The Great Acceleration and the Not-So-Living Planet

Humans exist because of Nature and everything we have, everything we are comes from Nature. Nature is important for our mental and spiritual health and wellbeing, our food supply, our wealth, our science and security. And yet political and business decisions, as well many of our personal decisions, are taken treating Nature as a ‘nice to have’. Not only, the exploding human population and our irreverence for the natural world has brought about the great acceleration.

Image of a landfill - the great acceleration

The World Wildlife Fund has published its 2018 Living Planet Report on the state of the Earth. Scientific research from across the world has contributed to the findings of this report and it all points in one direction – nature is vital for our existence.

Painkillers, treatment for heart conditions and high blood pressure and cancer cures are all inspired by wild species. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that there are as many as 50,000 to 70,000 medicinal and aromatic plants used industrially. 70% of new small molecule drugs introduced worldwide over the past 25 years have come from, or have been inspired by, a natural source. Wild animals, plants, fungi and microbes have always underpinned human wellbeing. We can now see how intelligent nature is and through the process of biomimicry we hope to be able to copy nature’s processes to solve human problems such as those relating to resource efficiency and renewable energy. The tragedy is that we are destroying this intelligent source of life that is in fact that which keeps us alive.

We are beginning to understand that the indigenous communities that have long been persecuted to extinction or near extinction, hold a most valuable understanding that has a rich social, cultural and spiritual significance for us. The changing planetary conditions are being increasingly linked to socio-economic disruptions.

We are living through a period that is unprecedented in the 4.5 billion years of life on Earth. Humanity’s population is exploding with economic activity increasing at an increasing rate, depleting the Earth’s resources, this is the Great Acceleration. The great acceleration is driving planetary change through the increased demand of energy, land and water. Since the 1800 global population has grown seven-fold to 7.6 billion and the global economy has increased thirty-fold.

Such is the impact of the Great Acceleration that scientists are calling this the Anthropocene Age or the age of humans. We should realise that this Great Acceleration has only been possible because of Nature. Without healthy natural systems we are like a car driving at an insane speed towards a brick wall.

Image of trucks and equipment In a quarry - the great acceleration

In a recent paper published in the journal Nature researchers have analysed that of the major threats to the 8,500 species on the IUCN Red List are overexploitation and agriculture that is driven by human consumption. Overexploitation is the politically correct term for ‘killed by humans’. Invasive species introduced by human activity, pollution, dams, deliberate fires to clear forests and mining are other contributors to biodiversity loss. Our consumption of natural resources has gone up by 190% in the past 50 years.

Wherever there is an exploitation of Earth’s resources we are destroying the ability of that particular ecosystem to renew itself. Moreover as the product of the exploitation is not consumed where it is manufactured, grown or extracted we are irreversibly harming a number of ecosystems along the supply chain. For example massive deforestation is undertaken in order to make way for the soy and oil palms plantations. Soy and palm oil are used as ingredients in animal feed and processed foods that are distributed worldwide.

The WWF report talks of the use of technology and big data that should help us understand the impact and the remedies to biodiversity loss. We are really losing the plot here. We all know what we are doing wrong. The idea that we need to spend time collecting and collating data before we can act while we continue to destroy nature at an increasingly exponential rate is ludicrous and is the fruit of the mentality that has caused this mess in the first place.

We should stop burning fossil fuels and producing single use plastic. We should cut our meat consumption by at least half. We should go out into the seas and oceans and get all that toxic plastic out. We should start massive reforestation and wild habitats restoration works. We should stop all hunting and trapping. We should deploy the military to safeguard and protect nature. We should have fishing moratoriums on large portions of the oceans and seas so that marine life populations can recuperate, grow and thrive. This just for starters. We are in a state of emergency and we should behave like we understand this.

Image of a herd of deer crossing a road - the great acceleration

Temperate, tropical and boreal forest cover only 30% of the Earths land area. Importantly however they are home to 80% of the planet’s terrestrial species.

Habitat disruption in the form of forest fragmentation is a major threat to biodiversity. It is estimated that in 70% of forest mass on Earth the forest edge can be found within a mean distance of less than one km. This has a huge impact on the structure and quality of wildlife habitat. It hinders the ability of wildlife to move from one forest mass to another. It has a massively negative effect on forest microclimate and water flow as well on the ecological dynamics between the greater forest mass ecosystem’s open spaces. There is a direct correlation between forest fragmentation and an increases in hunting and trapping, logging, fuel wood collection, exploitation of the forest for bushmeat and plants for food and medicine. A recent assessment found that only a quarter of the land on earth is substantively free of any human activity. By 2050 this is expected to decline to one tenth.

There is a harmful interaction between land degradation and poverty, between conflicts and human migration. Degraded lands bleed sediments and nutrients in rivers or exports windswept dust to distant locations. Land degradation is a big contributor to global warming. Habitat loss is a key driver to the biodiversity losses that have now catastrophically snowballed into the 6th mass extinction of species in Earth’s history, this time around totally caused by humans.

The report plainly states that urgent coordinated local, national and international action is necessary to slow and reverse the pervasive undermining of the basis of life on Earth.

People have always cleared forest for food and farming and the harvesting of forest resources in order to sustain their livelihoods and local economy. With the advent of globalisation however the forest clearing processes have become industrial in order to satisfy global demand. Tropical forests in South America, sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia are most under threat. Between 2000 and 2010 commercial and local agriculture were responsible for 40% and 33% respectively of forest destruction in tropical and sub-tropical areas. The remaining 27% of forest clearance was due to urban development, mining and roads, communication and telecommunication infrastructure expansion.

Image of a logs and deforestation - the great acceleration

Forests are slowly but surely suffering death by a thousand cuts because of the ecocide being wrought by the great acceleration. In a few hundred years we have destroyed what has been millions of years in the making. We exist in a vast universe and the wholesale extinction of life on Earth will pass unnoticed – the fact is that, ultimately, we are the losers.

Article published in the Sunday Times of Malta, 1st December 2019