Vanishing Nature: Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

The declining diversity of our biological systems has been an on-going feature of human history. As we have developed ever more ingenious and efficient technologies to harness and exploit the natural world, so our impact on nature’s bounty has been crushing. One of the most emblematic examples of this process for me was reading Mark Kurlansky’s marvellous history Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. Once a bountiful species (so great in number that John Cabot famously proclaimed in the 1490s that men could walk across the backs of cod on the Grand Banks), Atlantic cod were by the 1990s decimated through the introduction of industrial fishing techniques. Indeed, recent human history is littered with similar examples of species decline and extinction as a result of our industry. Reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent book The Sixth Extinction, one of the most tragic is the story of the last great auk; powerful flightless birds that were hunted to extinction in the nineteenth century; the last breeding couple killed in an island off Iceland one June evening in 1844.

But while biodiversity loss was once a relatively local phenomenon in the last fifty years or more we have witnessed a shift which ecologists have linked to the so-called ‘Great Acceleration’ of industrial capitalism. This has involved the rapid increase in global population, technological change, fossil fuel exploitation and   globalisation of economic activity. These changes mean humanity is fundamentally reshaping the ecosphere, biosphere and hydrosphere contributing to systemic biodiversity loss. So for instance, of the various planetary boundaries we are now challenging, biodiversity is one that has been well and truly exceeded. Indeed, species extinction rates are now 100-1000 times greater than their background level. In short, biodiversity decline has now become systemic, driven by our increasingly globalized economy, expanding consumerism and accelerating climatic change. Hence, one of the markers of the Anthropocene is the current destruction of vast numbers of animal and plant species within the ‘Sixth Great Extinction’.

Climate change in particular is a critical driver of this process, resulting in global changes of myriad complexity that fundamentally threaten ecosystems that have been reliant upon relative climate stability over the last 100,000 years. In changing the chemistry of our atmosphere and oceans by releasing massive quantities of greenhouse gases, we are producing irreversible changes in our ecosystems. The rapid pace of climate change poses the greatest risk here as natural systems encounter rapidly changing weather patterns, disease vectors and limited paths for evolutionary adaptation. Moreover, our economic system of globalised capitalism serves to only amplify the drivers of biodiversity loss through ever increasing demand for products that rely upon the exploitation of nature. For instance Manfred Lenzen, from the University of Sydney has quantitatively demonstrated how the supply chains for manufactured commodities increasingly rely on such natural exploitation, tracing the specific impacts back to their forest or ocean of origin often in developing economy settings.

So why should we care? Sure, seeing all these other species go extinct is upsetting, but surely we can just use technology to insulate ourselves from a declining natural environment? This response seems common for many people increasingly divorced from nature, who buy their food in air-conditioned supermarkets, and whose exposure to forests, oceans and animals is limited to wildlife TV documentaries or visits to the zoo. Unfortunately however, beyond the moral and ethical justifications for resisting the sixth extinction, there are also more basic, self-interested reasons we should be very, very worried about biodiversity loss.

Despite our modern conceit that humanity is somehow separate from nature (indeed for some, we are seen as a “master” of nature), in reality we are a highly vulnerable species still wholly dependent on surrounding ecosystems. Putting this in base economic terms, we rely on the different “services” that nature provides for our existence. This includes the formation of soil and nutrient recycling. The provision of food, water, wood, fuel and other natural resources. The regulation of natural processes such as decomposing waste, purifying air and water, and the moderation of climate. Not to mention our cultural reliance on nature for education, recreation, spiritual understanding and aesthetic inspiration.

And yet despite the criticality of this issue to our continued existence, we pay little attention to the environmental havoc we are unleashing. Our number one focus is on the economy, GDP, economic growth and the market. Indeed, our limited response to the biodiversity and climate crisis is to simply shoe-horn nature into the market economy; creating commodities of natural resources and designating nature a market like any other. As one market booster proclaimed “The environment is part of the economy and needs to be properly integrated into it so that growth opportunities will not be missed.” Those who question this logic are now branded extremists and even “terrorists”! Economic “sustainability” thus trumps any concern for environment despite the fact that without a sustainable environment there can be no society, let alone economy! As Herman Daly famously stated “what use is a sawmill without a forest?”.

While wars and terrorism currently dominate the newspaper headlines, a far greater calamity goes on all around us. It is the sound of nature in retreat!

If you are interested in the biodiversity crisis, on October 7th, the Sydney Environment Institute (SEI) and the Balanced Enterprise Research Network (BERN) at the University of Sydney will be organizing a Sydney Ideas public lecture delivered by two of the country’s leading researchers on biodiversity decline from environmental and economic perspectives.

