Photo Credit: Leo Blanchette / Shutterstock.com
October 12, 2014
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% its vertebrate wildlife
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?
fairness to the modern era, this is an extension of a trend that has
lasted some two million years. The loss of much of the African megafauna
– sabretooths and false sabretooths, giant hyaenas and amphicyonids
(bear dogs), several species of elephant – coincided with the switch towards meat eating
hominims (ancestral humans). It’s hard to see what else could have been
responsible for the peculiar pattern of extinction then.
spread into other continents, their megafaunas 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.
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.
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, new fishing
technologies, new mining methods, new techniques for processing trees
are developed. We are waging an increasingly asymmetric war against the
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.
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 tonnes 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
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, atomised 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
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 our parents enjoyed.
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,
conditions 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
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
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.
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 two million 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?