought by extratropical cyclone ‘Storm Desmond’ affecting Western and Northern Ireland, Wales, Northern England and the Scottish Borders. Unfortunately the Lake District again bore the brunt, with Appleby, Keswick, Kendal and Carlisle being particularly badly affected, breaking the United Kingdom’s 24-hour rainfall record with 341.4 mm (13.44 inches) of rain in Honister Pass, Cumbria on the 5th of December, with no less than three further periods of disruptive flooding in the Cumbria region during that month. There was widespread damage to the road, rail and air networks & services as well as to buildings, with many trees down, landslides, power-cuts, and a waterfall appearing at Malham Cove, North Yorkshire for the first time in living memory. One’s heart goes out to the people of Carlisle who have been badly flooded three times in a decade. These powerful cyclones often occur during negative phases of the Arctic Oscillation, a complex index describing the path of the jet stream and the distribution of high and low pressure systems around the Northern Hemisphere. This jet stream became more erratic from autumn 2013, apparently due to higher ocean temperatures around Indonesia and pollution across Asia, fuelling more powerful storms across the Pacific, affecting weather systems over North America. This caused Arctic air to dive southwards across the US in a polar vortex, breaking records and spawning the more intense cyclones that barrelled across the Atlantic from October until the middle of February 2014 to affect the southern half of the UK, rather than slipping past the north-west of Scotland as would have been the case during a supposedly normal winter. Overall, the cost of extreme weather in the UK during 2014 was estimated at ¬£14 billion.
Even if we dramatically and immediately curbed our CO2¬†emissions, the planet could continue to warm for centuries. The current¬†scramble for the world‚Äôs resources such as fossil fuels, timber,¬†minerals, rare earths and metals is¬†becoming ever more rapacious. There¬†is a belief that wildlife rich areas need to be kept protected from all¬†human activity, except tourism. However, it has been proven that¬†indigenous tribes are the best conservationists, with¬†70% of the world‚Äôs¬†richest habitats being inhabited by them. In spite of this, they are¬†still subject to land grabs for minerals and oil, and¬†ecotourism can also displace native peoples from their traditional¬†lives, with the¬†development of unfortunate habits such as¬†alcoholism. There are even plans to mine copper, silver, gold, and rare¬†earths from areas surrounding and including ‚Äėblack smokers‚Äô on the ocean¬†floor, the hydrothermal vents¬†that occur along tectonic¬†plate boundaries ,¬†which have their own unique ecosystems.¬†New Guinea¬†is the first area in which this is likely to take place, and a worrying¬†precedent may be set. Proposals also exist to¬†extract methane from the¬†clathrates that occur just beneath the seabed along the continental¬†shelves of the Arctic Ocean. Hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ is a controversial new method of¬†extracting natural gas which has become financially viable in¬†the last¬†few years. The politicians claim it will lower our fuel bills; this is a¬†complete untruth. There could be many, many thousands of drilling¬†sites, with no framework to protest against their location, resulting in¬†significant noise¬†and disturbance. It will make opposition to onshore¬†wind-farms seem like small potatoes indeed. Wind energy is not ideal, either ‚Äď it has been proven that they are dangerous to birds, the low-level noise¬†produced having been shown to attract insects,¬†which in turn bring in larger numbers of invertebrate-feeders such as¬†swallows and martins ‚Äď and bats in particular seem to mistake the turbines for trees. The supporting infrastructure of¬†service-roads also causes disruption to the¬†surrounding habitat,¬†particularly on vulnerable carbon-sink substrates such as peat. What¬†fatalities night-flying flocks of waders, waterfowl and other species on¬†migration might incur around offshore wind turbines can only be left¬†to the imagination. Furthermore, it has widely been shown to be on¬†average only 25% efficient, and, because the wind industry is¬†subsidised, more than twice as expensive as conventional power. In¬†February of 2014 a wind¬†turbine at the Burnfoot Hill windfarm in the¬†Ochil Hills of southern Scotland claimed the life of a young¬†white-tailed eagle, the first known eagle fatality caused in this way,¬†and probably not the last. The overall¬†impact of green¬†technologies on the natural world remains improperly assessed by any analyses that have yet¬†been done. At the moment, the UK uses up to 45 Gigawatts; to provide¬†this using just two currently preferred renewables, we would¬†have to¬†live in a forest of wind turbines and solar arrays covering an area six¬†times that of Wales. However, a new technology is now becoming available, the Vortex Bladeless ‚Äď looking like a giant golf tee, it uses the energy generated by vorticity (what happens when wind hits an obstruction), and begins to oscillate. The huge advantages of a bladeless turbine are: no moving parts, no noise, 50% cheaper to build and operate, minimal bird fatalities, smaller foundations as they’re 80% lighter, and although they are 30% less efficient than bladed wind turbines, a higher density can be installed in the same area, with maintenance costs being 80% lower. The pilot, a 10-foot one, will generate 100 watts; 42-foot versions 4 kilowatts, enough to power a low-energy house; and 490-foot versions one megawatt, enough to power 400 homes. Wave energy has the potential to make a¬†contribution, but requires much more research and investment. In the UK,¬†the latest ‚Äėdash¬†for gas‚Äô indicates a continuing heavy reliance on¬†fossil fuels, the possibility of future energy shortages leading to¬†power-cuts, and an inexorable rise in domestic bills. The recent apparent pause in global surface warming, apparently¬†due to a powerful El Nino in the¬†late 90s, as well as several volcanic eruptions since then which,¬†because of suspended particulates, reflected more sunlight than usual¬†back into space, has been jumped on by global warming¬†sceptics and other¬†deluded folk or ‘coolists’ as evidence that it doesn‚Äôt exist; they ignore the fact¬†that the oceans have continued to absorb heat, but much more slowly than¬†the atmosphere, that the duration of the increased reflectivity from¬†volcanic particulates in the upper atmosphere is only brief, and that¬†the overall temperature trend over time is remorselessly UP. Indeed, America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration‚Äôs National Climatic Data Center informs us that nine of the warmest years on record have occurred during the 21st century, the global annual temperature having increased at an average rate of 0.16¬įC per decade since 1970. Definitive trends in average global temperatures can only be reliably seen over many decades. The warming is also happening ten times faster than can be attributed to purely natural causes. There is an¬†unfortunate tendency in the corridors of power to distrust the warnings¬†because the¬†science that led to them is supposedly unreliable, that it¬†would be far too expensive to attempt to reduce emissions, and that it¬†makes economic sense to ignore most of it as too alarmist, carry on with¬†business as usual, and¬†adapt to climate change as we go along. Quite how they propose that we ‚Äėadapt‚Äô is anyone‚Äôs guess. Their current stance is one of domestic denial and international inaction. Some sort of urgent move is imperative if we are to change the collective mindset, with a pragmatic approach to energy conservation,¬†taking steps to save power in¬†businesses and homes by switching off¬†computers and televisions on standby and unplugging everything possible,¬†thereby saving money on fuel bills, as if any incentive were needed. With fracking likely to go ahead in many areas, this unpopular method of extraction may indicate an improbability of moving away from fossil fuels in the¬†near future. There is a global reluctance to commit wholeheartedly to investment in green technologies and¬†renewable energy because fossil fuels generate such enormous profits for the corporations and shareholders involved. The only way to begin to slow human-induced global¬†warming is¬†to leave the fossil fuels where they are ‚Äď in the ground.