Population Matters

Wanted: A “Pro-Life*” Movement

May 19th, 2010

Since its appropriation by the anti-abortion movement more than three decades ago, the term “pro-life” has been confined to the survival of the human fetus. The term “life,” on the other hand, is much broader than that, and extends to all forms of life, including extraterrestrial life, if such a thing exists.

The time has come for a “pro-life*” movement, one that puts the protection of biodiversity as one of our highest priorities. [The “*” is intended to clarify that we mean “all life on Earth.”]

This past week, the world received a report card on terrestrial life from the Convention on Biological Diversity, and except for human population, which continues to expand briskly, other forms of terrestrial life are not doing so well. In its third Global Biodiversity Outlook report (GBO-3), the CBD noted that the population of wild vertebrate species (what we commonly think of as animals, including birds and fish) “fell by an average of nearly one- third (31%) globally between 1970 and 2006, with the decline especially severe in the tropics (59%) and in freshwater ecosystems (41%).”

As distressing as those number are–and for anybody who is concerned about the fate of the planet or humanity those numbers are very distressing–the worst is yet to come. Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the CBD warned in a statement: “The news is not good. We continue to lose biodiversity at a rate never before seen in history.” The GBO-3 report put it more bluntly: “swift, radical and creative action” must be taken, or “massive further loss is increasingly likely.”

 If you are not yet alarmed, consider some of the other findings in the GBO-3: 

  • Farmland bird populations in Europe have declined by on average 50% since 1980.
  • Bird populations in North American grasslands declined by nearly 40% between 1968 and 2003, showing a slight recovery over the past five years; those in North American drylands have declined by nearly 30% since the late 1960s.
  • Of the 1,200 water bird populations with known trends, 44% are in decline.
  • 42% of all amphibian species and 40% of bird species are declining in population.

These findings are consistent with warnings by biologists, like Harvard’s E.O. Wilson, that the rate of plant and animal extinction is running 500 to 1,000 times faster than before human activity began altering the planet. They are also consistent with warnings by Wilson and others that half of all animal and plant species could be endangered by the end of the century…or much sooner.

The GBO-3 report also warns that the loss of biodiversity in many critical inhabitants is approaching possible tipping points. Not surprisingly, the Amazon forest is approaching its tipping point:

 The Amazon forest, due to the interaction of deforestation, fire and climate change, could undergo a widespread dieback, with parts of the forest moving into a self-perpetuating cycle of more frequent fires and intense droughts leading to a shift to savanna-like vegetation. While there are large uncertainties associated with these scenarios, it is known that such dieback becomes much more likely to occur if deforestation exceeds 20 – 30% (it is currently above 17% in the Brazilian Amazon).

In its efforts to prevent the loss of biological diversity, the CBD puts primary emphasis on the “direct drivers” of species loss. They are: habitat loss or change, overexploitation, pollution, invasive alien species, and climate change. Each of these direct drivers is a byproduct of two “indirect” drivers, namely population growth and rising per capita consumption of natural resources.

If, however, all we do is address the “direct” drivers, without dealing with the “indirect” drivers, the cause of preventing the loss of biological diversity is almost certainly lost. Without some reduction in population pressures or a change in global consumption patterns, virtually no one expects any let up in the “direct” drivers, including climate change.

That leaves us with the “indirect” drivers. Let’s take the issue of consumption first. I do not know of a single national government that is actively pursuing a policy of lowering per capita consumption. Indeed, most countries, including our own, are engaged in a headlong campaign to boost economic output, and by implication, the consumption of material goods. Given the effects of the Great Recession, that’s understandable, but absent some serious effort to slow the human consumption that is endangering wildlife, that only leaves us with the other “indirect” driver (i.e. population). Unless we can do a more (a lot more) to avoid unwanted pregnancies, in developed and developing countries alike, the “pro-life*” movement that I am proposing will never have much success.

That’s not to say that we don’t need action on all the “direct” drivers, particularly climate change. A “pro-life*” movement, if such a movement is to be effective, should do everything in its power to preserve biological diversity–but let’s start by empowering women everywhere and giving them the information and means to avoid unwanted or unintended pregnancies. Anything less means that the Sixth Mass Extinction, which biologists warn is already under way, could be as devastating as scientists fear.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

One Response to “Wanted: A “Pro-Life*” Movement”

  1. Yahya A Says:

    The argument is sound. Yes, we need to drastically reduce population pressures, and soon. Yes, we must reverse the consumption spiral. Just supposing, for a moment, that we can radically reduce the effects of these two indirect drivers, then we can probably also reduce the impacts of the direct drivers which they fuel. We may thus have a real chance of stopping the current mass extinction in its tracks.

    The argument is sound, but the name stinks! 😉 Who but a technically literate (OK, I really mean “geeky”) person, would even understand “pro-life*” – let alone know how to say it? So it’ll never catch on. Also, “pro-life” is a label chosen by groups not well-known for rational and balanced discussion. So giving your sound ideas and arguments a label that piggybacks on such a label, directly invites instant dismissal of your ideas and their proponents – both yourself and all your allies. Hardly wise, in my estimation. I think it better to distance myself from any possible association with irrationality or reactionary thinking.

    I prefer to think in terms of the “creative surplus” – of useful production over useless consumption. If I eat a grown man’s food every day, and use that energy to create some goods or services of greater value to the world than the food I ate, I have a creative surplus. (It doesn’t happen every day! Nor even every year 🙁 …) If I don’t, I must acknowledge that I’m a drain on the world’s resources – and that means on the resources available to a honeybee, a bacterium or a saltwater crocodile as much as to a human being. (You see, I really AM for all life!)

    Of course, the accounting of such creative economics involves some serious value judgements; it’s far more than mere dollars and cents can measure; it’s more about what makes sense than what makes cents. But the important thing is this: that no matter how hard it is to make such an accounting, I do hold myself accountable.

    And by the way, I hold you accountable, too ;-). Not to me, but to the totality of this amazing experiment called “life”, wherever it may be found and whatever form it may take. Because the hallmark of living, as opposed to nonliving, things is that they are creative. They transform raw inputs into finished outputs, in the process increasing order and organisation, and decreasing entropy. Their outputs are also preferred by other living things to the raw inputs; in that sense, they’ve done somebody a good turn.

    Creative living things do good for every other living thing. You might say, if you really want to use Latin tags, that they are PRO BONO PUBLICUM. Or even Pro Bono Universum!

    Actually, I’d be happy to be considered even Pro Bono Bonobo … But perhaps PRO BONO VIVUM would do us for a label?

    Another approach might highlight the urgency of the need for the best possible care and expert attention, using a suitable label such as LIFE SUPPORT.

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