For three years I edited the environment pages of the Conversation website. I published article after article about extinction, bee-colony collapse, the last tortoise of its kind, the last rhinoceros of its kind. I thought I knew how badly things were going for animals. I had no idea.
I live in Melbourne. I didn’t expect to see wild animals in the streets around Footscray. But I really love animals, so I went on holidays to places where seeing creatures seemed more likely: Mexican mangrove forests, the Tasmanian wilderness, those kinds of places. I went on a flamingo tour—websites with photos of thousands upon thousands of flamingos—and saw a flock of around eight flamingos, surrounded by around 30 boats full of tourists. There were so few flamingos, the tour boat operators must know them by name. When I went to Tasmania, I saw a nice small hawk and a lot of roadkill and not a single living mammal.
I assumed I was just unlucky. I assumed the animals were out there somewhere, just not where I could see them.
Did you think the same? If you’re reading this, you probably live in Australia, and if you live in Australia you probably live in a city. I think it’s easy for us—here, where we don’t expect to meet anything beyond cockroaches, seagulls, pigeons, maybe rats—to believe everywhere else is thronged with rock wallabies and wildebeests and wolverines. That if we just went to central Australia or Botswana or Montana we’d see them.
But would we? Here’s a quiz. If you weigh every backboned animal on land, you get the biomass of terrestrial vertebrates. (I know: it’s a weird idea and not physically possible, but if you want to know more about how it’s calculated, read Vaclav Smil’s paper, referenced below.) Let’s look at that biomass today. What do you reckon the ratio will be of humans, domesticated animals and wild animals? I asked a lot of people who know how much I worry about animals and thus had a rough idea where this conversation was going, but they were way out. The answer: 65 per cent of that biomass is domesticated animals; 32 per cent is humans. Less than 3 per cent is wild animals.1
If you weigh all the vertebrates on land, 97 per cent of that weight is us and the animals we’ve invented to serve us. Go to Botswana all you like: the wild animals aren’t out there to be seen. They’re gone. It’s no better in the oceans. Commercial fisheries are collapsing,2 oceans are acidifying3 and warming4 and the seas are filling up with plastic.5 Wild sea animals face a bleak future too.
Between 1970 and 2012, according to the World Wildlife Fund, the population of non-human vertebrate animals on Earth dropped by 58 per cent.6 There are half as many individual non-human animals as there were 40 years ago. The human vertebrate population, over that time, doubled. Lose an Irawaddy dolphin, get a human; lose a mountain pygmy possum, get a human; lose a Siberian tiger, get a human; lose a kakapo, get a human; lose a forest elephant, get a human; lose a Philippines eagle, you get the idea.
The WWF report Living Planet—is that sarcastic?—tells us that ‘a billion fewer birds inhabit North America today compared to 40 years ago. In Britain, certain iconic species have fallen by 90 per cent. In Germany, flying insects have declined by 76 per cent over the past 27 years. Almost half of Borneo’s orangutans died or were removed between 1999 and 2015. Elephant numbers have dropped by 62 per cent in a decade, with on average one adult killed by poachers every 15 minutes.’
The report goes on. By 2020 (tomorrow, basically) the animal population will have dropped by nearly 70 per cent. Let’s pretend, for a minute, that they’re talking about the human population. Imagine if, between 1970 and 2020, the human population dropped by two-thirds. All those people gone: dead. We would suspect something had gone wrong. We might even try to do something about it.
There is only the tiniest whisper of wildness left on the landmasses of this planet and that tiny whisper is on the brink of going silent. Everything—all of it—will soon be us. This news is shocking (at least, it was shocking to me). It’s horrifying. Awful. It’s just awful. But does it matter?
What are you talking about, ‘does it matter’? Of course it does! It’s awful!
Maybe what I mean is, does it matter so much that we will do anything about it? To which the answer is, I think, ‘probably not’.
For most people, this problem is invisible. The causes are so much a part of our modern way of life, and the solutions so radical, that it seems unlikely we will make the necessary changes. And while wild animals are important for all sorts of reasons, we can probably figure out a way to carry on without them.
