Capitalists of the Biosphere

December 2013



One of the stuffed animals our son enjoyed as a child was a bumblebee (no joke). Bummy Bee (as we creatively named him) has a smile on his face (yes, he has a face). He is cylindrical and fuzzy and, apparently, quite happy. Although our son is all grown up and off on his own, Bummy Bee is still with us, a member of a prized collection of stuffed animals we saved for the enjoyment of any children who might grace our empty nest.

All children like animals, and so do most adults. Pictures and short videos of adorable animals in captivity abound on Facebook, and I too am a sucker for a pair of adoring eyes between two floppy ears or a zany cockatoo that really rocks to the music.  It’s as if these cute animals – the kittens, the puppies, the cockatoos – are there for our amusement and to meet our emotional needs. Actually, these animals are there for our amusement and to meet our emotional needs; they’ve been bred and trained for those purposes. But I wonder, what about animals in the natural world – the ones that are not there to please us but are simply there living their lives and trying to survive? How are they doing?

Not well.

Almost all the animals that inhabited my childhood picture of “the wild” – lions, tigers, elephants, gorillas, giraffes, rhinos, and more – have, in the real world, had dramatic population declines in recent decades. Many species are in serious trouble.  One study, for example, estimated that lion populations have decreased by 68 percent in the last 50 years.[1] A report concluded that “the plight of many lion populations is so bleak” that “fencing them in — and fencing humans out — may be their only hope for survival.”[2]

Tigers are in even worse shape. Tiger populations are believed to have decreased by 95 percent since the turn of the twentieth century, with as few as 3,200 individuals remaining.[3] Elephants are also in trouble, because of poaching on an “industrial” scale (largely to feed the Asian ivory trade). It is estimated that elephant populations in central Africa have been reduced by nearly two-thirds.[4]

With only four individuals remaining, Africa’s northern white rhino is almost extinct in the wild.[5] Because of a strong demand for rhino horns, Africa’s black rhinos are also critically endangered,[6] as are two of the three Asian rhino species.[7]

All four subspecies of Gorilla are listed as either endangered or critically endangered.[8] Because of ongoing conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the okapi (Okapia johnstoni), that has been found only there, has also been listed as endangered.[9]

Although the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) gives giraffe species as a whole a (relatively) reassuring status of Least Concern, giraffe populations have also declined dramatically in recent decades. It has been estimated that there were over 140,000 giraffes in the wild in 1999, but fewer than 80,000 remaining in 2010.[10]

We make cute stuffed animals representing these (theoretically) beloved real animals for our children to play with, but at the same time humans are far and away the most serious threat to these animal populations in the wild. In virtually every case, the causes of the precipitous population declines can be traced back to human activities. The two most common causes of decline in wild animal populations seem to be hunting by humans (often for the most frivolous reasons) and habitat loss, again due to infringement by human activities (e.g., clearing of land for farming and cattle grazing, and the building of cities and highways). Soon human-caused climate change will be added to the list. In many cases – and because of climate change, undoubtedly many, many more in the future – we are posing the ultimate threat: extinction. And then all that will be left, aside from captive animals in zoos, will be the cute stuffed animal representations of what we have destroyed.

Most children nowadays live lives that are largely divorced from the natural world. In the United States, children often don’t even spend much time playing outdoors, let alone exploring the natural world. And, of course, even if our children did spend a lot of time out in nature, many of the animal species I’ve mentioned live on other continents, so actual contact with them takes place largely at zoos. So the loss of all those animal species that were so plentiful when I was a child – what kind of a loss to us will they be? Will it really matter to us when they’re gone?

What got me thinking about this most recently was an article in the New York Times about insects, “The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear.”[11] This brief excerpt gives the gist:

“This year, for or the first time in memory, the monarch butterflies didn’t come [to the fir forests of central Mexico]… They began to straggle in a week later than usual, in record-low numbers. Last year’s low of 60 million now seems great compared with the fewer than three million that have shown up so far this year. Some experts fear that the spectacular migration could be near collapse….

