It wasn’t that long ago that humans looked out over the vast sweep of nature and felt small in comparison. But a century or two of exponential growth in both population and living standards have quickly left that perspective in the rearview mirror. In the blink of a human lifetime, our population has tripled and our economy has grown by 60 times. We now dominate the planet, having significantly altered about three-quarters of the ice-free land and negatively affected around 40% of the oceans. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List, 900 species have gone extinct recently, including the Pinta giant tortoise, Schomburgk’s deer, the St. Helena olive, the thick-billed ground dove, and the Utah Lake sculpin. A further 37,400 species are threatened with extinction – 28% of the over 134,000 species the IUCN has assessed to date. Many say we are now in the planet’s sixth great extinction event (the previous five occurring due to climate change, volcanoes, or that infamous dinosaur killing asteroid – the last big one). The WWF’s recent Living Planet Report showed an average 68% population decline across wild vertebrate species in the past 50 years alone.
What we now comprehend as a “normal” amount of wildlife is but the scattered, degraded remnants of the once great profligacy of beasts that roamed our world. 16th century fishermen, for instance, reported cod so thick off Newfoundland you could hardly row through them, and as recently as the 19th century herds of bison 50 miles wide were observed taking five days to pass. In just the past 25-30 years, with the introduction of ever more destructive and persistent pesticides, the biomass of insects, which buttress food webs everywhere, is believed to have fallen by 80%. But perhaps the most shocking statistic is that if you added up the weight of all the mammals in the world, 96% of them would be humans and our livestock – with a mere 4% being wild. We have tipped the scales massively in our direction – an imbalance that threatens to topple our species into the Red List, too.
This map showing the former and current range of the lion is illustrative of how far we have cut back and fragmented nature. Our relentless war on nature has left few pockets of resistance:
Beyond the basic fact that the species we share this planet with – so far the only planet we know of that supports life in the universe – have just as much a right to live as we do, it is beginning to dawn on us that we are actually dependent on this rich web of life for our very survival. The risks of shattering this web include flooding, climate change, clean water shortages, loss of crop pollination, decline in agricultural productivity, and the immergence of zoonotic epidemics such as COVID-19. And we have already seen the links between climate change and armed conflict. So our actions are basically bringing at least three of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse upon us (war, famine, and plague). The World Economic Forum ranks biodiversity loss as a top five risk to the global economy. These ecosystem services are part of the natural life support system of the Earth, and we tear them apart at our peril.
Besides saving us from ecological collapse, protecting biodiversity is also good for both our health and the economy. A report from 100 economists and scientists estimated that the economic benefits – including nature tourism, improved health, and the avoidance of the catastrophic losses outlined above – of protecting at least 30% of the land and ocean outweigh the costs by at least 5-to-1. The report is part of a growing movement to protect 30% of the surface of the planet by 2030, and it calculates that we would need to spend only $140 billion a year globally until 2030 to get there (currently we spend $24 billion a year on habitat protection). I say “only” because $140 billion, although it sounds like a lot, is less than what the world spends on video games each year. It is also less than one-third of the subsidies currently given by governments around the world to activities that destroy nature.
At this time, 16.65% of terrestrial and inland water areas, and 7.74% of ocean area are considered protected by the Protected Planet database (for up-to-the-month tracking and maps of all the world’s protected areas, protectedplanet.net offers hours of fine-grained researching fun). That falls slightly short of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets agreed to by parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Japan in 2010: to conserve at least 17% of terrestrial and inland water, and 10% of marine areas, by 2020. However, great gains have been made, with an area larger than the Russian Federation being placed into protected areas since 2010, and more projects in the pipeline set to boost areas in the near future.
Here in Canada, we have only managed to protect 12% of our land and 9% of our ocean so far, but we are on track with projects already funded to reach 17% of land by 2023. Canada is also one of 60 countries who have signed on to the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People and committed to the 30% by 2030 goal (the US is not a signatory, but recently announced the same goal, highlighting the US’s need to stand apart even when following along). Goal setting is all very nice, but for a country with the size and wealth of Canada, our achievements to date in terrestrial protection are paltry compared to Venezuela’s world leading 57%, low-income Bhutan’s 50%, tiny Slovenia’s 40%, high population density Germany’s 38%, or island nations Japan’s and the UK’s 29%. Canada ranks last in this regard amongst the G7 (yes, even the US, whom we love to feel superior to, has protected 13% of its land and 19% of its oceans).