I am someone who cares a lot about the non-human world (even though I don’t much like being in it—I much prefer a couch, book and heater to a long bushwalk). But I am not a scientist, nor am I someone who works in wildlife conservation. My views in this essay are based on a lot of reading over many years, and on talking to people in the field, but my reading is not comprehensive and I’m scared of talking to people so I probably haven’t done nearly enough interviews. In short, this essay is just my opinion. I would love for Meanjin to get a hundred letters from experts saying I’ve got the wrong end of the stick entirely and everything is going to be fine. But I don’t think that is what they would say.
‘For almost all wild species on Earth, once the places they live have been dramatically altered, they are unable to survive in the long term … while 75% of the world has a clear human footprint, more than 50% of the world’s land area has been significantly converted to human dominated land uses.’7
Shortly after I started working on this essay—about 18 months ago—I decided I needed to change my behaviour to avoid contributing to wildlife death. I stopped buying new clothes. I stopped buying food I didn’t need but just wanted. I cut my alcohol consumption. Then I got an email from the Wilderness Society. It said, ‘Sometimes it’s important to ask ourselves the hard questions. Questions like: Are any trees cut down to make the paper I use? Were they from a native forest? Did any endangered animals live in the forest that my paper came from?’
And I looked at my bookshelf and saw the kilometres of paper lined up there in all those books that I love so much. I thought about all the animals that died so I could lift my spirits and expand my mind a bit and I gave up: the animals are dying because of almost every aspect of the way we live.
In 2016, Sean Maxwell and his co-authors published a paper in Nature looking at the things that are threatening threatened species.8 They wanted to know whether climate change was the biggest risk. They looked at 8688 species. Of those, 6241 are threatened by ‘overexploitation’—that is, either we are killing too many of them or harvesting too many of the things they need to survive. Logging is killing 4049 of them (the Leadbeater’s possum, for example); hunting, 1680 (snow leopards); fishing, 1118 (the southern bluefin tuna). Many creatures, including Asia’s incredible pangolins, are dealing with more than one of these things—the forest they live in is being cut down, for example, and they are being hunted.
Coming in a close second is agriculture. More than 5400 species are on the brink thanks to farming. Crops are pushing 4692 of them out of their homes (far eastern curlews); livestock farming affects 2267 of them (northern hairy nosed wombats); timber plantations and aquaculture threaten others. It’s not just the space taken up, it’s the chemicals used to keep down pests and the lack of habitat for insects that other species rely on to survive. Birds are particularly affected by agriculture:9 74 per cent of 1469 globally threatened birds are in a bad state because of the land we use to grow crops and the methods we use to keep those crops alive.10
If we’re not growing food where their food used to be, we’re knocking over the houses of wildlife to build our own. Urban development threatens 3014 species—housing makes up the vast bulk of the problem. It’s no coincidence that we want biodiversity hotspots for our farms and houses. These are the most productive parts of the planet, and they’re where everybody—human animals and non-human animals—wants to live.
Invasive species and disease, agricultural and domestic pollution, weird fire regimes, dams, humans wandering in places where animals just want to be left in peace, roads—they all take their toll. Climate change is, the researchers found, already causing problems for 1688 species—it’s the droughts and the storms, as well as the extreme temperatures. (And just in case Terry McCrann is reading this: what about all the birds being killed by wind turbines? Yes, 56 species are imperilled by renewable energy generation. That compares to 889 that are in trouble thanks to oil and gas extraction and mining for energy production.) As many as 121 species are threatened by war. No, not us. We’re doing fine.
