Climate or Humanity?
Issy Murray discusses whether the social and economic costs of environmentalism should have an effect on the aims of the conservation movement.
As pressure on global governments to pass legislation meeting various environmental criteria increases, such as the famous statistic used in many of Greta Thunberg’s speeches that we must drastically reduce our emissions before 2030, another target has emerged. This target suggests we must spare 50% of the Earth’s surface for nature.
This aim responds to the alarming rate at which global biodiversity is being lost, hoping to reduce and eventually stop this loss altogether. In the UK alone, we have seen a huge drop in the numbers of iconic species. Conservation of Biological Diversity member states have already committed to designating 17% of terrestrial and 10% of marine areas under protected status by next year, but unfortunately loss is still continuing. The call for this action began with biologist E.O. Wilson and his book ‘Half-Earth’ (2016). Since its release, a ‘Global Deal for Nature’ has been put forward by several environmental organisations. This would aim to have 30% protection by 2030 and 50% by 2050.
In reaction to their results, researchers argue that while climate and environment are of the utmost importance, human wellbeing must be at the vanguard of these movements.
However, researchers from the University of Cambridge have claimed the idea of a ‘Half-Earth’ is unrealistic and over ambitious after surveying areas in order to find where conservation statuses could be added. Their results found that even when trying to avoid land with a ‘human footprint’, approximately one billion people could be directly affected, almost 1/8 of the global population. Researchers believe an estimated 760 million more people would wind up living in areas with new conservation statuses. This is an increase of four times the current 247 million inhabiting conserved regions. They also recognised much of the regions that would be affected are “wealthy and densely populated nations in the Global North” occupied with middle-income earners, such as London. These areas would need large expansions of land in order for the conservation attempt to be viable.
In reaction to their results, researchers argue that while climate and environment are of the utmost importance, human wellbeing must be at the vanguard of these movements. Dr Judith Schleicher, who led this study which is now published in the journal Nature Sustainability, highlights this idea stating “People are the cause of the extinction crisis, but they are also the solution”. This stance asserts that while environmental plans should be ambitious, this shouldn’t come at the cost of social and economic destruction, with many researchers claiming those calling for this radical action aren’t taking the possible mal-effects seriously enough. It’s worth noting that if policies have the potential to decrease human wellbeing, it’ll prove very difficult to get any action accepted anyway.
…not only is human wellbeing at stake, but if there is a real negative impact it is very likely to disproportionally affect communities that are marginalised…
An additional problem researchers have emphasised is the ambiguity surrounding both where and how this action is to be enacted. This draws further questions about the consequences of this action. Although this could entail strict ‘fortress’ conservation which would force people out of their ancestral homes and could possibly cut them off from resources they have depended upon previously, it could inversely have a profoundly positive impact. It could provide new opportunities, including jobs involving ecotourism and sustainable production, which would bring new income into the areas in question. Mental health is also shown to improve for people living in areas that have abundant natural habitats.
This potential for real positive change is dampened by the reality that not only is human wellbeing at stake, but if there is a real negative impact it is very likely to disproportionally affect communities that are marginalised, which would be a great failing of the ecojustice climate activists such as Thunberg fight for. There is also anxiety about a disconnect between large scale, international mandates and local management of areas which would result in projects being ineffective and species numbers still dropping, while negative impacts on human life may still persist.
Overall, while this debate could be perceived as people being unwilling to accept that real change is possible, it is clear that as things stand, we need a more holistic approach to the ‘Half-Earth’ aim in order for it to be a feasible option with more probable positive outcomes. For now, we’ll have to wait for the Convention on Biological Diversity in Beijing to see what’s decided regarding the global objectives surrounding the conservation crisis.