Cover photo: Endangered Steller Sea Lions VLADIMIR BURKANOV / NOAA
If the 6th Age of Mass Extinctions we have now entered as a result of our own activities, sees off the human race along with all the other species on the planet, our epitaph might read (should there be a handy alien around to carve it in stone) “They thought theirs were good ideas at the time ….”
In The Magnificent Seven, this was the answer Vin (Steve McQueen) memorably gave to Calvera (Eli Wallach) when the bandit was so puzzled why a man like Vin decided to take the job of protecting the lowly villagers from his pillaging gang: “It seemed to be a good idea at the time ….”
In that instance, things turned out well – mostly. But so many of humankind’s bright ideas that did seem good at the time, have in the longer term proved to be runaway nightmares.
Is there anything we can’t do?
For all our cleverness, when it comes to gazing into the crystal ball to foresee where our handiwork might be leading, our talent is zero. Our remarkable human ability to turn every bright idea into concrete reality is matched by our singular inability to predict where those bright ideas might take us. Perhaps we are just eternal optimists, blind to any possible downsides.
Whatever, that blindness has sadly brought us to a point where 26,500 endangered and critically endangered species of plant and animal find themselves on IUCN’s Red List, thanks entirely to us.
Endangered: the California Condor, the Great Frigate bird & the Whooping Crane
Take that once-bright idea very much in the environmental spotlight recently. That material without which life as we know it is unimaginable. Plastic. Invented 1907. I know, I couldn’t believe it either. So useful it’s insinuated its way into every nook and cranny of our lives: from swimsuits to spaceships; cars to clingfilm; windows to wipes; aircraft to astroturf.
Plastic certainly has always seemed not just like a good idea, but a brilliant one. This ultra-handy substance managed to sneak well passed its centenary before we woke up to precisely what we’d let loose on the planet. How were we to know?
Futurology – the science of anticipation
Enter the futurists, those whose task it is to gaze at that crystal ball for us and forecast what kind of world new developments are propelling us towards. More than two dozen of these horizon scanners have got together with environmental scientists – William Sutherland, professor of conservation biology at Cambridge University at the helm – to put their collective finger on which emerging trends are likely to make an impact on Nature and biodiversity in 2019. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that they are hedging their bets on the outcomes of the trends they’ve identified, conscious that any one of them that seems like a good idea right now, may have unintended, unwanted, or even unforeseeable repercussions.
Emerging Trend for 2019 No. 1
And heyho we’re back to plastic
Remember when yellow plastic ducks first started washing up on beaches across the globe?¹ The thought of these tiny bath ducks ‘escaping’ and navigating the vastness of the oceans seemed no more than an amusing story at the time. There were actually 28,000 of them out there, a whole container load, lost overboard in the North Pacific in 1992. “That flotilla of escaped plastic ducks joins millions of Lego pieces, sneakers, styrofoam insulation, plastic crates and a plethora of other items lost at sea.“ It’s reckoned that containers lost overboard every year number in the thousands, and many of them filled with items made of plastic. Items that never even get to be used. A single container can carry 5 million plastic shopping bags.
Add that to the colossal amount of plastic we humans continue to actually use and throw away, and we have one enormous problem. We use 300 million tons of plastic each year, and at least 100 million marine mammals, a truly horrifying figure, are killed each year from plastic pollution.
After all this time, we’ve finally woken up to the environmental devastation our love of plastic has wreaked, and the trend the futurists identify is: people coming up with solutions.
An obvious one is to re-use plastic trash to produce something else we need. An ingenious professor of engineering in India has come up with a highly original use of plastic waste: turning it into hard-wearing, long-lasting roads.
“To date, thousands of kilometers of highways in India have been paved using the process he invented.”
Another approach is to make plastic plant-based and biodegradable, and NatureWorks based in Minnesota, is doing just that. Their eco plastic ‘Ingeo’ is already in use in everything from 3D printing, through building construction and landscaping, to food packaging. Here’s how they do it.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is proposing a more fundamental shift – an economy based on better design, manufacture and recycling. At present we run on a linear economy – buy something, use it, throw it away. Some of our plastic trash does get recycled, but each time it is recycled, it becomes less and less usable. The Foundation would like to see a circular no-waste economy where items such as cellphones are designed and made so that at the end of their useful life they can be easily broken down into their component parts (glass, plastic, metal) ready to be recycled into equally high quality goods.
