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

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The Independent Online

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.