Humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970, leading the world’s foremost experts to warn that the annihilation of wildlife is now an emergency that threatens civilisation.
The new estimate of the massacre of wildlife is made in a major report produced by WWF and involving 59 scientists from across the globe. It finds that the vast and growing consumption of food and resources by the global population is destroying the web of life, billions of years in the making, upon which human society ultimately depends for clean air, water and everything else.
“We are sleepwalking towards the edge of a cliff” said Mike Barrett, executive director of science and conservation at WWF. “If there was a 60% decline in the human population, that would be equivalent to emptying North America, South America, Africa, Europe, China and Oceania. That is the scale of what we have done.”
“This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is,” he said. “This is actually now jeopardising the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.”
“We are rapidly running out of time,” said Prof Johan Rockström, a global sustainability expert at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. “Only by addressing both ecosystems and climate do we stand a chance of safeguarding a stable planet for humanity’s future on Earth.”
The Living Planet Index, produced for WWF by the Zoological Society of London, uses data on 16,704 populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians, representing more than 4,000 species, to track the decline of wildlife. Between 1970 and 2014, the latest data available, populations fell by an average of 60%. Four years ago, the decline was 52%. The “shocking truth”, said Barrett, is that the wildlife crash is continuing unabated.
Wildlife and the ecosystems are vital to human life, said Prof Bob Watson, one of the world’s most eminent environmental scientists and currently chair of an intergovernmental panel on biodiversity that said in March that the destruction of nature is as dangerous as climate change.
“Nature contributes to human wellbeing culturally and spiritually, as well as through the critical production of food, clean water, and energy, and through regulating the Earth’s climate, pollution, pollination and floods,” he said. “The Living Planet report clearly demonstrates that human activities are destroying nature at an unacceptable rate, threatening the wellbeing of current and future generations.”
Estimates of how the different control variables for seven planetary boundaries have changed from 1950 to present. The green shaded polygon represents the safe operating space. Source: Steffen et al. 2015
The nine planetary boundaries
Stratospheric ozone depletion
The stratospheric ozone layer in the atmosphere filters out ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. If this layer decreases, increasing amounts of UV radiation will reach ground level. This can cause a higher incidence of skin cancer in humans as well as damage to terrestrial and marine biological systems. The appearance of the Antarctic ozone hole was proof that increased concentrations of anthropogenic ozone-depleting chemical substances, interacting with polar stratospheric clouds, had passed a threshold and moved the Antarctic stratosphere into a new regime. Fortunately, because of the actions taken as a result of the Montreal Protocol, we appear to be on the path that will allow us to stay within this boundary.
Loss of biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and extinctions)
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005 concluded that changes to ecosystems due to human activities were more rapid in the past 50 years than at any time in human history, increasing the risks of abrupt and irreversible changes. The main drivers of change are the demand for food, water, and natural resources, causing severe biodiversity loss and leading to changes in ecosystem services. These drivers are either steady, showing no evidence of declining over time, or are increasing in intensity. The current high rates of ecosystem damage and extinction can be slowed by efforts to protect the integrity of living systems (the biosphere), enhancing habitat, and improving connectivity between ecosystems while maintaining the high agricultural productivity that humanity needs. Further research is underway to improve the availability of reliable data for use as the ‘control variables’ for this boundary.
Chemical pollution and the release of novel entities
Emissions of toxic and long-lived substances such as synthetic organic pollutants, heavy metal compounds and radioactive materials represent some of the key human-driven changes to the planetary environment. These compounds can have potentially irreversible effects on living organisms and on the physical environment (by affecting atmospheric processes and climate). Even when the uptake and bioaccumulation of chemical pollution is at sub-lethal levels for organisms, the effects of reduced fertility and the potential of permanent genetic damage can have severe effects on ecosystems far removed from the source of the pollution. For example, persistent organic compounds have caused dramatic reductions in bird populations and impaired reproduction and development in marine mammals. There are many examples of additive and synergic effects from these compounds, but these are still poorly understood scientifically. At present, we are unable to quantify a single chemical pollution boundary, although the risk of crossing Earth system thresholds is considered sufficiently well-defined for it to be included in the list as a priority for precautionary action and for further research.
Recent evidence suggests that the Earth, now passing 390 ppmv CO2 in the atmosphere, has already transgressed the planetary boundary and is approaching several Earth system thresholds. We have reached a point at which the loss of summer polar sea-ice is almost certainly irreversible. This is one example of a well-defined threshold above which rapid physical feedback mechanisms can drive the Earth system into a much warmer state with sea levels metres higher than present. The weakening or reversal of terrestrial carbon sinks, for example through the on-going destruction of the world’s rainforests, is another potential tipping point, where climate-carbon cycle feedbacks accelerate Earth’s warming and intensify the climate impacts. A major question is how long we can remain over this boundary before large, irreversible changes become unavoidable.
Around a quarter of the CO2 that humanity emits into the atmosphere is ultimately dissolved in the oceans. Here it forms carbonic acid, altering ocean chemistry and decreasing the pH of the surface water. This increased acidity reduces the amount of available carbonate ions, an essential ‘building block’ used by many marine species for shell and skeleton formation. Beyond a threshold concentration, this rising acidity makes it hard for organisms such as corals and some shellfish and plankton species to grow and survive. Losses of these species would change the structure and dynamics of ocean ecosystems and could potentially lead to drastic reductions in fish stocks. Compared to pre-industrial times, surface ocean acidity has already increased by 30 percent. Unlike most other human impacts on the marine environment, which are often local in scale, the ocean acidification boundary has ramifications for the whole planet. It is also an example of how tightly interconnected the boundaries are, since atmospheric CO2 concentration is the underlying controlling variable for both the climate and the ocean acidification boundaries, although they are defined in terms of different Earth system thresholds.
Freshwater consumption and the global hydrological cycle
The freshwater cycle is strongly affected by climate change and its boundary is closely linked to the climate boundary, yet human pressure is now the dominant driving force determining the functioning and distribution of global freshwater systems. The consequences of human modification of water bodies include both global-scale river flow changes and shifts in vapour flows arising from land use change. These shifts in the hydrological system can be abrupt and irreversible. Water is becoming increasingly scarce – by 2050 about half a billion people are likely to be subject to water-stress, increasing the pressure to intervene in water systems. A water boundary related to consumptive freshwater use and environmental flow requirements has been proposed to maintain the overall resilience of the Earth system and to avoid the risk of ‘cascading’ local and regional thresholds.
Land system change
Land is converted to human use all over the planet. Forests, grasslands, wetlands and other vegetation types have primarily been converted to agricultural land. This land-use change is one driving force behind the serious reductions in biodiversity, and it has impacts on water flows and on the biogeochemical cycling of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus and other important elements. While each incident of land cover change occurs on a local scale, the aggregated impacts can have consequences for Earth system processes on a global scale. A boundary for human changes to land systems needs to reflect not just the absolute quantity of land, but also its function, quality and spatial distribution. Forests play a particularly important role in controlling the linked dynamics of land use and climate, and is the focus of the boundary for land system change.
Nitrogen and phosphorus flows to the biosphere and oceans
The biogeochemical cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus have been radically changed by humans as a result of many industrial and agricultural processes. Nitrogen and phosphorus are both essential elements for plant growth, so fertilizer production and application is the main concern. Human activities now convert more atmospheric nitrogen into reactive forms than all of the Earth’s terrestrial processes combined. Much of this new reactive nitrogen is emitted to the atmosphere in various forms rather than taken up by crops. When it is rained out, it pollutes waterways and coastal zones or accumulates in the terrestrial biosphere. Similarly, a relatively small proportion of phosphorus fertilizers applied to food production systems is taken up by plants; much of the phosphorus mobilized by humans also ends up in aquatic systems. These can become oxygen-starved as bacteria consume the blooms of algae that grow in response to the high nutrient supply. A significant fraction of the applied nitrogen and phosphorus makes its way to the sea, and can push marine and aquatic systems across ecological thresholds of their own. One regional-scale example of this effect is the decline in the shrimp catch in the Gulf of Mexico’s ‘dead zone’ caused by fertilizer transported in rivers from the US Midwest.
