Here’s a longer version of the piece that has gone on Comment is Free today.
Scientists suspect we are entering the sixth global mass extinction. How can we tell, and if we are, what can be done?
The august journal Nature recently published Life – a status assessment. It’s a graphic portrayal of the vast number of species disappearing from the planet. This is difficult as scientists don’t know how many species there are, with estimates ranging from two to 50 million. Most taxonomic effort is focussed on a few groups – birds, mammals or amphibians; very few new species of birds or mammals are found these days. For fungi the situation is rather different; less than 50,000 have been named, out of an estimated total of 600,000 to 10 million species. The scale of the challenge is astronomical.
For those species we know about, the picture is grim: Globally, 41% of amphibian species are facing extinction; 13% of all birds are at risk as are 22% of flowering plants. For fungi, nobody has a clue as only between 0.05 and 8% of fungi have even been identified – to know something is disappearing it needs a name. IUCN, celebrating their 50th year, have a target to name 160,000 species by 2020. Developments in DNA analysis provide opportunities to “bar-code” nature short-circuiting the long process of traditional taxonomy.
It’s now possible to collect a sample of invertebrates from a forest, whizz them into a soup and send that off to a lab where species are identified by their DNA.
The reasons behind this mass extinction are manifold, but all stem from human activity. Humans are “the ultimate invasive species” spreading from Africa to every corner of the planet (and beyond) in 100,000 years. In doing so we have removed the habitats of other species, or affected them by moving other invasive species around, causing pollution and driving climate change. We do so at our peril, because humans came from nature and we utterly depend on it for our survival.
If it is possible to stop this mass extinction, humans need to take rapid and radical action. Here are five actions that I think will be needed:
1. Give places back to nature.
3% of the oceans and 15% of land fall within “protected areas”. In practice many of these offer no protection to nature: The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in theory protects 15% of the world’s coral reefs. In practice, dredgings are dumped in the park to keep Queensland’s ports clear for shipping Coal, Iron ore and LNG. More protected areas are needed, and they need to be properly protected.
Coal carriers loading at Gladstone Harbour, Queensland, next to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. © Miles King
2. Change the way we view nature.
Nature is not another asset class to be traded on the world’s financial markets. Yet we see Governments and businesses keen to implement biodiversity offsetting, where biodiversity lost to development is “traded” through a type of money called conservation credits. Most would consider it heinous to develop a market in tradeable credits for children’s happiness – so why is it deemed acceptable to trade biodiversity? Humans have an absolute requirement for nature – for the food we eat, the oxygen we breathe, but also for the inspiration it provides, the sense of wellbeing, meaning, joy and solace it brings to us all. We need to develop new ethics that transform the values people ascribe to nature and the way we relate to it.
3. Our economic system is not capable of valuing nature
The neoliberal obsession with economic growth and profit is a major driver of this mooted global extinction. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the main way economists measure economic growth. Economists talk of “market failure”, when the external costs to nature of human activities are given no monetary value.
A farmer can grow a profitable crop of maize, ignoring the costs of cleaning up the nearby river contaminated with silt, nitrogen fertiliser and pesticides; or the homes flooded further downstream. These costs are externalised and are either not addressed or are paid by the taxpayer. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) counts the economic value of the crop, the cost of cleaning the nitrogen from the water and the cost of clearing up after the flood all as contributing positively to GDP. This is makes no sense on any level.
We need to radically transform the way nature is valued through economics.
4. End public subsidies that damage nature
Perhaps the largest causes of nature destruction in Europe over the past 40 years are the Common Agricultural Policy on land and the Common Fisheries Policy at sea. These have paid farmers to replace places rich in nature, with places almost entirely devoid of it; and paid fisheries to empty the seas. All this has been paid for by taxpayers. It is time to abolish the CAP and the CFP and replace them with systems that only support farming and fishing practices that either do no harm or actively restore nature. Practices that continue to cause unnecessary damage to nature should be taxed or outlawed.
5. Consumption, Population and Inequality
The planet cannot sustain our current consumption of finite resources and as our population expands, other species disappear. There is a near free market in the products of wildlife crime, in that the laws of supply and demand operate without much hindrance; the wealthy can afford to pay ever higher prices for poached products, such as ivory. Elephants have a right to exist, and their existence enriches all our lives. Yet the ivory buyers have no care for Elephants, nature or for society.
As wealth is concentrated in corporations and the top 1%, key decisions that affect the future of nature are left to a tiny number of individuals, who act neither in the interests of society, or of nature. It is also the world’s poorest people who depend most on nature, so their lives are most affected when nature is damaged.
In the long run nature will survive, as it has the previous five extinctions. It is we, Homo sapiens, who will join the myriad other species disappearing in this mass dying, unless we radically change our relationship with nature.