Global Concerns - 5 - Environmental and Ecological Emergency

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UNITED NATIONS REPORT (May 2019) PAINTS A DIRE PICTURE

1. In May 2019 the UN's Intergovernmental Panel for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) declared in its new landmark Report that we humans are doing colossal damage to nature and species globally. The Report presents an ominous picture and the implications for human life are grave. The IPBES says this is now an unprecedented 'Social and Ecological Emergency'.

2. This Report is the most comprehensive and damning global assessment ever produced of the state of nature, ecosystems and nature's contributions to people. Prepared by 150 leading international experts from 50 countries, it includes research and expertise from the natural and social sciences, with additional contributions from a further 250 experts. It draws on nearly 15,000 references, including scientific papers and government information. It is also the first global assessment ever to systematically examine and take account of indigenous and local knowledge, issues, rights and priorities. It is the world's agreed, evidence-based knowledge base which could potentially inform better policies and actions in the coming decade, both at national and international levels. But will governments, corporations and international bodies respond and change ?

3. The Report says that we humans are wreaking havoc on our environment and other species to the extent that we have now put the future of humanity under threat. The IPBES points out that we are already losing species faster than at any time in the past ten million years. A million species are under threat of extinction in the next 20-30 years. This human-caused ecological disaster has imperilled our ability to continue growing food and to remain secure on this planet. It says we need to rethink our way of living on the earth and we must fundamentally rethink our economies. “We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

4. The IPBES has painted a scenario which has the logical consequence (if we do not turn this problem around) of a general collapse of economies and civilisations over the next few decades. Separately, the UN's work on our Global Climate Emergency is already pointing towards a coming catastrophe due to our burning fossil fuels that are rapidly warming our only planet. Professor Robert Watson, Chair of IPBES said : "It is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global. Transformative change, system-wide and including goals and values, could allow humankind to restore nature and to use it sustainably." In an unusually forthright challenge to individuals, businesses and governments which continue to question or ignore the findings of science in pursuit of their own interests, Professor Watson, a globally-renowned environment scientist, acknowledged that this sort of change “can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo”.

5. Taken together, Climate Change and Ecological collapse are the biggest challenge ever to face humanity. Its now very clear that we have
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to act fast and on a truly global scale to change our ways - but will we do this ? Humans must now face the global consequences of our past and current consumption. Only radical changes to the organisation of our lives and economies can turn this massive problem around and put humanity on a path that is actually sustainable - and we must make these vast changes while we also have a rising global population. The costs of the necessary changes will be large but the costs of NOT doing it are much bigger.

6. If you are old enough and have been environmentally aware enough (perhaps an Activist), all this is not a surprise, we have had repeated warnings over decades. For example, you will know that in the past few decades there have been thousands of cases of major environmental and ecological damage and disasters, most often caused by corporate exploitation and profiteering (there is more about this below). This has been assisted by governments, by lack of regulation and by laws designed to favour corporate power and profits over the needs of nature and habitats, over health, safety and the human rights of local populations. The regulatory systems are ineffective by design - environmental disasters are not 'accidental'. Bad governments and bad politicians are pervasive. They deliberately enable corporate power and profits to have precedence over the biodiversity of habitats - which all species (including us humans) depend upon.

7. Question : What stands between humanity's future and complete collapse of our civilisations ? Answer : The self-interest of powerful corporations, the wealthy elite and all those governments which serve those interests. All of the latter are a major threat to humanity's need to convert to a globally sustainable way of living on our only planet. The UN's IPBES has told us what is going wrong but can humanity alter its global power structure in favour of people and planet and against the interests of the wealthy elites, corporations, bad leaders and bad governments ? This is a very big ask.

8. Obviously, human life is just a tiny part of the global ecosystem. The planet does not depend on humans, we depend upon it. "All things are connected", as Chief Seattle said in 1854 ! Our planet can survive without us but we will not survive without it. Now that global ecology (and our catastrophic role in it) is well understood, it is very clear that current patterns of human behaviour and consumption have severely damaged our planet's ecosystem.

9. This globally dire situation is not new. Just as Chief Seattle warned us about exactly this., in more recent history this type of irresponsibilty has become globally pervasive. Just one example : The catastrophe at Bhopal in India in 1984 was one of the worst industrial disasters in history and its effects continue until today. Bhopal illustrates how governmental and corporate irresponsibility has led to thousands of cases of environmental degradation around the world. This short video about Bhopal by the art group 'The Yes Men' exposes some of the enduring issues which now connect the different types of pervasive irresponsibility. Yes, it is all connected !