Atmospheric aerosol loading
An atmospheric aerosol planetary boundary was proposed primarily because of the influence of aerosols on Earth’s climate system. Through their interaction with water vapour, aerosols play a critically important role in the hydrological cycle affecting cloud formation and global-scale and regional patterns of atmospheric circulation, such as the monsoon systems in tropical regions. They also have a direct effect on climate, by changing how much solar radiation is reflected or absorbed in the atmosphere. Humans change the aerosol loading by emitting atmospheric pollution (many pollutant gases condense into droplets and particles), and also through land-use change that increases the release of dust and smoke into the air. Shifts in climate regimes and monsoon systems have already been seen in highly polluted environments, giving a quantifiable regional measure for an aerosol boundary. A further reason for an aerosol boundary is that aerosols have adverse effects on many living organisms. Inhaling highly polluted air causes roughly 800,000 people to die prematurely each year. The toxicological and ecological effects of aerosols may thus relate to other Earth system thresholds. However, the behaviour of aerosols in the atmosphere is extremely complex, depending on their chemical composition and their geographical location and height in the atmosphere. While many relationships between aerosols, climate and ecosystems are well established, many causal links are yet to be determined.
For B.C. glacier researcher Matt Beedle, returning to the Castle Creek glacier every year inspires a mixture of excitement and dread.
“I’m psyched on coming back to see it change,” he told CBC News on a recent visit to the landmark, high in the Cariboo Mountains east of Prince George.
“At first, it’s just exciting to see this brand-new landscape that wasn’t here before it was exposed,” says Beedle. “But then it’s shocking … when we started coming here, it was so much larger than it is today.”
You’ve heard about glaciers melting for years, but what happened last summer across Western Canada is different, because it’s much faster — giving what one researcher calls a “sad window” into our future, where the glaciers are gone.
Losing centimetres a day
In the past decade, the bluish-white ice of the tongue, or terminus, of the glacier has receded over 200 metres, at a rate of roughly 15 metres a year.
This summer though, the melt rate accelerated dramatically to about two and half times that pace, says Brian Menounos, a geography professor and glacier researcher at the University of Northern B.C. in Prince George.
“This particular year has been quite a bad one,” he says. “It’s really a one-two punch.”
“We had a warmer than average summer, and a much warmer spring for the southern part of the province, but we also had a record low snowpack.”
Menounos’s team has been charting the glaciers’ retreat for the past decade by measuring ice thickness, using seven-metre poles sunk into the ice. The teams return the following year to measure how much ice has been lost.
Video: A future without glaciers
“On a hot sunny day … you can see the surface going down some 10 centimetres,” says Beedle. “It’s not building back up in the winter. That’s the problem.”
Uniquely in Western Canada, the Castle Creek glacier also leaves behind elevated ridges or moraines as it retreats each year, giving the researchers striking visible evidence of how quickly the melting is occurring.
“We’ve had average [distances between them] of about 14 or 15 metres per year. And the last two years have been 25 to 30 metres each,” says Beedle.
What’s happening here at Castle Creek, he says, is the norm for glaciers across Western Canada, especially in southern areas.
“It’s demonstrating what pretty much all glaciers are doing in Western Canada. They are receding dramatically.”
Blame ‘The Blob’?
A giant pocket of warmer than usual water in the Pacific Ocean may be at least partially responsible for the more rapid glacial melt this past summer.
Nicknamed “The Blob,” the water is about three degrees warmer than the rest of the Pacific.
University of Victoria climate researcher Faron Anslow believes it’s having a dramatic effect on glaciers.
“You have all this energy out in the Pacific that’s available to the atmosphere and it blows over those ocean waters and brings those temperatures on land, resulting in a lot of melt,” Anslow says.
Projections for what B.C.’s climate will look like by 2050 mirror this past summer, he says, thanks to the effects of the warmer Pacific water of The Blob.
‘The Blob,’ a giant pocket of warm water in the North Pacific, may be accelerating the glacier melt, says climate researcher Faron Anslow.(Google Earth)
Menounos, the glacier researcher, says it’s discouraging that much of Western Canada’s 25,000 square kilometres of ice fields won’t last the century.
“If you want a window into the future if you will — sort of a sad window — then this particular summer, at least in the southern portion of B.C., is a good example.”
“Most recent work has shown that by and large the glaciers of Western Canada are going to be gone by the end of the century,” says Matt Beedle.
“The biggest unknown in that study is what we do — what humans do. How we behave in regards to the atmosphere.”
Slide the bar to see the change in the Bear Glacier, in northwestern B.C., from 1978 to 2013.
By Prof Joanna Haigh Co-Director, Grantham Institute / 19 October 2017
Image copyright GETTY IMAGES
Climate change has been described as one of the biggest problems faced by humankind. Carbon dioxide is is the primary driver of global warming. Prof Joanna Haigh from Imperial College London explains why this gas has played a crucial role in shaping the Earth’s climate.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) has been present in the atmosphere since the Earth condensed from a ball of hot gases following its formation from the explosion of a huge star about five billion years ago.
At that time the atmosphere was mainly composed of nitrogen, CO2 and water vapour, which seeped through cracks in the solid surface. A very similar composition emerges from volcanic eruptions today.
As the planet cooled further some of the water vapour condensed out to form oceans and they dissolved a portion of the CO2 but it was still present in the atmosphere in large amounts.
The first life forms to evolve on Earth were microbes which could survive in this primordial atmosphere but about 2.5 billion years ago, plants developed the ability to photosynthesise, creating glucose and oxygen from CO2 and water in the presence of light from the Sun.
This had a transformative impact on the atmosphere: as life developed, CO2 was consumed so that by around 20 million years ago its concentration was down to below 300 molecules in every one million molecules of air (or 300 parts per million – ppm).
Image copyrightSPLImage caption Artwork: As life developed on Earth, carbon dioxide levels plummeted
Life on Earth has evolved under these conditions – note that humans did not appear until about 200,000 years ago – and atmospheric CO2 has not exceed that concentration until the industrial revolution brought with it massive emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels: coal and oil.
CO2 plays an important role in climate because it is one of the atmospheric “greenhouse” gases (GHGs) which keep the Earth’s surface about 33 degrees warmer than the -18C temperature it would be at were they not present.
They do this by being fairly transparent to the Sun’s rays, allowing them through to warm the surface, but then absorbing the radiant heat that the surface emits, so trapping it and enhancing the warming. In the present climate the most effective GHGs are water vapour, which is responsible for about two-thirds of the total warming, and CO2 which accounts for about one quarter.
Other gases, including methane, make up the remainder. The atmospheric concentration of water vapour is less than 1% and, with CO2 making up only a few molecules in every ten thousand of air, it may be surprising that they can have such a significant impact on the surface temperature.
They are able to do this, however, because the structure of their molecules makes them especially effective at absorbing heat radiation while the major atmospheric gases, nitrogen and oxygen, are essentially transparent to it.
Image copyrightNOAAImage captionThis air sampling station at Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii recorded CO2 levels going past 400ppm
The greenhouse effect means that as the atmospheric loading of GHGs increases the surface temperature of the Earth warms. The overall increase in global temperature of about 1C over the past 150 years is almost entirely due to the human activities that have increasing amounts of atmospheric GHGs.
Most significantly, the concentration of CO2 has been rising exponentially (at a rate of about 0.17% per year) since the industrial revolution, due mainly to the combustion of fossil fuels but also to large-scale tropical deforestation which depletes the climate system’s capacity for photosynthesis.
In 2015, it passed 400ppm, more than 40% higher than its pre-industrial value of 280ppm and a level that has not existed on Earth for several million years.
While the basic science of how GHGs warm the Earth is very well understood, there are complications. The climate system responds in various ways which both enhance and ameliorate the effects of these gases.
For example, a warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapour (before it condenses out in clouds or rain) and because water vapour is a GHG, this increases the temperature rise. Another example: as the oceans warm they are less able to hold CO2 so release it, again with the result the initial warming is enhanced.
Image copyrightGETTY IMAGESImage captionVolcanoes can eject small particles into the upper part of the atmosphere
The global temperature record over the past century does not show the same smooth increase presented by CO2 measurements because the climate is influenced by other factors than GHGs, arising from both natural and human sources. Some particles released into the atmosphere by industrial activities reflect sunshine back to space, tending to cool the planet.
Similarly, large volcanic eruptions can eject small particles into the higher atmosphere, where they remain for up to about two years reducing the sunlight reaching the surface, and temporary dips in global temperature have indeed been measured following major volcanic events.
Changes in the energy emitted by the Sun also affect surface temperature, though measurements of the solar output show this effect to be small on human timescales.
Another important consideration in interpreting global temperatures is that the climate is inherently complex. Energy moves between the atmosphere and oceans in natural fluctuations – an example being El Niño events. This means that we cannot expect an immediate direct relationship between any influencing factor and surface temperature.
