The Irish Times view on the world’s animal population: a catastrophic global wipe-out

At this perilous moment, many politicians are rejecting both the science and the kind of environmental regulation that this situation demands

A photo taken on May 21st 2015 shows an elephant at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy at the foot of Mount Kenya, approximately 300 km north of the capital Nairobi. “Runaway consumption” has decimated global wildlife, triggered a mass extinction and exhausted Earth’s capacity to accommodate humanity’s expanding appetites, the global conservation group WWF warned on Tuesday. Photograph: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

A photo taken on May 21st 2015 shows an elephant at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy at the foot of Mount Kenya, approximately 300 km north of the capital Nairobi. “Runaway consumption” has decimated global wildlife, triggered a mass extinction and exhausted Earth’s capacity to accommodate humanity’s expanding appetites, the global conservation group WWF warned on Tuesday. Photograph: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

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The catastrophic decline in world animal populations since 1970, detailed in the 2018 Living Planet Index published by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with the continuous degradation of habitats, locally and globally, over the same period.

Nevertheless, particular examples should still have the power to shock us, and galvanise us into long-delayed action to halt and begin to reverse this collapse. Even the charisma of the orangutan has been no protection: its population in Borneo has halved in 15 years. Central and South America, which many of us still imagine to be havens of almost infinite biodiversity, suffered an 89 per cent loss in species populations.

Nor is Ireland an exception to the global trend, according to the director of the National Biodiversity Data Centre, Liam Lysaght. One-third of our bee species is either regionally extinct or vulnerable. We are very close to losing the curlew as a breeding species. Most of our important habitats are in bad or inadequate ecological condition.

The WWF report rightly stresses the triple link between species population declines, habitat losses, and the culture of ever-increasing consumerism that now dominates the behaviour of our own species.

But we must be very careful to distinguish between such consumerism, artificially stimulated by a rapacious and unregulated market system, and the satisfaction of real human needs. The blunt reality is that many of us consume many more resources than we need for a good life, while much of the world’s human population still lacks access to basic necessities.

The bitter irony is that it is the world’s poorest people who are at most immediate risk from the decline of animal populations and the degradation of the habitats that sustain them. This happens through the globalisation of unsustainable land management, which today includes climate change. It is the very poor who suffer first when food species disappear, when the wells run dry.

Yet we are all on the same planet, and if we continue to consume more than nature can renew we are indeed “sleepwalking to a cliff edge”, as a WWF spokesperson put it. The report is correct to stress this paradox: “The evidence becomes stronger every day that humanity’s survival depends on our natural systems, yet we continue to destroy the health of nature at an alarming rate”.

It is even more alarming that, at this perilous moment, so many politicians are rejecting both the science that is informing us with increasing precision of our situation, and the kind of environmental regulation that this situation demands.

Liam Lysaght is correct to say that the pattern of decline can be reversed, given the proper commitment. But it is hard to see that many leaders are listening to that message, at home or abroad.

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