John Humphrys - Save the bugs: Save the planet

December 16, 2022, 3:26 PM GMT+0

This is asking a lot of you given the weather we’ve been having but try going back to a summer when the evenings were pleasant after a warm, sunny day and you decided to take a spin to a local beauty spot. When you got home you inspected the car’s windscreen and it was so splattered with dead insects you needed to sponge it clean. A bit of a nuisance eh? In a way, that’s a trick question because you will find it very difficult to recall such an evening. We don’t need to wash the dead insects away any longer. That’s because there are so few of them.

You, might say, that’s fine. It’s good to have a clean windscreen. Except that it’s not. If we are looking for a warning signal as to the massive damage we humans are inflicting on our ecological environment it’s as clear as that glass. Our generation has been responsible for massive destruction to the natural world with potentially dire consequences for those who follow us. That’s why another “Cop” has been taking place over the past week or so. It’s called the UN Biodiversity Conference. It hasn’t received anything like the attention that Cop27 in Sharm el-Sheikh received last month, let alone last year’s in Glasgow, but that’s because global warming is higher on the politicians’ list of priorities than the destruction of our ecosystem. Indeed, the only head of government who could even be bothered to attend was Justin Trudeau, and that’s because it was held in his own country, Canada.

What is your reaction to the seeming indifference of our leaders to what some regard as the greatest crisis facing our planet?

Let’s get some sense of the magnitude of this crisis and – yes – crisis is the only word to describe the mass extinction of nature. The World Wide Fund for Nature has just published its Living Planet Index for 2022. It shows that in the past fifty years there has been a decline of 69 per cent in wild species. That’s an average decline. It encompasses everything from wild tigers to those dead bugs on your windscreen. You might well respond: so what? It’s very sad that there aren’t so many tigers in India – unless you are a villager who’s scared of them – and it’s actually rather nice to have a clean windscreen. But let’s look at it another way.

Nobody can be quite sure, but the best estimates suggest there are something like 100 million species of one kind or another on this planet. Add them all together and you have what scientists call the biosphere or ecosphere. Another way of describing it is the “zone of life on Earth.” It is effectively a closed system. If one species becomes extinct it cannot be brought back to life or replaced. The best calculations show that we are destroying 27 of them every single day. As I write there is a real risk to one million species: plants, insects, invertebrates and animals.

The renowned Cambridge economist Sir Partha Dasgupta produced a deeply disturbing report last year in which he made the case that we are entirely dependent on our biosphere for food, water, fibres, timber and medicines. Without nature’s regulating and maintenance services, he said, “life as we know it would not be possible”. One example of what can happen when we ignore the dangers of interfering with nature struck vast numbers of us only couple of years ago. We called it Covid. Covid is a zoonotic disease, which is an infectious disease that is transmitted between species from animals to humans (or from humans to animals).

But let’s look on the bright side. It is surely encouraging that so many countries are represented in Canada at the conference: 196 to be precise. The two that are not there are the smallest, Vatican State, and the most influential, the USA. That omission alone says a lot about the prospects for serious steps to be taken.

The environmentalist George Monbiot says that “through its undemocratic dominance of global governance, the US makes the rules, to a greater extent than any other state. It also does more than any other to prevent both their implementation and their enforcement. Its refusal to ratify treaties such as the convention on biological diversity provides other nations with a permanent excuse to participate in name only. Like all imperial powers, its hegemony is expressed in the assertion of its right not to care.

“The question that assails those who strive for a kinder world is always the same but endlessly surprising: how do we persuade others to care? The lack of interest in resolving our existential crises, expressed by the US Senate in particular, is not a passive exceptionalism. It is an active, proud and furious refusal to care about the lives of others. This refusal has become the motive force of the old-new politics now sweeping the world. It appears to be driving a deadly, self-reinforcing political cycle.”

So, if we cannot rely on our political lords and masters to set us on the right path what hope do we have of passing on to our children and grandchildren a world that is still living in any real sense of the word? One approach is that is we must take more responsibility for ourselves.

Lord Hague offers an example of his own contribution. Four years ago, he and his wife decided to restore a ruined wall garden. The problem was that it was home to a colony of great crested newts. That’s the sort of thing that makes developers throw up their hands in horror. But instead of abandoning their plans the Hagues decided to make a virtue of the newts and, as he put it, “design a garden full of nooks, crannies and water.” Now, he says, “we have a garden not only overflowing with newts but also with many other creatures, adding to the local ecosystem and pollinating the large quantities of food we grow ourselves. There was a one-off cost to doing this, which in accounting terms means we are worse off for having done it. Yet on any common-sense basis we are better off for the rest of our lives, with our natural capital greatly enhanced, and we certainly feel that is true.”

But here’s another little anecdote that looks at the other side of that hopeful little venture. I was invited to a Christmas party by new neighbours who had spent a small fortune redesigning their house. They were rightly proud of it. I was impressed – until they took me into the garden. And, yes, you may have guessed: an artificial lawn. I tried to conceal my horror – and failed. I wanted to point out that artificial “turf” uses huge amounts of plastic of a type that cannot be recycled. Astro turf has a massive carbon footprint. When the so-called “lawns” are replaced (as they must be) billions of tiny fragments of plastic will remain in the soil for centuries. There are no benefits to wildlife at all. When I watched the birds pecking at my own (very muddy) lawn the next morning I confess to feeling pretty smug.

So where do you stand in this debate? Are you worried about what is happening to our ecosystem and if you are who do you blame? Governments or great corporate manufacturers or farmers? Or us? You and me? And can you see any grounds for optimism?

Let me know what you think.

Photo: Getty

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