Where The Wild Things Were is Where Humans Are Now

    By João L.R. Abegão | 17 September 2019
    Overpopulation Atlas

    A coyote looks out from one of the many hilly parks overlooking San Francisco. (Courtesy of Janet Kessler. COYOTEYIPPS.COM)

    (The full paper published in the Journal of Human Ecology – Springer is available for free here or here.)

    I’ll be honest. I have a very unusual hobby. Whenever I have the chance, I like to attend conferences, seminars or other scientific gatherings of minds in all sorts of areas of knowledge. Not just by being “passionately curious” as Albert Einstein said, but also because I revel in agitating the conventional flow of these meetings by merely asking questions. The one question that I have been regularly asking, especially where the orators and audience ought to be aware of our environmental and existential quandary is:

    “What are your reasons to remain optimistic?”

    Although it is a seemingly simple question, it is enough to give pause even to the most idealistic and assured of speakers. Even so, the self-defence mechanism soon kicks-in and their reactions flood the auditoriums:

    Millions lifted out of poverty;

    Longer average lifespans;

    – Humans are “safer, healthier, freer and happier than in any other point in history” (Pinker, 2018);

    – The transition to sources of renewable energy;

    – Food production outpaced population growth;

    Fleets of electric vehicles;

    Aquaculture and other prospects for ending famine;

    – Autonomous vehicles saving hundreds of thousands of lives;

    – Vacines, genetically engineered solutions and the eradication of diseases;

    Smart cities;

    – Awareness of plastic pollution and consequent bans;

    Environmental Activism and Youth Movements;

    – The Fourth Industrial Revolution (AI creating more jobs than the rate of displacement or even the end of work);

    – A new Space Age and asteroid mining;

    [For examples of enthusiastic romanticizing of the future check here, here or here.]

    All of these concepts, ideas, trends and forecasts are indeed wonderful in the lens of improving the human condition. It is unquestionably hard to argue with Steven Pinker’s line of reasoning that if a human could choose a time to be alive he or she should consider the late 20th century and the 21st century. If you’re a human, “honestly, this is the best time to be alive,” as Tony Allen-Mills writes.

    But therein lies the rub. For all the human development, progress and advancement that have enabled this golden age to take shape, something else had to give. That something is the living planet we all inhabit as well as the non-human species with which we ought to share this Earth, but are instead driving out (euphemism for large-scale ecocide). Where The Wild Things Were is Where Humans Are Now: An Overview is a small attempt to describe that atrocity.

    The massive outbreak in the growth of humans roaming this planet has not been without consequences to the natural world. Through our immense dispersion and consumption of natural resources, Homo sapiens has been absorbing the material bedrock necessary for their survival.

    Indeed, our biophysical reality is remarkably straightforward. The 7.6 billion (plus the roughly 80 million added annually) request some proportion of manufactured ‘capital.’ This includes homes, infrastructures, personal vehicles, technology, furniture, toys, clothing, on top of other essentials such as food, water and energy. Consequently, the enlargement of the human population (and its economic output) demand a continuous and increasing withdrawal of energy and materials from the natural world, leading to an unsustainable breaching of carrying capacities, which in turn have produced the scenario of overshoot we already find ourselves in.

    The current unsustainability crisis requires us to pose the question of not just how to find a way of feeding 10 billion humans in roughly three decades, but also how can we possibly do it without destroying the natural world in the process. As the report Creating a Sustainable Food Future, published by the World Resources Institute (WRI) forewarns:

    “If today’s levels of production efficiency were to remain constant through 2050, then feeding the planet would entail clearing most of the world’s remaining forests, wiping out thousands more species, and releasing enough GHG emissions to exceed the 1.5ºC and 2ºC warming targets enshrined in the Paris Agreement – even if emissions from all other human activities were entirely eliminated.”

    Undeniably, providing for the essential nourishment as well as the redundant cravings of billions has induced the death of many animal and plant populations, wiped out species and subspecies, precipitated collapsing ecologies, disseminated bio-homogeneity, as well as the overthrowing of wild places. The seizure of the natural world to serve a human scheme materializes in the reduction of ocean life to food and bycatch; rainforests destroyed for meat, soybeans, palm oil, and timber; boreal and temperate forests overthrown for their wood, pulp, and energy resources, mountains and underground shale fulminated for coal and natural gas; deep-sea floors punctured for oil and suppressed of life by deep-water fishing; grasslands overgrazed or converted into strictly human breadbaskets and freshwater bodies funnelled, dumped in, overfished and fragmented.

    In light of this, worldwide, animals are being killed at an unprecedented pace, either expelled or killed for their meat and lucrative body parts, revealing exceptionally rapid losses of biodiversity, above the “background extinction rate,” and of course, where natural areas and nonhuman beings do not ebb directly, they take indirect hits from anthropogenic climate change and pollution, which are aggravated by human population growth.

