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“Simon Says” – Is growth the main conservation issue?

September 8, 2017

Dogfish © Wikipedia

(Above) A mountain of dogfish on a trawler

Concerned scientists

Recently I was sent an email from the Union of Concerned Scientists offering me the opportunity to sign a petition in the form of a declaration from scientists calling on humanity to curb environmental destruction.  I tend not to sign up to such petitions that have the risk of being either so bland and all-encompassing, or so depressing and negative that they do not gain the support they are seeking.  This declaration was a little different in that it spelt out in very general terms what the problems were, but also provided a raft of solutions.  As a result, though it wasn’t word perfect and rather US-centric, I signed up.  I was one of 7,000 scientists from 135 countries at the time.

Reasons for the lack of progress of humanity becoming more sustainable and less damaging to wildlife are of course well known and include: climate change, fossil fuels, deforestation, agricultural production, and over-consumption, but lying behind this was a common root cause – unceasing economic and population growth.  This has an impact from global systems to Dorset species.

Talking about growth

Too many people on this planet as a whole, and in particular areas, massively increase the pressure on the natural environment causing the damage and problems listed above.  Why then is this wildlife-impacting issue not talked about and more importantly, tackled?  I even wondered whether I should write this, but the impacts in Dorset alone are huge, so I took a chance and took finger to keyboard.

A recent paper in Science (Crist et. al 2017) lists a number of reasons for the lack of focus on this as a primary cause of biodiversity loss: lack of agreement on the scale of the risk; the desperate dependence on the need for continued economic growth which requires an ever-increasing workforce and productivity; increased food production hiding the problem; and concerns that anyone talking about limiting populations may be talking about either eugenics, limiting migration, or taking away human, in particular women’s, rights.  I believe though that we must look at the continued dependence on economic growth and the explosion in our population if we have a hope of reversing the loss of species and habitats, from Patagonia to Purbeck.  Even in comments from reviewers of this article I see this can be a minefield, because care must be taken not to blame developing country populations and economies for what we have been through, that many answers have in the past been deeply flawed especially by undermining human rights, and that misinterpretation of actions needed could lead to, at worst racist views, and at best an insular approach, for example in relation to immigration.  I attempt to confine myself to issues related to wildlife rather than to propose economic and demographic solutions here.  Surely though such issues should be raised even though we don’t have all the answers?

Wildlife and food production

It was thought that populations would be kept in check by limits to food production, but the green revolution has allowed continued expansion.  Sustainable intensification, i.e. the application of culture (in developed and developing countries) appropriate technology may prevent more land being converted to agriculture and limit chemicals used, thus protecting biodiversity.  In Britain and Dorset how will the pace of technological advance in agriculture protect wildlife post-Brexit?  If we are decreasing domestic food production to feed our increasing population, because subsidies decline, then are we just shifting our natural environment impacts abroad?  Ice-free land used for agriculture has reached 40% of the Earth’s surface area.  How much more can we lose?

Dorset housing

In Dorset, housing development is a serious issue as the UK population increased by 538,000 last year to 65.6 million.  Bournemouth and Poole alone require tens of thousands of new homes, yet are limited by sea, heathland and green belt amongst many other things. I live by the sea and as I walk along the cliffs at dusk and see the lights in houses and flats I roughly estimate around two-thirds are second homes and lived in for only a very few weeks per year.  It is not just the physical impact of new housing potentially displacing wildlife that is a concern, but also the impact of many more people on sensitive habitats such as heathlands and boats on sea grass beds.  As economic growth continues the increased demand for energy is also taking land away from food production and wildlife with solar farms and bio-fuel crops becoming more common in our countryside.

The growth-based economic system we currently have requires that an aging population needs younger workers to pay for the older people who have already made their contribution to society.  This forces governments into a cycle of encouraging fertility rate despite having less space to put people and less resources to feed and maintain them.  We need an approach to maintain and enhance the productive capacity of nature to supply us with the services that are vital for our survival, from pollinators to cereal crops and clean water.

Upton Heath walkers © Tony Bates

People walking on Upton Heath, Dorset © Tony Bates, MBE

Tackling the problem

That though leads us to another underlying reason why I believe this has not been tackled.  Improved education, more widespread contraception technology and better reproductive health services are then nature conservation issues, as are the drivers addicted to economic growth.  As a conservationist, I have no competence in these issues and am willing to bet the reverse is the case.  This needs to be solved holistically at a level way above individual silos of competence.  Often, I have facilitated workshops where groups of conservationists are planning how to address conservation challenges.  Often an underlying cause of the challenge to wildlife is some element of economic growth or over-population, e.g. housing and infrastructure development, intensive food production, over-fishing, or visitor disturbance to name just a few.  We always put growth in the ‘too hard’ box and leave it to someone else.  But who?  Also, economic growth in some countries can help population growth rates to fall, but then there needs to be a return to sustainability.

A colleague I gave a draft of this blog to disagreed with most of what I have written here.  His view is that it is how we live rather than how many of us there are, and that sharing wealth around the globe is the best way to reduce family size and defuse the population time-bomb.  Another colleague was worried that this issue would cause readers to draw arrogant or inappropriate conclusions about population control.  That is not my intention with this short, simple article purely aimed at raising the difficult issue of growth impacting biodiversity.  What do you think?  Please send in your thoughts to our Facebook page or Twitter.  These are though only my personal thoughts, not the policy of DWT.

I believe that Dorset, the UK and the world need to develop and implement ways to decrease our economic reliance on growth which in the long run must be unsustainable.  The study of economics and population growth is huge and complex so I don’t have the answers, but evidence does point to growth as a major driver of biodiversity loss.

Further reading

Crist, E., Mora, C. & Engelman, R. (2017). The interaction of human population, food production, and biodiversity protection. Science 356, (6355), 260-264.

Simon Cripps, DWT Chief Executive

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