I take an evening walk up our arm of the Afon Ennig valley after reading the ‘Summary for Policy Makers’ of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Report - it's 40 pages of pretty comprehensive ecocide.
I’m trying to clear my head. This vale, still consumed with birdsong and humming with bees and insects, feels like it has avoided the destruction that I’ve just been reading about.
Looking back over Talgarth, the red kites are circling, and the hedgerows teem with spring-meadow life. And, the swifts are here again! Gangs of them screaming on crescent-moon wings. Maybe Ted Hughes was right to celebrate the portent of their arrival: They’ve made it again, / which means the globe is still working…
Solace and hope then. Until I notice that I’m gazing up at the swifts through the bare branches of a line of dying ash trees, all of them struck down by Ash dieback – a devastating blow against woodland ecology, derived from mundane import and export markets in saplings, and the vacillation of policy-makers who knew nothing and cared less about this predictable tragedy.
I turn southwards looking towards the woodlands fringing the northern escarpments of the Black Mountains. The dying ash trees have smudged the spring green of the woods with a grey mist of bare branches – it feels like my sight is failing. And the screaming of the swifts feels like a scalding now.
Returning home, I realise that there is something missing from the IPBES report after all. The need for “transformative change” is identified, and the authors warn that we, “can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo”.
But the vested interests are not identified, so I add an addendum to my copy of the report just in case the people concerned are having difficulty working out who they are.
Dear member of the Global Elite,
Embedded within the IPBES report on our extinction crisis you will find a central argument for “transformative” change to prevent mass extinction. This clarion call for a major societal shift towards sustainability cannot be ignored.
The authors of the IPBES report (under Section D) have politely outlined the key overlapping changes that are required, which I list below. In amongst their diplomacy, you may have missed your direct culpability within this extinction crisis:
The IPBES argues that we must focus on: "Enabling visions of a good quality of life that do not entail ever-increasing material consumption". Where have you provided space for this critical assessment? Your adverts promising us a good life through materialism are ubiquitous; your corporate lobbyists besiege our organs of government at every level; your logos adorn every cultural event; you are rendering us worthless outside of our ability to consume your tat. Change course.
"Lowering total consumption and waste, including by addressing both population growth and per capita consumption differently in different contexts": For your role in consumption see point (1). In respect to population growth, you have unleashed a model of ‘development’ that makes it almost impossible to ascertain the ecological impact of our numbers; a generation of neoliberalism has devastated the biosphere; economic reforms – administered through your organs of economic dictat (the IMF, World Bank and WTO) – have crippled the social and health services of the Third World for decades, undermining all the systems necessary to bring population growth under humane control; you have rendered life insecure for the poorest. Change course.
"Unleashing existing widely held values of responsibility to effect new social norms for sustainability, especially by extending notions of responsibility to include impacts associated with consumption": The direction of travel outlined by the IPBES report is clear for all to see. Whilst you scheme to realise your collective fantasies to make your countries ‘great again’, our children are school-striking to show you the error of your ways; thousands are willing to risk arrest to highlight your terminal trajectory; but still your mass media – whether owned or culturally directed by you – rejects and ridicules all necessary alternatives to the ecocidal status quo. Change course.
"Addressing inequalities, especially regarding income and gender, which undermine capacity for sustainability": Your aspirations for unspendable wealth and power mean that the 26 richest billionaires among you own as many assets as the poorest half of the globe; this obscene obsession with owning more than 4 billion people is your collective source of pride; to ensure and extend this disparity you have designed the world according to your destructive prejudices against the poor and women; and have crafted our collective suffering and insecurities through political intrigue, financial hegemony and tax-dodging deceit. Change course.
"Ensuring inclusive decision-making, fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of and adherence to human rights in conservation decisions": You have distorted democracy (where it is tolerated) through your ‘donations’ to those who align their politics with your aspirations for power; you are undermining the politics of hope and replaced it with individualist cynicism; you make claims of political supremacy for representative democracy but have undermined its ability to represent us and have replaced it with the aristocracy of the wallet. Change course.
"Accounting for nature deterioration from local economic activities and socioeconomic-environmental interactions over distances (telecouplings), including, for example, international trade": The entire architecture of global trade that you benefit from – its rules, its operations and its agreements – are undermining biodiversity and obfuscating the causes of its loss. Prices and trends in favoured agricultural commodities, coupled with land privatisation, are replacing biodiverse landscapes with monocultural homogeny. The environmental standards and enforcing agencies needed to reverse this are caricatured by you as ‘red tape’ and are being weakened to the point of irrelevance. Change course.
"Ensuring environmentally friendly technological and social innovation, taking into account potential rebound effects and investment regimes": Subsidies are too often geared towards supporting fossil-fuel based industries that are maintaining your favoured model of development. The alternatives needed for meaningful sustainability, such as agroecology, are starved of investment. Prevailing market conditions render meaningful alternatives as luxury goods whose consumption becomes a hallmark of ecological respectability for the few who can afford them. Change course.
"Promoting education, knowledge generation and maintenance of different knowledge systems, including the sciences and indigenous and local knowledge regarding nature, conservation and its sustainable use": Even where you express concern, your attempts to ameliorate our extinction crisis are wedded to elitism. From your newfound passion for the old colonial practice of ‘clearance rewilding’ to your promotion of nature financialisation (natural capital) your remedies for ecocide depend on everyone adopting the same central tenets of your economic faith – free markets and privatisation – and your ignorant patronisation of indigenous knowledge. Change course.
Maybe you need some help with self-awareness? That would be understandable. The struggle to describe you has proved difficult even for one of our most accomplished linguists, Noam Chomsky: “I don’t know what word in the English language – I can’t find one – that applies to people who are willing to sacrifice the literal existence of organized human life so they can put a few more dollars into highly stuffed pockets; The word ‘evil’ doesn’t even approach it”.
We might be stuck for adjectives, but we have a pretty useful geological metaphor available. On all the evidence laid out before us by the IPBES report – not to mention decades of ecologists’ warnings – you, our Global Elite, are as destructive of Life as the agent of the last mass extinction that collided with the Earth so catastrophically 65 million years ago.
You are our asteroid in human form, and through your actions you are doing your utmost to stop our globe from working. Change course, or we will change it for you.
Ian Rappel is a conservation ecologist. He is also a member of the Beyond Extinction Economics (BEE) network. You can read the first article in this series here.