“It is only the latest bad news about the dramatic decline of insect populations. Another insect in serious trouble is the wild bee, which has thousands of species. Nicotine-based pesticides called neonicotinoids are implicated in their decline, but even if they were no longer used, experts say, bees, monarchs and many other species of insect would still be in serious trouble. That’s because of another major factor that has not been widely recognized: the precipitous loss of native vegetation across the United States.”

The article goes on to describe how, because of U.S. farm policy, farmers have plowed “every scrap of earth that can grow a corn plant, including millions of acres of land once reserved in a federal program for conservation purposes,” resulting in a major loss of habitat and food for many insect populations (and presumably other wild populations as well). In addition, the widespread use of Monsanto’s herbicide, Roundup, has wiped out most of the milkweed plants that are, the article notes, “an important source of nectar for many species, and vital for monarch butterfly larvae.”

Given how many mammal species are currently threatened with extinction because of climate change and general habitat destruction, you might yawn at the news that a few insect species are in serious trouble too. You might think, “I hate insects, so who cares? It doesn’t affect me.” But you would be wrong. The New York Times article put it so well that I will defer to it once again:

“The loss of bugs is no small matter. Insects help stitch together the web of life with essential services, breaking plants down into organic matter, for example, and dispersing seeds. They are a prime source of food for birds. Critically, some 80 percent of our food crops are pollinated by insects, primarily the 4,000 or so species of the flying dust mops called bees. ‘All of them are in trouble,’ said Marla Spivak, a professor of apiculture at the University of Minnesota.”

There is virtually no place on earth that humans have not ventured, and very few that we have not “colonized” or otherwise encroached upon in some way. Even the places we don’t physically venture are contaminated, in one way or another, by our “waste products” – the many chemicals and substances we emit or discard into the environment that ultimately end up just about everywhere. The wild places – places that were virtually untouched by humans – that existed in my childhood or before are mostly gone now, reduced to small “protected zones,” which may soon be threatened as well.

There are many immediate reasons for this (e.g., to profit from the Asian demand for ivory or to make way for a new city or highway) but only a few truly core, underlying reasons. First and foremost among them, of course, is the ever-expanding human population. We are currently estimated to be over 7 billion.[12] More people means more land diverted to human uses – agriculture and industry, and cities and urban sprawl and the roads and highways that connect them.

Another underlying reason for the seemingly endless encroachment on natural areas is the laudable goal of lifting many millions of people out of poverty, since higher standards of living require more resources, which puts pressure on natural environments (e.g., to give way to farming and industry to support the greater demand for higher standards of living). Vast swaths of the Amazon rainforest, for example, have been cleared for pasture land and farming in Brazil and the other Latin American countries whose borders contain the rainforest, resulting in the loss of habitat for many species, many of which undoubtedly live (or lived) only there.[13],[14]

I was going to add a third “core reason” for the apparently endless human encroachment on natural areas: a lack of appreciation for the natural world.  But this is a tricky subject. Many people, I suspect, don’t care much about the natural world and certainly don’t understand just how fragile it can be – and how interconnected it is. But many, I suspect, care deeply and are horrified at the extent to which humans are threatening the natural world.  It’s actually very hard to measure how deeply people care about the natural world or aspects of it. Clearly, the people who do encroach on nature – the elephant poachers and the rainforest clearers, for instance – care more about what they can get from the natural world than about preserving it (at least those parts of it from which they can profit).

Sometimes this encroachment is just an act of desperation.  As noted in the State of the World Forum’s Simulconference, “Of Poverty, Rainforests, and Ecotourism,” held in September 2000: “ … [The Amazon’s] newest occupants are poor Brazilians who are fleeing the poverty and unemployment of Brazil’s cities and towns for the vast frontier and its often illusory promises of a better life.”[15]

Or the encroachment may be part of a government effort to grow the economy in order to lift many people out of poverty. While such efforts may appear to reflect a lack of caring about an endangered natural area, it may seem even more uncaring to say to those people, “Sorry, but we cannot lift you out of poverty because we have to protect these natural areas.” And yet if people (and governments) had more understanding of the fragility of the natural world and the importance of preserving what’s left of it, they might choose other approaches to achieve their goals.