¬†If the current reserves earmarked for extraction are actually used, it would be virtually impossible to prevent an increase beyond the 2¬įC global average temperature rise that most scientists warn will precipitate increasing climate chaos and sea-level rise. The efforts to attempt to reverse dependence on fossil fuels in the US will not be helped by the Republican control of Congress following the November 2014 mid-term elections, either. Some innovative solutions are being found, such as producing ethanol¬†from genetically modified cyanobacteria; however, could this be scaled¬†up enough to entirely¬†replace petrol or diesel? In 2014 the International Energy Agency estimated that it will require $48 trillion in investments until 2035 to meet the world’s growing energy needs, an enormous challenge for policy-makers, but even this would still fall short of current ‘climate stabilisation’ goals, even supposing a target below the 2¬įC limit were achieved. Nuclear¬†power would seem to offer a possible solution, but since the Fukushima¬†earthquake and tsunami there is an¬†understandable reluctance to travel¬†down that path. However, in the second half of 2013 plans were finalised¬†for the new Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, involving the¬†installation of an old-fashioned European¬†Pressurised Reactor (EPR)¬†design to go online by 2023. The proposed new reactor for Sizewell C¬†seems likely to be of the same type, which seems odd when there are more¬†advanced integral fast breeder reactors which¬†actually consume nuclear¬†waste instead of producing it. The operator‚Äôs choice of this type of¬†outdated reactor design for Hinkley and probably Sizewell seems¬†wrong-headed, as there is enough waste to provide for all the UK‚Äôs¬†energy needs for five hundred years. I have been informed by the¬†Department of Energy and Climate Change that it is up to the operators¬†to decide what reactor type they intend to use at their nuclear sites,¬†including whether or¬†not to reuse existing nuclear material. The¬†operators of the proposed EPR reactors at Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C¬†describe them as being capable of using existing nuclear material such¬†as plutonium in the form of mixed¬†oxide fuel. However, pursuing the¬†licensing and use of such a fuel would be a decision that the plant‚Äôs¬†owners would need to take and would be subject to the UK‚Äôs licensing¬†regime. The DECC are aware of the ability of fast¬†neutron spectrum¬†reactors to further use some existing nuclear material, but as yet, are¬†unaware of the existence of any being offered on a commercial basis with¬†the generation capacity of an EPR reactor. Regarding long-term¬†nuclear¬†waste, how can we possibly assume there will be a society in place¬†capable of dealing with it by the end of its half-life, in anything from¬†ten thousand to a million years? There is also the uncomfortable fact¬†that were we¬†to develop viable nuclear fusion, or some other source of¬†unlimited clean energy, it would be used in a greedy or reckless way¬†(unrestrained development), further impacting nature. Current thinking forecasts that if we started now, the world’s energy needs could be met entirely from renewable sources by 2050.
Worldwide, there are many threats to the web of life to which humans belong. Examples include:
‚ÄĘ human population exceeding the resources available to support it, and the world‚Äôs gross overconsumption of those resources;
‚ÄĘ our¬†addiction to a finite supply of fossil fuels, with their damaging¬†effects on the climate and oceans, particularly from the latest types of¬†extraction such as tar sands and fracking;
‚ÄĘ a snowballing demand for¬†digital products resulting in aggressive land-grabs for mining of rare¬†earths & metals, and displacement, often outright murder, of indigenous peoples;
‚ÄĘ an extinction rate of up to two hundred animal and plant species per day;
‚ÄĘ biodiversity offsetting;
‚ÄĘ the outrage¬†of around eight hundred polar bears shot annually in Canada, and up to¬†thirty thousand American river otters shot annually for the fur trade in¬†America and Canada, despite the excellent synthetic alternatives available today ‚Äď what happened to ‘compassion fashion’?
‚ÄĘ the thinning and melting of Arctic sea ice in a warming world threatening the lives and life cycles of Arctic mammals such as the polar bear
‚ÄĘ vilification and slaughter of the grey wolf in America and elsewhere;
‚ÄĘ the¬†illegal wildlife trade, particularly in Asia, and the poaching of¬†endangered species for their body¬†parts. If humanity allowed the tiger to become extinct in the wild, then what earthly hope is there for the countless other endangered species around the globe? The persistent and empty myth, largely propagated by the Chinese, but widespread across SE Asia in general, and based on nothing more than a superstition that sustains a demand for the body parts of the tiger and other species including elephant, rhino, snow leopard, shark, and sea-horse will not be extinguished; it seems a thing as impossible to quell as an ideology (no evidence has ever been found for the efficacy of any of these animals’ body parts ‚Äď and none ever will ‚Äď rhino horn is as useless a cure-all or aphrodisiac as your own hair or fingernails, since it’s made from an identical material: keratin);
‚ÄĘ genetic modification;
‚ÄĘ antibiotic resistance and new viruses jumping the species gap;
‚ÄĘ thousands of persistent organic pollutants that bio-accumulate up the food chain;
‚ÄĘ ospreys coming under threat from mercury (from the burning of coal), DDT and PCBs throughout Canada and North America;
‚ÄĘ the heavy¬†reliance on inorganic fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and¬†fungicides, leaving cultivated regions largely empty of other plants and¬†animals, causing damaging run-offs into coastal waters, coral reef death and toxic¬†algal blooms;
‚ÄĘ nitrous¬†oxide, a potent, ozone-depleting greenhouse gas released by bacteria in¬†the oceans and soils, about 30% being related to human activity, largely¬†from agriculture and the use of nitrogen fertilisers, and which is¬†fourth¬†on the list of major greenhouse gases after water vapour, CO2, and methane;
‚ÄĘ poverty,¬†avoidable diseases, and the lack of potable water for drinking, cooking¬†and washing, leading to the deaths of approximately two million people,¬†mostly children, every year;
‚ÄĘ the paucity of education and self-empowerment in some societies and a disinterest in others;
‚ÄĘ the¬†further disassociation of children from the natural world with an¬†inhibiting influence on their explorative instincts due to¬†growing urbanisation, overprotective parenting, computers,¬†television, and a resultant increase in¬†mental health disorders¬†affecting all age groups;
‚ÄĘ the¬†related removal of risk from the lives of children in overdeveloped¬†countries, affecting the developing brain‚Äôs ability in problem-solving, decision-making, and social competence;
‚ÄĘ political short-termism and corruption;
‚ÄĘ personal and corporate greed;
‚ÄĘ the growing wealth and power of the super-rich elite and corporations, the diminishing wealth left to the rest of us as a direct result of it, political and corporate cronyism, and the rise of capitalism as the enemy of the natural world;
‚ÄĘ the economic growth ideology that is fundamentally incompatible with planetary realities;
‚ÄĘ the inability ‚Äď or reluctance ‚Äď to take collective and personal responsibility for our actions;
‚ÄĘ the money wasted on any space exploration not directly employed in planetary monitoring or for communications, such as the current fantasies of bases on the Moon or Mars;
‚ÄĘ and the vast sums spent on military hardware, which could be better employed to address some of these issues, to name but a few . . .
