Connecting the Dots: Population Growth, Consumerism & Biodiversity Loss Tangled Together

tiger conservation sign tamil nadu photo

"Let us also live" -- in Tamil. Photo: Ashok Prabhakaran via flickr.

A number of news items in the past two days worth connecting: A new report on the financial cost of biodiversity loss, tiger populations declining 97% in the past 20 years, and Fred Pearce arguing that growing consumer consumption of natural resources is a bigger issue than population growth alone. Here's the emerging, if tangled, picture:Here's the relevant quote from The Economics of Ecosystems & Biodiversity report:

Biodiversity loss cannot be seen in isolation from other trends. The economic value of biodiversity and ecosystem services is a function of demand-side factors or underlying drivers of change (e.g., population growth and urbanization, economic growth, changing politics, preferences and environmental policy, developments in information and technology), as well as supply-side constraints (e.g., climate change, increasing scarcity of natural resources and/or declining quality of ecosystem services). Biodiversity loss and ecosystem decline are often closely linked to these and other major trends affecting business.

Right on. Couldn't have said it better myself.

Want a concrete and rather depressing example of the consequences of all those interrelated trends on the animal kingdom? Mike pointed out yesterday:

According to the latest estimates, there are only about 3,200 tigers left in the wild on the entire planet. That's a catastrophically sharp decline from the 100,000 tigers that were estimated to be in the wild in 1990. The WWF experts warn that "The big cat, which is native to southern and eastern Asia, could soon become extinct unless urgent action is taken to prevent hunting and loss of habitat."

If human population levels dropped like that, there'd be just about 200 million of us still around. Two thirds the population of the US, spread out over the whole planet.

Why the Sharp Decline in Tigers?
Historically there were efforts to eradicate them in parts of Central Asia under Soviet rule, but more recently the free market has done absolutely no better job in protecting them.

Demand for tiger parts for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (despite being removed from the official pharmacopeia) and for other uses is soaring. Andy Revkin wonders today, talking about less charismatic but equally threatened wildlife, Will Anything Curb China's Appetite for Rare Wildlife? That's the rising consumption part. Changing consumer preferences, awareness, and enforcement of anti-poaching laws can help here.

Habitat loss is also a problem, as more and more land gets cleared for basic agricultural use and forests felled for timber, firewood, and myriad other uses. That's partially consumption, but it's also rising human population meeting basic needs well outside the realm of consumer culture. Even if the developed world curbed its consumerism and rapidly industrializing nations stopped short of consuming goods like we do, the basic population pressures still remain at a subsistence level.

Scale of Human Activity the Key Question
The takeaway of all this is that all of this is a question of scale and how it measures up to the finite capacity of the planet. As Pearce has said repeatedly, this is a question of resource consumption, but it's also a question of population levels.

More people means that those finite resources get spread more thinly equitably or more unevenly among all people. More people means greater consumption at any level, up to the point of ecosystems collapsing. Ecosystems collapsing, or being transformed into something less able to support historic levels of wildlife, means less wildlife. One big species crowding out other big species.

As I've said seemingly dozens of times now, you can intellectually separate out which is the greatest issue in a given situation--consumption of resources in rich nations, even slightly higher than subsistence levels still having negative environmental consequences in densely populated poor places--but when it comes to seeing the whole picture, that separation is just an abstraction. Sometimes that separation is useful to see how the picture is created, but ultimately the picture has to be viewed as a whole, discussed as a whole, and recreated, stroke by stroke, into something which is ecologically sustainable as a whole.

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Read more:
World Governments Failing Their Biodiversity Commitments - Pressure on Species Just Increasing
Cult of Consumerism at Root of Planet's Environmental Degradation & Destruction
Australian Anglican Church Says Population Growth May Break Commandment ' Thou Shall Not Steal

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