It's Time to Stop Our War on the Living World!
October 4, 2014
George Monbiot / The Guardian
If the news that in the past 40 years the world has lost over 50% of its vertebrate wildlife (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish) fails to tell us that there is something wrong with the way we live, it's hard to imagine what could. Who believes that a social and economic system, which has this effect is a healthy one? Who, contemplating this loss, could call it "progress"? What we see now is something new: a speed of destruction that exceeds even that of the first settlement of the Americas, 14,000 years ago
It's Time to Shout 'Stop on this War on the Living World'
George Monbiot / The Guardian
LONDON (October 1, 2014) -- It's time to shout stop on this war on the living world. Our consumption is trashing a natural world infinitely more fascinating and intricate than the stuff we produce.
This is a moment at which anyone with the capacity for reflection should stop and wonder what we are doing.
If the news that in the past 40 years the world has lost over 50% of its vertebrate wildlife (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish) fails to tell us that there is something wrong with the way we live, it's hard to imagine what could. Who believes that a social and economic system, which has this effect is a healthy one? Who, contemplating this loss, could call it progress?
In fairness to the modern era, this is an extension of a trend that has lasted some 2 million years. The loss of much of the African megafauna sabertooths and false sabertooths, giant hyaenas and amphicyonids (bear dogs), several species of elephant coincided with the switch towards meat eating by hominims (ancestral humans). It's hard to see what else could have been responsible for the peculiar pattern of extinction then.
As we spread into other continents, their megafauna almost immediately collapsed. Perhaps the most reliable way of dating the first arrival of people anywhere is the sudden loss of large animals. The habitats we see as pristine – the Amazon rainforest or coral reefs for example are in fact almost empty: they have lost most of the great beasts that used to inhabit them, which drove crucial natural processes.
Since then we have worked our way down the foodchain, rubbing out smaller predators, medium-sized herbivores, and now, through both habitat destruction and hunting, wildlife across all classes and positions in the foodweb. There seems to be some kink in the human brain that prevents us from stopping, that drives us to carry on taking and competing and destroying, even when there is no need to do so.
But what we see now is something new: a speed of destruction that exceeds even that of the first settlement of the Americas, 14,000 years ago, when an entire hemisphere's ecology was transformed through a firestorm of extinction within a few dozen generations, in which the majority of large vertebrate species disappeared.
Many people blame this process on human population growth, and there's no doubt that it has been a factor. But two other trends have developed even faster and further. The first is the rise in consumption; the second is amplification by technology. Every year, new pesticides, fishing technologies, mining methods, techniques for processing trees are developed. We are waging an increasingly asymmetric war against the living world.
But why are we at war? In the rich nations, which commission much of this destruction through imports, most of our consumption has nothing to do with meeting human needs.
This is what hits me harder than anything: the disproportion between what we lose and what we gain. Economic growth in a country whose primary and secondary needs have already been met means developing ever more useless stuff to meet ever fainter desires.
For example, a vague desire to amuse friends and colleagues (especially through the Secret Santa nonsense) commissions the consumption of thousands of tons of metal and plastic, often confected into complex electronic novelties: toys for adults. They might provoke a snigger or two, then they are dumped in a cupboard. After a few weeks, scarcely used, they find their way into landfill.
In a society bombarded by advertising and driven by the growth imperative, pleasure is reduced to hedonism and hedonism is reduced to consumption. We use consumption as a cure for boredom, to fill the void that an affectless, grasping, atomized culture creates, to brighten the grey world we have created.
We care ever less for the possessions we buy, and dispose of them ever more quickly. Yet the extraction of the raw materials required to produce them, the pollution commissioned in their manufacturing, the infrastructure and noise and burning of fuel needed to transport them are trashing a natural world infinitely more fascinating and intricate than the stuff we produce. The loss of wildlife is a loss of wonder and enchantment, of the magic with which the living world infects our lives.
Perhaps it is misleading to suggest that we are doing all this. It's being done not only by us but to us. One of the remarkable characteristics of recent growth in the rich world is how few people benefit. Almost all the gains go to a tiny number of people: one study suggests that the richest 1% in the United States capture 93% of the increase in incomes that growth delivers. Even with growth rates of 2 or 3% or more, working conditions for most people continue to deteriorate, as we find ourselves on short contracts, without full employment rights, without the security or the choice or the pensions their parents enjoyed.
Working hours rise, wages stagnate or fall, tasks become duller, more stressful and harder to fulfill, emails and texts and endless demands clatter inside our heads, shutting down the ability to think, corners are cut, services deteriorate, housing becomes almost impossible to afford, there's ever less money for essential public services. What and whom is this growth for?
