The not-so-slow death of Earth’s wildlife
Should we blame humanity for the coming age of extinction? A new report surveying the decline of global biodiversity offers a stark reminder of how people have changed the world.
“We humans should not destroy the living planet.”
According to a recent report by the WWF, this is exactly what we are doing: since 1970 the average size of animal populations has dropped by 68%.
While this average doesn’t mean that for every three animals, two have gone, it is still a shocking statistic. The numbers are grim. Of mammal biomass on Earth, 96% is now composed of humans, livestock, and pets. Wild animals are being driven ever closer to extinction.
But who, or what, is doing the driving? The report names “changes in lands and sea use” and “species overexploitation” as the main culprits.
That means that the way we farm, fish and build is unsustainable. Researchers say humans use too many pesticides to cultivate too few crops; overfish the seas; cut down too many trees; and generally take up too much space.
Even our own lives are at stake. As insects die, plants will be left unpollinated, threatening food security and causing the release of more carbon. This in turn will trigger more climate change, killing even more animals.
Experts warn that this kind of feedback loop could be devastating.
Some scientists call our present era the “Anthropocene”, the era when humans are the prime mover of ecosystems.
But does thinking this way mask what the problem is, and how to solve it?
One way of framing the crisis has been to suggest that, worldwide, people have failed to value nature: they have exploited it without considering the long-term consequences.
A case in point may be what has been called “the tragedy of the commons”. When no individual bears the cost of destroying wild animal habitats, everyone will act without regard for the common good.
Perhaps, as some have recently argued, the solution lies in incorporating nature into humans’ economic thinking. Putting a price tag on biodiversity might ensure people keep environmental costs in mind.
Others, however, claim that regarding the problem as a human failing spreads responsibility too thin. People in developed countries, they say, benefit much more from the current global economy than people in developing countries. If the benefit is uneven, how fair is it to share the blame?
These critics blame the economic system, capitalism, and the wealthy who benefit from it. Some have even suggested naming our era, not the Anthropocene but the “Capitalocene”. It is the search for profit that harms biodiversity, they say, and there is nothing natural about that.
All agree that the time for action is now. As the window for it closes, naming the problem is only a first step. But it could determine whether we head down the right path or keep trampling on the living world.
So, should we blame humanity for the coming age of extinction?
It’s called the Anthropocene for a reason, say some. They can point to the prehistoric destruction of mammoths and the present extinctions as part of a continuous species-wide short-sightedness. Even communist Soviet Union killed all the fish in the Oka River in 1965. Short-termism is natural, even if it has disastrous consequences for nature, and we all have to do our part in combating it.
Some are more to blame than others, goes the reply. The global economic order has been constructed to benefit the wealthy and to extract resources from the poorest countries. It is this order, for example, that drives overfishing while some of those fishermen, as in Thailand, are not even paid. By blaming all of humanity, we naturalise these injustices, and risk making our solutions to environmental catastrophe inhumane.
- Some conservationists say farmers should keep endangered species, rather than livestock. What endangered animal would you “farm”?
- Should a billionaire who wants to hunt an elephant, and would pay a huge amount to conservation charities, be allowed to do so?
- Some people say we have become too disconnected from nature. Try to draw all of the animals that you have interacted with in the last day, from birds you might have heard to food you have eaten.
- Recently, arguments have been made that biodiversity is a form of natural asset, and that valuing these assets correctly could help to preserve them. Imagine you are part of the team tasked with this valuation. Write a statement of principles governing the price you would put on natural assets.
Some People Say...
“We have an idiomatic name for those who hold the fate of the world in their hands, as we do: gods. But, for the moment at least, most of us seem more inclined to run from that responsibility…”David Wallace Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- It is generally agreed that modern industrial society has had a devastating impact on biodiversity. Between 1970 and 2020, the total wildlife population has declined by more than 68%. In Latin America it is as high as 94%. On every continent species are disappearing: a million are threatened with extinction. The key drivers of this extinction are “changes in land and sea use” (farming, building, etc) and “species over-exploitation” (e.g. fishing).
- What do we not know?
- A key debate is over what we mean when we say that humans are responsible. Is this a “natural” function of human population growth, and our cognitive biases, or are incentives to destroy biodiversity built into a political system in which some are more responsible than others? Not everybody benefits equally from modern farming and fishing. Does assigning blame to humans as a whole fudge the question of responsibility, or do we all have to shoulder our share of the blame?
- The World Wildlife Fund. The WWF used to share an acronym with the World Wrestling Federation. The animal charity engaged in a long legal battle with the televised wrestling league until 2001, when the wrestlers lost, changing their name to the WWE.
- A way of measuring, by weight, the amount of life on the planet. Insects (and molluscs) vastly outweigh humans, but bacteria vastly outweigh insects. Nevertheless, the balance is shifting.
- Feedback loop
- This is when an output of a system becomes an input again, creating a circle of cause and effect. As an abstraction, feedback governs the functioning of many human-made devices, including the water level in flushing toilets.
- The term was coined in the 1980s, but became more common in the last decade, popularised by the Dutch climate scientist Paul J Crutzen. It is new name alluding to the current geological epoch, echoing the names given to earlier epochs, such as Pleistocene, and the Anthropocene’s predecessor, the Holocene. The word comes from the Greek “anthropos”, meaning Man, and “-cene”, meaning new. Most geologists, however, would say we are still in the Holocene.
- Prime mover
- Used to mean the chief cause or the person responsible for something happening, the term derives from the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s speculation on the first cause of all things.
- Tragedy of the commons
- This is the title of a famous 1968 academic paper by Garrett Hardin, where he argues that rational self-interest will lead to over-population and the destruction of natural resources. The phrase is often invoked when the privatisation of public resources is being discussed.
- A population here is not the sum total of the species but a defined group of the same species observed by a scientist.