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We are heading towards a world without animals

A little over 20 years ago, I saw a slender-billed curlew. Now it’s extinct.

It was a little over 20 years ago when I saw a slender-billed curlew. I was in Morocco; the bird, lanky and reasonably slim in the beak department, was feeding on a patch of wetland decorated with wild cresses. Rather a nice sight. Not many people have shared it since then – because it’s extinct.

In all probability, anyway. The last rites haven’t been read yet and the ultimate authority on these matters, the Red Data Book compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), classifies the species as “critically endangered”. That’s scientific caution: it’s almost certainly gone. So I’ve seen an extinct bird. A rum feeling.

The baiji, or the Yangtze dolphin, evolved to live in zero visibility in the murk of the great river system it is named after. It found its way by sonar – a strange beast, like an alien life form. The baiji is also extinct: chemical pollution, noise pollution, propeller strikes and the impossibility of living among so many people combined to finish it off. An expedition in 2006 declared the animal “functionally extinct”.

According to the Living Planet Index, compiled by WWF and the Zoological Society of London, the world’s wild animals will decline in number by two-thirds by 2020. Of the 85,000 species listed by the IUCN, more than 24,000 are in danger, including lions, rhinos and giraffes, whose numbers have fallen by nearly 40 per cent since 1985. A study published in the journal Science Advances in January found that three-quarters of primate species have falling numbers, with 60 per cent threatened with extinction, among them gorillas and chimpanzees.

It’s happening in this country, too. In England, the hen harrier is close to extinction as a breeding bird: the RSPB says there was “a tiny handful” of nesting attempts last season. In the past 200 years, Britain has lost 8 per cent of its butterfly species. We know that because butterflies are easy to see and to identify. In the same time, we have lost 3 per cent of our beetles, which are harder to catalogue. If you replicate that pattern across all our invertebrate species, between 1,200 and 3,180 species will have become nationally extinct in the past couple of centuries.

It seems that we are heading for a world without animals. “The blueprint is in place,” said Matt Shardlow, the CEO of the invertebrate conservation charity Buglife. “All we have to do is carry on the way we are.”

But this is a define-your-terms situation. Despite desperate attempts across the millennia, philosophers and theologians have failed to conceal the reality that humans are a species of animal; like the Archbishop of Canterbury, we are primates. We also keep a lot of domestic animals, and there is little sign of cows and chickens going extinct.

The total vertebrate biomass – that is, the combined weight of every living backboned animal on the planet – can be divided into the wild stuff and the rest. So here’s the first killer statistic: 10,000 years ago, the biomass of humans and their domestic animals represented 0.4 per cent of the total. Right now, it’s 96 per cent and rising.

The planet, then, is going through a significant change. This is not a dire warning: it’s a current event. It is not a scare story to persuade you to adopt a dolphin: it’s a plain fact. Palaeontologists agree that there have been five major extinction episodes in the Earth’s history. The most recent did for the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, after a meteor strike. The consensus is that the sixth extinction is happening right now. The dinosaur extinction was literally the end of an era, a geological one: the Mesozoic became the Cenozoic. It is now reckoned that we are entering a new geological period: goodbye Holocene, hello Anthropocene.

We seem to have accepted the idea that the loss of wild animals is the sad but acceptable price of progress – and that progress is an incontrovertibly good thing. We recently passed the point at which more than half of the world’s human population live in cities.

The loss of animal species is not seen as a serious matter – when did you last hear a politician talk about the extinction crisis? That reflects the notion that humans come first, the domestic animals we use for
food come second and everything else is either a pest or a luxury. To care about wild animals is sentimental, childish, unrealistic. They’re expendable.

And yet in alarmingly recent history, white races believed that all other races were expendable. Genocide was wholly acceptable; the killing of Native Americans and Australian Aboriginals was considered perfectly justified. Peter Singer, the ethical philosopher, argues that our “circles of concern” have expanded since those times – beyond tribe, beyond nation and beyond race to all humanity – and should now be expanding further to include non-human species. That is happening to an extent (the worldwide ban on commercial whaling shows such thinking in action), but we are still losing both biodiversity and bio-abundance at a catastrophic rate.


What would a world without animals be like? That is to say, a world in which the only animals were humans and their domestic animals. In a sense, that’s the wrong question. The one set by the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s was “What can we do about it?” rather than “What’s in it for me?” But let us be human chauvinists – what Singer calls “speciesists” – and ask how the loss of biodiversity will affect the surviving species.

“We won’t be able to write off every species,” said John Burton, the acting CEO of the World Land Trust, a habitat protection charity. “We’ll always have rats and cockroaches and their like for company. Which is not inappropriate.” We have always despised species that make successful adaptations to human life.

There will be no wild fisheries. There have been decades of overfishing, on the principle of “the tragedy of the commons” – “If I don’t grab it, somebody else will.” Pollution has created 405 “dead zones” on coastal waters across the world, including an area of 6,500 square miles in the Gulf of Mexico.