It's for the people who run or own the banks, the hedge funds, the mining companies, the advertising firms, the lobbying companies, the weapons manufacturers, the buy-to-let portfolios, the office blocks, the country estates, the offshore accounts. The rest of us are induced to regard it as necessary and desirable through a system of marketing and framing so intensive and all-pervasive that it amounts to brainwashing.
A system that makes us less happy, less secure, that narrows and impoverishes our lives, is presented as the only possible answer to our problems. There is no alternative – we must keep marching over the cliff. Anyone who challenges it is either ignored or excoriated.
And the beneficiaries? Well they are also the biggest consumers, using their spectacular wealth to exert impacts thousands of times greater than most people achieve. Much of the natural world is destroyed so that the very rich can fit their yachts with mahogany, eat bluefin tuna sushi, scatter ground rhino horn over their food, land their private jets on airfields carved from rare grasslands, burn in one day as much fossil fuel as the average global citizen uses in a year.
Thus the Great Global Polishing proceeds, wearing down the knap of the Earth, rubbing out all that is distinctive and peculiar, in human culture as well as nature, reducing us to replaceable automata within a homogenous global workforce, inexorably transforming the riches of the natural world into a featureless monoculture.
Is this not the point at which we shout stop? At which we use the extraordinary learning and expertise we have developed to change the way we organise ourselves, to contest and reverse the trends that have governed our relationship with the living planet for the past 2m years, and that are now destroying its remaining features at astonishing speed?
Is this not the point at which we challenge the inevitability of endless growth on a finite planet? If not now, when?
Destroyer of Worlds
George Monbiot / The Guardian
LONDON (March 24, 2014) -- You want to know who we are? Really? You think you do, but you will regret it. This article, if you have any love for the world, will inject you with a venom -- a soul-scraping sadness -- without an obvious antidote.
The Anthropocene, now a popular term among scientists, is the epoch in which we live: one dominated by human impacts on the living world. Most date it from the beginning of the industrial revolution. But it might have begun much earlier, with a killing spree that commenced two million years ago. What rose onto its hindlegs on the African savannahs was, from the outset, death: the destroyer of worlds.
Before Homo erectus, perhaps our first recognizably human ancestor, emerged in Africa, the continent abounded with monsters. There were several species of elephants. There were sabertooths and false sabertooths, giant hyaenas and creatures like those released in The Hunger Games: amphicyonids, or bear dogs, vast predators with an enormous bite.
Professor Blaire van Valkenburgh has developed a means by which we could roughly determine how many of these animals there were (1). When there are few predators and plenty of prey, the predators eat only the best parts of the carcass. When competition is intense, they eat everything, including the bones. The more bones a carnivore eats, the more likely its teeth are to be worn or broken. The breakages in carnivores’ teeth were massively greater in the pre-human era (2).
Not only were there more species of predators, including species much larger than any found on earth today, but they appear to have been much more abundant -- and desperate. We evolved in a terrible, wonderful world -- that was no match for us.
Homo erectus possessed several traits that appear to have made it invincible: intelligence, cooperation; an ability to switch to almost any food when times were tough; and a throwing arm that allowed it to do something no other species has ever managed -- to fight from a distance. (The increasing distance from which we fight is both a benchmark and a determinant of human history). It could have driven giant predators off their prey and harried monstrous herbivores to exhaustion and death.
As the paleontologists Lars Werdelin and Margaret Lewis show, the disappearance of much of the African megafauna appears to have coincided with the switch towards meat eating by human ancestors (3). The great extent and strange pattern of extinction (concentrated among huge, specialist animals at the top of the food chain) is not easy to explain by other means.
At the Oxford megafauna conference last week, I listened as many of the world’s leading scientists in this field mapped out a new understanding of the human impact on the planet (4). Almost everywhere we went, humankind erased a world of wonders, changing the way the biosphere functions. For example, modern humans arrived in Europe and Australia at about the same time -- between 40 and 50,000 years ago -- with similar consequences.
In Europe, where animals had learnt to fear previous versions of the bipedal ape, the extinctions happened slowly. Within some 10 or 15,000 years, the continent had lost its straight-tusked elephants, forest rhinos, hippos, hyaenas and monstrous scimitar cats.
In Australia, where no hominim had set foot before modern humans arrived, the collapse was almost instant. The rhinoceros-sized wombat (5), the ten-foot kangaroo, the marsupial lion, the monitor lizard larger than a Nile crocodile (6), the giant marsupial tapir, the horned tortoise as big as a car (7) -- all went, in ecological terms, overnight.
