The last of the wildlife | The World Weekly
Over the last few weeks, a series of blows have struck green activists around the globe. On March 20, the last male northern white rhino died in Sudan, prompting concern around the burgeoning threat of another mass extinction. Several days later, news broke that a Norwegian oil giant plans to start drilling for natural gas in ‘the Galápagos of Australia’ in 2019. Outcries against the threat of an oil spill ensued from both fishing communities and local wildlife conservationists.
In the midst of the cacophony of voices, a United Nations report disclosed that decreasing biodiversity poses an equal threat to the earth as climate change. The result of three years work, involving 550 experts from over 100 countries, the report reveals some stark truths.
It predicts that by 2100, Africa could lose more than half of its bird and mammal species. In the Asia-Pacific region, 90% of corals could suffer severe degradation by 2050. Even more severely, by 2048 the Asia-Pacific region will have no fish stocks left, if current practices continue.
Biodiversity is the interconnected web of species that makes up the ecosystems, which global communities depend upon for food production. According to experts, without this web of species, the negative impact on citizens, businesses, industries and countries will be multifarious.
‘A library without books’
If these predictions become reality, critics warn, an apocalyptic future awaits some parts of the world, with those dependant on ecosystems for industry the most vulnerable. “As fish disappear, we can expect to see an increase in the number of ‘undesirable’ species, such as jellyfish,” Scott Perkin, head of the Natural Resources Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, told The World Weekly.
“The loss of fish will also have a serious negative impact on other species that depend on fish for food, including a range of cetaceans (whales and dolphins) and birds. Artisanal fisheries and the livelihoods of coastal communities will also be severely affected.”
Fisheries employ 260 million people and fish are a primary animal protein source for roughly 40% of the world’s population, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation.
Asia is particularly vulnerable to these risks, observers suggest. “For a region that accounts for such an enormous percentage of global marine biodiversity,” says Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, “where so many communities are wholly or largely dependent on the ocean for livelihoods, these should be very loud alarm bells.”
However, species protection and commercial fishing are not necessarily incompatible industries. Recent data shows that increasing fish stocks by managing overfishing would decrease bycatch - the turtles, dolphins and birds which are caught alongside fish, leading to species depletion - and increase global fishing yields, boosting profits by up to 80%.
But most realistic answers, critics say, point to reducing the amount of fish consumed. “For too long, marine biodiversity has been an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ issue,” Li Shuo, senior climate and energy policy officer for Greenpeace East Asia, told TWW. “Some marine species are facing extinction before we even start to know and understand them. China, as one of the largest fishing countries, holds a special stake in protecting the ocean. After decades of rapid development, the country should consider gradually reducing its fishing capacity. An ocean without fish would be like a library without books.”
For governments to translate the UN’s findings into actions, economic incentives are seen as crucial. But whilst green policies are often economically beneficial to most parties in the long run, the short-term costs are a major deterrent.
“Until doing the wrong thing costs more than doing the right thing, our economies will continue to eat away at life itself.” - Green Economy Coalition, economic think-tank
But many critics stress that delaying change is an expensive decision in itself. Insurance risks and reduced investment viability are just some of the economic risks, argues Oliver Greenfield of the Green Economy Coalition, an economic think-tank.
“To put this more specifically, climate change creates more volatile weather, biodiversity acts as the buffer to this - trees on mountains reducing floods, life-rich rivers that purify, floodplains that store and protect - if you have more volatility from climate change and less biodiversity buffer, you have a double whammy.”
Moreover, this is not the first UN report issuing warnings, and cynics highlight that without public pressure, the report is unlikely to cause seismic changes. “Effective responses to those serious problems will not derive from the mere increase of scientific knowledge or the refinement of data and computer models,” Antonio Loris, senior Geography lecturer at Cardiff University, told TWW.
“On the contrary, the environmental problem is fundamentally political. In order to resolve it, coordinated, creative and radical action is required at different scales.”
Feeding the billions
With fish supplies running out, a fissure is opening up in the diet of billions, one that needs to be filled with alternative food sources. The idea that increasing biodiversity means cutting the amount of agricultural farming that can take place is a commonly held belief. This, many critics argue, is a fallacy.
“Food versus land for biodiversity is a false dichotomy,” Mr. Greenfield told TWW. “At the basis of 95% of all food production is healthy soils. A healthy soil is a living, dynamic ecosystem, teeming with microscopic and larger organisms that perform many vital functions. What makes healthy soils? Biodiversity, not chemicals.”
In fact, experts say that biodiversity and agricultural production are mutually beneficial. “Biodiversity will continue to be endangered if we do not address sustainable agriculture,” says Meg Lowman, senior scientist at the San Francisco Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability. “In places like northern Ethiopia, there is relatively little irrigation and no tractors in sight. These agricultural advances will raise the crop yield, which is essential to conserving the remaining ecosystems in many developing countries.”
However, higher yield does not equate to higher profits, and suppliers are reluctant to change their systems without the promise of more money. The logic of food production, critics say, is increasingly mirroring the rationale of banks and industries. “Maximum profit, regardless of the nature of the inputs or the relations of production” is the mantra of large supermarkets and corporations, according to Dr. Loris.
But, pockets of hope are opening up. In Japan, for instance, the satoyama system, which mosaics paddy fields, farmland, woodland, grasslands, irrigation ponds and canals, and human settlements in close proximity with each other, offers an example that could be widely replicated. This technique allows the different eco-systems to feed off one-another, and for animals to move freely between them, thereby naturally promoting species variation.
Population shifts are also providing respite for overworked land, as in many parts of the world communities are moving off agricultural areas and into cities; this offers the potential to restore land for biodiversity and ecosystem services through approaches such as Forest Landscape Restoration.
After years of rising sea temperatures, many coral reefs now resemble aquatic ghost towns, bleached out and emptied of their once-teeming life. But, in a surprising turn of events dubbed the ‘Phoenix Effect’ by scientists, dead reefs around the world have begun showing signs of life. The phenomenon suggests that slivers of live coral tissue living in the shadows can be all that is needed for the organisms to regenerate. The chance that other ecosystems can similarly be coaxed back to life might just inspire communities and corporations to enact the necessary changes.