¬†The issue¬†of human population growth and its resultant impact on the planet is one¬†that cannot easily be addressed. It has been estimated that worldwide, numbers¬†grew by 78 million in 2011 (135 million births, 57 million deaths),¬†only¬†10 million more than the population of the British Isles. In mid-2012 the UK population grew by over 400,000 from that of mid-2011. It is¬†patently obvious that we cannot continue as we are; the resources¬†available will not provide for our current profligate way of¬†life, the so-called ‚Äėthrowaway¬†society.‚Äô Just one illustration of this¬†is the new trans-Nicaraguan canal to connect the Atlantic with the¬†Pacific, five hundred miles to the north-west of the Panama Canal, a¬†massive infrastructure project designed to further lower¬†the cost of¬†consumer electronics and other commodities, which could prove to be a¬†proverbial ‚Äėwhite elephant,‚Äô all based on the myth that consuming more¬†stuff brings happiness. The more people enslaved by this¬†idea,¬†the fewer resources become available to each. Countries with high¬†population growth are more prone to conflict and, despite it being a¬†matter of some urgency, the marginalisation of the population issue is a¬†matter of¬†increasing concern. To mention it is taboo, and yet it¬†is the most pressing problem facing humankind. It is growing at 250,000 every day. Our economic and population growth has been largely facilitated by fossil fuels since coal began to be used on a large scale and the steam engine was developed during the 1700s, thus beginning our current addiction to fossilised sunlight. Jeremy Grantham, a British investor, co-founder and chief investment strategist of Grantham Mayo van Otterloo, a Boston-based asset management firm, draws our attention to some important and uncomfortable facts in the GMO’s Quarterly Letter of April 2011 titled “Time to Wake Up: Days of Abundant Resources and Falling Prices Are Over Forever” and the two paragraphs headed “Failure to Appreciate the Impossibility of Sustained Compound Growth”:
“I briefly referred to our lack of numeracy as a species, and I would like to look at one aspect of this in greater detail: our inability to understand and internalize the effects of compound growth. This incapacity has played a large role in our willingness to ignore the effects of our compounding growth in demand on limited resources. Four years ago I was talking to a group of super quants, mostly PhDs in mathematics, about finance and the environment. I used the growth rate of the global economy back then ‚Äď 4.5% for two years, back to back ‚Äď and I argued that it was the growth rate to which we now aspired. To point to the ludicrous unsustainability of this compound growth I suggested that we imagine the Ancient Egyptians (an example I had offered in my July 2008 Letter) whose gods, pharaohs, language, and general culture lasted for well over 3,000 years. Starting with only a cubic metre of physical possessions (to make calculations easy), I asked how much physical wealth they would have had 3,000 years later at 4.5% compounded growth. Now, these were trained mathematicians, so I teased them: ‚ÄúCome on, make a guess. Internalize the general idea. You know it‚Äôs a very big number.‚ÄĚ And the answers came back: ‚ÄúMiles deep around the planet,‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúNo, it‚Äôs much bigger than that, from here to the moon.‚ÄĚ Big quantities to be sure, but no one came close. In fact, not one of these potential experts came within one-billionth of 1% of the actual number, which is approximately 1057, a number so vast that it could not be squeezed into a billion of our Solar Systems. Go on, check it. If trained mathematicians get it so wrong, how can an ordinary specimen of Homo sapiens have a clue? Well, he doesn‚Äôt. So, I then went on. ‚ÄúLet‚Äôs try 1% compound growth in either their wealth or their population,‚ÄĚ (for comparison, 1% since Malthus‚Äô time is less than the population growth in England). In 3,000 years the original population of Egypt ‚Äď let‚Äôs say 3 million ‚Äď would have been multiplied 9 trillion times! There would be nowhere to park the people, let alone the wealth. Even at a lowly 0.1% compound growth, their population or wealth would have multiplied by 20 times, or about 10 times more than actually happened. And this 0.1% rate is probably the highest compound growth that could be maintained for a few thousand years, and even that rate would sometimes break the system. The bottom line really, though, is that no compound growth can be sustainable. Yet, how far this reality is from the way we live today, with our unrealistic levels of expectations and, above all, the optimistic outcomes that are simply assumed by our leaders.
“Now no one, in round numbers, wants to buy into the implication that we must rescale our collective growth ambitions. I was once invited to a monthly discussion held by a very diverse, very smart group, at which it slowly dawned on my jet-lagged brain that I was expected to contribute. So finally, in desperation, I gave my first-ever ‚Äúrunning out of everything‚ÄĚ harangue (off topic as usual). Not one solitary soul agreed. What they did agree on was that the human mind is ‚Äď unlike resources ‚Äď infinite and, consequently, the intellectual cavalry would always ride to the rescue. I was too tired to argue that the infinite brains present in Mayan civilization after Mayan civilization could not stop them from imploding as weather (mainly) moved against them. Many other civilizations, despite being armed with the same brains as we have, bit the dust or just faded away after the misuse of their resources. This faith in the human brain is just human exceptionalism and is not justified either by our past disasters, the accumulated damage we have done to the planet, or the frozen-in-the-headlights response we are showing right now in the face of the distant locomotive quite rapidly approaching and, thoughtfully enough, whistling loudly.” (This excerpt and all the information within it exclusively Copyright 2011 Grantham Mayo van Otterloo LLC, and quoted exactly as written, with their permission).