Yet about one-quarter of the Earth’s remaining “intact forest landscapes” are found in northern North America, mostly in Canada, so it is crucial that Canada catch up to other parts of the world in protecting its lands.
Canada’s currently protected lands total an area a bit larger than Ontario, but to get to 30% we will need to add to that areas almost equivalent to our three prairie provinces combined. Doing so may mean rethinking the previous “national park” paradigm and embracing more fluid conceptions of conservation. One such paradigm shift is the idea of “working lands conservation”, where a balance is sought on farms, rangelands, and forests between meeting human needs and biodiversity. Examples of this include silvopasture (planting trees in pasture), agroforestry (trees and shrubs integrated with crops and livestock), hedgerows, riparian buffers, flower strips, haying only after grassland nesting birds have fledged, organic agriculture, holistic planned grazing, and ecosystem-based forest management. Creating such zones could knit together existing parks, strengthening the health of wildlife populations by allowing them freer movement between fully protected areas and reducing the isolated island effect plaguing many parks. One example of this is the Northern Rangelands Trust in Kenya, where multiple groups of local pastoralists manage land for both livestock and wildlife. Among its many achievements in supporting livelihoods, building peace, and regenerating ecosystems, it has reduced elephant poaching to zero.
The IUCN has a list of seven categories for protected areas, recognized by the UN and many national governments, ranging from 1a: “Strict Nature Reserve”, to VI: “Protected Area with Sustainable Use of Natural Resources”. This last category is “generally large, with most of the area in a natural condition, where a proportion is under sustainable natural resource management and where low-level non-industrial use of natural resources compatible with nature conservation” occurres. Importantly, its primary objective is for “conservation and sustainable use [to be] be mutually beneficial,” with “the sustainable use of natural resources as a means to achieve nature conservation.” So it isn’t about balancing human resource extraction with conservation, so much as a synergy between the two – a win-win.
An important part of this puzzle is the fact that historically, park creation has often come at the expense of indigenous rights. A European conception of “pristine” nature is preserved, but first nations are not. The Stoney Nakoda people, for instance, were excluded from Banff National Park shortly after its creation.
But the tide is beginning to shift – in 2010 they were officially welcomed back. And new Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs) in Canada are being created under the leadership of indigenous peoples. Pimachiowin Aki, designated a “mixed” cultural and natural UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2018 (Canada’s first), is a swath of boreal forest east of lake Winnipeg nearly the size of Belgium – the largest protected area in the North American boreal shield. It encompasses two provincial parks – the Woodland Caribou Park and Atikaki Wilderness Park – and four First Nations: Bloodvein River, Little Grand Rapids, Pauingassi, and Poplar River. These Anishinaabeg people have lived sustainably from this land for 7,000 years, and a population of 6,400 continue to do so through managed hunting and fishing, eco-cultural tourism, and the sale of non-timber forest products, such as wild rice, tea, berries, and mushrooms. 87% of Pimachiowin Aki (“the land that gives life”) is protected under provincial legislation, and 100% is off-limits to large-scale industrial exploitation such as logging, mining, and hydroelectric generation and transmission. All of its rivers run free.
Embracing these new forms of conservation forces us to rethink old ways of thinking of nature as something separate and pure we must protect from “evil” humanity. In a 2017 National Post article, Eli Enns, a research fellow at the University of Victoria and member of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations, is quoted saying that “the idea of fencing off nature and ‘protecting’ it is a dysfunctional way of understanding ourselves and our relationship to our natural environment. In that way, national parks and provincial parks are just as dysfunctional as industrial parks, because it triggers a world view of disconnectedness.” Humanity is just as much a part of nature as any other species, and the sooner we realize this, the sooner we can begin to once again play a harmonious role in the ecosystems we share with all the world’s other species.
