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Biodiversity loss threatens us all

Almost 500 animals and plants have become extinct in England, and almost all within the last two centuries, a period which coincides with industrialisation and the merciless exploitation of the environment for profit.

A new report from Natural England highlights how habitat loss, inappropriate land management, environmental pollution and pressure from non-native species have all played a part in the erosion of England’s biodiversity.

All of the major groups of flora and fauna have experienced losses, with butterflies, amphibians, and many plant and other insect species being particularly hard hit – in some groups up to a quarter of species have been become extinct since 1800.

The report also lists nearly 1,000 native species whose survival is under severe threat today, and scientists working for Natural England fear that a tipping point has now been reached where the rate of extinction has outstripped evolution’s ability to generate new species:

Although changes in species populations are a natural consequence of environmental change, recent technological advances have led to humans altering species’ habitats in ways and at rates that make it impossible for them to adapt. This has led to the decline and loss of many of England’s native species, losses that matter both for the intrinsic value of the species themselves, and because they are associated with damage to our natural environment.

Or as Helen Phillips, Natural England’s Chief Executive put it: "Each species has a role and, like the rivets in an aeroplane, the overall structure of our environment is weakened each time a single species is lost."

The outcome of the past 30 years of globalisation, actively promoted by governments as the only possible way for humanity to live, is the marketisation of increasing areas of the planet. No land, habitat or species has any value to capitalism unless it can be transformed into profit.

And we can easily track this accelerating attack on bio-diversity by looking at how, as industrial production has migrated to Asia, so the rate of extinctions there has increased. Our closest ancestors are being wiped out, with more than 70% of primates now on the “Red List” of endangered species. Over half of all mammals are under threat globally.

This shows that the profit-driven capitalist market operates in ways which are the direct opposite of the evolutionary process first described by Charles Darwin. His phrase “survival of the fittest” is often wrongly connected to the notion that greed is good and the strongest will survive.

But in fact natural evolution works in favour of diversity and not in favour of reduction to the most powerful. “Fittest” in Darwin’s conception equals not physically strongest, but best adapted. In periods when our planet has provided ideal conditions for great evolutionary surges, species evolved to populate every nook and cranny, every biological niche, on land and sea, with a staggering diversity.

Darwin explains in On the Origins of Species “how plants and animals remote in the scale of nature, are bound together by a web of complex relations” and he adds that he uses the term “struggle for existence” in a large and metaphorical sense, “including dependence of one being on another”.

Unless human society begins urgently to use all its great scientific knowledge to reinstate, or finds ways of reproducing, this interdependence and co-operation between species, we risk not only the future of what the old religion called “lesser species”, but our own survival.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
11 March 2010

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