All these factors complicate the picture. Nevertheless, it is indisputable that the global temperature rise over the past century is a result of human-produced GHGs, mainly CO2.
While, until the industrial revolution, the CO2 concentration has not exceeded the 280ppm value that last occurred several million years ago, it has gone through periods when it was considerably lower.
Notably, during the ice ages which have occurred roughly every 100,000 years over at least the past half million, drops in global temperature of perhaps 5C have been accompanied by reductions in CO2 concentration to less than 200ppm.
The ice ages, and associated warmer interglacial periods, are brought about by changes in the Earth’s orbit around the Sun which take place on these long timescales. The cooling in response to a decline in solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface results in a greater uptake of CO2 by the oceans and so further cooling due to a weakened greenhouse effect.
This is an entirely natural phenomenon and it is worth noting that such amplification of temperature fluctuations will occur in response to any initiating factor regardless of its source and including human-produced greenhouse gases.
The effects of increasing CO2 are not limited to an increase in air temperature. As the oceans warm they are expanding so producing a rise in sea level, this being exacerbated by the melting of some of the ice present on land near the poles and in glaciers. The warmer atmosphere holds more water vapour resulting in increased occurrences of heavy rainfall and flooding while changes in weather patterns are intensifying droughts in other regions.
If human emissions of GHGs into the atmosphere continue unabated then the global temperature will continue to rise and the associated weather impacts become ever more severe. The UN climate conference in Paris in December 2015, at which 195 nations unanimously agreed on an aim to restrict the temperature rise to less than 2C, or preferably 1.5C, above the pre-industrial “baseline” was an extraordinary political achievement.
To achieve this, however, will require a complete cessation of global CO2 emissions by the second half of this century and, while the world considers how this might be achieved, the crossing of the 400ppm mark in CO2 concentration has been matched by a global warming of 1C.
Insects have triumphed for hundreds of millions of years in every habitat but the ocean. Their success is unparalleled, which makes their disappearance all the more alarming.
The Guardian by Michael McCarthy /
Thirty-five years ago an American biologist Terry Erwin conducted an experiment to count insect species. Using an insecticide “fog”, he managed to extract all the small living things in the canopies of 19 individuals of one species of tropical tree, Luehea seemannii, in the rainforest of Panama. He recorded about 1,200 separate species, nearly all of them coleoptera (beetles) and many new to science; and he estimated that 163 of these would be found on Luehea seemannii only.
He calculated that as there are about 50,000 species of tropical tree, if that figure of 163 was typical for all the other trees, there would be more than eight million species, just of beetles, in the tropical rainforest canopy; and as beetles make up about 40% of all the arthropods, the grouping that contains the insects and the other creepy-crawlies from spiders to millipedes, the total number of such species in the canopy might be 20 million; and as he estimated the canopy fauna to be separate from, and twice as rich as, the forest floor, for the tropical forest as a whole the number of species might be 30 million.
Yes, 30 million. It was one of those extraordinary calculations, like Edwin Hubble’s of the true size of the universe, which sometimes stop us in our tracks.
Erwin reported that he was shocked by his conclusions and entomologists have argued over them ever since. But about insects, his findings make two things indisputably clear. One is that there are many, many more types than the million or so hitherto described by science, and probably many more than the 10m species sometimes postulated as an uppermost figure; and the second is that this is far and away the most successful group of creatures the Earth has ever seen.
Terry Erwin’s beetle collection from rainforest canopies in the Amazon, on display in Washington, DC. Photograph: Frans Lanting/Alamy
They are multitudinous almost beyond our imagining. They thrive in soil, water, and air; they have triumphed for hundreds of millions of years in every continent bar Antarctica, in every habitat but the ocean. And it is their success – staggering, unparalleled and seemingly endless – which makes all the more alarming the great truth now dawning upon us: insects as a group are in terrible trouble and the remorselessly expanding human enterprise has become too much, even for them.
The astonishing report highlighted in the Guardian, that the biomass of flying insects in Germany has dropped by three quarters since 1989, threatening an “ecological Armageddon”, is the starkest warning yet; but it is only the latest in a series of studies which in the last five years have finally brought to public attention the real scale of the problem.
Does it matter? Even if bugs make you shudder? Oh yes. Insects are vital plant-pollinators and although most of our grain crops are pollinated by the wind, most of our fruit crops are insect-pollinated, as are the vast majority of our wild plants, from daisies to our most splendid wild flower, the rare and beautiful lady’s slipper orchid.
Furthermore, insects form the base of thousands upon thousands of food chains, and their disappearance is a principal reason why Britain’s farmland birds have more than halved in number since 1970. Some declines have been catastrophic: the grey partridge, whose chicks fed on the insects once abundant in cornfields, and the charming spotted flycatcher, a specialist predator of aerial insects, have both declined by more than 95%, while the red-backed shrike, which feeds on big beetles, became extinct in Britain in the 1990s.
Ecologically, catastrophe is the word for it.
It has taken us a lot of time to understand this for two reasons: one cultural, one scientific. Firstly, we generally do not care for insects (bees and butterflies excepted). Even wildlife lovers are fixed on vertebrates, on creatures of fur and feather and especially the “charismatic megafauna”, and in the population as a whole there is even less sympathy for the fate of the chitin-skeletoned little things that creep and crawl; our default reaction is a shudder. Fewer bugs in the world? Many would cheer.
Secondly, for the overwhelming majority of insect species, there is no monitoring or measurement of numbers taking place. It is a practical impossibility: in the UK alone there are about 24,500 insect species – about 1,800 species of bugs, 4,000 species of beetles, 7,000 species of flies and another 7,000 species of bees, wasps and ants – and most are unknown to all but a few specialists. So their vast and catastrophic decline, at last perceptible, has crept up on us; and when first we began to perceive it, it was not through statistics, but through anecdote.
The earliest anecdotal impression of decline was through what is sometimes termed the windscreen phenomenon (or windshield if you live in the US): time was, especially in the summer, when any long automobile journey would result in a car windscreen that was insect-spattered. But then, not so much. Two years ago I wrote a book focusing on this curious happening, but I gave it a different name: I called it the moth snowstorm, referring to the moths which on summer nights in my childhood might cluster in such numbers that they would pack a speeding car’s headlight beams like snowflakes in a blizzard.
But the point about the moth snowstorm was this: it had gone. I personally realized it had disappeared, and began writing about it as a journalist, in the year 2000; but it became obvious from talking to people who had also observed it that its disappearance dated further back, probably to about the 1970s and 1980s. And the fact that an entire large-scale phenomenon such as this had simply ceased to exist pointed inescapably to one grim conclusion: though unnoticed by the world at large, a whole giant ecosystem was collapsing. The insect world was falling apart.
Moths are in steep decline. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Today we know beyond doubt, and with scientific statistics rather than just anecdote, that this is true, and the question immediately arises: what caused it?
It seems indisputable: it is us. It is human activity – more specifically, three generations of industrialised farming with a vast tide of poisons pouring over the land year after year after year, since the end of the second world war. This is the true price of pesticide-based agriculture, which society has for so long blithely accepted.
So what is the future for 21st-century insects? It will be worse still, as we struggle to feed the nine billion people expected to be inhabiting the world by 2050, and the possible 12 billion by 2100, and agriculture intensifies even further to let us do so. You think there will be fewer insecticides sprayed on farmlands around the globe in the years to come? Think again. It is the most uncomfortable of truths, but one which stares us in the face: that even the most successful organisms that have ever existed on earth are now being overwhelmed by the titanic scale of the human enterprise, as indeed, is the whole natural world.
