When the public finally realise that biodiversity loss is driving a decline in their desired lifestyle, impacting lifespans, health, food security and financial security who will they blame? Human nature will mean that people will certainly look for scapegoats to vent their anger. Consumers will want to pretend “we didn’t know”, to absolve themselves. They will say that they trusted the large conservation organisations and they are ‘shocked’ that they were complicit in misrepresenting the ecological impact of the lifestyles we were living.
Despite having kicked the can down the road for the last 20 years and despite the visible decreases in biodiversity the public has not yet clued on to the impending catastrophe. The lack of courage to call out the fundamental clash between increased consumption and biodiversity loss by the corporate conservation sector and the global environmental sector as a whole has allowed this state to persist over decades. Nobody wants to challenge the economic growth mantra and jeopardise their donations (from governments, corporations and the public) by doing so.
A growing number of people, including billionaires and entrepreneurs, are catching on to the fact that we are reaching the end of the current 200-year economic cycle created by the industrial revolution and cheap fossil fuels. They recognise we are heading into a period of declining economic activity and living standards that people in developed countries have come to automatically expect.
As a response to this decline, some proponents of never-ending growth have looked for ways to ‘reboot progress’. A 2019 essay in The Atlantic titled, We Need A New Science Of Progress, claims that ‘progress’ itself is understudied. The authors, Patrick Collison, co-founder of Stripe and Tyler Cowen, an Economics professor at George Mason University, and the author of The Great Stagnation, propose by studying how ‘progress’ accelerated we have a better chance of alleviating a time when it slows down, or stagnates. They believe that a deeper understanding of the dynamics of progress can even lead to speeding it up.
So, what is wrong with the idea of progress studies? Nothing, so long as it isn’t done at the cost of exceeding planetary boundaries. But as a recent BBC Futures article highlights, some of the people involved in the growing, influential movement of progress studies, don’t desire a world where humans live more harmoniously with nature. As another advocate of progress studies, entrepreneur Jason Crawford writes, “Humanism says that when improving human life requires altering the environment, humanity takes moral precedence over nature.” continuing that progress studies is a “moral imperative”. Statements like this show how little has been learnt about our dependence on having a ‘healthy’ natural world.
Instead of considering how we must restore our broken relationship with nature if we are to ensure the planet’s future, they are investing their time analysing what was happening in 19th century Northern England, that triggered the industrial revolution. What they don’t discuss is the environmental degradation of the region that is still playing out 100 years, and more, later.
As a physicist by education, born and raised in the North of England, I grew up on the stories of Joseph Swan, George Stephenson and James Watt. And I also saw the consequences the industrial revolution and the 20th century industry in the region, including the contamination of the River Tees and River Tyne; consequences being dealt with to this day.
Ill considered, post-Brexit promises have resulted in the dredging of the River Tees estuary to create the Teesside freeport. The toxic legacy of Northern England’s industrial ‘progress’ has resurfaced through this dredging, leaving beaches around the Tees estuary and along the coast of North Yorkshire covered in dead and dying crabs and lobsters; to quote one observer “I was going to list all the creatures that are dying or dead, but it is easier to say that everything is suffering. The seabed is barren.”. Sediment in this region of England should never have been disturbed. Until we can progress our thinking to deal with the consequences of the last two hundred years, then discussions of ‘progress’ are delusional.
In the view of the ‘progress studies’ proponents, progress is invariably linked to increasing GDP per capita. This doubling down on economic growth despite the fact that in the course of pursuing growth at all costs we are destroying and polluting the planet to death, shows the damage this growing movement can do. It will only add to the problems facing the conservation sector if it goes unchallenged. Yet the sustainability game shows there is little evidence that global conservation organisations can deal with the (covert) agendas, the politics and the power plays and deal with them surgically. Their missions statements say “We work to ensure that the legal trade in wildlife isn’t a threat to the conservation of nature.”, while at the same time they clinically sidestep all the evidence that the legal trade is a major threat.