    Given the increasing evidence of damage towards the natural world, one should give some thought to what world we will be inhabiting in three decades when it is projected to contain over two billion additional human passengers. Such a rapid population growth in conjunction with rising affluence will translate into roughly 50 percent more global food demand, while the requisition for animal-based foods such as meat and dairy products is contemplated to soar by 70 percent.

    The need to feed the 3.2 billion (and rising) that depend on fish reserves for their sources of protein is leading to the collapse of fisheries worldwide, with fish-stocks along the Asia-Pacific coastlines predicted to be unable to provide for the dietary needs of the world’s most populous region, circa 2048. Explicitly, commercial fishing now covers a higher surface (>55 percent of the ocean) area than agriculture (four times as large). Besides, merely five countries are responsible for 85 percent of all commercial fishing measured by million hours at sea, for which China is accountable for half of all hours, thus raising some vital questions to the current health of the oceans in the face of an overwhelming need to feed more people with more purchasing capacity.

    So how can we effectively cease our assault on the biosphere, when the dietary needs of one growing species, are responsible for such unprecedented demands on the living systems of the planet?

    But even if all of humanity were to maintain levels of consumption of resources on par with just sustenance and survival (current numbers would still imply profound ecological damage), human beings seek to satiate not only their indispensable needs but also to indulge in other gratuitous wants, to maximize comfort and well-being. As the population ethicist Karin Kulhemann impeccably affirms:

    “All human beings engage in at least subsistence level consumption, and virtually all either already consume more than required for survival or would if given the opportunity.”

    This has led to the formation of two critical problems that define our day and age. The first one is the egregious issue of wealth inequality, marked by the fact that 26 individuals own as much as the poorest 3.8 billion people. Fortunately, this one is and ought to be solved by an adequate distribution or taxing of extreme wealth. The other one is not really a problem as much as it is an impasse. By increasing the purchasing power of the whole of humanity, one would improve the lives of many but also expedite all of our existing environmental problems (a previous blog The Triad of Furies approaches this topic in more detail).

    Although the focus of media attention has centred on the few individuals that control an outrageous chunk of wealth and their resultant impacts on the environment, one has to wonder if the sudden rise of the global middle-class (roughly 3.7 billion, growing by 160 million/year) isn’t it more problematic for our efforts of attaining sustainability, given that all these people will want to move to bigger and more energy costly habitations; own personal vehicles; eat higher in the food-chain; travel abroad; acquire technology and other forms of manufactured capital. Additionally, they will strive to emulate the behaviours of those located higher in the wealth hierarchy, aggravating an already precarious situation.

    Numbers matter, be it in the unfortunate concentration of wealth in a small number of privileged individuals or the rapid expansion of affluence of the rest of humanity. After all, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffet (who hold roughly the same as the bottom half of Americans) don’t have the same resultant burdens on the planet as more than 160 million Americans, since there are physical limitations to what one human can consume and do during his or her lifetime. In other words, even if Mr. Bezos were to continually travel around the world in a private plane and eat at the top of the food chain, it is conceivable to argue that at the same time hundreds of thousands of individuals engaging in the same behaviours would far surpass the impacts of the billionaire. The bottom line is, both the creation of more opulent individuals and the surge in global purchasing power should concern those worried about the state of the planet and our most-likely bumpy ride in the coming decades.

    Expropriation

    The circumstances surrounding non-human life are ones of acute loss. This is epitomized by the knowledge that since the dawn of civilization, humanity has caused the loss of 83 percent of all wild mammals, with its current biomass numbering a mere 4 percent, while humans occupy 36 percent and livestock an alarming 60 percent. To make matters worse, this bio-homogeneity and the competitive displacement of species is further connected to livestock. By being not just the largest source of global habitat loss, livestock is also likely the most momentous explanation for the decline of populations of large carnivores, as well as the dramatic range contraction of large wild herbivores, such that ± 60 percent are imperilled by extinction, due to not just resource depression by livestock, but also hunting and land-use changes.

    Equally important, the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species now encompasses 93,577 species, of which, 26,197 are considered threatened with extinction. Wildlife copiousness on the planet has diminished by as much as 60 percent between 1970 and 2016, with the biomass of insect populations having plummeted by three-quarters over the previous 27 years, in Germany’s protected areas (PAs). Coupled with the forceful demise of insects, ripples have begun to reverberate across the ecosystems and their trophic cascades, with the first indirect victim being insect-eating birds and reptiles. As a result of the drop in the abundance of these species, food webs are being effectively reshuffled.

    Humanity has also plundered most of the pristine parts of the world’s oceans, with roughly 13 percent left unclaimed by shipping, mining and commercial fishing. Earth’s land surface has also been almost thoroughly utilized, with estimates pointing to 50 to 70 percent currently modified for human activities. Other sources of literature point to less conservative assessments, predicting 75 percent or even 95 percent.

