Some hope for our Living Planet

[This article originally appeared in The London Economic]

Conservationists, scientists, farmers and psychologists met yesterday at London Zoo to discuss the future of our planet and its capacity for sustaining life.

Despite grim forecasts of a Mad-Max-style landscape, those speaking at the event offered some hope as they outlined our potential survival strategies.

The one day symposium revolved around findings of the 2016 Living Planet Report, a planetary health check carried out every two years by the WWF, ZSL and others. Published just last month, the most recent report made headlines with facts like these:

  • We have lost over 58 per cent of vertebrate animals since 1970
  • If we carry on as normal, we will have lost 67 per cent by 2020
  • Half of all rivers are unnatural
  • 75 per cent of all food produced consists of just 12 plants and 5 animals

The report also joined a growing body of scientific organisations officially recognising that we have entered The Anthropocene, a new geological epoch created by Homo sapiens. Not only have we humans dominated all other species, but the science shows we are now the dominant influence on the very composition of our planet’s rocks and gases.

Image: Cugerbrant / Wikimedia Commons

Against this apocalyptic backdrop, Professor Heather Koldeway stressed the importance of avoiding the culture of hopelessness, or what others have called “Ecophobia”, “Environmental Grief” and “Compassion Fatigue”.

Professor Koldeway went on to showcase initiatives that are removing plastic from our oceans in powerful ways, such as Net-Works and the #OneLess campaign. She and others are planning to make London the first capital city free of single-use plastic water bottles by 2021 – and with the runaway success of the nation’s plastic bag charge and London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s election pledge earlier this year to “lead on reducing the city’s waste footprint”, this is no pipedream.

After describing soy as “palm oil’s lesser known commodity cousin” in its destruction of tropical forests and savannahs, fellow optimist Dr Emma Keller explained some of the successes WWF have had in recent years: a scorecard putting pressure on companies, an effective consumer campaign and an indefinitely extended mortarium in the Amazon.

Diet was pivotal to the 2016 Living Planet Report and yesterday’s symposium. Of the 3.9 billion tonnes of food produced every year, one third is wasted.

The report explains that almost 80 per cent of agricultural land is allocated to livestock, despite these animals providing just 17 per cent of our calorie intake and 33 per cent of our protein consumption. The growing consensus is that we need to eat less meat – but how?

Some subtle “nudging” ideas were floated by behavioural psychologist Toby Park, who described plans to sell vegetarianism to meat-eaters as a “lost cause”. He suggested supermarket receipts could illustrate the carbon footprint of our trips to the supermarket, perhaps even comparing these footprints against our average shopper.

Another technique could draw inspiration from the success of “opt-out” organ donation schemes – if greener meals were reframed as the default option, we can imagine a drastic shift in behaviour simply because many of us would be too lazy to bother “opting in” for our meat.

Image: NASA / Wikimedia Commons

The single greatest annihilator of life on Earth was identified in the Living Planet Report as habitat loss, mostly driven by the expansion of industrial agriculture and entirely driven by human demands.

While efforts have traditionally focused on conservation and preservation, back-to-the-land dairy farmer and sustainable agriculturalist Patrick Holden rallied against the distinction between agriculture and the natural world.

While describing places like Mount Egmont National Park (pictured above) as “fantastic” and “necessary”, he argued that with the right incentives the farmland surrounding these places could also become sites of biodiversity.

“I’m not claiming of course that if we simply rewilded our land we wouldn’t have better biodiversity habitats,” he said, clarifying that he was “not against rewilding per se”. His message, communicated somewhat provocatively, seemed to be that a land-sharing approach and a land-sparing approach can and should complement one another.

The symposium’s menu of planetary survival strategies also included family planning, alongside methods for controlling the wildlife trade, invasive species and wildlife diseases.

There was even some optimism in the shadow of Donald Trump’s climate change denial. WWF’s Climate Change Chief Advisor explained that given 360 companies have written to Trump and told him how important the Paris Agreement was to them, “as a businessman I can’t see him [not ratifying the agreement] because there are so many people telling him not to.”

A more cynical but nonetheless determined Professor Andy Purvis had this to say in regards to the scientific data behind the Living Planet Report:

“We are trying to make it as available as possible, and as scientifically credible as we can, to make the watertight case in the hope that at some point the current tide of post-fact policy will recede.”

You can read the full Living Planet Report here.


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