Friday, 7 September 2007

Disappearing wildlife

I have on many occasions, both in books and in my blogs mentioned the dramatic decreases in wildlife. Unfortunately TV and other media, don't like doom and gloom, so often only emphasise the good news stories -- and I suppose the WLT is also guilty of this as well. We might publicise the fact that we have helped save 10,000 acres of dry chaco -- but probably don't give equal prominence to the fact that the Mennonites have cleared tens of thousands of acres, and turned it into farmland.

But the scale of the devastation of wildlife is truly alarming and rarely faced up to. I grew up in England in the 1950s, when flower rich meadows still existed on the outskirts of London. When common lizards were found in the suburbs. When colonies of yellow wagtails nested on a suburban sewage farm, alongside redshanks, lapwing and a large colony of tree sparrows. All gone. Red-backed shrikes and wrynecks nested in southern England. Now quite extinct. Bats darkened the sky over Godstone pond just outside London -- now you will be lucky to see a couple of dozen in an evening. When I first started using mist nets as a bird ringer, cockchafers and other large beetles were a problem in the early evening -- now a rarity. Stag beetles were common in the South London suburb of Streatham. Jackdaws nested in Hyde Park. And go back a little further and read W H Hudson's accounts of birds at the end of the nineteenth century, and you will get an idea of abundance of species such as wheatears.

To explain many of these declines we only have to look at what is happening in Africa, to our summer visitors. Just as the north American songbirds are crashing because of the loss of rainforests in Central and South America, so European migrants are going because of the devastation of Africa's natural habitats.

About 20 years ago it dawned on me that saving a few charismatic species such as tigers and orang utans was possibly not the best way of conserving biodiversity (though at the time the word was not really in use). And twenty ears on I am even more convinced that it is only by conserving large tracts of land that does wildlife have a chance. It's not just that the other methods, such as 'education', or 'sustainable development' are not that effective, it's more that without somewhere to live, wildlife doesn't stand a chance. And also, over the years I have seen a huge amount of money poured in to 'research' of various sorts, as well as 'education' and all the other unquantifiable methods of conserving wildlife. It has certainly provided a lot of jobs for a lot of people from the developed world --and done very little to actually preserve wildlife or habitats.

The great thing about acquiring land is that it is there. Even if there are problems managing it, at least it is there, and demonstrably there. If half the funds spent on research, education and report writing over the past half century had been spent on acquiring land for nature reserves, I am quite certain, a lot less wildlife would be threatened than at present.

And to return to my starting point, it is not just the biodiversity we should be worrying about, it is the biomass. But think about it: biomass is related to carrying capacity. If England's farmlands are producing "x" tonnes of oilseed rape per acre, when years ago it was only "y" tonnes per acre, then its the wildlife biomass that getting squeezed. And if the population of goats in Africa have gone up by 20 times in the past half century, then the wild antelope, and other wildlife will have decreased by a similar amount. It's what known as ecological balance. And no amount of research or education will change it.
Depressing but true.


  1. The underlying cause of all our problems is the system of finance itself - which is based on the assumption of eternal exponential growth.

    At an average 2.5% growth rate, the world economy doubles in size every 28 years (barring oil shocks like those in 1973 and 1979).

    The demand on resources (land, water, metals, soil, fish) doubles accordingly. There is no amount of conservation that can stop this juggernaut, or make it sustainable. The system itself must grow or die. Sustainablility would require a steady-state economy, or better, a negative growth economy.

    I have yet to hear a politician, even a "Green" one, call for zero growth or negative growth.

    It seems unlikely that the dominant culture will make such a transition voluntarily. If a change to a different economic system were to occur, it would have to be as a result of the collapse of the existing one.

    From careful reading of emerging resource scarcity, that collapse may occur sooner rather than later. Oil and Natural gas supplies are stretched very tight, and world oil discovery peaked around 1964. Today's discoveries are close to non-existant...and our demand for these stressed fuels doubles every ~28 years.

    I don't know what form of human society could withstand the removal of fossil fuels and a technological lifestyle. If the disappearance of our modern lifestyle is the price to pay for the survival of most of the remaining animal and plant life on Earth, then so be it.

    Let's hope there'll be enough biodiversity left for the natural world to recover from our reckless exploitation.

  2. Dermot has hit a whole range of nails on their metaphorical heads. It would make a fine appendix to Jared Diamond's "Collapse" -- see earlier blogs.

    It is so difficult to not be depressed about the way politicians treat the world -- and yet we have even got so called conservationists who talk about 'sustainable growth'. As Dermot is pointing out, it's an oxymoron of the first order. Economic growth can only be sustainable on a micro-scale -- at any other scale it is almost impossible to be sutainable -- we passed that state several centuries ago.

  3. Unfortunately there is a way for massive economic growth to be sustained - James Lovelock in 'The Revenge of Gaia' talks of it as a stopgap for 'powered descent', but I think he misjudges human nature. Once the turn back to nuclear power has been taken, I doubt many people will consider economic/population reduction measures necessary for a long while.
    This is an engine that would allow growth totally outside the scale and sphere of the Earth for long enough that most remaining biodiversity would be steamrollered. I have little doubt it is a route that will be taken when the problems become immediate enough.
    Sorry to be depressing and I hope I am proved wrong!