By Kristiina Joon
With numerous stories of yet another extinction of some beloved species making headlines in recent years, one has to wonder about the extent of this ecological crisis we are causing. Could it be considered the sixth mass extinction?
The geological record shows us that there have been five far-reaching global extinction events over the past 500 million years. These events are defined as relatively short intervals of time, up to a few million years, over which at least three quarters of all terrestrial and marine organisms disappear due to environmental stressors, such as global warming or cooling, meteorite impacts, or ocean acidification and deoxygenation. Based on the rock record alone, though, it is difficult to disentangle what exactly the triggers and mechanisms were that resulted in such large-scale losses of biodiversity, as the geological record is imperfect and not all organisms end up being preserved.
A sixth extinction?
The numbers of lost animals in the human era are alarming. From the conservative estimate of 5 to 9 million animal species which inhabit the planet, we are likely losing between 11 and 58 thousand per year — a figure difficult to imagine.
Is it our fault?
Humans are putting increasing pressure on various groups of organisms via direct exploitation, hunting, the introduction of invasive species, and habitat destruction. However, in the majority of cases, it can be argued that we are not causing extinction per se. Instead, we are driving a decrease in the number of animals within certain species, especially of those located at the tops of food chains. This causes the links in the ecosystem to weaken, eventually leading to a collapse, accompanied by the extinction of the more vulnerable species involved. The old network of intricate food webs is replaced by a new, typically much more simplistic, system as was the case with oyster catching, where the multitude of estuarine species are now effectively gone due to the over-harvesting of only one, fundamental, organism in that ecosystem. Humans start the chain of changes but do not directly cause all the extinctions.
Considering all this information, are we then in a mass extinction? Many scientists would argue ‘yes’ but the answer to this question is slightly more complex. When people think about extinction, they tend to think about the number of species that have been lost. To understand the severity of the current ecological crisis, however, we must also consider the rate at which the species are lost. If species continue to be lost at a similar rate as they have been over the past few centuries, we would be approaching extinction magnitudes similar to the previous five mass extinctions — at least 75% of all organisms lost — in just a few centuries.
Regardless of the terminology we use, it is inarguable that humans are putting severe pressures on the biosphere, and that we are approaching a point after which recovery to the previous state becomes unlikely.
Barnosky et al 2011
Ceballos et al 2017
Dirzo et al 2014
By Olivia Oldham
Empty supermarket shelves, media accounts of people ‘panic-buying’ and hoarding: the outbreak of Covid-19 and its rapid spread across the globe led to significant disruptions to the food system. But these very visible problems which were, for a few weeks at least, all anyone could talk about (never forget the great toilet paper shortage of 2020) are hiding a much deeper and more systemic vulnerability which the crisis is exacerbating, but did not create.
Our food system—both here in the UK, and globally—is ill-equipped to handle crises. In the good times, when everything is working properly, there seems to be an embarrassment of riches: supermarket shelves overflowing with brightly coloured packets, mountains of fresh vegetables flown in from far-flung places. But lurking just below the surface, there is injustice, environmental degradation, and the spectre of food insecurity. Covid-19, like the going out of the tide, has dragged away the veil and revealed the shape of what lies beneath.
A recent study found that in the first three weeks of the lock-down, around 3% (1.5 million) of the UK’s population had had to go a full day without eating because they didn’t have enough food, while a staggering 14% (7.1 million) lived in a household where someone had had to skip meals or reduce their consumption because they either couldn’t afford or couldn’t access food.
But this is not a new problem. A Parliamentary Select Committee report last year indicated that between 1.97 and 3 million people in the UK are undernourished, while an FAO report found that between 2015 and 2017, 2.2 million UK residents were severely food insecure. A food system which fails to adequately feed such large numbers of people is, perhaps, not a very good system (though we might, of course, question to what extent this is characteristic of broader issues of socioeconomic inequality and poverty. But I digress). Either way, it seems clear that ‘cheap food’ does not a good food system make. That is, at least, if your criterion for success is at minimum its ability to provide adequate levels of nutrition to your population.
While some primary producers have seen a huge surge in demand as a result of Covid-19—particularly producers who usually supply supermarkets and who run food box delivery schemes—others, are now struggling to make ends meet. Those whose usual markets are the food service and hospitality industries, or who sell their produce through alternative venues such as farmers markets which have been closed down, have been hit particularly hard. Even at the best of times, primary producers only receive about 5 or 6% of the final price of food sold in supermarkets, and in 2014, a full quarter of the country’s food producers were living in poverty. The margins are slim. Something needs to change.
