Ending the needless suffering from global poverty as soon as possible is clearly a priority. But what about the plight of the five million or so other species that we share the planet with?
The world’s biodiversity is in a bad way. Can we address these two key global challenges at the same time? Yes.
Biodiversity – the richness and variety of life on Earth – is essential for human well-being and profoundly valuable in its own right. The list is endless. Biodiversity cleans and recycles water and air. It provides food, medicine and untold joy. The loss of it is perhaps best understood as the silenced, once unique call from a certain bird species, or the forgotten flutter of that butterfly with red spots, or the star-shaped orchid never flowering again, or that obscure but valuable bacteria gone before we knew it existed. Thousands of species, such as the critically endangered Sumatran Orangutan, are teetering on the edge of extinction.
In modern times, we’ve taken nature for granted. Species are vanishing, taking with them their unique genes and their specific expression of what it means to be alive on Earth. The ecosystems they were part of are in trouble. The corrosion of this interconnected mesh of life, which humans form part, is not good for them, and not for us.
Biodiversity conservation shares many of the challenges of global poverty. Prioritising efforts are necessary because of limited funds and other resources to address the issue fully. Conservation triage, presently being trialled in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere, is a sobering reality of the desperate times we live in. What it essentially means is that pragmatism has kicked in and we realise that we cannot protect everything. A cost-benefit analysis of which species or which areas can be saved for the least amount of money is what it has come to.
Another shared challenge is the paradox of urgency and the need for long-term solutions. People are dying and species are disappearing. We need to save them today but also need to address issues like governance and climate change that will not be solved today.
One of the biggest challenges in stemming the tide of extinctions is human population growth. Sir David Attenborough captures it perfectly:
“All our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people and harder — and ultimately impossible — to solve with ever more people.”
Just last week, for the umpteenth time, someone proclaimed to me that reducing poverty will mean more people are alive, which is bad news for the planet and its biodiversity. The truth is that a reduction in poverty typically results in considerably fewer children per mother, which in turn also appears to reduce poverty. These reductions are most pronounced when efforts include the delivery of family planning services and extend the length of time girls remain in formal education. Population Services International – one of The Life You Can Save’s recommended charities – focuses on family planning.
There is interesting and complex variation in the relationships between poverty and population trends. But even a cursory glance at the Total Fertility Rate of each country indicates that populations in the poorest tend to be increasing the most, while the richest tend to be stable or thereabouts.
However, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and eventually into a world of overconsumption might do biodiversity more harm than good. A reduction in population growth is great news but not if it means vastly more resources per person are used. Easy for me to say. I don’t live in extreme poverty and am already surrounded by consumerism and the overindulgent use of the Earth’s resources. But this is why sustainable development is so important and soon the United Nations will replace its Millennium Development Goals with Sustainable Development Goals. Good news.
Fortunately, there is a growing body of work looking at synergies for solutions to these and other key global challenges. For example, overlapping hotspots of biodiversity and poverty present potential win-wins. Addressing global food and water security in the long term will also likely see mutually beneficial outcomes for the environment and poverty. As the best multi-faceted solutions become clearer, we’ll be better able to target our giving. In the meantime, we ought to do what we can because we’ll always be able to do things better.