Driven perhaps by envy at the attention that climate change is getting, and ambition to set up a great new intergovernmental body that can fly scientists to mega-conferences, biologists have gone into overdrive on the subject of biodiversity this week.
They are right that there is a lot wrong with the world’s wildlife, that we can do much more to conserve, enhance and recover it, but much of the coverage in the media, and many of the pronouncements of Sir Bob Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), are frankly weird.
The threat to biodiversity is not new, not necessarily accelerating, mostly not caused by economic growth or prosperity, nor by climate change, and won’t be reversed by retreating into organic self-sufficiency. Here’s a few gentle correctives.
Much of the human destruction of biodiversity happened a long time ago
Species extinction rates of mammals and birds peaked in the 19th century (mostly because of ships taking rats to islands). The last extinction of a breeding bird species in Europe was the Great Auk, in 1844. Thousands of years ago, stone-age hunter-gatherers caused megafaunal mass extinctions on North and South America, Australia, New Zealand and Madagascar with no help from modern technology or capitalism. That’s not to say extinctions don’t still happen but by far the biggest cause is still invasive alien species, especially on islands: it’s chytrid fungi that have killed off many frogs and toads, avian malaria that has killed off many of Hawaii’s honeycreepers, and so on.
This is a specific problem that can be tackled and reversed, but it will take technology and science and money, not retreating into self-sufficiency and eating beans. The eradication of rats on South Georgia island was a fine example of doing this right, with helicopters, GPS and a lot of science.
We’ve been here before. In 1981, the ecologist Paul Ehrlich predicted that 50% of all species would be extinct by 2005. In fact, about 1.4% of bird and mammal species, which are both easier to document than smaller creatures and more vulnerable to extinction, have gone extinct so far in several centuries.
The idea that “western values”, or “capitalism”, are the problem is wrong
On the whole what really diminishes biodiversity is a large but poor population trying to live off the land. As countries get richer and join the market economy they generally reverse deforestation, slow species loss and reverse some species declines. Countries like Bangladesh are now rich enough to be reforesting, not deforesting, and this is happening all over the world. Most of this is natural forest, not plantations. As for wildlife, think of all the species that have returned to abundance in Britain: otters, ospreys, sea eagles, kites, cranes, beavers, deer and more. Why are wolves increasing all around the world, lions decreasing and tigers now holding steady? Basically, because wolves are in rich countries, lions in poor countries and tigers in middle income countries. Prosperity is the solution not the problem.
Nothing would kill off nature faster than trying to live off it. When an African villager gets rich enough to buy food in a shop rather than seek bushmeat in the forest, that’s a win for wildlife. Ditto if he or she can afford gas for cooking rather than cutting wood. The more we can urbanise and the more we can increase our use of intensive farming and fossil fuels, the less we will need to clear forests for either food or fuel.
Intensive farming spares land for nature
It’s been calculated that if today’s population were to be fed using the mainly organic yields of 1960, we would have to farm 82% of the world’s land, whereas actually we farm about 38%. Thanks to fertilisers, tractors, genetics and pesticides, we now need 68% less land to produce a given quantity if food than we did in 1960. That’s a good thing. Most sensible conservationists now realise that “land sparing” is the right approach – intensive farming plus land set aside, rather than inefficient farming with some nature in the fields. Professor Andrew Balmford of Cambridge University led a team that did thorough research showing that this is the better approach not just for land use but for other environmental issues too: they found that organic dairy farms cause at least 30% more soil loss, and take up twice as much land, as conventional dairy farming for the same amount of milk produced, for example.
Doing more with less
A favourite nostrum of many environmentalists is that you cannot have infinite growth with finite resources. But this is plain wrong, because economic growth comes from doing more with less. So if I invent a new car engine that gets twice as many miles per gallon, I’ve caused economic growth but we’ll use less fuel. Likewise if I increase the yield of a crop, I need less land and probably less fuel too. This “growth as shrinkage” happens all the time: think how much smaller mobile phones are than they once were.
The fact that species are recovering is ignored by the media
The BBC used a humpback whale song to illustrate species under threat of extinction. Humpback whales were down to a few thousand in the 1960s and listed as “endangered”. In 1996 as the population grew, they were downgraded to “vulnerable”. In 2008 as they became numerous, they were downgraded again to “least concern”. Today there are 80,000 of them, they are back to pre-exploitation densities in many parts of the world, and groups of up to 200 are sometimes seen feeding together, a success unimaginable when I was young. The same is true of many previously exploited species such as fur seals, elephant seals, king penguins and more.
For some reason, environmental activists hate talking about the success stories of conservationists in saving species, recovering their populations and reintroducing them to the wild. They prefer to dwell on the threats. This brings more publicity and donations, but it also spreads a counsel of despair, leaving many ordinary people feeling helpless, rather than engaged. It’s time for an honest debate about what we can do to save wildlife, rather than a Private Fraser cry of “we’re all doomed."