10. The ecological and environmental damage also includes the depletion of resources such as air, water and soil; the destruction of ecosystems and the destruction of wildlife. It has been defined by the UN as : “The reduction of the capacity of the environment to meet social and ecological objectives, and needs”.
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11. However, too many governments are only interested in deregulating to help corporations who have too much influence and who corrupt democracy and good governance by supporting politicians and parties who will govern in favour of corporate interests. This is one aspect of neoliberalism.

12. Human consumption and corporate greed are leading to massive species losses deforestation, desertification, climate change, and massive water pollution episodes. During the whole history of our planet there have been five global 'Mass Extinction' events (none during human history) but we have now entered into the sixth Mass Extinction event - known as the 'Anthropocene'. This is already well underway and is entirely human-created (hence the name 'Anthropocene'). This human degradation of the planet's environment is happening quickly and that is why the IPBES has now declared it to be a global emergency.

13. We humans are putting ourselves at risk of ecological disasters such as World crop failure and collapse of ecosystem services, caused by the present trends of over-population, over-consumption, our approach to economic development, and our use of non-sustainable agriculture. The survival of humans in now in great doubt - and this is a human-caused emergency. The IPBES makes clear that global consumption is unsustainable but this problem is mainly caused by the richer countries in the global north - see this Graph :

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Credit : World Wildlife Fund, 2018.

Below are just a few examples of the irresponsible risks now being taken with our (only) natural world - degrading our ecosystem and leaving massive problems for current and future generations.


60% LOSS OF WILD ANIMALS SINCE 1970

14. According to an October 2018 'Living Planet' Report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) the global losses in vertebrate species (mammals, fish, birds, amphibians and reptiles) averaged 60% between 1970 and 2014. "Earth is losing biodiversity at a rate seen only during mass extinctions," the WWF's Living Planet Report added. Creatures across land, rivers and the seas are being decimated as humans kill them for food in unsustainable numbers, while polluting or destroying their habitats. The loss is being driven by ever-rising food production and increased demand for energy, land and water. For example, Orangutans are very close relatives of Humans, so one might think that we humans would see this link and respect their importance. However, we are destroying their forest habitats and the Orangutans as well - and all for blind corporate profit (see one artist's response to this here).

15. The WWF Research data, gathered from peer-reviewed studies, covers more than 16,700 different animal populations belonging to 4,000 different species around the world. If 60% of the animals died in your local zoo next week it would be front page news, but that is what is happening out in the wild. This damage is not ‘accidental’, it is a consequence of the way we choose to live and the consumption decisions we make (or are made on our behalf). It is systemic and it is human systems that are causing the damage. Nature, which provides food and clean water and air, is obviously fundamental to all human (as well as animal and plant) wellbeing, but we are destroying it, not protecting it.

16. So, we know that there is a very steep decline in the numbers of animals, fish and birds,
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and we know this is driven by human consumption and by the consumerist global economy created by the richer nations. This 60% loss of animals worldwide should clearly be a call to arms and we should act now to protect all species. More of the Earth must be protected from development, degradation and deforestation, while food and energy must be produced sustainably.


SCARCITY OF SAFE, CLEAN DRINKING WATER

17. Existing problems such as the scarcity of usable freshwater are leading towards the point when approximately two thirds of the Earth's population will not have enough safe clean drinking water. According to the U.N, water withdrawals are predicted to increase by 50 percent by 2025 in developing countries, and 18 per cent in developed countries.

18. By 2025, 800 million people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population could be under stress conditions. Also, we already know that the overuse of natural resources (such as water) ultimately leads to conflicts.


THE 'RESOURCE CURSE' – ONE EXAMPLE : POLLUTION IN THE NIGER DELTA IN AFRICA

19. This is a prime example from Nigeria of a region and nation damaged by the Resource Curse. This is the paradox that a country with an abundance of natural resources, (e.g. minerals and fossil fuels, in this case Oil) finds that the exploitation of these have a negative effect on economic growth and development.
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20. Three years after the publication of a ground-breaking report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) on oil pollution in Ogoniland in Nigeria, the people of Ogoniland continue to suffer the effects of fifty years of an oil industry which has polluted their land, air and water. The main culprit here, apart from the government, is the global corporation Shell Oil which is taking vast profits from the Ogoni oil, whilst wrecking the environment - and that is before the oil gets used around the world and creates massive amounts of CO2 emissions. Poor operating practices, corruption, weak law enforcement and an active illegal oil economy contribute to hundreds of oil spills a year in the Niger Delta. This environmental disaster has destroyed traditional livelihoods, bred widespread mistrust and resentment among the community and undermined the operational security of oil companies and Federal Government.

