Global capitalism is not only creating climate change but bringing about the extinction of millions of animal and plant species. Sarah Ensor explains the crisis, and what we can do to stop it.
In less than 80 years global capitalism has created a biodiversity crisis on a scale that has never been seen before in human history. One million of the estimated eight million animal and plant species on Earth are currently at risk of extinction. If the causes of this catastrophe aren’t challenged, many will die out without ever being identified, named, understood or appreciated for their vital role in our ecosystems.
In Charles Darwin’s words, “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved”. We are losing the richness of life that Darwin only began to grasp some 160 years ago.
Extinction is not in itself a crisis; it is part of evolution. The geological record contains five mass extinction events. Many species have died out simply because they couldn’t adapt to changing conditions such as oxygen levels — in evolutionary terms they weren’t successful. But the loss of species we are experiencing now is not natural; it’s a confluence of pollution, habitat loss and degradation, disease, ocean acidification and warming water linked to climate change driven by rising emissions from capitalism’s relentless burning of fossil fuels. These processes are underpinned and exacerbated by capitalism’s only reason to exist — the accumulation of profit.
Since the Second World War capitalism has managed to destroy an entire geological epoch, the Holocene. This was the geological moment we have inhabited since the last ice age ended 10,000 years ago. It was warm enough to hold the highest levels of species diversity in Earth’s history. The new geological epoch has been named the Anthropocene because human activity is now the dominant influence on climate and our environment. The Anthropocene doesn’t describe the activities of all humans but the behaviour of capitalists and capitalist modes of production on a global scale.
The World Wildlife Fund’s 2015 Living Blue Planet Report showed that in just over 40 years, marine vertebrate populations had declined by 49 percent. These included major food sources such as cod, haddock, salmon and tuna. Back then 25 percent of shark, ray and skate species were threatened by overfishing and environmental degradation. Last year a United Nations report raised that figure to 33 percent and included reef-forming corals. Coral reefs act as nurseries for a quarter of marine fish. They are threatened by acidification, warming water and plastic pollution, creating ideal conditions for disease. More than a third of marine mammals are also threatened with extinction.
The levels of insect loss are astounding. Insects have existed for some 479 million years and have survived all previous rounds of mass extinction. There are so many insect species still to identify that we cannot be sure how many are under threat, but the 2019 UN report estimates around 10 percent.
However, studies last year showed that insect populations have dropped by as much as 98 percent in Puerto Rican rainforests over the past 40 years. In the same period Mexican forests have lost up to 80 percent and Germany’s nature reserves have lost around 75 percent of their insects. Consequently, large numbers of birds, lizards and mammals which rely on insects cannot breed successfully. This partly explains why the United States and Canada have lost 29 percent of their birds since the 1970s. France has lost around 30 percent of its farmland birds since the 1980s and Britain has lost 56 percent of similar species including skylarks and partridges.
As well as being food, insects are of course pollinators, pest controllers and water purifiers. They also break down organic matter with worms and micro-organisms including bacteria to form fertile soil. So the destruction of insects is wrecking the basis for our food chains.
Insect loss is linked to rising temperatures and pollution, but the biggest driver is the destruction of their habitats exacerbated by the widespread use of glyphosate weed killers and neonicotinoid insecticides. Neonicotinoid compounds interfere with bees’ ability to find their way home and some forms appear to be addictive, meaning that bees are seeking out the chemicals linked to colony collapse disorder.
Glyphosate and neonicotinoid insecticides were developed in the 1980s to replace the previous generation of even more poisonous pesticides, including DDT. In her 1962 book Silent Spring Rachel Carson described the appalling destruction of birds, invertebrates and fish as vast quantities of pesticides were dumped on farmland, parks and gardens in the US and Europe to eradicate some real or imagined pest. These products were regulated but still managed to poison and kill hundreds of people every year and even when used in small quantities became super-concentrated as they moved through the food chain. These chemicals were highly profitable and agrochemical industries fought hard to keep them in use, just as Monsanto, now owned by the giant pharmaceutical company Bayer, has fought to keep glyphosates and neonicotinoids from being blamed for the mass destruction of pollinators, especially bees and butterflies. Farming corporations and Britain’s National Farmers Union have also resisted bans on neonicotinoids in Britain and Europe.
Agrochemical industries are behind the massive expansion of artificial nitrate fertilisers poured onto exhausted arable land and linked to growing “dead zones” in coastal waters. As nitrates and soil are washed away in heavy rain too little oxygen remains to support most life forms and inevitably more expensive artificial nitrates must be added to farmland to make it profitable.
If industrial scale destruction of biodiversity and climate change are not challenged, large areas of Earth will become uninhabitable. The recent catastrophic bushfires in Australia and floods in Indonesia show how quickly this process can develop. Extreme climate events can overwhelm an ecosystem, destroy everything in its path and leave surviving life forms vulnerable to extinction. The loss of each species will reverberate through its ecosystem making it more likely that others will be lost in turn.
Capitalism constantly adapts, looking for solutions to the problems it has created. But the solutions it identifies are completely inadequate, as we saw with glyphosates and neonicotinoids replacing DDT. They are trapped within the logic of capital — of competition and the pursuit of profit. As such, they are unable to move beyond the dynamics at the root of the problem.
So not only can these proposals make the problems worse, but they are also conscious attempts to deflect popular anger and fear at environmental degradation. Ordinary people give millions of pounds annually to conservation organisations that are obsessed with promoting the value of nature in money terms and saving individual species. These organisations are caught in a contradiction — they pessimistically see no realistic alternative to the current system, yet they depend for their funding on selling the notion that they can fix things if you pledge just £3 per month.
The well-informed seriousness of the school student climate strike movement has shown up such partial solutions for their poverty of ambition and refusal to challenge capitalism’s drive for profit. Attempting to save individual species also misses the point. When the problem is systemic and ecosystems are collapsing it is impossible to save individual species long term without saving their environment. We cannot solve the crisis created by capitalism by applying the theory and practice of capitalism to ecosystems and biodiversity. And we are running out of time. This situation can look hopeless when $1.9 trillion dollars’ worth of investment in fossil fuels has been made since 2015. The Paris Agreement that year agreed to keep the Earth from heating to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures, and yet since then emissions have risen by 4 percent.
The real solutions to our climate and biodiversity crises lie in transforming our relationship to the natural world — but we also have examples and evidence to show that damaged environments can be repaired quite quickly. The recent documentary The Biggest Little Farm showed how in just seven years a modern dust bowl farm in California was transformed into a rich-soiled, productive farm. By careful planting and the addition of large quantities of organic fertilisers (rotting horse manure), adding a mixture of domesticated animal species and habitat restitution for wild species, grey dust became dark brown loam. Pests like snails and gophers were managed by becoming food for ducks, owls and foxes. When cloud bursts dumped heavy rain on the area this was the farm whose soil held firm and didn’t wash away into the rivers.
So despair is not necessary, but capitalists and their government friends are not going to give up their investments and profits willingly. We will have to challenge and ultimately break capitalism’s grip on our world so we can replace capitalism with a socialist system.
Then rewilding and other forms of biodiversity conservation are more likely to succeed because a democratic and rational approach towards food production and our use of nature and natural resources won’t force other life forms to compete with profit. This is how we could repair our relationship with our planet, develop our ecological understanding and rid ourselves of the muck of ages. This is how we could shape a sustainable future and save life on Earth, our only home.