Many working on the 30% by 2030 goal see it merely as a stepping stone to protecting 50% of the land and seas by 2050. In 2009, the Nature Needs Half movement was launched, and in 2016, nonagenarian biologist E.O. Wilson published his book, Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, and founded the Half Earth Project. In 2017, a group of 49 scientists collaborated on a landmark paper that called for a Global Deal for Nature (GDN) – a companion to the Paris Climate Agreement – to protect half the terrestrial realm while the empowering indigenous peoples to protect their sovereign lands. In 2019, many of these scientists published a follow-up paper, in which they argued that preserving at least 50% of the planet as intact natural habitats by 2050 is needed to enable a climate-resilient future.
Just as we shouldn’t separate parks from the rest of the world, conservation shouldn’t be separated from the climate crisis or how we treat nature as a whole. Ultimately, it won’t be enough to protect even 50% of the planet while ravaging the other half, because if our attitude towards nature allows us to ravage even part of it, we are lost. Nature is not something separate from us, but instead “the land that gives life”. We must learn to accept nature’s gifts gracefully, while not being “the species that takes too much”.
This is very nicely said, Sean. Thank you. This shows us a wonderful way forward. Having understood the problem and the solution, how do we support these initiatives?
If I decide to re-wild my one acre of lawn in the rural suburbia of Masham in La Peche, will I run into trouble with the Municipality or with lawn-mowing neighbours? Thank you. Andrew.
Thanks for this excellent article, Sean! Thank you! It’s encouraging. One thing I’d like to add is the horrendous issue of livestock. The global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars, planes, trains and ships combined. Preventing catastrophic warming is dependent on tackling meat and dairy consumption but the world (and even our own community) is, strangely, largely ignoring this. There are hundreds of credible sources that discuss this, such as https://ourworld.unu.edu/en/eating-less-meat-essential-to-curb-climate-change-says-report
Thanks for the comment, Laurie. I have to disagree with the “all meat is bad” belief, though. You can check out my previous article, http://www.seanbutler.ca/2021/04/26/diet-for-a-cool-planet-part-two/, for some counter-arguments. One fact to keep in mind is that a fundamental difference between fossil fuels and livestock is that the former involves the totally unnatural process of burning millions of years worth of photosynthesis (energy captured from sunlight in the form of carbon) in just a couple of centuries, while methane from livestock (the main culprit in livestock greenhouse gasses) is an entirely natural process that has been going on for eons without triggering a climate crisis. Burning fossil fuels takes deeply sequestered carbon and puts it in our atmosphere, where it will stay for hundreds of years. A cow, on the other hand, will burp some methane, which will stay in the atmosphere for about 10 years before breaking down. If we weren’t burning so much damn fossil fuel, we wouldn’t be worrying about cow burps. Putting the two things on some kind of equal footing, or even saying that animal agriculture is worse than all our vehicles, is I believe a false equivilency. If you were conspiritorially inclined, you could fashion an hypothosis that suggested that this whole blame animal agriculture thing was something cooked up by big oil and gas to deflect blame from themselves and onto the backs of peasant herders in poor countries (where hundreds of millions of people rely on the food generated by animals that can eat rough forage), at the same time trying to convince rich consumers that they can simply change their diet and solve the climate crisis, all while continuing to drive their SUVs. And I am convinced that big business has embraced the “plant based” message because it largely means more processed foods (meat substitutes) that can be highly centralized and controlled, which they can make a lot of money off of, compared to ranchers, who are a distributed collection of millions of small to large farms engaged in the inherently risky and not terribly profitable business model that is farming. Anyway, you can read my article if you want a more detailed argument.
Sorry but I have to totally disagree with you Sean. What you’re saying just doesn’t make any sense to me. And just because some big businesses are selling plant-based burgers etc to make a profit, that’s hardly a reason that we shouldn’t all go plant-based to save the planet. Businesses always try to make profits. I never eat that processed stuff and neither do the majority of my vegan friends. Most of us eat actual plants (beans, grains, nuts, veggies, fruit, oat milk….etc.)
I’m sorry I failed to make any sense to you. Hopefully it won’t put you off reading my previously mentioned article, which will hopefully make more sense!