From November, 2016

Counting every species population bar our own!


Two compelling, if deeply depressing, reports on the state of our natural world here in the UK and globally have been published over the last month: the UK State of Nature 2016 compiled from data on 8,000 UK wild fauna and flora provided by 50 UK nature conservation and research bodies; and the latest Living Planet Report, produced by WWF in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Global Footprint Network, which as its introduction states ‘synthesises the mountain of evidence showing the Earth system is under increasing threat’.

Both follow on from earlier versions, the State of Nature 2013 and previous Living Planet reports produced biannually since 1998.  The current State of Nature report confirms its predecessor’s statistic of a c. 60% overall decline in UK native species over the past 40 years – but adds the new measure of ‘Biodiversity Intactness Index’ (BII). This indicates whether a country’s biodiversity has fallen below a ‘planetary boundary’ (defined as the threshold beneath which ‘ecosystems may no longer reliably meet society’s needs’). Out of the 218 countries across the world using this measure, the UK’s BII ranks at the 29th lowest – or as the authors  put it with rare, uncharacteristic, bluntness,

‘we (the UK) are among the most nature-depleted countries in the world’.


The Great Acceleration

Similarly, the latest Living Planet report records a 58% decline in 3,706 vertebrate species monitored from some 14,000 separate populations across the globe over six decades. A decline it attributes to, ‘the exponential increase in human pressure over the last 60 years – the so-called ‘Great Acceleration’. By which the authors are referring to the alarming acceleration in the rate of extinction of or near threat of extinction of large swathes of the other creatures and biomass with which we ‘share’ this planet. A rate calculated to be running at 100-1000 extinctions over a period of 100 years currently, much higher than the ‘natural’ background level for our planet.

The opening introduction by Johan Rockstrom of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, describes the defining concept for this latest report being that our planet has entered (some would say is well along the path of) a new ‘Anthropocene Era’. One in which, rather than the previous Eras marked by geological influences over millennia, the presence and activities of a single species, Homo sapiens, is changing the Earth’s environment and capacity to sustain life on a global level and within a generation. The defining feature of that defining concept, sharing the dishonour of wiping out millions of unique life-forms along with asteroid strikes, super-volcano eruptions or ice-ages is that human ‘activity’, ‘pressure’ and ‘enterprise’ is driving a ‘6th mass extinction’ of our planet’s biodiversity.

Don’t mention the ‘P’ word – at least when talking about us!

Note the use of the qualifying descriptors. Throughout both the State of Nature and Living Planet the word ‘population’ is used extensively – when attached to consideration of every species other than our own. Monitoring the population levels of all those species diligently recorded over decades for the UK and globally is obviously central to establishing their general decline – or in a handful of cases, moderate increases (generally iconic species brought back from the brink of extinction through the expenditure of vast amounts of money and conservation effort): Red Kite; Cranes; European Lynx; possibly the Tiger). But when it comes to considering the impacts that our own species has on other species populations, the lens becomes opaque. Neither report mentions human population as an issue per se – instead using those distancing phrases ‘human activity’, ‘human consumption’, ‘human footprint’, ‘human pressure’, ‘human enterprise’- as if none of those are caused or amplified by the sheer number of our species upon the planet.  Five categories of ‘Threats’ to the number and range of wild species are listed: ‘Habitat loss and degradation’, ‘Species overexploitation’, ‘Pollution’, ‘Invasive species and disease’, ‘Climate change’. Again none of these are framed directly as resulting from greater numbers of people demanding more from our planet.

The State of Nature Report uses the words population and populations about 100 times, but only in 5 instances linked to the human species. For the Living Planet report there are around 170 instances of the ‘p’ words, but only on 4 occasions associated with humans. To be fair, the Living Planet authors do posit, although almost as an aside, the obvious conclusion that, ‘If current trends continue, unsustainable consumption and production will likely expand along with human population and economic growth.’  It would be hard to find a more hesitant citation of the equation: ‘I=PxAxT’, first formulated by ecologists Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren in the 1970s, which combines the key factors determining the impacts of modern human beings upon our habitat. Where ‘I’, being the Impact on our planet and its ecosystems, is influenced by the interaction of Population numbers (P), Affluence (A), and effects of Technology (T) – both positive and negative.

More Feet, Heavier Footprint

It is absolutely correct and equitable to consider the relative consumption levels of different countries in the world as does the Global Footprint Network.  The available global footprint for everyone on Earth, if resources were distributed evenly has been calculated at being 1.7 global hectares (gha) per person – but resources are not fairly allocated, instead following or being appropriated by those with most money and power.  So no surprises that the US, Australia, parts of Europe, Scandinavia and the Gulf States consume up to six times their fair share, at 5-7 gha per citizen; whereas the majority of people in Africa and Asia have access to less than that 1.7 gha ‘fair share’. Clearly the most affluent countries need to curb the rampant consumerism upon which their dominant model of economic development is based and reduce the disproportionate global resource grab of their citizens, but that should not preclude any mention or assessment of the impact of the growing numbers of feet.  Each US or European newborn will suck harder on the Earth’s teats than their counterparts in Asia or Africa – a child in the UK will be responsible for 35 times the carbon emissions of a baby born in Bangladesh and over 160 times more than one born in Ethiopia. Yet despite the average per person global footprint in Africa decreasing over recent decades, because of the continent’s rapid population growth Africa’s overall global footprint has actually tripled since the 1960s.

A headline figure given in The Living Planet Report’s is that of a 56% decline in populations of monitored vertebrate species, confirming earlier estimates that the ‘total number of wild animals with backbones’ has fallen by more than half within one human generation. Yet one backboned animal has more than doubled in numbers over just 40 years, Homo sapiens. Along with our domesticated animals, chosen for their utility to us, humans have appropriated nearly 40% of the world’s total terrestrial productivity and are ‘heavily affecting’ the remaining 60%(See Vaclav Smil, Harvesting the Biosphere).

Population – the ‘Silencing Discourses’

Conservationists, especially white, middle-aged, male conservationists from developed countries (David Attenborough being a notable exception) have been and still are very reluctant to use or place the words ‘human’ and ‘population’ in any close proximity – with some justification, given horrific human rights abuses linked to some historic ‘family planning programmes’ and for fear of any rational discussion being misconstrued as racist or contaminated by lingering colonial attitudes. This reluctance to mention the ‘P’ word has been well-described by Professor Diana Coole in her paper, `Too Many Bodies? The Return and Disavowal of the Population Question  in which she identifies ‘Five categories of silencing discourse’ that forestall and dissuade any serious discussion about population per se.  These ‘silencing discourses’:  Population-Shaming; Population-Scepticism; Population-Declinism;  Population-Decomposing and Population-Fatalism are triggered whenever anyone dares voice any concerns about growing human numbers on the planet and their contribution to socio-ecological problems.  So well-rehearsed and accepted are these ‘silencing discourses’ that most conservationists self-censor before the reasonable notion that considering human population growth in parallel with excessive resource consumption by human society solidifies into the spoken or written word!

Unfortunately, such self-censorship appears to have been applied to the otherwise excellent State of Nature and Living Planet reports.