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Killing Nature While Playing Geopolitics


Above Photo: The global rate of species extinction is ten to 100 times higher than the average of the past 10 million years and continues to rise, according to a paper presented by the World Biodiversity Council IPBES in Paris on 6 May 2019. Photo: Jens Buttner /dpa-Zentralbild / AFP

There’s nothing like a wake-up howl from nature to freeze the sound and fury convulsing the geopolitical chessboard – and drown dreams of regime change, accusations of “aggressive behavior”, and petty power plays.

The latest comprehensive report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), associated with various UN agencies (UNEP, UNDP, Unesco, FAO), is a stark reminder of where global priorities should concentrate.

Sir Robert Watson, the IPBES chair, was able to summarize the report in two dire sentences: “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

What the IPBES is documenting, based on the work of 145 scientists and experts from 50 nations over the past three years, with input from another 310 specialists, is no less than the path leading to a new mass extinction. And this time the executioners are us.

Animal and plant species are vanishing at a rapid rate, but conservationists are pushing back against the juggernaut of extinction. This photo from April 2018 shows sandpipers in Meinypilígyno, Russia. Photo: Roland Digby, WWT / AFP

Amid a plethora of warning signs, these are only a few alarming indicators:

* 75% of the terrestrial environment has been “severely altered” to date by human actions (marine environments 66%);

* over 85% of wetlands present in 1700 had been lost by 2000; loss of wetlands is currently three times faster, in percentage terms, than forest loss;

* the current rate of global species extinction is tens to hundreds of times higher compared to the average over the last 10 million years. And the rate is accelerating;

* up to 1 million species are threatened with extinction, many within decades;

* over 500,000 species out of the world’s estimated 5.9 million terrestrial species have insufficient habitat for long-term survival without habitat restoration;

* almost 33% of reef-forming corals, sharks and shark relatives, and over 33% of marine mammals are threatened with extinction;

* around 821 million people face food insecurity in Asia and Africa;

* around 40% of the global population lacks access to clean and safe drinking water;

* over 80% of global wastewater is discharged untreated into the environment;

* between 300 and 400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge, and other wastes from industrial facilities are dumped annually into the world’s waters;

* plastic pollution since 1980 has increased 10 times; 

* 5.6 gigatons of CO2 emissions are sequestered annually in marine and terrestrial ecosystems; that’s equivalent to 60% of global fossil fuel emissions;

* around 11% of the world’s population is undernourished;

* there have been 100 million hectares of agricultural expansion in the tropics from 1980 to 2000, mainly cattle ranching in Latin America (+42 million ha), and plantations in Southeast Asia (-7.5 million ha, of which 80% is oil palm), half of it at the expense of intact forests;

* the biomass of wild animals has fallen by 82%;

* 33% of marine fish stocks in 2015 were being harvested at unsustainable levels; 60% are fished to maximum sustainability; only 7% are underfished;

* the projected decrease in fish biomass by the end of the century in low and high climate-warming scenarios, respectively, ranges from 3% to 25%;

* there remains only 68% of global forest area today compared with the estimated pre-industrial level;

* 5% of species are at risk of extinction from 2°C warming alone, and that rises to a whopping 16% at 4.3°C warming;

* even for global warming of 1.5 to 2 degrees, the majority of terrestrial species ranges are projected to shrink profoundly;

* $345 billion is allocated globally as subsidies for fossil fuels, resulting in US$5 trillion in overall costs, including nature deterioration, while coal accounts for 52% of post-tax subsidies, petroleum for 33% and natural gas for  about 10%;

* rising inequality; the per capita GDP in developed countries is 50 times higher than in least-developed countries.

Watch the phytoplankton

Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, overfishing across Asia, corals bleached by climate change in the Great Barrier Reef, pesticide proliferation, the plastic apocalypse – these plagues may eventually capture the odd headline. But nearly invisible phytoplankton drifting in the oceans is totally ignored – even if they exceed in importance any geopolitical power play. Phytoplankton carries impeccable ecological credentials, absorbing a lot of carbon dioxide; and it is eaten by zooplankton and, via the marine chain, ends up on our dinner tables.

The political powers that be seem to be busy preparing for the 2020 UN Biodiversity Conference in China, which is supposed to set new targets that in practice won’t be followed by anyone, just like the preceding targets set in Japan in 2010. It’s crucial to note the United States government – in another graphic instance of “leadership” – did not ratify the convention on biological diversity.

Police take a protester into custody in London in April as members of Extinction Rebellion push for greater action against climate breakdown, a halt to biodiversity loss, and minimizing the risk of ecological collapse. Photo: AFP / Tayfun Salci / Anadolu

In a vastly detailed report prepared for the French G7 presidency and the G7 Environment Ministers meeting earlier this week in Paris, the OECD at least tried to raise the bar on the consequences of loss of biodiversity and plundering of ecosystems, setting “the economic and business case for urgent and ambitious action on biodiversity” and outlining 10 priority areas for action.

For all the talk about slapping taxes on fossil fuel and agribusiness giants which degrade or devastate wildlife and the environment, don’t expect any substantial progress. Because for all the enlightened alarm signs, absolutely nothing may be accomplished if there’s no radical transformation of the current, omnicidal, neoliberal dogma underpinning casino capitalism – the lubricant of our world-system.

The IPBES report tries to put a brave face in front of the wasteland, insisting it’s not too late to make a difference, characterizing possible “transformative change” as “a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

Tell that to the Masters of the Universe interests that profit from hypercapitalism. IPBES at least admits “opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo”, naively betting that public good may prevail.

Still, road maps are available, and as it stands few compare with The Politics of Operations: Excavating Contemporary Capitalism, by Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, a finely layered, multi-disciplinary investigation conducted from Berlin to Bologna and from Sydney to Buenos Aires.

This must-read book “excavates” the cognitive dissonance inbuilt in turbulent, no borders hypercapitalism, examining how its operations circulate, define and ultimately colonize the whole spectrum of life on earth.

The analysis is centered on the correlation of three defining vectors: extraction, logistics and finance. And that’s exactly how hypercapitalism works; rationalized across the board extraction, linked to the logistics of global supply chains, and “invisible” profit-maximizing algorithms.

Only by understanding these correlations it’s possible to see how hypercapitalism produces its own politics – and buys its politicians. And perhaps it’s also possible to imagine a new brand of politics that transcends the rule of hypercapitalism.

The choice is stark – and ultimately involves Thanatopia destroying biodiversity. Now back to work.

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