Thus Mr. Grantham shows us that the emphasis of our civilisation on the necessity of economic growth is completely unsustainable. I cover the subject of unlimited growth on a finite planet towards the end of this piece. With education and robust¬†family planning, the global birth rate could be brought down to 1.5¬†children per couple, with¬†the numbers falling to about three billion by¬†the year 2200; that‚Äôs what it was in 1960, and you can well imagine¬†the benefit to all life on the planet, including ourselves. But it would take hundreds of years before the benefits of a reduction in population growth began to be felt, and would not solve the far more immediate environmental problems that we face; even were it to be brought down to one to two billion, per capita consumption would have to equal only those resources that could be replaced by the natural world. Education is a vital key¬†in reducing¬†population growth ‚Äď the more knowledgeable families are, the fewer children¬†they have ‚Äď and given full and fair equality between the sexes¬†worldwide (bring it on!), with a good many more women involved in¬†politics and other walks of life from which they are excluded by the antiquated nature of the system,¬†so would better decisions be arrived at about how to care for this earth.
Striking contrasts in historical and current ways of life are well illustrated by two examples: the extreme resource depletion of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the South Pacific, where, having felled most of the forest in order to transport their massive carved moai statues, they found that the absence of mature palm trees meant they could no longer construct their large fishing boats. Their growing numbers, as well as an increasing population of rats, also led to the extinction of many trees and all the land birds, as well as the collapse of the seabird population. The¬†human population fell from about fifteen thousand in the early 1600s to¬†two or three thousand a century later, exacerbated by intense local¬†conflicts. By the mid 1800s, Peruvian slavers¬†and smallpox had further¬†decimated the population. By the late 1870s there were just over a¬†hundred islanders left. Conversely, on Anuta Island in the Solomon¬†Islands archipelago, with an area of just one-sixth of a square¬†mile and¬†a population of about three hundred, one of the highest population¬†densities in the world, they protect the island‚Äôs resources and share¬†them equally amongst all. Central to this is their practice of aropa,¬†promoting¬†shared work and resources, and compassion for others. Their¬†presence has not had a negative impact on the island; perhaps a lesson there for¬†the rest of humanity? Is the dominant intelligent life form on any given planet automatically doomed to self-extinction by overpopulation and over-use of available resources, or might it be sufficiently evolved to become self-sustaining through its own version of aropa?
With¬†humankind now being seen as directly responsible, the increasingly¬†chaotic nature of the climate poses real and immediate threats to¬†many ecosystems, and ultimately, us. The continuing CO2¬†emissions from fossil¬†fuel use, industry and cars affect not only the¬†atmosphere, but drive ocean warming and acidification, leading to coral¬†reef bleaching and die-off (aggravated by agrochemical and pollutant runoff from the¬†land) and sea-level rise.¬†Acidification now is progressing at a much¬†faster rate than at any known time in the past, and threatens the entire¬†marine food chain, with shelled organisms, corals, ¬†pelagic snails, sea¬†slugs and plankton likely to suffer its¬†effects. As of 2014 the Aral Sea has almost no water left in it, its main basin having completely dried out. There are questions¬†over the complex issue of the melting of Himalayan glaciers, after the¬†Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made alarming and erroneous¬†claims that it might all be gone by 2035, which¬†were pounced upon by the¬†climate-change denial lobby and engendered lower confidence in the¬†IPCC‚Äôs predictions once it was discovered. In some areas, such as the¬†Karakoram, glacial mass seems to be increasing. In a warming world¬†with more¬†precipitation, leading to higher snowfall, glaciers could prevail.¬†However, in other areas such as the Arctic and Greenland the overall mass of freshwater ice is decreasing, and this can be widely observed as its extent and¬†thickness diminishes every year. In the Antarctic, the warming¬†of the Southern Ocean is leading to falling quantities of the¬†primary food source that drives that ecosystem, namely krill. It is clear that economic¬†growth takes precedence over¬†measures to slow climate change, and it is now long past the point at which we can have¬†anything but a negative impact on our climate, as it has become a¬†feedback loop beyond our control.¬†Human-induced¬†climate change and warming is a fact, and is not due to periodicity in¬†the sun‚Äôs output or the orbit of the earth around it, the natural cycle¬†of ice ages or interglacial periods, or volcanoes. Its effects are¬†forecast to be¬†severe, pervasive, and irreversible.
In the UK,¬†the disrupted climate is beginning to have an effect on montane birds¬†such as snow bunting, ptarmigan and dotterel, where the mean annual¬†temperature of subarctic habitats such as the Cairngorm massif is¬†slowly increasing. The mountain ringlet butterfly is seen less¬†frequently at its lowest recorded sites, and the highest places with an¬†Arctic-Alpine flora such as snow gentian and drooping saxifrage are¬†slowly being invaded¬†by plants from below. Species such as this are¬†forecast to disappear completely from our mountain-tops if the¬†predictions of scientists become a reality. Warming seas are also having¬†an extremely adverse effect on some of our¬†seabird populations, with a¬†decline in plankton leading to falling sand eel populations,¬†particularly in the north ‚Äď statistics for the kittiwake, for example,¬†show an 87% decline of this charming bird in Orkney and Shetland since¬†2000. Whether the creation of Marine Protected Areas where they feed could perhaps counteract this situation remains to be seen. In addition, sea-level rise¬†with more frequent storms is threatening to erode the machair, a¬†traditionally¬†farmed, precious coastal grassland growing on shell-sand¬†found on the Inner and Outer Hebrides, home to a rich biodiversity of flora and fauna¬†including corncrake and other nationally declining birds such as twite¬†and corn bunting.
