Exhausting nature

For the last fifty years, a book that may well be the most important of the twentieth century has remained largely unread. Silent Spring, a groundbreaking account of man’s impact on the natural world was published by Rachel Carson in 1962. At a time when “better living through chemistry” (originally a tagline for the DuPont company) was not an ironic formulation, Carson’s account of the environmental havoc wrought by synthetic pesticides had a devastating impact on political and popular opinion. Eventually dozens of countries banned DDT-based pesticides and the United States created an Environmental Protection Agency to ensure that similar threats were detected earlier.

Despite the success of the environmental movement formed by people like Carson, commercial pollution and overuse of natural resources have become practically inseparable from modern life. During the last seven years, for instance, the mortality rate of European Honey Bee colonies has spiked so dramatically that the phenomenon has received its own formal name – “colony collapse disorder” (CCD). Neonicotinoid insecticides have been widely blamed for the mass die-offs (between 30-70%) and were banned by the European Union last year. To date, however, US authorities remain unconvinced by the growing evidence and they continue to tolerate the use of suspect pesticides.

The oceans offer an equally grim perspective on human impacts on the natural world. A 2006 analysis of commercial fishing published in Science magazine predicted that every one of the world’s fisheries would collapse by 2050 if current, unsustainable catch rates were maintained. Four years later the decade long, 80-nation Census of Marine Life reported that 90% of large fish had disappeared from the oceans, largely because of chronic overfishing. Instead of rethinking the overuse of the seas, however, the response of many commercial fleets has been to “fish down” – using deeper nets – a practice that further harms marine ecosystems, pushing them closer to collapse.

In a recent book on mass extinctions, the science writer Elizabeth Kolbert points out that amphibians “enjoy the dubious distinction of being the world’s most endangered class of animals” and appear to be disappearing as fast as “45,000 times higher than the background rate.” According to Kolbert, data from several other species is no less startling: “one third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed towards oblivion.”

Such crises are, to some extent, inevitable consequences of modernity. There are also potential solutions to some of the most serious food security issues. One informed estimate suggests that that global aquaculture will likely increase from US$135 billion-US$195 billion during the next five years. Although commercial fish-farms present other environmental challenges – particularly the overuse of antibiotics – they could offer at least a temporary respite to overstressed fisheries. Other advances in agriculture, such as the use of genetically modified foods, can also increase crop yields enough to meet future demands, but many of these, too, raise troubling questions about environmental impacts.

Despite the appropriation of huge swathes of our forests by foreign companies, and the 1995 cyanide spill in the Essequibo, many Guyanese still treat our environment as though it is inexhaustible. We pour harmful chemicals into the water and litter our cities with impunity. Our wilderness seems too large, to pristine to be easily spoiled.

Perhaps we should take note of a cautionary tale from the Galapagos island of Isabela – home to the tortoises that so fascinated Charles Darwin. In 1998 environmentalists were forced to take action against goats (first introduced to the island as livestock) that were destroying the lush subtropical forest and severely affecting the protected tortoises. American sharpshooters were hired and placed in helicopters for the cull. They needed 500,000 rounds of ammunition and 50 days of shooting to eliminate the goats. (The cull also removed more than a thousand donkeys.) Other Galapagos islands have endured invasive rabbits and house cats and in 2012 two islands needed 22 tonnes of poison to effect a similar cull of rats. A casual indifference to the environment contributed to all of these situations and when they had reached crisis point they required very expensive and imperfect solutions.

Early in Silent Spring, which takes its name from of the disappearance of birdsong, Carson writes: “No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.” While there is time, more should rise to the challenge of protecting our forests and rivers so that we can help avoid doing something similar to ourselves.