There is a box labeled “climate,” in which politicians discuss the climate crisis. There is a box named “biodiversity,” in which they discuss the biodiversity crisis. There are other boxes, such as pollution, deforestation, overfishing and soil loss, gathering dust in the planet’s lost property department, but they all contain aspects of one crisis that people have divided up to make it comprehensible.
The categories the human brain create to make sense of its surroundings are not, as German philosopher Immanuel Kant observed, the “thing-in-itself.” They describe artifacts of perceptions rather than the world.
Nature recognizes no such divisions. As Earth’x systems are assaulted by everything at once, each source of stress compounds the others.
Illustration: Constance Chou
Take the situation of the North Atlantic right whale , whose population recovered a little when whaling ceased, but is now slumping again: Fewer than 95 females of breeding age remain.
The immediate reasons for this decline are mostly deaths and injuries caused when whales are hit by ships or tangled in fishing gear, but they have become more vulnerable to these effects because they have had to shift along the eastern seaboard of North America into busy waters.
Their main prey, a small swimming crustacean called Calanus finmarchicus, is moving north at a rate of 8km a year, because the sea is heating. At the same time, a commercial fishing industry has developed, exploiting Calanus for fish oil supplements falsely believed to be beneficial to a person’s health. There has been no attempt to assess the likely effects of fishing Calanus.
No one has any idea what the effect of ocean acidification — also caused by rising carbon dioxide levels — might be on this and many other crucial species.
As the death rate of North Atlantic right whales rises, their birthrate falls. Why? Perhaps because of the pollutants accumulating in their bodies, some of which are likely to reduce fertility, or because of ocean noise from boat engines, sonar, and oil and gas exploration, which could place stress on them and disrupt their communication.
So you could call the decline of the North Atlantic right whale a shipping crisis, or a fishing crisis, or a climate crisis, or an acidification crisis, or a pollution crisis or a noise crisis, but it is all of these things: a general crisis caused by human activity.
Look at moths in the UK. It is known they are being harmed by pesticides, but the effect of these toxins on moths has been researched, as far as I can discover, only individually.
Studies of bees show that when pesticides are combined, their effects are synergistic: In other words, the damage they each cause is not added, but multiplied. When pesticides are combined with fungicides and herbicides, the effects are multiplied again .
Simultaneously, moth caterpillars are losing their food, thanks to fertilizers and habitat destruction. Climate chaos has also knocked their reproductive cycle out of sync with the opening of the flowers on which the adults depend.
It has been discovered that light pollution has devastating effects on their breeding success. The switch from orange sodium streetlights to white LEDs saves energy, but their wider color spectrum turns out to be disastrous for insects. Light pollution is spreading rapidly, even around protected areas, affecting animals almost everywhere.
Combined effects are laying waste to entire living systems. When coral reefs are weakened by the fishing industry, pollution and the bleaching caused by global heating, they are less able to withstand extreme climate events such as tropical cyclones, which fossil fuel emissions have also intensified.
When rainforests are fragmented by timber cutting and cattle ranching, and ravaged by imported tree diseases, they become more vulnerable to the droughts and fires caused by climate breakdown.
What would people see if they broke down our conceptual barriers? They would see a full-spectrum assault on the living world. Scarcely anywhere is safe from this sustained assault.
A scientific paper estimated that only 3 percent of the Earth’s land surface should now be considered “ecologically intact.”
The various effects have a common cause: the sheer volume of economic activity. People are doing too much of almost everything, and the world’s living systems cannot bear it. Failure to see the whole ensures that this crisis is not addressed systemically and effectively.
When this predicament is boxed up, efforts to solve one aspect of the crisis exacerbate another.
For example, if sufficient direct air capture machines were to be built to make a major difference to atmospheric carbon concentrations, it would demand a massive new wave of mining and processing for steel and concrete.
The effect of such construction pulses travels around the world. To take just one component, the mining of sand to make concrete is trashing hundreds of precious habitats. It is especially devastating to rivers, the sand of which is highly sought in construction.
Rivers are already being hit by drought, the disappearance of mountain ice and snow, the extraction of water, and pollution from farming, sewage and industry. Sand dredging, on top of these assaults, could be a final, fatal blow.
Look at the materials required for the electronics revolution that is, apparently, meant to prevent a climate breakdown. Already, mining and processing the minerals required for magnets and batteries is laying waste to habitats and causing new pollution crises.
As Jonathan Watts’ terrifying article “Race to the bottom: the disastrous, blindfolded rush to mine the deep sea” in the Guardian showed on Monday, companies are using the climate crisis as justification for extracting minerals from the deep ocean floor, long before anyone has any idea of what the consequences might be.
This is not in itself an argument against direct air capture machines or other “green” technologies.
However, if they have to keep pace with an ever-growing volume of economic activity, and if the growth of this activity is justified by the existence of those machines, the net result will be ever greater harm to the living world.
Everywhere, governments seek to ramp up the economic load, talking of “unleashing our potential” and “supercharging our economy.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that “a global recovery from the [COVID-19] pandemic must be rooted in green growth.”
Yet there is no such thing as green growth. Growth is wiping the green from the Earth.
There is no hope of emerging from this full-spectrum crisis unless economic activity is dramatically reduced. Wealth must be distributed — a constrained world cannot afford the rich — but it must also be reduced.
Sustaining our life-support systems means doing less of almost everything, but this notion — that should be central to a new, environmental ethics — is secular blasphemy.
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