So, what does the future look like, anyway? Rats and weeds, I have found, and here’s how.
I wrote this after seeing a sobering graphic over at XKCD, showing that basically all surviving land mammals exist for our sake.
This probably has something to do with the fact that over 40% of the Earth’s biologically captured energy goes to feed 7 billion of us. Our numbers, predicted to level out to 9 or 10 billion by 2050, already leave damn little room for any other mammals. Every species that wants to survive had better figure out how to be tasty.
While domestication is a great evolutionary choice for a couple of dozen species, there is another winning strategy in a world made human. Rats. Any species that can make use of waste food and waste spaces will thrive in the human ecosystem. Any mammal, bird or bug you see around you is there because it can take advantage of the human landscape. Some animals, like rats, pigeons, house finches, and cockroaches, do best in the most human environments. They’ll do fine in this bare new world.
The rest of the mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and insects will have to become food, rats, or go extinct.
But what if this thought depresses you, dear English-language reader on a computer probably in America? Americans make up less than 5% of the Earth, but attract a global network of goods and capital to their homes and businesses, for energy, goods, and even food. The average footprint of an American is 13 hectares, meaning we each need that much resource just to live in America, People around the world make their livings off the cash that we in America and the west are willing to send their way for goods and commodities. One of the goods we find most valuable in thsio trade is pollution. Pittsburgh and Chicago are very clean cities now. One hundred ago they were remarkably filthy, industrial cities. Many cities in China, India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Bangladesh, are now filthy, industrial cities. One hundred years ago they were bucolic, colonial or feudal places. The scale of development and growth in the rest is largely in service of markets in the west.
Along with good roads, predictable real estate markets, enforceable contracts, and gadgets, markets in the west value biological conservation. For conservation to work globally, it must confer more fitness on nations, communities and property owners than extraction. Conservation right now is a luxury affordable by those with more fitness. Conservation is no longer the cause of this fitness, however, but a perceived good by those wealthy enough to not worry about making a living off extraction from the land. Conservation, or at least stewardship of resources pertinent to agriculture or commodities, was foundational to this wealth, but in the distant past. We now have the cash and logistics to buy what we want from overseas.
The rest are in a different bind. Still emerging from penury, conservation of land, nature and species is pretty far from their minds. Since the flood of wealth is largely from without, there is little incentive to steward local resources for the future. The future is connected and fungible, not local. The reason Shrimp Scampi is so cheap at restaurants is that Thailand cleared its mangrove forest to set up Shrimp mariculture to feed profitable American diners. Education or external incentives form the west will not alter this. The average Congolese citizen knows how to make a living, and conservation is not part of that plan. Making a living trumps conservation, every time.
The problem with food and land is that they are not substitutable. We all need food, and we would all like better food if we can afford it. This is not liken energy or gadgets, unfortunately. Developing nations do not have to build coal-fired power plants and use incandescent light bulbs with solar panels and LEDs developed in the west getting more effective every year. The only way to make food more efficient for a world of 10 billion people would be to use less energy per pound of food. In other words, vegetarianism or veganism. This gets back to the second problem with food. People want better food if they can afford it. Until there is a bespoke Turnip that is more delicious, nutritious, and expensive than Salmon, meat is going to be what families around the world strive to eat as often as possible. Conscience is a luxury, and greed is an honest emotion.
So what to do? Cost benefit analysis and education campaigns are bunk. We are all excellent at computing our own cost benefit analyses in real time, and our findings often run counter to the received wisdom of the Solons. The UN can release a 500 page study,with 15 page abstract in policy English and translated into 40 languages, and 1% of the people in the world responsible for the decline in species diversity will read it. Of those 1%, 99% of them will not do anything about it. Policy reports often stridently recommend that sovereign nations or local communities form action plans around their prescription, but these plans are rarely as compelling as the status quo. The status quo is often driven by state policies more compelling than the latest plan. I would not be sitting here typing with a few regulations and standards enforced over the last century on road capacity and parking, for example. If the government tells me it would be a good idea to drive less, I might agree in words, but everything built around me says I should drive more.
Anything that is going to work has to be more compelling at a personal, household, and market level than whatever went before. Any serious solution must identify the pieces of a new scheme that is going to work better for people, not because its the right thing to do, but because it makes them better off.
I left conservation biology over a decade ago because I saw that it was not equipped to deal with the challengers it set itself against. My upcoming book “The Land Less Taken”, is about a pro-growth way to develop that improves transportation and land use choice. These questions of individual fitness were always on my mind when I was writing it.
Friday, I will write a shorter piece following up on this one.