No concerted action currently exists to deal with over four¬†thousand persistent organic pollutants (POPs) that have insinuated¬†themselves into just about every ecosystem on Earth. These are¬†particularly highly concentrated in¬†the polar regions, which have become¬†laboratories where their effects upon the humans and wildlife can be¬†studied, and despair felt. They are designed to be long lasting, only¬†breaking down slowly, and many¬†are far less soluble in¬†water than in fats. Despite having low volatility, once they enter the¬†atmosphere they can travel thousands of miles from where they were¬†originally used or manufactured. They return to the earth‚Äôs surface¬†in¬†precipitation over the polar regions, where they are easily absorbed¬†into the fatty tissues of living organisms via their diet. The Arctic¬†food web is a complex and delicately balanced one; as the Arctic Ocean¬†is surrounded by¬†land, it acts as a vast catchment area for these¬†contaminants, to the extent that the breast milk of Inuit women is¬†deemed to be toxic, and apex predators such as the polar bear¬†suffer neurological and hormonal damage, as well¬†as disruption to their¬†immune systems, leading to the birth of fewer cubs each year. Many of¬†these insidious toxins are found in Antarctica‚Äôs wildlife as well. Some¬†of the latest ‚ÄėSilent Spring‚Äô poisons being liberally broadcast¬†across¬†the cultivated regions of the world comprise the neonicotinoid group,¬†licensed for use before any investigation into their effect was¬†undertaken, and which include imidacloprid, thiacloprid, clothianidin, and¬†thiamethoxam, and the¬†pending use in the US of sulfoxaflor. These¬†affect entire food chains, and, apart from being convincingly linked to¬†colony collapse disorder in honey bees, pose deadly threats to many¬†other invertebrates, both terrestrial, and¬†aquatic (such as caddisfly and mayfly) including¬†everything that predates them, particularly birds.¬†As little as one-tenth of a seed coated in imidacloprid can fatally poison a small bird [12,13].¬†Where neonicotinoids are used, populations of birds experience a decline; where they are not, numbers of birds are sustained. Their impact upon wildlife has been grossly underestimated by¬†any¬†ecological assessments that have yet been done. One of the worst UK poisoning incidents occurred in April 2014 near Havering, when 500 bumblebee queens from three species were discovered dead beside a field of oilseed rape understood to have been planted with seeds treated with Imidacloprid. Not only are bees¬†around the world in steep decline, with two pathogens carried by honey¬†bees now being passed on to bumblebees (Deformed Wing Virus and a kind¬†¬†of fungus,¬†Nosema ceranae); they now face an additional assault¬†by these nasty toxins. Honey production has plummeted, with a worldwide¬†shortage at present. Being what is known as an ‚Äėindicator species,‚Äô we¬†should be¬†alarmed by the predicament facing bees, and act upon it; any¬†failure to do so would be at our peril, as they are so important for the¬†pollination of a large proportion of flowering plants, including food¬†crops. The global¬†cost of replacing pollination by insects has¬†been estimated at approximately ¬£115 billion annually; in the UK it is thought to¬†be over ¬£400 million. In April 2014 the Heritage Lottery fund announced¬†‚ÄėPolli:Nation,‚Äô a project for 260 schools¬†across the UK to assist with¬†creating invertebrate and bee-friendly habitats on their land, with¬†initial support of ¬£1.3 million, including a development grant of¬†¬£26,000. Diligently monitored, it hopes to increase the next¬†generation‚Äôs awareness of the vital importance of pollinators in the¬†natural landscape.
An attempt¬†to have neonicotinoids banned across Europe in March 2013 failed,¬†Britain and Germany abstaining; their use on flowering crops has now¬†been suspended for two years until December 2015 (although they‚Äôll still¬†be used elsewhere), and hopefully further robust scientific evidence¬†will prove irrefutable and result in swift action to ban them¬†worldwide. A monitoring programme is currently required to investigate¬†the effects of this¬†suspension on all pollinators, not just honeybees.¬†A study in the US revealed that soybean yields had not increased following seed treatment, and apparently the same could be true for oilseed rape. There should be studies on how various pesticides can work together¬†to increase harm. Two¬†neonicotinoids, acetamiprid and thiacloprid, remain in use, and there is¬†concern that when imidacloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam are¬†banned, their use will increase. Although less harmful, used in¬†conjunction with¬†certain fungicides their toxicity can increase by up to¬†500%. However, we should beware: even when all neonicotinoids are finally¬†banned, something similarly toxic will probably be rushed onto the¬†market under a different name by relentless political lobbying,¬†widespread disinformation to bamboozle politicians and the public, and brutal, aggressive¬†marketing by the agrochemical giants, the poisoners of the modern world (I‚Äôm sure¬†you know who they are). Quite how we were fooled into allowing this powerful neurotoxin to be used at all is probably down to the same reason that everything else is going downriver: governments walked into it with total ignorance, being simply in thrall to the ideology of corporate supremacy and the super-rich elite due to their power and wealth. It all flies in the face of over eight hundred peer-reviewed scientific papers proving conclusively that neonicotinoids disrupt the entire ecosystem. These destructive corporations must be legally bound to test and prove that¬†any new pesticides only affect the target species and nothing else before they are released, rather than¬†leaving it to us to bear the cost of proving otherwise.
David¬†Goulson, Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex, founder of¬†the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and author of ‚ÄėA Sting in the Tale,‚Äô¬†shortlisted for the 2013 Samuel Johnson Prize, has done some remarkable¬†research on the chemicals applied to a single field of oilseed rape¬†(Brassica napus)¬†over the course of a year in Sussex (see table below, which I reproduce¬†with his kind permission). In late August the crop is sown, the seed¬†having¬†been treated with the systemic neonicotinoid thiamethoxam. The¬†nectar and pollen of the flowers the following year will contain¬†measurable quantities of this toxin. In September a molluscicide, Tds¬†Major, containing¬†metaldehyde, a neurotoxicant and possible carcinogen¬†impossible to remove from drinking water, is applied as slug pellets. In¬†November a pyrethroid is applied. In May the following year whilst in¬†flower, another pyrethroid is¬†sprayed over the crop. Fungicides are also¬†applied through the year, and there is a group of these (the DMI, or¬†demethylation inhibitors, which inhibit fungal sterol synthesis) which¬†interact with the pyrethroid and neonicotinoid¬†insecticides, aggravating¬†their effects and making them more toxic to bees, as well as other¬†invertebrates such as butterflies that may collect the pollen or nectar.¬†What follows is a list of the twenty-two chemicals applied to a single¬†oilseed rape¬†crop in Sussex as researched by Prof. Goulson and Dr. Cristina¬†Botias-Talamantes:
In short,¬†all invertebrates including butterflies that come into contact with the¬†plant face an assault by a multitude of nasty chemicals that we¬†certainly wouldn‚Äôt want in our food. And yet they are there, and we all,¬†to a¬†lesser or greater extent, have many of these common pollutants¬†in our bodies, which would indicate a higher risk to our own¬†health. Why has cancer become such a common disease? The widespread use of glyphosate, 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (one of the ingredients in Agent Orange), other pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and all the other persistent organic pollutants has to be implicated, and the culture of an increasing reliance on agrochemicals is leading us down a futile path. Organic foods could and should play a part in voting with our¬†feet. In Ethiopia, for instance, the¬†original home of arabica coffee, a¬†superior, traditional, shade grown variety which accounts for nearly 80%¬†of all the world‚Äôs coffee, virtually all the work is done by hand, no¬†agrochemicals are used, and the pulp and mucilage¬†from washing the beans¬†is recycled and used for bio-fuel, fertiliser and animal feed, cutting¬†water usage over the conventional process by 98%, leaving local streams¬†unpolluted, and the biodiversity in growing areas more or¬†less intact.¬†In marked contrast during and since the instant coffee boom of the¬†1970s, most of Vietnam‚Äôs forests were destroyed, with a great loss of¬†biodiversity, agrochemicals having been heavily over-used resulting in¬†serious¬†soil impoverishment, and the country was well on the way to¬†being unable to grow any coffee at all. This problem has been resolved in recent years by the introduction of a policy that is more¬†sustainable (that widely abused term), so that mixed crops including¬†coffee are grown, with large shade¬†trees being replanted to protect the¬†soil so that fewer agrochemicals are needed, resulting in a significant reduction in water-use. Soil takes thousands of years to form, and without this precious resource we would almost certainly not be here, yet large quantities are carried off to the sea each year by inappropriate farming practices resulting in flash flooding, an accumulation of silt in waterways, a negative effect on aquatic wildlife and causing a loss of soil fertility on an unprecedented scale, bringing an increased reliance on the agrochemical industry when what is needed is precisely the opposite.