Professor Lesley Hughes from the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University and the Climate Council will pose the question ‘Can Biodiversity Survive the Human Race?’. In her talk she will explore how we let things get this bad, whether we still have a chance to save the Earth, and what we can all do to avert catastrophe.

Our second speaker, Manfred Lenzen, Professor of Sustainability Research at the University of Sydney, will explore how globalization and international trade are key drivers of biodiversity decline. He will outline his research which charts how demand for consumer commodities in developed economies drives species extinction in developing countries.

Details for this exciting event can be found here.

14 thoughts on “Vanishing Nature: Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid”

  1. It is kind of hard to know just what to believe, for the disciples of this hoax, agw. I have a few questions for them. Just which period in the past would have qualified for your climatic “utopia” since you believe that things are so bad now?
    Would it have been before 1900 when the life expectancy for men was 46.3 and 48.1 for women in the US; by 1998 according to a Berkeley study, that had improved to 73.8 for men and 79.5 for women.
    According to another study in 1930 the life expectancy for both sexes was 59.7 years. and in 2010 it was 78.7 years.
    “Despite the rise in real income, by the end of the century life was still hard for the average European, compared to 21st century European standards. In Britain the average male was dead at 51.5 years of age, the average woman at 55.4. In France these figures were 45.4 and 50, in Spain at 41 and 42.5. Figures for the Russians, available in 1895, have the average male dead at 31.4 years and the average woman at 33.3.”

    1. J Dougswallow,
      It’s hard to know how to respond to your comments, given you begin with the statement “disciples of this hoax, agw”. Oh that it were a “hoax”! Unfortunately, the science of AGW is well established and you should really familiarize yourself with it. There are many places you can go to educate yourself on this. As Andre suggests the latest IPCC 5th Assessment Report provides a good overview of the science:

      There is also a good, free online course run by University of British Columbia which introduces the basics of climate science here: . I did this course last year and it covers the basics and is very accessible.

      Secondly, you seem to confuse issues of life expectancy with climate change. There is no doubt that health and life expectancy have increased markedly as a result of economic growth and technological advance. Hans Rosling has a nice visual representation of the change in life expectancy of different nations over the last two centuries ( ). However, this really has little to do with climate. The marked changes in the climate we have begun to see as a result of our dramatic escalation of greenhouse gas emissions is taking us into a whole new climate from the relative stability of the last 11,000 years of the Holocene (see Marcott et al., 2013) – .

      Indeed with atmospheric CO2 levels now exceeding 400ppm, this a level not seen on the Earth for several million years! This will have a huge impact on life expectancy as we are now exceeding the climate conditions around which our species and many others have evolved. Business as usual will see average temperature increases of as much as 3.5-5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. That is a situation that in many parts of the world (Africa, Asia, Australia) will no longer be conducive for human existence. So again I wish it all were a hoax, but unfortunately science suggests it is deadly real.

      1. I know that Dr. Robert B. Laughlin has a much better understanding of this topic than you could ever hope to acquire from where ever you get your information:
        “Please remain calm: The Earth will heal itself — Climate is beyond our power to control…Earth doesn’t care about governments or their legislation. You can’t find much actual global warming in present-day weather observations. Climate change is a matter of geologic time, something that the earth routinely does on its own without asking anyone’s permission or explaining itself.” — Nobel Prize-Winning Stanford University Physicist Dr. Robert B. Laughlin, who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1998, and was formerly a research scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

        • Date: 21/02/13
        • Graham Lloyd, The Australian
        The UN’s climate change chief, Rajendra Pachauri, has acknowledged a 17-year pause in global temperature rises, confirmed recently by Britain’s Met Office, but said it would need to last “30 to 40 years at least” to break the long-term global warming trend.
        […]Unlike in Britain, there has been little publicity in Australia given to recent acknowledgment by peak climate-science bodies in Britain and the US of what has been a 17-year pause in global warming. Britain’s Met Office has revised down its forecast for a global temperature rise, predicting no further increase to 2017, which would extend the pause to 21 years.

        The Period Of No Global Warming Will Soon Be Longer Than the Period of Actual Global Warming

        Climate warming since 1995 is now statistically significant, according to Phil Jones, the UK scientist targeted in the “ClimateGate” affair.
        Last year, he told BBC News that post-1995 warming was not significant – a statement still seen on blogs critical of the idea of man-made climate change.

        “The desire to save humanity is always a false front for the urge to rule it” — H L Mencken

      2. christopherwrightau:You say “Oh that it were a “hoax”! Unfortunately, the science of AGW is well established and you should really familiarize yourself with it.” If this is what you actually believe then you will have no problem giving me a link to this experiment that ,if documented, then I to will believe that the trace gas, CO2, drives the climate. Until then, I will continue to believe that it is the sun and combinations of inputs that causes the earth’s climate to do what it has done for billions of years and that is change.

