Reading Exercise: Saving Natural Habitats
In 1962 a book called Silent Spring by Rachel Carson was published. It was about the damage pesticides were doing to the natural environment and human health. The book became a best-seller and helped the environmental movement grow and become part of the social revolution of the 1960s. More people were also joining organizations like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) or starting new organizations like Greenpeace. Meanwhile government departments like the USA's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were being established in countries all around the world.
Despite all the work that people in organizations like these have done since the 1960s, and despite all the protests and street marches that have been held, things have only gotten worse. Habitat destruction has increased enormously, so much so that by 2020 only 3% of the world’s wilderness remained undamaged by human activity (Note 1). Wildlife populations have fallen by an average of 68% since 1970 according to the WWF Living Planet Report 2020, and over 37,400 species of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles and plants are now threatened with extinction (Note 2).
What went wrong? Why have things become so much worse since the 1960s? The WWF Living Planet Report cited above notes that "Since 1970, total gross domestic product (GDP) has increased four times, the extraction of living materials from nature has tripled, and human population has doubled (p. 52)". The report concludes that rising populations and increasing GDPs have led to more and more people being able to afford a high standard of living, and that this is the main reason for both habitat loss and the climate change emergency.
Many other reports have reached the same conclusion. In 2019 a study commissioned by The United Nations concluded that "High consumption lifestyles in more developed economies, combined with rising consumption in developing and emerging economies, are the dominant factors driving land degradation globally." (Note 3)
If high levels of consumption are so damaging, why do we still want to consume so much? One reason is that companies use advertising to increase sales and profits, and advertising promotes consumerism. Consumerism is the belief that consuming makes us happy, and that buying expensive designer clothes and luxury goods, living in a big house, owning an expensive car, eating gourmet foods, travelling the world, etc is the best way to live. But living this way is directly related to environmental destruction and habitat loss.
A good example of how consumerism and higher standards of living cause habitat loss is the fact that more of us can now afford to eat expensive meats like steak. To satisfy the growing demand for steak, more and more forests in areas like the Amazon Basin are being destroyed to make way for farms that raise beef cattle. So one way to help save natural habitats is to eat less steak and beef. Doing something simple like this can really help, maybe even more than protesting on the streets or debating online.
While eating less or no beef is part of a more sustainable lifestyle, we have to do much more than this. The problems we have created have become so serious that we're now facing a life-or-death global emergency. To survive this emergency, we'll have to change our entire way of life and start putting nature at the centre of our decision-making.
What can we do?
We can start by only buying things we really need. Think about whether consumerism and the idea that shopping makes us happy is what you really believe. Consuming less also means producing less waste, including plastic waste of the sort that's so damaging to oceans and marine life.
We can read books and articles and watch documentaries about things like habitat loss, climate change, renewable energy, environmental politics, and so on. Doing this helps us to make good decisions about things like the food we eat, the transport we use, and who we vote for.
We can join political parties that support policies like the global Green New Deal (Note 4) and degrowth policies that limit production and consumption to sustainable levels.
Join the "green" movement
We can join organizations like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the WWF and Extinction Rebellion. We can also make donations to organizations like these and join direct action campaigns and protest marches.
Improve decision-making in business
If you run a business, don't base your decisions on maximizing profits alone. Put nature at the centre of your decision-making to ensure you're not making the environmental crisis even worse than it already is. You could even think about starting a "green" business like installing solar panels or selling organic fruits and vegetables.
Boycott bad products and companies
We can refuse to buy products like palm oil, the production of which causes major habitat destruction and air pollution when huge areas of tropical forest are burned every year to make way for new palm oil plantations. We can also boycott companies that lobby politicians to block legislation that protects the environment. Many fossil fuel companies do this, as do companies that make pesticides and other damaging chemicals.
Do useful work
We can choose careers in which we can make a difference rather than just make lots of money. Think about whether you'll have the power or skills to play a role in solving the problems we're facing.
Support indigenous land rights
Giving indigenous people the right to live on their homelands allows them to use their knowledge of ecosystems to protect local habitats. This has been shown to be more effective at preserving biodiversity than turning their homelands into wilderness areas they can't live on.