Our marine¬†ecosystems are not exempt from the problems affecting the terrestrial¬†globe and the atmosphere. Global fish stocks are under immense pressure¬†from more sophisticated fishing technology, much larger ships, an¬†increasing population, ridiculous quotas with 50% by-catch discarded¬†dead, and last but certainly not least, increasing acidification and¬†warming of the oceans. The importance of plankton (Coccolithophores: phytoplankton and¬†zooplankton) in¬†the oceans is often overlooked: it is the most abundant¬†form of life on earth after bacteria, underpinning the entire food chain¬†and an essential part of the carbon cycle, using sunlight to¬†photosynthesize and convert carbon¬†dioxide into sugars, in the process¬†producing up to 50% of the atmosphere‚Äôs oxygen. When it dies, it sinks¬†to the sea floor; the chalk cliffs of Dover are entirely composed of compressed plankton, and when further compressed and heated it forms marble. The problem now is that we are¬†producing carbon dioxide¬†much faster than the plankton can absorb it, leading to the¬†aforementioned acidification. The great whales would not be here without¬†plankton, and neither, probably, would we. Regarding whaling,¬†there is some welcome news: on 31 March 2014, in a historic decision by¬†the International Court of Justice in the Hague, Japan was finally¬†banned from its fin, humpback, and minke whale ‚Äėresearch operations‚Äô ‚Äď killing up to a¬†hundred annually ‚Äď in the Antarctic. It says it will¬†stand by the ICJ‚Äôs decision, although it will probably re-apply for¬†whaling rights there in 2015. Commercial whaling is still continued by¬†Iceland and Norway. The situation in¬†Europe at least has greatly¬†improved since 2010, when Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall instigated his now¬†famous ‚ÄėFish Fight‚Äô campaign, the relentless pressure of hundreds of¬†thousands of supporters having forced politicians to¬†see the light and¬†vote to ban discards by 2015. We can make a difference!¬†Destructive forms of fishing include purse-seining for tuna, which also¬†nets sharks, rays, and turtles ‚Äď the only safe technique is pole &¬†line ‚Äď and¬†bottom-trawling and scallop-dredging, which cause immense¬†damage to the sea floor, similar to bulldozing a rainforest.¬†Overfishing and poor fishery management not only endanger the fish¬†stocks but the actual livelihoods of¬†the people in the fishing industry.¬†Some species now being caught such as orange roughy live in deep, cold¬†waters and only become mature after decades; caught in international¬†waters, they have no legal protection. To take¬†just one example of a¬†cynical move: after pressure from Fish Fight supporters in 2013, Tesco¬†decided to source their own brand tuna caught only by pole & line,¬†at the same time as stocking their shelves with Oriental & Pacific¬†tuna, with no fishing method labelled, indicating that purse-seiners¬†were probably used, with the damaging consequences outlined above. In¬†April 2014, after much pressure, Oriental & Pacific agreed to use¬†only pole and line¬†to harvest their tuna, proving again that online petitions¬†are effective! The recent push for Marine reserves around the UK is¬†absolute common sense; if some of the habitats are declared no-take¬†zones, the biodiversity rapidly¬†recovers, species reproduce, and quite¬†soon their progeny begins to repopulate the areas outside the reserves,¬†where they can be harvested. But the government seems most reluctant to¬†create nearly as many as are called for,¬†citing as usual ‚Äėnot enough scientific¬†evidence.‚Äô And we all know what that means ‚Äď enormous delays and expense¬†in gathering such evidence only to arrive at the conclusion we can¬†already guess ‚Äď a truly sustainable fishery! So pressure¬†needs to be¬†maintained; and if we want fishing policies to stay changed, we need to¬†be ever-vigilant in case of policy reversal by the parties concerned.¬†Another insidious and awful problem is that of the vast quantities of plastic¬†debris (some 46,000 pieces in every square mile of our oceans, amounting to 5.25 trillion pieces worldwide, or 270,000 tons) and¬†other marine litter, some¬†of it washing up on our beaches every year. But it’s what we don’t see, huge areas (often the size of small countries) of plastic items of every description and size swirling around in the ocean ‘gyres’ ‚Äď rotating ocean currents far offshore caused by wind and the Coriolis Effect ‚Äď that is taking such a heavy toll on marine wildlife. Over time, plastic and the¬†plastic ‚Äėnurdles‚Äô from which it is made break down into ever smaller¬†pieces, becoming so tiny as¬†to be practically invisible, and this is¬†consumed by marine organisms which mistake it for food. Not only can the plastic itself be fatal, it also absorbs other toxins from the surrounding environment. There is also the worrying question of the tiny plastic ‘microbeads’ now found in numerous cosmetic products, which wash straight into our oceans and enter the food chain. Where the¬†Laysan Albatross breeds on Midway Atoll, a protected area north west of¬†Hawaii close to the ‚ÄėEastern Garbage Patch,‚Äô¬†up to 50% of the chicks have been found to have ingested plastic debris, leading to starvation and death. It is¬†also fatal to perhaps up to a million seabirds annually, as well as hundreds of thousands of whales,¬†dolphins, turtles and seals, with plastic bags easily being¬†mistaken¬†for jellyfish. They should be banned¬†outright, replaced by re-usable canvas or strong paper. What are the¬†long-term effects on us from the microscopic plastic particles in our¬†seafood? It¬†ought to be our personal choice to become mindful of our¬†waste footprint, limit our purchase of products made from plastic, and diligently recycle¬†everything we can. The oceans must cease being a dumping ground for stuff we think we no longer have a use for, or that arrives there because of our buy-once, use-once, throwaway culture. As things stand, changing our current behaviour could be something of a challenge. If we are to reduce our use of resources, everything we buy should be manufactured with longevity in mind, be easily recycled, built in obsolescence should become a thing of the past, the ‘new version out now’ mentality should be banished forever, and when a new item is marketed as¬† a definite improvement of the old one, it should actually be better, not worse as is so often the case now.