“Yay!” we say. All these ideas are impressive, aren’t they? But our futurists are cautious, unwilling to come down off the fence on one side or the other. Because how can they be sure that years down the line, we will not be repeating that refrain, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
As the futurists say,“From changes in recycling approaches, to the use of biological agents to degrade materials, to the manufacture of substitutes for conventional plastics from plants, [which as of now only makes up half a percent of all plastic produced] all alternatives will have ramifications of their own for food security, water use, ecosystem integrity and more. Not only that, but the promise they offer — whether it’s realized or not — could defuse other efforts to reduce rather than shift plastic consumption.”
NatureWorks though is in the early stages of a process to make biodegradable plastic straight from greenhouse gases without even using plants. Can this be anything but good?
And surely the futurists will applaud this brilliant idea from TerraCycle. It’s called Loop, for obvious reasons, and it’s based on the manufacturers of goods retaining ownership of containers and packaging. The consumer buys the products inside and then returns for free the packaging to be refilled. Zero waste!
If we can make drastic improvements in our plastic use, on an individual as well as corporate and international level, there may still remain sea turtles, whales, dolphins, sharks, sea birds et al, to thank us. They have precious little to thank us for right now.
No. 2 Sunscreen
In 1938 a Swiss chemistry student Franz Greiter got a touch of sunburn while climbing Mount Piz Buin in the Alps. So guess what he did – yes, he went home and invented the first sunscreen. And for decades since, sunscreen’s been protecting us from turning an uncomfortable shade of pink, as well as more serious health issues.
Then in 2016, sunscreen joined the ranks of those brainwaves that seemed so good at the time, but might actually have been a huge environmentally-costly mistake. In that year a scientific study was conducted to ascertain if oxybenzone, an active ingredient of the stuff, was damaging coral reefs. The researchers concluded that it was. And several islands and states in the world have already banned it.
Oh, if only there were something ‘greener’ we could use to block those harmful UV rays!
Well, there is. We can harvest it in small quantities straight from nature, from algae to be precise, and it goes by the appealing name of Shinorine. As of now scientists have proved they can synthesise it. The next step is to scale up production.
Once again, our futurists are reluctant to come down on one side or the other. Is Shinorine going to be good for the environment, or prove as harmful as oxybenzone? All they will tell us is, “Widespread adoption of shinorine without sufficient research could expose corals or other aquatic and marine organisms to a new substance with unknown impacts.”
They are undoubtedly right to err on the side of caution. If only we had been so wise before we unleashed all our agrochemicals, our agro-waste, and yes, our plastic, our fossil fuel gases, our nuclear power, and indeed a superabundance of ourselves on to suffering Nature.
No. 3 Making rain
Last week, “the Department of Royal Rainmaking and Agricultural Aviation said it was preparing to deploy two planes for cloud seeding between Tuesday and Friday, if conditions are suitable.” Right now Bangkok is shrouded in a pall of smog, and Thailand’s Department of Royal Rainmaking hopes a downpour of the wet stuff will clear the air. (On the website there is a tab called “The King and the Royal Rain”)
Meanwhile in Tibet, China is poised to send up a battery of rockets to release silver-iodide particles in the clouds, with the aim of making it rain over 1.6 million square kilometres of land, a vast area almost the size of Mexico. In 2017, northern China suffered its worst drought on record, With their rockets they hope to ensure water security for their own people, especially farmers, downstream.
Cloud-seeding has been around since the 1940s, but nothing on this kind of scale has ever been attempted before. Unsurprisingly, this is worrying our futurists. They fear such a dramatic alteration to the weather will damage Tibet’s rare alpine steppe and meadow ecosystems, in turn threatening its rare endemic species.
Photos from Wild Animals on the Tibetan Plateau²
Tibet is already the one of the largest sources of freshwater in the world, in third place after the North and South Poles. 46% of the world’s population rely on water originating in that country. Tibet, the Roof of the World, high in the Himalayas, lies three miles above sea level, its water feeding 10 major rivers across 11 countries of South-East Asia.
