Vanishing nature: be afraid, be very afraid

Ahead of the special Sydney Ideas event ‘The Biodiversity Crisis’, Christopher Wright looks at why biodiversity loss is one of the greatest calamities of our time.

The declining diversity of our biological systems has been an on-going feature of human history. As we have developed ever more ingenious and efficient technologies to harness and exploit the natural world, so our impact on nature’s bounty has been crushing. One of the most emblematic examples of this process for me was reading Mark Kurlansky’s marvellous history Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. Once a bountiful species (so great in number that John Cabot famously proclaimed in the 1490s that men could walk across the backs of cod on the Grand Banks), Atlantic cod were by the 1990s decimated through the introduction of industrial fishing techniques. Indeed, recent human history is littered with similar examples of species decline and extinction as a result of our industry. Reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent book The Sixth Extinction, one of the most tragic is the story of the last great auk; powerful flightless birds that were hunted to extinction in the nineteenth century; the last breeding couple killed in an island off Iceland one June evening in 1844.

But while biodiversity loss was once a relatively local phenomenon in the last fifty years or more we have witnessed a shift which ecologists have linked to the so-called ‘Great Acceleration’ of industrial capitalism. This has involved the rapid increase in global population, technological change, fossil fuel exploitation and globalisation of economic activity. These changes mean humanity is fundamentally reshaping the ecosphere, biosphere and hydrosphere contributing to systemic biodiversity loss. So for instance, of the various planetary boundaries we are now challenging, biodiversity is one that has been well and truly exceeded. Indeed, species extinction rates are now 100-1000 times greater than their background level. In short, biodiversity decline has now become systemic, driven by our increasingly globalized economy, expanding consumerism and accelerating climatic change. Hence, one of the markers of the Anthropocene is the current destruction of vast numbers of animal and plant species within the ‘Sixth Great Extinction’.

Climate change in particular is a critical driver of this process, resulting in global changes of myriad complexity that fundamentally threaten ecosystems that have been reliant upon relative climate stability over the last 100,000 years. In changing the chemistry of our atmosphere and oceans by releasing massive quantities of greenhouse gases, we are producing irreversible changes in our ecosystems. The rapid pace of climate change poses the greatest risk here as natural systems encounter rapidly changing weather patterns, disease vectors and limited paths for evolutionary adaptation. Moreover, our economic system of globalised capitalism serves to only amplify the drivers of biodiversity loss through ever increasing demand for products that rely upon the exploitation of nature. For instance Manfred Lenzen, from the University of Sydney has quantitatively demonstrated how the supply chains for manufactured commodities increasingly rely on such natural exploitation, tracing the specific impacts back to their forest or ocean of origin often in developing economy settings.

So why should we care? Sure, seeing all these other species go extinct is upsetting, but surely we can just use technology to insulate ourselves from a declining natural environment? This response seems common for many people increasingly divorced from nature, who buy their food in air-conditioned supermarkets, and whose exposure to forests, oceans and animals is limited to wildlife TV documentaries or visits to the zoo. Unfortunately however, beyond the moral and ethical justifications for resisting the sixth extinction, there are also more basic, self-interested reasons we should be very, very worried about biodiversity loss.

Despite our modern conceit that humanity is somehow separate from nature (indeed for some, we are seen as a “master” of nature), in reality we are a highly vulnerable species still wholly dependent on surrounding ecosystems. Putting this in base economic terms, we rely on the different “services” that nature provides for our existence. This includes the formation of soil and nutrient recycling. The provision of food, water, wood, fuel and other natural resources. The regulation of natural processes such as decomposing waste, purifying air and water, and the moderation of climate. Not to mention our cultural reliance on nature for education, recreation, spiritual understanding and aesthetic inspiration.

And yet despite the criticality of this issue to our continued existence, we pay little attention to the environmental havoc we are unleashing. Our number one focus is on the economy, GDP, economic growth and the market. Indeed, our limited response to the biodiversity and climate crisis is to simply shoe-horn nature into the market economy; creating commodities of natural resources and designating nature a market like any other. As one market booster proclaimed “The environment is part of the economy and needs to be properly integrated into it so that growth opportunities will not be missed.” Those who question this logic are now branded extremists and even “terrorists”! Economic “sustainability” thus trumps any concern for environment despite the fact that without a sustainable environment there can be no society, let alone economy! As Herman Daly famously stated “what use is a sawmill without a forest?”.

While wars and terrorism currently dominate the newspaper headlines, a far greater calamity goes on all around us. It is the sound of nature in retreat!

Christopher Wright is Professor of Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney Business School where he teaches and researches organisational change, management innovation, sustainability and critical understandings of capitalism and political economy. He has published extensively on the history of management, management consultancy, the labour process and the changing nature of human resource management.