Without an¬†intact web of life rich in biodiversity, nature becomes stressed, and¬†key links in the food-chain may decline to an extent that it causes a¬†top-down or bottom-up trophic cascade, and the ecosystem in¬†question¬†becomes unbalanced. A classic example of a negative top-down¬†trophic cascade is that of the sea otter (Enhydra lutris) which,¬†having been hunted almost to extinction for its pelt along the Aleutian¬†Islands chain, led to an¬†increase in sea urchins which graze on and cause a decrease in¬†kelp, fundamental to the health of the marine ecosystem. Although the¬†sea otter has recovered to some extent, they are now being predated by¬†killer whales and sharks as fish stocks¬†decline due to overfishing. A¬†positive top-down trophic cascade involved the reintroduction of the¬†gray wolf into Yellowstone National Park and a resultant decline in elk¬†numbers, leading to shrub and aspen regeneration along¬†the river systems¬†and a resurgence in the beaver population, bringing benefits to many¬†other species, thus changing the whole ecosystem to something¬†approaching what it would have been before humans came upon the¬†scene.¬†Bottom-up trophic cascades occur when a primary producer such as krill¬†or phytoplankton goes into decline due to warming oceans, causing¬†changes up the food chain affecting all the creatures that predate them,¬†and¬†this is already occurring in the oceans surrounding the Antarctic.
Modern industrialised society seems to have been more or less inevitable as soon as we evolved into¬†Homo sapiens,¬†discovered¬†how to make and control fire, cook, and farm; these factors are the most likely cause of an¬†increase in our brain size.¬†We developed language, learnt to formulate¬†concepts and ideas, began fashioning tools of increasing sophistication¬†over the millennia, and eventually moved from being hunter-gatherers to¬†farmers. Our evolution thus far has¬†been largely enabled by an¬†exceptionally stable climate following the last ice age. Ironically it¬†is farming and vast monocultures that are now damaging entire ecosystems. The growing commodification of life and the natural world, and the privatisation and genetic patenting of seeds by the big agricultural corporations, are worrying trends driven by our flawed economic system. The¬†overall impact of human activity on the natural world has¬†been¬†estimated at a staggering ¬£3.5 trillion, although arriving at this¬†figure is fraught with variables ‚Äď it could be lower, but is most¬†probably far higher. Everything the human race does relies on natural¬†resources, so unless¬†great care is taken with their extraction,¬†utilisation, and the proper disposal of the resulting waste materials,¬†the natural world suffers.
Humankind has become trapped in a vicious cycle of reckless consumerism without moral or ethical compass, buying an endless stream of stuff without full appreciation of the true cost in natural resources in a soulless and meaningless pursuit of economic¬†growth at any cost. Electronic products in particular take a heavy toll, and because of the hamster-wheel of the digital age, such items are frequently discarded once new versions are launched. Akin to comfort eating, this craving for material goods attempts to fill an imagined void, while the fundamental needs for spiritual wholeness and well-being remain unfulfilled. Human greed is the culprit, and unless we rapidly adapt our lifestyles to consuming far fewer resources, through our combined actions, or rather lack of them, we are rapidly planting the seeds of our own destruction, and probably sooner than we imagine. As was coined rather succinctly on the front cover of summer 2015’s Green World, the Green Party’s official magazine, “There is no Planet B”. We have become so complacent about our ability ‚Äď through our own ingenuity ‚Äď to extricate ourselves from any given situation, that we seem to have forgotten that we belong to a living system, that this planet has only a limited supply of materials available to us, and we are certainly not taking good care of each other and the planet at the moment. We should begin to think most urgently about what is essential in our lives, more importantly what isn‚Äôt, and introduce policies and taxation laws to begin to narrow the yawning gulf between us and the super-rich that has been widening fast since the 2008 debt-induced recession. The issue of inequality and the super-rich became headlines in January 2015 after Oxfam announced that the top 80 richest people own the disposable wealth of half the world’s population. That’s economic injustice and inequality on a staggering scale. The French economist Professor Thomas Piketty, in his seminal 2013 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, offers solutions to the dire financial straits in which most countries find themselves, and a way forward out of the austerity measures brought in by many governments, such as an incremental tax on capital, (the total value of a person’s wealth and land, not their income), which should be made mandatory worldwide, the incremental element meaning that the richer people are, the more they pay. This could begin to narrow the inequality gap and reduce social tension; his research found that ever-rising concentrations of wealth do not trickle down to the rest of us (in fact the opposite), and are not self-correcting. Tax their wealth, and you begin to reduce their power. Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International and one of the six co-chairs at the 2015 World Economic Forum, said the increased concentration of wealth seen since the deep recession of 2008-09 was dangerous and needed to be reversed. “The message is that rising inequality is dangerous. It‚Äôs bad for growth and it‚Äôs bad for governance. We see a concentration of wealth capturing power and leaving ordinary people voiceless and their interests uncared for.”
We have arrived at a point in human history where we know the price of everything, but the value of nothing. To quote Kenneth Boulding from 1973, “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad ‚Äď or an economist.” If we don’t act now, civil unrest may become commonplace, and future conflicts are likely to be centred around decreasing resources of all kinds: energy, land, food, and that most vital prerequisite of life, water. Capitalism and its cousin disaster capitalism, corporate supremacy, privatisation, deregulation, free-market fundamentalism, and neo-liberalism (neo-conservatism in the US), have become the nemeses of the natural world; the almost complete disregard for, disassociation from, and commodification of nature comes at a very heavy cost to that which sustains us, our modern lifestyle having serious implications for the climate, the natural world and ultimately, ourselves. Even the very rich cannot protect themselves from climate chaos and the breakdown of ecological systems. The prospect of the collapse of civilisation itself begins to loom large on the horizon, warns president of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University Paul Ehrlich and his partner Anne in an article  published on the 9th January 2013 by the Royal Society. He also reminds us as one of a team of authors in a report published in late June 2014 that among vertebrates alone, 477 species have been declared officially extinct since 1900. Other experts and organisations including a NASA-funded study , the UK Government Office of Science , and KPMG  issue similar warnings. Do we really want to live in a world where the rich inhabit gated communities, while the rest of us live in dysfunctional, poverty and crime-ridden societies under a police state? Unbelievable as it may seem, plans have even been drawn up at the Ministry of Defence in the UK to brutally repress mass, non-violent political gatherings or movements against globalisation, climate change, and mass migrations due to climate change or war; and at the Department of Defense in the US, the Minerva Initiative seeks the same aims .
Democracy itself has now come under threat: recent changes in the¬†process of being made to the rules governing trade agreements,¬†specifically with reference to that between the United States and¬†the¬†European Union, under the grand title of the Transatlantic Trade and¬†Investment Partnership, mean that the regulatory differences between¬†the US and European nations are being quietly trashed. A covert panel¬†of corporate¬†lawyers would be able to override the will of parliament¬†and smash our legal protections. It‚Äôs called investor-state dispute¬†settlement. And it has a direct and negative effect on regulations¬†protecting us and what‚Äôs left of the living¬†world. One of the tribunal¬†judges says “When I wake up at night and think about arbitration, it¬†never ceases to amaze me that sovereign states have agreed to investment¬†arbitration at all ‚Ä¶ Three private individuals are¬†entrusted with the¬†power to review, without any restriction or appeal procedure, all¬†actions of the government, all decisions of the courts, and all laws and¬†regulations emanating from parliament.” Citizens have no similar¬†rights;¬†these tribunals cannot be used to protect us from corporate¬†greed. There is a similar Trans Pacific Partnership in the works. They¬†are, essentially, a privatised justice arrangement for the big¬†corporations that are bleeding the life¬†from our planet .