As Fred Magdoff and Chris Williams point out in their new book, Creating an Ecological Society, the word “ecology” (originally œcology) was first coined in 1866 by Ernst Haeckel, Darwin’s leading German follower, based on the Greek word oikos, or household. Ironically, the word “economy,” to which ecology is often nowadays counterposed, was derived much earlier from the same Greek root—in this instance oikonomia, or household management. The close family relationship between these two concepts was fully intended by Haeckel, who defined ecology as the study of Darwin’s “economy of nature.”1
What the ancient Greeks had to offer to the understanding of today’s ecological predicament, however, extended well beyond such linguistic roots. In Greek poetry, drama, and philosophy, one already finds a powerful intuitive grasp of the twofold estrangement of nature and society brought into being by the development of a commercial money economy, leading to the conflict between a system of wealth that was unlimited in its aspirations—set against a world of natural limitations. From Aristophanes’ Wealth to Aeschylus’s Oresteia to Aristotle’s Politics to Epicurus’s On Nature, and—in Roman times—to Lucretius’s De rerum natura and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the classical critique of unlimited acquisition is a theme that is repeated over and over. For Epicurus, “The wealth demanded by nature is both limited and easily procured; that demanded by idle imaginings stretches on to infinity.” He added: “Nothing is sufficient for him to whom what is sufficient seems little”—thus, “unlimited wealth is great poverty.”2
Greek and Roman mythology dramatized the contradiction between the pursuit of unlimited wealth and ecological limits in numerous places, the best known of which is the legend of Midas. But the most poignant of all—as Richard Seaford declared in “The Ancient Greeks and Global Warming,” his presidential address to the British Classical Association in 2009—is the myth of Erysichthon.3 In the version provided by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, King Erysichthon of Thessaly cuts down a massive ancient oak tree in the sacred grove of the goddess Ceres (Demeter) in order to build a banquet hall. In the process he kills those who stood in his way, inviting down upon himself the curse of a dying dryad or tree nymph. Ceres, responding to the pleas of the dead nymph’s sisters, punishes him by calling upon the goddess Famine to enter his body and breathe her essence into him, giving him an insatiable search for wealth and consumption:
Just as the sea receives from round the world its rivers, and is never satisfied, no matter from what distant source they flow, and as a raging fire spurns no fuel, devouring innumerable logs and wanting more with every one it gets,
growing more voracious from abundance,
just so the greedy lips of Erysichthon,
even as they took in, were seeking out;
the cause of one feast was the one before,
and all his eating only left him empty.4
Erysichthon seeks to extract everything from nature and the world around him and in the process sells his own daughter in marriage, from which she escapes (by means of shape-shifting), but returning to him only to be resold again—a process that is repeated over and over. Erysichthon’s fate is quite different from that of Midas, who, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is eventually released from his ill-considered wish, granted by the god Bacchus, of turning everything he touches into gold, and who then turns to the worship of the god Pan and nature. In contrast, Erysichthon eventually eats himself as a product of his insatiable desire for more. According to Seaford, the myth of Erysichthon “contains a unique combination of unusual features: the transformation of nature into a product, selling to obtain food, and eating the self. The constant return of the daughter from marriage excludes progeny (the future). The Greeks had a myth for many of our central concerns, and here is one for global warming: exploitation of nature produces pathological insatiability, the unlimited need for a source of income that sacrifices the future, and self-destruction.”5
How is it that ancient Greeks (and Romans) had such a powerful critique of unlimited wealth in a precapitalist economy? Seaford argues, based on his own seminal research in Money and the Ancient Greek Mind, that as the earliest society to introduce a systematic money economy based on coinage, the Greeks generated a concept of unlimited, abstract wealth that tore at the whole fabric of the Greek polis. It was this more than anything else, he indicates, that helped generate the sense of contradiction and estrangement of nature that came to pervade Athenian drama and philosophy.6
It is not until the rise of the generalized commodity economy of capitalism that one discovers as powerful a critique of the alienation of nature and its relation to the pursuit of unlimited wealth in a money economy, and then it is frequently overridden by the notion of the mastery and the domination of nature and the struggle over class and production. Writing of the alienation (the sale) of nature in terms of land, which in classical political economy had stood for nature as a whole, Karl Polanyi stated in The Great Transformation:
What we call land is an element of nature inextricably interwoven with man’s institutions. To isolate it and form a market out of it was perhaps the weirdest of all undertakings of our ancestors.… And yet to separate land from man and organize society in such a way as to satisfy the requirements of a real-estate market was a vital part of the utopian concept of a market economy.7
Those opposing the rise of industrial capitalism in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries tended to split between Romantics, who deplored the destruction of nature, and socialists, who were concerned almost exclusively with the class struggle. However, a number of thinkers whose worldviews can be properly described as dialectical, drew from both traditions, recognizing (albeit in different ways) that the alienation of nature and the alienation of labor were two sides of the same coin, and related to production. Among the most radical and perceptive in this regard were such diverse figures as William Blake, P. B. Shelley, Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, John Ruskin, and William Morris.
It is here in the context of the Industrial Revolution that natural science also began to exert a critical influence. Throughout the growth of modernity, the notion of the “domination” or “mastery of nature” was seen as referring to the harnessing of the powers of nature by means of science and technology. Even for Francis Bacon such mastery of nature was seen as only possible by following nature’s laws, with the result that some of his earliest seventeenth-century followers, such as John Evelyn, the author of Fumifugium (a treatise on air pollution) and Sylva (a treatise on deforestation), pioneered in raising issues of conservation and environmental management.8 The eventual triumph of evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century with the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859 encouraged an understanding of the historicity of nature, and ultimately processes of co-evolution.
At the same time, the discovery in the nineteenth century of the concept of metabolism in cell physiology and its spread to other fields, coupled with the rise of thermodynamics, pointed within science to the rise of a more unified organic view of what Blake and many others had metaphorically called the “Web of Life.”9Among the first to see the larger implications of the concept of metabolism was Marx, who defined the labor process as the “social metabolism,” thereby tying the critique of alienation of labor and the alienation of nature under capitalism, to a materialist-scientific worldview.10 Aspects of this developing ecological view are to be found in the work of the zoologist Ray Lankester, Darwin and Thomas Huxley’s protégé and Marx’s close friend. But it was not until Arthur G. Tansley, Lankester’s student, introduced the concept of ecosystem in 1935, drawing on sources as diverse as Lucretius in ancient materialism and Marxian conceptions of science, that the critical-dialectical potential of ecology came to the fore. “Ecology,” Tansley argued, “must be applied to conditions brought about by human activity.”11
Tansley’s ecosystem analysis was introduced in part as a critical-materialist response to idealist and racist conceptions of ecology prevalent in his time.12 The emerging ecosystem critique, however, was drowned out by other developments. In the late 1930s and 1940s a general conflagration ensued in the form of the Second World War. In the aftermath of the war, faith in the power of science and technology was at its height, and with it the belief in “human exemptionalism.”13Nothing could have been further from the popular mind of the immediate postwar period than the notion of natural limits. Yet it was in this same period, which we now associate with the Great Acceleration and the emergence of the Anthropocene epoch, that ecology began to come into its own, both as an integrative science and as a critical standpoint on the development of capitalist society.14 The first great ecological revolt of the postwar period was the struggle of scientists internationally in the 1950s against aboveground nuclear testing. Hence, it is no accident that the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which was the eventual result of this scientific revolt, in which figures like Albert Einstein, Linus Pauling, and Barry Commoner played important roles, was finally concluded around the time of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring—usually thought of as signaling the rise of the modern ecology movement. Carson applied the new specters of bioaccumulation and biomagnification of radiation (the processes whereby toxins accumulate within organisms and then are magnified at higher levels of the food web) to the way in which this was also manifested by synthetic chemicals in pesticides (which she called “biocides”)—with both the nuclear and biocide threats having emerged out of scientific advances within war industry.15
Of greater long-run significance perhaps than Silent Spring itself was Carson’s 1963 speech, “The Pollution of Our Environment,” in which she introduced the concepts of ecology and ecosystem to the U.S. public.16 Within a decade, ecology took off as both a scientific field and as a social-political movement, each feeding on the other. This was evident in the appearance of a whole issue of Scientific American in 1970, introducing the concept of the biosphere to the wider population, and by the publication in the following year of Commoner’s The Closing Circle—the first in a series of pathbreaking works, which included The Poverty of Power (1976) and Making Peace with the Planet (1990). In this analysis, Commoner brought together the critique of the capitalist ecology and the critique of the capitalist economy. “If the environment is polluted and the economy is sick,” he wrote in Making Peace with the Planet, “the virus that causes both will be found in the system of production.”17
As David R. Keller and Frank Golley explain in The Philosophy of Ecology, “ecology is a science of synthesis”—directed at a world of widening ecological rifts. Ecology, they write,
is captivating due to the sheer comprehensiveness of its scope and complexity of its subject matter; ecology addresses everything from the genetics, physiology, and ethology of animals (including humans) to watersheds, the atmosphere, geologic processes, and influences of solar radiation and meteor impacts—in short, the totality of nature…
The word ecology connotes “ecological worldview.” An ecological worldview emphasizes interaction and connectedness. The theme can be developed in several ways:
All living and nonliving things are integral parts of the biospherical web (ontological connectedness).
The essence or identity of a living thing is an expression of connections and context (internal relations).
