Thursday, 9 October 2014

The disease is us

It wasn't the biggest news story of the week. Not in column inches or headline-size.
It probably got less space in some papers than the latest “wardrobe malfunction” suffered by some female “celebrity” or other. If, indeed, those papers mentioned it at all.
But all that shows is what a twisted sense of news values we have.
Not just “we” as a society of news-consumers, but “we” as a species.
And it's not only our news values that are twisted, either.
Sometimes I think the world is suffering from a pandemic. A ghastly, deadly disease from which there is no escape and little hope of recovery.
It's spreading uncontrolled across the entire globe. Leaving death and destruction everywhere it goes – and everywhere it doesn't go (which is precious few places).
That disease is us.
And so far there is no cure. Though some people are working on one.
Nuclear Armageddon, anyone? It may have slipped down the list of public fears since the early 1960s, but the danger is no less real now.
That’s not the holocaust I’m really talking about, though.
This one isn’t a scary possibility, it’s an on-going fact.
A tale every wildlife documentary you’ve ever seen has hinted at but never told so definitively before.
So what was that story?
In one paper that did carry it – about four short paragraphs, down-page, near the back – it bore the headline: “Half world's animals lost”.
Yes, you read that right. Half of all the mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish in the world.
Actually slightly more than half – 52 per cent – that's how much the global population of all those creatures fell by in 40 years, from 1970 to 2010.
A lot more – a horrifying 72pc – of freshwater creatures were lost, raising the spectre of entirely lifeless rivers within our lifetimes.
By the end of which elephants, sea turtles, polar bears, tigers and many other species may be extinct.
And the reason for this appalling, almost unimaginable, situation?
Over-fishing by humans. Hunting by humans. Climate change, caused by humans.
Most devastating of all, habitat loss – caused by humans.
As Professor Ken Norris, director of science at London Zoo, put it: “This damage is not inevitable, but a consequence of the way we choose to live.”
It’s partly that we’ve spread and increased our own numbers too effectively. That there are simply too many human beings competing for the space and resources other creatures need too.
But it’s more our rapacious habit of destroying everything in our path in the pursuit of our own temporary convenience or personal gain.
The worldwide mania for “growth”.
By which we mean mere economic growth at the cost of things that actually grow.
Rainforests destroyed to put more steak on our plates than is good for us.
Or for palm-oil to wash our hair in and thicken our gravy.
Or for bio-fuels that we pretend to believe are less damaging for the planet than burning oil.
Sea-beds denuded to satisfy our taste for scallops.
Depressingly – but unsurprisingly – the WWF’s Living Planet Report found that the loss of wildlife was worst in poor countries.
Not that the poor treat wild things worse, but that those in richer states export their excesses.
Corporations based in the US, Europe and here commit atrocious acts in lands that lack the economic clout to stop them.
Exploiting the forests, the minerals, the wild things just as they exploit the people.
Away from the eyes of those who buy their products or vote for the politicians their “donations” support.
As Professor Norris said: “The scale of biodiversity loss and damage to the very ecosystems that are essential to our existence is alarming.
“We need to explain to the public that what they do is directly behind the trends we are seeing.
“There is an enormous disconnect between going to the supermarket and putting fuel in your car and the global statistics we’re talking about here.”
Indeed there is. Whether a conscience-salving change in our shopping habits will be enough to avoid global catastrophe is another matter.
The phrase “too little too late” springs grimly to mind.
David Nussbaum of the WWF is looking on the bright side, though – publicly, at least.
He said: “The scale of destruction highlighted in this report should be a wake-up call to us all.
“Next year, when countries of the world come together to agree on a set of sustainable development goals, presents us with a unique opportunity to reverse the trends.
“We all – politicians, businesses and people – have a responsibility to act to ensure a healthy future for both people and nature.”
He’s right, of course. But don’t hold your breath waiting for those businesses and politicians to start doing the right thing.
If they do, they’ll be going against the grain of countless generations.
I read somewhere a little while ago that the Earth is currently experiencing its sixth “major extinction episode”.
The last one was the massive meteor strike 65 million years ago that did for the dinosaurs.
A disaster on an almost unimaginable scale. One that changed the course of life on earth by wiping out most of it.
The present catastrophe is us. And the scale and pace of change isn't that different.

1 comment:

Clive said...

We don't actually know that it was a meteor strike that did for the dinosaurs. It's a front-running theory, but there's no certainty about it at all. Chaotic systems like the biosphere can throw up events like major extinctions without any external triggers at all. For all we know it could have been a super-clever dinosaur rather like us - even though there are an awful lot of us, we've not been around very long. In 65 million years time there might be very few traces of us left; likewise those super-clever dinosaurs might have left no traces (that we've found yet, or managed to interpret).