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Earth's early warning system is dying

Scientists working for the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) have identified more than a dozen factors behind the colony collapse affecting bee populations across the world.

Factors ranging from the decline of flowering plants and the use of memory-damaging insecticides to the world-wide spread of pests and air pollution, are contributing to the collapse.

And these factors are being multiplied and spread across the world by the uncontrolled and unconsidered corporate-driven globalisation of agriculture and international trade.

The report warns that “without profound changes to the way human-beings manage the planet, declines in pollinators needed to feed a growing global population are likely to continue”.

The Increasing use of chemicals, including “systemic insecticides” and those used to coat seeds, is damaging or toxic to bees. Unplanned combinations of chemicals can be even more damaging, the so-called “cocktail effect”.

And finally, climate change will aggravate the situation in various ways including by changing the flowering times of plants and shifting rainfall patterns, affecting the quantity and quality of available nectar.

Bees are the planet’s early warning system, and indicators of wider impacts on animal and plant life, including human life. Food production is not possible without bees – and the fate of many other economically and environmentally-important plants and animals is linked to theirs. Of the 100 crop species that provide 90% of the world's food, over 70 are pollinated by bees.

The authors of the report call for farmers and landowners to be offered incentives to restore pollinator-friendly habitats, and for more care to be taken in the choice, timing and application of insecticides and other chemicals.

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP executive director, said:

The way humanity manages or mismanages its nature-based assets, including pollinators, will in part define our collective future in the 21st century.

Human beings have fabricated the illusion that in the 21st century they have the technological prowess to be independent of nature. Bees underline the reality that we are more, not less dependent on nature's services in a world of close to seven billion people.

He is absolutely right. The profit monomania of capitalism, which is presented by governments, educators and neo-classical economic “experts” as the natural order of things, is in fact an unnatural disorder. Present social relations alienate us from nature, which is then exploited as a “resource”.

The labour of human beings transforms the natural resources provided by the eco-system into commodities for sale without regard to the consequences, which include climate change, the loss of species as well as the collapse of bee colonies. Reckless expansion in the name of the sacred cow of “growth” during the last 30 years has left the eco-system bereft and in many areas, close to collapse.

And rather than implementing the kinds of useful measures proposed by this report, capitalism is powering ahead with the global land grab and the expansion of industrial forms of agriculture to new areas. They are pushing humanity to many tipping points that can’t be ignored, including the disaster of a world with no pollinators.

This is the contradiction facing humanity – the eco-system, including human beings, can’t continue to exist if the capitalist mode of production continues to exist – and yet the conservative weight of the system’s ideology tell us there is no alternative.

Resolving this contradiction is a must to enable humanity to make a leap to a different future based on ourselves as part of nature and not its enemy.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
10 March 2011

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