This year is the International Year of Biodiversity, and the past week almost 20,000 people, representing the 193 parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity that was created at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, held a biodiversity summit in Nagoya, Japan. According to the press release at the end of the summit “A new era of living in harmony with Nature is born….”
Don’t bet on it. What was created in Rio was founded on “a comprehensive strategy for ‘sustainable development’ — meeting our needs while ensuring that we leave a healthy and viable world for future generations.” There are contradictions in this strategy, and meeting both of the goals, a healthy and viable world, and satisfying human needs may not be possible depending upon what we consider human needs and to what extent we want them satisfied.
To understand this, think of the planet’s biota like a living body. Every part of that body contributes something to make it what it is, from hair and skin to internal organs, to all of the micro-organisms that live in it and facilitate the conversion of nutrients to energy which gives it life. The make up and functioning of all of those parts determine what kind of life it will be. In the case of the planet all things from the largest mammal to the tiniest micro-organism contribute to what kind of society is possible.
Take something away and things change. Take too much away and the ecology adjusts to support something that may not be anything like what it was supporting. The reason biodiversity is important is that as we eliminate parts of the biota, as we have been doing, we are changing our world to one that may no longer be able to support our society.
Most scientists know this, as do others who study nature. Many politicians and business leaders either understand it, or at least know that it has gotten wide enough attention that they have to deal with it. The problem lies in the fact that modern society is built on an economic system that is at odds with environmental reality, something very difficult for those dependent on that system to accept.
One of the articles that came out of the conference was titled “Fate of Earth’s Living Beings Nears ‘Tipping Point.'” The tipping point of course is the point at which your system goes radically out of control and suffers irreversible loss. Currently we are losing species on the planet at rates much higher than normal, and that loss can be traced to the growth of human society. Humans are consuming their life support system.
This fact was made clear recently when WWF International released their Living Planet Report. Average consumption on the planet is about 50 per cent more than is sustainable, and average consumption in Canada is three or four times that. In the United States it is even more. This is a direct result of a social and economic system that is predicated on growth and accumulation of wealth.
One result of the Nagoya conference was issuing of a statement that acknowledged the environmental problems, and offered up some bandaid solutions to create the appearance that the issue was being dealt with. Promising to cut the rate of destruction of natural habitat by half, and protecting only 10 to 20 per cent of inland and coastal waters is little more than a slower form of suicide. Such an approach might make for good rhetoric to convince people that something is being done, but it is insufficient for what should be done.
The problem can not be solved without reducing overall average consumption and production on the planet, that is the fact of it. Continuing on as we do will mean that in the end we will have consumed the ability of the ecosystem to provide for us. Economists are starting to realize this and debate it, but like the results of the Nagoya and other environment summits, many are trying to make corrections within the framework of the current economic system. Logically it can not be done.
Sustainable societies are incompatible with free market, growth based systems. First and foremost building a sustainable society means developing new systems based on the fact that resources are limited and unlimited growth is a cancer.
Jerry West is the publisher, editor and janitor for The Record, an independent, progressive regional publication for Nootka Sound and Canada’s West Coast.