But when we talk of extinction, it’s the potential loss of the great beasts – the charismatic megafauna – that reaches people: lions, rhinos, gorillas, elephants, tigers, whales. Their loss wouldn’t affect many humans materially, but the idea of losing them is distressing. We seem to be moving towards the idea of tokenism: the survival of a handful of wild tigers tells us that the world is still OK, and we can watch them whenever we like on the ever-more-dramatic wildlife documentaries. But a world without any wild animals at all is a more complex notion.

“There’ll be very few flowering plants,” Shardlow said, “but plenty of dandelions. They don’t need insects to pollinate them.” The impact of the loss of wild pollinators will be considerable, as most crops depend on pollination by animal species. It has been estimated that the annual value of wild pollinators to the global economy is $190bn. Modern conservationists talk about “natural capital” and estimate a fiscal value for “ecosystem services”.

The loss of pollinators has led to an industry that supplies domesticated bees to do the work that was once done for free. In some places, notably Sichuan in China, the pollination of fruit is performed by
humans with paintbrushes or the filter tips of cigarettes.

Lynn Dicks, an ecologist at the University of Cambridge’s zoology department, estimates that the loss of wild pollinators will reduce global production by 5 to 8 per cent, which is more serious than it sounds, when we consider that the human population is increasing by 75 million a year.

It’s also possible that species diversity is the structure that underpins all life on Earth. Natural systems have a “redundancy” – they contain more species than are necessary to make the system function. “The argument in ecology is that the redundancy is needed for the long-term resilience of the system,” Dicks said.

A monoculture is more prone to collapse than a diverse system: we have the example of the Irish potato famine of the 19th century. Modern farmed monocultures require a considerable chemical back-up to make them work. It’s possible that the end of biodiversity – and with it bio-abundance – will create a series of ecosystem collapses.

James Lovelock, who gave us the Gaia theory – that the Earth is best considered as a single living organism – has suggested a hideous future of small, scattered human populations perpetually at war with each other. Others believe that the startling ingenuity of humankind will find a way to survive. Nobody knows, but as the great American scientist and writer Edward O Wilson said: “One planet, one experiment.”

There are other forms of loss associated with the divorce of humans from nature. The loss of birdsong and flowering plants is not like the absence of wallpaper and ambient music. Recent research has shown that the physical and mental health of humans is closely associated with access to nature. It has been demonstrated that people in hospitals recover better from surgical operations if they have a window – and better still if they can see a tree. Those with depression show improvement if they spend time in natural surroundings. Children with learning and behavioural difficulties do better – sometimes astoundingly so – when they are in touch with the natural world.

Professor Andrew Balmford, also of Cambridge University’s zoology department, quoted a series of experiments on the effects of the natural world on human behaviour. One required people to pass notional judgement on offenders, one group doing so before images of skyscrapers, the other before images of trees. Those who saw only buildings gave harsher sentences, especially to offenders from minority groups.

In another experiment, people were asked about their core values. One group said that what mattered to them was fame and money; a second group said it was family and friends. This second group had been questioned after three pot plants had been added to the room.

You get the idea: we are nicer people – more humane, more truly human – when we have access to non-human life. If we complete our divorce from nature, it seems we will have a much less pleasant society.

Now all of this is very fine and true and important, and not to be set aside. But the extinction crisis is not happening by itself. You can regard the extinction of animal species as the ultimate disaster, or you can take a smaller view and see it as a symptom of the crisis facing the human species – but either way, there are terrible things going on.


We are in the process of killing off our planet: or, at any rate, changing it beyond recognition. We have already done the latter, but the process is nowhere near completion. We destroy forests. That contributes to the rise in global temperatures, but we need the land for agriculture or grazing. As a result, the land no longer holds water when it rains, so there are catastrophic floods that destroy crops and create famine. You can mourn the extinction of the bird species that lived only in that forest or you can mourn the human cost – but it’s all part of the same disaster.

The global temperature continues to rise. Climate change deniers will be regarded like today’s Holocaust deniers in times to come. We are living with a global rise of 1.2° C and climbing. It’s suggested that 2° C will be a tipping point and will lead to more extinctions – perhaps of the polar bear. It will also have a considerable impact on human lives.

It all comes back to population, the problem that dare not speak its name. Since 1950, the world’s human population has tripled; in 2016, we reached 7.4 billion. Energy use has increased by five times; so has fresh water use. You can argue that many of the recent events in politics and world affairs have been driven by the increasing pressures and proximity of human existence. “Even if we had a couple of extra planets, that wouldn’t solve the long-term problem,” said John Burton of the World Land Trust.

Human population growth is the principal driver of the global extinction crisis. There are not separate crises going on: it’s all linked. The loss of biodiversity and bio-abundance inevitably ensues. The long-time campaigner and environmentalist Tony Juniper said: “It follows that solutions are linked. It’s about sustainable economies – if we continue with economic growth, we will trash ecosystems and the soil. We need to end the extinction, reduce CO2 emissions and protect soils.”

Gerald Durrell, the pioneer conservationist, summed up the extinction crisis a generation ago: “People think that I’m just trying to look after nice, fluffy animals. What I’m really trying to do is stop the human race from committing suicide.”

All unattributed statistics are from Tony Juniper’s book “What’s Really Happening to Our Planet?” (Dorling Kindersley)

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The decline of the American empire

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
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The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The decline of the American empire