So what kills animals? Everyday human activity. The stuff that keeps us alive and the stuff that makes those lives worth living. The stuff we do even though it makes none of us happy (war). Living in houses and eating food and going to work and wearing clothes and making movies and books and wine and theatres. Recording a jazz record. Downloading a jazz record. Buying a clarinet and travelling to clarinet lessons. Lying on the couch: where did that couch come from? Lying on the grass in a park. Walking in a park. Walking in a national park. Drinking coffee: coffee growing in Papua New Guinea is a threat to nine critically endangered species including the northern glider, the black-spotted cuscus and the eastern long-beaked echidna.11
Humans are taking up so much room on Earth that there is nowhere left for animals to live and nothing left for them to eat. To top it off, we’re deliberately killing them as well—to eat, to turn into medicine, because we think it’s fun, because they annoy us. The only way to fix this problem is to take up less space. Which is why every time there’s a national election, anywhere in the world, the main issue is how humans can reduce their footprint to give other animals a chance to recover. That’s why year round, social media is abuzz with talk of almost nothing else. Sorry, let me check my notes …
There are a lot of reasons why most people care very little—or care a great deal but don’t do anything—about the loss of wild animals. But one of the most intriguing reasons is that many of us think they’re doing fine. A recent paper from researchers in France12 identified the most popular ‘charismatic’ animals: tigers, lions, giraffes, elephants, leopards, panthers, cheetahs, pandas, polar bears, gorillas and wolves. All of them are at high risk of imminent extinction in the wild but most of the people the researchers talked to had no idea. Why? Because they see so many images of these animals—as toys, on hoodies, in ads for insurance, as mascots for international games, in nature documentaries—that they assume the planet is full of them. The researchers say:
By freely using the image of rare and threatened species in their product marketing, many companies may participate in creating this biased perception, with unintended detrimental effects on conservation efforts, which should be compensated by channeling part of the associated profits to conservation … this biased perception would be likely to last as long as the massive cultural and commercial presence of charismatic species is not accompanied by adequate information campaigns about the imminent threats they face.
If you’re going to use a picture of a cheetah in your car ad,13 they propose, you should be forced to pay a royalty to cheetah conservation and include information about the threats to cheetahs, one of which is roads.14 It’s pretty rude to use an animal’s image to promote its death, particularly if you’re not even going to give it a cut of the profits.
Everything I read and everyone I spoke to was very clear that wild animals are important to the continuing quality of human life. The food we eat, the air we breathe and, particularly, the water we drink are all bound up with natural processes that inevitably involve animals. These ‘ecosystem services’ are used as justification for conservation activities around the world; there is no need to provide a moral argument for saving animals and habitat, because there is a self-interested, economic reason. Without animals that distribute the seeds of their plants (in Australia’s tropics, think fruit bats and cassowaries), forests would shrink. Without forests, we’d have a much harder time getting fresh water. Without fresh water, we would die. Animals provide an ecosystem service.
The problem with this argument is if you can show we can survive without those ecosystem services, you no longer have a reason to care whether animals die. And ecosystem collapse has happened before in Australia without wiping out humanity. Tim Flannery writes, in his Quarterly Essay ‘After the Future’, about the vegetation of this continent before the arrival of humans and what happened when Australia’s large mammals—or megafauna—died out around 40,000 to 50,000 years ago.
The Nullarbor was probably forested, and … central Australia was covered with a dry but fertile mosaic of shrublands, woodlands and grasslands … rainforest covered much of Australia’s north and northeast. The destruction of the rainforests followed on from the extinction of the large mammals. Decomposition in the soil could not remove the vegetation fast enough; and so fires … consumed the fire sensitive vegetation … And as the rainforests turned to ash, the rainfall dropped off until Lake Eyre failed to fill, even in the good times. Such changes must have stressed the surviving forests even more, and eventually Australia became what it is today: a continent with a desert heart.15
The animals died and the continent got hotter and drier. But humans still found plenty of ways to live here, even in places where fresh water had almost ceased to exist. And we probably will too: when the animals all go things will get much worse and we’ll have to find new and expensive ways to do the things they did for us for free—pollinating trees by hand, making water with desalination plants, aerating soil with robots. We can spend our leisure time watching YouTube videos of all the animals that used to exist. Loads of people will die and everything we take for granted will be harder to get and much more expensive, but rich people will be fine and so the world will continue on.
Some researchers are even more sanguine. In their essay ‘Conservation in the Anthropocene’, a team from the Nature Conservancy suggested we all chill out, because widespread animal and plant deaths have almost no effect, and any effects they have are things we’ll work around. ‘In many circumstances, the demise of formerly abundant species can be inconsequential to ecosystem function. The passenger pigeon,’ they say, ‘once so abundant that its flocks darkened the sky, went extinct, along with countless other species from the Steller’s sea cow to the dodo, with no catastrophic or even measurable effects.’16
Maybe we can live without wild animals, maybe we can’t. But if the only reason we decide not to kill them all is that it will make water more expensive, then what does that say about us?
