The latest issue of The Economist magazine contains a special report about biodiversity which is previewed on its cover as “How economic growth will help prevent extinctions.” (1) That’s a counterintuitive statement, but one we might expect from The Economist because it is an unashamed promoter of capitalism. Although it has a viewpoint, its readers also rely on it for accurate reporting about international issues and events. So, we read the special report about biodiversity with great interest.
How does economic development support biodiversity?
At the early stages of development, biodiversity suffers from the inevitable pollution associated with industrialization. As development progresses and a society becomes more affluent, biodiversity benefits from the regulation that people begin to demand from their governments.
In the United States, for example, tremendous progress has been made in cleaning up our water and air since the 1970s, an era of environmental regulation. Two-thirds of our rivers were considered unsafe for swimming or fishing 40 years ago. Only one-third are still considered unsafe. (That still seems like a lot.) Likewise, the development of the Chinese economy has produced horrendous levels of pollution and their prosperity is just recently creating the demand to address the problem. When we clean up our air and water, the animals with which we share the planet benefit as much as we do.
In the initial stages of development, population often increases as death rates from treatable diseases decline, which is Africa’s current stage of development. However, education becomes more widely available as a society becomes more affluent and birth rates decline when more women are educated.
Agricultural methods are improved by greater economic resources and education. Improved agricultural techniques make land more productive so that less land is used for agricultural purposes. More land becomes available for preservation and recreation. Less labor required by agriculture increases urbanization which also uses less land. In 1985, a study reported that “protected areas” were only 3.5% of the planet’s land area. By 2009, another study reported that “protected areas” had increased to 13% of total land area. In the Northeast of the US, forest is expanding on abandoned agricultural land.
Although modern agricultural methods use pesticides and fertilizer, The Economist cites two studies that report net benefit of these techniques to the environment compared to traditional methods. That claim probably deserves more scrutiny. We wonder, for example, to what extent our ignorance of the long-term effects of the use of synthetic chemicals made it possible to reach that conclusion.
Greater prosperity also creates leisure time and with it a demand for recreation in nature, resulting in an appreciation of nature. This respect for nature has also promoted a less utilitarian attitude toward animals. Animals are no longer viewed as the servants of humans. Rather they are widely considered our neighbors in the environment in prosperous countries. This changing attitude toward nature has produced many Non-Governmental Organizations that advocate for the preservation of land and the welfare of the plants and animals that live there.
Brazil is a case in point because its prosperity is more recent than our own. Its appreciation of its rainforests is quite new. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has declined from 28,000 sq kilometers in 2004 to less than 5,000 sq kilometers last year. The attitude toward the value of the tropical forest has changed and the government’s new regulatory tools reflect that change.
More prosperous countries are also usually more peaceful. Wars and conflict often harm the environment, as well as its occupants. For similar reasons, governments are usually more effective in prosperous countries. Without competent government, environmental regulations are useless.
Do the facts fit the theory?
Extinction is considered the final test of the preservation of biodiversity. So, have the rates of extinction decreased as many countries have become more prosperous? The Economist tells us they have.
First we must acknowledge our imperfect knowledge of extinction rates because we have identified a small fraction of the total number of species on our planet. We have identified more of the large species of animals than we have of smaller species such as bacteria and microbes. So trends in extinctions rates are easier to identify amongst vertebrates, especially birds for which detailed records are more available.
Around 10,000 bird species have been identified. Some extinctions are an inevitable result of natural selection, considered the “background” rate of extinction, which is estimated for birds to be about one extinction per century. Bird extinctions attributed to man are exemplified by the disappearance of approximately 1,000 bird species on islands after they were occupied by Polynesians, which is at least 100 times above the background rate of extinction.
The extinction rate for birds has decreased considerably in recent times. Nine species of birds are known to have become extinct during the period 1980 to 2000. Given our imperfect knowledge of all species, there may be extinctions that have not been noticed and recorded.
The Economist article mentions the potential for climate change to accelerate rates of extinction. In our opinion, its optimistic view of the future of biodiversity does not adequately account for that threat. We attribute that to the viewpoint of the publication, which tends to support economic development by emphasizing its benefits more than its costs.
The lesson for us in The Economist article is that climate change is the biggest threat to biodiversity. As long as we continue to turn a blind eye to its causes, we should expect an acceleration of extinction rates in the future. Eradicating non-native plant species is a diversion from this task. If non-native plant species are better adapted to a changing climate, they are more likely to support the long-term survival of wildlife.
(1) “Special Report: Biodiversity,” The Economist, September 14-20, 2013.