Science News Round-Up: Losing the Wilderness

 Helen Billam
A forest which has been chopped down

According to new data, the UK has lost over half of its biodiversity since the industrial revolution and is now one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Partly attributed to urban sprawl and mechanised agriculture, we now face losing species such as hedgehogs and turtledoves which were common a mere one or two generations ago.

Professor Andy Purvis, who led the study, told the Guardian: “Many people think of biodiversity as a luxury – as nice-to-have, charismatic, beautiful species. They are good for the soul but no more than that, these people argue. But biodiversity is so much more than that. It is the engine that produces everything that we consume. You can think of it like a wild supermarket that provides us with food and other gifts without us doing anything. The fact that we have several different varieties of apples, tomatoes and other foods is down to biodiversity – and when it is diminished we lose out.”

Modern farming relies on a relatively small number of crops compared to the amount of naturally-occurring variations, making our food supplies more vulnerable to pests and climate change. (The Cavendish banana is an example.) This Christian Aid report states that the world has lost 75% of crop varieties and 50% of livestock breeds in the 20th century – and that’s not even counting wildlife and non-cultivated plants.

Aerial view of a combine harvester in a field

So this month’s UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) in Kunming, China, was timely. International cooperation is vital to tackling the root causes of species loss – namely climate change, deforestation, and urban sprawl. The growing problem of extinction means it’s vital that our interventions are realistic and practical – which is why the UN’s choice of language should give us pause.

The COP15 aims to develop a framework “to bring about a transformation in society’s relationship with biodiversity and to ensure that, by 2050, the shared vision of living in harmony with nature is fulfilled.”

Have we ever lived in harmony with nature? Is this a meaningful goal to set, let alone attempt to accomplish within 30 years?

The ecologist and journalist George Monbiot, in his book Feral: Rewilding the land, sea, and human life argues:

“The study of past ecosystems shows us that whenever people broke into new lands, however rudimentary their technology and small their numbers, they soon destroyed much of the wildlife – especially the larger animals – that lived there. There was no state of grace, no golden age in which people lived in harmony with nature.”

If, as Monbiot suggests, humans have never “lived in harmony with nature”, the task before us is much harder than simply returning to a past dynamic – it’s to forge an entirely new one, which may be contrary to human nature. Is COP15 setting itself up for a failure the world’s ecosystems can’t afford? And what could a more truthful vision of the future look like?

Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff writes:

“We must beware of a political environmentalism which seeks harmony between society and the environment only in the interest of developing techniques for plundering the environment while affecting the human habitat as little as possible…

What is important today is to overcome the devastating and de-energizing paradigm of modern society and develop a new alliance between human beings and nature in which we become allies in an effort for conservation and assurance of a common destiny.”

(Ecotheology: Voices from South and North, ed. David G. Hallman.)

A new alliance would require a radical overhaul of our present system of conservation. It may well involve significant rewilding, acknowledging that a true alliance means humanity giving up some of its habitat, whether that be palm oil plantations or mega highways. It means recognizing that humanity’s survival relies on robust and healthy ecosystems, and it means working with human nature, not against it. The COP26 conference in November will pick up some of these themes and – we hope – start to tackle some of the root causes of species loss. All eyes will be on Glasgow to see whether it really does seek an alliance with nature – or just more empty words.

Article By Helen Billam


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