Ater all, what constitutes the norm? The norm for the last half billion years of our planet was that it was covered in forest, and teeming with life. The norm today is that most of that life has disappeared, along with the forests. 90% of the forest cover of Central America has already been destroyed, while in some countries in West Africa, such as C?te d’Ivoire, 97.5% has gone.
Unless there is a major shift in mindset and action, by the end of this century there will be nothing left at all. Those animals that can feed off humans, such as rats, parasitic worms and head-lice, will do well. So too will those animals which humans want to eat or whose bodies they want to use for raw materials.
But the rest of the animal kingdom will be confined to zoos and tiny wildlife parks.
The problem that is looming up on us is not just a loss of biodiversity, so much as a massive distortion of nature in which a handful of species run like a plague of locusts over the planet and the rest struggle to survive.
In the UK, it is estimated that the number of domestic cats is ten times greater than the number of all the natural predators put together.
In the US, there are about 50 million dogs. On the other hand, there are just a few thousand wolves, which occupy just 1% of their original range. Like their human “owners”, these dogs and cats are not a healthy part of the natural ecosystem, but are living off the flesh of other domesticated animals raised in factory farms. On the other hand, any species that dares to get in the way of human needs is under threat.
Every year, sharks in Florida or California kill one or two humans, and people throughout America go berserk. But for every human who is killed by sharks, humans kill approximately ten million sharks. This slaughter doesn’t even get into the papers. Are humans really ten million times more important? According to a local paper in Wisconsin, thirteen dogs were killed in that state by wolves in 2000.
Compare this to the 30,000 dogs and cats killed every day by humans in animal “shelters” (in the US alone). The loss of thirteen dogs (and a zero number of humans) at the hands of hungry wolves is a “scandal” that might seriously endanger their reintroduction; the cold-blooded murder of 10,000,000 dogs and cats a year (many of whom were simply lost) has not yet lead to a single prosecution.
Or compare the plague of our own species, compared with the fate of other non-human apes. There are 6,000,000,000 humans on this planet. Our closest relative is probably the bonobo. There are barely 20,000 of these left – about the population of an extremely small town. Another close relative, the chimpanzee, is in similar state. A hundred years ago, there were 500 humans for every chimpanzee. Today, there are 50,000.
Having fewer dogs and cats is unlikely to help the bonobos or chimpanzees very much. However, there is another “client” species, which has a very direct impact on the lives of other animals: the beef cattle. There are about 1.28 billion cattle on the planet.
It is probably fair to say that cattle do more environmental damage on this planet than any other species apart from humans. About two thirds of the agricultural land in Australia and North America is used either directly or indirectly for cattle. Finding more grazing land is the main force behind the destruction of the rain forests of South and Central and America.
Far from producing food, raising cattle actually destroys it. Cattle that start their lives on ranches end up in feeder lots, where they are fed on grain. This process produces a net loss of food: approximately 9kg of plant protein is needed to create a single kilogram of dead cattle.
Overall, about two thirds of the grain produced in the US, and about one third of the grain crop worldwide, is wasted in this way. Simply eliminating the beef culture would release about a quarter of the land currently used for agriculture. However, this should just be the first step.
What is needed is not a rear-guard action to save the forests that are left, or to protect the most vulnerable species. We need a sea change in mentality. We need to accept that humans are just one species among many.?Perhaps the needs of a human are more important than the needs of a pigmy chimp – but are they a million times more important? Are they even ten times more important? Indeed, if there are 6,000,000,000 of us and just 20,000 of them, couldn’t we argue that the needs of every single bonobo who is left should be taken seriously?
There are two steps that we must take immediately, even though they will take generations to complete. First, we need to re-wild as much of the planet as possible. And second, we must reduce our own population to a sustainable level: ultimately, perhaps, to about ten percent of its present size (about the same as at the beginning of the eighteenth century).
When most of the world is in ecological balance, and we are a smaller part of that balance, we will have a situation that is stable. We lived in ecological balance for thousands of times longer than the present imbalance is likely to last. Maybe it could work again.