Spending time in nature is meant to be some magical cure for our environmental ambivalence. Kids aren’t spending enough time in nature: is it any wonder they don’t care whether the vaquita lives or dies? If they only walked to school through a wood or spent their weekends rockpooling we would have formed an unstoppable movement against the destruction of biodiversity (never mind that most of the destruction is happening thanks to an older generation who apparently wandered through woods and paddled in pools like there was no tomorrow).
‘It has been my impression’, writes two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and Harvard University professor emeritus Edward O. Wilson in his most recent book, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, ‘that those most uncaring and prone to be dismissive of the wildlands and the magnificent biodiversity these lands still shelter are quite often the same people who have had the least personal experience with either.’
I pre-ordered Half-life from Booktopia before its release date. It’s a hardback: not cheap. Still, I grabbed the nearest biro, circled that paragraph and scrawled bullshit next to it. People who have had extensive experience with wildlands—that is, the people who live in them, or on the edges of them because they’ve been booted out to make way for a national park—quite often do not give a Bolivian chinchilla rat’s arse about either the wildland or its biodiversity, sheltered or otherwise.
Some of the most rapid deforestation in the world is happening in sub-Saharan Africa. The people who live there are destroying the habitat of countless threatened species not because they waste their weekends in shopping malls and their evenings in front of Netflix rather than caving or birdwatching, but because they need cooking fuel and they need the work. They are uncaring because they don’t have a lot of other options and they are uncaring because they just don’t care. Why care about animals when there are a million other far more pressing things to care about?
Would we like them to care more? That would be great! In that case we’re going to need to get on with solving global inequality. We’re going to have to take some responsibility—and very quickly—for our role in keeping these people poor and disenfranchised. But that’s a lot more complicated than complaining that young people don’t get outdoors often enough.
Westerners have a distinct inclination to blame other people for the Earth’s environmental ills, so before you think I’m joining in with my comment on sub-Saharan Africans, let’s take a look at who else is knocking over habitat at breakneck speed. It’s the farmers of Australia, clearing native vegetation to feed or make way for more beef cattle. The price of beef has been strong—demand from China is on the rise—and marginal lands get more and more marginal. Why not clear a bit more useless scrub if it helps keep you in the black?
In 2011–12, 153,000 hectares of native forest was cleared in Queensland. In 2013–14 it was 296,000 hectares.17 Between 2012 and 2014, koalas lost 40,312 hectares of their habitat in Queensland to clearing.18 Habitat’s a funny word—we don’t seem to use it for human homes, only for the places where non-human animals live, and perhaps that makes it harder to empathise with the koalas whose habitat this is. If we talked about how many hectares of human habitat had been destroyed during the bombing of Aleppo, perhaps it would make the animals’ predicament more apparent. But then, we don’t seem to care that much about the loss of Syrian human habitat either.
Animals don’t know about extinction. It doesn’t distress them the way it does us. It’s hard to know if they’d even care, if they did know, that their species (arguably a group they don’t know really know they’re a part of) could one day stop existing. Would it feel any worse to them than knowing that if they ran time the other way, there is also a point where their species would not exist? All those billions of years without a single Iberian lynx. Infinity really—an infinite, lynxless past. Does that matter any less than an infinite lynxless future? Hard to say; particularly hard, if you’re an Iberian lynx.
Animals do care, though, about suffering. They don’t like it. They’d rather not. Given the choice between eating and not, having someone to have children with and not, having a safe place to live and not, they’ll go for the first in a big way. In that, they’re a lot like us. When you see a koala running across a road trying to escape a barking dog that wants to kill it because the place where it used to live has been bulldozed for a cul-de-sac and it has wandered into the dog’s back yard looking for somewhere to rest and recover, that koala is suffering. It’s thirsty and tired and very, very scared.19
And we do it to thousands and thousands of them every day—not just koalas, but pangolins, vultures, tigers and badgers—by our action and inaction, by the things we do deliberately and the things we do that are an unavoidable part of being a human in a capitalist world in the twenty-first century.
