Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: The 21st century bodes ill for non-human species


If the Earth is eventually to be overwhelmed by the human species, is it a crime to speak up for the Earth? Our morality is anthropocentric: at the heart of our notions of good and bad lies human suffering, and what we can do to avoid it.

This is so deep-rooted in us, so instinctive, that it has been internalised in the language: one of our most prized virtues is humanity, one of deepest tributes to another person is that they are humane. He (or she) is a humane human. It's only one letter, one squiggle away from saying he (or she) is a human human. We automatically define objective good by what is best for ourselves.

Where humanity's interests clash, therefore, with other interests, the second are likely to get short shrift from us, and it will be a brave soul indeed who will venture the idea that perhaps human welfare should not always, automatically, be the primary consideration. Just forming the thought makes you an eccentric, does it not? Out to lunch. Beyond the pale. Go down that road and before long you'll be up there with the batty old biddy who shares her house with 60 cats.

But what about when the interests of our species start to clash, head-on, with the proper functioning of the planet which is our only home? What view should we take of this? That it is of no consequence? For such a clash is now clearly in view, and will occur in the lifetimes of most people reading this.

Last week, the Government released its Foresight report on The Future Of Food And Farming, a sobering document if ever there was one: it put into sharp focus just how difficult it is going to be to feed the 9 billion-plus people who will occupy the Earth in 2050. The report called for a new agricultural revolution, for the essence of the situation is that the land in use today for growing crops, across the world, will have to work twice as hard; and reflecting on this led me eventually to a singular thought which I bet you have never seen formulated, never mind disseminated, a thought which you may think puts me squarely up there with batty old cat-obsessives, but which I will nevertheless articulate: what does the 21st century hold for insects?

Very few of us are bothered about creepy-crawlies, which is doubtless why there has been so little awareness of the staggering decline in insect numbers which has emerged, in recent years, as a disturbing environmental phenomenon, indeed, as one of the defining ecological features of our age and an alarming pointer to the future. But they don't only creep and crawl; these are "the little things that run the world", playing key roles in myriad ecosystems, and their disappearance has profound dangers – finally recognised, of course, in the concern over the widespread vanishing of honeybees and other pollinators (two-thirds of our crops and fruit are pollinated by the wind, but the rest need insect pollination).

There is little doubt that these declines in general have been caused by the tide of pesticides which has washed over the land with intensive farming: pesticides kill far, far more insects than the pests which are their actual target species. Pesticide manufacturers, incidentally, could not care less. They might belatedly care about pollinators; about everything else they could not give a tinker's cuss, and the dead moths, mayflies, butterflies, lacewings, leatherjackets, ladybirds, all these represent just so much collateral damage.

But what is going to happen when, to feed 9 billion people by 2050, the land has to work twice as hard? When intensive agriculture has to be doubly intensified? When crop pests have to be ever more ruthlessly suppressed? What room will there be in the world for insects then?

It seems to me that one of the prices of feeding 9 billion people in the 21st Century will be to sacrifice them. You may say, at least we will always preserve the pollinators, but I will make you another bet, on that: I will wager you a pound to a pinch of snuff that there is a scientist somewhere, right now, working on the idea of how we can genetically modify insect-pollinated crops to make them able to be pollinated by the wind.

Insects, of course, will not be the only sacrifice; I am using them merely as a proxy for tigers, whales, rainforests, coral reefs, for everything else in the natural world, which the human species now so overwhelmingly dominates, appropriating to itself already most of the annual plant growth, most of the fertile land, most of the fish stocks, most of the fresh water, you name it.

This domination is only going to increase; this domination, it seems to me, is going to overwhelm the natural world in all sorts of ways, through pollution, through resource depletion, through climate change of course, and yes, through the need to feed nine billion.

Who could argue against the alleviation of hunger? Which of us can so far step outside our species as to deny even one of our fellows the right to eat? But what then about the Earth, what if our needs as humans do overwhelm it, and consign much of its life to the dustbin of history – what is our reaction to be? Too bad?

Who is to speak up for the Earth? We should remember that 2050, with its 9 billion-plus people, is only as far away in the future, now, as the break-up of The Beatles is in the past, and the time to think hard about these matters has arrived.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Teeth should be brushed twice a day to prevent tooth decay
Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
footballChelsea 6 Maribor 0: Blues warm up for Premier League showdown with stroll in Champions League - but Mourinho is short of strikers
Those who were encouraged to walk in a happy manner remembered less negative words
Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London