To understand the makeup of the biosphere, connections and relations between parts must be considered, not just the parts themselves (holism).
All life forms—including Homo sapiens—result from the same processes (naturalism).
Given the affinities between humans and nonhumans, nonhuman nature has value above and beyond instrumental, resource utility for human beings (nonanthropocentrism).
Humans have caused serious negative impacts (pollution, anthropogenic extinction) on the earth, leading to the need for environmental ethics.18
In short, ecology raises the kinds of complex and interconnected relations and contradictions in the human interface with the web of life that is traditionally associated with a materialist-dialectical worldview.19 It should not be surprising, therefore, that although ecology was for decades viewed exclusively as a specialized scientific pursuit, the concept has now taken on a popular, political meaning related to environmentalism. Yet the science of ecology and the politics of ecology, while different, have come to feed into each other in present-day society, since the science itself points continually to anthropogenic rifts in natural processes and the degradation of ecosystems (and increasingly the Earth system), resulting from human production.
In the Anthropocene, we live in an age where the implications of ecological science are radical—often more radical than mainstream environmentalism itself, which is trapped in the purely incremental, ameliorative social status quo. Figures like Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner, and the late Richard Levins, as well as many others, thus point toward the need for social-system change on a massive scale. For Carson, speaking in terms the ancient Greeks would undoubtedly have understood: “The modern world worships the gods of speed and quantity, and of the quick and easy profit, and out of this idolatry monstrous evils have arisen.”20Marx, observing the emergence of ecological concerns within soil science in his day, called this “an unconscious socialist tendency,” in the sense that it pointed to the need for a shift to a society governed by the associated producers, which would rationally regulate the metabolism of humanity and nature.21
Magdoff and Williams are among the foremost heirs to this broad heritage of ecological thought within science and social criticism. Magdoff is by profession a soil scientist and ecologist. Williams is a science educator. Both have wide backgrounds as well in the critique of capitalist political economy. Magdoff is coauthor of The Great Financial Crisis (2009) and What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism (2011)—both with the present author. Williams is the author of Ecology and Socialism (2010).22 Both exemplify the new tradition of ecosocialism, rooted in a natural-scientific understanding of ecology and exploring the evolution, interconnections, limits, and resilience of natural systems. They stress the dangers of a society in which accumulation of profits is based on the exploitation of humanity and the expropriation of nature. It is their ability to bring these various aspects of our present-day reality together in an interconnected, and ultimately hopeful, ecological worldview that constitutes the great value of their book. They seek to transcend two one-sided views: that of ecologists who do not yet recognize that capitalism is the main source of our unprecedented levels of ecological disruption; and that of leftists who have not yet recognized that ecological imperatives are “allies” in the global struggle.23
Today the world is faced with an epochal crisis with two interconnected features. On the one hand, this is a crisis of the overaccumulation of capital, leading to economic stagnation, and the financialization of all aspects of life, manifested in the pervasiveness of debt. This is tied to imperialism and to the widening of human oppression in all its forms—including oppressions of gender, race, and the general devaluation of almost all individuals in today’s global capitalist culture. On the other hand, there is the Anthropocene crisis marked by the continuing acceleration of human impacts on the environment and the crossing of numerous planetary boundaries—the best known of which is climate change, but also including the decline in genetic diversity, ocean acidification, the rifts in the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, loss of freshwater resources, changes in land use, chemical pollution, and other ecological rifts. Magdoff and Williams courageously face up to these cumulative contradictions, examining the epochal crisis of our times in its entirety and its relation to capital accumulation, while providing an ecological and socialist exit strategy—one that builds on the strengths of natural science and social science, critical ecology and critical economics.
Creating an Ecological Society, despite its engagement with the most serious problems of our time and its deep realism, is an irrepressibly optimistic work—at a time when most environmental analyses seem to be about simply digging in and awaiting a planetary disaster made inevitable by acquiescence to the existing system. It’s not too late, the authors argue, to address the ecological problems facing us. Time is a factor, of course, but what is required in this situation is a speeding up of the process of social transformation and thereby the creation of new integrative levels of social existence. The movement toward socialism, that is, toward a society of ecological sustainability and substantive equality, will have to proceed much faster: by big steps, if not leaps. We can no longer depend—if we ever could—on a process of gradual evolution. Power must be wrested from the 1 percent. The expropriators must be expropriated. Our primarily quantitative society, geared always to more, and enforcing a perpetual deprivation in the population, must give way to an emphasis on qualitative human relations and a more sustainable relation to the environment.
Creating an Ecological Society presents a forward-looking perspective, which derives from three qualities that characterize their analysis: (1) the unification of all the major social-ecological problems, so as to transcend the contradictions of the usual reductionist ways of seeing; (2) a pedagogical approach in which the goal is to map out the social and ecological terrain of struggle for mass popular movements; and (3) the ability to project concrete, meaningful, and practical solutions to problems that are insoluble within the confines of the present system—but only if we are willing to be revolutionary enough to break with the present. Thus oppressions of class, race, and gender are not afterthoughts in an ecological analysis; they are the very nodes of struggle in which an ecosocialist society will be built.
Along the way Magdoff and Williams teach us many things: About Marx’s metabolic rift and the “three rifts” in the soil-nutrient cycle. About the relation of soil to climate change—where they provide a real scientific basis for understanding the importance of the soil’s potential impact on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. About the growth of epigenetics and its relation to the “triple helix” of gene, organism, and environment, pointing to the breakdown in genetic determinism.24 About how race and gender are tied into environmental injustices. About the construction of healthy cities. All of this is presented in terms as clear as crystal, and crystallized in proposals for revolutionary ecological and social change.
Marx once wrote that humanity “inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.”25
One cannot read Magdoff and Williams’s book without recognizing that the dire crises associated with our present globalized (and at the same time localized) problems are capable of solution—since the material and human resources for doing so already exist. Never before in human history has the need for change been so great. Yet, it is a struggle, they tell us, that can only be won by “revolution” as a “continuous process”—unceasing radical change.
“After more than two and a half millennia,” Seaford writes, “money remains isolating, unlimited and homogenizing. Unlike us, who either do not see this or take it for granted, the Greeks were struck and sometimes horrified by it. Aristotle maintained that using money to make money is—in contrast to other forms of economic activity—unlimited and unnatural.”26 Marx strongly seconded Aristotle’s critique in this respect.27 And yet today we live in a highly financialized system where we are frequently offered carbon markets as the only solution to global warming—as if accumulation and financialization were the answers to Earth system crisis. For such a capitalist society, in which each expansion is only the basis for the next expansion ad infinitum, everything is turned into a commodity to be sold for the highest profit: the tape by which efficiency is measured. The end prospect of the continuation of capitalist business as usual is thus the fate of Erysichthon:
But when at last his illness had consumed
all that she brought him, and he still craved more,
the wretched man began to tear his limbs
asunder, mangling them in his maw,
and fed his body as he shrank away.28
None of this is foreordained, as in a Greek tragedy. Rather, the challenge before us, Magdoff and Williams declare, is to join the struggle to create an ecological society: a revolutionary transformation of the present.
Only 3.5 percent of the ocean is under some type of protection, and less than 2 percent is in no-take marine reserves. Despite the recent increase in large MPAs worldwide, we are still short of the United Nations target of 10 percent of the ocean. So we have a lot of work to do.
New analysis of previous studies shows that biomass of whole fish assemblages in marine reserves is, on average, 670 percent greater than in adjacent unprotected areas, and 343 percent greater than in 15 partially-protected marine protected areas (MPAs), according to an essay published in the ICES Journal of Marine Science. Marine reserves also help restore the complexity of ecosystems through a chain of ecological effects (trophic cascades) once the abundance of large animals recovers sufficiently, say the authors, Enric Sala, National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence, and Sylvaine Giakoumi, Universite Cote d’Azur, in their opinion essay Food for Thought: No-take marine reserves are the most effective protected areas in the ocean. (Download a PDF)
There are significant additional benefits from a rigorous protection of portions of the ocean. “Marine reserves may not be immune to the effects of climate change, but to date, reserves with complex ecosystems are more resilient than unprotected areas. Although marine reserves were conceived to protect ecosystems within their boundaries, they have also been shown to enhance local fisheries and create jobs and new incomes through ecotourism,” Sala and Giakoumi say in their essay.
National Geographic Voices interviewed Sala about the role of MPAs as an essential tool for reversing the global degradation of ocean life, and how that then enhances local fisheries and creates jobs and new incomes through ecotourism. Read on to learn more about the importance of protecting the oceans and what you can do to help.
