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The Dying Planet Index: Life, Death and Man’s Domination of Nature
Environmental Values 24 no.1: 1-7, 2015
by Clive Spash
During my time working in Australia for the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) I visited a nondescript building on the rural work site outside Canberra. This restricted access building held the Australian National Wildlife Collection. What the building in fact held was the preserved dead bodies of species, some of which were extinct. The curator was especially pleased at having collected rare specimens. He told of finding one such for sale in a rural market and how he proceeded to order more from the vendor so other collections around the world could have a specimen as well. That this egalitarian act on behalf of collectors would have wiped out the last remnant of a species did not seem to have crossed his mind. Looking at the bottles of rare pickled amphibians and drawers of compressed and preserved bodies of birds was for me a bizarre experience. In this mortician’s chamber the careful cataloguing of decline was ongoing but with some kind of abstraction from the reality of it all. There was nothing wild here and certainly no life. The Australian National Dead Animal Collection would certainly have been a more accurate and truthful description.There was nothing wild here and certainly no life. The Australian National Dead Animal Collection would certainly have been a more accurate and truthful description.
I was reminded of this incident by publication of the Living Planet Index (LPI) measuring the abundance of more than 10,000 representative populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish. In the most recent report this had decline by 52 per cent since 1970; that is, ‘in less than two human generations, population sizes of vertebrate species have dropped by half’ (WWF 2014: 4). The statistical decline of species on Earth is another reminder of how humanity watches, observes and statistically enumerates the ongoing destruction. Like the CSIRO collection, the LPI is not a measure of life but rather the death toll relating to human appropriation of resources for human ends. Presenting death as life seems to fit well with the optimistic messages in the rest of the WWF report, which finds an organisation that was once concerned with wildlife now stating ‘we love cities’ because urbanisation is becoming the dominant form of human lifestyle. Meanwhile they treat Nature as capital that is valued for supporting production to provide new greener consumption possibilities and financial rewards. This is the economic discourse now common amongst the environmental non-governmental organisations (ENGOs). The contradictions of supporting extractivist capital accumulation and consumerism while wanting to conserve Nature are reconciled as easily as calling death life.Like the CSIRO collection, the LPI is not a measure of life but rather the death toll relating to human appropriation of resources for human ends.
The ongoing decimation of the natural world is now reaching such heights that the term Anthropocene is being put forward as encapsulating the overwhelming influence of man on natural processes. You might expect this to raise concern over stopping abusive and unthinking advance of economic growth and technology and promoting the need for precaution. However, Baskin opens this issue by describing how the urgency of problems is being used by an elitist expert grouping to promote the rapid implementation of global management and high-tech ‘solutions’ bypassing democratic institutions. This same approach is reflected in the Better Growth, Better Climate report (GCEC 2014), which recommends strong economic growth stimulated by public investment in new technologies and deregulation to aid corporate innovation (Spash 2014).
In a strange twisted logic the dominance of man and his destruction of the environment via technology and industrialisation changes from a negative to a positive. Rather than ignorant and unthinking innovation risking life on Earth this becomes man controlling everything. Here man may be taken as meaning male because this discourse strikes me as highly patriarchal, with the overt goal of dominating and controlling all that Nature represents. As Baskin explains, the Anthropocene is for many a modernist triumph signalling the final dissolution of Nature because everything is now man-made.
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[Clive Spash is an economist who writes, researches and teaches on public policy with an emphasis on economic and environmental interactions. His main interests are interdisciplinary research on human behaviour, environmental values and the transformation of the world political economy to a more socially and environmentally just system.]