Seen from an ecological perspective, what is happening can perhaps most aptly be described as the human species bumping up against the limits of our environment (that being the entire world). When an animal population grows too fast (e.g., because of a lack of natural predators), it overruns its environment; the animals “eat themselves out of house and home,” so to speak, and their population crashes as a result.

Humans have no natural predators and our numbers have grown rapidly, but our population clearly has not crashed. And even though any environment, even the entire world, is finite, we have been laudably innovative in increasing the productivity per acre of the land we have (see: Green Revolution[16]). As a result, instead of our population crashing because of insufficient resources, we have been able to support a seemingly ever-increasing population.

But this has come at an enormous cost. Much of that cost, as noted above, has been borne by other species, whose very existences are now at risk as we expand relentlessly into their habitats, to say nothing of more directly contributing to their demise.

But this decimation of the populations of other species puts our own species at risk as well – because it turns out that we’re all linked to one degree or another. This isn’t exactly obvious at first glance. And it certainly isn’t something that has gotten much attention as we bulldoze our way across the planet. However, even if we are oblivious to the stunning beauty and wonder of the many species we are threatening, we will eventually be unable to maintain our “blissful ignorance” of all the ecological links we are destroying, and the extent to which we are severing links that have sustained us for millennia.

Take bees, for example.   Bee populations have been declining at an alarming rate. This is a problem for humans, because bees pollinate up to a third of our food supply.[17] Common crops too numerous to list here are pollinated by bees.[18]

Or take the coral reefs worldwide that are being bleached by ocean acidification. The oceans absorb much of the carbon dioxide that humans emit into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels and other activities; this is good for the atmosphere (since it helps ease the CO2 burden there), but it’s bad for the oceans because that absorbed CO2 gets turned into carbonic acid.[19] Coral reefs are home to many marine species that make up food webs that support fish on which many people ultimately rely. Aside from the aesthetic loss of those stunning coral reefs, as they die so too will those fish populations – and then what will happen to the human populations at the ends of those food chains?

Or take the Amazon rainforest, which is being cut down at an alarming rate. Putting aside the loss of uncountable species (and possibly invaluable substances yet to be discovered), the Amazon rainforest has been one of the world’s greatest means of carbon sequestration – all that CO2 “breathed in” and stored by all those trees! – but as that carbon sink is being burned and converted to pasture land for cattle, it is being turned into a major source of emissions of CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) to the atmosphere.

In so many ways, humans are hacking away at the fragile ecological webs upon which we – and all the other species with which we share this earth – depend. We don’t see it that way, of course. We don’t see the big picture; we see only each separate piece of the jigsaw puzzle of interconnected pieces.  We see only the short-term profit to be gained by chopping down trees in the Amazon rainforest for their mahogany wood or to clear land for farming or grazing, or killing elephants in Africa for their ivory tusks, or using bee-killing pesticides or Roundup to kill off other pests that eat away at our crops. We like mahogany furniture and ivory knickknacks and crops not damaged by pests. We like each one of those things.

But we need those less-obvious ecological links that we are inadvertently destroying. We need the rainforest to help stabilize our climate; we need biodiversity to stabilize and strengthen the many ecosystems on which we ultimately rely; we need the bees that pollinate so many of our crops; we even need the many insect species that, as the New York Times article so eloquently put it, “help stitch together the web of life with essential services…”

We are but one species among many millions of species on this earth[20], and yet we have had an outsize impact on so many other species. Like the “1%” in the United States made famous by the Occupy movement, that tiny slice of the population with vastly greater income and wealth that has grabbed for itself a disproportionate percentage of productivity-driven profit, the human species is the “1%” of the natural world, molding it to our liking, taking from it what we want with little thought to the impacts on other species or the whole biosphere.

