TE: Biodiversity Special Report
Special Report on Biodiversity:
All Creatures Great and Small
Biodiversity, once the preoccupation of scientists and greens, has become a mainstream concern. Liberal helpings of growth and technology are the best way of preserving it, says Emma Duncan
If the events of a single night can be said to have shaped the fate of life on Earth, it could be those that took place in Paragominas on November 23rd 2008. Paragominas is a municipality in the Brazilian Amazon two-thirds the size of Belgium. Its population of 100,000 is made up largely of migrants from the south of the country who were encouraged by the government to colonise the area and chop down the forest. The small town that is its capital has an air of the wild west about it. Men wear cowboy hats in the streets. Five years ago it was a rough place, its air full of sawdust and rumours that slave labour was used in the charcoal business fuelled by Amazonian timber.
Earlier that day, at the request of the mayor, Adnan Demachki, the federal environmental police had confiscated some lorries piled high with illegally cut logs. The loggers were not happy. That night a few hundred of them entered the town, repossessed some of the trucks, set them and the office of the environmental police on fire and then tried to burn down the mayor’s office too. Paragominas was known to be the front line of the fight against deforestation, so the burning trucks were all over the nation’s television screens.
Mr Demachki, elected for his efficiency, not his political views, had come to believe that Paragominas was on the wrong side of history. He called a town meeting and held up two letters he had written. One apologised to the nation for the previous day’s events and committed Paragominas to stopping deforestation. The other announced his resignation. The townsfolk chose the first. The mayor stayed in his job, and Paragominas changed its ways.
The events in Paragominas have been repeated, in less dramatic ways, across much of the Brazilian Amazon. Deforestation has fallen steadily, from 28,000 sq km in 2004 to 5,000 in 2012. Whether this is a permanent victory or a temporary respite is not yet clear, but the fact that Brazil has succeeded in greatly reducing a seemingly unstoppable process of destruction raises hopes for the future of the rest of life on Earth.
The change has been a long time coming. Ever since man first picked up a spear, other species have suffered. Man wiped out most of the megafauna—the mammoths, the sabre-toothed tigers, the mastodons, the aurochs—that roamed the planet before he did. When he sailed the Pacific, he killed off half the bird species on its islands. As his technology improved, so his destructive power increased. When he learned how to exploit the Earth’s minerals and hydrocarbons, he started to multiply ever faster, leaving ever less room for the planet’s other species. He chopped down forests, poisoned rivers and killed large numbers of the biggest sea fish and marine mammals. Many believe that, as a result, a mass extinction comparable to those of prehistoric times may be under way.
In a sense, this orgy of destruction was natural. In the wild, different species compete for resources, and man proved a highly successful competitor. Religion sanctioned his ascendancy. The Bible granted mankind “dominion…over every creeping thing that creepeth over the earth”. If he stamped on a few of them, so be it.
But in recent times attitudes have changed. People have, by and large, come round to the view that wiping out other species is wrong. Part of the reason is pragmatic: as man has come to understand ecology better, he has realised that environmental destruction in pursuit of growth may be self-defeating. Rivers need to be healthy to provide people with clean water and fish; natural beauty fosters tourism; genes from other species provide the raw material for many drugs. But man also finds it troubling to think that as the only species able to marvel at the diversity of creation, he should be responsible for killing it off.
Putting Humpty back together again
The change in attitudes has had political consequences. In recent decades, first in the rich world and then increasingly elsewhere, laws to ban the killing of and trade in endangered creatures and to protect areas rich in biodiversity have been enacted. Governments are buying up important natural sites, restoring damaged ecosystems, setting up captive breeding programmes for critically endangered species and so on. Green NGOs and concerned individuals have also been helpful.
Endangered species have benefited from some of the concomitants of growth, too. Improved sanitation has made the planet healthier, as has regulation of pesticides. Cleaner air is better for biodiversity. As countries get richer, they tend to become more peaceful and better governed and their population growth slows down. Technological progress has improved life for other species, making conservation efforts more effective.
Although these successes can in part be credited to the environmentalist movement, greens tend not to boast of them for fear of damaging their cause. By walking the planet with a sandwich-board predicting impending doom, they have helped reduce the chances of an ecological calamity. If people believe catastrophe has receded, they may stop making an effort to avert it.
And they are right that the future for many species is by no means assured. Although things are improving in most of the rich world, in most of the emerging world—which is where the greatest number of species live—they are still deteriorating. Mass extinction remains a real danger.
Whether or not it actually comes about depends in part on what happens to the climate, which remains the subject of much guesswork. This newspaper has written about climate at length and this special report will not go over that ground again, except to say that if warming turns out to be at the upper end of the scale envisaged by the International Panel on Climate Change, the consequences for biodiversity—as well as for people—will be calamitous. If it remains at the lower end of the scale—as slower temperature increases over the past decade suggest it may—then most species will not be adversely affected.
Instead, this special report will focus on the relationship between humanity and the rest of the planet’s species in recent years. It will argue that thanks to a combination of environmental activism and economic growth the outlook for other species has improved, and that if growth continues, governments do more to regulate it and greens embrace technological progress, there is a decent chance of man undoing the damage he has done during his short and bloody stay on the planet.
The Outlook: Averting the Sixth Extinction
Growth is good, but governments need to continue to regulate it and greens to learn to love it.
Over the grand sweep of history and geography, things have not been going well for Earth’s non-human species. Extinction rates over the past few centuries have been far higher than the background rate, and taking the world as a whole the picture over the past few decades has been looking pretty bleak. The Living Planet Index shows a 30% decline in biodiversity since 1970.
