Having now had a little more time to gather my thoughts and do some internet research, it’s time to talk about Tony Juniper and Paul De Zylva’s talk on biodiversity that I attended on day 2 of the national Friends of the Earth conference. After two particularly conceptual, theoretical (philosophical?) posts, I will try to make this a little more applicable, though, once again, it involves concepts of value. This is because, at a practical, yet cynical level, eco systems are often referred to in terms of their potential economic value – the potential fiscal reward they could have to us humans. Although this line of thought may seem reductionist and andocentric, it can be seen, at times, to have positive effects, in that it can motivate companies and governments to protect areas of biodiversity. In the long run however, it’s got a long way to go.
Quite how far it has to go was highlighted by something Tony Juniper said about economic growth being dependent on things like soil, water and climate stability. In the case of each of these, it is easy to think of examples of companies causing wilful damage to elements that we rely on for our very existence on earth. Soil is abused with chemicals, to such a level that, even in the UK, we have to make a concerted effort to buy organic produce. Water, like the Chinese rivers featured in Greenpeace’s recent detox campaign, or those affected by the Tar Sands in Alberta, Canada, is polluted with toxins and chemical run offs – essentially poisoned. As for the climate, I don’t really think an example is necessary. In these cases, applying fiscal value simply hasn’t happened, assumably because the rewards are unconfined, long term and not immediately forth coming – whereas, discovering natural elements that could be sold to the drug industry, for example, has immediate, multi-million implications.
This point was illustrated with a thought provoking example as one of the talk’s attendees asked whether a cost could be put on breathing. Paul De Zylva did some calculations (how he did this, I have no idea) and reported back that breathing could be priced at about £17 per week. An interesting offshoot of this concept is whether the developed nations should be paying forested nations to protect their woodland areas. If this thought seems a bit bizarre at first, consider the problems that have been encountered at COP* summits as developing nations rightly point out that, although the developed nations caused most of the climate damage during their unrestricted periods of growth, these poorer nations are being required to check their carbon emissions during their own industrial booms. Our current concepts of economic growth place no importance on the environment or matters of biodiversity. Maybe a shift in focus, even if it is fiscally based, is needed to help preserve the environment.
But, there are dangers to viewing our natural world through this very reductionist perspective. It seems to fast-track ideas centralising around our potential use of things, and promotes shoddy shortcuts to achieving environmental goals. For instance, discussion was raised during the biodiversity talk as to whether it matters if we loose certain species if we already have their genetics recorded and stored in gene banks. As Paul De Zylva pointed out, the answer is yes, it matters, because contained in gene storage these organisms have no opportunity to maintain the symbiotic relationships they would otherwise have with other organisms in the outside world. In essence, the links in the web of life are lost.
Other examples of our tampering with nature for our own benefits have recently featured in New Scientist magazine, including the release of ‘anti-dengue’ mosquitoes in Australia and ‘autocidal’ mosquitoes and caterpillars in Brazil. Where the ‘anti-dengue’ mosquitos have been infected with a bacteria which should limit the spread of dengue fever, the insects released in Brazil have been genetically modified to produce off-spring that will die before they are able to breed. Although biologists have stated that these methods are believed to be very safe, not-for-profit research organisation EcoNexus expressed concerns of ‘potential knock-on effects on many other organisms.’
Though I sometimes wonder whether I am being a modern-day eco-luddite, I share EcoNexus’s concerns. GM crops have been seen to spread worryingly across South America, destroying healthy plants; and in the USA the use of ‘terminator seeds’ and seed patenting is making small scale farming a virtual impossibility as the unethical giant Monsanto monopolises the field. At the same time, increasingly strong pesticides have been required, damaging the soil and threatening human health. In India, GM cotton crops have failed, and suicides amongst impoverished, desperate farmers have become common. With these problems rife in the agricultural world, there seems to be real basis to concerns about genetically modifying insects. And, in the long run, is destroying a species, even a troublesome species which we have no value for, something we should be doing?