Some among the 1% of the United States realize that they need the 99%; if the rest of us cannot afford what their corporations produce, then the ultimately reduced demand hurts their corporations and them too.[21] We really are all linked, for better or for worse.

But this is by no means the majority opinion among the 1%, which, by and large, has shown little concern about the growing income inequality in this country and the negative effects it is having. Instead, their attention has been focused on “buying” as many congressmen as possible and molding to their liking (or “defanging”) as many regulations as possible. Their energies have been directed towards bettering their own lot, regardless of the impacts on everyone else.

And this kind of short-sighted “bettering our own lot” is, by and large, what we humans have been doing as the “1%” of the natural world with outsize power, with about as little regard for the impacts on the rest of the biosphere as the superrich have had for the rest of us in this country.

There are, of course, people who are well aware of all of this, who have cried out for many decades about the need to protect endangered species and wild areas from human encroachment, just as there have been economists and others who are sounding the alarm about income inequality in this country. The problem is to get others – especially our political class – to pay attention, to really pay attention, before it’s too late.

I say “especially our political class” because many of these problems will not be solved without government regulation (sorry, conservatives; sometimes government really is the solution).[22] These environmental problems are classic “tragedy of the commons” situations in which no individual has an incentive to exercise restraint when harvesting from a common resource (e.g., elephants or the Amazon rainforest), resulting in the depletion, and eventual destruction, of the resource.[23] Only if the government sets and enforces limits on the amounts that can be harvested per individual per year can the resource be maintained at a level necessary to sustain it for everyone. A classic example is over-fishing of a preferred fish species to the point of extinction of that species – unless fishing limits are implemented and enforced.

In a wonderful piece about capitalism “run amok,” David Simon, the creator of The Wire, says, “That may be the ultimate tragedy of capitalism in our time, that it has achieved its dominance without regard to a social compact …”[24] And so too the ultimate tragedy of human dominance over the biosphere is that it has been achieved without regard to an environmental compact. This does not bode well for the biosphere or for the many species ensconced in it, including us.

We pride ourselves, as a species, on our brilliance and technological prowess. And indeed our genius towers above that of all other species on this earth. Let’s hope we also have the wisdom to understand that with all that genius comes the responsibility to use it carefully, and always with consideration of the other species with which we share this earth. Let’s not be the bullies on the playground – or perhaps I should say, let’s stop being the bullies on the playground. The environmentalists who have known and cared about endangered species and threatened wild areas have been derided as “tree huggers.” Maybe more of us should try hugging a tree or two – metaphorically and literally.

[13]  While some of this land has been cleared by small farmers trying to escape urban poverty, most of it has been cleared for pastureland for cattle.

[14]  This particular example is especially sad, because the great percentage of nutrients in the Amazon rainforest is held in the vegetation, rather than the soil, which is very poor.  So when an area in the forest is cleared for farming, it becomes devoid of nutrients; after only a few years it cannot support agriculture and must be abandoned. See, for example:;;

[19] The oceans absorb a lot of the carbon dioxide that we emit to the atmosphere; this turns into carbonic acid, causing the acidification of the ocean, one consequence of which is the bleaching of coral reefs.

[20] There are varying estimates of the number of species on the earth, depending on whether estimates of yet-undiscovered species are included.;

[21]  Nick Hanauer is an entrepreneur who has spoken out about this. See, for example:  The billionaire Warren Buffet, clearly in the 1%, has also spoken out.

[22]  In some cases, of course, the government is the problem – note, for example how U.S. farm policy has hastened the disappearance of much native vegetation that is essential to wild bees and monarch butterflies.

[23]  The polluting of a common resource works the same way. The burning of fossil fuels is an example – in this case, the common resource is the atmosphere; no individual, or individual company, has the incentive to stop polluting the atmosphere with CO2 or other greenhouse gases as long as everyone else is doing it too.

[24] (This is an excerpt from a speech Simon gave at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney, Australia.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s