What is the purpose and most significant finding of this new analysis?
We show that no-take marine reserves where fishing is prohibited have, on average, almost seven times more fish biomass (the total weight of fish per square mile) than unprotected areas nearby. But we also found that “marine protected areas” (MPAs) that allow fishing within their boundaries are not able to even double fish biomass. While these partially protected areas are useful for managing use conflicts, it is no-take reserves that are the most efficient in bringing back marine life and protecting ecosystems.
What are marine reserves designed to do, and how do they provide more than what they were initially designed for, as stated in the paper?
Marine reserves were initially designed to protect marine life within their boundaries, but over time we’ve discovered that they produce so many fish and other animals, that some of them spill over the reserve’s boundaries. That helps the local fishermen who now can catch more outside the reserve boundaries. And when the fish come back, the divers come in, bringing in more revenue and helping to create more jobs than fishing.
How successful are the reserves?
Reserves can be very successful, as shown in our research. As an example, there is a little marine reserve on the Costa Brava in the Mediterranean, the Medes Islands, that is only 1 square kilometer in size. But it contains one of the largest abundances of large fish in the Mediterranean, which attracts thousands of divers from all over Europe. That square kilometer brings in 12 million Euros per year through ecotourism.
Should artisanal or traditional fishing be allowed in marine reserves?
Marine reserves should be closed to fishing, so that they can bring marine life back and preserve it. Traditional fishing should be carried out in a sustainable way, but outside the reserves. Research shows that artisanal fishing does better next to reserves anyway.
What are the most significant challenges in proclaiming marine reserves and enforcing their protection?
Biggest challenge is opposition from the fishing industry, mainly because either they are not aware of the benefits of reserves to fishing, or because they opt for short-term economic gain at the expense of the resource they exploit. But I’ve met fishermen who were against reserves initially, but who now want more reserves, because they’re better off because of them.
How much of the ocean do you believe should still be set aside for marine reserves? Are there any specific areas that should be given high priority?
A study indicated that, on average, about 40 percentof the ocean should be protected to achieve ecological protection but also sustainability of fisheries. I think that we should protect half of the ocean, which according to another study would allow to catch the same amount of fish in the other half, fishing less.
It also should be made clear that protected should mean truly protected. No-take reserves are protected areas. MPAs that allow fishing, in my opinion, should not be called protected areas, but “managed areas”. And these managed areas should not count in the global tally of how much of the ocean is protected. Calling an area that allows fishing a “marine protected area” is like calling a timber concession (no matter how well managed) a “protected forest.”
How much of the ocean is protected now?
Only 3.5 percent of the ocean is under some type of protection, and less than 2 percent is in no-take marine reserves. Despite the recent increase in large MPAs worldwide, we are still short of the United Nations target of 10 percent of the ocean. So we have a lot of work to do.
What ultimately can the public do to help conserve the oceans?
Avoid single-use plastic such as straws and plastic bags, and eat less meat and more vegetables. And of course, if you eat fish, eat only fish that have a label of sustainability.
What is your current/next research project?
We continue to survey the most pristine places in the ocean and work to inspire leaders to protect them in large marine reserves. For updates on the project please see pristineseas.org
How climate change, resource development and trophy hunting threaten salmon, whales and bears
Which legislative loopholes leave the Great Bear Rainforest at risk
How provincial government decisions have left B.C. wildlife in the lurch
What kind of action is needed to preserve the province’s northwest coast
Stimo’on. Misoo. Gyne’es. Ye’ee. Uuux.
These are the names of the five species of Pacific salmon in Sm’algyax, the language of the Gitga’at First Nation on the northwest coast of British Columbia.
It’s a territory they’ve occupied for thousands of years, long before the names ‘pink,’ ‘sockeye,’ ‘chum,’ ‘chinook,’ and ‘coho,’ were conceived by scientists.
The salmon are the lifeline of the First Nation, says Gitga’at Councillor Cameron Hill. As the salmon go, they go.
“Salmon keep us connected to our language and culture,” he tells National Observer. “This whole ecosystem is our way of life. We depend on it so much that we can’t do without it.”
The Gitga’at, who live in the remote community of Hartley Bay, harvest 90 per cent of their food from the land, sea, rivers and streams. Their territory encompasses roughly 7,500 square kilometres of mainland, water and coastal islands, and is the permanent home of nearly 200 of the nation’s members.
They have watched “disheartened” and “devastated” for decades, says Hill, as the rainforest’s wildlife has been ravaged by industry, climate change, trophy hunting, and weak environmental policy.
The great natural bounty of the region, known today as the Great Bear Rainforest, has never failed them before, but for the first time in their lives, they’re worried it will.
The Gitga’at will not let the Great Bear Rainforest go down without a fight: As stewards of the territory, they will “fiercely defend and protect” their land and way of life, says Hill.
Coastal Guardian Watchmen from the Gitga’at First Nation watch over Gribbell Island, home to some of the Great Bear Rainforest’s moved beloved Spirit Bears. Photo by Elizabeth McSheffrey
The beating heart of the rainforest
The Great Bear Rainforest is the largest coastal temperate rainforest on Earth, stretching 64,000 square kilometres from the northern tip of Vancouver Island to Alaska. It’s a rare and remarkable ecosystem roughly twice the size of Belgium, whose misty fjords, glassy waters, mossy mountains and thundering waterfalls paint a landscape of overwhelming natural beauty.
For thousands of years, the rainforest has sustained indigenous populations as one of the richest and most productive ecosystems on the planet. Its spectacular circle of life includes grizzly bears, orcas, sea wolves, Sitka deer, and the elusive white Spirit Bear — a bear found nowhere else in the world.
And the heart of it all, says B.C. biologist Alexandra Morton, are the salmon.
“They are a blood stream, a power cord,” she says from her home in Echo Bay, where she has studied Pacific salmon and their habitat for more than 30 years.
“They feed everybody. If we pull them out, this coast will go dim.”
Salmon are what’s known as a ‘keystone species’ in the Great Bear Rainforest, Morton explains, a creature whose impact on an ecosystem is disproportionately large compared to its biomass.
Their carcasses are rich in nitrogen, sulfur, carbon and phosphorus, and when bears and wolves drag them through the forest, these nutrients are deposited in the soil and landscape. From there, scientists estimate they find their way into more than 190 species of the rainforest’s food chain — from moss to mink and seals to Spirit Bears.
Isotopes from salmon who return to spawn in the rainforest have even been found in its old-growth trees, says Morton. And the bigger the salmon run, the bigger the trees grow.
A Pacific salmon passes its nutrients on to the Great Bear Rainforest’s ecosystem during spawning season in August 2016. Photo by Elizabeth McSheffrey
Warming waters wearing down salmon
But Pacific salmon — even those who spawn in the far away Great Bear Rainforest — are in trouble.
According to scientists from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, exceptionally warm conditions partnered with extreme climate events like El Niño have compromised their diet by bringing smaller, less nutritious plankton into B.C. waters.
With them come migratory predators like shark and mackerel that feed on salmon — a dangerous combination of events that has resulted in lower river flows and higher water temperatures that make it difficult for the fish to spawn and survive.
That in turn, he adds, weakens the resilience, density and diversity of salmon forests like the Great Bear Rainforest. It has a particularly strong impact on the ecosystem’s vulnerable and threatened predators, including grizzly bears and northern resident killer whales, whose diet mainstay is salmon.Just south of the rainforest, a decrease in salmon stocks also threatens to obliterate their southern resident killer whale neighbours — a distinct species of orca whose population has dwindled to fewer than 90 members. The southern resident feeds almost exclusively on chinook salmon, which are declining rapidly across both the Salish Sea and Columbia River basins.
But it’s not only climate change that threatens salmon and the animals that rely on them for food — it’s liquified natural gas (LNG) projects, pipeline proposals, forestry, and fish farming as well.
As British Columbia inches closer to its provincial election on May 9, all four have been thrust into the spotlight as jobs, economy, and resource development dominate political conversations.
Can tankers tank the Great Bear’s wildlife?
BC Liberal Premier Christy Clark has vowed that the province will see its LNG heyday.
Despite low global oil prices and an increasing supply of natural gas that has depressed its value on the international market, she has campaigned in communities inside the Great Bear Rainforest, promising not to give up on LNG because “quitters can’t be leaders.”