        I have a challenge for you, christopherwrightau, since you say you have studied this issue of agw extensively. You need to provide me with the experiment that shows that CO2 does what some maintain as far as being the driver of the earth’s climate. I do not need to be reminded of Tyndall’s 1859 lab experiments that do not prove that humanity’s CO2 emissions are warming the planet. In the real world, other factors can influence and outweigh those lab findings and that is why these experiment must deal with the real world and not computer models that do not have the ability to factor in all of the variables that effect the earth’s climate. If they can not provide a verifiable experiment regarding the present amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and how it effects the climate and creates their anthropogenic global warming, then believing that it does so is akin to believing that Santa Clause is real and you need to be good to get something left under the tree.

        It is a fact that real scientist devise experiments to either prove or disprove their hypotheses and welcome people to try to disprove them so that they can move on. They sure do not say that the science is settled and the argument is over because there are REAL scientist out there doing REAL scientific work that are not blinded by some agenda that they support so that they can get more “research” money or money to fund a boondoggle renewable energy scheme that will never work.

  2.  You say: “The regulation of natural processes such as decomposing waste, purifying air and water, and the moderation of climate.”

    I would think time and money spent on this nonsense of anthropogenic global warming could be better applied to other proven problems on earth. In 2007 I spent 6 weeks in Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo and what is being done to the old growth rain forest on this third largest island on earth is sickening. I understand that it is worse yet in the Indonesia portion of Borneo. It is being cut and destroyed and replaced with palm oil plantations that can be used for bio-fuel production and with the rain forest goes the habitat for the orangutan, the pygmy elephant, the rhinoceros and also the proboscis monkeys plus the unique plant life that occurs no where else on earth. This is all promoted by the ignorant “greens” that have no idea about what happens in the real world and only look to the likes of Al Gore and James Hansen for guidance. It is not strange that because of their oil production, Brunei seems to have a good conservation plan and is trying to save their rain forest.
    This is just another area where this green revolution destroys rather than saves but the naive “greens” of the world can pat themselves on the back for “saving the planet”. A side note, as with ethanol, it takes more energy to produce this biodiesel than what is derived from the burning of it and how can humanity be so stupid to believe that it is practical to use a food crop such as corn to make a fuel out of?

    Ethanol; Science News … from universities, journals, and other research organizations
    Study: Ethanol Production Consumes Six Units Of Energy To Produce Just One

  3. J Doug Swallow appears to have little regard for truth – which probably explains his climate science denial above.

    He claims the palm oil plantations are being promoted by “ignorant “greens”” when in fact it is the environmental movement that is leading campaigns the against the rampant deforestation for palm oil.

    And most palm oil is used by the food industry, not for biofuels.

    In respect of ethanol, even the link he supplies points out that it was President George W. Bush who signed a law requiring oil companies to add billions of gallons of ethanol from corn to their gasoline each year. Not because he was concerned about climate change but to channel money to US agribusiness.

    While Obama has continued the Bush policy, the environment movement remains opposed.

    1. This that I present now is in regards to the subject of this article that we comment on.
      “It must be remembered that as recently as the 1970s it was predicted that half of the species on the planet would become extinct.”
      “The poison dart frog Ranitomeya amazonica is one of more than 1,200 new species of plants and vertebrates discovered in the Amazon rain forest between 1999 and 2009, the international conservation group WWF announced Tuesday in a new report highlighting the region’s biodiversity.
      “NAGOYA, Aichi, Japan, October 26, 2010 (ENS) – At least 1,200 new species have been discovered in the Amazon ecosystem, at an average rate of one every three days during the decade from 1999 through 2009, the global conservation organization WWF revealed today in a new report.
      This is a greater number of species than the combined total of new species found over a similar 10-year period in other areas of high biological diversity – including Borneo, the Congo Basin and the Eastern Himalayas, WWF said in the report, “Amazon Alive!: A Decade of Discoveries 1999-2009.”
      Presented to delegates from 193 countries at the UN Convention on Biodiversity in Nagoya, the WWF report details the discoveries of 39 mammals, 16 birds, 55 reptiles, 216 amphibians, 257 fish and 637 plants – all new to science.”

      1. And your point is what exactly? That we are discovering new species – yes true. However if you want to cavil with the science on species extinction then you’d best confront the experts on this. The data on species extinction rates of 100-1000 times that of background extinction rates is well established I’m afraid. There’s a summary in this article with links to the key studies:

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