Friday, May 10, 2019

The New UN (IPBES) Report On Species Extinction Means Our Economic Growth Needs To Be Pared Down

Letter in Denver Post in response to UN Report

On Monday, the largest ever assessment of the health of nature was published by a UN group (IPBES) which warned starkly that the annihilation of wildlife is eroding the foundations of human civilization.  The  numbers tallied included nearly 1 million species headed for extinction and effectively also putting humanity itself at risk - given we exist in a web of life- not isolated from it or independent.  As that web collapses our species will go down as well. You can make book on it.

How so? Because humans depend on many species of animals for food, from fish to mammals such as cattle, pigs.  If therefore part of that network is collapsed or rendered fragile, the rest is put at risk.  And this nutrition support system can be destabilized as easily as an infection - such as African Swine fever- which has now been responsible for the Chinese having to kill over 140 m pigs to protect the rest from infection.

Apart from diseases, the biggest toll on many species is from the spread of humanity, the ever increasing human numbers which encroach on habitats and reduce animal species, and biodiversity.  Human activities such as over fishing of specific sea species as well as industrial agriculture and claiming wetlands for real estate development are cases in point.  Indeed, any real estate development has the potential to affect animal habitat - such as here in Colorado where mountain lion and human confrontations have become more frequent - as well as bears and humans.  We've encroached on their habitats by over building then we scratch our heads and wonder why we'r being "'invaded"  by these terrible critters, which make feasts of our pets.

The planet is currently home to an estimate eight million plant and animal species, with the average number living on land having fallen by at least 20 percent.  Incredibly, most of this extinction has been since 1990 according to the UN report. Much of it is being caused by human expansion and its attendant nature -destroying activities, from widespread pesticide use and pollution to unchecked global warming.

More aspects to consider: Nearly half of amphibians and a third of all marine mammals are threatened.  Coinciding with this, since 1970 there has been a 30 percent reduction in global habitat.  How bad? Well, more than 85 percent of the wetlands that existed in 1700 were gone by the year 2000.

One of the more ominous notes was sounded by Joseph Walston, senior vice president for global conversation of the Wildlife Conservation Society:

"We're not just losing bee species. We're losing insects."

Insect extinction itself is approaching 40 percent of all insect species, and as a member of the Xerces Society (devoted to insect protection) this appalls me no end.  Hate bugs or love them, it cannot be denied they are part of the planetary ecosystem and their demise would not bode well for humans.

According to he IPBES report: “Insect abundance has declined very rapidly in some places … but the global extent of such declines is not known.” It said the available evidence supports a “tentative” estimate that 10% of the 5.5m species of insect thought to exist are threatened with extinction.  According to Prof Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson, at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.

"Insects are the glue in nature and there is no doubt that both the [numbers] and diversity of insects are declining. At some stage the whole fabric unravels and then we will really see the consequences.

Let's not mince words,  the food and water humanity relies upon are underpinned by insects.  Insects play a critical role in the complex natural world that sustains all life on Earth. Best known is the pollination that fertilizes most of the world’s crops and wildflowers, including the tiny midge essential to cacao.  The waste disposal service provided by insects is also vital, decomposing wood, plants and animals into nutrients for new life. In Australia, the lack of native dung beetles able to deal with the prodigious output from imported European cattle led to vast swathes of pasture being rendered useless in the 1960s.

Another critical service provided by insects is as food for many other creatures, from birds to reptiles and amphibians and mammals. The weight of insects eaten by birds alone is about the same weight of all 7 billion people on the planet, said Sverdrup-Thygeson. However, falling insect populations have contributed to the loss of 421m birds in Europe in the last three decades.

Sverdrup-Thygeson’s new book, Extraordinary Insects, spends many of its pages on how wonderful and weird insects are. “The first stage is to get people to appreciate these little creatures,” said Sverdrup-Thygeson.

Many insects appear to defy the normal rules of life. Some fruit flies can be beheaded and live normally for several days more, thanks to mini-brains in each joint. Then there are the carpet beetles that can effectively reverse time, by reverting to younger stages of development when food is scarce.
Others are bizarrely constructed. Some butterflies have ears in their mouths, one has an eye on its penis, while houseflies taste with their feet. Insect reproduction is also exotic. The southern green shield bug can maintain sex for 10 days, while another type of fruit fly produces sperm that are 20 times longer than its own body.

But for all their abundance, insects are in trouble. “Global data suggests that while we humans have doubled our population in the past 40 years, the number of insects has been reduced by almost half – these are dramatic figures,” she said.

Some researchers warned back in February that falling insect populations threaten a “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems”, while recent studies from Germany and Puerto Rico have revealed plunging numbers over the last 25 to 35 years. According to Sverdrup-Thygeson, the destruction of natural environments to create farmland is the key cause.

She went on:

I can understand people might not be interested in saving insects for insects’ sake. But people should realize this will come back on ourselves. We should save insects, if not for their sake, then for our own sake, because it will make it even more difficult than today to get enough food for the human population of the planet, to get good health and freshwater for everybody. That should be a huge motivation for doing something while we still have time."

Much of this insanity can be attributed to growth for growth for growth's sake dynamics, especially in the capitalist driven U.S.  This means U.S. voters become a large part of the problem - as pointed out by WaPo opinion writer Helaine Olen. As she notes:

"Americans agree that protecting and securing our envronment is a high priority, but they also assert we need to grow the economy."

The problem is that growth is exactly what drives the devastation of species' habitat and ultumately imperils our own survival.   All of the worst policies, including proposals to drill in federal lands, to continue water-destroying fracking and the contamination of our watersheds have been amplieid under the Trump administration.  Of course, they are cheered on by big business which abhors any regulations that cut short term profits.  Business in turn is assisted by a myopic economic model which disregards all "externalities" and their value.  These externalities were once estimated in worth via a paper appearing in the journal Science:

Alas, given this paper was published over two decades ago, all the areas under column (2) have since decreased, in some cases by 50 percent or more. (Such as wetlands and tropical forest areas)

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