KATHMANDU, Nepal- 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.
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. – Published with due courtesy to The Economist/TKP