The party did not respond to requests for comment on this story and the premier’s office declined to comment. But the B.C. Ministry of Energy Mines has touted LNG as a source of clean energy, and an “opportunity to achieve significant GHG emissions reductions” while boosting provincial jobs and revenues.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), Canada’s oil and natural gas industry advocate, declined to say whether it felt LNG or crude oil projects could be done safely in the Great Bear Rainforest or on B.C.’s northwest coast at large. Instead, it said the onus is on governments to decide whether a project is “acceptable to proceed” in an email statement to National Observer:
“Any major development must undergo a rigorous environmental assessment prior to construction… We’ve seen several projects in northern B.C. meet the environmental requirements and gain approval.”
As it stands, there are 19 LNG export proposals in various stages of development in the province, about two thirds of which include infrastructure or shipping routes that would plough through or beside the Great Bear Rainforest.
The $36-billion Pacific NorthWest LNG project, for example — already given the green light by the B.C. and federal governments — aims to build a natural gas pipeline that would cut straight through the rainforest to get to a proposed terminal on Lelu Island.
This will bring it right next door to Flora Bank, a sensitive and ancient underwater habitat in northwestern B.C. where new research indicates all five species of Pacific salmon feed and grow for weeks at a time.
According to Pacific NorthWest’s consultants, Flora Bank is a temporary stop for juvenile salmon, not a rearing site. Federal conditions placed on the project also require the company to monitor the area, and ensure that its marine terminal does not result in adverse effects on Flora Bank and its salmon. If constructed, the project is expected to generate roughly $2.5 billion in tax revenue for governments and 4,500 jobs during peak construction.
But according to whale researcher Janie Wray, LNG infrastructure — and the fracking that accompanies it — pose an enormous risk to wildlife that in many cases, cannot be mitigated. Add in the tanker traffic for its overseas shipments, she says, and it could spell catastrophe.
A humpback whale dives to the depths of a channel in the Great Bear Rainforest after surfacing for air near a tour boat. File photo by Elizabeth McSheffrey
“When these tankers go through, the wave action hitting the shoreline has got to be having an effect on the environment forage fish may be spawning in,” she explains. “There’s just so many factors to think about beyond the incidence of a spill, which is devastating no matter what.”
To reduce the risks of a disastrous oil spill in the Great Bear Rainforest, the federal government is enacting a crude oil tanker moratorium for B.C.’s north coast. But there is little legislation to protect the ecosystem from LNG tankers, whose most egregious impact may be acoustic pollution, says Wray.
Wray, stationed at Cetacea Lab in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, has been listening to the songs of humpbacks, orcas, and fin whales for more than 20 years. They return to the region annually, she says, likely because they know the waters to be safe, quiet, and full of prey.
Whales use vocalization not only to hunt and herd their food, she explains, but also to court one another, play, and navigate through the Great Bear’s dark waters. Other reasons for their melodic cries are “still a beautiful mystery,” she says, describing resident orcas as “chatty,” and humpbacks as having “a lot of culture.”
Experts agree that if tankers start roaring through this habitat, the noise disturbance would seriously disrupt whale communication, resulting in symptoms ranging from deafness to death. They would also dramatically increase the odds of a whale-vessel collision, says Wray: tankers can’t turn on a dime to avoid whales, which have a habit of surfacing unexpectedly.
And while landmark conservation agreements protect much of the terrestrial habitat in the Great Bear Rainforest, she says the lack of protection for its marine inhabitants is “embarrassing.”
Critical habitat for whales
“There’s no coastline like this on the planet,” she insists. “I think we need to seriously think about setting aside an area along the coast of B.C. that is ‘critical habitat for whales.’”
Under the federal Species at Risk Act, a critical habitat designation could help prevent large-scale industrial development that produces intense noise, contaminates or alters the habitat, as it has done for Canada’s North Atlantic right whale.
It’s especially important for the southern resident killer whale, which hunts just below the Great Bear Rainforest, as it faces a seven-fold increase in tanker traffic through its favourite feeding grounds.
The proposed Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion — whose Alberta-B.C. pipeline and crude oil tanker traffic has already been approved by governments — will almost certainly drive them into extinction, says Jason Colby, a University of Victoria professor and expert on orca-human conflict.
It’s impossible to claim you are serious about saving the species, he adds, if you also support projects that result in increased tanker traffic through their habitat.
“Those are absolutely, fundamentally, contradictory positions,” he says in an interview. “We need to ask ourselves what this place will look like, and what our identity is if we lose the southern resident killer whale.
“What will have we lost in our regional and cultural identity, along with our tourist economy?”
An issue of jurisdiction
When it comes to the matter of marine protection, says Colby, it’s important to note that the B.C. government has limited powers. Oceans fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government, which in addition to a crude oil tanker ban for the north coast, has announced a new Oceans Protection Plan to help protect whales from tanker traffic.
According to the plan, researchers will locate and track marine mammals in high tanker traffic areas and relay that information to mariners. They will identify and assess the most pressing local environmental issues, along with the effectiveness of existing mitigation measures.
This plan would be in place by the time Trans Mountain’s tankers roll through, as will the company’s own Marine Mammal Protection Program, which is due to the federal National Energy Board regulatory agency three months before the pipeline starts its operations.
None of that will change the fundamental issue facing the whales, says Colby: a massive increase in tanker traffic is bound for their hunting grounds, carrying either oil or LNG.
While it may not have jurisdiction over marine protection, the B.C. government could have commissioned more intense study not only of endangered whale populations, he argues, but the reason their favourite salmon stocks are declining as well. That would strengthen B.C.’s position in lobbying the federal government for increased protection for marine wildlife, he says, and better equip them to make decisions on the LNG projects to come.
“If you lose healthy salmon runs, you’re not just talking about lost fishing jobs, which has been happening for a long time,” he tells National Observer. “You’re talking about profound ecological change in the water sheds, rivers and forests.”
As it stands, approval of both the Trans Mountain expansion and the Pacific NorthWest LNG project has been taken to court by local First Nations, who say they threaten vital salmon runs throughout their traditional territory.
Meantime, if governments want to start protecting this keystone species — and by extension, the entire Great Bear Rainforest — salmon aficionado Alexandra Morton recommends starting with a crack down on net-pen fish farming.
Farmed salmon a danger to wild Pacific stocks
According to the BC Salmon Farmers Association, there are 109 salmon farms spread throughout the B.C. coastline. Dozens are located in the Great Bear Rainforest, raising Atlantic salmon from Campbell River to Klemtu, home of the Kitasoo/ Xai’xais First Nations.
In total, says the association, these farms occupy half a per cent of B.C.’s coastal waters and at each and every one of them, fish hygiene and safety is a top priority.
“Pen nets are cleaned regularly from top to bottom,” says the unnamed narrator of a promotional video on the association’s website. “Operators are consistently striving to improve farming practices, and underwater monitors guard against overfeeding, ensuring a lower impact on the ocean floor and a cleaner, safer habitat for the fish.”
Oversight of the industry — which generates more than $1.1 billion for the province every year — is a shared responsibility of the B.C. and federal governments. In order to keep their licenses, salmon farmers must adhere to a strict set of rules designed to protect wild salmon by minimizing their contact with farmed fish and stopping the spread of disease and bacteria.
But according to Morton, these measures are failing. While the threat of commercial fishing has largely been extinguished, she says deadly viruses have been detected in B.C.’s open-net cage farms that can make wild Pacific salmon extremely sick.
Compounded with the warming waters and ocean acidification brought on by climate change, she says net-pen farming may push some Pacific salmon runs to the breaking point.
An introductory video by the BC Salmon Farmers Association explains what net-pen salmon farming is all about.
Morton and her lawyers at Ecojustice have taken the federal government to court for allowing the transfer of farmed salmon that have not been tested for a dangerous virus into underwater pens in the wild — a practice they say is illegal under federal fishing regulations.
“The sea lice and the viruses coming from the farms are an enormous threat to them,” the biologist explains. “There is no place in the world that wild salmon and farms are thriving together. It’s like two worlds colliding.”
Wohlleben chronicles what his own experience of managing a forest in the Eifel mountains in Germany has taught him about the astonishing language of trees and how trailblazing arboreal research from scientists around the world reveals “the role forests play in making our world the kind of place where we want to live.” As we’re only just beginning to understand nonhuman consciousnesses, what emerges from Wohlleben’s revelatory reframing of our oldest companions is an invitation to see anew what we have spent eons taking for granted and, in this act of seeing, to care more deeply about these remarkable beings that make life on this planet we call home not only infinitely more pleasurable, but possible at all.
