The threat of ecological collapse

THE "LIVING Planet Index 2008," a study of the global environment published May 15 by the World Wildlife Fund, the Zoological Society of London and the Global Footprint Network, reports that biological diversity has declined by a dramatic 30 percent in the last 35 years.

Jonathan Loh, editor of the report, told Britain's Independent newspaper that such a sharp fall was "completely unprecedented in terms of human history." "You'd have to go back to the extinction of the dinosaurs to see a decline as rapid as this," he added. "In terms of human lifespan, we may be seeing things change relatively slowly, but in terms of the world's history, this is very rapid."

This comes on the heels of the recent announcement by the U.S. government declaring the icon of climate change, the polar bear, as an endangered species, threatened by extinction.

Why does species diversity matter to us as human inhabitants of the earth? After all, how many of us will ever see a polar bear in the wild or a Yangtze River dolphin (which recently became extinct)?

There are several answers to this, and they are all related.

Once a species has become extinct, it is gone forever (except, perhaps, in the imagination of Hollywood filmmakers). The possibility of its contributing to our lives has vanished.

This contribution may take a particularly concrete form (the discovery of a new drug from a tropical plant, for example). Or the contribution may be more indirect (such as the deepened understanding of human behavior and evolution that comes from knowledge of chimpanzee societies in the wild). As species disappear, the quality of our lives diminishes. Our alienation from the natural world increases.

As species disappear, biological complexity also declines. Complexity is an important stabilizing factor when the environment is under stress or changing rapidly. If you push a complex system away from its usual state, it will often have the resources to restore itself. A simple system, one with only a few species, may not have the necessary resiliency, and can be more easily destroyed. This is why agricultural land devoted to the production of a single crop (monoculture) is especially vulnerable to the introduction of new pest species.

Biological diversity is a sensitive measure of habitat destruction. As habitats (that is, the specialized natural environments that are the home to plant and animal communities) degrade, disappear or become isolated from one another, they can support fewer individuals and then fewer species. The decrease in complexity brings with it the danger of ecological collapse.

Human activity (or "anthropogenic factors" to use the technical jargon) is cited by biologists and by the Living Planet Index as the cause of this dramatic decline in species diversity. These factors include habitat loss, overexploitation of environmental resources, pollution, invasive alien species and climate change.

While it is difficult to deny that human activity is the principal cause of the problem, it is misleading to leave the explanation there. Human activity exists in a social context with economic, political and cultural dimensions.

This is not the first time that human activity appears to have led to a decline in species diversity. The disappearance of the wooly mammoth and several other large land animals in North America following the last ice age coincided with, and was probably caused by, the colonization of the Americas by hunters from Northeast Asia.

The potential for environmental destruction has grown qualitatively in the last 10,000 years, as the world has become a much more technologically complex (and crowded) place. Within the last several centuries, capitalism has extended its domination throughout the globe. This has brought with it an unprecedented growth in productivity by ever-larger economic units.

However, as long as production is governed by the profit principle, corporations will ignore the costs of production that they can pass on to society as a whole (the so-called "externalities"), unless forced to change. These "externalities" are just the "human factors" that lead to the observed decline in species diversity.

Under capitalism, production is socialized, but control remains in private hands. Capitalism fouls its own nest, and ours as well. It sinks in a sea of garbage that it has created. Could there be better reason to consign capitalism itself to history's garbage can?

When working people control production, we can organize the economy to serve our needs, protecting the environment for ourselves and for future generations.
Rick Greenblatt, San Diego