Near the¬†end of an article in the 2013 March/April copy of Resurgence and¬†Ecologist, in which Donnachadh McCarthy FRSA, an environmental¬†campaigner and author of the book ‘The Prostitute¬†State’ on this¬†subject, is interviewed by Greg Branson, who writes: “[Donnachadh] reflects that his time on the national political scene made him very¬†aware of the tiny group of ultra-rich elite who manipulate political¬†policy behind the scenes, supported¬†by a media largely owned by five¬†tax-avoiding billionaires, a corrupt corporate political lobbying system¬†that buys leading politicians to promote business goals, and a¬†tax-haven system, run by the same elite, that funds our¬†political¬†parties and steals enormous amounts of money from the developing world.”
We now live in a neo-feudalist system, in which our lives are largely¬†governed by the big corporations. The only way to turn the tide of the¬†pricing and commodification of natural assets is by us, the people,¬†whole societies.¬†We need to learn, fast, that governments will not¬†destroy a habitat or drive a species to extinction if enough people¬†shout ‚ÄúNO‚ÄĚ loudly enough. We should engage with the fast-changing world¬†and reverse the policies that are¬†destroying our planet. It always¬†helps to have some big names involved in the protest movements, and this¬†is beginning to happen. Bemoaning the fact that¬†a local woodland has¬†been clear-felled to make way for a road, or that your favourite meadows¬†have been built on, is essentially self-defeating if you didn‚Äôt get¬†involved! Social media is playing an increasingly valuable¬†part¬†in enabling us to speak with one voice and halt destructive corporate¬†practices. The internet can be used constructively by subscribing to the¬†newsletters of the numerous¬†websites dedicated to saving the natural world and the species in it,¬†by¬†making donations if you are able, by signing their petitions or¬†creating new ones, organising protest gatherings and marches, and by doing everything else humanly possible to make¬†our voices heard.
Today, we¬†find ourselves in a world trapped by the myth of progress, and a loss¬†of any healthy, spiritual connection with nature. This¬†has originated from a worldview that is largely¬†anthropocentric, and even modern environmentalism, to some extent,¬†adheres to this philosophy in the sense that nature must be saved for¬†our sake and not for its own. We’re not happy being told¬†that humankind‚Äôs activities are¬†harmful to nature. There is a tendency to switch¬†off. There are none so deaf as those who will not hear. We are caught up¬†in a system that promotes economic and material¬†growth as essential for¬†our own well-being, with a careless, complacent attitude towards the natural world,¬†and the loss of any ability to foster a direct relationship with it. The capitalist free-market ideology by which we are all¬†enslaved means that destroying natural habitat and making lots more stuff is¬†good for GDP. Imagine the howls of protest on being informed that there¬†was going to be¬†petrol rationing, daytime power cuts, a restriction of¬†holiday flights, that exotic foods would cease to appear in our¬†supermarkets because of the aircraft emissions involved, or that¬†mandatory measures to curb population growth¬†were to be introduced. The¬†rewilding idea so championed by George Monbiot and others across the world offers a far more¬†inspiring and motivating vision of positive change, rather than hearing that we must avoid activities that damage the¬†planet, and¬†tuning out because we don‚Äôt like do do without the lifestyle to which we have¬†become accustomed. We’re not fond of change, but by not changing we endanger the very future of human society. Change will come whether we like it or not. What is certain is that¬†humankind will have to act in the very near future if it is to¬†reduce its destructive impact on an increasingly stressed natural system and, by so¬†doing, save itself.
Our natural¬†capital is not only being eroded, it is being trashed, and¬†few governments acknowledge that it must be restored and that¬†alternative economic models need to be adopted. The current version is deeply flawed, vulnerable to¬†global events and panics, booms and deep recessions, with the super-rich elite and corporations that¬†now rule the world interested only in preserving the status quo so that¬†they can acquire even more¬†wealth and power, in the process abandoning any concept of morality or social conscience. The fact bears repeating that HALF the world‚Äôs vertebrates have disappeared since 1970, yet this latest finding has already been buried under what are purported to be more important issues as the world turns. The so-called ‘War on Terror,’ a term coined by George W. Bush and taken up by the UK’s Tony Blair since 9/11, now a multi-billion pound industry, and the evolution of various terrorist groups around the world, is merely a sideshow. If disaster is to be avoided, and there must¬†be a question as to whether this is even possible at this late stage, a¬†significant paradigm shift in economic¬†thinking is required. This should¬†take into account the limiting factors governing our continued growth in¬†relation to the earth‚Äôs ecosystems, which absolutely have to be in¬†good health to support us, rather than relentlessly¬†plundering¬†this beautiful planet ‚Äď¬†which continues unchecked as our population grows ‚Äď¬†without¬†keeping a balance-sheet. Already there may be very little time left to halt the breakdown¬†of ecosystems before the damage we inflict upon them crosses the¬†boundary into irretrievability, if indeed it hasn‚Äôt already. Humans are¬†the direct cause of what could turn out to be the beginning of a sixth great extinction crisis,¬†the last being 65¬†million years ago when perhaps 40% of life on earth was¬†extinguished, including the dinosaurs. The desecration of nature¬†continues apace as the human race sleepwalks into adversity, with governments and politicians ‚Äď as the puppets of the super-rich and transnational corporations ‚Äď being all hot air, greenwash, and inertia. Look around you and observe what is happening to the earth on their watch; they are unravelling billions of years of evolution. There is within us¬†the capacity to halt our ruinous practices, but it will not come without¬†some disagreeable and¬†painful readjustments. Nature is perfectly capable of evolving ‚Äď but can we somehow devise a formula for living on this still-beautiful earth that doesn’t destroy the very thing upon which we all depend?
To quote German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world it leaves to its children.”¬†A fundamental and radical change in our core values, that puts planetary¬†health ‚Äď and therefore our own ‚Äď at the centre of political discourse,¬†is absolutely essential if we are to have any hope of stepping back from¬†a very uncertain and miserable¬†future.
Some of the literature which has informed my views:
Jonathan P. Tyler, Sycamore Farm, Goulds Road, Alphamstone, BURES, Suffolk, UK. CO8 5HP
tel: +44 (0) 1787 269204¬†¬†¬†