Limit population growth
One of the main causes of the environmental crisis is population growth, and having lots of children can only make things worse. If you choose to have a family, limit the number of children you have to one or two.
If all we do is sit around feeling sad and worried about the future, what do you think will happen? If all we do is blame others for creating the problem and wait for others to fix it, what do you think we'll achieve? But if we all work together doing whatever we can, we might be able pass a living planet on to future generations after all.
boycott (verb): to not buy or use something in order to protest or punish the producer - We'll boycott any company that doesn't pay its workers a living wage.
consumerism (noun): the belief that buying and consuming goods and services is the key to happiness - Robert is studying the environmental impact of consumerism.
consumption (noun): the buying of goods and services; the use of energy, fuel, materials, etc - Reducing the production and consumption of plastic goods will help.
degradation (noun): transformation to a worse condition - Climate change is causing serious degradation of our coral reefs.
degrowth (noun): the economic goal of reducing consumption and production in order to solve environmental problems - How can we persuade regular people of the benefits of degrowth?
demand (noun): the amount of something that people want to buy, consume, or own, esp. of a product or service - The demand for electric cars is increasing every year.
endangered (adjective): in danger of becoming extinct or disappearing in the near future - Did you know that over 30,000 species are already endangered?
extinction (noun): the loss of a species of animal, bird, plant, etc for all time - Preventing the extinction of the tree kangaroo is our top priority.
extraction (noun): the removal of something that's firmly in place, like a tooth or a mineral deposit - The people who profit from resource extraction aren't the people affected by it.
Green New Deal (GND) (noun): a plan for the future that combines environmental protection and social justice policies with action on climate change - How does the Green New Deal address income inequality?
gross domestic product (GDP) (noun): a measure of the total value of products and services produced by a particular country in one year - Will China's GDP increase as much as usual this year?
indigenous (adjective): being the original owners or guardians of a particular place - The indigenous people have been living here for at least fifty thousand years.
lobby (verb): to contact powerful people like politicians and try to influence them for your benefit - Do we know how much money companies spend on lobbying politicians every year?
pesticide (noun): a chemical used to kill insects, esp. those that damage or destroy crops - Some of the most common pesticides are now known to cause cancer.
standard of living (noun): the level of consumption and material comfort a person or society can afford - Do you think a high standard of living guarantees happiness?
sustainable (adjective): able to continue for a long time without causing problems - The indigenous people have always had a sustainable way of life.
way of life (phrase): the way in which a person or group normally lives - Changing our way of life won't be easy, you know.
- Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (PDF file) - the first 3 chapters of the book that many believe kick-started the environmental movement. Made available by the American Society for Environmental History .
- There’s a Global Plan to Conserve Nature. Indigenous People Could Lead the Way - by Somini Sengupta, Catrin Einhorn and Manuela Andreoni. New York Times, March 11, 2021.
- Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (PDF file) - a report from The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, an independent intergovernmental body that focuses on biodiversity protection and sustainable development
- How To Save Our Forests and Rewild Our Planet
An excellent short film that uses extracts from the Netflix original documentary series Our Planet. In English, with auto-generated CC subtitles available. (7 mins)
- Marine Reserves - Restoring the Oceans
Greenpeace documentary on the establishment of large-scale networks of marine reserves to protect endangered marine species and their habitats. In English and Spanish, with English subtitles during the parts in Spanish. (12 mins)
- Teaching materials from Greenpeace - free worksheets, lesson plans, posters, etc (elementary to advanced)
- Resources for Schools and Young People - downloadable resource packs and toolkits for teachers and students from the World Wildlife Fund, plus classroom activity guides, reading materials, etc (intermediate to advanced)
- Note 1. "Just 3% of world’s ecosystems remain intact, study suggests" - an article by The Guardian's Environment editor Damian Carrington, in The Guardian, April 16, 2021
- Note 2. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species - International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) website shows the current number of species known to be threatened with extinction.
- Note 3. IPBS Assessment Report on Land Degradation and Restoration - from the 2019 Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Report commissioned by The United Nations (PDF file)
- Note 4. For more on a global Green New Deal, see Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal: The Political Economy of Saving the Planet by Noam Chomsky, Robert Pollin and C.J. Polychroniou. Published by Verso, September 29, 2020