21. Up to now the oil company Shell and the Nigerian government have both failed to implement the recommendations made in the UNEP report and put an end to the abuse of the communities' rights to food, water and a life free of pollution. (More here…). This atrocious behaviour is not unique to Shell Oil, or to oil extraction in Nigeria - it is commonplace among all of the big corporations who make up the world's 'Big Oil' problem.


ENVIRONMENTAL AND WILDLIFE CRIMES – A MASSIVE GLOBAL BUSINESS

22. Stefano Carvelli, the head of Interpol’s fugitive investigative support unit, said (in 2014) that the environmental crime wave has hit an all-time high. Reports have estimated the trade to be worth somewhere between $70billion - $213billion annually. To put it another way, that is : 213 thousand million dollars.
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23. This is made up from (for example) : illegal logging and trade in timber, illegal fisheries, illegal extraction and trading of minerals and mining, illegal trading and dumping of hazardous waste, illegal trading and poaching of plants and wildlife. Most of this environmental crime and loss takes place in developing countries to try and meet demand from the unsustainable lifestyles of people in developed nations. Read more about Wildlife Crime here.

24. Its total of between $70bn - $213 bn per year is greater than the GNP of many nations. By comparison, the global total of all international development aid in 2013 was around $135 billion.


SEAS AND OCEANS - LESS FISH, MORE PLASTIC

25. Human activities include overfishing and over-exploitation of fishery stocks which are being depleted to dangerously unacceptable levels. As many as 85% of the worlds sea fisheries may be over-exploited, depleted or fully exploited. Only a few are in ‘intensive recovery’ from exploitation.

26. Many problems affect the seas and oceans around the world. Some of these problems stem from global warming (caused by humans) leading to ocean acidification, the loss of coral reefs and the life forms they sustain as part of the food chain. For example, higher water temperatures in 2016 caused the worst destruction of corals ever recorded on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. A study has found that some 67% of corals died in the reef's worst-hit northern section. Other human-created problems are even more visible, such as 'waste' plastic floating around in the seas and oceans, put there by humans in one way or another. This Video shows the nature and scale of this problem very clearly.

27. The consumerist cultures and economies around the world are driving both of the problems above : overfishing and plastic in the seas. So, our waste plastic is harming and killing many species that live in our seas. At the same time, all of the people around the world who eat fish are consuming more and more tiny particles of the plastics that we humans have thrown away. They say that 'What goes around comes around' or, as Chief Seattle said in 1854 : 'Everything is connected'.


RISK TO GLOBAL FOOD SUPPLIES

28. Just one example : Pesticide misuse is leading to (among other problems) pollinator decline, which can result in collapse of some crops. A recent threat which has come to the fore is ‘Bee Colony Collapse Disorder', a phenomenon that may foreshadow the imminent extinction of the Western honeybee. As the bee plays such a vital role in pollination, its extinction would severely disrupt global food chains. The costs and effects of this would be enormous.


HUMANITY'S 'ECOLOGICAL FOOTPRINT'

29. Over the past four decades various international biodiversity organisations have regularly calculated and reported on humanity’s “ecological footprint”, ie the scale at which we are using up natural resources.

30. Currently, the global population is cutting down trees faster than they regrow, catching fish faster than the oceans can restock, pumping water from rivers and aquifers
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faster than rainfall can replenish them and emitting more climate-warming carbon dioxide than our oceans and forests can absorb.

31. Reports by scientists at the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London conclude that today’s average global rate of consumption would need 1.5 planet Earths to sustain it. But four planets would be required to sustain today’s US levels of consumption, or 2.5 Earths to match UK consumption levels. This results from the materialist and consumerist economics integral to those two countries but which is common in both the neoliberal capitalist and the communist nations.

32. Also, it has been clear for some time that degradation of our environment has been feeding steadily into global warming and climate change. What we really need is firm international commitment to sustainable development by all, and we need to get onto that path quickly to avoid potentially catastrophic problems within the lifetimes of ourselves, our children and grandchildren.