In a sane world, it would be headline news. Everything else would immediately come to a screeching halt to make way for a massive, worldwide attempt to turn things around. (Of course, in a sane world, the whole thing would never have happened in the first place!)
In our insane world, however, the news from the World Wildlife Fund telling us that in the last 40 years we’ve killed off roughly half the world’s wildlife went by largely unnoticed.
How could such a thing have happened?
Very simply, we’ve hunted and fished the animals to death; we’ve destroyed their homes on land and at sea; and with half their numbers already gone and human population still ballooning, what will be left 20 years from now?
By 2010, as we laid waste to the land and the oceans, killing the animals indiscriminately for food and fun, we’d ended up with 52 percent fewer mammals, fish, birds, reptiles and amphibians than were on Earth in 1970. (And it may even be a lot worse, since the report from WWF only covers vertebrate animals.)
According to the Living Planet Report 2014:
… Habitat loss and degradation, and exploitation through hunting and fishing, are the primary causes of decline. Climate change is the next most common primary threat, and is likely to put more pressure on populations in the future.
The loss of habitat to make way for human land use – particularly for agriculture, urban development and energy production – continues to be a major threat, compounded by hunting.
(The report was produced by WWF in partnership with the Zoological Society of London, the Global Footprint Network, and the Water Footprint Network.)
The most dramatic decline is in Latin America, where wildlife numbers have plummeted by 83 percent as we continue to lay waste to the great tropical forests and replace them with thin crops of grass and weeds to graze cattle in order to satisfy our endless appetite for more meat.
The situation for freshwater fish is even worse: Their numbers worldwide have collapsed by up to 76 percent.
With half the 1970 population of animals already gone, expect the remaining half to be gone within less than another 20 years.We’re cutting down trees faster than they can regrow, catching fish faster than they can be born, pumping water from rivers and aquifers faster than they can refill, and spewing more greenhouse gases than the oceans and forests can absorb.
For the record, China is now the leading drain on what nature can produce, accounting for nearly 20 percent of overall human demand, with the U.S. coming in second at 13.7 percent.
The report urges us to turn things around this coming year before it’s too late. But in a world where human population is still exploding and on target to swell by another 2.4 billion people by 2050, it’s already too late. We’ve crossed yet another terrible tipping point. So, expect the situation to go from bad to worse as we continue to pursue our insane need for ever more “progress” and ever more “growth”.
And with half the 1970 population of animals in the wild already gone, expect the remaining half to be gone in less than another 20 years.
All in all, it’s just more of the unfolding of the Sixth Extinction as we lay waste to life on this planet while distracting ourselves with what is, by comparison, sheer trivia.
In an attempt to capture our attention by appealing to our self-interest, the authors of this latest report point out how marine ecosystems support more than 660 million jobs, and how 2 billion people rely on forests for shelter and food. (Isn’t it always still about us!)
As World Wildlife Fund U.S. President Carter Roberts explains it:
“As we lose natural capital, people lose the ability to feed themselves and to provide for their families – it increases instability exponentially. When that happens, it ceases to be a local problem and becomes a global one.”
Kudos to WWF for doing what it can, but in the final analysis this explanation is itself part of the problem. We perpetuate the cause of the situation by calling our fellow animals “natural capital” and treating them as though they exist simply to provide food and “jobs” for humans and therefore need to be killed in a “sustainable” way.
That’s the kind of thinking that’s led us into this mess. Animals aren’t “natural capital”; they’re living beings in their own right. And when we see them simply as “resources”, we’ve already lost touch with reality.
So, how can it be that a supposedly super-intelligent species has ended up on track to destroy all life on the planet and shows no sign of giving up until there’s nothing left for us to eat except each other?
And how can it be that on the day that this mind-blowing report was published, it went largely ignored in the major media in favor of stories about White House security being breached by a crazy person, and George Clooney’s honeymoon? Sure, these daily news events seem important in the short run, but what will any of it matter when there’s there’s nothing and no one left?
Neuroscientist Dr. Lori Marino of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy explains that we’re not psychologically equipped to comprehend the enormity of the situation we now face:
Our evolutionary psychology is at the center of how we react to things. We “get” things like the beheadings because they’re up close and personal. Our brains evolved to react to threats that are right in our face – like Ebola in Dallas, beheadings in Iraq or, in our earlier days, being chased by lions. But we’re not equipped to comprehend threats that are further away and that we can’t directly see or feel. Nor are we able to comprehend processes that occur over stretches of time longer than a few years, such as climate change.
“We’re not equipped to comprehend threats that are further away and that we can’t directly see or feel.”Unless our homes are actually being flooded, we look out of the window and everything seems fine. We can’t fathom the horror of what’s happening because we’re simply not cognitively equipped to perceive it.
Despite our technical and mathematical brilliance, we are a very limited species in terms of our ability to perceive situations that are not immediate and right in front of us. Yet, ironically, our technological abilities allow us to create situations outside of our perceptual, and therefore emotional, sphere.
In other words, we can appreciate a shiny new iPhone, but we can’t appreciate the terrible damage that’s gone into producing it. We don’t get it, and unfortunately for ourselves and all the other animals, we never will.
Sure, a few of us do get it – at least as best we can. And if you’re reading this, you’re probably one of those. But most people will never get it. And that’s the tragedy of our species.
Our epitaph might read:
“We were a precocious species with great potential. But we grew up too fast for our own good. In our adolescent way, we were so self-absorbed that we couldn’t even see the giant hole we were digging for ourselves and all the animals we’d grown up with.
“Until it was too late.”
It’s unlikely that we’re going to be able to switch into reverse gear and mount an all-in global effort to tip everything back to the “before” side of this particular tipping point.
But that shouldn’t stop us from doing all we can to relieve the suffering that’s being visited on all our fellow animals and the whole natural world.