Volume 53, Issue 1: Summer 2019

No Deal without Nature

Relentless reports of the escalating climate emergency have given impetus to appeals for a Green New Deal. Most recently in Canada, a coalition of NGOs, activists and celebrities has rallied around the still somewhat inchoate idea (greennewdealcanada.ca) with a call to collectively devise a plan based on the laudable goals of implementing UNDRIP and cutting emissions by half in the next 11 years. In both North America and Europe, the discussions around a Green New Deal for a decarbonised world are commendably strong on human rights – in particular pressing the claims of Indigenous peoples and working people – and on measures to combat inequality. But vastly more attention must be paid to what has long been the (endangered) elephant in the room when it comes to contemplating ways and means of reversing our kamikaze course, namely, the annihilation of biodiversity.

The global assessment report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), an unprecedentedly detailed report issued in May by an international group of more than 450 researchers, surveyed the sorry state of biodiversity and confirmed that contemporary capitalist civilization is taking a chainsaw to the branch on which humanity perches. It warns that one million species of animals and plants are likely to disappear in what New York Magazine writer Eric Levitz aptly dubbed “a global-spanning murder-suicide.” This news comes in the wake of a succession of other studies tracking the malignant progression of what some scientists believe is the dawn of the sixth mass extinction. Last year we learned that the size of vertebrate populations fell by an average of 60 per cent between 1970 and 2014. That’s within a single lifetime; not so much as a heartbeat in geological time. As Michael McCarthy writes of the baby boomers, “This was the generation that saw the shadow fall across the Earth, the generation that saw a great thinning: it has witnessed the fabric of life in the natural world, once so rich, become threadbare, ragged and frayed.”

Biodiversity loss is now recognized by many in the scientific community as at least as great a danger to the viability of our habitat as climate change. Humans are part of the web of life and if we shred that web, we demolish the natural foundations on which we depend, including air, water and soil quality.

Even our best efforts to tackle climate change will not suffice to protect biodiversity as, for the time being at least, climate change is not the leading driver in the demolition derby: habitat loss, direct human predation and pollution are. Interspecies solidarity is thus more than an ethical imperative for humanity; it is now the necessary condition for our survival. As Dr. Robert Watson, chair of IPBES and former chair of the IPCC, wrote in The Guardian (May 6, 2019): “We must now consider the animals, insects, plants and all the places in which they live.”

So we need to cut Nature into the deal, and one of the best ways to do that is through rewilding. In an article in the New Left Review, (“To Freeze the Thames,” May-June 2018), Troy Vettese pays heed to biologist E.O. Wilson’s proposal that half the earth should be set aside to allow the regeneration of nonhuman life in its myriad forms and makes a brilliant case for natural geoengineering as the way to combat the deadly duo of biodiversity loss and climate change. Protecting, expanding and re-establishing wild ecosystems has the two-fold advantage of preserving habitat and bolstering indispensable carbon sinks. Of course, as Vettese stresses, to free up the land required for such an endeavour, meat and dairy must be taken off the table since one-third of Earth’s ice-free land surface is currently devoted to animal agriculture.

Admittedly, the odds of our voluntarily carrying out rewilding on the massive scale necessary to flip the doomsday script are stacked against us in the current context of savage capitalism and sociopaths in the seats of power. Optimism is for the faithful. But as Robert Jensen writes, no matter how dismal the prospects of averting ecological breakdown, we must keep up the fight for justice and sustainability: “We take on projects that we know may fail because it’s the right thing to do, and by doing so we create new possibilities for ourselves and the world. Just as we all know that someday we will die and yet still get out of bed every day, an honest account of planetary reality need not paralyze us.”

A CD editor for the last 15 years and now a coodinating editor, Andrea Levy is a Montréal-based historian, translator, journalist and activist.