Turning from individual food security to the national level, the Covid-19 pandemic is demonstrating how easily a system which brings food to the supermarket shelf ‘just-in-time’ for purchase can be upended in a crisis. So far, globally, the FAO asserts that there has been no significant disruption to food production: the food shortages we have been seeing on our supermarket shelves are related more to logistical difficulties. Basically, when global trade goes haywire, and half the world is on lock-down, it suddenly becomes quite difficult to get things from A to B, when A and B are separated by thousands of miles, and, quite often, an ocean. Given that, as of 2016, 50% of the food eaten in the UK is imported (30% from the EU, 20% from non-EU countries), these ‘logistical difficulties’ pose quite significant problems for the country’s food security. This situation is exacerbated by exchange rate fluctuations caused by the economic volatility associated with the Covid-19 outbreak, which as the FAO bluntly puts it, are “bad for importers.”
While supply may not be an issue yet on a global scale, there may soon be a significant problem domestically due to issues such as the anticipated labour shortages during the peak growing and harvesting season this summer. In 2018, an astonishing 99% of the UK’s seasonal agricultural workers are estimated to come each year from the EU. Brexit aside (if such a phrase can be uttered with a straight face), the entire continent is on lock-down: it seems unlikely that around 70,000 Europeans will be able to make it to the country in the next few months, leading to fears of crops being left to rot in the fields. While industry calls for Britons to apply for seasonal farm labour jobs seem to have been rather successful so far, those applying are largely people who have lost their jobs or been furloughed in other sectors due to Covid-19, and who would not usually be available to fill the large hole that may be left in a post-Brexit world by our European neighbours who used to feed us.
There are other problems facing food production, many of which have been at least partly brought about by the loss of the food service and hospitality markets, as well as the implementation of social distancing regulations. For example, some large abattoirs have been forced to close, leaving smaller abattoirs struggling to cope with huge upswings in demand. Dairy farms are being forced to dump milk that they can’t sell, or which can’t be collected, and not only are many farmers are facing significant financial hardship as a result, but there are significant environmental implications of this impact of the outbreak.
Most of us know that around 30% of food is wasted between the field and the landfill—and that’s in a good year. However, consumers’ purchasing behaviour in response to Covid-19 has been exacerbating that wastage. For example, in Italy, there has been an increase in demand for flour by 80%, canned meat by 60%, and canned beans by 55% since the beginning of the crisis. At the same time, the country experienced a decline in sales of perishable goods, such as fresh produce.
I don’t need to look beyond the Co-op down the road to know that’s true here, too. What became more rare and sought after than diamonds in the early weeks of the crisis? Famously, pasta. And flour. And there was precious little in the way of tinned tomatoes to be found either. And even now that everyone has calmed down a bit on the buying front, nobody seems to be buying produce. Just last night, I went to the shop to buy some supplies and was confronted with two supermarket trolleys overflowing with heavily reduced-price fruit and veg. Most of that produce, which farmers have worked hard to produce, and truck drivers have risked their health to deliver, will be thrown away when nobody buys it. At the farm level, farmers in the UK and abroad are being forced to dump milk, and turn vegetables back into the soil. At all nodes of the food system, waste is increasing, alongside its associated greenhouse gas emissions.
Another, indirect, impact Covid-19 has had on the sustainability of food systems is to slow down coordinated action on making food systems more ecologically friendly. For example, the publication of the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy—which aims to improve the resilience, justice and sustainability of the European food system--was pushed back until April and may now be delayed until the autumn. The loss of momentum associated with these kinds of delays stymies progress on making sure our food is produced in ways which are kind to the world around us as well as to the people who produce it.
So, what does this mean for the future of food? There are plenty of lessons to be learned from this crisis. But the key thing to point out is that none of these problems are new. For every issue outlined above (and, I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface) there is clear evidence that the bigger problem long predates the outbreak of Covid-19. As such, the lessons we need to learn must go much deeper than short-term fixes.
We need to ensure that all people, at all times, can afford to buy enough food for themselves and their families to eat. And we cannot either morally or practically rely on charity to provide this service, either in the short or long term; many now argue for the existence of the right to food, which must be ensured by the government, not through the benevolence of relatively wealthy individuals—just like any other right.
We need to make sure that the supply of food from producers to eaters is able to be maintained even in times of crisis—whether this be through shortening our food chains, increasing domestic production, or building diversity into each level of the food system and challenging its increasing monopolisation. We need to connect communities with the people who grow and produce their food. One positive intervention in this regard is the Farms to Feed Us project, which is a non-profit set-up by a group of volunteers to create a database which connects people with farmers, fishers and food producers both during the pandemic and after.
And, finally, we need to ensure that we are growing and producing food in ways that enhance, rather than harm the world around us, by doing things like building healthy soil, providing a home for biodiversity, and treating its workers (both human and non-human) fairly and kindly.
