They depend on something referred to as ‘dynamic equilibrium’ for stability. That is to say, through constant rebalancing, a stable ecosystem can thrive.
The threats to balance in an ecosystem may be a natural disaster or the spread of disease, for example, but are also human interference and habitat destruction. Around the globe, human activity threatens the fine balance of the ecosystems that all life on earth, including our own, depends on.
Throughout history these ecosystems have been impacted, devalued, and devastated by human influence, as have the human and animal lives which directly depend on them.
The scale of this damage has increased in line with an industrialised, and increasingly powerful global society, and in the past century catastrophic and at times irreversible changes have taken place.
However, only relatively recently have large numbers of people in the Global North become actively engaged with the issue.
To those not directly impacted, widely available media on social networks, news articles, documentaries — such as the widely-acclaimed Netflix series ‘Our Planet’ — have brought the reality of ecological breakdown home to an audience of concerned viewers.
Images of bleached coral reefs devoid of life, seabirds dripping in oil, and walruses crammed onto tiny remnants of ice sheets demonstrate the severity of currently unfolding ecosystem impacts.
This societal shift in understanding is having implications in the political sphere, with grassroots social movements such as the UK Student Climate Network’s #YouthStrike4Climate and Extinction Rebellion gaining increasing prominence.
This has been coupled with headline-dominating reports from the UN climate change panel (IPCC), which highlights the urgent requirement for action, now crystallised in the common-place use of the term ‘emergency’.
In this spirit, our parliamentarians in the UK have brought the climate and ecological crisis to the House of Commons a number of times in the form of debates and interventions, while voting to pass a symbolic parliamentary climate emergency motion. However, much more still needs to be done.
Furthermore, 2019 has seen a spike in reporting on unfolding environmental damage, with climate and environmental issues polling at their highest in terms of societal concerns in the UK.
Disasters and extreme weather can be the most obvious forms of climate change, and spark conversations in the social and political worlds.
Examples of this include the extreme water shortages in the cities of Chennai, India and Cape Town, South Africa, home to millions and millions of people. Thousands more of these disasters, particularly in the Global South, don’t even make it to our headlines.
Hurricanes and tropical storms become more ‘energetic’ as the planet warms, and have devastating impacts on humans and nature.
The impact that they have is not just due to the warming planet however, but is also due to the relative poverty and emergency structures in place where they land. Partly due to this, the same hurricane can have a deadly impact as it lands in Haiti, and continue on to the USA to inflict only material damage to buildings.
As this blog series progresses, we will continue to explore the interaction between the ‘ecosystems’ (the natural world) and the ‘political systems’ of our world, showing how they are in fact a single, global system. The current, dominant political system, not only devalues nature, but also values certain lives over others.
It’s easy to get lost in all of the headlines that spell out devastating and often unimaginable global destruction. A lot of the media doesn’t really break down the on-the-ground situation, how our ecosystems that comprise the natural world are being destroyed, so we’re going to try and do our best at just that.
Life on Earth is currently experiencing the 6th mass extinction event in its history. The previous event occurred around 66 million years ago, wiping out around 75 percent of all species on earth. Shockingly, a 2018 report found that since 1970, humans have wiped out 60 percent of animal populations on Earth.
The primary direct cause of this destruction is the clearing of forests and other habitats to make way for agriculture (especially beef, and cereal crops) and for the production of commodities such as palm oil and rubber.
The unsustainable use of habitat destroying and non-discriminant fishing techniques are also emptying the seas of fish, while agriculture is polluting the soils and waters with chemicals.
So though climate breakdown is having an increasingly deadly impact on our ecosystems, it is not alone, but sits among other leading causes such as agricultural practices, resource extraction, and air and water pollution.
The natural world is threatened by all of these, all of them are worsened by human activity, and so all interact with our ‘political system’.
Meanwhile, other industries such as fossil fuels and fashion sectors are also having immense impacts on ecosystems as companies compete to extract and harvest resources. As a result, UN’s Global Assessment Report states that “nature and its vital contributions to people” are “deteriorating worldwide”.
But what does that mean to young people across the world? We can live without nature right? WRONG.
Nature’s contributions to human life are invaluable and often irreplaceable. Whether it’s the air we breathe, the water we drink or the food we eat, we need the natural world. We are part of the natural world, not outside or above it — and like all life on Earth, we depend on it for survival.
So when we talk about nature, the natural world and how it sustains life on the planet, these are referred to as ‘ecosystem services’. As defined by the UK National Ecosystem Assessment:
Put in these terms, it seems obvious that we can’t do without them, and we certainly shouldn’t be doing anything to the natural world that may jeopardise such services.
However, as demonstrated previously, we’re destroying nature at such an alarming rate that our ecosystems, and the services they provide are very much at risk. Though we can understand ecosystems to exist in a state of flux, change at this rate outstrips many species’ ability to adapt.
These species and ecosystems have intrinsic value (meaning that they have value regardless of the outside world, there is something within them which gives them value). However the role they play in human systems can be described through such services, to help us understand how systems can interact.
In the next blog, the sociopolitical systems we inhabit are explored further, allowing us to dissect the relationships between the two.
One system, our economic system, based upon continuous growth through the extraction of resources from the Earth, is putting dangerous stress on the ecosystems supporting life on our planet.
It’s even framing the very way we refer to nature, through phrases such as ‘ecosystem services’. Ensuring that balance can grow, that the natural world isn’t destroyed beyond repair, and that all life and all lives are valued, will require a shift in our economic, political and social modes of organising, in other words, system change.