There are no simple certainties about the Chinese plan. It could all go horribly wrong, and have who knows what consequences, not just on the Tibetan plateau, but across a vast expanse of the globe. It certainly has the perturbing potential to be yet another bright idea that seemed like a good idea at the time…
No. 4 Fishy oilseed crops
The possibilities of genetic engineering are endless. So advanced are we as a species, we now have the knowhow to redesign almost every living thing to our own requirements. So why not modify oil-producing crops to produce “the omega-3 fatty acids that are normally found in fish and prized for their health-promoting capabilities.” Fantastic, especially for vegetarians and vegans. And the wild fish populations.
But… Why does there always have to be a but! The modification will displace some of the plants’ natural oils. How will this affect the insects that feed on them? If one study showing caterpillars metamorphosing into butterflies with deformed wings is anything to go by, the answer is “badly”.
It’s a zero-sum game. Benefitting one side of the equation (us) automatically means disadvantaging the other. This is true of so many of our bright ideas from the past. Yet we still don’t seen to have grasped that disadvantaging other animals, the environment, Nature, in pursuit of our own ends is only a short-term fix that is certain to boomerang back on us. And time is running out.
Other trends the futurists identified
that will make themselves felt one way or another in the environment this year include:
- microbial protein for livestock
- deeper sea fishing
- modification of plant microbiomes
- the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s decision not to regulate the use of gene editing in plants
- the development of salt-tolerant strains of rice
- and China’s creation of a whole new river
Read more here
A couple of biggies they didn’t spot
a. The expanding market for whole-roasted cricket
Insect mass-rearing, though in its infancy is apparently a fast-growing industry. The unfortunate cricket can be fed on nothing but weeds and agricultural by-products, making it a source of protein far more sustainable than the animals we more usually associate with farming.
“Reared insects are increasingly seen as an environmentally friendly alternative to meat, even by the United Nations. The future food for a growing world population.” And a readily available source of protein for malnourished children.“Even very poor people would be able to rear crickets.”³
b. Biodiversity offsets
We’ve grown familiar with the idea of carbon offsets. If you need to take a flight somewhere, you can buy yourself enough carbon credit to offset your own portion of the plane’s emissions. Then the money is used in climate protection projects.
Biodiversity offsets work on a similar principle. Setting aside protected areas for Nature to compensate for and minimise the impact of large-scale industrial projects like new mines or dams, or at the other end of the scale, new housing. Recent research discovered 12,983 of these set-aside habitat projects across 73 countries occupying an area larger than Greece. “153,000 square kilometres is a big chunk of land.” And in spite of its being a relatively new idea, it’s catching on fast.
“This is the start of something major,” says researcher Dr Bull, “‘Biodiversity offsets – ‘No Net Loss’ policies, seeking to protect our natural environment, are being implemented very quickly.”
Could this be a promising step towards Half Earth for Nature?
One final trend the futurists have hope for – Insurance for Nature
The futurists picked up on a joint project involving the Mexican government, the Mexican tourist industry, The Nature Conservancy, and – of all things – the insurance industry. Between them they have set up a trust fund to protect the Mesoamerican Reef in the Caribbean. The fund can be called upon for restoration projects in the case of damage to the reef. In effect, the reef is insured.
The futurists think schemes like this have potential for the insurance industry to “play a role in protecting natural areas and helping damaged habitat recover from disasters.” The model could be replicated worldwide to preserve and restore Nature.
Are they right? Where will it all end? Can our clever innovations save the planet and us with it? Or will they just turn out to be more of our brainwaves that seemed like a good idea at the time? Any crystal ball gazers out there?
Take the Conservation International pledge to be a Voice for the Planet #newdealfornature
¹“Many of these toys inadvertently became part of a massive scientific study: beachcombers have been finding them ever since, helping oceanographers refine their models of ocean surface currents.” The Science Museum
² Clockwise – the Tibetan antelope, the pika, the Tibetan blue bear, the Tibetan wild ass, the snow leopard and the Tibetan wolf
³ This one is not for me as a vegan. But then, I’m fortunate enough not to have to live in poverty with malnourished children
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