There are many different opinions on exactly what a just and regenerative food system looks like, and this is not the place to get into them, but the fact is that the way we farm, right now, is not working for the planet, and it is not working for people. And that needs to change. Maybe the silver lining of this pandemic will be the gift of time, to let us stop for a minute and think about how to do just that.
Shared with permission from Olivia Oldham. Original at the-yellow-wood.com
By Celine Barclay
For Christians, Jesus is the archetypal martyr, nailed to a wooden cross. We might draw a visual parallel between Jesus’s crucifixion and the murder of environmental activists, whose tree hugging pose, with arms outstretched, prefigures their martyrdom for having resisted illegal logging. While we might be cautious when drawing parallels between Jesus’ death and that of environmental activists for reasons that will be examined below, nevertheless, some interesting points arise from the comparison.
We might call these activists martyrs insofar as their deaths have often conferred greater attention to the cause they defended than their activism during their lifetime. As Ken Saro-Wiwa, an activist executed after criticizing the activities of the multinational oil companies in Nigeria said, “I am more dangerous dead”. Yet whilst some environmental martyrs have received media attention, particularly through documentary series, they have hardly become household names. Their invisibility in the public eye seems discordant with the startling number of murders each year. According to Global Witness, between 2008 and 2018 some 1,427 environmental activists were killed. Over this period, the rate of killings has increased with over three every week in 2018 alone. Statistically, the rate of killings is twice that of war correspondents.
So why the continued invisibility? The reason becomes apparent when we take a closer look at the profiles of most of these environmental martyrs. The majority of the assassinations take place in the tropics and sub-tropics, where those resisting illegal logging, or the violation of land rights, are often members of indigenous communities, who fade into the background of international press priorities. As an Ashaninka survivor said of four fellow indigenous people murdered by an illegal logging gang, “these people were dead to the eye before they were killed”. In other words, the global North would rather turn a blind eye to these environmental martyrdoms for the sake of convenience; we place more value on the resources we extract to satisfy our consumption practices, than on the human lives those practices destroy in the process. There seems to be a disjunction, then, between the temporally and spatially widespread fame of the martyrdom of the lone figure of Jesus, and the silent anonymity which muffles the deaths of so many indigenous environmental activists.
In the Christian tradition, Jesus and his suffering become a singular point of reflection. This focus on, and even glorification of suffering in the context of a movement such as climate activism might be regarded as detrimental. There is a danger that sensationalising the plight of an individual gives greater attention to their suffering than to the cause they defended. To this extent we might question the value of labelling these activists martyrs.
Another reason to question any comparison between these fallen activists and martyrs concerns the striking religious connotations of the term, when scientists are effectively unanimous in declaring human activity to be the cause of climate change. The traditional opposition between science and religion might make us wary of making “martyrs” out of activists who have died defending the environment in light of scientific facts, rather than beliefs.
While on the one hand, it might admittedly seem odd to make a comparison between Jesus, a religious figure, and an environmental activist, this hesitance overlooks the political dimension of Jesus’s martyrdom as well as the religious dimensions of environmental activism--particularly where indigenous communities are concerned. Although resisting illegal logging has broader implications for global warming in the prevention of the deforestation of the ‘lungs of the planet’, there are also spiritual motivations linked to their belief in the sanctity of the environment they inhabit.
The link between religion and activism is even stronger in the case of the ecology monks in Cambodia. In order to deter against deforestation, their strategy involves the ordination of trees. Once felled, these trees are effectively martyred through this humanisation. According to Rob Nixon there is deep identification between the fallen martyr and the felled tree in environmental activism. This identification is concretely demonstrated in the case of the ordained trees but can also be observed in the anthropomorphic language associated with trees, such as “limbs”.
This identification between the activists and the environment they defend goes both ways: in the discourse of environmental activists, the martyrs to the cause are considered to live on in the natural environment they tried to protect. For example, in a tribute to Berta Cáceres (another murdered environmental activist) it was said that, “she is present in the soul of our rivers and the spirit of our birds”. As with the humanisation of the trees, the suffering of the martyr becomes intrinsically linked to the cause they defend. This seems to counter the objection that martyrdom might allow suffering to overshadow the movement: in the case of environmental activists, their deaths become synonymous with the destruction of the environment they protect through this two-way identification between environment and martyr.
On a less metaphorical level, this identification of trees and human lives is strengthened by the material consequences of environmental activism. Given that deforestation is one of the leading causes of climate change, the defence of the forest from illegal logging not only saves trees, but humanity itself. Deforestation is ultimately self-destructive for humanity. In this sense, the metaphor equating the fallen tree with a fallen humanity moves from the merely symbolic to the literal. Chico Mendes reflected that, “at first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realize I am fighting for humanity.”
Didn’t Jesus die to save humanity from its sins? Perhaps he had more in common with environmental ‘martyrs’ than first meets the eye.
OCS Media Team
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