There are things we could do to put the brakes on this carnage. The main thing would be to let non-human animals have half the Earth’s landmass just for them. We could still keep half. Considering we’re one species and they’re … well, no-one really knows, but, let’s say around 31,000 species, if you’re talking about vertebrates that live on land … 31,000 species, half for them and half for us seems if not fair, at least fairer than us having the 75 per cent we currently inhabit. (If we were to limit ourselves to one thirty-one-thousandth of the land mass of earth, we’d get Bali. Bali’s nice, but it might be crowded.)
Scientists and environmental groups have put forward proposals for how this might be done—which parts of the Earth could be restored to habitat, and how and when—the ecology of it all. Tris Allison from BirdLife International says, ‘We could easily feed the world’s population and leave room for birds and other wildlife if we were more sensible and reduced our food waste and pesticide use and put the right crops in the right areas. They are big challenges but there are successful systems that marry wildlife conservation and productive landscapes for people.’20
The question is, how would we get humans to agree this is a good idea? Last year in the London Review of Books, Benjamin Kunkel looked at capitalism and the Anthropocene epoch, and at the hopeful solutions to our problems put forward by eco-Marxists, and concluded that no-one really seems to know how we might fix the mess we’ve made. He wrote:
The discussion or discourse of the Anthropocene often promotes a new universal subject: not the class-conscious international proletariat, but a species-conscious planetary humanity. This is a nice idea amid a runaway ecological crisis with no deliberate agent behind it; even corporate directors and high officials can sincerely protest that they may do nothing beyond what shareholders or voters will accept. But no collective actor can be conjured from a name, and the literature of the Anthropocene so far fails to identify any historical process that might combine with moral exhortation to produce a borderless social movement in which human beings throughout the world effect their ecological solidarity as a political force.21
Even getting the subject of how we might reduce our footprint to half the Earth’s landmass on the table seems like an impossible task. Coming up with a solution to it? I wish I knew. •
Jane Rawson writes novels, novellas, stories and nonfiction, mostly about the environment. Her latest novel, From the Wreck, was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award.
- See <http://vaclavsmil.com/wp-content/uploads/PDR37-4.Smil_.pgs613-636.pdf>
- See <https://www.ecowatch.com/enjoy-seafood-while-you-can-commercial-fisheries-likely-to-collapse-by-1881980523.html>.
- See <https://www.pmel.noaa.gov/co2/story/What+is+Ocean+Acidification%3F>.
- See <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2017/jun/26/new-study-confirms-the-oceans-are-warming-rapidly>.
- See <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/mar/12/microplastic-pollution-in-oceans-is-far-greater-than-thought-say-scientists>.
- See <http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/all_publications/lpr_2016/>.
- See <https://theconversation.com/half-the-worlds-ecosystems-at-risk-from-habitat-loss-and-australia-is-one-of-the-worst-64663>.
- See <https://www.nature.com/news/biodiversity-the-ravages-of-guns-nets-and-bulldozers-1.20381>
- See <http://www.publish.csiro.au/MU/MU09109>.
- See <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/apr/23/one-in-eight-birds-is-threatened-with-extinction-global-study-finds?>.
- See <https://theconversation.com/globalisations-dark-side-how-shoppers-consume-threatened-species-6824>.
- See <http://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.2003997>.
- See <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YbXRA9TYFyU>.
- See <http://www.awf.org/wildlife-conservation/cheetah>.
- See <https://www.quarterlyessay.com.au/essay/2012/11/after-the-future>.
- See <https://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/journal/past-issues/issue-2/conservation-in-the-anthropocene>.
- See <https://publications.qld.gov.au/dataset/assessments-of-carbon-farming-benefits/resource/589c20a6-c547-480b-83e0-7be20085a075>.
- See <http://www.wwf.org.au/?15660/More-than-40000-hectares-of-koala-habitat-cleared#gs.PN=Vdd0>.
- See <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-05-07/rspca-and-wildlife-carers-struggling-with-influx-of-animals/9702558>.
- See <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/apr/23/one-in-eight-birds-is-threatened-with-extinction-global-study-finds>
- See <https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n05/benjamin-kunkel/the-capitalocene>
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