A few months ago, a well-publicised paper claimed that the great beasts of the Americas -- mammoths and mastodons, giant ground sloths, lions and sabretooths, eight-foot beavers(8), a bird with a 26-foot wingspan (9) -- could not have been exterminated by humans, because the fossil evidence for their extinction marginally pre-dates the evidence for human arrival (10).
I have never seen a paper demolished as elegantly and decisively as this was at last week’s conference. The archaeologist Todd Surovell demonstrated that the mismatch is just what you would expect if humans were responsible (11). Mass destruction is easy to detect in the fossil record: in one layer bones are everywhere, in the next they are nowhere.
But people living at low densities with basic technologies leave almost no traces. With the human growth rates and kill rates you’d expect in the first pulse of settlement (about 14,000 years ago), the great beasts would have lasted only 1,000 years. His work suggests that the most reliable indicator of human arrival in the fossil record is a wave of large mammal extinctions.
These species were not just ornaments of the natural world. The new work presented at the conference suggests that they shaped the rest of the ecosystem. In Britain during the last interglacial period, elephants, rhinos and other great beasts maintained a mosaic of habitats: a mixture of closed canopy forest, open forest, glade and sward (12).
In Australia, the sudden flush of vegetation that followed the loss of large herbivores caused stacks of leaf litter to build up, which became the rainforests’ pyre: fires (natural or manmade) soon transformed these lush places into dry forest and scrub (13).
In the Amazon and other regions, large herbivores moved nutrients from rich soils to poor ones, radically altering plant growth (14,15). One controversial paper suggests that the eradication of the monsters of the Americas caused such a sharp loss of atmospheric methane (generated in their guts) that it could have triggered the short ice age, which began 12,800 years ago, called the Younger Dryas (16).
And still we have not stopped. Poaching has reduced the population of African forest elephants by 65% since 2002 (17). The range of the Asian elephant -- which once lived from Turkey to the coast of China -- has contracted by 97%; the ranges of the Asian rhinos by over 99% (18). Elephants distribute the seeds of hundreds of rainforest tree species; without them these trees are functionally extinct (19,20).
Is this all we are? A diminutive monster that can leave no door closed, no hiding place intact, that is now doing to the great beasts of the sea what we did so long ago to the great beasts of the land? Or can we stop? Can we use our ingenuity, which for two million years has turned so inventively to destruction, to defy our evolutionary history?
1. eg Wendy J. Binder and Blaire Van Valkenburgh, 2010. A comparison of tooth wear and breakage in Rancho La Brea sabertooth cats and dire wolves across time. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02724630903413016#.UzBUcM40uQk
3. Lars Werdelin, 2013. King of Beasts. Scientific American. http://www.scientificamerican.com/magazine/sa/2013/11-01/
8. Castoroides ohioensis
9. The Argentine roc (Argentavis magnificens).
10. Matthew T. Boulanger and R. Lee Lyman, 2014. Northeastern North American Pleistocene megafauna chronologically overlapped minimally with Paleoindians. Quaternary Science Reviews 85, pp35-46. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2013.11.024
12. Christopher J. Sandom et al, 2014. High herbivore density associated with vegetation diversity in interglacial ecosystems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 111, no. 11, pp4162–4167. http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1311014111
13. Susan Rule et al, 23rd March 2012. The Aftermath of Megafaunal Extinction: Ecosystem Transformation in Pleistocene Australia. Science Vol. 335, pp 1483-1486. doi: 10.1126/science.1214261. https://www.sciencemag.org/content/335/6075/1483.full
14. Christopher E. Doughty, AdamWolf and Yadvinder Malhi, 11 August 2013. The legacy of the Pleistocene megafauna extinctions on nutrient availability in Amazonia. Nature Geoscience vol. 6, pp761–764. doi: 10.1038/ngeo1895. http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v6/n9/full/ngeo1895.html
15. Adam Wolf, Christopher E. Doughty, Yadvinder Malhi, Lateral Diffusion of Nutrients by Mammalian Herbivores in Terrestrial Ecosystems. PLOS One, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0071352. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0071352
16. Felisa A. Smith, 2010. Methane emissions from extinct megafauna. Nature Geoscience 3, 374 -- 375. doi:10.1038/ngeo877. http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v3/n6/full/ngeo877.html
17. Fiona Maisels, pers comm. This is an update of the figures published here: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0059469
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