Many scholars and world leaders in politics and industry (Pinker, Obama, Gates, etc…) have argued rightly that the human condition has improved dramatically in the period after World War II: fewer wars, fewer famines, more people lifted out of poverty. Although a great deal of economic pain is expected in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis, it is likely that things will eventually get back to the previous “normal” once a vaccine has been found.
Yet, there is one aspect of life on earth that has fared very badly: the natural world has taken a beating. I argue here that there is a systematic and systemic assault on nature by humanity. It needs to stop.
The natural world is shrinking at an unprecedented pace
Take the scale of species extinction: in the last 20 years, we are witnessing the 6th species extinction with on average 30% (a conservative estimate) of the animal, plant, living organisms having been wiped out of the planet, a cleansing that is continuing and progressing apace. By 2050, it is expected that more than 60% of the living world will have disappeared if drastic conservation measures are not taken.
Increasing swathes of land on earth are being turned into land uniquely geared towards satisfying human needs with often catastrophic consequences for the natural world. Thousands of football pitch size surfaces are being taken over every day to produce an ever-increasing amount of meat. Perhaps more importantly, these newly-created agricultural lands are for the most part mismanaged for the sake of rapid returns very often benefiting large land owners and corporations. Remarkably, this is exactly the process through which developed countries have gone through in past centuries. The same drivers have led to massive deforestation in the Western world, to a point that the large deforested areas of Scotland, Yorkshire, or Devon (to name a few in the UK) are considered “wilderness” when they are anything but: people living today have only known these areas as deforested uplands although their native original state was that of a vast forest.
Our onslaught on nature does not end here. Plastic is king, to the point that it sometimes forms a new stratum in soil, the plastic geological age. Microplastic is omnipresent, even in our blood stream. And then, there is carbon: billions of metric tonnes of the stuff are being poured into the atmosphere, causing the precipitous warming of our climate. The consequences for the natural world are multiple: severe droughts leading to country-scale fires, spectacular floods, melting of Antarctic and Arctic ice leading to increased sea levels, and extreme peaks of temperature recorded all over the planet. In summary, the natural world is being systematically and systemically cleansed of all things…”natural” and the speed at which it is happening is simply astonishing.
Is it deliberate or can’t we help it?
But is there a deliberate attempt to get rid of the natural world? The impulses that have driven humanity for millennia, those of survival, restless pursuit of wealth, or simply the relentless quest to improve the human condition and our personal circumstances, a general inability to step back to evaluate the consequences of our decisions, and finally an inherent unwillingness to grasp the full complexity of the issues we face (as demonstrated by Nobel-prize winning Daniel Kahneman) would suggest that our destructive behaviour is more driven by instinct, rather than deliberation. It is astonishing that in spite of evidence-based science demonstrating their immensely-negative impact, our carbon emissions continue to increase at an unsustainable rate. Plastic continues to accumulate. We know single-use coffee cups are extremely difficult to recycle because of their plastic lining, yet we still prefer to use them instead of making the effort of carrying a reusable cup at all times in our backpack. We know that emissions by cars are harmful, yet we choose lifestyles and living locations where two, sometimes three, cars are required, transforming our suburbs into parking lots. Even the greenest of us have a fascination and love for foreign cultures or dream of sunny beaches where to relax during the dark winter months, and, as a result, appear to be unable to refrain from pouring tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere by flying to these marvellously-exotic places. We love our Sunday roasts and are happy to eat meat every day, even when we know that the “making” of meat is carbon-intensive. In spite of being aware that the price of carbon and environmental impact should really be included in pricing, we feel we are already quite overburden with taxes and “anyone-but-me” should be paying them. In summary, we are reluctant to think rationally about it and this careless behaviour might be biologically ingrained in our evolutionary make-up.
Fake news and ideology
If the damages caused by our assault on nature are for everyone to see and to experience, why are we so reluctant to change? Faced with the relentless increase in carbon emissions and accumulation of plastic, why is so little done? It often takes cataclysmic events for humanity to take action. While the post-WWII generation was relentless in attempting to build a new world that will never experience the horrors of war again, the present humanity has retreated into self-indulgence, bickering, culture wars, endless social media bubble-forming, and the increased use of fake news as ultimate weapons of confirmation bias. Our modern era has atomised humanity into multiple irreconcilable tribes from which no grand vision of society can emerge. Ideas are stuck in black holes with no prospect of emerging. The Covid-19 crisis has changed nothing as is demonstrated by our rush to reinstate “normality” in our lives and societies. It is feared that the assault on nature will only stop when its impact becomes unbearably harmful, which is not yet the case. It will indeed take a lot more than intermittent maximum-strength hurricanes or extreme snowstorms to take people out of their comfort zone when for the most part, life can go on without having to make the fundamental changes to our lifestyles that the ongoing climate and environmental crisis calls for.
But maybe more significantly, is it not time to question the ideology which is the root cause of the systematic destruction of the natural world, the supremacy of anything human? Of course, this is not a new question. Most modern religions have taught us that we have dominion over the earth. But do we? We are certainly an animal species with a remarkable intelligence and, as a result, there is no doubt that we have the ability to be dominant. We indeed behave as we please, not hesitating for a minute to wreak destruction on anything living on this planet, including us. But the consequences of such destructions are coming back to haunt us. By feasting on earth’s resources, we are creating imbalances of such epic proportions that the world is hurtling rapidly forward, passing a series of tipping points which will irreversibly lead humanity to a point of no return where we will need to “bunkerise” ourselves in air-conditioned towns and cities, where particles will need to be seeded into the atmosphere to geo-engineer decreases in temperature, where water will come from desalination of lifeless seas, and where exposure to the natural world will be limited to indoor zoos and indoor botanical gardens.
So, what should we do?
For any viable future for humanity to enjoy, we must shift from a humanity-centred world to a world where the needs of both nature and humanity are reconciled. Man-made global warming being a threat to everyone, men and nature, we must urgently move to a decarbonised economy. The same way billions are justifiably found to mitigate the economic consequences of the Covid-19 epidemic, we must make sure billions are also spent to switch the world economy to zero-carbon. In this era of negative interest rates, it seems a small price to pay. Similarly, any billions spent to relieve corporations from the pain of the Covid-19 pandemic must come with strings attached that encourage the switch to more sustainable means of production. Above all, we must review pricing structures to make sure the prices of all items produced in the economy includes the environmental costs of their production, delivery and recycling. Fair pricing must be written into law. Action by government is crucial, but we also need to take matters into our own hands. At an individual level, we feel powerless, but when millions of us get out of the comfort of our sofas and get out to do something, even small, the combined effect is large. We need to fight to preserve the natural world because, as it fades away, fewer and fewer members of the younger generation get exposed to its beauty and the joys it gives. Although we must continue to lobby government, we also must reconnect with the notion of personal responsibility. In fine, we are all responsible, not just the oil companies, not just inactive governments, not just agri-business, although they also need to change fundamentally. But the fundamental change needed to save the planet is to be found in ourselves. We need to change, accept that the future of the planet is in our hands, and that we need to move away from harmful habits that have plagued the planet and its natural environment for decades and adopt new habits conducive to harmonious cohabitation of humans and nature.