Take a closer look, though, and a more optimistic account of the planet’s trajectory emerges. What limited information on extinctions is available suggests that trends have improved recently. Although the LPI shows a global fall in biodiversity, and a stark decline in poorer countries, in richer countries conditions are improving for other species. That is thanks to the developments covered in this special report—shifting public attitudes to other species, increasing appreciation of natural environments, legislation to stop the killing of endangered species, programmes to eradicate invasive species, more and bigger protected areas for wildlife, subsidies to restore degraded habitat, better sanitation, better regulation of pesticides, decreasing levels of conflict and increasingly effective states implementing conservationist legislation. All of these become more prevalent as countries get richer.
Yet the survival of most of the planet’s remaining non-human species is by no means assured. Leaving aside the huge unknown of climate change, whether or not the sixth great extinction is looming depends largely on what happens to growth and how humanity manages that growth.
Faster growth will mean higher consumption of resources and more pressure on habitat, which is bad for other species. But as North Korea’s experience shows, the combination of economic stagnation and poverty is even worse. Growth can benefit biodiversity, so long as it is combined with regulation and investment to protect other species. That has happened to some extent; whether it happens enough to prevent biodiversity being drastically reduced depends largely on governments in emerging markets.
But the biggest question of all for other species is what happens to land use. With habitat loss the principal threat to biodiversity, and agriculture taking up two-fifths of land compared with 3% for urban areas, the demand for food, and how it is met, will determine how much land is left for other creatures.
According to research led by David Tilman of the University of Minnesota, demand for food is likely to double by 2050. The UN’s central estimate is for the world’s population to rise by a third over that period, from 7.2 billion to 9.6 billion, but demand for food will grow faster than that, because as people get richer more of them will get enough to eat and more will be able to afford more meat. Meat consumption per person in China has risen from 4kg a year in 1961 to 58kg in 2009. In Britain it is 84kg.
Assuming that current levels of wastage persist, if demand for food were to double and crop yields remained the same, the amount of land cultivated would need to double as well. Since around 40% of the land on the planet is already cultivated, that would not leave much room for other creatures. But if farming were to become twice as productive, there would be no need to till any more land. Over the past 60 years America’s corn farmers have done better than that: production has quadrupled on an area that has increased by half (see chart 7).
Loaves and fishes
For agriculture to pull off the same trick again would mean either boosting yields in high-yielding countries yet further or intensifying agriculture in low-yielding countries. The first may be hard to do: agricultural tech companies are struggling to get any more yield out of cereals growing in favourable conditions. But there is clearly scope for the second. In America, for instance, corn (maize) yields are around 7.7 tonnes per hectare, compared with 2.5 tonnes in India.
Boosting yields means using more fertiliser, pesticide and GM seeds. Some environmentalists understand this, but few publicly support the intensification of agriculture. Attitudes to GM among the big NGOs range from the RSPB (“maintains an open mind”) and WWF (“precautionary approach”) to Greenpeace (“a serious threat to biodiversity and our own health”) and Friends of the Earth (“unnecessary risks to both humans and nature”). Among green political activists, hostility to the intensification of agriculture is near-uniform. In consequence, GM seeds are, in effect, banned in the European Union (though EU citizens feast on GM products freely imported from other countries) and rich-world activists have exported their opposition to GM crops to Africa and Asia.
Hostility to intensive agriculture within the green movement is understandable. Environmentalism was partly a response to “Silent Spring”. Opposition to companies like Monsanto and Syngenta is bred into the green movement. So is hostility to growth: environmentalism’s roots lie in the Romantic movement that sprang up in opposition to the industrial revolution. Deep in the green movement’s soul lies a belief that the wrongs done to the planet were caused by technological change and economic growth, and that more of them can lead only to greater evil.
It is true that if man had never sharpened his first spear, the mastodons would probably still be roaming the plains of North America and the aurochs the grasslands of Europe. But it is wrong to conclude from this that more growth and more technological change would compound the disaster. For the first time since he got the upper hand, it looks as though man may succeed in averting the sixth great extinction, for a series of interconnected reasons.
As mankind has got richer, he has set about cleaning up some of the mess that he has made of his surroundings. Growing prosperity has induced him to care about matters beyond his own survival and that of his tribe and to translate those concerns into laws, regulations and programmes, both publicly and privately funded, that have changed people’s behaviour towards their environment. At the same time, the technological progress that has accompanied economic growth has not just made conservation more effective but has also enabled man to produce more of what he wants from less, to the benefit of other species.
Many in the environmental movement regard economic growth and technological progress as enemies of biodiversity. Actually, they are its friends. Only through more of both can man hope to go on enjoying the company of the 8.7m or so other species with which he was born to share this planet.
For more of The Economist’s Special Report on Biodiversity:
- All Creatures Great and Small: Biodiversity, once the preoccupation of scientists and greens, has become a mainstream concern. Liberal helpings of growth and technology are the best way of preserving it, says Emma Duncan.
- Dead as the Moa: Extinction is a fact of life, but rates seem to be slowing down.
- What’s the Use?: The reasons for preserving biodiversity are becoming more widely understood.
- Amsterdam’s Wild Side: A Dutch experiment recreates nature red in tooth and claw.
- Where Eagles Dare: The more prosperous countries now favour protecting wildlife, not killing it.
- Hearts and Minds: Stopping the slaughter of endangered species takes imagination.
- The Long View: Contrary to popular belief, economic growth may be good for biodiversity.
- Trees of Knowledge: How Brazil is using education, technology and politics to save its rainforest.
- Averting the Sixth Extinction: Growth is good, but governments need to continue to regulate it and greens to learn to love it.