    Marine protected areas (MPAs), specifically European ones, have also revealed elevated trawling (one of the most damaging types of fishing) with activity almost 40 percent higher inside MPAs than in unprotected areas. Moreover, these areas have been shown to fail to protect endangered and critically endangered fish species; explicitly, sharks and rays were five times more abundant outside of the MPAs. For one thing, populations of marine vertebrates, especially predators, have dwindled by 50 to 95 percent in most oceanic regions, with the dying out of ocean megafauna reaching monumental casualties, in the order of 66-99 percent for whale densities.

    Another criterion that attests the degree to which Homo sapiens is confiscating the natural world is the human appropriation of net primary production (HANPP). Net primary production is the annual growth of all plant matter. It is the plant kingdom’s annual output, with empirical evidence increasingly establishing that HANPP is a major indicator of human pressures on ecosystems with potential detrimental repercussions on wildlife.

    HANPP is what is amassed by people for our consumption, plus the share of natural production absent due to environmental degradation. Another portion of HANPP is from human development that replaces living vegetation with pavement and buildings. In effect, the share of NPP seized by humans becomes unavailable to wildlife, which must then subsist on less. Given an expanding number of omnivorous human consumers with growing appetites, the organic subsistence for millions of creatures that inhabit the biosphere with us will increasingly be claimed by humanity.

    To demonstrate, at the onset of the Common Era (Year 0), humans were harvesting a moderate 0.2 percent, with present estimates pointing to a 17 to a 25 percent of NPP used up or applied by humans. Also, this measurement is projected to reach 44 percent by 2050, to provide for the global increases in population, consumption and gross domestic product.

    Notably, the full range of human tempering of habitats has been reflected in the fact that, in the Americas, more than 95 percent of high-grass prairies have been converted into farms, along with 72 percent of dry forests and 88 percent of the Atlantic forests. Populations of species in any given area are estimated to have decreased in an average of 31 percent ever since Europeans landed on the continent, and that number is only expected to increase in the next decade to 40 percent. Wetland ecosystems are among the most damaged, with nearly a 50 percent loss since 1900 with a global reduction of 87 percent in the last 300 years. Similarly, the destruction of wetlands progresses in Southeast Asia and the Congo region, mainly to plant palm trees to extract the oil, attesting to the root of the problem, which is the acceleration in the demand of nonessential products containing such oils, and not the palm trees themselves.

    Identically, the extent of renewable freshwater available per capita has decreased 50 percent since the 1960s, which is bad news for humanity and even worse for the maintenance of ecosystems, with less water being left out for wildlife. Moreover, it is indisputable that rivers and saline lakes across the globe are shrinking.

    The surge in water use by humans, especially for agricultural irrigation, is a substantial factor in the resultant insufficiency. For example, agricultural development in the Aral Sea watershed has depleted lake area by 74 percent and volume by 90 percent. Lake Urmia has gone through a coinciding fate as have many saline lakes on all continents except Antarctica. It is also important to realize that humans aren’t the only ones dependent on the health of these water systems since these render higher yields of food production for fish and are unique ecosystems for plants and animals.

    Scorched-Earth

    At least since Malthus, it has been maintained that more sizable populations increase a country’s risk of sustaining civil conflict, through a contraction in per capita output of agricultural goods due to a fixed supply of fertile land. Malthus claimed that amid population-induced resource scarcity a ‘struggle for existence’ ensues. Inevitably, during this struggle, the world of humankind violently collides with the natural world, leading to accelerated wildlife losses and an escalation in illegal activities, such as poaching, deforestation and resource-extraction activities.

    With the human population set to reach roughly 10 billion by 2050, and the global economic output to continue to grow, scarcity of renewable resources may pointedly increase. As a result of these trends, the area of highly productive agricultural land will fall, bodies of water and aquifers will suffer depletion and degradation, the extent of forests and the abundance of species they nurse will be further contracted by human demand, which will eventually prompt more conflict due to its monopolization, affecting wildlife in the process.

    Indeed, over the past 70 years, humans have, repeatedly, waged war in the world’s most biodiverse regions, and dragged in wildlife into conflicts, during extraction of high-value natural resources, such as opium, diamonds, oil, natural gas, gold, uranium, coltan, gems and minerals, and many more. Between 1950 and 2000, more than 80 percent of wars overlapped with biodiversity hotspots. Collier and Hoeffler (2004) and Fearon and Laitin (2003) found robust evidence that countries with larger population sizes to appear to be prone to a higher risk of intra-state war. Other empirical panel-data studies strengthen this assumption, finding similarly adverse effects of population size on civil conflict.

    Hegre and Sambanis (2006) assert that:

    “A large population and low per capita income increase the risk of civil war, and this is consistent with many studies of civil war.”

