In April 2011 scientists and world experts on the oceans met at Oxford University in the UK to review information on the state of the world's oceans. After sifting the evidence of impacts and considering their consequences the experts came to the general conclusion that
"not only are we already experiencing severe declines in many species to the point of commercial extinction in some cases... but we now face losing marine species and entire marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs, within a single generation."
Whilst this warning is dire, it is also real.
Towards the end of 2011 there will be 7 billion humans on earth. Most of these people are on an upward curve of affluence with 2 billion of them about to join the already wealthy 1 billion westerners able to afford a washing machine. The resource needs of so many people are huge, requiring ever more food, water and living space and stretching the regenerative ability of the earth's ecosystems to the limit.
It is the simple case of one species appropriating most of the resource leaving little to be competed for by the rest. Add to this resource use the fact that the dominant species also leaves a mess wherever it goes, and some biodiversity loss is inevitable.
The obvious way to avoid biodiversity loss is to restrict human numbers and wealth.
Clearly we cannot lose the people we already have but there are ways of reducing our population growth. Both the stick and the carrot have worked before. The one child policy in China was a regulatory stick that put the break on a runaway population and economic growth has done a similar thing in the western democracies.
Cooling affluence is less easy. The stick approach collapsed with communism and there really is no carrot beyond an appeal to some moral value set. The economic solution to the population problem means that the slightest hint of restraint is anathema to the whole process. Even the Chinese leadership is scared to pull back the growth juggernaut it has unleashed over the past decade.
So what can we do to heed the warning of catastrophic biodiversity loss? Here are four grand actions that we can start today.
Action #1 Keep children alive
We need to create the economic and social conditions to lower death rates of youngsters in the poorest countries. This is essential to transition their demographics as rapidly as possible.
The demographic transition from large to small families happens when there is a good chance children will survive. It's a psychology born of the basic biological instinct to reproduce. When parents believe their children will outlive them they fell less pressure to have more children. It seems counter-intuitive but it is true. Families always get smaller when most kids make it to adulthood.
Keeping kids alive is achieved with good nutrition and primary health care that both happen when there is reliable agriculture to keep people fed and where there are jobs and commerce enough to fund a health system. Do these things and population growth first slows, then ultimately reverses and the population contracts.
The Gates Foundation is spot on.
Action #2 Scale up traditional methods of conservation
Fifty years ago we started to get serious about conservation. There have always been a few wise ones who knew that human actions were a degrading force that the natural world might not always be able to resist on its own. These pioneers set aside land as reserves, began to make collections of natural history and wrote many a book on the wonders of wild places.
Not until the 1960's did the scale of this impact become clear and people mobilized enough opinion to affect political change. In the 1970's governments began to regulate and every democratic bureaucracy had to have a variant on the Environment Protection Agency.
Since environmental protection became ministerial the practicalities of conservation have been tried and tested. Today the kitbag of traditional conservation approaches includes:
- Reserve systems
- Species recovery plans
- Pest and weed control programs
- Pollution controls
- Water regulations
- Planning regulations
- Land management regulations
- Conservation incentives
- Environmental markets
There is also a dedicated army of volunteers who devote time and energy into practical conservation effort from weeding and planting to buying green power and an equally dedicated cadre of activists who continue to keep the system honest.
We need to support and grow all these things.
We especially need to promote incentives to encourage the less aware to do good things just as we maintain the regulatory stick to keep the cowboys in check.
Only it will not be enough to scale up traditional methods where they currently exist. There are only so many reserves we can have when there are mouths to feed and wealth to create. The place that traditional methods must grow is across the entire landscape. It must grow out from reserves and public lands onto private fields, pastures and forests. Traditional conservation must mesh with primary production to create an integrated, resilient system.
Action #3 Change the way we grow our food
Humans use close to half the primary production on earth. That's every second blade of grass, every second leaf and every second tree goes to feed us or our animals, clothe us and provide us with raw materials. Obviously most of the land area, along with the water that flows through and under it, is modified for this appropriation.
Avoiding more biodiversity loss requires that we pay attention to how we manage these lands.
We need to move away from the traditional model of clearing tracts of land for agriculture and piling on artificial fertilizer when the soils get tired. The main change is to understand that it is carbon that we are managing, the production and offtake of carbon generated by plants that are rooted in soil. So we shift to methods that grow carbon that happens to be wheat, rather than growing wheat.
What will this mean? Reducing tillage, keeping cover on soil all year round, mixing crops (intercropping, agroforestry and pasture cropping), valuing small as well as large-scale production, and, most of all, putting carbon back into the landscape. This latter action is exactly what we need to do to help reduce carbon emissions by providing offsets.
Action #4 Price carbon
This is the mantra of the climate change believers. We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions or risk global warming so severe that it will send civilization into a freefall collapse that will take most of the natural world with it. And the solution to achieve emission reduction is to put a price on carbon.
The logic is that we have to make fossil fuel based energy production, transport and manufacturing - the activities that emit greenhouse gases - more expensive than alternatives that do not emit carbon. Because then we will follow our hip pockets and move away from the dirty (and now more expensive) carbon based goods and energy to the clean ones.
In short, use the rationalism of economics to transition to a new paradigm of clean energy.
And what does this have to do with biodiversity loss? Emission reduction should see a reduction in the rate of climate change, together with smaller, less intensive and less frequent climate change effects; collectively less disturbance to the natural world. Out of the ordinary disturbance is a cause of extinction.
Save the children, conserve where we can, get organic with agriculture and price carbon are actions that might not fix every challenge facing the global village but do them, preferably all at once, and it will give us a chance to avoid some biodiversity loss.