But Wohlleben’s own career began at the opposite end of the caring spectrum. As a forester tasked with optimizing the forest’s output for the lumber industry, he self-admittedly “knew about as much about the hidden life of trees as a butcher knows about the emotional life of animals.” He experienced the consequence of what happens whenever we turn something alive, be it a creature or a work of art, into a commodity — the commercial focus of his job warped how he looked at trees.
Then, about twenty years ago, everything changed when he began organizing survival training and log-cabin tours for tourists in his forest. As they marveled at the majestic trees, the enchanted curiosity of their gaze reawakened his own and his childhood love of nature was rekindled. Around the same time, scientists began conducting research in his forest. Soon, every day became colored with wonderment and the thrill of discovery — no longer able to see trees as a currency, he instead saw them as the priceless living wonders that they are. He recounts:
Life as a forester became exciting once again. Every day in the forest was a day of discovery. This led me to unusual ways of managing the forest. When you know that trees experience pain and have memories and that tree parents live together with their children, then you can no longer just chop them down and disrupt their lives with large machines.
The revelation came to him in flashes, the most eye-opening of which happened on one of his regular walks through a reserve of old beech tree in his forest. Passing by a patch of odd mossy stones he had seen many times before, he was suddenly seized with a new awareness of their strangeness. When he bent down to examine them, he made an astonishing discovery:
The stones were an unusual shape: they were gently curved with hollowed-out areas. Carefully, I lifted the moss on one of the stones. What I found underneath was tree bark. So, these were not stones, after all, but old wood. I was surprised at how hard the “stone” was, because it usually takes only a few years for beechwood lying on damp ground to decompose. But what surprised me most was that I couldn’t lift the wood. It was obviously attached to the ground in some way. I took out my pocketknife and carefully scraped away some of the bark until I got down to a greenish layer. Green? This color is found only in chlorophyll, which makes new leaves green; reserves of chlorophyll are also stored in the trunks of living trees. That could mean only one thing: this piece of wood was still alive! I suddenly noticed that the remaining “stones” formed a distinct pattern: they were arranged in a circle with a diameter of about 5 feet. What I had stumbled upon were the gnarled remains of an enormous ancient tree stump. All that was left were vestiges of the outermost edge. The interior had completely rotted into humus long ago — a clear indication that the tree must have been felled at least four or five hundred years earlier.
How can a tree cut down centuries ago could still be alive? Without leaves, a tree is unable to perform photosynthesis, which is how it converts sunlight into sugar for sustenance. The ancient tree was clearly receiving nutrients in some other way — for hundreds of years.
Beneath the mystery lay a fascinating frontier of scientific research, which would eventually reveal that this tree was not unique in its assisted living. Neighboring trees, scientists found, help each other through their root systems — either directly, by intertwining their roots, or indirectly, by growing fungal networks around the roots that serve as a sort of extended nervous system connecting separate trees. If this weren’t remarkable enough, these arboreal mutualities are even more complex — trees appear able to distinguish their own roots from those of other species and even of their own relatives.
Wohlleben ponders this astonishing sociality of trees, abounding with wisdom about what makes strong human communities and societies:
Why are trees such social beings? Why do they share food with their own species and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors? The reasons are the same as for human communities: there are advantages to working together. A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old. To get to this point, the community must remain intact no matter what. If every tree were looking out only for itself, then quite a few of them would never reach old age. Regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy, which would make it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot more trees. The heat of summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer.
Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover. Next time, perhaps it will be the other way round, and the supporting tree might be the one in need of assistance.
A tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it.
One can’t help but wonder whether trees are so much better equipped at this mutual care than we are because of the different time-scales on which our respective existences play out. Is some of our inability to see this bigger picture of shared sustenance in human communities a function of our biological short-sightedness? Are organisms who live on different time scales better able to act in accordance with this grander scheme of things in a universe that is deeply interconnected?
To be sure, even trees are discriminating in their kinship, which they extend in varying degrees. Wohlleben explains:
Every tree is a member of this community, but there are different levels of membership. For example, most stumps rot away into humus and disappear within a couple of hundred years (which is not very long for a tree). Only a few individuals are kept alive over the centuries… What’s the difference? Do tree societies have second-class citizens just like human societies? It seems they do, though the idea of “class” doesn’t quite fit. It is rather the degree of connection — or maybe even affection — that decides how helpful a tree’s colleagues will be.
These relationships, Wohlleben points out, are encoded in the forest canopy and visible to anyone who simply looks up:
The average tree grows its branches out until it encounters the branch tips of a neighboring tree of the same height. It doesn’t grow any wider because the air and better light in this space are already taken. However, it heavily reinforces the branches it has extended, so you get the impression that there’s quite a shoving match going on up there. But a pair of true friends is careful right from the outset not to grow overly thick branches in each other’s direction. The trees don’t want to take anything away from each other, and so they develop sturdy branches only at the outer edges of their crowns, that is to say, only in the direction of “non-friends.” Such partners are often so tightly connected at the roots that sometimes they even die together.
But trees don’t interact with one another in isolation from the rest of the ecosystem. The substance of their communication, in fact, is often about and even to other species. Wohlleben describes their particularly remarkable olfactory warning system:
Four decades ago, scientists noticed something on the African savannah. The giraffes there were feeding on umbrella thorn acacias, and the trees didn’t like this one bit. It took the acacias mere minutes to start pumping toxic substances into their leaves to rid themselves of the large herbivores. The giraffes got the message and moved on to other trees in the vicinity. But did they move on to trees close by? No, for the time being, they walked right by a few trees and resumed their meal only when they had moved about 100 yards away.
The reason for this behavior is astonishing. The acacia trees that were being eaten gave off a warning gas (specifically, ethylene) that signaled to neighboring trees of the same species that a crisis was at hand. Right away, all the forewarned trees also pumped toxins into their leaves to prepare themselves. The giraffes were wise to this game and therefore moved farther away to a part of the savannah where they could find trees that were oblivious to what was going on. Or else they moved upwind. For the scent messages are carried to nearby trees on the breeze, and if the animals walked upwind, they could find acacias close by that had no idea the giraffes were there.
Because trees operate on time scales dramatically more extended than our own, they operate far more slowly than we do — their electrical impulses crawl at the speed of a third of an inch per second. Wohlleben writes:
Beeches, spruce, and oaks all register pain as soon as some creature starts nibbling on them. When a caterpillar takes a hearty bite out of a leaf, the tissue around the site of the damage changes. In addition, the leaf tissue sends out electrical signals, just as human tissue does when it is hurt. However, the signal is not transmitted in milliseconds, as human signals are; instead, the plant signal travels at the slow speed of a third of an inch per minute. Accordingly, it takes an hour or so before defensive compounds reach the leaves to spoil the pest’s meal. Trees live their lives in the really slow lane, even when they are in danger. But this slow tempo doesn’t mean that a tree is not on top of what is happening in different parts of its structure. If the roots find themselves in trouble, this information is broadcast throughout the tree, which can trigger the leaves to release scent compounds. And not just any old scent compounds, but compounds that are specifically formulated for the task at hand.
The upside of this incapacity for speed is that there is no need for blanket alarmism — the recompense of trees’ inherent slowness is an extreme precision of signal. In addition to smell, they also use taste — each species produces a different kind of “saliva,” which can be infused with different pheromones targeted at warding off a specific predator.
Wohlleben illustrates the centrality of trees in Earth’s ecosystem with a story about Yellowstone National Park that demonstrates “how our appreciation for trees affects the way we interact with the world around us”:
It all starts with the wolves. Wolves disappeared from Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, in the 1920s. When they left, the entire ecosystem changed. Elk herds in the park increased their numbers and began to make quite a meal of the aspens, willows, and cottonwoods that lined the streams. Vegetation declined and animals that depended on the trees left. The wolves were absent for seventy years. When they returned, the elks’ languorous browsing days were over. As the wolf packs kept the herds on the move, browsing diminished, and the trees sprang back. The roots of cottonwoods and willows once again stabilized stream banks and slowed the flow of water. This, in turn, created space for animals such as beavers to return. These industrious builders could now find the materials they needed to construct their lodges and raise their families. The animals that depended on the riparian meadows came back, as well. The wolves turned out to be better stewards of the land than people, creating conditions that allowed the trees to grow and exert their influence on the landscape.
This interconnectedness isn’t limited to regional ecosystems. Wohlleben cites the work of Japanese marine chemist Katsuhiko Matsunaga, who discovered that trees falling into a river can change the acidity of the water and thus stimulate the growth of plankton — the elemental and most significant building block of the entire food chain, on which our own sustenance depends.