The War on Nature


from the New Unionist, February 2002

The War on Nature

By Linda Featheringill

The rapid extinction of plant and animal species now occurring has led scientists to call it the sixth great extinction, comparable to the one that eliminated the dinosaurs.

Most of us are aware of the larger animals that are in danger or already gone. But we may comfort ourselves by saying that while tigers and bears are beautiful, they're not really essential to our lives. And of course this is so.

What we may not realize is that this extinction is reaching into all corners of the biosphere and some of the affected living things are essential to our well-being and survival.

Victims of extinction are first stressed by loss of habitat, due mainly to global warming, encroachment of their territory by "development" carried on by humans, and the byproducts of human existence in the form of pollution.

Living things, in a weaker condition, are more vulnerable to disease, hunger and competition by other species. Their hold on life is not as secure, and individuals die off.

When enough individuals are gone the entire species disappears. This is true for animals, plants and minute creatures that are more difficult to classify.

Deserts are expanding daily and there is no sign that this will stop any time soon. If deserts continue to grow there will likely be fewer living things on the planet.

If desertification can be stopped, there probably will be about the same number of living individuals on earth as there is now. Those that survive will multiply.

In any case, areas that lie outside of the deserts will continue to be densely populated with plants and animals for quite some time. We may not be able to tell the difference at a casual glance.

However, these survivors will be aggressive and adaptable. That's how they will survive.

Humans, of course, are very aggressive and very adaptable. Individual people may succumb to the pressures but our species as a whole will probably make it. However, life will be harder on all humans.

Humans will have to compete with the rest of nature. They will have to cope with a planet full of plants and animals that are able and willing to compete fiercely for food and territory.

People will have to give up the myth the whole earth exists for human benefit. They will frequently face evidence that nature is full of creatures that don't like humans. They may even have to accept the possibility that nature itself doesn't like humans very much.

The days of peaceful harvesting the fruits of a generous and docile earth will end.

People will also find it harder to find food. Remember that humans, like other predators, live at the top of the food chain. They are, therefore, absolutely dependent on that chain remaining intact.

A break in the chain at any point puts all creatures above it in danger. The integrity of the food chain is not dependent on the creatures at the top.

That's why we actually can live without tigers and bears. All of life depends on the creatures at the bottom. Many of the living things that are dying are those that make up the bottom of the food chain ? the tiny, creepy-crawly things on land and the microscopic, squiggly things in water.

It will become harder to grow food. It isn't dirt that feeds plants but the chemical compounds that rest inside of the dirt. These compounds are produced by bacteria, fungi and tiny insects. As these little things disappear, and they are dying, soils will become less fertile.

Food crops for humans are also desirable to other animals. In the future people will have to fight harder to protect their food from aggressive insects and animals. What we now call "pests" will be promoted to "enemies."

Humans can look forward to new and deadly diseases.

Germs, the things that cause disease, are living things. They require food from a host in order to survive. Diseases, even plagues and epidemics, recede when the organisms run out of hosts.

But a small portion of all disease-causing organisms is adaptable and aggressive. As the current hosts become extinct the adaptable organisms will invade other living things in order to not become extinct themselves.

Many will experiment with new hosts and new environments, and some of them will succeed in living in humans. These will cause brand new diseases, and humans will have no natural defenses against them.

In the past, when a new disease was introduced to a population of humans about a third of that population died. Epidemics of all types are quite likely to happen more frequently. Some of the new diseases may not be fatal, but will be very unpleasant.

For example, several fungus species can live on a human host today. There will probably be more in the future. Parasites of all kinds will have to change hosts or die off, and some of the new hosts will be human. These invaders can make life ugly and painful.

Life could be even worse than this. The unpleasant scenes described above actually describe the optimistic picture. There are more deadly, worst-case scenarios.

An unfortunate fact is that many of the endangered species are plants. Only plants can change the sun's energy into food. Only plants can change carbon dioxide into oxygen.

Other plants will survive, of course, and will participate in a new community of plant life. The new mix of plants might be able to produce food and oxygen efficiently. But they might not.

If too many plant species die out or if the food chain collapses, the planet will not be able to support much life of any kind. Humans, like many of the remaining animals, may very well become extinct.

What can we do?

The only way we can live at peace with the earth is to guarantee every living entity what it needs in order to thrive and prosper, and take from it only what it can afford to give.

There is little hope that humans can do that until they treat each other the same way. But there is absolutely no hope of accomplishing this within capitalism.

Capitalism by its very nature is exploitative. Humans exploit other humans, and humans exploit the earth.

To survive, capitalism must continue to expand. It must produce more and more stuff, whether actually needed or not, using up the earth's resources and killing off life forms in the process.

The first prerequisite for making the world safe for all life, including our own, is getting rid of this deadly system.