Rout of global biodiversity comes with a heavy price tag

Below, my article as it appeared in the summer edition of ‘Irish Wildlife’, the magazine of the  Irish Wildlife Trust, an organisation well worth supporting. I gave a one-hour presentation followed by a Q&A at an IWT ‘Green Drinks’ event in Dublin in early March, and was really taken by the level of interest and engagement among the audience that evening, and so was delighted when asked to chip in an article for their magazine.

VETERAN Harvard biologist, Prof E.O. Wilson first achieved fame through his study of the complex social and communal lives of ants – myrmecology, to give it its proper title. Wilson, who turns 90 this summer, is also known as ‘the father of biodiversity’.

Apart from his stellar career as a scientist, he is also a gifted writer and commentator. In his 2002 book, ‘The Future of Life’, he wrote presciently: “An Armageddon is approaching at the beginning of the third millennium. It is not the fiery collapse of mankind foretold in sacred scripture. It is the wreckage of the planet by an exuberantly plentiful and ingenious humanity.” It’s a phrase that has stayed with me since I first encountered it.

In the five decades or so since 1970, the number of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish in the wild has plummeted. Two thirds of the land-based wild creatures alive on Earth when I was in primary school have vanished, swept away before the profligate ingenuity of one apex predator of unparalleled ferocity.

It is truly breath-taking to consider that in less than half a century the havoc we have wreaked on the natural world is fast approaching the devastation wrought by the asteroid impact in the Yucatán peninsula just under 66 million years ago. The global mass extinction event that followed this catastrophic impact caused around 75% of plant and animal species on Earth (including, most famously, all non-avian dinosaurs) at that time to go extinct.

“This global trend suggests we are degrading natural ecosystems at a rate unprecedented in human history”, according to the World Wildlife Fund, which crunches the numbers annually in its Living Planet Index reports.

Wilson identified the rapid destruction of natural habitats, spread of invasive species, pollution, continuous population growth and over-harvesting as the principal threats to the living planet upon which all life, including human life, depends. Wilson examined the complex interactions that make up the web of life that supports us, and why it would be an act of enlightened self-interest for humanity to learn the limits of its power and the existential dangers entailed in inadvertently crippling the biosphere.

This realisation animated Wilson’s 2016 book, ‘Half-Earth’, in which he put forward the radical idea that half the land on Earth (and much of its oceans) would have to be designated as human-free natural reserves in order to preserve biodiversity and to allow natural systems upon which we depend to continue to function.

This idea is as sensible as it is impossible to implement. Human incursions are instead penetrating further into the ever-diminishing remaining sanctuaries where wildlife cling on to existence. Consider these statistics: today, some 60% of all mammals on Earth, by weight, are livestock, mostly cattle and pigs, 36% are human and just 4% are wild animals. So, humans and our farmed animals and pets comprise 96% of all vertebrate life on Earth.

By far the most common bird in the world today is the farmed chicken; in fact, chickens now comprise 70% of all the world’s birds. The picture for invertebrates is not much better. Insects are among nature’s great survivors, but even this kingdom is beginning to crumble under the sustained assault of intensive farming and its toxic haze of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.

A 2016 study in Germany identified a stunning 76% collapse in the total number of flying insects compared to a baseline study carried out just 25 years earlier, in 1991. Unsurprisingly, equally dramatic collapses in populations of farmland birds have been tracked right across Europe, including in Ireland.

Our fellow species have thus far borne the brunt of this dramatic reshaping of the surface of the planet to provide for the needs and wants of a single species. It is difficult to imagine that, having sown the storm, human health and welfare can expect to escape the gathering whirlwind of a destabilised global climatic system.

More than 90% of Ireland’s supposedly ‘protected’ habitats, which include native grasslands and peatlands, are in poor condition, according to the 2017 National Biodiversity Forum. It tracked major declines in already threatened bird species, while noting that one-third of Ireland’s wild bees face extinction.

The forces driving this collapse in Irish biodiversity include intensive agriculture, commercial forestry, peat cutting, invasive species, water and air pollution. The ongoing disruption to natural systems caused by climate change adds to the growing challenges for survival faced by wildlife all over the world.

A paper in the journal of the US National Academy of Sciences last year introduced the term “biological annihilation” to describe the rate and scale of global biodiversity loss. “The situation has become so bad it would not be ethical not to use strong language,” according to co-author Prof Gerardo Ceballos. The study concluded: “Humanity will eventually pay a very high price for the decimation of the only assemblage of life that we know of in the universe.”

Of the many threats to biodiversity outlined above, you will note that climate change (or, more accurately, climate breakdown) is at this point still a relatively minor player. This is, unfortunately, unlikely to remain the case for much longer. A 2018 study published by the US National Academy of Sciences examined the Luquillo rainforest in Puerto Rico. It has benefitted over the years from extensive protection and it appeared, at least to the untrained eye, to be in pristine condition. Yet, the study found a staggering 90-98% collapse in the number of arthropods in the forest, compared to the mid-1970s.

So, what happened? The rainforest’s temperature has increased by 2 degrees Centigrade in the past three decades as a result of global warming. This seemingly small temperature shift has been enough to disrupt and in many cases, destroy, the forest’s food web. Unexpectedly, the near-disappearance of arthropods from the rainforest has seen populations of lizards, frogs and birds decline sharply.

The battle to conserve what remains of our intact natural heritage has never been more important But, as the fate of the Luquillo rainforest clearly illustrates, nature conservation without climate stabilisation simply won’t work, and every hard-won gain that conservationists make will, sooner or later – quite possibly, sooner – be wiped out by climate breakdown.

Amid the gloom, 2019 has seen some green shoots in terms of the long-overdue public and political response to the unfolding crises that threaten the biosphere. The emergence of the children’s climate strike movement, inspired by the charismatic Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg has helped to wake the public from its slumber on ecological awareness, as well as propelling it well up the political and media agendas. The ‘Extinction Rebellion’ movement, modelled on historic campaigns using peaceful street-based civil disobedience, has galvanised the sense that a tipping point in attitudes to the climate crisis may be fast approaching.

However, seasoned campaigners are acutely aware that there have been many false dawns in recent years and remain sceptical that the likely government and corporate response to this crisis will be one of ever more sophisticated greenwashing.

The unpalatable fact remains that the seemingly unstoppable march of growth-based global consumerism is on a collision course with the immovable limits of a finite, battered biosphere. And, since physics doesn’t negotiate, humanity is either going to have to accept a radically limited future or face the very real prospect that this is indeed our final century.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and tweets @think_or_swim

 

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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