    Given this overlapping of warfare and wildlife hotspots, the on-going Anthropogenic ecocide might further escalate and jeopardize the world’s last remaining clusters of diverse large-mammal populations, which play essential roles in ecosystems and many local, regional, and national economies. Chiefly, the acknowledgement of these impacts of war has led to the creation of a subfield known as warfare ecology.

    Although case studies have revealed that conflict can have either positive or negative local impacts on wildlife, with some of the negative repercussions resulting directly from the use of artillery and chemicals, bushmeat hunting by soldiers, and transactions in ivory and other wildlife products to finance military activity, they can also emerge indirectly from the crippling of local institutions and the disruption of livelihoods and norms. On the other hand, war can also unwind pressure on wildlife when people avoid combat zones, are tactically disarmed, or when extractive industries operations subside.

    By all means, the uncertainty about the consequences of armed conflict on wildlife decline is perhaps most acute in Africa, where the high frequency, extent, and duration of disputes subverts governance and imperils the livelihoods of rapidly growing human populations and many large-mammal populations – including many vulnerable and endangered species that have declined sharply. According to Joshua Daskin’s research (2018):

    “As the frequency of conflict increases the performance of mammal population’s declines. At peaceful sites populations were near replacement, they were neither increasing nor decreasing, but with the onset of just a little bit of conflict the average population was declining.”

    Notably, recent findings have established that an escalation in the number of conflicts across the Sahara and the Sahel in Africa are provoking a crash of the region’s wildlife. The number of conflicts in the area have surged by 565 percent since 2011, and 12 species of vertebrates have either been eliminated or are much closer to the brink of extinction as a result of the rise in conflict. The authors explicitly affirm that:

    “Megafauna have been almost extirpated from the southern regions, where armed conflicted endured the longest and where the highest regional densities of roads and human populations are found.”

    Protected areas, national parks and wildlife reserves – with the biodiversity and habitats that they encompass – are also frequent victims of warfare and the proliferation of conflict. Due to their usual geographic isolation, they become regular targets for insurgents, becoming battlefields or suffering from a profound loss of habitat once the vegetation is cleared to acquire wood for energy and revenue, medicinal plants sacked, and the wildlife poached for its body parts or consumed for bushmeat.

    To emphasize, in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga National Park, tree loss has been highly correlated with the closure of the park due to civil conflict. In detail, the bloodshed has been highly associated with the recent deforestation in the park, demonstrating that violence and forest loss go hand-in-hand, with the rebel groups unlawfully profiting and capitalizing on the forest resources to fund operations.

    Comparatively, recent tree cover loss appears to be connected with charcoal production, with armed forces razing old-growth forests to produce and market the carbonized wood in local cities, since a staggering 97 percent of people living around Virunga National Park depend on charcoal for cooking fuel. Additionally, with the population quickly growing at an alarming rate, demand is only foreseen to expand. As an illustration, since 1990, the city of Goma, located at the southern tip of the reserve, has grown from 150,000 to more than 1 million people; in the meantime, the population of the DRC has doubled, from around 35 million to 86 million in early 2019.

    In essence, as the two worlds collide, the division of habitats generates a precarious situation for animals as well as humans. Animals considered to be an inconvenience risk being trapped or killed, imperilling the existence of many species that already have contracted geographical ranges and face vulnerable positions due to poaching, bushmeat hunting and the illegal wildlife trade. Human lives also face insecurity when these breach into the habitats of species such as elephants, tigers, bears, or other large species that sense a menace and attack to defend their territory or their young. One evident example of this conflict manifests itself in 94 percent of the world’s largest terrestrial carnivores being negatively impaired by either habitat loss or persecution due to conflict with humans.

    In the long run, the considerable growth of the human population will lead to further pressure on finite land resources and to the invasion of natural areas to acquire their valuable resources or expand the human range. In order to mitigate and stem the conflict that presently afflicts several nations, and which is predicted to increase as scarcity becomes an invariable and persistent condition, first on a global scale a reduction or elimination of the market of high-value natural resources should take place, so as to alleviate the necessity of people engaging in conflict over their monopolization. Secondly, countries should employ serious efforts into managing their populations, with the aim of stabilizing and eventually reducing their total human capital, so as to curb ‘Malthusian constraints,’ downsizing warfare and struggle, while providing wildlife with a ‘fighting’ chance.

    Sanctuary

    This section and the rest of the paper can be found in the published research Where The Wild Things Were is Where Humans Are Now: An Overview here or here.

    Thank you for your interest.

    Reprinted with permission from the author.

    João L.R. Abegão has a BA in Environmental Health and a Masters in Ecology and Environment. He is currently a PhD candidate at the Doctoral Program Climate Change and Policies for Sustainable Development at the University of Lisbon, Portugal.

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