Leader: Where two roads diverge on the future of the planet

Earth’s human population has doubled since 1970, to 7.6 billion, with devastating consequences. One million plant and animal species are now at risk of imminent extinction.

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In 1962 the American conservationist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, her study of the damage being done to the natural world by unsustainable agriculture and the indiscriminate use of insecticides. It argued, in defiance of powerful political and commercial interests, that humanity’s sustained assault upon the environment could destroy countless forms of life if left unchecked. Its vision of a world so poisoned that there were no birds left to sing is credited with launching the modern environmental movement. “A grim spectre has crept upon us almost unnoticed,” Carson warned, “and this imagined tragedy may easily become a stark reality we all shall know.”

Half a century on, we are living a version of Ms Carson’s tragedy. On 6 May the United Nations published the most extensive study of natural diversity ever conducted. Humanity accounts for just 0.01 per cent of all life on earth. But, as the report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services reveals, we are obliterating the biodiversity on which our survival – and that of the planet – depends.

Earth’s human population has doubled since 1970, to 7.6 billion, with devastating consequences. One million plant and animal species are now at risk of imminent extinction. The biomass of wild mammals has declined by 82 per cent. Three quarters of all land and two thirds of our waters have been altered by human activity that prioritises plunder of our natural riches over conservation: unsustainable farming, deforestation, mining, fishing.

Our dependence on fossil fuels and our insatiable consumption have hastened the process and exacerbated anthropomorphic climate change. The World Bank has predicted that climate change could create more than 140 million refugees by 2050, at least seven times as many as were created by the catastrophe of the Second World War.

The extinction of species, the UN report said, is happening at a pace “at least tens to hundreds of times faster” than it has averaged over the past ten million years. As the study’s chair, Robert Watson, warns: “We are eroding the very foundations of economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

Reports compiled by international committees – in this case 130 nations and 450 scientists – are seldom so forthright or unanimous in their conclusions.

Yet the study offers some consolation: it is not too late for remedial action. However, it will require humanity to reshape its relationship with the natural world by reducing consumption and abandoning an obsession with unsustainable economic growth. This is easier said than done in a world in the grip of renewed great power rivalry. And in France, for instance, a commitment to increased carbon tax on fuel without consideration of its impacts helped to provoke the violent protests by the gilets jaunes.

Governments have been too slow to decarbonise, including the UK; fuel duty has remained frozen for almost a decade, while the Green Investment Bank has been sold and feed-in tariffs have been scrapped. The aviation industry, which burned 94 billion gallons of fuel globally in 2018, pays no fuel duty and no VAT on fuel.

Even as China and India, the emergent superpowers of the global economy, begin a long transition towards renewable energy, the world’s strongmen leaders risk derailing progress. President Donald Trump has withdrawn the US, whose emissions are only exceeded by China, from the Paris Agreement on climate change; Brazil’s new president Jair Bolsonaro has threatened to do the same. They, like many on the right, view measures to combat climate change as a threat to the interests of global capital.

The great irony, however, is that the economic case for environmentalism has never been stronger. The price of renewable energy is falling. Public investment in new technologies would provide a much needed stimulus, boosting employment and productivity. “We stand now,” Rachel Carson warned in Silent Spring, “where two roads diverge.”

Policymakers have every incentive to take the correct road. The risks of not doing so are too grave to contemplate.

This article appears in the 08 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Age of extremes

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