The below piece ran on TheJournal.ie in late September. It was inspired by a combination of the surreal imagery emanating from the western US and the release of the 2020 Living Planet Report, which chronicles ever sharpening declines in planetary vital signals.
ONE OF THE most iconic scenes from the science fiction film Blade Runner 2049 featured the eerie bright orange skies over a future Las Vegas.
This dystopian vision became all-too-real in recent days as smoke from the hundreds of wildfires raging out of control in the western US blotted out the midday sun, casting entire states into a perpetual twilight. A video clip featuring drone footage filmed over San Francisco overlaid with the score from Blade Runner 2049 quickly went viral.
Picking up the movie theme, Georgia Tech climate scientist Dr Kim Cobb said: “A year like 2020 could have been the subject of a marvellous science fiction film in 2000. Now we have to watch and digest real-time disaster after disaster after disaster, on top of a pandemic. The outlook could not be any more grim. It’s just a horrifying prospect. It’s going to get a lot worse.”
A broken world
While scientists have been warning for decades that climate breakdown could have dire consequences for humanity, in reality, for the rest of nature, the apocalypse is already in full swing, as vividly detailed in recent days with the publication of the WWF’s 2020 Living Planet Report. Its findings are clear: “Our relationship with nature is broken”.
Abandoning the normally ultra-cautious language used in scientific reports, WWF director general, Marco Lambertini set it out bluntly, pointing to: “unequivocal evidence that nature is unravelling and that our planet is flashing red warning signs. Humanity’s destruction of nature is having catastrophic impacts not only on wildlife populations but also on human health and all aspects of our lives”.
The scale of the destruction almost beggars belief. Since 1970, global populations of wild mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish have collapsed by an astonishing 68 per cent on average. Although not directly tracked by the Index, scientists believe the situation for insect populations is equally dire. The phrase ‘insectageddon’ has been coined to describe the collapse in arthropod numbers.
In addition, around 12 million hectares of agricultural land is being lost to soil degradation and desertification globally every year, that’s an area greater than the island of Ireland.
According to the WWF, the way we produce both food and energy as well as humanity’s blatant disregard for the environment entrenched in our current economic models, has, it warns, “pushed the natural world to its limits”.
Late last year, the United Nations published a major global assessment report, which found that nature is being destroyed at a rate tens to hundreds of times more than the average over the last 10 million years.
As a result of the carnage, around one million species now face extinction, with almost unimaginable consequences for the web of life itself. The report described the likely impacts on humanity as “ominous”. These include freshwater shortages and ever more extreme weather resulting from climate destabilisation.
Today, some 75 per cent of the land surface of the planet has been sequestered for human use and significantly altered from its natural state. Animal agricultureinvolves the feeding and slaughter of some 50 billion land animals a year and is among the major global drivers of deforestation, water and air pollution, biodiversity loss, freshwater depletion and marine dead zones. In fact, 70 per cent of all the birds in the world today are farmed chickens.
The widespread use of herbicides and pesticides in intensive agriculture has allowed for dramatic increases in food production but at the price of ecological devastation, including depleting key microbes and invertebrates in the soil as well as wiping out insects and birds.
Many of these novel chemicals also work their way into the human food chain, leading to a host of serious health issues.
The EU recently published strategies to promote biodiversity and to transform food production to make it work with, rather than against, nature. The WWF has strongly welcomed these moves, describing them as “potential game-changers”. It added that the EU’s global footprint, which it notes is “driving the destruction of forests, grasslands and other precious ecosystems outside of Europe”, needs to be reduced.
The EU’s so-called Farm to Fork strategy’s ambitious aims are to reduce dependency on pesticides and antimicrobials, reduce excess fertilisation, increase organic farming, improve animal welfare, and reverse biodiversity loss.
One key target is to increase the amount of EU land farmed organically to 25 per cent by 2030. Organic farming is crucial to the survival and well-being of wildlife, yet Ireland has among the very lowest amount of land in the entire EU(barely 2 per cent) farmed organically. Despite our carefully managed ‘green’ image, over 90 per cent of Ireland’s protected habitats are classified as being of “unfavourable conservation status”.
According to the National Biodiversity Centre, one-third of all Irish bee speciesmay be extinct by 2030, while 50 per cent of our freshwaters are polluted, leading to sharp declines in aquatic species.
Ireland’s biodiversity crisis
There is no mystery as to why Irish wildlife is now endangered like never before. It is due mainly to “the effect of monoculture and the drive to ever-higher levels of productivity characterised by a loss or neglect of hedgerows, farmland edges and scrub”, according to the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NWPS).
The level of political contempt in Ireland for biodiversity and wildlife protection can be evidenced in the fact that the total annual NWPS budget is just €11 million, compared with state funding for the greyhound industry of €16 million a year and €64 million to the horse racing industry.
Whether we realise it or not, climate breakdown and biodiversity loss are two sides of the same blade that is now held to the throat of all life on Earth, including humans. What will it take to finally awaken us to take radical action?
John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator who specialises in covering the climate and biodiversity emergency. He is a contributor to The Irish Times, The Business Post, The Guardian and DeSmog.uk and is a regular commentator on broadcast media. He blogs at Thinkorswim.ie and also runs the website Climatechange.ie and is on Twitter.