In its latest special report, The Economist magazine put forth a counter-intuitive yet fascinating thesis: more economic growth is the best hope for preventing the next great wave of extinctions. They argue that as countries become richer, their citizens actually demand cleaner air and water, which benefit wildlife. With weekends off — and more free time generally — these rich-world residents also want to go to public parks and experience nature first hand. According to the Living Planet Index, which is created by the Zoological Society of London and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), biodiversity is actually rising in the rich world and falling in poorer (tropical) ones. So the answer for the planet’s species may be to boost growth in poorer countries in South America, Asia, and Africa.
The entire series of articles is worth reading in depth, but here’s a top-line take on some of the key arguments and data presented:
Man Is Evolving
In the past, man has not been good for nature. Man wiped out most the ancient mega-fauna, including the mastodons, mammoths, and sabre-tooth tigers. With the rise of new technologies, “man’s destructive powers increased.” As mining and industrial development expanded across the globe, forests were decimated, rivers poisoned, and sea and land animals driven to the brink. But, they write: “In a sense this orgy of destruction was natural. In the wild, natural species compete for resources, and man proved a highly successful competitor.” The Economist adds that religion fueled the ascendancy of man over nature, with the Bible granting man “dominion over every creeping thing.”
Now, attitudes have changed for the better. “People have, by and large, come round to the view that wiping out other species is wrong. Part of the reason is pragmatic: as man has come to understand ecology better, he has realized that environmental destruction in pursuit of growth may be self-defeating. Rivers need to be healthy to provide people with clean water and fish; natural beauty fosters tourism; genes from other species provide the raw material for many drugs.”
The change in views towards nature has led to political action. Beginning in the 1970s, the world has increasingly come together to protect natural resources and endangered species. Countries have created national parks and financed support for them. There are now rules against polluting air and water. New technologies make conservation even easier. But while all this is increasingly true in developed countries, it’s not yet in developing ones, although there are signs of progress. For example, as Brazil develops, the rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has actually fallen. In 2004, some 24,000 square kilometers were decimated. Last year, there were just 5,000 square kilometers destroyed.
Extinctions Are Natural
The Economist writes that throughout Earth’s history extinctions have been the “norm.” Amazingly, “around 99 percent of all creatures that have ever lived have disappeared from the face of the planet. Hardly any of the species that are around now existed 100 million years ago; it is unlikely that many of today’s species will exist in another 100 million years. In the Earth’s 4.5 billion-year-history, that is not a very long time.”
Extinctions, as scientists have demonstrated, come in great waves. To our knowledge, there have been five major waves in history. These extinctions were caused by geological events and the impact of asteroids. A sixth one, caused by man, may be underway.
To determine whether a great wave of extinction is now happening, we have to understand how many species there are. To date, only 2 million species – large and small – have actually been identified. There are lots more smaller creatures than larger ones, so scientists believe many more small species remain undiscovered. “The most widely used estimate now 8.7 million species, not counting micro-organisms such as bacteria and archaea.”
Then, we have to calculate whether the rate of extinction exceeds the norm, which Stuart Pimm, a professor at Duke University, has established as a “background rate” of “one per million species years.” This means that if there are one million species, one would go extinct every year.
And then, we need to understand the actual number of species that have gone extinct. According to The Economist, many conservation organizations, in advocacy mode, have said up to a million species could soon go extinct, but the reality is only 9 counted extinctions have happened between 1980 and 2000. Still, most of the world’s great conservation biologists, including E.O. Wilson, have continuously raised the alarm, which should be heeded.
There’s Hope: People Now Value Biodiversity
As the developed world has become more prosperous with economic growth, people have “freedom to think about things beyond their material welfare.” Prosperity has given people more leisure time, and “enjoying nature is one of humanity’s favorite pastimes.” According to The Economist, some 71 million Americans say they “watch, feed or photograph wildlife in their spare time, more than play computer games, and 34 million are hunters or anglers who also, in their own way, enjoy wildlife.” Being out in nature may also boost happiness (as is explored in more depth in ASLA’s guide to the Health Benefits of Nature).
Communities have also realized that they need nature to survive, too. Birds kill the insects that plague crops. Fisherman’s livelihoods rely on stable stocks of fish. Bees are vital pollinators that we depend on for much of our produce. And then there are so many species of flora and fauna that have yet to be examined for their human health benefits. So many drugs have come from the rainforest. Perhaps the cure for cancer may be there, too.
Some positive trends:
- In the U.S., eagle populations dropped from half a million in the 18th century to 412 breeding pairs by the early 1960s. There are now more than 7,000 pairs.
- In 1990, Britain’s environmental agency said only 53 percent of its rivers were safe for recreation. Now 80 percent are.
- China created its first national park in 1982. “It now has 1,865 of them, covering 110 million hectares, three times the area of America’s parks.” A recent article attributed this to the rising numbers of Chinese taking vacations.
- In 1909, only 3.5 percent of the world’s land area was protected (according to a 1985 study). Today, some 13 percent of the planet is protected, and the target of 17 percent may be met.
The key then may be more economic growth globally, not less. And we’d add: more landscape architects to design parks and access to nature, not fewer.
Image credit: The Economist